Palestinian Architect Homes in on Tales of Locks and Loss

Suad Amiry tells the stories – laced with farce, irony and sometimes oversimplification – of Palestinians revisiting homes they left in the nascent Jewish state.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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An Israeli soldier walks past a mural, painted on the separation barrier, of an elderly Palestinian refugee holding the keys to his home.
An Israeli soldier walks past a mural, painted on the separation barrier, of an elderly Palestinian refugee holding the keys to his home.Credit: AFP
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

“Golda Slept Here,” by Suad Amiry, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 208 pp., $16

Keys have long been one of the most potent symbols of Palestinian loss: thick, rusted keys, the kind that open locks which no one makes anymore. In photograph upon photograph of Palestinian refugees, they hold up keys to homes they lost in 1948, when the State of Israel was established. The doors the keys open are probably long gone, but they remain, a reminder of the loss of beloved brick and mortar.

In her memoir-cum-literary history “Golda Slept Here,” Palestinian architect Suad Amiry, who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah, delves into the stories behind some of those keys. Following two earlier nonfiction works about the Palestinian experience, Amiry’s new book tells of Palestinians who lost – and continue to long for – homes in West Jerusalem after the 1948 war. Palestinians living in exile, she writes, could not visit those homes until after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The idea for the book, Amiry explains in it, came to her on a march marking the 60th anniversary of the Nakba – Arabic for “catastrophe,” the Palestinians' term for what happened to them when the state was founded in 1948. On the march, Amiry accompanied “10 Palestinian owners to their gorgeous houses” in “one of the most elegant Arab neighborhoods that had become, like many other Arab parts of West Jerusalem, exclusively Jewish.”

The “intolerable pain of” the Palestinians, and “the fear” of the current Israeli inhabitants haunted Amiry. She doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what happened on the march, but she writes that the experience “pleaded” with her to be written about.

Amiry answered this plea with “Golda Slept Here,” whose title refers to the fact that the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir lived for a time in just such a home. Amiry recounts three family histories, as well as her own, in a mix of memoir, prose and poetry – a mishmash style that was cloying and distracting at times. The stories are laced with farce, with the sense that these losses occurred in a world turned upside-down.

Writing made her nervous, she says. In her intimate first chapter, which begins with Amiry in bed, she confides to us about her feelings about writing the book.

“I am dreading the terrifying act of coming face to face with their homes and the Israelis that are now residing in them,” she writes. “I am not sure I can bear their pain or mine. For I, so far, have never had the emotional courage to visit my own family’s house in Jaffa. I saw how devastated my father was in 1968, when the Israeli family living in his house slammed the door in his face as he announced himself and asked their permission to enter his house. I had protected my sanity all these years by not going there.”

Amid wars, new borders and expulsions, as Amiry illustrates, your home may be yours one day, but gone the next. Her father never returned to his home in Jaffa, which his family left in 1948. She is frightened of dealing with this grief, and writes sensitively of her own pain, that of her protagonists, and that of Palestinians in general.

Becoming a ‘present absentee’

Tourjeman House in Jerusalem, today a museum promoting coexistence. No one there knew about the building's connection to the Baramki family.Credit: Moshe Gilad

The first story is of Dr. Gabi Baramki, whose father, Adoni, was the first Palestinian architect in the country. Adoni built a “splendid villa in the once-posh Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara.” He called it “nour hayati,” Arabic for “light of my life.” In 1948, the Haganah, the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews, seized the Baramkis home for use as a forward military position.

Adoni never returned to “his beloved.” After the war, Israel enacted a series of property laws, under which land and property belonging to Arabs, who fled or were forced to leave was confiscated. Incidentally, this past April, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the law is applicable in East Jerusalem, too.

Adoni became a “present absentee,” meaning that despite being “present” (in East Jerusalem, in Israel, and even in the courtroom), the state still considered him to be an absentee landlord with no rights to his former property. He appealed in 1968.

Amiry ends a Kafkaesque courtroom scene with a poem. The verse describes Adoni bursting into uncontrollable laughter – and then, “deadly silence.”

There is a further twist in the story. Nour Hayati, commonly known as the Tourjeman House, has since become “The Museum on the Seam,” dedicated to dialogue, understanding and coexistence. Before that, however, another Israeli museum was housed there, dedicated to “a better understanding of Jerusalem’s recent history” and the theme “Jerusalem – a divided city reunited.” In 1983, Adoni’s eldest son, Gabi, visited the Tourjeman Post. No one there even knew there was a connection between his family and the building’s history.

In her second story, Amiry introduces us to Huda al-Imam and her eldest cousin, Nahil. Huda has made it her life’s mission to visit lost Palestinian homes, including that of her family in West Jerusalem. She is obsessed, returning again and again, repeatedly getting arrested. The book leaves her in a jail cell with another woman from East Jerusalem who has been jailed over an unpaid municipal tax bill.

Amiry’s third story – the shortest and weakest – is less family history than anecdote about the author’s friend Elie, an academic, recounting how the rights to build on top of a property he owns in Haifa were sold to a businessman from Tel Aviv. The point, once again, is the often-farcical situations arising from Israeli control of such property. How does one go about selling the air above someone else’s building?

In her final chapter, the author returns to her own family, writing of her mother-in-law’s recollections of leaving her Jaffa home in May, 1948, travelling to Beirut, via Ramallah. “Like many historic moments,” Amiry writes, “that night acquired significance retrospectively, when they realized they would not be allowed back home.”

Hurling insults

The architect in Amiry comes across in her vivid writing. She appreciates the history of the buildings, their style and structure, and includes photographs of the houses and the families to enable readers to connect the structures with human beings.

When it comes to Israelis, however, Amiry paints them as a little less human, reeling off a litany of generalizations that make for uncomfortable reading, if you are a Jewish Israeli, as I am. Her partisan reading of the history of the conflict – par for the course, in most writing on anything Israel/Palestine – was to be expected, but nothing prepared me for the slights that would be hurled at Israelis as a whole. Israelis have a “tendency and talent to ‘invent’ facts,” she writes, for instance. They “make sure they remain the only victims” while “Palestinians refuse to be victims.”

When one adds to this Amiry’s own lack of empathy, we can better understand the impasse – the very unwillingness to even consider the other side – at which we find ourselves. After all, there are two sides to every story. It bears mentioning that Jews left homes in Arab countries and across Europe, too – not that this justifies inflicting suffering on someone else.

Which brings us to what is most depressing about "Gold Slept Here": The history Amiry recounts does indeed matter; Israelis should be fully aware of the Palestinian experience. In general, it seems that Israelis aren’t aware of these stories, nor do they seem to want to know about them. Mainstream Israel dehumanizes Palestinians and pays little attention to their suffering. Which is why these stories are so important: Knowing them could help break down the barrier of dehumanization on both sides. It would be one small but important step toward peace.

Amiry’s lack of empathy reflects the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians – the very unwillingness to even consider the other side. After all, there are two sides to every story. It bears mentioning that Jews left homes in Arab countries and across Europe, too – not that this justifies inflicting suffering on someone else.

So here we are, at an deadlock. Tensions are once again exploding in a tragic wave of violence on both sides of the Green Line. The peace process is nonexistent. Mutual alienation and enmity seem to be are worse than ever. Each side tells itself its own story, with little attempt to understand the other’s narrative.

If Amiry, sensitive enough to capture in words the pain of others, can’t empathize with Jewish Israelis at all, what chance do we have for a better future? Her book – which ends with an ode to Palestine that asks, “Will you ever set us free?” – gives little cause for hope.

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