Thursday, February 06, 2014

Wasif Jawhariyyeh's memoir 'The Storyteller of Jerusalem' launched in London

launch reflected the spirit of a unique Palestinian musician and chronicler
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

The launch of The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh 1904-1948  at the Mosaic Rooms in London had an atmosphere that suited perfectly the book's subject. There was music-making and readings from the book, Arab food, drink and laughter. But there were also bittersweet memories, and sadness over what the Palestinians have lost.

Wasif Jawhariyyeh was an extraordinary musician, singer and civil servant who was born in Jerusalem in 1897. His lawyer father, Jiryis Jawhariyyeh, was the mukhtar (communal leader) of the Eastern Orthodox community in the Old City, and was a member of Jerusalem's municipal council under the mayoralty of Salim al-Husseini and Faidy al-Alami.

Wasif lived in Jerusalem until 1948 when, like many other Palestinians, he was forced during the establishing of the state of Israel to leave his home. He died in exile in Beirut in 1972. He wrote detailed and copious memoirs covering 60 years, giving a unique and immensely rich account of artistic, social and political life in Jerusalem and wider Palestine, and then of his exile. 

The Storyteller of Jerusalem is an edited version of Wasif Jawhariyyeh's memoirs in English translation. It is published by Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Books of Northampton, Massachusetts. The 44 year time frame of the edited  memoirs span the Ottoman era and the British mandate period, culminating in the 1948 Nakba.

The original handwritten memoirs are archived as Books I, II and III at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) in Ramallah.  They were first published in Arabic by IPS in Beirut in 2003: Volume I covers Ottoman Jerusalem 1904-17, and Volume II British Mandate Jerusalem, 1918-48.

The live music at the Mosaic Rooms launch came thanks to Interlink's Palestinian founder, publisher and editor Michel Moushabeck who as well as being a publisher is a performer and promoter of Arab music. He currently plays tabla, riqq and daff in the Massachusetts-based  Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble of which he is a founding member. His recording credits include two albums  made by the group Anatolia, in which he played percussion: Lost Songs of Palestine and Folk Songs and Dance Music of Turkey and the Arab World.

The music at the launch was performed by an informal ensemble put together for the occasion: Moushabeck on percussion, singer Maria Lopez da Cunha, Kuwaiti violinist Ahmed Al Salhi, oud player Professor Rachel Beckles Willson, and qanun player Professor Martin Stokes. Moushabeck said he had met them all the previous night "and we had a short rehearsal yesterday evening at Rachel's house." 

  Michel Moushabeck

The songs were interspersed with readings from The Storyteller of Jerusalem by the film, TV and radio actor Philip Arditti. The extracts from his memoirs read by Arditti, in a delightfully expressive and intimate manner, were riveting, entertaining and deeply informative.

The Storyteller of Jerusalem was edited by professor of sociology at Birzeit University Salim Tamari, and associate professor of history at Illinois State University, Issam Nassar, coeditors of Jerusalem Quarterly.  Each contributes an introduction to the book: Tamari's is on on "Wasif Jawhariyyeh's Jersalem" and Nassar's on "From Ottomans to Arabs".

The book was translated from Arabic to English by Nada Elzeer, who has a doctorate from Durham University and is now senior lector in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

The book's foreword is by  Rachel Beckles Willson, professor of music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and director of the Humanities and Arts Centre there. She is the author of three books, most recently Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West.

 (L to R)Philip Arditti, Rachel Beckles Willson, Ahmed Al Salhi, Maria Lopez da Cunha

In her introductory comments at the launch Beckles Willson said that while researching for her book on Palestine, with its specific interest in the way in which Americans and Europeans introduced Western classical music to the region, "I realised that these memoirs, although I didn't read Arabic, were absolutely crucial to my work."

