I’ve been thinking for quite a while that I should write about my trip to Jerusalem but the dark cloud that has descended on the world made everything else feel trivial and dampened my desire to write (other than frantic, futile emails to Biden and my senators and reps in the US Congress). Almost three months later the cloud is only getting darker with no prospect of better days in that part of the world; the news is unbearable. But perhaps making an effort to write is some minor form of resistance.
It was a rushed trip. I didn’t feel I had the time for it but I also knew I couldn’t postpone it. There was an old lady I wanted to interview for my Semiramis project and her age tipped the scales: she’d soon be turning 104. It was no time for hesitation.
And yet I hesitated and finally I was able to articulate why. It was the first time I’d be going to Jerusalem (other than my original trip with my mum in 1986) that Dorit wouldn’t be there herself. Dorit Naaman is the creator of our Jerusalem, We Are Here (JWRH) project and a native Jerusalemite. Her parents’ home had always been warm and welcoming, and Dorit was my anchor in the city. But now her father was no longer on this earth and her mother was visiting Dorit in Canada. I felt a bit unmoored.
I floated the idea of a short Jerusalem trip to my research buddy, Alvaro. I didn’t hear from him for a while but then he resurfaced confirming he could fit in four or five days the first week of October. The prospect of meeting him in person for the first time, after years of being in touch online—messages, Zoom calls—fired me up. After all, I owe Alvaro my Semiramis project: it was a magazine article he sent me in May 2020 that set me on this path.
I had the trip booked in no time: a week at my old haunt, the Gloria Hotel in the Old City, just inside Jaffa Gate. Nowhere near enough time to accomplish everything I needed but long enough to meet the centenarian. I also hoped to catch up with various other people, and visit a couple of graves—grave-visiting being an essential adjunct of family history research.
One of my Israeli contacts offered a cryptic warning about the timing of my visit: “You are lucky enough to have scheduled your trip to Jerusalem together with all of the Jews of America.” Sukkot is a huge Jewish holiday. Huge! I had no idea of the scale until I got there. Fortunately, friends offered to pick me up from the airport and persisted through bumper-to-bumper Jerusalem traffic until they threw their arms off the wheel in resignation when we got to the Palace Hotel (Waldorf Astoria). They could go no farther. I wheeled my bag the rest of the way to Jaffa Gate like a salmon swimming against a tsunami of religious folk sauntering through Mamilla mall.
At the Gloria I was told that they’d had boiler troubles and as a result had no room for me for the first night. So they booked me at the Imperial, round the corner, which afforded me some spectacular views of the city from the roof terrace. I put my bag down and rushed to New Gate to meet my friend Adina for a drink. The New Gate area has become quite a hotspot of eateries and cafes; pastry chef Ibrahim Abu Seir has opened a patisserie here since my last visit.
Before my arrival I had asked a couple of people in Jerusalem for an introduction to Ibrahim Matar whom friends in Beirut (whom I visited in September) urged me to meet. He was gracious enough to pay me a visit at the Gloria where we chatted amicably for an hour or so in the warm October sun. Matar is a Jerusalemite—born and raised—an economist by profession and the founder of Bethlehem University’s department of business and economics. He is also the author of two books about Palestine and Jerusalem which he kindly gifted me. I gave him a short presentation of JWRH and he seemed impressed. Our map will benefit from the information in his books.
I picked up some falafel from Lina, moved my stuff to my Gloria room, and waited for Alvaro who arrived later in the afternoon. It was such a joyous, first in-person meeting. Alvaro Gomez Pidal is the grandson of the sister of Manuel Allendesalazar y Travesedo (aka Manolo), the Spanish vice-consul who was killed in the Semiramis explosion in January 1948. We’ve been working together—and with another research buddy, Afif from Colombia—on this project for about three years. So he wasn’t exactly a stranger but the live encounter added another dimension to the relationship. We headed to New Gate to hang out for a bit and catch up face-to-face.
Alvaro and I started our day with a quick tour of the cemeteries. Our destination was the Lorenzo family tomb in the Catholic cemetery on Mt Zion but on the way I just had to look in on the Greek Orthodox one and introduce Alvaro to Great-Great-Grandfather George (GGGG) who’s been lying there quietly since 1909. The tomb was crying out for a serious clean-up but I’d have to return another day in more appropriate attire. By the time we got to the Catholic cemetery, we were running late so we postponed our visit till the following day.
We haggled with the taxi drivers at Jaffa Gate and, for a small fortune, we were driven no more than 10 minutes away to meet Nadira*, the centenarian, and her daughter. (Bad planning: we should have arranged a taxi through the Gloria.)
