Issue No.
160, August 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Jerusalem. Photo from Palestine Image Bank.
Artwork by Ali Qliebo.
Scene from the musuem.

Jerusalem: Traces and Collective Memory A New Museum in the Old City
By Dr. Ali Qleibo
Preserving the Arab identity of Jerusalem is the Palestinians’ ultimate challenge. Forever associated with the last days of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, and with Prophet Mohammed’s Night Journey and his transfiguration, Jerusalem has always been the religious centre of the Holy Land. Perched in the rugged Judean mountains, a fortified castle of monasteries and mosques, it dominated the Christian and Muslim world as the Holy City, Al-Quds. Jerusalem has always been the cultural and theological centre of Palestine. Following Ottoman nineteenth-century reformations, Jerusalem was catapulted from its exclusive theological reclusiveness to worldly modernity. Our city achieved great cosmopolitan glamour under the British Mandate that has bequeathed us the rich cultural heritage in the suburban sprawl in Herod’s Gate, Sheikh Jarrah, El-Musrarah, El-Shamma’ah Quarter, Abu Thor, Katamon, Talpiot, Baq’a.… Unfortunately, this rich social and economic heritage, spanning the past five hundred years, has been lost. In their speedy flight from their homes in 1948, Jerusalemites left behind not only their houses but their furniture, their various acquisitions, their family heirlooms and photo albums, their mementos: trophies that represent a veritable cultural museum.

Jerusalem was lost. Palestine is lost.
Over sixty years have passed, and yet the struggle over the sovereignty of Jerusalem and the ongoing battle to preserve the Arab Christian and Moslem character of the city remains on the level of rhetoric…. Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are being taken over by settlers, and much of the Old City real estate has already been wrested from their veritable owners. The situation is bleak. Justice is a concept that exists only in Homerian literature. Apart from a few isolated articles and biographies, the social history of the city remains overlooked. Without a museum with proper documentation of Jerusalem’s social history, a way of life into which my generation was born will pass away lamentably unremembered.

Within the overall desolation that Jerusalem suffers, consequent to the brain drain and the silent forced transfer of the remaining Arab population, the conditions have greatly deteriorated, even having a detrimental effect on the private school sector, once the bastion of Western culture. Because of the lack of competent teachers, the GCE curriculum (General Certificate of Education) had to be cancelled in many schools. At the College des Freres where vestiges of the old British system of education linger, both history and English literature have already been dropped from the curriculum. This may reflect the demographic change of Jerusalem’s population. But it highlights the fact that Arab Jerusalem is overwhelmed by fanatic Israelis and ruthless Jewish suburbia.

General Arab interest in Jerusalem remains limited to the level of puerile history studied as archeology attesting to the various Muslim dynasties whose rulers left their stamp in the form of various mausoleums, madaress (theological colleges), caravansaries, Turkish baths, and “philanthropists” who shaped and reshaped the much belaboured complex of Al-Aqsa Mosque and who through time have changed its mosaics to ceramics, its elegant Byzantine lead dome to a garish oval golden dome. The beautiful wool carpets were replaced by smelly polyester factory-made rugs. Even the old crusader bronze rail surrounding the rock was sold in bulk to be reused as doorknobs.

History in the oldest Muslim city is not welcome; witness the impoverished collection in the Muslim Museum in Al-Aqsa Mosque. It barely accounts for fourteen centuries of Arabic presence in Palestine.

The official attitude to Jerusalem is fraught with ambivalence. The symbolic theological significance of Jerusalem in Islam is constantly stressed on the rhetoric-oratory level. In fact, the special relationship of Al-Quds to Islam, as the first Qiblah (direction of prayers) and the place where Prophet Mohammed met with God during the Night Journey, is undermined and summarily dismissed as a non-event, as attested by the official cancellation of the traditional holiday to commemorate the Night Journey. The symbolic meeting, the transfiguration of Mohammed in Jerusalem, ought to be exploited to mark the day as Jerusalem Day. Instead the holiday is passed over silently. The date marking Al-Isra’ Wal-Mir’aj is just another ordinary day. Nothing could express more eloquently the Arab paradoxical attitude towards Jerusalem and the instrumentalisation of Islam by the national Arab states under international pressure.

Wujoud, inside Jaffa Gate a few steps down David St., is a museum that seeks to portray the way Palestinian life used to be during the British Mandate. It is a small museum, a modest beginning and a preliminary attempt to pave the way to a sanctuary wherein memory is housed.

Nora Kort, the founder of the museum, is an extraordinary enterpriser. Once when there was a need for great teachers, she worked with Miss Aliyyeh Nuseibeh to establish the best girls’ school in Jerusalem: Al-Nizamiyyeh. As times changed she sensed the needs of the aged in Jerusalem and proceeded to establish ATTA’, literally “Divine Gift,” an institute that serves the elderly and indigent. Later she sought to empower widows and spinsters by creating a home-style-cooking kitchen that caters to domestic needs. Now Nora senses the need for a space that houses Palestinian memory: a Jerusalem museum. Wujoud suffers from limited funds. Its collection remains modest, incomplete, and fragmented.

I was particularly touched when she proudly showed me a lonely ceramic soap container. I looked at the single item and remembered the entire set that I grew up with, as a decoration on my mother’s bureau. It consists of a jug, a basin, the soap container, the sponge container…. At a time before water became abundant, before water ran in pipes and taps, and before people showered daily … they simply washed their faces by pouring the water from the jug. The water collected in the basin would later be used to irrigate the potted plants.

My attention was drawn to a corner where a broom stood against the wall next to the lagan (brass washing basin), the leefeh (sponge from loofah plant), and the qubqab (wooden bathroom clogs). I still remember the common perception of the kitchen cum bathroom as “impure” areas of the house. One changed from house slippers to these wooden clogs to enter the toilet or bathroom.

Pots and pans that I once knew, the brass types that were tinned to protect from brass poisoning … are on display. Western-style carved bureaus, closets, chairs, and elegant furniture items are scattered here and there and add a touch of opulence to the museum.

Unfortunately Nora gets little support and is met by hostility, indifference, and petty jealousy. She has not been intimidated by fires in her home or thieves and vandalism in the museum. Her valiant effort to keep up her project is impressive. The challenge to raise people’s consciousness about the importance of the museum is an ongoing crusade given the sad fact that the local merchants would prefer to use the museum rooms as storage space for their goods instead of as a shrine for memory.

Wujoud, could not develop, thrive, and actualise its objectives without moral and financial support. A museum that provides a glimpse of Jerusalem’s social history is urgent. Philanthropists, such as wealthy Bethlehemite Widad Kawar, have been able to purchase and privately preserve Palestinian peasant embroidery; other self-glamorising social climbers seek to collect antiques or paintings. Wujoud stands apart as a Promethean effort to save the collective memory of a lost city.

Nora, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, grew up in a cosmopolitan Jerusalem family. Her father was my father’s good friend over eighty years ago. In fact, and this is a story I like, my father was the one who arranged the meeting and marriage between her mother and father.

It was a time of relative peace in the late thirties … when Jerusalem thrived with its Muslim and Christian population. Nora, on a personal level, represents a memory of the old days as we heard them described in our parents’ stories. A time not so very long ago when people still lived in the city, visited each other, and enjoyed life together.

Wujoud is a testimony and homage to those memories.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at aqleibo@yahoo.com.
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