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The City and the Writer: In Qadita with Ala Hlehel

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Ala Hlehel, photograph by Bianca Sistermans

Special Series: Literary Maps

City of Origin: Qadita (District of Safad), the village was destroyed in 1948
City of Birth: Al-Jish (District of Safad)
City/Cities you grew up in: Al-Jish
Current Residence: Acre
Your City/Cities: Haifa
Language(s) spoken: Arabic, Hebrew, English
Language(s) you write in: Arabic
Home: My Family


Qadita is berries. It is the well that belonged to my grandfather. The one my father, my mother, and I stood above as we looked down into its dark empty depths. I don’t know if there was any water in the well, but it was clear that all the ghosts that lived in wells were there, staring up at us.

Ghosts move at night through the house of settlers. The scene is like the stories of Qadita in the bible: houses made of stones with roofs made of wood. Sometimes the walls are made out of ZinCo materials, but none of these factors are obstacles for the ghosts. They find nothing more enjoyable than whistling and blowing into the ears of those who are sleeping in these houses, as they toss and turn in their beds, incapable of sleeping.

Before the ghosts, Qadita was a small town with about 300 people (before its population was expelled and subsequently destroyed in 1948). Two large families and several other smaller families filled the slender roads of the town. A hill hugs the small basins that stretch out toward the borders with Titba, Dalata, Al-Ras Al-Ahmar, and Al-Jish.

Imagine houses built within the hills like large mushrooms, vast spaces of green landscape and fruit-bearing trees, children playing at night, and a sense of peace that does not end with nature. Now add to all that this: deep-rooted family disagreements, trees planted on the borders of lands and fights over whose turn it is to water them, a lamb found poisoned in the morning and everyone swearing that a shepherd from the Hlehel family committed the crime. Then imagine all the attempts at reconciliation, the threats and promises, the sound of women gossiping and the prayers to end conflict, men coming and going.

When do stories transform themselves into memories? When does memory become the glue we need to build our identities? Various levels of nostalgia and weary memory conspire in the minds of grandchildren, who feel a sense of emptiness in front of their grandparents: We dont have memories, we have your tales.

How could man be so drenched with nostalgia? I inherited the nostalgia from my grandfather Khaled Mustafa Khalil Hlehel and from my father Mahmoud Khaled Mustafa Khalil Hlehel . . . Qadita.

Translated from the Arabic by Suja Sawafta.

Ala Hlehel is the author of the novels Au Revoir Akka (2014) and The Circus (2001),the short story collections My Secret Affair with Carla Bruni (2012) and Stories for Times of Need (2003), and the novella and short story collection The Father, the Son, and the Wandering Ghost (2008). He was awarded The Ghassan Kunafani Short Story Prize (Palestinian State Prizes, 2013)
and is a three-time awardee of the A M Qattan Foundation Award (2005, 2003, 2001), among other honors. Hlelel has a BA in mass media and fine art from the University of Haifa, and is a graduate of the School of Screenwriting in Tel Aviv. He has worked for many years as a press, radio, and internet journalist, and he is Editor in Chief of the cultural website

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 May 30, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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