Origin Stories: Tracing Jabra and Munif’s childhoods in Bethlehem and Amman

By Suja Sawafta

On a sweltering July day in Amman, I left my friend’s apartment in Abdoun and made my way to Jabal Amman with nothing more than a set of vague coordinates plugged in to Google Maps to guide me. I was in search of Abdulrahman Munif’s childhood home. Over the years I had heard musings, here and there, about where exactly it was. Some of my friends, who had studied at Sijal Language Institute, told me that Munif’s family home was on the same street as the institute, in a classic-style house next to the language center’s beautiful headquarters. I headed in that general direction, unsure of what I would find.

Before I went looking for the house, I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at the Shoman Foundation library that morning, for a day of archival work. I walked in and asked the young woman at the front desk if she could help me find local sources, narratives, or archives on the impact of the Second World War on the city, a history chronicled in Munif’s account of life writing Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman (سيرة مدينة: عمان في الأربعينات). The Shoman library, though impressive, left much to be desired in terms of historical archives, and it held virtually no record of reliable information on Munif’s childhood in the city; no trace that one of the Arab world’s most prolific novelists and thinkers had spent the first seventeen years of his life rooted in the making and constant transformation of the country’s capital.

I spent two hours looking at vague accounts of Jordanian history, digging the nails of one hand into the wooden panel of the desk, as I flipped hurriedly through the pages of the book with another. Two hours later, I realized that the magical documentation I was in search of didn’t exist in any of the libraries, centers, or archives I had visited throughout that week, this particular archival visit being the last of the Jordanian leg of the trip. I packed my bag and plugged Sijal Language Institute into my maps and found that it was a thirteen-minute walk from Shoman.

Street Sign of Omar Ibn Khattab St.
Street Sign of Omar Ibn al-Khattab Street. Photo: Suja Sawafta

I began to walk and was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful stone architecture of the houses, glancing down at my phone every few seconds to make sure I was indeed walking in the right direction, afraid that—aside from failing to locate the house—I would miss something on this treasure hunt, though I remained unsure of what exactly I was afraid to miss and whether or not I was going to find it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would intuitively recognize anything that was significant to Munif’s history the moment I laid eyes on it. When I made it to Omar Ibn al-Khattab Street, I walked down and found the Sijal Institute and tried to open the door to ask about Munif’s childhood home. It was locked and no one was there. There were several houses on the street that were “next door to” the institute. I wasn’t sure if the directive meant across the street, behind, in front of, to the right of, or to the left of the building. I stood in the middle of the road for a minute or two and observed my surroundings. I found a local establishment called Books@Cafe right across the street from where I was standing and thought it a good place to start. I walked into the downstairs portion, where the art shop and bookstore were located, and asked the woman at the register if she knew anything about the house of a famous writer who lived here. “His name is Abdulrahman Munif,”  I began. “He’s a famous novelist who wrote Cities of Salt, and his childhood home was here on this street. I just don’t know which one it is.”

She didn’t know who or what I was talking about. She suggested I go upstairs to the restaurant for a refreshment and said that maybe one of the waiters might know more than her. I followed her advice, went upstairs and ordered a perfectly named “Nashmi Burger” and Diet Coke, sat on the terrace and looked out over the street, taking in the views and noting all of the attributes of the architecture. I tried to transport myself back to the 1940s, the temporal setting of Munif’s Story of a City. I wanted to imagine what life would have been like on this street. Was it busy and bustling? Was it quiet, a point of intersection where all of the city’s many dwellers and visitors would meet to talk about political happenings? Was this where Munif wrote about people lining up for rations during a WWII Amman, waiting for rice and sugar? Was this the street where young Munif would see Glubb Pasha walk by; the city of Bedouins, of Palestinian merchants, of Circassian officers, Iraqi tradesmen, and Syrian artisans? There were so many questions that I wanted to have answered about this nascent Amman and what it must have been like, but ironically, in spite of the cosmopolitan attributes the city had retained from Munif’s time, and the ones it had gained in recent decades, in the wake of Jordan’s status as a regional point of refuge, there seemed to be no one I could ask for details about this house. When I asked the waiter, who then asked his manager, they both came to the table to apologize, saying that they had no information on the location of the house and no idea where I could go from here to find out where it was. I ate in silence, frustrated, and stared out over the terrace once again. 

