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Cosmopolitan Jerusalem: Missionary Presence and the Modernisation of Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.07.2008:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

For the past century Jerusalem has stood apart from the rest of Palestine with its distinctive cosmopolitan character. From all over Palestine parents would send off their children to Jerusalem’s boarding schools. For the girls there were many options: the Schmidt School, the Sisters of Zion, the Rosary Sisters, the Jerusalem Girls’ College, etc. The boys would invariably be sent to the Frères school, Terra Santa, or St. George. Ours was not the first Moslem generation in missionary schools. In fact, I was registered there by my grandfather, Jacob Nuseibeh, himself a graduate of the Frères high school and a student of the famous biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright.

The study of the complex underpinnings of missionary institutes and the role they played in the dissemination of Western culture in Al Quds, which led to the city’s emerging cosmopolitan character during the British Mandate, has been overlooked. The Nakba, the fall of Jerusalem in 1948, and the analysis of the political tribal factionalism leading to the catastrophic loss of Palestine have dominated Palestinian consciousness.

Early nineteenth-century Jerusalem was still dominated by traditional Islam, and the diverse Sufi schools still proliferated. Almost every family had its Sufi salon: the Husseinis were Khalwatieh, the Qleibos, known then as Ek Khalyly el Tamymy el Dary, were of the Jilani Sufi School and held the zikr at home. Similarly the Abu Sa’ud family, the Alamis, the Qutobs, the Jarallahs, and the Dawudi Dajanis – each family had its own Sufi salon. I use the word “salon” to distinguish between family Sufism and Sufism practiced in the various zawiehs of Jerusalem. Even my family name Qleibo was a nickname of my father’s grandfather, a shafi’ jurisprudent, who was also the head of the Jilani Sufi tariqah. His favouring the knowledge of God, gnosis, through the heart (qalb) rather than through total reliance on reason earned him the nickname Qulay’bo (knowledge through the heart), which became our family name in the years to come.

Life in the 1820s was extremely traditional and conservatively ruled by Moslem precepts. In the Moslem court registry of that period we learn that drinking coffee in coffeehouses produced quite a controversy since coffee was considered an intoxicant that alters the state of consciousness. A special fatwa, permission by the grand mufti, finally settled the problem. The famous historian Aref el Aref describes the dismay and the riots against the introduction of the British and French non-Muslim consulates to Al Quds al Sharif in the 1840s. The consulates were conditionally tolerated provided that, among many other conditions, the flags of these diplomatic missions would not be hoisted except on special Moslem occasions; the birthday of the prophet and the two major Moslem holidays. Ultimately, Mr. James Finn, the Jerusalem-based British consul, played a major role in preparing the ground for Jewish immigration and colonisation of Palestine!

To appreciate the totally Moslem character of 1830 Jerusalem, i.e., before the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate circa 1840, prior to the 1854 Crimean War and the consequent Ottoman Sultan’s concessions to his French and British allies, we have to imagine a Jerusalem urban landscape that bears no resemblance to the present. In 1820 Al Quds al Sharif had neither the Lutheran nor the Franciscan belfry in its silhouette. Neither the Latin Patriarchate in the New Gate quarter nor the Frères’ three-storey edifice nor the Franciscan complex, which included the first modern carpentry, the European blacksmith, and the print house, would have existed. Imagine el Waad St. and the Via Dolorosa without the Austrian Hospice and without the immense edifice of Ecce Homo, which used to house the Sisters of Zion Girls’ School!

Outside the walls, olive groves, vineyards, and sesame and wheat fields covered the slopes from New Gate to Herod’s Gate and clambered up Mt. Scopus. In these fields not a single trace of the Notre Dame Centre, St. Louis Hospital, or St. Stephen’s Monastery. The Russian compound would not be discerned. A few fortified houses, among which was Qasr el Sheikh el Khalyly, my family home on the grounds of the Palestinian museum, dotted the landscape. On the slopes of the Mount of Olives, a few meters from Gethsemane, the Ansari Qasr (castle home) is another silent witness to the Moslem reclusive reticence of the 1830s.

I was often puzzled by a vitrine in the Moslem Museum on the grounds of the Noble Sanctuary that held my great-grandfather’s colourful clothes. His frock was quilted of brocaded colourful silk that combined golden yellow, orange, green, and blue topped with a green turban. He died circa 1760, a few decades before Napoleon’s expedition to Palestine and before Arabs adopted the Western concept of dark, grave, sombre colours as signs of manly attire!

I have inherited my father’s grandmother’s green bride’s chest (father was born in 1897). That seems to be the only movable furniture in use then. Her clothes and jewellery were stored inside. The old family home in Qasr el Sheikh did not have furniture in the modern sense. It had mattresses, cushions, small wooden round tables, and a tablieh for eating. Chairs, tables, armoires (closets), beds, etc. would not have existed. The rakzeh, the niche in the wall, remained a practical architectural feature in which blankets, pillows, duvets, and mattresses were stored for the day. Most of my home furnishing comes from father’s salon and dates to the World War One era. Kitchens and toilets were still outhouses. Public baths were in use. In short, the aesthetics, values, and lifestyle of our great-grandparents are difficult to conjure.

