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Khalil Sakakini


Khalil Sakakini is remembered for his political activism, his contribution to education in Jerusalem and Palestine, and his extensive writings during the first half of the 20th century. Sakakini kept a diary for 45 years starting in his late twenties, at the turn of the century. Almost daily, he wrote about his disciplined exercise routine, his healthy diet and impeccable hygiene, his reflections on philosophy and education, and his profound love for his wife, Sultana.

His expansive diary and the hundreds of letters he wrote to his wife and son, Sari, over the course of the first half of the 20th century reveal a complex and intellectually driven man. Sakakini was a man of profound and often conflicting thoughts and emotions on a variety of personal and communal realities, including his likes and dislikes, his thoughts on British and Western rule in Palestine, Zionism and Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the status of the Palestinian national movement. His diary reveals a great deal about life in Jerusalem before 1948 for upper middle-class Palestinians who were politically and socially active.

His diary reveals a great deal about life in Jerusalem before 1948 for upper middle-class Palestinians who were politically and socially active.

Early Life and Travels

Sakakini was born in Jerusalem on January 23, 1878. As Greek Orthodox Christians, the Sakakini family had ecclesiastical connections through Sakakini’s father, who assumed the role of mukhtar of the Greek Orthodox community in Jerusalem. This allowed the Sakakinis to enroll their children in Orthodox and Christian European schools in Jerusalem. Sakakini attended a Greek Orthodox school, followed by the Anglican Christian Missionary School, and finally, the Zion English School, where he studied English literature.1 As a result of his education, Sakakini learned to speak, read, and write in English, in addition to his native Arabic.

An avid reader and admirer of Greek philosophy, Sakakini took to writing from an early age. His reflections on secular European thought, and on modernity and civilizational progress, would come to dominate the pages of his diary following his travels in Europe and the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. While this earned him great merit as an educator in Palestine, it also put him at odds with the more conservative Christian elements of Palestinian society.

In 1907, and following years of economic hardship in Jerusalem, Sakakini borrowed money from his betrothed, Sultana, and from his friend, Dawood al-Saidawi, and took his chance at success in the United States, as thousands of residents of Greater Syria—and much of the “Old World”—were doing. He boarded a ship at Jaffa and set sail for New York, an exhausting journey which lasted approximately two weeks.2 It was during this voyage that Sakakini began keeping a diary and writing letters to his loved ones in Jerusalem.3

At 29, Sakakini was unusually old for a first-time migrant, and he traveled third class on a French Messageries boat from Marseille to New York. Upon arrival, he briefly joined his brother Yousef in Philadelphia, where he had been working as a peddler. He soon connected with the literary scene in New York and began writing for Arabic literary magazines along the East Coast, mostly in New York. To support himself, he translated for a professor of Semitic studies at Columbia University, Richard Gottheil, who was an ardent Zionist. In addition, he worked in a factory in Maine for several weeks.4

Life in the United States

Sakakini struggled in the United States. Barely seven months after he arrived in New York and Maine, he wrote to Sultana that he longed to return to Jerusalem, but he worried about what people would say considering his short time away and his limited success:

I still spend all day thinking about returning, but how will I pay for my return and what will [people at home] think of me? Will they accept my excuse or accuse me of weakness, cowardice, laziness, and immaturity? What will Sultana say? Will she keep her faith in me and will she still accept me, or will she feel disappointment and regret? And I swear to you, Sultana, if there were gain in my stay here, I would not return this fast. But what do I do if I am not given any hope?5

Then, in another letter to Sultana dated July 27, 1908, Sakakini intimated that he was disillusioned with America and wished to try his luck back home. By then, the Young Turk Revolution had reinstated the Ottoman constitution, limiting the sultan’s power, and Sakakini believed he could now return and express his political and social views more freely:

The truth, my love, is that America is worth seeing, but is not fit to be a homeland for us, for it is a nation of toil, and there is no joy in it. I have one hope left, and that is to go back and try my luck back home. I trust conditions are better now that the Sultan has ratified the constitution.6

The 1908 coup, led by the Community for Union and Progress (CUP), was a harbinger of change for many migrants for whom economic hardship and the sultan’s authoritarian rule prompted their migration, and consequently, for whom return was a preferred option over life in the American diaspora.

