With apologies to Naseem Elissa of Cobham (The real bookseller) and Munther Fahmi of Jerusalem (the bookseller in the picture)
Take my friend Naseem for example. Naseem owns Joppa Books in Byfleet and I’m down there one Saturday morning, by appointment, to see him and his books. Not that an appointment was necessary since it quickly becomes obvious that Naseem spends most of his waking life amongst his books.
“Joppa?” he says in answer to my query, “Why Joppa? It’s the old name forJaffa.”
It turns out that it was in old Jaffa that Naseem was born and it was from the old Jaffa waterfront that Naseem, aged eleven, was passed down to a small boat with his parents as Zionist militia took the old town with mortars, gunshots and loudhailers. He can’t remember much of course, just the noise of the loudspeaker vans.
“They’d recorded sounds of screaming and sobbing. Women. Always of the women. I remember that…..…. Irgun” he tailed off trance-like.
“Irgun” he said “You know, Deir Yassin”
For Naseem and for the six million other Palestinians in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, America, Europe, South America and anywhere else these people have found themselves, no more need be said to explain the mad flight from towns and villages, the clearing of the land. For some it’s Lydda or Ramle or Haifa or five hundred odd villages. But for Naseem it’s Jaffa. Thousands, then with numbers swollen from the outlying villages long fallen to Zionist onslaught, tens of thousands, pouring down the boulevards leading to the sea. From every corner of the city, from the swish Ajami, and from the squalid Manshiyyeh they began their flight by sea and land, on wheels and on foot. Meanwhile in the smart city centre, young Irgunists ransacked stores of dresses and ornaments for their girlfriends till everything was carted off: furniture, carpets, pictures, crockery and cutlery. And what they could not carry, they smashed: pianos, lamps and window-panes.
Finally the most disgusting spectacle of all, as Jews of all classes poured into Jaffa from Tel Aviv to grab what was left.
“And now?” I ask
“Now?” Naseem answers, “So now you choose, Arab squalor or Hebrew chic”
He’s referring to the pride of new Jaffa’s old Ajami district, now crammed with espresso bars and bistros where Israelis come of a Saturday afternoon to sample the authentic middle-eastern flavour. The artists’ studios, the final vulgarity.
“….the New Israel Fund put some money in, mainly from rich, Los Angeles Jews,…. liberals. Something about renewing the city centre. So what did you get? Galleries and pizza bars, and Jaffa is gentrified by the very same people who had created the mess in the first place….Now they’ve done with rocketing prices what the Irgun did with guns and mortar bombs – the destruction of Arab Jaffa”
A few years back Nasseem visited.
“You know, you drive on the main highway andJaffaisn’t even marked as an exit. You have to know to get off at the exit marked Kibbutz Galiyot.”
Rejecting any ready-to-wear conspiracy theory, Nassem concludes that Kibbutz Galiyot is simply a more important feature on the Israeli map than is Jaffa. Then, once off the highway it’s just housing projects and industrial parks all the way. “I tell you, David, you’ve really got to want to get there to make it through that lot!”
Finally he made it to his old district, even to the site of his house.
“….There was nothing there, so I assumed the house was destroyed but I kept on hanging around, checking landmarks. I just had a feeling….Then it hit me. That horrible two-story pebble-brown Israeli building I was standing in front of is our house, or at least, was our house. Now it had a second storey and the whole thing had been coated with institution coloured pebbled-cement. David, they’d buried my house. Well, I was just too upset to even think of going inside so I just got back in the car. Then, emblazoned in Hebrew and English letters I saw its new identity, Beit Nurit – House of Light and ahead, a large electric gate which was now the front entrance. It was open and I just couldn’t resist so I walked in.”
“The inside was as confusing as the outside. Entrances had been switched, additions made, walls knocked down. And, just like the outside, the whole place had been coated with this anonymous institutional fascia. Then I saw these arches. It was like a sudden shock of recognition. You see, there’s this old family photograph from 1947, you know with that dream-like, slightly out-of-focus quality to it, of all of us standing in front of these same arches. When I was a boy I used to look at that photo and I always wondered at how innocent they all looked, you know, when you realise what was going to happen to them just one year later.”
“Well just then someone spoke to me in Hebrew and I was startled out of my dream. A woman, a large blonde Germanic looking matron in a white coat, a real Nurse Ratchet, saying things I didn’t understand. I looked around and realised that the house was full of retarded children. I answered in English. She asked me what I wanted and I said that this was once my house and I just wanted to look at it. She said I must be mistaken, that it couldn’t be true, and, anyway how could I know it was my house? I said I grew up in it, that’s how I know. Anyway, she said that before I looked around anymore she must ask the Director. So, after a bit I was ushered up to the Director whose reaction was completely different. He sat there at his desk with this aura of wisdom, of deep, expansive understanding, like a sage.”
‘Come in come in, yes, yes come in, here I want to show you something’ he said in that aggressive manner that seems to pass for warmth in Israelis.
I followed him to the landing where there was an odd coloured frieze on the wall. He asked me to look closely and then proceeded to explain to me that the frieze (which I was barely able to focus on as I heard his words) depicted the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israeland the creation of the Jewish state. He ended with words that I vaguely remember as something about the success of the Zionist dream. I really wasn’t sure what this was all about, perhaps he was just really wanting to gloat and make sure I was completely clear about who was in charge. It was very sick and unnecessary. ”
My reaction was, well, one of non-reaction. I was speechless. Anyway I left and walked round the neighbourhood. There was a small archaeological museum with placards narrating the history of Jaffa. But they had completely removed virtually anything Arab from the city. Look, I can show you.”
