It’s been more than a year since my last blog post at the end of which I had promised a second part would follow. It’s taken a little longer than I’d planned but here it is: fifteen months and about three quarters of a pandemic later. (This part is also split in two to keep the length manageable.)
The time has come to write about my first trip to Jerusalem – my first true encounter with my Palestinian family’s past, beyond the confines of oral history.
Part 2.1: Touring Israel – Aug 1986
In the summer of 1986 I went in search of roots. Somewhere I’d seen advertised a long weekend at the Hilton Jerusalem and floated the idea to my mother. She was immediately sold on it. It had been nearly 40 years since they fled their home in Jerusalem to escape the war that partitioned Palestine thus becoming refugees, and she was eager to go back to the city of her birth and to show me where all the stories I had so loved since childhood had unfolded.
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.
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.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, here are 18,000 words (plus change) – one K for each of the candles my mother would have blown out on her last birthday in her native land. Seventy years ago to the day, Anna Kassotou turned 18 . Given how things had shaped up in Jerusalem in the week preceding her birthday, I doubt there were many festivities planned for the day of her entry into adulthood.
I will then let these images be a celebration of her life in her beloved city.
Anna Kassotou was born in Jerusalem on 11 Jan 1930. Her father was Emmanuel (Manolis) Kassotis, a Greek citizen from the island of Samos who went to Jerusalem when his uncle, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Damianos I, took him under his wing. Her mother was Paraskevi (Vitsa) Schtakleff, a second-generation Jerusalemite whose father hailed from the Balkans and her mother was a Greek actress from Asia Minor. Anna was born somewhere in the Greek Colony. When she was about three, the family moved to the house her father had purchased in Katamon, only a block or two away from the Greek Orthodox church of St Simeon.
1/ Baby Anna Kassotou
The only baby picture I have of hers, it was taken by the well-known Palestinian photographer David (Daoud) Abdo, who was also a relative, having married into the Schtakleff family.
It was a dark and stormy night. No, it truly was! ‘Torrential rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning fell in Jerusalem all Sunday night‘, wrote The Palestine Post on 6 Jan 1948 noting that the belfry of the Dormition Abbey had been struck by lightning and windows had been broken. ‘Throughout the night there was heavy rain and one thunder-clap at 3.50 a.m. awakened many persons in all parts of the city.‘
Like in most of the neighbourhood, in a corner stone house in upper Katamon, only a few blocks away from the monastery and church of St Simeon, the Kassotis family – my mother (just a week short of her 18th birthday), her parents and two sisters – would have been awoken much earlier, had the storm allowed them to sleep in the first place. To begin with there was the sound of grenade for at 1am on Monday, 5 January, 1948 – exactly 70 years ago – the Hotel Semiramis, two doors down the street from the Kassotis, came under attack by the Haganah, the Jewish militia.