Sakakini returned to Jerusalem on September 10, 1908, following a brief nine months in the United States. He joined the CUP movement pledging to uphold the Ottoman constitution, grew increasingly involved in local politics and education in Palestine, and started a family and a successful school. Though he often reminisced on his sojourn in America in diary entries and letters to his son in the 1930s, he never again migrated westward.7

The Palestinian Journalist and Humanist Educator

Upon his return in 1908, Sakakini worked as a journalist for al-Asma’i, a Jerusalem newspaper that was founded that year by the al-Issa brothers who would later found the nationalist periodical Filastin in Jaffa in 1911. He also taught Arabic at the Salahiyya School and tutored expatriates at the American Colony in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.8

Settling into married life with Sultana, Sakakini felt at home, despite his meager earnings from writing and teaching. But the following years were formative for Sakakini. His establishment of, and involvement in, the Greek Orthodox nahda movement impacted his politics and personal life during this period and for years to come. That is, upon returning from the United States, Sakakini devoted himself to the reform of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, which he believed had become corrupt and authoritarian, and unrepresentative of the local Arab population. In 1913, he wrote a pamphlet titled “The Orthodox Renaissance in Palestine” in which he called for the reform of the Church; he was subsequently excommunicated, which led him in 1914 to renounce his faith, the Orthodox Church, and eventually, the renaissance movement.9 On January 11, 1914, he wrote:

I cannot imagine that I will work with the priests without feeling disgusted with myself. My self tells me to resign and sever all relations with priests and the community, and it tells me even to withdraw from the Orthodox Church and to rid myself of the nahda, certainly since the nahda has become one of meeting individual needs and of effectuating prestige . . . I cannot be under the leadership of these corrupt, base priests, nor be numbered among this hateful denomination . . . I am not Orthodox! I am not Orthodox!10

The next day, Sakakini wrote that withdrawing from the Church was “a sign of honor and a title of pride. Indeed, withdrawing today while I am still active and determined would be more beneficial for my future and more in-line with my principles.”11 For years thereafter, Sakakini devoted his time to teaching, and to his students in the Dusturiyya School, which he established in 1909.12

A truly avant-garde institution, the Dusturiyya School earned Sakakini the reputation of an outspoken and progressive nationalist. As part of Sakakini’s mission to bring progressive, Western modern thought to Palestine, he established the first school in Palestine that did not award grades or prizes. Moreover, corporal punishment was forbidden, and emphasis was placed on music and exercise.13 Arabic replaced Turkish as the primary language of instruction, and he introduced unconventional methods for Arabic language pedagogy. As Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a student of Sakakini’s, described in his diary:

Mr. al-Sakakini taught us Arabic in a way that was very popular with the students. He used a method which, to my knowledge, few teachers in the East liked to use. He did not make students memorize rules of grammar like most teachers used to do . . . His lessons included anecdotes which the students of this great educator received with eagerness and excitement. For with him they were able to understand what it took them long hours to grasp with other teachers.14

The split from the Greek Orthodox Church led Sakakini to develop his philosophical humanism further. On March 26, 1915, for example, he wrote in his diary: “I am not Christian and not Buddhist, not Muslim and not Jewish, just as I am not Arab, or British, not German and not Turkish. I am just one among humankind.” 15. This worldview influenced Sakakini’s behavior in Jerusalem; while he was a progressive nationalist in many ways, his renunciation of national or confessional categories of identification led him to question the idea of nationalism itself.

This became particularly acute in 1917, when Sakakini sheltered a Polish American Jew in his home in Jerusalem as the Ottomans were intensifying their suppression of political dissenters and nationalists across Greater Syria. 16. The man, Alter Levine, was wanted for espionage, and had it not been for the British taking Jerusalem days later, Sakakini and Levine would likely have been executed. Instead of execution, the pair were exiled and imprisoned in Damascus. Upon learning of Levine’s suicide, Sakakini told his son in 1933: “If the English were delayed a little in entering Jerusalem, then my and his fate would have been the gallows. This man who was saved from the gallows of the Turks hanged himself with his own hands.” 17.

