The City and the Writer: In Jerusalem with Liana Badr
By Nathalie Handal
Special Series: Literary Maps
City of Origin: Hebron
City of Birth: Jerusalem
City/Cities you grew up in: Jerusalem and Jericho
Current Residence: Ramallah
Your City/Cities: Jerusalem, Jericho
Language(s) spoken: Arabic and English
Language(s) you write in: Arabic
I consider myself to be the descendent of three cities, one could say a trinity, in Palestine. I lived and grew up in two of them, Jerusalem and Jericho, and I chose to belong to the third: the city of Hebron, where I came of age among a group of old Hebronite women that included my paternal grandmother and her sisters. It is from them that I inherited the art of storytelling.
Three cities run in my veins: Jerusalem, which I consider to be the place of my soul’s identity and existence; Jericho, the city that colors my heart and my passion; and Hebron, which I believe is the source of my creative imagination and my personal archive of popular folk tales, like those about Al-Shater Hassan.
Jerusalem was the place where I first felt a sense of belonging to human history, among its narrow alleyways, old corners, and holy places. Through Jerusalem’s different architectural styles, one is transported to the Roman era, the days of Mamluk rule, or the Ottoman sultanates in one instant—simply by gazing at a wall or a fence. Jerusalem’s diverse architecture and old stones allowed me to experience a sense of intimacy with many cities around the world, in both the East and the West. The similarities Jerusalem’s old stones have with other cities throughout the world has allowed me to feel at home when wandering the streets of places like Fez in Morocco, the old markets of Damascus, Florence’s winding alleyways, or the pathways in Seville, all of which resemble the neighborhoods of my childhood.
Jerusalem is the city that taught me my first life lesson. I saw the world through the eyes of its visitors and pilgrims, its guests and residents from around the world. My kind father always enjoyed transporting Jerusalem’s pedestrians and tourists in his car from Jerusalem to Jericho and vice versa, and he often invited many of them to join us at the dinner or lunch table. We would listen to the stories of their countries and the places they came from, and feel as if we’d lived there our whole lives. We often felt we belonged to this wide world—the wide world of the visitors’ spaces and places as they shared their stories with us. We never considered Palestine to be a place only we were invested in. Jerusalem is one of the few cities in which people from every corner of the world meet, intersect, and share stories with pure affection, regardless of their everyday realities, their beliefs, or their cultural backgrounds.
Jerusalem is the place where I took my first steps in life. I was born in one of its newer areas, in my eldest aunt’s home. In that beautiful house, I learned the elegant art of language while in the company of my extended family because my father, a political detainee, was often absent. In the garden of my childhood home, I learned to differentiate between different types of trees. I learned how to climb them, and how to run and hide behind their branches when children gathered to play there in the late afternoon, or when it was time to pick their fruits. I exhausted the members of my family, who would try desperately to get me to climb down from the berry tree I loved and refused to leave. I often substituted its fruit for all of my meals. I would hide from the summer sun behind its vast green leaves and its scarlet-colored fruit, and from its branches, I would construct steps that would take me up to the height of the sky. In this tree, I made myself a special home, one that my relatives could never reach.
In Jerusalem I used to join the older boys and girls when they went to the cinema. I learned how to sing classical Arabic songs with them, and I grew enamored with Abdul-Halim Hafez. I think I chose my first job in life after everyone began telling me that I looked like Faten Hamama! At that time, I thought that I would grow up to act just like her, and for that reason, I started to collect pictures of actors and actresses from the time I was eight years old. I would cut up their pictures and glue them into my notebooks. I eventually became a human encyclopedia with detailed information on all types of actors, both foreign and Arab. I will never forget the wars I would get into on the playgrounds of Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi. We would wage battles and carry flags that represented different teams in our fights over Sophia Loren, my favorite actress, or the singer Shadia, whom my sister Dima considered to be the more beautiful and important of the two starlets.
We were filled with joy every Friday because we had the opportunity to see two films with one ticket at one of the local cinemas. I never missed the opportunity to watch films of any kind, and I would memorize entire scenes from Indian movies that were not only popular with us, the children, but with the older generation as well.
I went to live from time to time, during my breaks from school, in the old part of the city, in Aqabat Al-Mufti, where my aunt’s house was located. My cousin there would pay extra attention to me, and take me with her on all of her outings in the Old City. Because of her, there is not a single step or part of the Old City I do not know.
There was the big house, or “Dar Al-Bayraq,” because Hajj Amin Al-Husayni and his groups used to leave from there to go to popular festivals in Nabi Saleh every year, and when they did they would carry flags and banners. There was the garden where I learned how to dance rock-style from our neighbor Marie when I was no more than five years old. She was my cousin’s best friend and always accompanied her on her walks around the Old City.
