In another rare occasion, in finishing a book from cover to cover overnight, Serene Husseini Shahid biography “Memories from Jerusalem,” overwhelmed my space.
It has to do with all those Jerusalem tendencies and sensations in such a read. But somewhere above all, it is another time, when such work reflects sharply and firmly on the reality of a history that has distorted images in our memories.
I ma not sure why Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was present strongly while I was reading with his “ the first well,” his biography as a child in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
It must be the conformity of the normality of life that pushed me with that power in both cases. Jabra’s biography was an in-depth emotional journey of a young boy who grew up in what appeared to be a below middle-class family with poverty as a result of world wars, which found their reflection on the poor of the other side of the world.
Serene, speaks about elite at its best. After all, the Husseini’s always secured a front seat in Jerusalem elite. But again it is not about elite or middle class. It is about a society that can have all its forms and figures. Different lifestyles and opportunities. Different approaches and mindsets.
Serene was born in 1920. A time that witnessed the upcoming forever in the Palestinian lives intersections. Intersections that made human affairs in the Palestinian mindset, a cause. An unjust cause of humanity. A just cause of an oppressed occupied nation.
In her very first lines, she says: “ the first thing I am careful to say; there was nothing that made us unique or different from all the people of this world, but our destiny was unlike theirs.”
Edward Said contributed in a few pages as a forward to this book, somehow within an assurance of a sentiment that he carries as a Jerusalemite. The excitement about a narrative that truly existed, given the first hand in an eloquent bouquet of events by the person who lived that history.
Serene’s biography is far from being a promotion to an individual or to a family. It carried within its pages that takes the readers on the journey of life that turned into an exodus and diaspora, the sentiments of a child eager to have a life, and understands it the way life should be. Somewhere this biography reflects within its emotions the same set of emotions that the Kite Runner by Khalid Husseini (the Afghan) has. With the coincidence of the same family names of the two writers. It is this murky past that carries a whole childhood of an average person, whose life only continued to be far from normality. The sensations of a child who is mischievous, who watches the adult world with curiosity, who puts himself in sometimes deadly misdeeds and accidents. The first experience with dead and how one’s own inner persisting child understands it and perceives it.
Serene walks around in her memory across place she left but remained to witness the rightfulness of her story. She confirms a moment in her reflection when she says: “ I found out that the happiest memories are photos of places not pictures of human beings. After all, people die carrying with them part of ourselves. But places live forever. I close my eyes, and I move to Jericho in winter, and to Sharafat in summer and to Jerusalem in spring. For me, there is always a spring in Jerusalem because of that old morning when I looked from my window and saw three puppies.”
The humanity that lies beneath every final word and embeds itself within each finished paragraph is what makes the unique journey of this amazing woman. A woman that describes her sense of resilience and steadily-ness as part of being Palestinian. As if pride and resilience is a stamp in the palm of being Palestinian, and this exclusivity that she tenderly feels for being Jerusalemite.
The places in its buildings, houses, allies, and roads wake up in a harmonic festival along with her words as she continues to describe places she lived in, people she met, moments she experienced.
I am closing this book, thinking of the ancient oak tree in Sharafat, the oranges that ripe and rotten waiting for their collection during the big strike (in Palestine) in their farm in Besan. Her dancing spirit in Jericho along the orchids. I could see her running as a child in the neighborhood of Musrara up to the Russian compound as I was taking my kids to school in my very own memories as well.
The images of Palestinian resistance and victimhood that each Palestinian live with and run within his veins came into vivid action as she described the days of resistance, her father Jamal Husseini, her uncle Musa Alami, Abdel Wader Husseini and a luxurious collection of men and women, that history missed. The humanity of life. The pain that resistance and fighting for a homeland engraved inside Palestinian livelihood. Striking change from rich too poor. From a lavish lifestyle to cleaning fire-stoves. But yet, a desire to live. A persistent fight in keeping a place where a human count, even when the place is lost forever.
How the places she describes passionately with their people and their very personal memories remained, for us to remember and witness, while she can only keep them alive in her mind because occupation continued even when people died.
The last memory she described in the beginning and is so taking me by a state of reflection. Somehow, how things may be contagious. Her particular description of that memory, the images of mass refugees of Arabs today. The destiny of Palestinians. The destiny of those deemed to the exodus. To suffering in a way that feels like uprooting a tree from its roots to any other soil that cannot be hers.
“In the collection of the photos of my childhood, there is a living memory specifically; it takes today a unique resemblance. One day, at noon, I entered my parent’s bedroom. I was three or four years old. My father was sitting on the edge of the bed wearing his shirt and trousers and was about to be his shoes. I rushed to help him in tying his shoe in a demonstration from my side to my skills. I realized that he was about to leave. I sprang on him begging him not to leave and stay with me to play. “Why do you want to go, I said trying to put a pretentious tear. Why, why, why?” he started joking with me and laughing, but when he realized that my insistence didn’t finish, he held me up and put me on his knees and said: “ listen, he said while looking directly in my eyes, there are important things I have to finish. And he asked me, if I remember that day, in Jericho, when we saw families of Armenian refugees. Truly; the image of the human expansion that was passing on the way to Jerusalem, and all those people were holding their luggage on their backs, and pulling their children behind, all this remained present in my mind. “Do you remember that I explained to you that they were looking for an asylum? Haven’t we felt the pain and grieve for them because they were forced out of their homes and towns? He was silent for a moment before he continued: “ if we Palestinians didn’t work with all our strength, soon, we would have to go around the globe searching for an asylum and….” He stood up suddenly. His face was stretched from the emotions. And I noticed tears in his eyes. I stayed away slipping from his knees, and I went running from the room. I could not bear seeing my father crying.”