Prior to their exile, Sakakini justified the aid he offered Levine as follows:

I do not know why the Ottoman government wishes to distance me from Jerusalem . . . It does not bother me at all that the British have arrived to this country, for I have decided that if I survive this war, I will leave this country for America where I will put my son in American schools, and wherever I am, I am but a human . . . And what is nationalism? If nationalism means that the human must be healthy in the body, strong, energetic, straight-minded, of noble values, affable, and kind, then I am a nationalist. But if nationalism means favoring one ideology over another, or contradicting one’s brother if he is not from one’s country or ideology, then I am not a nationalist. 18

Sakakini spent several months in prison and was released in the spring of 1918, at which point he returned to Jerusalem to resume his work as a political activist and an educator.

A Complex and Tormented Man

With the defeat of the Ottomans by British forces in December 1917, and with his subsequent return to Jerusalem, Sakakini developed an interesting relationship to British Mandate authorities and with the Palestinian nationalist movement. In 1919, he began working for the Educational Authority of Palestine in Jerusalem as head of the Jerusalem Teachers’ College, a position he held for one year.19 In 1920, with the appointment of staunch Zionist Herbert Samuel as high commissioner for Palestine, Sakakini resigned from his post, a move that many historians consider to be a sign of his principled politics. 

While Sakakini had his reservations about the Mandate, he was conflicted about his admiration for Western culture. As he noted in his diary: “Some who observe me with the British may think that I take their rule over us lightly. No matter how much I love the English, or how much I admire their values, I prefer that we lead ourselves.”20

As another example that demonstrates his conflicting priorities, Sakakini and Colonel Waters-Tyler, one of Sakakini’s pupils and a Mandate official, sat down to chat over a cup of tea in lieu of their Arabic lesson. On March 6, 1919, Sakakini recounted that Waters-Tyler told him that he would soon be relocated to Nazareth. Sakakini continued:

“No matter how much I love the English, or how much I admire their values, I prefer that we lead ourselves.”

Khalil Sakakini

I received this news with regret, so I said: “In the days of the Turks, if we loved a ruler, and the government wished to relocate him, we would hold on tightly to him and send telegraph after telegraph requesting he stay with us. If the British authorities permitted this, Jerusalem would rise in its entirety and ask that you stay, because it loves and respects you.”21

These seemingly contradictory representations of Sakakini may be difficult to explain, but as diaries reflect the inner workings—and not the outward expressions—of their authors, it is worthwhile to understand him as a complex and pensive person reacting to radical changes and events around him. On April 4, 1918, while in prison in Damascus, for example, Sakakini intimated:

Bring me back my family, or bring me to them, then condemn me to exile from my country forever. Rather, if I survive, I will condemn myself to exile from Jerusalem to America where I would put my son in the best schools to acquire their morals and learn their virtues. . . . Oh how happy I would be sitting with my family for tea in a small, elegant house in New York or Brooklyn or one of those neighboring towns. How happy I would be if we were to rise from dinner, enter our salon, and watch Sari at the piano, watch him sing, or watch him play the flute or violin . . . . These are my dreams and the source of my joy.22

His exasperation with the political and social realities of post–World War I Palestine were certainly weighty, and writing from prison undoubtedly impacted his state of mind. But his disapproval of Arab culture and politics was not new. On February 17, 1914, Sakakini confessed his disapproval of the fervor for al-umma al-‘arabiyya (“the Arab nation”), which was percolating across Greater Syria; he implied it was a futile cause. After expressing his concern for the course of the cause, he admitted: “But if I were of a more sophisticated nationality, like the British or French or American nationality, then I would devote my life to the service of al-umma al-‘arabiyya and do all I could to revive it and strengthen it to catch up to other nationalities.”23