She looked for someone who could help her with understanding them and after some time found Nada Elzeer. "Initially I commissioned Nada to translate parts of the memoirs that were helpful for my own research and from them I learned such a new perspective on the region, something completely different from what had been available to me in English and German language sources which were almost all I had available at that time." The memoirs were "a complete treasure trove".

She subsequently met in Ramallah Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar, who had produced the Arabic published version of the memoirs. They told her that they had for some time wanted to produce an English version. She showed them the text that she had already had translated by Nada, and they wanted to use that as the basis for expansion. "That's what they then did, and we were very fortunate that Michel Moushabeck, the publisher of the book - who founded and directs Interlink and who edited this final volume - was able to take on the project."

Moushabeck told the audience that his 27-year-old publishing house specialises in literature in translation: "We do a lot of Arabic fiction in translation, we do a lot of world history, cultural guides as well as award-winning international cookbooks that really keep Interlink alive and well, and allow us to publish important works that we otherwise would never get published." (A recent Interlink cookery title is Sarah al-Hamad's impressive Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere).

a witness to four regimes and five wars

Moushabeck, whose family is originally from Jerusalem, said The Storyteller of Jerusalem is very dear to his heart. "I knew Wasif as a young child and he left a very deep impression on me." The memoir is  "really the only book that I know of that truly captures the social life, and in particular Palestinian urban life in Jerusalem during this period of really enormously turbulent times. Wasif Jawhariyyeh witnessed four regimes - Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Israeli - and five wars. He was truly a remarkable man."

Wasif's memoirs are "a collection of anecdotes, observations and writings  about the people, the social life,  the culture, festivities, the history of Jerusalem. Wasif was an accomplished oud player,
 a music lover, a historian, a storyteller, a churchgoer and a full-time partygoer, and he truly was a hard-core Jerusalemite. He loved Jerusalem, everyone in Jerusalem loved him, and he really was one of the funniest people I have ever met.

"What makes this volume remarkable is that it not only tells you about the first half of the twentieth century, but he quotes from his father's memoirs as well, written in the first half of the nineteenth century."

One important aspect of the memoir is that "he really undermines the notion of a sectarian, backward city of Jerusalem at that time. According to the British it was divided into four quarters - the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. And the British would have you believe there was no real interaction - that it was a very religiously conservative city and there was no interaction between the people - but that is really false.

 Philip Arditti

"Jerusalem was made up of 26 different neighbourhoods and people moved, people mixed, people socialised, people interacted, and they went to each other's celebrations, and festivities. One big celebration that became a sort of national celebration was the Sabt al Noor on the Saturday before the Easter Sunday celebration: a lot of Muslims and Christians and Jews would party in the streets, and go to a procession, and end up drinking lots of wine and arak and getting drunk together. So it really gives you a totally different impression than what we hear in the news

Moushabeck stressed the important relationship between the Jawhariyyeh family and the Al-Husseini family, the most prominent Palestinian family at the time. When Hajj Salim al-Husseini became mayor of Jerusalem Wasif's father was the legal adviser to the Husseinis and took care of their estates of, the Husseini family.

Hajj Salim's son Hussein Hasham al-Husseini became mayor later on, and when Wasif's father passed away, he "kind of adopted Wasif as a son and Wasif became very loyal to him and his family. The family always looked after Wasif; they always made sure he had some kind of civil service job where it allowed him plenty of time to play music." 

Jawhariyyeh was a witness to the modernisation of Jerusalem and how this changed people's lives. "In the past they lived inside the walls, they couldn't manoeuvre a lot and then first gas came with the Ottomans, later on electricity was introduced. Electricity allowed people, Palestinians - Jews, Christians, Muslims - to get out of those quarters that were religious quarters and go outside the bounds of the city walls. They established neighbourhoods that tended to be based on class rather than religion. And then there was also intermingling between the different religions in the city of Jerusalem."