The repercussions of introducing the chair and dining table into the Jerusalem house towards the end of the nineteenth century cannot be underestimated. The Salesian brothers’ workshops (carpentry, blacksmith, printing press) within the grounds of the Franciscan monastery, the introduction of European literature into the Frères’ school curriculum, the great library of the Dominican brothers, and the corollary messianic rediscovery of the Land of the Bible culminated within the context of British-Mandate unprecedented cash flow in the production of a new consciousness. This cultural transition was paralleled by the transformation of architecture; from the big family homes that housed the extended family to the smaller single-family villas of the thirties in Katamon and Baq’a and the yet-smaller contemporary apartments along the Sho’fat and Beit Hanina road. Henceforth, for the beneficiaries of this readily available Western infrastructure in Jerusalem, the discourse with the self becomes conditioned by Western humanist discourses.

By the turn of the twentieth century Christian missions in Jerusalem had already succeeded in providing a safe locus whereby the local Arab population could profit from full exposure to Western civilisation. Albeit within a monastic context, our Moslem identity was not threatened – evangelising was confined to intra-Christian conversions. Within the context of the Christian missions, the privileged Jerusalemite had the best of the two worlds. One slept in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock in the Moslem Quarter but spent the school day in the Christian Quarter studying under the tutelage of French, Italian, Spanish, Maltese, Irish, and German friars.

During the British Mandate, the curriculum was defined by the London matriculation exams known also as the GCE, General Certificate for English Education. Mine was the last generation to study Arabic as a second language. Our predecessors were readily employed within the British Mandate administration. Jerusalem was depopulated soon after the Nakba. The veil of nostalgic melancholy, al huzon, which has come to be inextricably linked to the experience of Jerusalem, developed in the fifties and sixties. Fairuz’ eulogy on al huzon in Jerusalem added the dimension of nobility to our pathos.

No one is in. Don’t call out. No one is in.

Dark, an empty road and a forlorn bird hovers in the sky.

Their doorway is bolted and the grass has covered their stairway.

What do you say, Have they become an echo?

No one is in.

As early as 1912, when my father had bought his one-way ticket to America, he had been saturated with the concept of Western individualism. It was not wealth he was after, but rather self-actualisation. My father used to mock our presumptuous assumption that our generation, the counter-culture generation of the sixties, had discovered the concept and sense of independence.

“I wanted to be independent when I was fourteen,” Father would say.

Father was vain, extremely elegant, and very self-conscious of his image. Not only was he a perfect dresser but every hair would be in its place.

“I was combing my hair,” he said “when I felt a big slap across my face!”

His older brother was a strict disciplinarian.

“At our time it was vanity to look into the mirror, and that was a sin,” he explained.

I always thought that their way – the Hamidy way (after Sultan Abd El Hameed) – was strange. I listened to father’s struggle with Hamidy social values as though it were fiction since it had no bearing on my life.

“Whereas my brother Abed el Razzak was diligent (he had studied at Istanbul University), I did not like school,” father would assert.

My uncle was a goal-oriented achiever. From a family of theologians he eventually assumed high positions in the Ottoman administration and was promoted to the position of governor, Qa’em maqam, in Acre and was the last governor of Beer Sheva.

“My brother would not permit me to see the puppet shadow plays (karakoze) or allow me to enjoy anything. I decided to go to America. I bought my ticket.”

“You really wanted to go to America?” This always puzzled me because I always imagine how different my life would have been had he gone.

“Two days before my departure I realised that I needed a hat so I went to a hat shop. I was trying one on when my maternal uncle, Najati Dajany, entered the shop.”

“Hussein what are you buying a hat for?’

“I am going to America and I thought that with the hat I shall blend in easily.”

“Do you know anyone there? he asked.


“Why are you going?”

“I want to be independent.”

“What will you do when you get off the boat? Do you think that you will find work immediately?”

“I have money. I will manage.” And he told him the sum.

“If you have that much money, then you are already independent. You don’t need to leave Jerusalem to be independent.”

Father never went to America

Ironically one hundred and twenty years later, the missionary institutes have become national Palestinian symbols. Two weeks ago I became disenchanted with both the French Lycée and the Anglican school and decided to register my daughter Aida at an all-Arab school. I took her to the Frères school where she would have a national Palestinian education. I was pleasantly surprised to be met by some of my old teachers and colleagues from school days. They were busy preparing for next year’s celebration of Jerusalem: Arab Capital of Culture. Among many interesting items, Ustaz Abu Said and Dr. Isliman Rabadi showed me a collection of essays written in the 1920s and 1930s by Frères’ students. As I leafed through them I was shocked. It is my own writing, my own sense of composition, my own way of organising ideas, and my own rhythm and feel. The essays written eighty years ago were a mirror image of me. My linear analytical codification of reality in a literary form, albeit ethnographic, had its roots in the same classroom. Monday was the Arabic essay, Tuesday was the English essay, and Wednesday was the French essay. Throughout the ten years of writing, and as we moved from class to class, the number of words increased from 250 words an essay to the 1,500-word essays of the graduation class.

Baudelaire, Keats, and Wordsworth; Moliere, Racine, and Shakespeare; Charles Dickens, the Brontes, and D.H. Lawrence infused our lives with compassion and the lust for life and meaning. The weekly composition classes gave form to our thoughts. I am the product of the 120-year presence of the Western missionary schools in Jerusalem.

I still remember the sunny morning fifty years ago when my grandfather and father took me by hand up the stairs leading from the church of the Holy Sepulchre towards the Casa Nova Hotel, past St. Demetrius Monastery, a curving lane, then more steps and past the Pontifical Mission Library to register me at the Frères’ school at New Gate.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he lectures at Al Quds University and regularly participates in the cultural programmes of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

July 2008

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