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The City and the Writer: In Jerusalem and Jaffa with Ismail Khalidi

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Zoe Zenowich

Special Series: Literary Maps

City of Origin: Jerusalem and Jaffa
City of Birth: Beirut
City/Cities you grew up in: D.C., New York and Chicago, but mostly Chicago.
Current Residence: Valparaiso/Viña Del Mar, Chile.
Your City/Cities: Chicago, Beirut, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Marseille, Jerusalem.
Nationality: American
Language(s): Shitty Arabic, mediocre French, flawed Spanish. And English.
Language(s) you write in: English


I feel at home in different ways in many different places. And as clichéd as it may sound, I do not feel truly at home anywhere. I am of course most familiar with the US cities in which I grew up and lived (Chicago, the Twin Cities, and New York). Chicago is the city of my childhood so it has a home feel, and invokes nostalgia in me. My parents left Chicago years ago so there is no old home to go back to, but my sister still lives in the city, and my nephews whom I adore. I still have great love and loyalty for Chicago––for its people, its lake, the vast South and West sides, its architecture and its summers. I also went to school up North in the Twin Cities, and it was there that I started writing, so it is also home to me. But whenever the ice-cold months would descend on the Midwest I always felt my Levantine Mediterranean blood rebel, reminding me this is not home. New York is where my paternal grandmother immigrated and where my dad grew up, and it is where I have lived almost ten years of my life so far. It is also a world city in the truest sense, full of exiles and refugees and immigrants, so I blend comfortably and will always be a New Yorker in some sense, no matter where I live. I feel at home in a totally different way in most cities on the Mediterranean, even ones that I do not know that well. My family has always been concentrated along, or not far from, its shores. I was born in Beirut, and that city, like the Mediterranean, is a part of the landscape of my formation. It is also a place where I still have a lot of family, where my parents met, and where an important chapter in the Palestinian story took place, a chapter that coincided with the period in which my sisters and I were born (all three of us were born in Beirut between 1977-1982). So Beirut is a muse of sorts for me, even though I have not spent that much time there as an adult. I also have a thing for Marseille and its surrounding countryside, where I have family and where I have spent many summers. Marseille is a port city that is deeply connected to the Arab world and the rest of the Mediterranean. It has this cosmopolitan funky mix of Franco-Arabo-Afro culture(s) that I dig and that feels like home to me. Cairo is another city I have spent time in and am connected to.  My mother was raised there and my maternal grandmother lived there for the better part of six decades, basically from the time she left Palestine in her early 20s until the time of her death in 2013. So I have love for Cairo and its overpopulated madness. With my grandmother’s passing, however, and the depressing return (or resurfacing) of the military dictatorship there, I have felt distanced from Cairo, as if it is no longer in any way mine. And then there is Palestine. It is an occupied and transformed space where Palestinians are made to feel like unwanted strangers. That even goes for those who have never left, but the feeling of alienation can be even more acute for some of us in the diaspora. I am physically disconnected even though my work is not, and I have not been to Palestine for several years now. That said, when in Palestine there is an indescribable feeling of being where you belong, where you could have/should have been born and raised, a place where your family is rooted deeply. My family, like many Palestinian families, can be traced quite far back in Palestine, in our case nearly a thousand years. That history and belonging is something I will never feel in any of those cities in the West where I have lived most of my life.

