Issue No.
157, May 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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     Personality of the Month

Aref el-Aref (1891-1972)

Historian, journalist, and politician, el-Aref is recognised for his pioneering historical works on Jerusalem, Gaza, Ashqelon, his ethnographic work on the Bedouin tribes of Beersheba, and his analytical insights into the Nakba. A long inventory of his pioneering books remains the major reference for any serious student of Palestine. Educated in the best Ottoman tradition, el-Aref rose to great prominence during the British Mandate as District Administrative Officer in Jenin, Nablus, Beisan, Jaffa, Beersheba, and Gaza. In the Jordanian era, he was appointed twice as mayor of Jerusalem, and he was the last Arab director of the Rockefeller Museum.

Aref el-Aref represents the consummate isami (self-made) personality. The adjective “isami” عصامي is a positive term that is often ascribed to the Hamidi generation of Palestinians whose exemplary moral fibre, unique visions, indefatigable energy and charisma accounts for their great success. The isami, self-made man, was distinguished by the fact that he came from a modest background, had no inheritance to depend on, and worked his way up, dependant on his own merits without the traditional nepotistic mediation. Together with the other pioneers, the children of the effendis and dignitaries from the major Palestinian cities, this generation created the Palestinian Nahdah, (Renaissance). In Jerusalem this generation includes Dr. Ishaq Musa el-Husseini, Is’af el-Nashashibi, Khalil el-Sakakiny, and Tawfiq Kan’an to name a few. Their works formed the nucleus of our modern Palestinian literary library. The loss of Palestine, the Nakba, and the ensuing brain drain stymied their work.

As Ottoman citizens, these pioneers were the beneficiaries of the modern educational system, which was developed after the Tanzimat (Reformations) as finalised by Sultan Abdel Hamid. The curriculum generally paralleled the Western model. French and German specialists were even invited to teach in Istanbul’s major colleges. Significantly, the last Caliph opened the doors to children of the less affluent classes, giving them an opportunity to compete for admission in competitive schools, colleges, the higher posts in civil service and the army. Primary and secondary schools and colleges in Istanbul (al-Asitana) welcomed young Arabs, fluent in the Turkish language, into their classrooms. From Nablus, Gaza, and Jerusalem, families sent their children to the imperial capital to acquire the necessary training to assume the administrative functions now open to Palestinians.

Born to a humble family, Aref el-Aref’s father was a vegetable vendor in سويقة علون Allun Market. An outstanding student in primary school, he persuaded his father to send him to secondary school in Istanbul alongside Palestinians from families such as Khalidy, Hasna, Tamimi, Hashem, Qleibo, and Abdel Hady. The number of Palestinians as Muslim Sheikhs, Ottoman functionaries, parliamentarians, and young students in boarding schools was staggering. Together with the other Arab nationals, Istanbul in 1900 seems to have been teeming with Arabs.

El-Aref attended school at the Marjan Preparatory School in Istanbul. Because of his excellence, he entered and won an academic contest. He enrolled at the Mulkiyya College in Istanbul. He was proficient in Turkish and eventually mastered Russian, German, English, French, and Hebrew, allowing him to read primary source materials.

El-Aref further supported his college studies by writing in a Turkish newspaper. Later he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a translator. During the war against Russia, he was conscripted, and then imprisoned in Siberia. His return home took him via Manchuria, Japan, China, and Egypt via the Red Sea to arrive to Jerusalem already under British occupation: a great adventure that is well documented in his published diary.

Ironically, Sultan Abdel Hamid did not reap the fruits of the modernism whose seeds he had sown. His reforms created the pioneer statesmen and intellectuals who matured and found employment in Mandate Palestine. A historic lacuna exists whereby historiographers invariably attribute the modernization of Palestine to British colonialism, undermining the role of the last Ottoman Sultan in jolting traditional Palestine into modernity.

The inventory of Aref el-Aref’s books makes a very long list. It is difficult to single out any of his books as his masterpiece; each is a special and unique contribution to a major aspect of Palestine. A copy of The Detailed History of Jerusalem (المفصل في تاريخ القدس) is always next to my bed. The book, over one thousand pages, provides an in depth description of history of the Holy City. In addition to the detailed historical outline of Jerusalem, the book is interspersed with personally translated long excerpts from travellers describing their impressions of the city, its markets, customs, and way of life. Various narratives proffering key historical events are objectively presented. In addition, he provides a full description of contemporary Jerusalem crafts, schools, mosques, markets, water systems, etc. In short, the various cultural, economic, educational, and religious aspects of modern 1947 Jerusalem are also fully archived in the concluding chapter. The fluidity of the language and the simplicity of the vocabulary, harnessed by the expert eye of a reporter cooperate to present an extremely engaging reading.

Aref el-Aref felt at home among the tribal Bedouins and loved Beersheba. It was there that he built his beautiful villa, now lost to the Israelis. During the various positions as a government functionary he occupied in Palestine, he simply rented. An in-law affinal relation ties our families. As a child I had been to his house in Ramallah on family visits. He was already very old and spent much of his time in his library. His children tried to buy the villa to preserve their father’s literary and intellectual heritage, but to no avail. Mrs. Faridah el-Amad, his daughter, told me that his extensive library was finally donated to Al Quds and Birzeit universities and the children and grandchildren shared the books of sentimental value.

Only in Gaza, the bastion of Palestinian chivalry, the landlord would not rent el-Aref’s residence. His faithful friends from Ashqelon, Al Majdal, Beersheba, and Gaza consecrated the house he once occupied as a museum in loyal memory of the man they loved and respected.


By Dr. Ali Qleibo
Al Quds University

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