The City and the Writer: In Jaffa with Ibtisam Azem
By Nathalie Handal
Special Series: Literary Maps
City of Origin: Taybeh (forty kilometers north of Jaffa)
City of Birth: Taybeh
City/Cities your grew up in: Taybeh
Current Residence: New York City
Your City/Cities: Taybeh, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Berlin, New York City
Language(s): Arabic, English, German, Hebrew
Language(s) you write in: Arabic
Home: Where I find loving and warm hands
The Jaffa to Come
I was not born in Jaffa, but in a small town forty kilometers north. Jaffa, however, was born in me, because you, Grandma Rasmiyye, never left it even though you lived six decades outside of it after being expelled. After hearing your story about the curtains in your house in al-Manshiyya—a neighborhood overlooking the sea in Jaffa that was destroyed by the Israelis and became part of Tel-Aviv)—I can never look at curtains anywhere in the world without remembering that story, or the holes in my memory.
One hot evening you and I were walking in Jaffa, the city the world started to call Tel Aviv. I don’t remember the exact year. I had lived in Jerusalem for three years and had decided to leave for Germany to study. Maybe it was 1998? I stopped counting the years when my longing for the country became unbearable. Every time I planned on returning to live there I found myself going farther north instead. That day we visited our Jaffa, you were talking about a house and about neighbors, pointing to them as if they were still there. Our compass was the Hassan Beg mosque, the only monument still standing in an area crowded with luxury hotels that sprang up—and weigh so heavily on our necks that we have chronic breathing problems, after the government bulldozed everything. Tel Aviv is that country’s symbol. A city that severed Jaffa’s memory, denies that it sleeps atop Jaffa’s corpse and feeds on its detached limbs.
When you told your stories I would look at my body sometimes. I wondered whether I should pinch myself to make sure you were talking about the same place. There were no traces of it. The names you were uttering were not on the maps or on any of the street signs.
Your memory had nothing to do with what I learned in history lessons and text books in school. I inherited Israeli citizenship because you were able to stay by coincidence. I can only call this staying a bittersweet coincidence because most of Jaffa’s inhabitants were expelled from their land and country. It’s sweet only because it meant surviving the Nakba, even if that meant staying in a devastated place.
You were expelled from Jaffa and sought refuge in a village where I was to be born and raised. I inherited this hatred of villages from you and kept it until I made peace with myself after leaving the country. I took on your Jaffan dialect. You went to that other village by coincidence because your husband—my maternal grandfather—was from there. But he didn’t know that village either. He wasn’t raised there and always felt like a stranger when surrounded by relatives he never knew.
I remember the story of the curtains, but not all the details. You told me, while we were standing in al-Manshiyya, that your blind sister, Samiyya, had crocheted them before that year. We never call it “the Nakba” or “1948.” We just say, “that year.” You said that Samiyya had crocheted the curtains for the guest room. She left with your mother and your brother, Rubin, to Jordan. They were supposed to return, but they only did so as visitors, following a war that came after “that year.” The war lasted six days and swallowed the rest of Palestine. They were able to return as visitors, and we had to obtain permits for them to do so. I digress from the curtains out of fear of having forgotten certain details or having never asked you about them. I never asked because I wasn’t sure I could take it back then.
You said that your sister Samiyya crocheted the curtains and hung them in the guest room before you were kicked out of the house. You only took some of your jewelry and had to leave everything, including the curtains. But you never spoke about anything you left behind as much as those curtains. You decided to go back to retrieve them.
You said you returned with grandfather to your house. You insisted and fought with him until you got your way. I don’t know how you were able to go there. Did you get a permit? You were living in al-Taybeh, forty kilometers north. You were forced to become Israeli citizens and you were forced to live under military rule. You couldn’t go anywhere without obtaining a permit first. Did you sneak in or did you obtain a permit? You went back to retrieve the curtains. I don’t know why you were sure that they would still be hanging there in the guest room window.
You said you returned and knocked on the door. A Polish woman who’d been given the house came out. Was she really Polish or did you just call her that? You used to call Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine “Polish.” You said you knocked and she came out and knew you were the owners. What language did you speak to her? You didn’t speak Hebrew. My grandfather did. Perhaps he translated? But I remember you saying that you didn’t say much. She said she’d been expelled from her country. In what language did she say that? You knocked and she knew you were the owners of the house. But how did she know that? She asked you to come in. Most of the furniture was still there, and the curtains too. The curtains your sister Samiyya crocheted. What patterns did she use? Were the shapes of roses and grapes? You said she served you tea, or maybe coffee. I don’t remember. She served you something to drink, but you didn’t drink it. You looked at the curtains and were about to ask for them. You looked at the curtains and remembered Samiyya’s jokes and her spirit. Remembered the conversations you had as she crocheted the curtains for you. The war had been everywhere around you. It had been right at your doorstep but seemed distant somehow. Perhaps Samiyya was crocheting those curtains in an attempt to dodge the war and make it forget about you. You didn’t realize back then that wars never forget anyone—they feed on the souls of survivors.
I knew Jaffa and learned to love its sea and old buildings. I say learned to love it because knowing it used to kill me. The first words about it were from your memory. Cinema Hamra and Apollo and the streets that Tel Aviv turned into numbers at first. Later, they bore the names of those who were responsible for the massacres of your expulsion.
I digress again from the curtains. You sat in the guest room in your house besieged by the presence of a woman. A woman perhaps besieged as well by memories of her own country— longing for her curtains, or anything, there. You looked at the curtains and were determined to take them with you. When you were about to ask for them your tongue let you down. You didn’t cry. You said you didn’t cry then or anytime thereafter. You used to cry when you fought with grandfather and had no one to go to. No father, mother, or brother. They were all in Jordan, and Jordan was far—farther than the sky.
You were about to ask for the curtains, but you told the blond woman instead (you described her as being blond and having a pleasant face) that your blind sister, Samiyya, had crocheted them for you as a present. The blond woman fell silent. You did, too. Words no longer had any meaning. You and grandfather left without drinking the tea, or coffee. You left the curtains behind. Since that year, whenever we went to Jaffa to visit your distant relatives or friends, you would say, “Jaffa is beautiful and tears are dry. The absent will eventually return.”
Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon
Ibtisam Azem is a writer and journalist, born and raised in al-Taybeh. She studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later at the University of Freiburg, where she completed an M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies with a minor in German and English literature.
She is the author of two novels: Sariq al-Nawm (The Sleep Thief) published in 2011 by Dar al-Jamal and Sifr al-Ikhtifaa (The Book of Disappearance) published in 2014 by Dar al-Jama, currently being translated into English. Azem has worked as a journalist, producer, and correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV-Arabic in Berlin. She has published essays and short stories in al-Akhbar, Qantara, and al-Jazeera.net, and she is an editor for Jadaliyya. Currently, she is a senior correspondent for al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper in New York, and is at work on her third novel.
Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal