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The City and the Writer: In Jaffa with Selma Dabbagh

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series: Literary Maps

City of Origin: Jaffa
City of Birth: Dundee, Scotland
City/Cities you grew up in: Jeddah, Kuwait, High Wycombe, Dundee, Reading, Market Harborough, New Milton
Other cities you’ve lived in: Bahrain, Cairo, various cities in the West Bank, Grenoble
Current Residence: London
Your City/Cities: London. But I also feel quite possessive about Grenoble and Stockholm. Jaffa is probably the only place where, if I meet people from there, I get very excited and feel automatically as though I should treat them like family. I have only visited the place once, for half a day.
Nationality: British
Language(s): English
Language(s) you write in: English
Home: Where my friends and family are, where I can build roots, where I don’t have to explain myself, where I can eavesdrop with ease, where I can have multiple identities and a complex past that no one holds against me, where I can be free. 


That Woman Stole My Jewelry and Other Thoughts

A clock tower, domes, the sea, a port, wide boulevards, tight alleyways, orange groves, a Mediterranean climate.

That much we can agree on.

My father, his father, his mother, his father’s father and mother’s father and mother’s mother and so on and so forth, are all born in Jaffa. We can count back the centuries. The names of ancestral inhabitants on the paternal side are my names too: Ali, Salim, Mustafa, Abdel Kadir.

In the lithographs the figures are small, the domes bubble up from the coastline and the trees and orchards buffer the place at its edges.

It is paradise lost, Eden destroyed: “[A] beautifully situated city, rising from the shore up its hill, and set in a living girdle of palms, pomegranates, orange groves, apricot and almond trees—a mass of bloom—filling the air with fragrance,” as a nineteenth century guidebook documents.

Since 1948, my father has moved many times. My mother is English and has moved with him and also moved before him. I have lived in more countries than I care to list. I now live in London. I have no plans to move, unless what I imagine for Jaffa ever comes about. In which case, I would go back as part of a National Project for Rehabilitation and Reconciliation. My “return” and that of others like me would be an international event, not just an exercise of personal will.

I went there once, for an afternoon. I was twenty-three. I still had the swollen, moody heart of a teenager. I was broke and broken-hearted. I took the wrong bus. I got lost. I did not like being there. I could recognize natural beauty and international indicators of sameness (brand names, cafes, lampposts, bus stops), but the place felt askew.

I could see that it was a place more beautiful than most in the world, but could not accept that in reality it was more tawdry than the places of our dreams.

It was a place where I couldn’t tell a Palestinian Arab from an Israeli Jew. The former could hug me, the latter spit. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know. I was an outsider. The place had rules I had not grown up with. I wanted everyone to wear signs for my benefit. I ventured near the mosque where I could be certain and, when I asked, was waved in the direction of my grandfather’s furniture factory by men in slippers with defeated shoulders and waved again down to the beach to where our house once was. I was told not to go there. No one explained why not. My grandfather was a grander man than their grandfathers and they wanted me to have tea with them on account of his grandness and my return.

But I wanted to get away.

Visiting Jaffa felt like coming to a home that has been taken over by a mistress who loathes you. She rests on your upholstery, takes down your photographs from the wall, and badmouths you to all and sundry. This imposter woman parades around in your jewelry, sleeps with your husband, and wears your clothes. Everyone says she looks great. They love her. She wants you gone. You’re the bag lady screaming from the street outside.

“In 1948,” said the Jaffa Museum’s triumphant sign, “Jaffa was liberated.”


The mistress’ face, framed by a tiara, grins behind the window (“It was great,” she winks at you, “he loved it.”) I hear the line of my father’s that looped around our childhood, a perpetual scar on the psyche: You dont know what it is like to leave your country on a stretcher, to leave your homeland.

He was ten. The grenade was thrown from a high Jaffa cemetery down onto a street with nothing in it but children. My father took the brunt of the explosion. Seven scars still remain on his body and shrapnel is embedded in his skull. A road near the sea. A blast. “Has someone thrown a stone up and hit the lamp?” He wonders. Then blood running down his face, so thick he recites the fatiha because he is convinced he is about to die. You dont know what its like.

The woman retreats from the window to lie on my upholstery in my jewels. Liberated.

I imagine a Jaffa where religion is not the key determinant of friendships, allegiances, love affairs, or feuds. It is a place where one does not have to think of moving from, where immigration is an option for the minority, not a must for everyone. It’s a base, a legacy, an investment, a project. A place where most people can pronounce my name and can understand the nature of diaspora, of swimming through different cultural identities. We’re all adaptable people. Old Palestinians, new Palestinians, old Jews, new Jews. Multilingual, urbane, industrious.

In my imagined Jaffa, we’re people used to leaving places with nothing but our checked-in suitcases and our educational achievements to show for ourselves. Hope defiant in our hearts. Sleep provided for by capsules in our pockets.

I’d like my Jaffa to be a place where I can announce my atheism if I want to. When it’s hot, I can wear a shirt with no sleeves. I’d like the old train routes back; the station in Jaffa will sell tickets to Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Amman, Baghdad.

In my Jaffa, we channel the spirit of languages and religions to find commonalities, not righteousness and fear. A legal system that comes down hard on intolerance and an education system that accommodates difference, but stresses equality. A taxation system that pours back into the people. We become a cultural hub, an educational hub, a center for technology, design, enterprise. We export our wisdom, not our hatred. We are the most sought-after consultants for all the peace programs and reform projects that the world will ever need. We dislodge the reputation for killing. Eden, reconstructed. 

My Jaffa has its problems. I don’t imagine it as a place where there isn’t corruption, or politicians aren’t dishonest, where the innocent don’t die in custody or get stabbed in the street. I don’t conceive of it as being a country whose people have not gone through much horror, hatred, exile and torture, but I like to think of it as a place on the mend, with open borders and a genuine desire for reform.

As for the woman on my sofa? Give me enough time and I’m sure I can talk her around. She’s getting a bit fed up with defending her bling anyway.

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction based in London. Her first novel, Out of It, was published by Bloomsbury UK and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Press (BQFP) in 2011. The US edition was published by Bloomsbury in 2012.

More on "The City and The Writer" Literary Maps

This map is part of "The City and the Writer" special series "A Literary Map of Palestinian Writers"

Published Mar 9, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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