Wasif also witnessed the arrival of the automobile, radio, and phonograph. "They used to go down to the cafe and listen to music that was coming from Egypt, and they were introduced to a lot of musicians that they hadn't heard before. The phonograph was an amazing thing. Wasif's neighbours got a phonograph, Wasif heard about it and they would gather every night and listen to all this music.

"This introduced Wasif to a lot of music, and in particular the music of Salama Higazi who was a famous Egyptian muezzin at the time and also a great singer. When Hussein Hashm al Husseini became mayor of Jerusalem he brought Salama Higazi to Jerusalem, in summer 1908, and put up the largest tent in the city for the performance of a play as well as some music by this very famous Egyptian musician." Wasif cherished the memory of being taken to meet Salama Higazi by al-Husseini, and of kissing the great musician's hand.

 (L to R)Rachel Beckles Willson, Ahmed Al Salhi, Maria Lopez da Cunha, Martin Stokes, Michel Moushabeck

Moushabeck recounted how, after Wasif became an exile in Beirut, "my father used to take me to his house on a regular basis. I must have been seven or eight years old. My father was so proud of me, he wanted to show Wasif the big Palestinian composer and musician that his son could also play music. He really embarrassed me when he asked me to play the harmonica for Wasif and he asked me to play what I had been practising."

To the amusement of the Mosaic Rooms audience, Moushabeck proceeded to take a harmonica out of  his pocket to play the tune he played to Wasif , the American song Oh Susanna.

"Wasif said bravo, bravo, but I want you to come back next week and play it faster. So I went home and every day I practised and I practised and came back a week later. Wasif said' bravo, bravo - now put that thing away. You come with me.' And he took me to the living room and he sat me there and he said I want you to close your eyes. He took his oud and started playing some amazing taqasim and I was mesmerised from that moment on.

"He knew that I was going to visit my grandfather in Jerusalem just before the 1967 war and he said 'when you go there I want you to listen when you walk in the streets, listen with your ears and your eyes'. And it's true: when I went for a walk with my grandfather down the streets of the Old City, music is all around you, you hear the muezzin's call to prayer juxtaposed against church bells ringing, you hear vendors in the streets yelling praises about cucumbers as small as ladies' fingers, or prickly pears that melted in your mouth, or you hear transistor radios blasting music from window sills, and you see young kids thumping their feet practising dubke on street corners.

"But the one person who had more effect on me musically than anybody else was the juice vendor. And the juice vendor goes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and he plays intricate rhythmic patterns on cups and saucers to alert people that he is in the neighbourhood to come down and buy some juice from him. And I would sit on the street corners and my eye would be fixated on that juice vendor's hands playing intricate patterns on the cups and saucers and I went back to my grandfather's house and I picked up some cups and saucers and ended up breaking up half the china. And ended up with a spanking.  And that was the very last evening I saw my grandparents and the very last time I was in Jerusalem."

'like translating an Arab conversation in a room filled with smoke and humour'

The book's translator said: "For me the book has a major strength which is the fact that compared to other books or resources that you might find on the history of Palestine this one does not seem to have been written for publication. My impression is not that he sought to publish it or that he was writing to publish it. He wrote I think a few thousand pages and in the introduction he makes it clear that it is his realisation of how important and significant events he witnessed were that prompted him to write the book. And he dedicates it to his son Jiryis and hopes that he could use it to  know everything about the life of his father and family and the city of Jerusalem which he calls the home of the Jawhariyyeh family. And from that point you know he's not writing to make a political point and you can automatically trust him more.

"You can look forward to reading an account of events that he's writing or is telling as he would tell them to his son, not as he would tell them to an audience and that of course has its implication on the style. For me it is obviously a big privilege for me that I was able to translate this book and bring it to an English audience. But stylistically the challenge was immense: it's like translating an Arab conversation on a Friday evening in a room filled with smoke and humour and where you know where the conversation starts but you don't know what happens after that.

