Hala Sakakini (b. June 7, 1924, in the Old City of Jerusalem) was a Palestinian educator and writer. She wrote Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record, a vivid narrative recounting her family’s exile from their beloved city of Jerusalem due to the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948.
Daughter of Jerusalem
Sakakini, daughter of prominent Palestinian writer and intellectual Khalil Sakakini, defined herself as a Jerusalemite. Her connection to Jerusalem was expressed in her writings:
Jerusalem is my hometown. Both my parents were born in that great city, and so were seven of my great-grandparents. (My father’s paternal grandmother was a Greek woman born in Istanbul.) Although I myself spent only the first twenty-four years of my life as a resident of Jerusalem, I rightly feel bound to that great city by centuries of history. I will always remain a Jerusalemite.1
Sakakini and her family lived in what was at the time considered one of the finest areas of West Jerusalem (then called the New City)—the Qatamon neighborhood (of the German Colony area). Prior to the Nakba, Qatamon had been a predominantly Christian Palestinian neighborhood. Sakakini attended elementary school in that area in the 1930s.
Exile and Return
In the spring of 1948, Qatamon, like other Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem and elsewhere, came under increasingly fierce attacks by the Zionist forces (including the Haganah, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, and Lehi) in 1948 (see The West Side Story). Ultimately, virtually the entire Arab population of West Jerusalem was forced to flee for their own safety.2
The Sakakini family was the last to leave their home in Qatamon during the war. In her memoirs, Sakakini, who was 24 at the time, recalls that April 30, 1948, was the last time she saw their house (which, on that day, had been built exactly 11 years earlier). The family had painted the windows with fresh colors just a month before they were forced to leave. Meanwhile, the garden was well tended and looked ready for the spring bloom. Sakakini distinctly recalls how she did not at all want to leave Jerusalem, yet the neighborhood was under dangerous attacks. As she tells it, having to leave their cozy home on that day was traumatic.
Like all Palestinian refugees from West Jerusalem, Sakakini and her family were never allowed to return after the war. Israel passed laws that explicitly abrogated the citizenship of those who left, in contravention of international law,3 and turned their properties over to the Custodian of Abandoned Property.4
After being displaced from Jerusalem due to the 1948 Nakba, Sakakini lived in Egypt with her family.
Sakakini and her sister, Dumia, would visit the house again a little over 19 years later, in 1967. Taking the heavy route to their once-glorious home exemplified, as she describes it in her book, the collective experience of Palestinians. The two sisters refused to take Israeli public transportation, in opposition to the injustice against Palestinians. Having made that decision, Hala and Dumia walked from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Qatamon neighborhood, in search of their childhood home. Once they located the house, they immediately realized how shockingly painful it was to stand witness to what became of it:
It was a sad encounter, like meeting a dear person whom you had last seen young, healthy and well-groomed and finding that he had become old, sick and shabby. . . . All through the years since 1948, we had lived in exile, away from our Jerusalem.5
In Jerusalem and I, Sakakini describes how the gardens were abandoned, and the Palestinian heritage entirely dismissed. The effects of the war permeated through the house. After that one visit, she did not dare return.
She moved back to Palestine in 1967 with her sister, Dumia. With too many painful memories in mind, she kept herself away from Jerusalem—the city that she loved too much to see so drastically uprooted.
Instead, she and Dumia and took up residence in Ramallah. Upon her return, she began a long career in education. She taught in schools and at Birzeit University.
Sakakini was an expressive writer who kept personal journals from a young age. Her books include Jerusalem and I (1990) and Twosome (1993). She was strongly influenced by her father, Khalil, a renowned Palestinian thinker and writer. She edited her father’s memoirs, which were published in a book titled Kadha Ana Ya Dunya (Such am I, O world), published in 1955.
Jerusalem and I
Sakakini’s Jerusalem and I proved to be particularly compelling. Originally written in English, it stands out as great documentation of Palestine’s national history through a Palestinian woman’s self-narrative. The book covers the period between 1924 and the 1948 Nakba.
