The City and the Writer: In Acre with Salma Khadra Jayyusi
By Nathalie Handal
Special Series: Literary Maps
City of Origin: Safad (District of Safad)
City of Birth: Salt, East Jordan
City/Cities you grew up in: Acre and Jerusalem
Current Residence: Boston and Amman
Your City/Cities: London
Nationality: Jordanian and American
Languages: Arabic, English, Italian
Languages you write in: Arabic, English
Home: No permanent home after Palestine
Akka, or Arab Acre, was a unique town, and I’m very happy to have spent my late childhood and adolescence there. A city on the Mediterranean, blessed with good humor, an enthusiasm for life, and patriotic zeal, it guards memories of great builders and fighters (such as Ahmad al-Jazzar in the eighteenth century), and of old aggressors (Napoleon, also in the eighteenth century), but with all rancor cleansed away. I remember when a group of young workers from the nearby village of Jules came to Akka and chose the roof of a nearby garage to spend the night, people commented on how handsome “those progeny of the French invaders” were. They were referring to Napoleon’s soldiers who, rumor had it, spent time there during the military campaign in Jules and seemed to have liked its young women despite rigid Islamic taboos. The result was those descendants of the 1930s: tall, fair, and many of them blue-eyed.
A model for cities in a belligerent world, where once aggression was cast off, Akka looked to joy and harmony, to an open heart that welcomed life. It also welcomed an exiled religious leader, Baha’ullah, Persian founder of the Baha’i faith, who had been banished to Akka after several previous exiles; there he finally succeeded in finding real peace and wrote several books, including his major book on the Baha’i faith, a testament to the great religious tolerance found in Akka and hardly matched anywhere at the time.* His house was on the outskirts of Akka, in the wonderful gardens called al-Bahjeh. The house and gardens are still well-kept and open to visitors. I often went with my family to those Bahjeh gardens, where I constantly slipped away to climb the stairs to Baha’ullah’s clean and simple bedroom—his bed just as he had slept in it the last day of his life in 1892, a mat laid on the floor, with his slippers, still carrying the traces of his toes, laid peacefully next to it. I stood in the room alone, contemplating things I, then a little girl, did not understand, though I had feelings of awe and peace in my young heart.
As a young girl, I ran wildly with my friends to Napoleon Hill, a little more than a mile away from my home. We climbed those rusty big French guns left by Napoleon’s army with joy and enthusiasm.
Akka also doted on festivities. No opportunity to feast was ever shunned, and Easter was a very special occasion for Muslims to crowd around the ovens with their big trays of date or walnut cakes, just as the Christians did. We wore our best clothes and celebrated Easter Sunday with our Christian brethren.
The fourth of the month of Safar had all of Akka welcome the dawn in the open air with food and song and inherited superstition. Mother, who never went, let us go two or three times; she thought it wrong to deprive us of the experience. I have many memories of those moments, especially the images of young women in their slips (no swim suits were sold in Akka then), swimming among the rocks of the Western shore away from the glaring eyes of the men, who knew better than to try to go anywhere near the swimming ladies with their wet slips glued to their otherwise naked bodies.
I remember when the whole of Palestine went on strike to protest the arrival of ships of Jews defying British immigration restrictions. On my way to school one morning, I met my classmates going in an opposite direction. They said, “Come, Salma, we’re joining the demonstration.” I had never heard the word before but I immediately embraced the concept, and soon enough, I was leading more demonstrations than the British police could tolerate. They said we were “bringing in chaos and interrupting education.” It was clear that I was on their blacklist. And since my father was a tireless political activist, held in one of the British concentration camps at the time, my mother had to send me away to my uncle’s in East Jordan, where I eventually went on a hunger strike and forced him to send me back.
I arrived on the morning of the hundredth day of the strike, which eventually stretched to six months. A huge demonstration had been organized for that day. My mother had already left the house to join the demonstration. The British police were alert and armed.
My uncle had had no time to alert my mother to my return. She was feeling relieved that her daughter was away when she spotted me at the front of the demo chanting our beautiful anthems with the huge crowd. The British police apprehended me soon enough, and dragged me to the police station. I cannot remember how the investigation went, but in my father’s forced absence, it was my mother who came in and with her good English had me released.
Unforgettable Akka, unforgettable days, with so many more memories to recount. Throughout my life, I worked on very serious matters as poet, scholar, and cultural disseminator, but Akka’s festive spirit, its light-hearted tolerance, and its love of life were always with me.
After the Nabka of 1948, some of the Arab residents remained in Akka, but the city was never again what it once was. City of love and life, what has become of you?
*Muslims who acknowledge the religions of the book, mainly Christianity and Judaism, which have revealed scriptures, also believe that Islam is the final revealed faith, and Muhammad the last of prophets. Although Baha’ullah was an unshackled prisoner of the Ottomans in Akka, he had the freedom to write his religious books.
Salma Khadra Jayyusi is arguably the most important disseminator of Palestinian and Arab literature and culture, and one of the most extraordinary researchers in the field. Poet, critic, and literary historian, she is the Founder and Director of PROTA, founded in 1980, for the translation of the best in Arabic literature into English; and East-West Nexus, founded in 1991, for the dissemination of the knowledge of Arabic culture and civilization outside the Arab world.
Her scholarly work is pioneering and invaluable. She began her academic career as professor of Arabic literature at the universities of Khartoum, Algiers, and Constantine, then at the universities of Utah, Washington, and Texas. While teaching at Western universities, she realized the great paucity of books on Arabic culture, civilization, and literature, and felt the absolute necessity to change this situation and enhance the knowledge of Arabic culture and civilization in the world. While at the University of Texas in 1979, she decided to leave teaching and founded PROTA and then East-West Nexus. She has dedicated herself to research ever since and has succeeded in persuading several Arab institutions to support her endeavors. Under PROTA, she has published to date eleven landmark anthologies of literary texts translated into English and a substantial number of single author works; under East-West Nexus, she has edited seven comprehensive collections of multiple authors discussing the history, influence, and rich variety that have distinguished Arab-Islamic culture and civilization in classical times.
Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal