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“I Wasn’t Born There; I Never Lived There, but I Was from There”

In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home, by Mona Hajjar Halaby. London: Thread, 2021.


In My Mother’s Footsteps explores a Palestinian American woman’s attempts to uncover her mother’s history in Jerusalem, before she became just another dispossessed Palestinian in Egypt in spring 1948.

Portrait of memoir author, Palestinian Mona Hajjar Halaby

Mona Hajjar Halaby, author of In My Mother's Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home


Courtesy of the author

Cover of Jerusalem memoir "In My Mother's Footsteps" by Mona Hajjar Halaby

Cover of the book In My Mother's Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home, by Mona Hajjar Halaby

Mona’s Story

Mona Hajjar Halaby, a 57-year-old educator who lives in California, lived for a few months in Jerusalem during a sabbatical but soon realized that an extended stay was required for the kind of family research she wanted to do.

When the principal of the Ramallah Friends School expressed interest in hiring her to teach nonviolent conflict resolution to the Quaker school’s elementary school children, she embraced the opportunity. Her engaging memoir focuses primarily on her activities during the 2007–8 academic year working with the students and with her attempts to find her mother’s home and other important family landmarks in Lower Baq‘a, formerly a Palestinian neighborhood in the New City (see The West Side Story).

Jerusalem pulls at her like a magnet; it is the city her mother left when her safety was threatened in 1948, could never return to, and never stopped grieving for.

Zakia’s Story

Even as a child, the author sensed that her mother, Zakia Jabre, carried a sadness within her that she refused to talk about. Zakia talked about her own mother, who died when she was still in school, and she talked about her family life and her two brothers. But the circumstances that caused her to leave embattled Jerusalem in 1948 for Egypt with one brother, ostensibly until the fighting ended, was not a chapter in her life that she wanted to revisit.

Jerusalem pulls at the author like a magnet; it is the city her mother . . . could never return to, and never stopped grieving for.

Zakia would become a refugee for a second time 13 years later, this time with a husband and two children, when President Gamal Abdel Nassar nationalized Egypt’s commercial and industrial enterprises and banned travel by Egyptian nationals. The family managed to leave without being detained, but the state would not allow them to  return. They eventually settled in Geneva.

The author’s move to Palestine, coupled with her argument that Zakia’s family history should be written so that her grandchildren could understand their heritage, persuade her mother to revisit her past, which she has avoided talking about for decades.

Although mother and daughter connect via Skype daily, the mother’s stories are unfolded slowly, through letters. It seems she found it easier to write about the cataclysm that upended her comfortable, middle class life than to speak about it.

From the letters, the reader learns that Zakia was born in Jerusalem and lived in Lower Baq‘a. She grew up in an unconventional household: In a love match formed in 1918 that would be unusual even today, her Christian mother was eight years older than her Muslim father. They were both French-educated, and her father had attended a university in Switzerland. He taught school but later published and edited a newspaper.

The children were educated in a German school and raised in a home where discussions were lively and they were expected to have opinions and to be able to defend them. They had a German Shepherd, named Knut, after a Danish prince. In her letters to her daughter, Zakia describes her life as a teenager. She recalls her school and the pedagogical approach used and the deaths of some of her teachers. She loved to sing in the YMCA and fancied herself the Palestinian Edith Piaf.

Zakia found it easier to write about the cataclysm that upended her life than to speak about it.

Zakia lost her mother suddenly while still a teenager and was expected to fill part of the gap in the household. Historians can explain the causes, politics, and military maneuvers that result in certain outcomes, but to understand what it was like to actually live through these moments, one needs the eyewitness accounts of ordinary people, not political actors, just trying to live their lives and plan their futures. Her accounts of the bombing of the King David Hotel (in July 1946) and the Semiramis Hotel (in January 1948) offer a reminder that acts of political terrorism are anything but abstract. She writes this about the King David Hotel bombing:

For weeks, the city was in mourning. One of our friends, a woman my age, Hilda, was under the rubble for three days, calling out, “I’m Hilda Azzam. Please help me out.” Sadly, the rescuers were unable to get to her in time, and she perished alone and frightened under tons of limestone. Daily we attended more than one funeral, as every day more bodies were dragged out from the ruins. It was a terrible time, the beginning of the “changement,” you know, the change of our lives as Palestinians.”1

Zakia, Mona Hajjar Halaby's mother, as a young woman in Jerusalem

Zakia, the mother of Mona Hajjar Halaby


Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby

In mid-May, Zakia’s father insisted that she and her brother visit their aunt in Egypt until things settle down. When things “settled,” however, return was no longer an option; the doors to Jerusalem had been slammed shut.

Sixty years later, from the comfort of her Geneva home, she thinks of the home she left in Jerusalem. When sleep eludes her, she retraces the road between her Jerusalem home and her grandmother’s, sees it in her mind’s eye.

Mona’s Mission

Finding her mother’s home becomes Hajjar Halaby’s mission. This is not as simple as it might seem, as the state has renamed every corner of the city and familiar landmarks have been erased.

Finding her mother’s home becomes Hajjar Halaby’s mission.

On her first attempt (made during a shorter trip to Jerusalem, before the stay for an academic year that occupies the bulk of the memoir), she finds the neighborhood but misidentifies the house.