Nadira’s daughter received us with open arms. I’d had a lengthy audio conversation with mother and daughter the previous January and had kept in touch since then. But there’s nothing like meeting a person in real life. Nadira joined us an hour into our visit, looking not a day over 90, elegantly dressed and bejewelled, her hands manicured in red, her face sporting a warm smile. Still sharp, she talked to us about all sorts of things, about old Jerusalem families, particularly the one we were mostly interested in, the Lorenzos of the Semiramis. She was close to them and has fond memories of visiting them at the Semiramis. She could see things on the computer, if it was held closely enough, and explained to us where the Lorenzo mansion was in Mamilla and where the Lorenzo sisters lived. She also shocked us with some information about Manolo (you’ll have to read the book!)
We were with the family for a good four hours. Towards the end, the grandson also joined us. He is quite knowledgeable himself, having heard the stories over the years, and he identified some houses on the JWRH map. Before giving us a lift back to the Old City, he took us up on the roof for a view of Jerusalem and the encroaching settlements.
In the evening we spent a couple of hours at the rooftop restaurant of Notre Dame hotel, with its fabulous views of Jerusalem, enjoying the warm company and hospitality of yet another Jerusalemite. I had got to know Antoine (Tony) Nesnas through another project on Palestine. I was now delighted to meet him, too, in real life and to listen to his stories of the thirty months he’d spent in Cyprus back in the day, working as a translator for the British Army.
The way to finding the Lorenzo tomb had been paved by Cousin Chip in September 2022. Chip (John Marcin) is Great-Uncle Boris’s grandson, and a pilot on United Airlines with frequent layovers in Tel Aviv. He often used them to visit George’s tomb in Jerusalem so he had offered to do some scouting for me on the ground. I had tried to locate the Lorenzo tomb through the Custody of Terra Sancta but was told that there was no record of it and the caretakers couldn’t find it. And yet, in one of the documents the family provided there was a photo of it.
We figured out where the cemetery is (right behind the Armenian one) and Chip put on his Indiana Jones hat and off he went to investigate. The cemetery was locked but he rang the doorbell of a monastery he found nearby, and met Marwan, the groundskeeper, who then got authority to open the cemetery for him. And thus we received the first photos of the Lorenzo tomb. Both the family and I were thrilled.
I was eager to see the tomb for myself. Chip had warned me that Marwan’s English was practically non-existent which made it ever so slightly worse than my Arabic. But we lucked out: Marwan was away and the door of the monastery was answered by one of the Franciscan fathers who spoke excellent English. Father Jakab, a tall Hungarian, escorted us to the cemetery and explained that it’s no longer used except for the burial of Franciscan fathers. The main Catholic cemetery still in use is the one down the hill where Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) is buried.
It’s hard to miss the Lorenzo tomb. It’s an imposing structure in the centre of the cemetery. I could understand why my contact at the Custody was so embarrassed by the caretakers’ failure to locate it. The central structure, in red stone, rises a couple of metres above ground—it’s as tall as Alvaro. At the top, fragments of a sculpture in white: a flower on some pleated fabric. Four short columns with crosses on all sides mark the edges of the tomb. And at the back there’s an inscription in Arabic.
The sun was washing everything out. We didn’t feel we could complain but Father Jakab realised himself that the light was not optimal for photography so he offered to open up for us again in the afternoon. We were touched by the thoughtful gesture and eagerly accepted.
Before lunch, I left Alvaro for a while and took a cab to East Jerusalem (this time from the Gloria!) for one more first in-person meeting. Sani Meo is the publisher of This Week in Palestine, a monthly magazine which for 25 years has been documenting and archiving all aspects of Palestinian life. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him, having contributed a few articles to the magazine, edited one of its issues, and co-edited a couple of others. I have enormous respect for his perseverance and dedication to the cause of Palestine, and for what he manages to accomplish on a shoestring. He has a terrific sense of humour which makes working with him a delight. Meeting him in person was even more delightful.
For lunch, I inducted Alvaro to Lina’s falafel, the best in town. We took a long walk afterwards towards the Educational Bookshop but it was closed. By the time we returned to the vicinity of the New Gate, I had run out of steam so I proposed a pitstop at the Gloria, with some fuel from Abu Seir’s patisserie. Easy sell!
With some sugar in my bloodstream, we were ready to continue our explorations so we headed down to Mamilla to see the houses Nadira had mentioned. The Lorenzo mansion is quite impressive and hints at the status of the family before the Nakba .
A few doors down the road, the house that used to be the US Consulate and now hosts the US Office for Palestinian Affairs is supposedly where GGGG used to live. As we walked along the side alley, I thought I’d take a photo of the main building at the back. A voice boomed ominously from the watchtower up ahead: “DID YOU TAKE A PICTURE?” Ooops! I couldn’t lie. “Yes,” I shouted back, nodding to the man with the loudspeaker. “DELETE IT NOW!” It crossed my mind to just go through the motions—he was a good hundred metres away—but Alvaro knocked some sense into me and I put it in the trash (from where files are of course recoverable). “DID YOU DELETE IT?” the voice boomed again. “Yes.” I nodded in agreement again at the distant figure.
