Back in Jerusalem by early evening, I rushed to the Hilton (today’s Crown Plaza) to meet my mother. She had flown in to Tel Aviv airport and had been transported to the hotel as part of her package tour. It was too late to do anything so we spent the evening in the hotel. Her room was in a top floor, so while it was still light outside we stood on the balcony to survey the area. She was eager to take a look at her hometown but the hotel was at the edge of modern-day Jerusalem so nothing looked familiar. In her days, this part of the city was probably not even developed.
We then went downstairs for dinner. After nearly a week of subsisting on falafel and shawarma, I was glad to be treated to a nice, juicy steak (those were still my carnivorous days). I’d had an exciting time full of fascinating experiences and adventures, and I couldn’t wait to tell Mum all about it.
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.
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.