This backhanded support for the nationalist movement is intriguing and explains why he was not opposed to British military occupation following the war. On March 26, 1919, Ragheb Nashashibi, a prominent Palestinian figure in Jerusalem and mayor of the city between 1920 and 1934, visited Sakakini, and Sakakini recounted that they “pondered whether the country could rule itself. Do we have among our men he who could qualify as a public leader, a financial, educational, or mail and telegraph inspector, or police director?”24 They then acknowledged the shortage of such men and wondered: “We may accomplish independence if we were mandated, but which of the two would guarantee better success: if we were the leaders and they the advisors, or vice versa?” Sakakini concluded:

We recognize, for example, that the country is to have its independence, so we study the form that independence will take and the form its government will take . . . Then we recognize, for example, that perhaps occupation is necessary, so we study the conditions that we must impose on the occupying country and what our necessary plan would look like with that country.25

Sakakini’s vision for Palestinian independence was indeed curious. Although he was determined to never divide Palestine, he criticized other nationalists for their divided loyalties while holding on to his own pursuit of Western-influenced modernity. On January 26, 1919, he shared his critical impressions of Palestinian Muslims:

Muslims in this country or in Jerusalem still live by their old ways . . . Ask [a Muslim] who has the most honest nationalism, the most sophisticated values, the widest knowledge, or the most respectable opinions, he would mention his father, brother, or cousin . . . Each one of them represents his family and not his country.26

The entertainer

Sakakini also loved to host friends and entertain; yet hosting and entertaining fulfilled more than Arab hospitality. Sakakini adored having an audience. When greeting his friends and sometimes strangers, as his daughter, Hala Sakakini, described in her memoir, Sakakini would perform the traditional Turkish salutation of reaching down to the floor with his hand and then touching his heart, lips, and forehead “with exaggerated mock courtesy.” While excited, he would often break into French: “‘Comment ça va? Comment allez-vous? . . . Comment va la santé?’ and for good measure he would add ‘accent circonflex’ [sic] (just for the sound of it!).”27

During these visits, she recalled, her father entertained his friends with philosophical ideas followed by “an animated and interesting discussion” into the night.28 Yet he would consistently lament in his diary that this audience could never fully comprehend him or reach his level of intellectual depth. Even some of his guests commented on what they perceived to be his arrogance. In his memoir, Day of the Long Night, Jamil Toubbeh, son of Issa Toubbeh, who was Sakakini’s friend, described Sakakini as follows: “I was never fond of Sakakini; arrogant and often pompous, he was, however, a model for many Palestinian youths, and I relished his biting humor and double entendres.”29

Bio Hala Sakakini

A Palestinian educator and writer who wrote an iconic, vivid narrative recounting her family’s exile from Qatamon and Jerusalem in 1948

Conflicted identity

Sakakini’s disillusionment—indeed, his anguish—over his own national and ethnic identity, and with Palestine itself, might explain why he daily wrote down his troubled and contradictory thoughts and feelings. Championing a revived and modern independence for Palestine with fellow Palestinians while simultaneously acknowledging the need for superior foreign direction created a dissonance in Sakakini that manifested in his writings. On May 9, 1919, Arab Independence Day, Sakakini confessed trouble with his loyalties:

Independence! Independence! Every human and every nation must have its own existence. I love the English ummah and I admire its morals, principles, power, and greatness . . . but I am not English. . . . I love America, that free, energetic, and noble country, but I am not American. . . . I may get sick of my life as an Easterner; I may grow sad for my condition and feel humiliated by my shame and despair over not accomplishing my dreams and goals; I may even want to be freed of my Easternness, but I cannot but be an Easterner.30

Following his resignation from the Jerusalem Teachers’ College on political grounds, Sakakini moved to Cairo for two years to work as a school principal.

Return to Jerusalem

Upon returning to Jerusalem in 1922, he served as secretary of the Congress of the Arab Executive Committee of Palestine, which was held in Jaffa in June 1923.31

With the termination of Herbert Samuel’s term as high commissioner in 1925, Sakakini returned to work for the Mandate, serving as a school inspector for the Education Department. This position took him across Palestine, allowing him to spread his progressive educational philosophies to schools in rural areas.