The sign does not acknowledge the Palestinian presence in this area.
From there we walked back to the cemetery where Father Jakab was waiting for us. The light of the now-low sun was beautiful and made for much better images, including of the inscription (which Tony Nesnas kindly deciphered for me later). I exchanged email addresses with Father Jakab who offered to ask the Arab parish priest about the denizens of the tomb.
Early start to the day. I wanted to attend to GGGG’s tomb before my morning shower. The easy way to the Greek Orthodox cemetery is a short walk along the exterior of the Old City walls. You exit from Jaffa Gate, follow the walls straight south and in under five minutes you’re at the cemetery.
As I exited Jaffa Gate, about a dozen police/army cars zoomed past me, out of the Old City, their sirens screaming blue murder. Something must have happened, I thought. This is Israel. Something always happens here. I’m not the sort of person who watches the news in their hotel room…
Before beginning the clean-up operation, I wanted to locate the grave of Saba Abdo’s grandfather—a mission he entrusted me with when I visited him in Beirut in September. (Saba is a Schtakleff on his mother’s side. His mother, Zacharena, was my grandmother’s second-cousin, and my great-grandparents were good friends of Zacharena and Daoud Abdo.) The main caretaker, Rami, doesn’t speak a word of English but there was another man there who spoke a few words. So with his four words of English and my three words of Arabic, we had a little chat. When I said I was from Cyprus, he said that his brother was married to a Cypriot and worked at the cemetery until he died. So it seems he is Munir’s brother (Munir was the previous caretaker)—assuming I understood correctly and haven’t jumped to conclusions!
Rami thought he’d seen the Abdo grave in the southwestern corner of the cemetery; he scanned the area but couldn’t find it. They wanted to know Saba Abdo Sr’s date of death so I rang Saba Jr to ask him but as we were talking, sirens went off. I was quite unfazed but Saba urged me to take care and be safe. Apparently he had watched the news that I had missed and was duly concerned. The guys pulled out their phones and showed me some photos of what was going on in the south. And then a couple of rockets flew high up above us and we watched as the Iron Dome, Israel’s defence system, took them out.
Putting too much faith, perhaps, in the Iron Dome, I started my clean-up operation. Cousin Chip keeps a pair of pruners and a roll of garbage bags behind the tombstone. I had looked for them on Thursday but couldn’t find them. As I started scooping leaves and garbage, they tumbled out of the rubble and made my job easier.
“Not your average Saturday morning in Jerusalem! Pretty freaky…,” Adina texted. “That’s for sure,” I replied. “I’m cleaning my great-great-grandfather’s grave to the tune of bombs and sirens.” “Wow,” she said. “That’s definitely in the category of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” And that was only the beginning…
Three bags-full later, and with the pruners and bags secured at the base of the tombstone, I was ready to head out. Munir’s presumed brother said they’d check with Bajali, the jeweller who keeps the records of the cemetery, to find the Abdo grave for me. I said I’d come back first thing Monday morning. Little did I know how different the world would look by Monday.
I sometimes wonder what GGGG, the old-world patriarch and jealous husband, would have made of me: single, strong-headed (by my own admission), non-religious, independent female. I suspect, however, that wherever in the universe he may be, he looks upon Chip and me as his favourite grandkids. We’re the ones keeping his forever home clean and tidy. (If anyone out there wants to contribute, the pruners await!)
Back at the hotel, the enormity of the events of Saturday 7 October started sinking in. Tours were cancelled, the guests were all milling around, the staff was running up and down. Samir, one of the hotel owners, being an old hand at war-type situations—in other words, Palestinian—assured me that as long as we stayed within the walls of the Old City, we’d be safe.
So we walked to Mar Yacoub (Saint James), the church adjacent to the Holy Sepulchre, where I’d hoped to ask the mukhtar for some more information from the Register, this time on behalf of someone else. The mukhtar was expected—maybe—so we thought we’d wait. We strolled inside the Holy Sepulchre for Alvaro to have a first look and then climbed up the steps outside, across the plaza from Mar Yacoub to monitor the door for arrivals.
A crowd was milling by the door around a cleric whose face looked awfully familiar: it took me two seconds to recognise Archbishop Theodosios of Sevastia of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, aka Atallah Hanna, a high-profile activist cleric known in the media for his opposition to the occupation. His face is all over social media. As we made our way through the crowd to enter the church once again, he asked me where I was from and upon hearing Cyprus, he immediately switched to Greek in which he is fluent. He asked us to follow him inside where he had us pose for a photo-op, and then handed me his business card. A somewhat bizarre encounter to match the strangeness of the day.