"But this is the kind of conversation that one tends to trust without questioning the intentions of the author, and on a thorny subject like Palestine and what happened there in the sensitive historic period this book talks about. I think its exceptional that we have a resource like that, hat was not written for an audience but more for the family's sake. And if you read the entire thing - maybe that's not clear in the English - there are a lot of private things and stories that you would really only tell to your son, you wouldn't want to share them with the wide audience about his private life.

The other strong point, Elzeer said, is that the memoir  "was written over a very long period  of time and that's also very exceptional as a source on Palestine because it gives you this very unique opportunity to observe how the narrative changed from early on in the Ottoman times, where  he was unsuspecting,  he was looking forward to the British winning the war. There are lots of accounts in the book where he's actually rejoicing after every Ottoman defeat in the war, and he's actually looking forward to it. And then you can see him looking a bit confused and then in the end of course the tone changes completely after 1948. This is quite unique, that you can actually see these feelings change. And if you consider him as a specimen of the Palestinians that can also represent how they all must have felt as the political situation developed."

Elzeer was struck "by the amount of good faith and goodwill that he shows when talking about events which nowadays Arabs could only be outraged when remembering. For example there is this chapter where  he talks about the day - 9 December 1917 - which is the day that the Brits entered Jerusalem. And he refers to that as 'this fortunate moment saw the end of Ottoman rule and of the tyranny and despotism that had prevailed,  particularly from 1914 to 1917.' There is  no way to tell if he edited what he wrote later or not, whether he wrote that when he was still unsuspecting and then edited that later. He does in the same paragraph say had he known then what he now knows, he wouldn't have rejoiced so much, he wouldn't have danced in the streets as he did.

"But again this is something I found very striking, there is this emotional confusion, he is able to talk very positively of what happened of the British taking over of Palestine. And then there will always be at the end of the same paragraph a bitter note as to oh, had we  known we would have thought differently. And he does that not only when he relates political events but also when he's talking about political figures.

"He's the man who's been everywhere, met everyone, and wrote it all down, and because he was working as a civil servant at the governorate at the time he had the chance to work under the most senior officials of the  British  mandate, and that includes Sir Ronald Storrs whom he had direct contact. And again, that is something unthinkable nowadays, that someone could talk about these figures so positively despite  how things turned out.

"It is striking for example that when talking about Ronald Storrs he acknowledges all his personal qualities but at some points he does write of his having been instrumental in the fulfilment of the Zionist dream. But that doesn't stop him talking about him almost fondly when relating personal events involving the two of them and it doesn't stop him from recognising his qualities as a person. In fact he does say that Storrs has taken wonderful stances towards Arabs on many occasions. And that's another attitude that I would find unthinkable today, you just cannot find an Arab who would talk about an occupying power with the same honesty that Wasif does, bearing everything in mind and representing things as they are. And again, in reporting on British policy in general he is able to do it, he doesn't just do it for individuals because he knew them personally or got to be their friends.

She said that one of the reasons the memoir is so emotionally charged is that "Wasif's good faith and goodwill makes you really feel sorry for these people who did not suspect any of this and you will read the stories of villages when  he was a child and went on trips to many Palestinian villages with his father - but if you look these villages up now you will find they are all gone, they were razed at some point or another. It's even more difficult to read about that because Wasif doesn't mention it, he just talks with all goodwill about how things were.

"If you read particularly the Ottoman section another striking thing is how he reports about social life at the time and how they used to party at the homes of Jewish friends. And there's this long section where the word Jewish is only ever mentioned as a pure detail with no comment made about it, just saying Jewish like it might say someone else is Muslim. And you can see that changing, particularly in relation to music, as the book progresses. He starts becoming more suspecting when it comes to music, how he was happy to hear them singing in Arabic and not being able to pronouunce it, and being very amused by  it. And then later on things start changing and that's also a very sad thing when you think this was 60, 70 years ago and it just feels it was much longer period of thing than it actually is. That's the saddest thing about this book."


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