The Ongoing Nakba: AK, of an old illustrious Arab-Palestinian family

From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest sojourns in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning. (With major assistance from Fareed Taamallah, my colleague in Ramallah, West Bank, Occupied Palestine)

Because AK chooses not to be publicly identified, I have attempted to remove all forms of identification.

For Zionism, the Palestinians have now become the equivalent of a past experience reincarnated in the form of a present threat. The result is that the Palestinians’ future as a people is mortgaged to that fear, which is a disaster for them and for Jews.

—Edward Said, After the Last Sky

June 2, 2019, Sunday, Palestine-Israel, Jerusalem, Old City, Austrian Hospice (with later additions)

A second major achievement yesterday [June 1, 2019] (the first was Nabil and Mohammed in Sheik Jarrah): interview and photograph AK. This is a result of his daughter-in-law, IO, a friend of mine and now living with him. Unlike the week before when AK awaited me in the library annex, and I awaited him in the library, missing each other by about 5 minutes, this time I arrived at the proper spot 30 minutes early. This time I also insisted to the Israeli Border Police that I be allowed to ring the library annex bell. The building was behind a police barrier, set up to prevent non-Muslims from entering the road to the mosque compound (a rare case of Israel favoring Muslims; I’ve seen them turn away Jewish Israelis.)

AK is an effusive guy, giving an exuberant rendition of his family history in Jerusalem which he claims dates to around 600 CE, with the arrival of Arabs in the Levant. I then asked about his personal story, one I’d hoped to hear. Partly his age, 85, born in 1936, predating the Nakba by about 12 years old, partly the complexity of the story, many transitions, and partly my difficulty understanding, I needed to ask him several times for clarification. I hope to use my audio recording to clarify his story. I need to also justify why I’ve included him, other than that he is an interesting and (perhaps) lovable guy.

His Arab family came to Jerusalem in 638 CE. They lived in the city 400 years until the Crusaders arrived in 1099. The Christians fled the city for Egypt. One of his ancestors, a scribe to Saladin, is buried in Mamilla Cemetery in the heart of Israeli Jerusalem.

While in Jerusalem for these 600-700 years life was peaceful, because Islam honored Christians and Jews, “People of the Book.” Muslims don’t regard them as infidels, since they didn’t fight Mohammed during the dawn of Islam early in 600 CE.

His personal story, essentially, as I fragmentarily remember it [and later, using the audio recording, filled in blanks and tried to clarify confusing parts]:

  • His grandfather built a two-part home separated by a short distance in Katamon, in West Jerusalem, now a Jewish neighborhood. He showed me photos his daughter in the USA, an architect, had found on the Internet—early 1900s.
  • Because of World War 1, his family moved to the Old City for protection from the widespread fighting. Many famous people in his family were born here—around 1917.
  • Born in the Old City in this neighborhood (where I interviewed and photographed), near the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. We visited the building of his birth later. He lived here only a short time; he doesn’t know who lives here now, thus, we were unable to enter the building—1933.
AK’s birth home in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Al Aqsa mosque compound and the Dome of the Rock—built in the 16th century, the Mamluke period
Grave of Amir Husam al-Din Barkah Khan and near the family home with a timeline of the family—enclosing building constructed in 1389 CE
AK’s neighborhood
  • Moved to Katamon, southwest of Jerusalem, near Talpiot—1948 (the Nakba).
  • Stayed with relatives in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan for a short period, maybe no longer than a few months, because of the 1948 wars—1948.
  • Bought and built on property where he now lives in Shu’afat, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, and built the home he now lives in where I visited his daughter-in-law, a friend of mine for over 10 years, a few weeks ago.
  • Perhaps most important about AK is his dedication to his family’s library and archive, a major repository of literature about Arab-Muslim history in Palestine, located near his birth site in the Old City.

The old/new neighborhood of Katamon, then (around 1948) and now

After the interview he toured me thru his Old City neighborhood, pointing to the many buildings that once were owned by his family. No longer. He knows no one in these buildings (are any owned by Israelis? I might have asked). It is about 400 meters from the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Despite his age, he fasts. He was most gracious with me, apologized for his lack of clarity, yet he seemed to recall most dates and names precisely, asking the woman I met last week, who digitizes the manuscripts, for help occasionally. He’d brought notes, as if prepared to teach a class, and maps and photos, but only used the graphics. He’d been a teacher of English to Arabic speakers and Arabic to English speakers at schools like Birzeit University. I asked if he’d be willing to tour me thru the Katomon neighborhood, pointing out buildings he once lived in, recalling stories from his youth; he declined, partly I surmise because of his age and declining mobility.

A side story most of which he implored me to not record is about his son, now in the USA, married to his daughter-in-law who lives currently in the family home in Shu’afat.

Most tellingly, when I asked if he feels safe, living in the Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, Shu’fat, he unequivocally answered NO! Why? I asked. Because he’s surrounded by Jewish settlements, and from time to time he’s known of if not experienced terror attacks by settlers.

Shu’afat circled in blue, settlements in red (please notice that the region east of the Old City on this Google map is virtually blank—Palestinian Jerusalem, to Google, is erased.)

Further, altho he didn’t state this, I surmise it’s because Israel fully controls all the land between the river and the sea, the Jordan and the Mediterranean, despite limited Palestinian sovereignty. Anyone not Israeli Jewish remains constantly threatened by this unrelenting control. This is part of what makes his story exceptional in my series—that and preserving Arab-Muslim history in the Levant.

How does his case fit with my overall theme of people surviving the Nakba? It illustrates another form of expulsion, not physically and violently as was usually true for the other refugees I’ve met, their homes destroyed or confiscated. But Israelis exerted pressure to force him and his family out of their early homes. The end result is not much different than for official refugees (he is an official refugee, showing me his UN Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA) certificate, but he’s never lived in a camp and never asked and probably doesn’t qualify for assistance.). He simply feels under constant threat of expulsion, awaiting the tsunami of possible eventual full Israeli occupation.

One might argue: don’t we all feel unsafe? Those of us in the United States often suffer consequences of gentrification and—long-range, maybe preventable if not capable of mitigation—the foreseeable climate catastrophe. And now, most presently, the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, afflicting some populations more than others. I could become AK. Well, there are the laws, one might counter. As AK said, everything Israel did to me and my family is legal—by Israeli law. Who makes the law? Who implements it? In the States, who makes the laws? Generally, people representing the ruling class, which would be big money, corporations in particular. Recurring questions that arise for all Palestinians, me and many as well.


Palestinian cars and homes vandalised in ‘price-tag’ attacks in East Jerusalem, by Sondus Ewies (December 9, 2019)

Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories: 10 things you need to know about “annexation” (Amnesty International, July 2, 2020)


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