Jerusalem and Jaffa

Like most Palestinians I consider myself to be from where my family was from before 1948. In my case that is Jerusalem on my father’s side and Jaffa on my mother’s. The Khalidis are an old-school Jerusalem family. By old-school, I mean old city and winding alleys and old stone houses steps from the Harem al Sharif. The Nakba and the Naksa ruptured a very long line of religious scholars and officials (judges, mayors, parliamentarians, etc.) stretching back at least to Salah al-Din’s recapture of the city from the Crusaders in 1187. The family has a library in the old city, founded in the 1890s, with one of the oldest and most important collections of books and manuscripts in Palestine. I often think about how, in a different world, I could very well have been born and raised a Jerusalemite and followed in those footsteps. But due to circumstances, I am only a Jerusalemite in name. I do know the old city a bit, mostly from time spent there as a kid, and from a handful of subsequent visits. I spent many consecutive summers there in the 90s with my immediate family. I would walk to summer camp with my sisters, run to the little bodegas (there goes the New Yorker in me) with friends to buy snacks, dodging settlers all the way while also trying to steer clear of the old city kids my age who were (or at least seemed) much tougher than I was. East Jerusalem and the old city is a tough place. It is scarred by defeat and humiliation and yet defiant and proud, a survivor city and everything that goes along with being a survivor city, both the good and the bad. And it is tense, for obvious reasons. There is of course the tension of the slow ethnic cleansing, the division and isolation of the city and the religious and political tension stemming from it. But there is also just the fact of living in a cramped, ancient city, with its narrow cobblestone streets, its own brand of violence and poverty, its shadows, its stories and tragedies stacked up, overlapped, hidden and revealed, then hidden again. It always struck me as a city with a lot of secrets. A lot of beauty and perseverance, but also a lot of sadness in it, in its walls, its sounds, its smells. Of course that impression was colored in part by Palestinians’ recent history and the ongoing de-Arabization of the city. And perhaps that feeling is also in part informed by my own sense of alienation, of disjuncture, of being a kind of exile and a foreigner eternally out of place, even in the place where I have the deepest roots. So yes, there is an undeniable melancholy in Jerusalem. Shit, Jesus was tortured and killed there. The Jews have their own tragic associations with the city. The crusaders massacred people (Muslims and Jews alike) in the streets when they took the city in 1099. Those ghosts always felt very present to me. The call to prayer and the church bells and the Jewish prayers overlaid, one upon the other in this mad cacophonous Thelonious Monk–like patchwork. There’s a strange order to its craziness. It’s profound, but fucking maddening. The soundscape embodies that delicate coexistence with its tensions and contradictions and competition.

The architecture, despite its layers upon layers, is somehow harmonious and stunning. This is probably due in large part to the Mameluke and Ottoman layers of the city, which are most visible and lend a bit of continuity to swaths of the labyrinthine old town and its outer walls. And then there is the sky and the surrounding hills and valleys (never as dry and desert-like as they appear in Hollywood). In my play Tennis in Nablus the character of the ghost of Emiliano Zapata (not sure how a Mexican found his way into a play about 1930s Palestine but he did) says the following about Jerusalem: “It’s a sad city. The stones cry and the shadows whimper in corners. But the sky. It’s a special color when you’re inside those walls. Jesus was lucky to die with a view of that sky.”

Jaffa is a city where I have spent even less time, but a place for which I still feel a fierce love and longing. Despite its history as a major port and its reputation as historic Palestine’s most beautiful city (and home to its world-renowned orange groves), it is today a shell of its former self. Its remaining Palestinian population is beset by poverty and discrimination, gentrification, intimidation and ethnic cleansing. It has been subsumed by Tel-Aviv, serving—in effect—as a suburb/ghetto of the Israeli Jewish metropolis to the north. But its former beauty is still intact in some ways, namely in its surviving architecture and its positioning on the Mediterranean, with the citrus-filled plain at its back. But for me—as for many Palestinians—Jaffa is still the Jaffa of pre-1948 and thus the Jaffa of our imaginations. For me it will always be the city my grandmother spoke of and longed for from her adopted home in Cairo. As close as she was geographically, she was never able to return. In any case, there was little left to return to in her mind, as her family had been displaced and dispersed, and the city gutted. She often recounted to us her memories of being able to take trains as a young woman, from Jaffa to other Arab cities that today are largely disconnected from each other, and certainly not connected by rail. I was always struck by this. I find it impossible to ignore or downplay the adverse impact that the erasure and disfigurement of an Arab country has had on the development of Arab culture and society as a whole. Especially the destruction of a country which stands at the elbow of continents and acted as the bridge between North Africa and Western Asia, and between the most populous Arab country (Egypt) and the cities of the Arab world that lie to its East, including Jaffa, Haifa, Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Allepo and Baghdad. This is an important and often ignored consequence of the Nakba, whose tragic effects reach far beyond the Palestinians and persist long after 1948. My grandmother’s memories of the gardens, culture, commerce and people of what was, in her day, a bustling, diverse and sophisticated port city always brought her happiness and then, without fail, to tears. Her memories haunted her in that they were reminders of what had ceased to be, and a status quo that must have felt surreal and wholly irreversible. For that reason I will always feel a sense of pride, of loss and longing and protectiveness, at the mention Jaffa.

Born in Beirut in 1982, Ismail Khalidi is a Palestinian-American writer. His plays include Tennis in Nablus (Alliance Theater), Foot, Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater), Final Status, Sabra Falling, and the co-adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa for the stage. Khalidi has been a Many Voices Fellow at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, as well as an Emerging Writers Fellow at the New York Theater Workshop. His writing has appeared in the Nation, Guernica, the Daily Beast, American Theatre Magazine, Remezcla, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. His poetry and plays have been published by Mizna, where he was recently a writer-in-residence, and he is the co-editor, along with Naomi Wallace, of Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora. Khalidi holds an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He currently lives in Chile.

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 Feb 17, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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