He got up and marched into a back room, returning with a small brochure which he slapped down on the desk.
“Look at this David” he taps impatiently with a forefinger.
Headed “Old Jaffa” and published by “The Old Jaffa Development Corporation”, on the front page was a potted history.
**1750 Establishment of Jaffa’s first Jewish hostel
**1799 Conquest of Jafa by Napoleon’s forces, outbreak of the bubonic plague
**1820 Revival ofJaffa’s Jewish Community with the establishment of a hostel and synagogue by Iaiah Ajiman
**1832 Conquest of Jaffa by the Egyptian forces
**1881 First Group of Jewish pioneers, belonging to the Bilu organization arrives inJaffa
**1903-1905 Jaffa suffers a crippling cholera epidemic
**1917 Expulsion of the Jewish communities ofJaffa and Tel Aviv by the Turkish Administration
**16 November, 1917Conquest of Jaffa by Allenby
**1936-39 Anti-Jewish Disturbances throughout the country [this is how the Great Palestine Rebellion against British rule is described]
**14 May 1948Jaffa is liberated during the passover festival by the Jewish underground
**24 April 1950Tel Aviv andJaffa is unified.
Accompanied by panels and etchings illustrating the history, there was not one Arab to be seen. Before I even got to the bottom Naseem reached over,
“No David, look, look at this.” He snatches the leaflet, turns it over and thrusts it back into my still open hands. “Look, look!”
“Towards the end of WWI the city was conquered by General Allenby, ushering in the period of the British Mandate. The port of Jaffa, (the sole port at the time) served as the point of entry for the increased Jewish immigration which came to the land. The Jews suffered from pogroms and persecution at the hand of the Arabs. The attacks reached a peak shortly before the declaration of the state of Israel in May 1948.
“Jewish defensive action led to the flight of most of the city’s Arabs, and shortly after that part of the city was settled by the impoverished Jewish families whom the war had left homeless.”
“So this is what we’re up against, David. Unbelievable….Anyway I’d had just about enough history so I left and went to the fish restaurant by the sea. A bit of a ritual this, for us old Jaffaites. After being slapped in the face by our gentrified, de-Arabized city, and after being treated to a laundered version of our own history, we then treat ourselves to a slap-up meal by the sea to forgive and forget….”
Still, Naseem’s made a good enough life for himself. For years he was inAbu Dhabi working as an engineer and then thought, “Shit, what’s life for?” So he came to Britain to work with his real love. Books.
Naseem has a lot of books. On shelves, in cupboards, on desks, filed and catalogued in his elaborate computer system. Just one glance at the Palestine-Israel section of his catalogue which he so promptly sent in answer to my telephone enquiry tells you all you need to know. Books onIsrael, onPalestineon the Israel/Palestine conflict catalogued with author, title, short description and an assessment of condition. Books on everything. The land, the people, the history, the archaeology, the culture, the wars, the treaties, Jerusalem, Arafat, Ben Gurion, the American Jewish lobby, the 1948 war, the Suez campaign, the Six-Day War the Yom Kippur war, the Lebanon war, Entebbe, travel guides, biographies, photo books, pre-state Zionism, post-state Zionism, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Bedouin, Druze, pro-Zionism, anti-Zionism. Why, there’s something for everyone! So go into Naseem’s stock rooms at the back of the shop. I did, and I spent a good two hours there whilst Naseem sat in his office compiling his lists of old books a million miles from old Jaffa.
Neck aching from reading the spines, heart beating from this treasure-trove I pause only, when, at the end of one of the shelves, stacked neatly on the floor I come across a pile of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Not believing what I am seeing, I go on, finally settling on a book on Palestinian village life. It was cheap. Naseem’s books, fascinating as they are, are outrageously expensive. Then to the front office to pay. As we go through the formalities we chat.
Naseem brushes off The Protocols. He just sends them to America. A middle-man. And he laughs and shows me a book so anti-Semitic that I can hardly put it down. “Is he mad?” I ask Naseem referring to the author who, Naseem assures me is a Jew.
Naseem likes England though not, he’s quick to add, the weather. But he is disenchanted with the peace process. Actually ‘disenchanted’ doesn’t do Naseem’s feelings justice. Like so many of the Palestinians I’m to meet in these post-Oslo days Naseem is bereft. Like a motherless child, he searches everywhere. Arafat? It’s as if his own father had upped and gone. And, like so many Palestinians I am to meet over the next few weeks, his spirits only really rise at the mention of Edward Said. “Did you see the article?” He booms, referring to the piece by Said in the Guardian a few days ago denouncing the Oslo sell-out. Only one other name receives a similar accolade. “Ah! Chomsky!” he beams, “Now there’s a man! A Jew who speaks out!” And Rabin? “A man to trust, a man to do business with.” Says Naseem. I’m not so sure.
“You know I sometimes I feel I ought to do something.” he says, “But what?” I have no answer for him.
On the way out I ask him if he lives nearby.
“Yes in Cobham”
“Cobham!” I say. “Weird place for a Palestinian.”