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Bus Number 23

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.02.2007:

By Emily Jacir

I was 13 years old standing next to my father in Bethlehem one sunny and windy day when he took my hand and pointed to the settlement of Gilo and said, “See, baba, see there?” Then my eyes followed his finger as it moved across the landscape and stopped at the settlement of Har Gilo. “And there. See? They are going to build settlements just like those all around us.” Then with his arm still outstretched, we turned in a circle and I watched his finger pointing at the horizon around Bethlehem and Bayt Jala. He said, “One day they will encircle us.”

This post is for my father Yusuf Nasri Suleiman Jacir. My father who taught me what it means to be free, what justice is, how to fight, and who gave me his love for Palestine. He is my biggest hero. He is the most giving and loving person I have ever known in my entire life. His first priority has always been his family and he did anything he could to make us happy.

If he could have done what he wanted in his life he would have been a professor. That was his dream. For him this was the highest and most honourable profession. No one deserved more respect than a teacher. But a poor man from Bethlehem, with a family to support and family back home to take care of, could not afford to indulge in such bourgeois fantasies.

He fought hard to get where he is and he did it all by himself. Nothing was handed to him. He faced a lot of hardship in his life but he made it through and he did a great job. Because of him I know that it is possible to do anything, at any age and that it is never too late.

My father was born and raised in Bethlehem where, although he came from a historically famous and wealthy family (our family tree goes back to 1500), he grew up poor. The Jacir family had gone bankrupt in the 1930s and lost absolutely everything. What remains of their legacy is the historic Jacir Palace. My great grandfather Suleiman built it in 1910 with the intention that he and his five brothers’ families would live in the house together, and they did for a short time but then the family lost everything and his dream was lost forever. Suleiman had quite a reputation around the region for his incredible generosity. Everyone knew that if you were hungry you could go there and he would feed you.

The Jacir Palace is currently owned by PADICO and is an Intercontinental Hotel but prior to this it has had an interesting history of occupants. In the 40s the British used it as a prison. In the 50s it was a private school called Al-Ummah, and in fact my grandfather Nasri taught there. Al-Ummah was originally located in Al-Baqaa’ in Jerusalem but after the 1948 catastrophe it was relocated to Bethlehem. Later the house became a public boys’ school and at a later stage was transformed into a public girls’ school. Ironically, I recently saw in an Israeli tourist guide the Jacir Palace described as built by a “Turkish Ottoman merchant.” This is not surprising, as they are working on all fronts to erase and distort our history.

My father did not have the opportunity to go to college until the age of 33. He was newly married with kids on the way and working full-time yet he managed to get his B.A. degree. He kept struggling so that eventually he got his M.B.A degree at the age of 39 from the University of Chicago, which was a major achievement. Of course, he could have never accomplished this without the help and support of my mother who worked at a retail job selling clothes and did things like hand sew clothes for us to wear. My father would work full-time and take night courses, and then he would come home where my mother would have dinner waiting for him. Right after he was finished eating, she would make him study until the wee hours of the morning. He said there was no way he could have done it without her. Her background was different from that of my father. She was well-educated at a young age and already had a bachelor’s degree at the time of her marriage. Her dream was to get a master’s degree which she started to slowly work on after getting married.

Eventually my father decided he was willing to go live in a country where he would be deemed a “guest worker” and be made to feel estranged. This was Saudi Arabia and he accepted it so that his kids could have a better life then he did. Most importantly he wanted us to have a chance to have what he couldn’t get until he was in his mid-30s – a college education. Saudi Arabia was not easy for my parents and they had to make huge sacrifices and adjustments. They were forbidden from practicing their religion and their culture. They were forbidden from holding hands, or displaying any signs of public affection. We could not study in an Arabic school because we were not Saudi nationals so the only option was to attend a foreign school. There was no cinema, no dance and no theatre. At one point my mother found out about a dance teacher who secretly gave dance lessons and she immediately signed me and my sister up. But, alas, the teacher was found out and promptly thrown out of the country (along with my eight-year-old dream of becoming a professional dancer).

All foreign teenagers in Saudi Arabia at that time were forced to leave to pursue their high school education outside the country as it was forbidden for them to stay. Coming from a traditional Bethlehem family you can imagine what a sacrifice this was for my father to have to send his children away from him. It was unheard of and heartbreaking for him. I will never forget the day I left home for Italy at the age of 14. My father (who was always open and free with his emotions, which is another reason he is my hero) wept openly as he hugged me goodbye.

