Barefoot in Bethlehem

"The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood" by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Adel Mana, translated into Hebrew by Raviv Anin, with an introduction by Adel Mana, Andalus Publishing, 200 pages, NIS 72 (translated into English by Issa J. Boullata, University of Arkansas Press, 192 pages, $29.95).

"The first well is the well of childhood," writes Jabra in the introduction to his book. "It is that well in which are gathered our first experiences, the first sights and sounds, the first joys and the sorrows, the first yearnings and fears, which begin to rain on the child. These cause his understanding to increase and his awareness to grow under the stress of what he passes through every day: His agonies and his pleasures. Whenever he drinks from this well, he further adds to his understanding of these experiences, even as his thirst is being slaked. ... it is the inevitable well. He cannot do without it. Every time he goes back to it, he actually drinks from a fountain of permanent abundance rising from the innermost depths of his humanity."

From his place of residence in Baghdad - where he arrived as a refugee in 1948 and which he adopted as his homeland until his death in 1994 - Jabra uncoils down the rope of memories and draws from the first well of his life fragments that are astonishing in their simplicity, of pictures of a childhood in Bethlehem and Jerusalem of the 1920s. In clean, precise prose, free of oriental trills, he tells a moving story of maturation in the setting of the landscapes of Palestine. From the well of his childhood, Jabra draws up loveliness, kindliness and simplicity that flow onto the pages of his book and bring the city of his birth alive. In the small area between the family's home, the school and the church, "The First Well" paints a busy life.

Jabra, who was born to a poor Christian family, documents its wanderings from lodgings to lodgings because of poverty. Scenes of poverty are pervaded by flashes of love of human beings, humanity and delicate humor that create a moving slice of life. The bare feet, the hunger, the father's illness that truncates the formal education of some of his children - all these are described in a warm glow of love. Jabra, who was considered a rebel in the tradition of Arabic literature, refreshes the depiction of the nuclear family in this book. Among the descriptions of poverty and the absence of things shine the figures of women - his grandmother, who was his ally, and his mother - that are shaped in a non-stereotypical way that does not hurt their credibility or create a sense that they are artificial characters.

Jabra does not strain to depict the women as educated and he does not even veil their illiteracy, but throughout the book he illuminates their influence on his upbringing and his shaping as a person who hungers for education. At the same time, Jabra also "erodes" the figure of the patriarchal father. He takes pleasure in his father's demonstrations of love for his mother, presents him as allowing her to run his affairs and lead him in her wisdom, and he stresses the father's illness, which weakens him. Jabra also relates critically to the superstitions that were prevalent in his birthplace, through clear-sighted and very ironical descriptions of his father putting himself during his illness into the hands of healers and charlatans, and he scoffs at the chicanery.

Childhood as hero

Jabra crowns childhood as the hero of the novel. He excels at weaving in childhood scenes that slake his thirst in his adulthood, and at documenting the moments in which the heart beats wildly with excitement, melting in the face of moments of grace and kindness, and unraveling after setbacks. "The First Well" contains the primacy, the moment of wonder of a child facing the world and the encounter with human nature. And when Jabra acrobatically dizzies the reader with games that seem to have vanished from the earth, like slingshots and games of tag, and the attempt by the village children who long for a bit of the sea, where they can dig a deep hole, fill it with water and sail paper boats on its muddy waves - it seems as though childhood is released from the shackles of time.

The clearest and most moving memories have to do with the encounter with the written word, childhood songs and the books that were etched in his heart. Jabra reconstructs his longing for a notebook and how the first time he held a pencil in his untrained hand, his tongue tasted its tip and he began to write.

A graduate of Cambridge University, Jabra eventually became a lecturer at Al-Rashidiya College in Jerusalem and a leading translator of Shakespeare, Faulkner and Beckett into Arabic. He published many books of poetry, prose, research, art and literary criticism. An anthology of his poetry and some of his prose works have been translated into Hebrew. A Modernist novella called "The Other Rooms," which was also the title of an anthology of Palestinian novellas of the same name, hovers pleasurably over the books he first gulped down, the enchantment in which they held him and the way of life they wove for him.

In an enlightening and illuminating postscript, Dr. Adel Mana makes it clear that the pictures of the childhood in the barefoot days that Jabra brings alive constitute one of the masterpieces of the Palestinian autobiographical genre. According to him, Jabra, who knew that the story of his own life became, through its writing, an important pillar in the formation of the collective memory of the Palestinians, chose to renew and to tell the story of his life the way a novel is written. In contrast to writers of memoirs and autobiographies like Edward Said ("Out of Place"), Khalil al-Sakakini ("That's How I Am, Gentlemen"), Raymonda Tawil ("My Home, My Prison") and others - Jabra's book is not stained by political events and stuffed with historical facts. He is addicted to pure descriptions of the human experience of his childhood and he does not dirty and muddy its waters that quench his thirst in his later days. At the same time, he takes care to scatter undefined hints that are alive beneath the restrained style that he adopts and to create tension between the pastoral childhood in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the war that broke out in 1948. Thus, for example, he writes: "I did not know that that pool, a few years later, was to become larger and larger until it engulfed the whole world."

In his poem "The Kindhearted Villagers," Mahmoud Darwish mourns the experience of the expulsion: "We, too, boarded the ships ... / Yet we were unafraid / for our childhood has not boarded with us. / We were satisfied with the song. / Soon we'll go back to our house" (translation from "Unfortunately, It was Paradise: Selected Poems by Mahmoud Darwish," translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forchet with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein, University of California Press, 2003).

Jabara, too, shows that the childhood that did not go along with him - the childhood that was left behind in the land of his birth - was not uprooted from its geographical location and from his heart, and that it has the power to soothe the displaced soul or at least assuage its longings.