My gaze settled on a house with a white door, labelled number 15. It was attached to the language institute. I figured that if any house could qualify as “next door” to Sijal, it would be this one. I was almost certain that—out of all the houses—this one fit the bill. I paid for my lunch and went back downstairs. Then I walked to the house with the white door and knocked. No one answered. My frustration was exacerbated by two things: the first was that, as a literature scholar, one who had spent five years at Oxford University theorizing and piecing together Munif’s life and legacy, I was dismayed at how isolated this quest to illuminate Munif’s literary world had made me feel. Many times, I inquired about his life with great curiosity, only to be met with a lack of answers or mystery. The second factor was that I, as a Jordanian citizen, was angered by the Ministry of Culture’s lack of recognition of this central literary figure. Why was Munif’s childhood home not marked as one of Amman’s cultural landmarks? Why was there not so much as a plaque to memorialize that, for seventeen years, Munif walked up and down this street with many an idea blossoming in his young political mind? And yet, in spite of this, the general consensus among the intellectual sphere of the Arab world was that there were few novelists who were as successful as Munif in bridging the cultural gaps between Arabs. His novels were pan-Arab in scope, and the breadth of his writing spanned many of the social and political issues relevant to the zeitgeist of the Arab Mediterranean and the Arab Gulf in equal measure. Since I began my research on Munif, I had been living in what felt like an oxymoron: a clash of praise and doubt. In speaking to professors at universities or conferences about the subject of my doctoral dissertation, I would often hear:

Without a shadow of a doubt, Munif is one of the most influential writers of the last 100 years. You should be proud that you have taken it upon yourself to advance his legacy in the English academy…

And sometimes within the same breath, I would also hear:

There is a reason why people don’t focus on him alone, that no single-author study yet exists. It’s quite a challenge to take on this corpus… are you sure you want to be the one to do it? 

Antique chair on Omar Ibn al-Khattab Street. Photo: Suja Sawafta

On that day in Amman, I was met with a reminder as to why this work needed to be done. After eight years dedicated to researching Munif and his generation of political rebels, on this trip I’d made to Amman in search of his ghost—of the version of him that exists in the accounts of his youth—I simply refused to take an “I don’t know” for an answer. I spent the next two hours walking up and down the street countless times. A few houses up the road, I found the headquarters of the Jordanian Royal Film Commission. Like Sijal, it was closed that day, so I couldn’t ask anyone inside for direction. A young boy who had been watching me look for something on Omar Ibn al-Khattab Street stopped dead in his tracks, staring at me until our gazes met. 

“Can I help you find something, khalto?” he asked.

“I don’t think you can, but let me ask you anyway. Is there an elder on this street I can ask about a writer who used to live here?”

After pausing to think about it, the young boy told me that his grandfather was a tailor on this street. He suggested we could go and ask him. I followed him a few doors down from the Royal Film Commission and eventually we paused at a door that led into a basement-like tailor shop. There were no windows and no light. The young boy introduced me to this grandfather, and I repeated my pitch to him: I was in search of a writer’s childhood home, a novelist named Abdulrahman Munif, the one who penned Cities of Salt. The tailor gave me a skeptical look. He didn’t understand why I was looking for Munif’s home and, because of that, at first, he offered nothing other than the following:

“I heard about such a person who used to live here a very long time ago but, ‘ammi, what are you hoping to gain from finding this information? I can tell you right now, you won’t gain a morsel of information or benefit at all from knowing which house it is.”

Despite the pessimistic note in his declaration, I felt as though I was on the edge of finding the missing link. I explained to the elder that sometimes it’s not about finding anything tangible at all; sometimes life is metaphorical, and that this would help give a picture to the imagery that Munif has mapped out for us in Story of a City, to understand a version of Amman that existed for this man and was significant for him. “I just want to know which one it is… Uncle, I just want to see it with my own eyes.”

“Do you see the house with the white door across the street? Number 15? Next to that tree… That’s the one. But I’m telling you right now, my daughter, don’t knock on that door. It’s been empty for a very long time. You won’t stand to gain a thing from finding it…,” he said, shaking his head.

I walked back over to number 15. It was the one I had suspected could be the house “next door” to Sijal. I stood in front of the door in a moment of silence, as if in prayer. It was one of those rare magical moments when what you read about in books intersects with the material reality of everyday life; a moment where one witnesses how the world of fiction can be influenced by something that you can experience with your own senses. Why not so much as a road or a plaque was named after Munif—how not even a single mention that a cultural icon had been born on a street, which was now home to the country’s film commission, an art/bookshop, and a successful language institute—is one of Jordan’s cultural shortcomings.

Outside of Munif’s childhood home/ or likely the site of it / number 15. Photo: Suja Sawafta

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In the world of literary scholarship, when one speaks of Munif, they also often, by default, find a way to Jabra. In truth, for me, I found Munif through Jabra and later returned to Jabra because of Munif. As a celebrated translator, critic, painter, and novelist, Jabra is often celebrated as one of the vanguards of Arab modernism, particularly in the Baghdad cultural scene of the 1950s. Though he was raised in Bethlehem from the age of one and lived in and out of Bethlehem and Jerusalem until 1948, with educational pursuits at Cambridge University and Harvard. After ’48, Jabra found himself displaced in the aftermath of the Nakba, settling in Baghdad. Today, one can easily make the case that both Palestine and Iraq count him as one of their esteemed intellectuals and take immense pride in doing so. 

A few weeks after my treasure hunt for Munif’s childhood home in Amman, I sat in the company of my mother, my aunts, a cousin, and a close friend as we shared a breakfast of piping-hot black tea with mint, plates of hummus, pickles, and falafel at Afteem, one of Bethlehem’s famous restaurants, close to the Nativity Church. Most of my family wanted to head down to Bethlehem for the day in search of Palestinian cross-stitch-embroidered dresses to add to their collections. I told them that I would arrange the trip with the understanding that we would also look for the childhood home of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. The contingency worked in my favor. While I had felt alone and isolated in Amman looking for any trace of Munif just a few weeks prior, in Palestine I found myself in the company of my family, nourished by a delicious breakfast and co-conspirators to go along on this treasure hunt. 

I also found that Bethlehem had paid tribute to Jabra as Amman had not for Munif. One of the streets that Jabra lived on was named after him, its location in the heart of the city. Bethlehem University dedicated a webpage and a section of their library to the author’s legacy. In Palestine, there is always a sense of urgency to document history and to honor the legacy of the nation’s intellectual luminaries. It’s a form of a popular counter-narrative; notes on a disappearing landscape in occupied land. As we ate the last bits of food at Afteem, I decided that it would be best to start the quest. Turning to my close friend Manar Faraj, who grew up in one of Bethlehem’s several refugee camps for internally displaced Palestinians, I asked where she thought it would be best to start. She immediately called upon her close friend—the journalist, filmmaker, and lecturer Tamara Abu Laban—who had written an article about Jabra’s childhood homes for the Arabic publication Romman Magazine. Tamara arrived within ten minutes. I’ll never forget that Bethlehemite morning, as we took our time over a third cup of tea to discusses Jabra and Munif. Tamara explained that, in Jabra’s case, the local lore and consensus in Bethlehem was that there wasn’t just one childhood home, but several. To be exact, there were seven.

Jabra’s family had been among the Syriac Orthodox families that had settled in Palestine over the last few centuries. While some came as religious pilgrims and never left, others had fled religious persecution and genocide, finding refuge in Palestine. Jabra’s family had been of the latter camp. This status as a religious refugee meant, in part, that the Orthodox church had served as a sponsor for the family, which had suffered from extreme poverty. Residents of the city had agreed upon the veracity of the following narrative: the church would set the family up in a home; they were then unable to pay the rent until eventually, they were forced out of one residence and into another set up for them by the church. The cycle would repeat itself seven times. Yet, though Jabra’s life was curiously plagued by displacement from birth until death, the Palestinian variations of these displacements were contained and centralized. They occurred on or around شارع النجمة, or as it is known in its English translation: Star Street. 

 Star Street. Photo: Suja Sawafta

Star Street is the main road that today’s pilgrims and religious tourists to the Holy Land must pass through on their walking path to the Church of the Nativity. It is incredible. Unlike many streets in Bethlehem, such as those that lead to Aida Refugee Camp or the ones in close proximity to the Separation Wall—which has devastated the Palestinian landscape and most notably physically divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem or Abu Dis, among other cities—the cobblestones of Star Street are immaculately preserved. The fact that Jabra’s childhood was spent weaving in and out of this quarter’s beautiful alleyways is one of lucky coincidence. It means that his childhood homes are preserved, intricately documented, and protected. This would not likely have been the case had he been raised on one of Bethlehem’s now-neglected streets, ones that are not under the auspices of the Orthodox Church and, by extension, those that are visible to mainstream tourists. Acting as our guide, Tamara led us down the site of the first house, now closed off from public habitation, and clearly marked with beautifully colored doors that reminded me of Easter eggs: light teal, lavender, and pale yellow. The street had now been renamed شارع جبرا إبراهيم جبرا (Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Street). Turning a corner, down another street and a few more turns later, we were on Star Street, where Tamara led us to the location of a second home. This one had an official name: Beit Semaan. 

Outside view of Beit Semaan. Photo: Suja Sawafta.

In the autobiographical account of his childhood, البئر الأولى: فصول من سيرة ذاتية (The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood), Jabra describes a home in which the main courtyard was the only source of light. The ground floor, which was occupied by Jabra’s family, had no other access to natural light outside of this courtyard and the windows of the front door, those of Beit Semaan. As I walked to the front door of the building, I was able to peer inside, through the iron bars of the window. I was enchanted. The front courtyard gave way to a large arched doorway that led to a pitch-black, windowless ground floor. A newer wall had been built across it, though the new doorway did not fully reach to the old one’s height. Two beige locked wooden doors were in clear view from the window, but there was no sign of anyone inhabiting the ground floor other than the remnants of silly string; a sign that there had been a celebration in the house that day due to the happy results of a student passing their baccalaureate exams, which had been announced in Palestine earlier that morning. To the left of the door, there was a beautiful blue painting of a ship, and, in front of the painting, a staircase that led to the other floors, which were now inhabited by residents other than Jabra’s original neighbors or their families. I stood there for a moment, sharing the magical view with my mother and aunt. I explained the significance of this home and shared with them what I often teach about Jabra when I lecture to my students on the subject of exile. We continued along our walk across Star Street, and I felt a sense of peace similar to the one I had found in confirming the location of Munif’s house. However, this time, it felt a bit more nourishing, because I had people with me, and more importantly, there was a city supporting and protecting the legacy of one of its writers.

 

Inside View of Beit Semaan. Photo: Suja Sawafta.

At the end of that day, Tamara asked me if I wanted to see the other five houses that Jabra had lived in, but I declined the offer. On the one hand, I felt that seeing two of the seven was more than I’d dreamt of finding, as I was unaware that there were that many to begin with. On the other, the keyhole view into Beit Semaan offered so much more than I imagined it would, and I wanted to lay the quest to rest. Throughout the cacophony of conversations that were had that day, I had heard from a few people that many of Jabra’s relatives still lived in Bethlehem, but that they were very private people and preferred not to be contacted. Similarly, some of the homes he occupied remain important places of commerce for the Syriac community; sites of workshops, fabric factories, and the production of artisanal goods. The day was concluded with a well-deserved hefty plate of knafeh and a sense of fulfillment and peace that, through the course of the summer, I had found the nucleus of two writers’ origin stories. These two writers, tied together by a friendship, the shared experience of exile, a collaborative novel, and adjacent childhoods in Levantine cities, as well as the altered states of their libraries—which were destroyed in Baghdad (Jabra) and ransacked in Damascus (Munif) as a result of war and occupation—were connected again by the happenings of a summer in the Holy Land and the insatiable curiosity of travellers like myself and those who will come after me. 

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Suja Sawafta is an Assistant Professor and Director of Arabic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Miami. Her research focuses on exile and eco-criticism in Modern Arabic and Franco-Arab literature of the Mediterranean and Global South. She is currently working on her first book project which examines the impact of exile, intellectual commitment, and political dissent in the works of the formative Saudi-Iraqi novelist and petroleum economist Abdulrahman Munif. She is also co-editor, together with Khalid Lyamlahy (University of Chicago), of a forthcoming edited volume on the Palestinian-Iraqi exile and novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. She teaches interdisciplinary content courses on literature, cultural studies, and cinema as well as Arabic and French language.

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Also read:

On an 81st Birthday: Why Does Abdelrahman Munif Not Make the ‘World Literature’ Canon?

Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: Abdelrahman Munif’s ‘Cities of Salt’

On Translating ‘Cry in a Long Night,’ a Novel Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Originally Wrote in English

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra: ‘Soliloquy of a Modern Faust’

1 Comment

  1. “sometimes it’s not about finding anything tangible at all; sometimes life is metaphorical” – love this – and the journey deemed worthwhile to track down and imagine past events of a life, through finding a residence – mundane as they may be.

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