In Saudi Arabia, my mother could no longer pursue her master’s degree and had to give that up. She managed, however, to become the first Arabic teacher at the American School in Riyadh. She also got involved in several Saudi women’s groups. Best of all, she refused to wear the black abaya. She thought it was too dark and depressing and decided to make her own. Her abaya was also black, and followed the rules by covering her body head to toe, but it was covered in giant, brightly coloured flowers – they were pink, purple and green. When I was a young girl I was embarrassed at the way she stuck out of the crowd and wished she would wear a plain black one like me and my sister, but now when I look back at it I am filled with pride.

But we were close to Palestine. We were near our homeland and for my father the most important thing was being able to go back as much as we could. We went back sometimes as often as three times a year in the 70s and 80s via Jordan and the infamous bridge where I have many deeply-engrained memories of being strip searched as a child, and having things like my chewing gum confiscated. Working in Saudi Arabia also gave my father the ability to support his family living in Bethlehem. When I was growing up, he worked almost seven days a week. Office hours were not 9-5; they were 8 a.m. to midnight. He would come home for dinner but then he would rush back to the office where I always felt he worked like a slave. In Bethlehem, it seemed our family and others had no idea what our lives were like outside Palestine and I heard them say many things. It didn’t matter what we said, they had a fantasy in their mind about how we lived and nothing would change that. When I would complain about this to my mother, she would just quietly say, “Let them talk.”

I remember walking the streets of Bethlehem as a child and holding my father’s hand. I was always in awe, as it seemed everyone knew him, everyone! My father never got over the fact that his children were growing up away from his parents and extended family. This hurt him and has always made him doubt if he had made the right decision to leave Palestine.

Before my father got married and went to college he worked in Hebron from 1962 until 1969. He worked for UNRWA as the Area Welfare Officer for Hebron and Bethlehem. UNRWA’s headquarters were in Hebron and it covered Bethlehem and all the surrounding villages and refugee camps. My father was in charge of case work, youth activities, welfare distribution, and the sewing centres in Bethlehem, Hebron, and the Arroub, Fawwar and Dheisheh camps. He also supervised case workers, youth leaders and sewing centre supervisors. This job gave him the opportunity to travel to the USA for the first time in 1966 as a representative of Jordan to the Chicago International Program for Youth Leaders and Social Workers. He spent four months in America and visited New York, Washington and Chicago. As a joke, they decided to dress in stereotypical Arab costumes when they flew to America to play with American misconceptions of who we Arabs are.

During his eight years as a social worker, he used to commute daily to work in Hebron from Bethlehem. He rode bus number 23 which originated in Jerusalem and made its way along the Jerusalem-Hebron Road passing through Bethlehem and then onwards to Hebron. He tells me that he had fun on his daily bus ride. In those days it was a long trip, depending on the weather and traffic; it normally took anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes for him to get to the UNRWA office. I tried to find this bus a few weeks ago. It no longer runs. It stopped running ten years ago. Nowadays, there is also no way to get from Bethlehem to Hebron on the Jerusalem-Hebron Road as the Israelis have chopped it into pieces and blocked it in several places. I tried to follow its route but instead of the wide, open road I found various checkpoints and at several points the Wall completely closed the road off. It seems like it was only a few short years ago when I could follow this exact route.

My father was at work in Hebron when the war broke out on June 5th, 1967. He managed to return to the UNRWA office in Bethlehem on UNRWA transportation. From there he walked home as the Israelis were shelling the city. Meanwhile, my mother was on her way from Amman to Bethlehem. Her car was attacked by the Israeli army and was run over by a tank. She spent three days hiding in the hills and then made it back to Bethlehem on foot.

My father eventually realized that UNRWA was created to ensure that we remain beggars and never create the means to help ourselves. UNRWA seemed to do nothing but keep us stagnant and in a state of permanent waiting.

He left.


This photo essay was taken on the day I tried to follow the route of bus number 23, my father’s daily commute to Hebron. He was right. They have completely encircled us, not only by settlements, but by the Wall and the by-pass roads. Bethlehem is a ghetto.

Emily Jacir is an artist who employs a variety of media in her practice including video, photography, performance, installation and sculpture. Opening this month is her solo exhibition at the Alberto Peola gallery in Torino and a group show at Palazzo Papesse in Siena. She is one of the curators of the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival, which also opens this month. This article first appeared on her blog

This Week in Palestine

February 2007

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