One of my father’s favorite stories to tell was a story about me when I was about two years old. He always had a smile on his face when he told me about my habit of dancing in the street as he held my hand every time we passed by the small local coffee shop called Mona because the owner used to play Oum Kalthoum on the radio there. The owners served water pipes near the Damascus Gate.
It was in Jerusalem that I formed my first friendships. Two years ago, I used the Internet to search for the first friend I ever made in the Jerusalem Nursery School. Her name is Suheir Al-Hajj and we are now in constant communication despite the fact that she lives on another continent. I also studied in many different schools in Jerusalem. One of them was Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi, in which I came to understand the Palestinian cause more generally, and not only through my own personal struggles. My family’s crisis was defined by my father’s time in prison because of his activism, and my mother’s subsequent poverty after being banned from working because she’d joined the leftist party. She was punished for believing in justice and freedom. My school housed many orphans from Deir Yaseen who lost their families in times of war. When I was eleven years old, I heard the stories of children who had been left all alone in the world because they lost their families to Zionist gangs during battles that took place in Palestine in 1948. I shared many stolen cups of tea with them in our bedrooms late at night. We shared our worries, our love for each other, and stolen bits of bread that we used to hide in our pockets as we left the cafeteria.
Jerusalem is a place that sharpens memory until it becomes a blade. Or it can diffuse memory until it seeps into every corner. Every city or place, then, develops its own unique personality as it accumulates, day after day, the residue of human history, much of which is then immortalized in the very material of the place itself. Herod’s Gate differs from Hebron’s Gate by way of the engravings in its stones. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre differs from the other churches found in the city’s corners. The Christian Quarter in Jerusalem is completely different than Wadi Al-Joz, and all of these are completely different than Sheikh Jarrah, Suq Al-Qattanin, Al-Tour, Al-Mukbir, etc. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the embodiment of deep dimensions of human civilization through its unique architectural qualities and its engravings. From the graves of sultans, to the Resurrection, to the tomb of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, many historical eras and deep and meaningful human experiences can be drawn out. There are even engravings in Dair Salahiyya that are said to make a complete map of Jerusalem dating back to the first Christian era.
In Jerusalem my mother, who died before the age of forty, still lives, as does my grandmother Zuleykha, my father’s mother who died abruptly from complications after giving birth to one of her sons. She also gave birth to a spacious home, known as “Qasr Shehabi,” which was the most notable feature of our hundred acres freckled with olive trees. It was confiscated by Israel when it annexed land belonging to the Arab University in Jerusalem, along with the land of the Issawiyah neighborhood just next door. In 2000, the Occupation Forces bulldozed my grandmother’s home and confiscated the remainder of our land. They built a tunnel for a highway there, where hundreds of olive trees once grew, and declared it a “heritage” site because it houses an old olive oil press made out of stone. I preserved the house in my documentary film Zaytunat. Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri recorded footage of me standing in front of the house and included it in his own documentary film 1948.
What Jerusalem represents for me now is my current family, which I am losing in phases primarily because of the Israeli Apartheid Wall, which limits the movement of Jerusalem’s Arab residents and prevents them from entering the city without required permits. When I do manage to get a permit to go to Jerusalem, I feel a magnetic pull, like the kind that draws birds back to their homes after a season of migration. That is what Jerusalem will always be for me; toward Jerusalem alone, I feel this kind of pull. It is there that I feel a sense of calm spread throughout my whole body. In Jerusalem I feel the most natural, and every shift in weather and temperature suits my body completely, and balances me.
I feel like a tree that was planted in Jerusalem; I feel I was born from the wombs of its old stones. In my mind, Jerusalem is the mother of all the world’s cities, and all the cities of the world are small jewels that encircle the crown’s diamond—the diamond of Jerusalem’s original cityscape.
Jericho is Jerusalem’s youngest daughter, and Hebron is the legendary past that occupies the stories and myths of old women. From this mélange, I developed like a grain of wheat. I was formed in the same way that bread is formed from wheat, water, and salt, and in the low fire of writing, I cook up my stories slowly.
Translated from the Arabic by Suja Sawafta.
Liana Badr is the author one novella, three collected short stories, six children’s books, a book of interviews, a book of poetry, and four novels: A Compass for the Sunflower, A Balcony over the Fakehani, and The Eye of the Mirror. She has a directed various films, including The Green Bird, Fadwa—A Tale of a Palestinian Poetess, and Zetounat. Badr also wrote the script and scenario for Rana's Wedding, a film by Palestinian director HanY Abu Assad that opened the Critics’ Week at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal