Posted on 03/22/16
by Hannah Mermelstein
“Where do you want to go?” asked the taxi driver, expecting to give me a short ride and collect a few shekels.
“Baqa’a,” I replied, “but it’s a bit of a project.”
The West Jerusalem neighborhood of Baqa’a is only a ten minute drive from the East Jerusalem road where we were, but time travel takes somewhat more imagination.
“I’m looking for a house from 1948,” I told him, and handed him a diagram of a house that looked similar to hundreds of other old houses in the Jerusalem area.
“Is it yours?” he asked.
“No, a friend’s.”
I had recently discovered that a friend of mine in Boston, who I’d always known as Lebanese, was actually born in Jerusalem. In 1948, at the age of four, Munir and his family, along with 800,000 Palestinian people, were forced out of their home by pre-Israeli forces. They fled to Lebanon, where his father had lived before moving to Jerusalem twenty years earlier. Nobody in the family had been back to Palestine since 1948, so I had asked Munir if he would like me to try to find his house. He had gathered some information, including a few nearby landmarks and a diagram of the house, and I set off on my search.
This brings me back to Abed’s taxi, where I sat hoping he knew the neighborhoods well enough to help me. I had planned to seek out an older taxi driver, and possibly someone who spoke English so I could make sure to communicate every little detail I knew. Abed is a young man who speaks very little English, but he seemed interested in and moved by the project, and immediately began to call all the older people he knew.
“Do you know where the Jordanian embassy was before 1948?” he would ask, as this was our major landmark.
“Yes,” one man told him, “but it wasn’t in Baqa’a.”
“No,” said a couple people, “there was barely a Jordan at that time. How could there be a Jordanian embassy?”
So we began to drive, looking for the other smaller landmarks, or for people who might recognize Munir’s father’s name. Abed would pull over next to every older person he saw (Palestinian or Israeli), and ask about the Ummah school, the Jordanian embassy, and the British army women’s headquarters. Some people were vaguely helpful, some not, and some would inform us in a slightly insulted tone that they were not yet born in 1948.
We left Baqa’a and crossed the street to another neighborhood that is to this day mostly Palestinian, thinking we would have a better chance of finding both people who wanted to help and people who could help. Not two minutes later, we passed an old man and Abed stopped. We got out of the car, said hello, and explained what we were doing. “You’re in luck,” replied the old man, “I know more about these neighborhoods than anyone else in the area.”
Before I knew it, his wife was serving me coffee in the middle of the street and the man was telling his wife and daughters to go ahead without him, as he would join us in the taxi in exchange for a ride home afterwards. We gratefully agreed and continued on our journey, this time with a new passenger.
We drove for about a half hour with little success, and then the man (whose name I never learned) suggested we stop at an old house on the corner. We knocked on the door, and an old Israeli man answered. He took one look at us and asked, “Are you looking for someone who used to live here?” as he opened the door and let us in. “You’re in luck,” he said, “I know more about these neighborhoods than anyone else in the area.”
So here I was inside a house with Abed the taxi driver, and two older men, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who said they knew everything there was to know about this part of Jerusalem. They talked for a few minutes and argued amicably for a few more in a combination of Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The interaction had an air of pre-Zionism to it that is difficult to explain. The men were interacting like I would expect any two older men would, both trying to be helpful and both trying to prove what they knew. They used language of “Arab” and “Jew” instead of “Palestinian” and “Israeli,” which many people do, but it seemed more appropriate in this situation than usual. As though nationalism and the way it has played out could not taint this simple human search for an old home.
I had started the trip too late, so by this time it was getting dark and I was running late for a meeting. We had gathered some information that might help us for next time, I had a few questions to take back to Munir, and we took the name and phone number of the Israeli man so we could try again another day.
Two weeks later, on the only day that week with semi-clear skies, I met Abed in Jerusalem. I had received more precise directions from Munir, including names of other people who lived and worked in the area and, most importantly, a photograph taken from their front yard in 1940.
Abed met me and told me he knew where the house was, that he had gone back there after our last search. I showed him the photograph and we drove towards the area where he thought the house was. We parked and began to walk around, holding up the photograph to each gate and entrance. We found one house that looked similar and currently has a huge construction project going on directly on top of it. The managers were Israeli, the workers Palestinian. We went in and asked the workers what they knew about the house, which wasn’t much. We were stopped on the way out by a manager. Abed explained in Hebrew that we were trying to find a house. The man glanced at the photo and said, “Yes, this looks like the house.” Another manager came out and ordered us off the property. “This isn’t the house,” he said. “There was nothing here before 1948.”
We stood outside for a few minutes as Abed explained to me (as though explanation was needed) that the Israeli man felt threatened by us. “We need to find an Israeli to help us,” said Abed. “They think you and I are here to claim the house because I’m Arab and you have papers in your hand. They don’t know we’re only here to look and photograph.”
“We should take the house,” I replied, only half joking.
By that time we had realized this was probably not the house we were looking for. The gate looked the same but we couldn’t figure out the angles in the photograph and it just didn’t seem right. Another older Israeli man on the street asked if he could help. Abed explained that we were searching for a house, and the man joined us for the next 20 minutes as we walked around the neighborhood. We kept finding similar sights, but none of them fit together. Finally he asked, “Are you sure the house is in the German Colony?”
“No,” I replied, “it’s in Baqa’a.”
Apparently the older Israeli man who had helped us the first time had convinced Abed to come to this area and I, unfamiliar with West Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, had gone along for the ride. Once I realized we were in the wrong neighborhood, we got back into the car and headed back to the Israeli man’s house where we had paused our search two weeks earlier. He answered the door and I shared all my new information with him. It was near the Trans-Jordanian consulate, I told him, not the Jordanian embassy, and there was a road that went down from the main street towards their house. These two pieces of information were all he needed. He followed me out to the street, pointed, and said, “Go two more traffic lights. The Allenby building is probably what you mean, and that’s on your left. There’s a street that goes down from there on the right.”
Something felt right about this, so I got back in the car excitedly and we drove those two blocks, turned right, parked, and started walking down. The streets were different than they were described to me, and the building supposedly on the corner wasn’t there. But sure enough, after a few minutes of meandering, I found myself in front of the large building that was in the background of the photo I was holding. I positioned myself exactly at the angle that the photo was taken from, and looked around. One street continued to go down, so I took it. To my right was a synagogue that I guessed was either Munir’s property or their neighbor’s. I hoped it was not his, that his house had not been completely destroyed and replaced by a synagogue.
We passed the synagogue and stopped in front of the gate to the next house. This was it. Different from the photo, but with the same dimensions, and seemingly the right distance from the larger building up the street. We entered and found ourselves on the stone path described in the e-mail I had in my hand from Munir’s older brother: “…continue along the stone-paved path… some 8 meters, you reach the level of the house… Move some 10 more meters and you will have the six stone steps (to the left) that lead up to the veranda and you will then be facing the main door, entrance to the house.”
I was facing the main door, the entrance to the house. I wanted to knock on the door, but wanted to take in as much as possible first. I walked around the house, wondering which plants and trees had been there when Munir lived there and which were new.
Finally Abed knocked. No answer. We waited a few minutes and then left. I came back alone about five minutes later to photograph more, and the door to the house was open.
I walked to the entrance, knocked, and said “hello?” A man appeared.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“A little,” he replied, which turned out to mean a lot.
“My name is Hannah, I’m from the United States, and I have a friend who I think used to live in this house before 1948. Can I come in and look?”
He seemed hesitant but let me in. I asked if I could photograph and he was slightly more hesitant, but again agreed. He asked if I was sure this was the house, and I told him about the description of the path, stairs, and entrance. I asked how long he’d lived there, and he told me only a couple years. He rents the place from a French Israeli man who has owned it for about five years. Before that, the building was owned by a Moroccan Israeli family.
“Since 1948?” I asked.
“Well, the government probably had it first and then gave it to them, but yes, for a long time.”
I kept photographing. I was a bit uncertain about saying too much, worried that he might change his mind about letting me film. As I was getting ready to leave, though, he initiated a conversation:
“The reason I let you in,” he told me, “is that one time my sister went back to Morocco to find our family house. The man currently living there wouldn’t let her in. She cried and cried, and finally he let her in, but he wouldn’t let her photograph. This is why I let you in and let you photograph.”
Seeing this as an opening, I asked, “Do you want to return to Morocco?”
“No,” he replied, almost laughing at the suggestion.
“If the situation changed?”
“No, Morocco is for the Moroccans and Israel is for the Israelis.”
“What about the Palestinians?”
“We were here first,” he said, “thousands of years ago. This is our land, it says so in the bible.” I had noticed all the Torahs and other religious texts in the house, so it did not surprise me that he was religious.
“Sixty years ago my friend was living here,” I said.
“History doesn’t start in 1948,” he answered.
I briefly considered sharing with him something my Palestinian friend from Hebron often states: “It says in the Torah that Abraham came here to Hebron and bought a cave, right? Well, who did he buy that cave from? My great great great… grandfather!” Knowing, though, that this Israeli man’s argument was not rooted in, or concerned with, reliable historic analysis, I decided there was no use arguing with religion. We said an awkward goodbye (saying “thank you” did not seem appropriate in this situation), and I left.
My search for 1948 was over. Or, almost over…
After receiving the photographs I sent, Munir and his brother excitedly confirmed that this was indeed their house, and asked if I might be able to find any legal documentation to corroborate this. Not knowing where to start, I turned to a Canadian-Israeli friend, who agreed to help track down whatever she could. She visited the local Registry of Deeds in Jerusalem, which manages land deeds for the municipality. After being sent from office to office and compiling information about the current address and plot number, according to Israeli zoning laws and not the memories of the prior owners of the house, she finally had the information she needed.
She returned to the Registry of Deeds. They looked at the address and block number, and told her they had no record of the property before 1992. When she protested, they sent her to the microfilm, saying she could search through it all she wanted. So she did. After almost giving up, she came upon a document that seemed to be for that property. It was from the British Mandate period, and was thus written in English. She scanned the paper: 672 square meters, original owners’ names… and then, finally, proof of sale of the property “in whole” on January 6, 1932, to one Najeeb Jirmanus. Munir’s father.
There is something about finding the land registry hidden in the microfilm of Israel’s archives, after being told in effect that the property did not exist before 1992, that reminds me that nothing lies too deep under the surface in this part of the world. Beneath every Israeli road lies the dirt of the agricultural paths from centuries before. Beneath every kibbutz field lie the remains of a destroyed Palestinian village. Beneath every modern-day name on the map, the memory of a people who will not forget where they come from.
I think about the number of people involved in the uncovering of this one small slice of history, this one family’s relatively brief presence in the land of Palestine. I think about some of the people I met throughout this search for 1948, and their names give the story an air of parable:
The wonderful taxi driver, always at my service, was named Abed: “one who serves.”
The man currently living in Munir’s house was named Israel.
The older Israeli man who helped us find the house was named Shalom.
Perhaps if more people named Shalom helped facilitate the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, the word “peace” would have true meaning.
Make sure you listen to the 6th episode of Palestinians Podcast that features Munir Jirmanus! Click here to listen!
-Hannah Mermelstein is an activist, educator, and aspiring radical librarian currently based in Brooklyn, NY.