Alongside his work with the Education Department, Sakakini continued to write political commentaries and even poetry for different newspapers, and he remained an important figure in Jerusalem. Indeed, he established the Wataniyya School in 1925, and the Nahda School in 1938.32

While Sakakini believed schools were critical in inculcating ethical and patriotic behavior in students, he sent his own son, Sari, to study in the United States in 1932. He also placed his two daughters, Dumia and Hala, in the German school in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood, and not in one of his own schools. While it was not uncommon for more affluent Palestinians to send their children to European schools in Jerusalem, or even abroad to Europe or the United States for university, Sakakini’s decision to send Sari abroad was layered.

He established the Wataniyya School in 1925, and the Nahda School in 1938.

Entrancement with America; disillusionment with Palestine

Sakakini sent Sari to America for five years at the age of 18 in order to pursue a college degree. For Sakakini, however, there were other reasons. As he described it, he sent Sari to America “to receive a wide and sophisticated culture; to acquire a free skill; to practice independence; to see the world.”33 In a letter he wrote to Sari on November 29, 1931, he confessed: “to this day, I remain living on what I gained in America in activity, joy, and hope, and so thanks be to God first, and to America second.”34

America held a special place in Sakakini’s mind (though he was miserable during his sojourn there in 1907) in large part because he could not accept how dismal conditions had become in Palestine. Sakakini often expressed to his son his disapproval and frustration with what had become of Palestine, a belief that led him to repeatedly urge Sari to forget his roots and embrace America. In a letter dated September 13, 1931, Sakakini mentioned other Palestinian fathers who had sent their sons abroad and concluded:

It pains me that many ask for knowledge in Europe and America, so they study medicine and law, not for knowledge itself, not for the service of humanity, but so that the doctor can perform a surgery and earn from it 100 or 200 pounds. . . . I hope that your pursuit of knowledge, Sari, will be for the sake of knowledge, for the service of humanity.35

In the same letter, and as a consequence of his disappointment with other Palestinian fathers, Sakakini told Sari to become an American:

I do not deny that it is a great sacrifice!! [i.e.,] Renouncing one’s Arab nationalism and adopting an American nationality. Which sacrifice is greater than this, to become an American after you have been an Arab? This is a serious issue, but how often does a human, in life, meet with seriousness? So let your renunciation be the serious issue in your life . . . Be American, Sari.36

This dissonance in Sakakini’s mind was most evident in a letter he wrote to Sari on March 11, 1933. Over the course of more than a year, Sakakini explained to Sari in several letters that their family originated from Greece since his grandmother was Greek. He used this fact to explain why he was himself so fascinated with Greek thought, poetry, art, and so on, and by extension, why he never fitted in in Palestine. These letters culminated in a powerful admission. Sakakini confessed:

I would love, Sari, for [my children] to live in a better place, a more sophisticated space, in a more beautiful country, and with people with whom we share a culture . . . It is no small matter, Sari, that I would like to leave this place . . . for we are not from it and it is not from us. Briefly, it has its culture and we have ours, and we cannot embrace a life here unless we sacrifice our minds and our culture.37

To be sure, these perceptions of civilizational superiority and inferiority were produced and reinforced in large part by the British Mandate. That is, British authorities imposed the idea of modernity and progress upon a population told incessantly that it was backward. This helps explain why Sakakini was simultaneously so critical of Palestine and Palestinians, and why he appeared as a champion of Arab nationalism, a logic that itself was predicated on a fundamental assumption about the Mandate: that without a viable and successful nationalist movement, Palestinians could not achieve self-determination and freedom. While Sakakini may have been conflicted about being Palestinian, he was in every way a product of a unique environment that was uniquely experienced by Jerusalem’s Palestinians in the early 20th century and through the interwar period.

