It is no overstatement to say that the appearance of The Storyteller of Jerusalem (Olive Branch Press) — Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s memoirs in English — is a very significant event.
This is not because Jawhariyyeh was a major figure in Palestinian history or that he had great political influence. Quite the reverse.
It is Jawhariyyeh’s lack of status that makes his memoirs so unusual, revealing new facets of Palestinian life before the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment — and challenging many preconceptions and stereotypes.
He grew up in an era when education was just starting to spread through society, so the vast majority of personal accounts come from the upper classes, often from members of well-known families such as the Husseinis and the Khalidis.
Indeed, another recent ground-breaking publication in English was that of Anbara Salam Khalidi’s memoirs, one of the first accounts of life from a pre-Nakba woman, albeit one from Lebanon who married into the Palestinian elite.
Wasif Jawhariyyeh was not from those elite families but his father was associated with the Husseinis, performing administrative jobs for the family alongside his activities as a merchant and silk farmer.
According to Wasif’s account, his father was a close and trusted advisor to Salim al-Husseini and his son Musa Kazem.
This association with a well-off family meant that, although the Jawhariyyehs’ financial situation was sometimes precarious, gifts from his father’s patron ensured that Wasif and his siblings rarely noticed.
The descriptions of his childhood center around a large house shared with tenants, situated around a courtyard and with communal facilities.
“If you entered the house on a Sunday,” writes Jawhariyyeh, “you would find families and relatives of both sexes with their children, some playing cards or backgammon, others singing or playing music with their friends, some smoking argileh [water pipe], or telling stories and anecdotes… . Our Muslim neighbors, both men and women, used to join us at times of sorrow or joy alike. On the… first night of Lent, we would all dress up — men and women.”
This is a rare glimpse into “middle-class” life in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman period, where the important things are food, family and getting an education, not palatial homes and political goings-on.
Wasif, however, was found at a young age to be a talented musician, playing instruments such as the oud and the rababah or rebeck. This ability gives his autobiography an extra perspective, because he often worked as a personal musician to members of the Jerusalem elite, including men of the Husseini and Nashashibi families.
We may be used to seeing these names in history books, making decisions which affected the political fate of Palestine.
Wasif Jawhariyyeh, however, played his oud in the bachelor pads — called odas — of the young men of elite families, and in the cafes they frequented, and taught music and singing to their mistresses.
Jawhariyyeh’s access to the upper echelons of Jerusalem society, as well as his formidable memory for anecdotes, also deliver personal insights into Britain’s colonial governors.
They include the “cunning” Ronald Storrs and the eccentric Edward Keith-Roach, who cycled round the roof of the government building in his pyjamas and locked his beloved cat in to protect her from the advances of felines from the neighboring Morcos Hotel.
Far from being an austere, religious place at the heart of political events, Jawhariyyeh’s Jerusalem is a city with a vibrant nightlife, performances by famous musicians from Cairo and Beirut, songs satirizing contemporary events and personalities and partygoers dabbling in recreational drugs.
Jerusalem in the 1920s, it seems, was less the traditional backwater depicted in some accounts of the British Mandate, and more a city whose affluent cultural scene was a smaller version of that to be found in other cosmopolitan capitals in the region and across Europe.
As well as this unique insight into the leisure lives of the upper classes, Jawhariyyeh’s depictions of late Ottoman and Mandate Jerusalem give us eyewitness accounts of the diverse society destroyed by the establishment of the State of Israel.
Here, Muslims, Christians and Jews not only lived alongside one another, but participated in each other’s religious festivals and cultural celebrations, drawing no meaningful distinctions between one community and another.
According to these descriptions, the Jewish festival of Passover and Christian Easter were celebrated almost as one huge event in Jerusalem, with participants from the highest ranks of Muslim officials.
The Jewish festivities included a procession from Jerusalem to the shrine of Moses near Jericho, which was also the destination for Muslim pilgrims during the Islamic festival of Nabi Musa.
Sense of darkness
Perhaps there is an element of nostalgia to Jawhariyyeh’s reminiscences of the earlier years of his life. Even allowing for this, there is a growing sense of darkness throughout the latter part of his memoirs, as political events — Zionist immigration and growing discrimination against the local population by the British Mandate authorities — start to impinge on everyday life.
Music — including technological innovations such as radio — remained central to Jawhariyyeh’s professional and personal existence but even this was touched by the impending crisis.
Jawhariyyeh recounts, for example, how a Jewish musician who had represented his home country, Iraq, at the 1931 Arabic music conference in Cairo went to play in a new orchestra, separate from the Palestinians, after political clashes split the artists.
With the exception of a few minor inconsistencies in transliteration, this is a book about which one can be unequivocally enthusiastic. For those with background knowledge of Palestine under Ottoman and Mandate rule, it will be source of fresh perspectives and details.
For those new to the period, the book — edited by Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar, and translated by Nada Elzeer — provides a highly readable, intimate account of life for urban Palestinians.
And for all readers, its portrayal of a diverse, vibrant society is a bitter-sweet glimpse into what Palestine might have been, in a world without European and Zionist colonialism.
Sarah Irving worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.