Book review: A family history firmly rooted in Jerusalem’s soil

Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian by Jacob Nammar is both one man’s autobiography and a national narrative.

Born into a prominent Jerusalem family of wealthy Palestinian Christians with roots that span centuries in that eternal city, Nammar was destined to live a life of comfort and privilege. His family prospered in Palestine, owning large tracts of valuable property in the Christian quarter, Harra al-Nasara. His was the only family to have a neighborhood named after it and one that gave generously to the community, including a large sum (200 Ottoman coins) to renovate a Jewish synagogue during the 19th century.


The book opens with a picturesque Palestine, a multi-religious, inclusive land where history was a breathing, living thing that etched itself into stone and frolicked in rolling green hills. It strolls through the family’s history in al-Andalus (Andalusia) in Spain during the 11th century. In 1807, the Ottoman Sultanate appointed the Nammars as chief engineers for the city of Jerusalem. It was not surprising then that this venerable family would not approve of Tuma as a wife for their son.

Tuma was a beautiful woman who survived the Armenian genocide by taking a post as a servant with an abusive Turkish family, from which she was eventually rescued by nuns in Beirut. Her life journey took her from there to a first marriage that left her as a widow and mother shortly thereafter, until, through a series of events, she met Yousef Rashid Nammar, the man who would become her husband and father of her children.

Their life together was one of enduring love, passion and loyalty, complete with a range of Arab family drama that is born from forbidden love. She is described with idyllic maternal terms, a woman whose world narrowed to encompass little more than her family, for whom she invested nearly all of her time, all of her heart, imagination and energy. The backdrop of their life contained the images we all still hold of Palestine, and one that is impossible to imagine in today’s Jerusalem.

Before it came under the rule of the Zionist regime, Jerusalem — and indeed all of Palestine — was a welcoming place that lived by the Turkish proverb: “a cup of coffee will build friendship for 40 years.” It was a place where “most houses were never locked; by custom, neighbors looked after each other and homes were secure. Life felt simple and authentic. The community was a large family, our collective consciousness was at ease, and our streets were peaceful.”


Of course, all of that would change, in a blink of history’s eyes. All of it would be swept away. The “twelve hundred [Palestinian] villages scattered throughout the mountains and countryside, some dating back two to four thousand years”; the “shepherds, artisans, and farmers who formed the ‘bread basket’ [and who] proudly fed the entire country”; the “evidence of a prosperous agricultural history with abundant cultivation of grapes, apples, pears, figs, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, olives, oranges, and many beautiful flowers and vegetable gardens.”

Gone. Stolen or erased.

Jacob Nammar was not yet born when the first Zionist conference was held in Basel, Switzerland to establish a Jewish state in Palestine nor when Ze’ev Jabotinsky declared that “colonization, even the most restricted, must be … carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.”

And later, the Polish head of the Zionist organization, David Grun (who changed his name to David Ben Gurion), clarified that “We [Jewish settlers] must expel the Arabs and take their land … I support compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it. The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen.”

School bus attacked

The Zionist colonial project first touched Jacob’s life at a young age, when his school bus was attacked, killing two of his friends and wounding many more. As their bus traveled past the Jewish colony, it was assailed by a hail of bullets from the hilltop, and only by luck was Jacob spared. This incident marked the beginning of a period of general fear and parental curfews, and it was followed with more Zionist terrorism aimed against civilians, including the bombing of the King David Hotel, where his older brother, Mihran, was working at the time.

Jacob Nammar takes us through these historic events and the reader is reminded of who originally introduced the terrorism of explosives and guns aimed at children in that land.

It was the day before his seventh birthday that Jacob’s family was driven from their beautiful spacious Jerusalem villa. His father and older brother were abducted and tortured by Jewish militias. His home, and all other Palestinian homes in that affluent neighborhood, had been looted by Jewish settlers. Nammar also describes the methodical looting of precious books, which has only recently come to light in a documentary, The Great Book Robbery.

Heartbreak and terror

Unlike other Palestinian families that fled for their lives, Jacob’s mother returned to their looted home. The heartbreak of having their world scrambled and violated was matched only by the terror of being rounded up by uniformed terrorists of the new Jewish state and put into prison camps, their father and brother still missing.

The family’s world was now delineated with barbed wires, prison guards, long lines to communal bathrooms, rations from the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), and scavenging for dandelions to make a poor man’s salad.

For their mother, Yuma, it was a reliving of her memories of the Armenian genocide and she did her best to protect her family. She stood up to soldiers in the middle of the night, including those who came to rape her daughter. Nammar describes being “ashamed of the cruelty they inflicted on us.”

When they were finally released from the prison camp years later, their home had been taken by Jewish settlers and to this day, as is the case with all Palestinians, their valuable family home remains stolen by Jewish newcomers. But Nammar does not dwell on this. In fact, he recounts persistent tragedies in this memoir with the detachment of a narrator. At times I wanted to read more about his internal world, to see anger, fear, love. But it’s not there; and perhaps this is not a shortcoming of the book. Perhaps it is precisely this detachment that gives the narration its power.

Haunted with maternal love

This book is filled with the worst of human deeds and the best of forgiving hearts. It is haunted with maternal love and life’s undaunted will to survive and hope. Jacob finds refuge and solace in the YMCA. He incorporates basketball into his identity even though his athletic career is thwarted because of his Arabness. He eventually leaves his homeland and settles in foreign lands, but his heart is clearly planted in the soil of Jerusalem, where his ancestors have dwelt for centuries.

There is so much in this autobiography to savor. The history we know so well is told to us through a Palestinian life that survived it. It shines with the richness of Palestinian culture, expansive generosity and the hills we cherish in our hearts and memories. It is filled with a sad patience and a dream tarnished with decades of impunity.

This is a Palestinian narrative that should be read far and wide, and Nammar is the kind of author that Palestinian and solidarity groups should be inviting to speak. We quickly and eagerly embrace any Israeli or Jewish man or woman who moves away from the racism of Zionism. We invite them to lecture and sign their books. We elevate their stature. But we rarely do the same for our own Palestinian brothers and sisters who barely survived the ravages of Zionism. I don’t know why that is, but it disheartens me.

It is my hope that readers will show this narrative the respect it deserves and encourage more like it because, as Jacob Nammar notes “Palestine will be reborn from all of its deep roots.” And we, Palestinians, are the keepers of these roots, that we pass down through our love, traditions, steadfastness, resistance and our stories.

Susan Abulhawa is the author of the international bestseller Mornings in Jenin and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.