This post is dedicated to the memory of my uncle Yiannaki (John/Jean) Schtakleff who left this earth too early – in March 2018, aged 74.
Each family has its story, what they tell each other and their children about the past, about their ancestors and their experiences: the whences and thences, wherefores and hences. Most family stories are in essence legends and lores which almost always diverge, to a lesser or greater extent, from reality, from history, from what actually really happened.
My own family story, particularly that of the Palestinian side, ie my mother’s, captivated me from a very young age. At some point, the standard tales, which we all repeated in the family, no longer satisfied me: I wanted to know more. It’s then that I realised that your family story which seems to run like a simple, straight line is in fact a web – with you caught in the middle! You look at what’s on this line and at some point you start tossing things around in your brain and suddenly the brain is inundated with a bunch of question marks that seem to dart off in different directions. But, but… why did he do that? Where did he come from? When? Why? But how come he… and she… and yet…. ??? You start chasing these question marks and they lead to more and more, and before you know it, you find yourself far from the original story which by now doesn’t hold water entirely and appears to be much more complex, with an increasing number of unknowns. When you add some historical information to the mix, the story begins to acquire texture and dimension even if it loses a bit of its lustre. It becomes more real and yet every now and then you still discover some moments of magic.
Such has been my experience over the years. Let’s take for example the story of what happened to two of my grandmother’s siblings in the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophe, when the creation of the Jewish state caused Palestinians to flee Jerusalem.
Great-grandmother Eugenie with her five children: Vitsa, on the far left; between her and her mother, Coca (standing) and Nando (seated); on the right, Marika (standing) and Colia (seated)
Two heads, one bald, one full-hair, are peeking out from above the red velvet chairs. Their owners, Anwar Ben Badis and Mona Hajjar Halaby, who conduct the Arabic and English tours, respectively, of the Jerusalem, We Are Here (JWRH) interactive documentary, are exchanging family memories of the place. Dorit Naaman, the creator and director, joins them as up on the big screen fragments of an old reel start rolling.
It’s July 2015 and we are filming the opening shots of JWRH at the Regent, the longest-running cinema in Jerusalem. Today it has a different name, but to us, as we go about remapping this area and bringing back, albeit digitally, the people and the life that existed here till 1948, it is and always will be the Regent.
Filming at the Regent – July 2015
On 15 May Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the anniversary of the 1948 catastrophe – the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian lives brought about by the creation of the state of Israel. A few nights ago, a Palestinian friend posted on Facebook an Al Jazeera article regarding the Nakba. I started reading it until halfway through I was stopped in my tracks by the cover photo of an embedded video. It was a photograph of a band and I’d be damned if I didn’t recognise the man on the bottom-right corner playing the saxophone! It was a face I’d seen in photos more than once.
I gave up on the article and immediately started watching the video instead. A 50-minute documentary titled “Lost Cities of Palestine” made in 2011 by Ramez Kazmouz, it described the richness of urban life in Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth in the 1930s and ‘40s, through interviews with old and some not-so-old Palestinians and lots of archival footage and photos. Fascinating and at the same time depressing as the history of lost homelands tends to be.
Lost Cities of Palestine – an Al Jazeera film by Ramez Kazmouz (2011)