The mukhtar was a no-show. By the time we decided to look for something to eat, the Old City was shutting down. Lina’s had closed so we ended up having some over-sweet knafeh for lunch. At least it has cheese, I thought. We walked through the empty cobbled streets, lined with their shut metal doors, all the way to Damascus Gate where we found a street vendor selling mana’eesh. They’d have made a much better lunch.
I suggested we take the other fork of the road back but as we started heading that way we noticed some commotion ahead. A bunch of settlers was terrorising the population of the Old City, shouting and moving menacingly, escorted/protected by a group of Israeli soldiers. We turned around immediately and hang out by the food stall, our backs turned away from the street, hoping not to attract their attention. The vendors stood still and watched with wary eyes. When the troublemakers had finally gone past us, we sighed a big sigh of relief as one of the food vendors shook his head: “They’re crazy,” he said. We were pretty shaken up—and it was only the tiniest taste of what everyday life is like for Palestinians in the Old City. My fear turned to indignation.
In the evening we were invited to dinner in Upper Baqa’a. I suggested we walk but stopped Alvaro from taking photographs of houses in West Jerusalem, thinking it unwise. The city was like a ghost town: no cars; we barely came across three people in our 30+ minute walk. With everyone so on edge, had we been seen shooting photos, we would have raised suspicions. Ilan, who lives in Katamon, had warned me that the mood in the area was not friendly. After dinner, our host tried calling us a taxi but they were not picking up so we walked back, once again through completely empty streets. On the way, friends from Cyprus called and urged me to get out as soon as possible. By the time I contacted the airline, Sunday was booked so I was put on the Monday flight—a day earlier than planned.
The patio at the Gloria was full again. Nowhere else to go. A group of Serbs played chess and sang traditional Serbian songs that filled the night with melodies and camaraderie.
Not much to do. The hotel patio was so full we could only sit on a ledge. A couple of rockets flew up above again. Alvaro took off for the airport after lunch (but not before another taste of Abu Seir’s) hoping his flight would depart, and I hang out at the hotel until Ilan gave me the all-clear to visit him in West Jerusalem.
Ilan Shtayer was our researcher on JWRH. I’m happy to report that he’s agreed to be my Hebrew researcher for the Semiramis project too, and he’s already started digging in the archives. He and his wife were most generous with their hospitality. They picked me up from the airport, and offered me a room to stay when the crisis exploded despite being worried sick about her father who was in one of the kibbutzim under attack. (He was eventually evacuated.) We spent a few hours chatting and on the computer to get the project rolling, and they kindly dropped me off back at the Old City.
Ilan’s offer of a room, as generous as it was, wasn’t unique. Another Israeli friend rang me wondering if I had sufficient food and offering hospitality. A Palestinian friend offered me a room in Beit Hanina. Calls and messages from friends local and abroad kept pouring in. With all the hate that has been unleashed into the world on such a grand scale, I choose to hang on to those gestures of shared humanity as my last experience in Jerusalem.
My main concern on Saturday, when I changed my flight, was how to get to the airport. I’d overheard the receptionist saying that taxis were afraid to go there. “Call Mohammed,” Dorit messaged from Canada. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it. Sure enough, trusty Mohammed didn’t hesitate for a moment. Years ago, Mohammed was introduced to us by the Gloria when I had asked for a reliable taxi driver to take us to Bethlehem. He proved more than reliable: warm, kind, mild-mannered, hospitable. Dorit has been using him steadily. I hadn’t seen him since 2017 but no matter. He remembered me and was at the Gloria half an hour early, and delivered me smoothly and expeditiously to Tel Aviv airport.
On the way he told me off for not calling him for my airport pickup; he’d have brought me olive oil from his village. He asked after Dorit and her mother for whom he has a lot of respect. In the course of the conversation I mentioned my friend Samia. “Samia Khoury?” he asked? “No, Samia Z. But funny you should mention Samia Khoury, because I tried calling her but I seem to have the wrong number.” “Here!” he goes, and dials Samia Khoury. As Samia herself said, these things only happen in Jerusalem! (And in Cyprus!) We also had a good laugh about the time when he wasn’t available to take me to the airport and sent instead a big guy by the name of Jihad. On the way I kept thinking: Oh boy! I’m arriving at Ben Gurion airport with a guy called… Jihad!
I checked in without a problem and upon asking when I should be getting rid of my water bottle, I was told I could take it all the way through. (I’ll be raising that with the TSA next time I go through a US airport!) Other than a couple of rocket alerts while I was in the departure lounge about which announcements were made only in Hebrew and which had everyone scurrying to the airport shelters, everything went smoothly; Cyprus Airways left on time and I returned to Cyprus safe and sound. I wonder if and when I’ll be able to go back and what the place will look like after this murderous hate fest is over. Will love and peace ever get the upper hand in this world? Let’s wish for a better 2024. ❖
* The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the family.