Khalil Sakakini’s Legacy

The Sakakini family was one of the last to leave their home in Jerusalem’s Qatamon neighborhood in May 1948, a home Sakakini had completed building in 1937 (see The West Side Story).38

The family fled to Cairo, and a few years later in 1953, Sari tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 39. This was devastating to Sakakini, who had previously lost his wife, Sultana, in 1939. On August 13, 1953, three months after Sari’s death, Khalil Sakakini died in Cairo. His daughters, Dumia and Hala, lived in Ramallah until their deaths in 2002 and 2003, respectively.39

Today, Sakakini is most known for his accomplishments as an educator and a nationalist. But his writings, which spanned over 3,000 pages, are arguably the most significant legacy he left from his expansive life experiences in Jerusalem throughout the first half of the 20th century.40

The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center is located in Ramallah, but his Jerusalem origins, as well as his home in Qatamon, are forever inscribed in the city’s historical memory.


Bawalsa, Nadim. “Sakakini Defrocked.” Jerusalem Quarterly 42 (2010): 5–25.

Beska, Emanuel. “Khalil al-Sakakini and Zionism before WWI.” Jerusalem Quarterly 63/64 (2015): 40–53.

Jawhariyyeh, Wasif. The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904–1948. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2014.

PASSIA. “Sakakini, Khalil (1878–1953).”

Sakakini, Hala. Jerusalem and I. Amman: Economic Press, 1990.

Sakakini, Khalil. Kadha ana ya dunya. Beirut: al-Ittihad al-‘Amm lil-Kuttab wa-l-Sahafiyyin al-Filastiniyyin, al-Amana al-‘Amma, 1982.

Sakakini, Khalil. Yawmiyyat Khalil al-Sakakini, al-kitab al-rabi‘; bayna al-ab wa-l-ibn, rasa’il Khalil ila Sari fi Amrika, 1931–1932. Edited by Akram Musallam. Ramallah: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, 2005.

Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. London: Picador, 2001.

Tamari, Salim. “A Miserable Year in Brooklyn: Khalil Sakakini in America, 1907–1908.” Jerusalem Quarterly 17 (2003): 19–40.

Toubbeh, Jamil. Day of the Long Night. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998.



Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (London: Picador, 2001), 27–29.


Salim Tamari, “A Miserable Year in Brooklyn: Khalil Sakakini in America, 1907–1908,” Jerusalem Quarterly 17 (2003): 25.


Emanuel Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini and Zionism before WWI,” Jerusalem Quarterly 63/64 (2015): 40.


Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini,” 40.


Khalil Sakakini, Kadha ana ya dunya (Beirut: al-Ittihad al-‘Amm lil-Kuttab wa-l-Sahafiyyin al-Filastiniyyin, al-Amana al-‘Amma, 1982), 89. All translations from Sakakini’s diary in this biography were completed by the author of this essay.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 89.


Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini,” 41.


Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini,” 41.


Nadim Bawalsa, “Sakakini Defrocked,” Jerusalem Quarterly 42 (2010): 10.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 56–57.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 58.


Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini,” 42.


Tamari, “Miserable Year,” 20.


Wasif Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904–1948 (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2014).


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 89.


Segev, One Palestine, 27.


Beska, “Khalil al-Sakakini,” 44.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 96.


Bawalsa, “Sakakini Defrocked,” 10.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 175.


Khalil Sakakini, Yawmiyyat Khalil al-Sakakini, al-kitab al-rabi‘; bayna al-ab wa-l-ibn, rasa’il Khalil ila Sari fi Amrika, 1931–1932, ed. Akram Musallam (Ramallah: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, 2005), 93.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 124–25.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 63.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 173.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 173.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 166.


Hala Sakakini, Jerusalem and I (Amman: Economic Press, 1990), 29–30.


Sakakini, Jerusalem and I, 30.


Jamil Toubbeh, Day of the Long Night (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998), 68.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 182.


PASSIA, “Sakakini, Khalil.”


Sakakini, Yawmiyyat, 20.


Sakakini, Yawmiyyat, 106.


Sakakini, Yawmiyyat, 35.


Sakakini, Yawmiyyat, 34.


Sakakini, Kadha ana, 245.


Segev, One Palestine, 187.


Segev, One Palestine, 502–3.


Tamari, “Miserable Year,” 20.

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