Although Jerusalem and I describes the horrid experience of exile and displacement, it also records the sociological character of Jerusalem prior to 1948. Of the work, one Egyptian scholar has written:
Jerusalem & I is not a subjective petite histoire of Hala and her family, but a collective narrative representing of all Jerusalemites, through Hala, the individual. The city is the center around which all events revolve and develop. What Sakakini is delivering through her individual memory is inclusive of a collective representation. Hala’s story, as a little girl then as an adult young woman, of a particularly experienced past in Jerusalem, is inseparable from her sense of community and collective memory of her people . . . . What Sakakini is delivering to her readers is different from political traditional history; she is after the story of ordinary people. Sakakini is writing the “self” to deliver the “collective,” hence offering an “alternative truth” to dismantle mainstream historical records.6
Reading Sakakini’s book sends one on an imaginative walk through the streets of Jerusalem. It describes some of the Palestinian dishes and desserts that the local population enjoyed, traditional holiday customs, relationships between city dwellers and villagers, particular shops and merchants and characters, and much more. It brings to life the collective lived experience of Jerusalemites—Christians and Muslims alike—in the author’s beloved city. The book could well be considered an homage to the city that had such a resounding impact on Sakakini.
Throughout her life, she remained committed to the Palestinian right of return. She spoke up against political concessions and criticized the Oslo Accords for not aptly addressing issues related to the Palestinian displacement and dispossession. The accounts that she narrated continue to inspire many Palestinians. Jerusalem and I was recently translated into Arabic (in 2019).7
Sakakini made another pivotal contribution to Palestinian cultural life as she, along with her friends and sister, Dumia, established the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah in 1996. The center was later registered as a nonprofit organization in 1998. Since then, the splendid building became a cultural hub for Palestinian thinkers and creatives: It holds art exhibits, book and poetry readings, children’s activities, and film screenings. According to its website, the center’s mission is to “create a pluralistic, critical emancipatory culture through research, query, and participation.”8
Although Sakakini spent the rest of her life in Ramallah, her writing clearly indicates the unresolved attachment she had to Jerusalem. She struggled to make amends with her lost family home that became stripped of its character, not to mention her neighborhood that lost its entire population. With that being said, she still held closely in her heart the city that she loved, her “hometown.”
al-Araby al-Jadeed. “Hala Sakakini . . . She, Jerusalem, and the Biography.” [In Arabic.] February 10, 2020.
As‘ad, Ahmad ‘Izz al-Din. “Hala Sakakini’s Jerusalem and I: An Overview of Daily Life in Jerusalem between 1924 and 1948.” [In Arabic.] Institute for Palestine Studies, February 12, 2020.
Institute for Palestine Studies. Review of Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record. Accessed March 6, 2020.
Institute for Palestine Studies. “The Rejection Front Is in My Soul and My Blood.” November 19, 2020.
Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. “Our Story.”
El-Naggar, Nehal. “Re-reading History: Alternative Truth in Jerusalem & I by Hala Sakakini.” English Language and Literature Studies 7, no. 2 (May 2017): 70–84.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Al-Sakakini, Hala (1924–2002).” Accessed March 6, 2021.
Ricks, Thomas. “Jerusalem: City of Dreams, City of Sorrows.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 20, no. 1 (2011): 1–16.
Sakakini, Hala. Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record. Amman: Economic Press, 1990.
Sakakini, Hala. “Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record.” Islamic Studies 40, no. 3/4 (Autumn–Winter 2001): 483–85.
Sakakini, Hala. Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies and Tamer Institute for Community Education, 2019.
Sayegh, Khalil. “Palestinian Christian Educator Khalil Sakakini and His Dream of a Secular State.” Providence, June 9, 2020.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Hala Khalil Sakakini.” [In Arabic.] Last modified October 7, 2019, 20:16.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Khalil al-Sakakini.” Last modified November 12, 2020, 20:23.
Hala Sakakini, “Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record,” Islamic Studies 40, no. 3/4 (Autumn–Winter 2001): 483–85.
See, for example, Nathan Krystall, “The Fall of the New City,” in Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and Their Fate in the War, ed. Salim Tamari, 2nd rev. ed. (Jerusalem and Bethlehem: The Institute of Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center for Residency and Refugee Rights, 2002), 84–141.
Susan M. Akram, “Palestinian Nationality and ‘Jewish’ Nationality: From the Lausanne Treaty to Today,” in Rethinking Statehood in Palestine, ed. Leila Farsakh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021).
Dalia Habash and Terry Rempel, “Assessing Palestinian Property in the City,” in Jerusalem 1948, 167–99.
Hala Sakakini, quoted in Nehal El-Naggar, “Re-reading History: Alternative Truth in Jerusalem & I by Hala Sakakini,” English Language and Literature Studies 7, no. 2 (2017): 76.
Sakakini, quoted in El-Naggar, “Re-reading History,” 70–71.
Hala Sakakini, Jerusalem and I: A Personal Record [in Arabic] (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies and Tamer Institute for Community Education, 2019).