On the second, she zooms in on the correct building and is let in by the Israeli woman who answers the doorbell; but the apartment unit that matters to her is locked. Zakia’s home is owned by American Jews—Israelis by choice—who use the apartment as a second home, and they are in the US during much of the year. But the author is let into a neighboring unit and is taken to the garden, where the khush-khash (bitter orange) tree described by her mother still bears fruit.

Single orange hanging from a branch, like the tree in Zakia's Jerusalem home



The book shifts between two storylines that complement one another. One storyline consists of a daughter’s attempt to learn about her heritage, guided by her mother’s  letters describing the final years leading up to her reluctant departure from Palestine in 1948. This narrative thread takes her not only on outings to find her mother’s home, but also to the library to read copies of al-Hayat, the newspaper her grandfather wrote for. (She learns that he was an early feminist and an advocate of a binational state.) Her visits to relatives’ homes help her get reacquainted with people who grew up with her mother and give her a sense of belonging. When her mother finally visits her over Easter, she is able to witness her claim her memories of the place.

The other storyline describes her day job: her work with privileged but traumatized Palestinian children in a private Quaker school in Ramallah who act out their frustrations with one another in dysfunctional ways. The author describes classroom sessions with her 10-year-old students who seem to have the emotional maturity of 5-year-olds—narcissistic, lacking in empathy, with minimal impulse control. At first she is baffled, but then she realizes that five years earlier, they had lived through the Israeli reinvasion and reoccupation of their home town. Despite its sprawl, Ramallah is in some ways a small town, and it is not uncommon for most people to know (or to know someone who knows) at least one person whose home was invaded, searched, perhaps occupied and used as a watch post in spring 2002 by Israeli soldiers. As an explanation of stunted maturational growth, it makes sense that time stopped for these children when homes could be invaded and their security shattered at gunpoint; it also explains the fearfulness of the parents she meets, who know how little real protection they can offer their children. By the end of the year, Hajjar Halaby sees that she has made some progress with the children, and she has trained teachers in her approach to curbing problem behaviors.

In Hajjar Halaby’s words, from the book:

My story can be told in two voices, my mother’s and my own, the past and the present intertwined. She wrote me letters during my year in Ramallah, letters that told her story, her love of Jerusalem, and her loss of Jerusalem. I also kept a journal. Daily I wrote about my work at the school and the challenges teachers and students faced while living in a militarized, occupied town. I wrote about my impressions of living in my homeland, a place I had inhaled since I was an infant, a place I had dreamed about and imagined for so many years. I started the journey not knowing what lay ahead, and how it would change me, but eager to make a difference in my homeland and connect with my roots. Every building, every alley, every church anchored me to Jerusalem, to my genealogy, as though my past was imprinted on the stones.

I wasn’t born there; I never lived there, but I was from there.

Toward the end of her stay, on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, she helps to organize a commemorative march and rally in Talbiyya in West Jerusalem, formerly a Palestinian neighborhood in the New City, and she speaks at an UNRWA event in East Jerusalem marking that occasion.

Halaby Hajjar’s sensitively written memoir is generous in her descriptions of the people who help her along the way. The Palestinians take her in and make her feel cared for; they give her a community. The Americans, mostly connected with the school, give her a sense of fellowship, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving, when her separation from her husband and (grown) sons was emotionally difficult.

She reflects on her responses to the Israelis she meets. She is grateful for help she receives from sympathetic Israelis, but she notices that they extend themselves only to a certain point; they are not inclined to join her in a Nakba commemoration event, for example. When she holds her tongue so as not to hurt the feelings of the Israeli owners of her mother’s former apartment, she recalls the number of times she has had to refrain from saying what she would like to say to American Jews because she doesn’t want to make them uncomfortable. The Israelis are courteous and understand her interest in seeing her ancestral home, but in their minds Zakia’s displacement in 1948 and their occupancy of her home are not causally related facts; as far as they are concerned, their ownership of what had been a Palestinian home is unrelated to the fact that Palestinians were not allowed to continue living in those homes. A kibbutznik who was introduced to her as a critic of Israeli policies does not solicit her opinions or ask her about herself; to him, she is invisible.

An Ongoing Rediscovery

After returning to California at the end of the school year, she continues to deepen her connection to Jerusalem in new ways. On subsequent trips she plays the tour guide, taking Israelis on a walking tour of Lower Baq’a, a simple act that would open their eyes to their own city’s haunted past. She also works with a Palestinian and Israeli team on Jerusalem, We Are Here, which she describes as “a multiplatform digital project that traces Qatamon, the West Jerusalem neighborhood, back to its Palestinian roots.”2

But it is during her extended stay that she learns much more deeply what her mother and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost in 1948. Her determination to learn her family history helps her mother shed the sorrow she had carried for decades; as she tells her daughter toward the end of her life, “now I can die in peace. You are carrying my torch.”3

And in the process of discovering her family history, Hajjar Halaby too was freed, because she came to understand how she was rooted in a place:

Now I carry those pieces and Mama’s stories within me, and I’m broadcasting them everywhere, making sure her story and the story of other Palestinians stay alive.4



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