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Feast days in Jerusalem as they used to be

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 28.05.2006:

The following are remembrances of Subbi Ghosheh:

One of my friends recently asked me, a tone of blame in his voice, why I had stopped sending cards for various feast days, and why I never seemed to enjoy any of these occasions. I did not deny this, for I have definitely neglected some wonderful traditions since I was forced to leave Jerusalem. I am neither the first nor the last person to experience such loss; many others before and after me have known it. Quite a few centuries ago one medieval poet expressed this in verse:

Jerusalem, not one cloud ever passed over my head

without my addressing it, brokenly,

‘By God, pass over Jerusalem, cloud,

carry my greetings to its valleys and hills.’

I’ve been bitterly separated from you

my eyes are almost blind from crying

After you my eyes can only see the world

as a dismal night of a dark day.

Feasts began early, in advance of the official days, increasing our joys and excitement, until the day before the eve of the feast; then the eve of the feast; then the feast day itself. Children used to gather in groups and roam around the streets and quarters singing, “Tomorrow is the feast and we’ll celebrate it…”

For children, feast preparations took place on many levels. Some families began by buying clothes or sewing new ones for the kids. Two or three days before the feast, fathers used to accompany their sons to the shopping centers to buy them new suits or new pairs of shoes. We were not allowed to keep those new clothes near us until the night before the feast. Then we’d put our new shoes near our beds or even under the sheets with us, and drape the new suits nearby to prepare for wearing them the next morning. The same thing happened for the girls. Mothers used to take their daughters to the dressmaker to have new dresses made for them if they couldn’t make them at home; in those days most of our women were clever in the arts of sewing and embroidery, as well as cooking and taking care of large families with many children. They did this to perfection, without any outside help.

Despite the limited means of our families during those days, they used to save as much as they could to buy special treats for the feast. Children’s clothes were always bought before adults’. However, sometimes even this was difficult. Parents would resort to other means that made children happy and preserved the family’s pride at the same time.

As for shoes, Abu Daud, the cobbler, knew how to apply soles which made shoes practically new again, and how to patch them so their holes would not show. He would polish repaired shoes with great care so they looked as if they were new. Even socks could be skillfully mended on heels and lower parts.

Then there was the lamb of the feast. If a family could afford to buy one, it was butchered early in the morning. Women woke up early with the dawn’s adhan and began preparing primuses and large pots, as well as the stuffing for the lamb. As for the feast bread, it was made of a special kind of dough with added spices, anice or qazha or fennel. It would be baked either on the eve of the feast or in the early morning together with the feast cakes, and ma’mul which they used to prepare at night. Families used to agree with the bakers to send them the baker’s boy early. He would return with their baked bread first, in exchange for a generous tip. The main feast sweet was baklava, made those days with authentic butter and nuts and almonds and pistachios. It would be ordered long before the feast, but the baklava tray was to arrive only on the morning of the feast day. The two most famous baklava makers in Jerusalem were Abu Tal’at Habb Rumman and Zalatimo, but many others had sweet shops too. Families who could not afford a whole large tray of this sweet would buy baklava or ma’mul or cakes by the kilogram from various shops, or from the spreads which were set up in front of Damascus gate all during the feast.

Most people, whether young or old, wanted to appear at their best the first days of the feast. So the barber shops would be crowded on the eve. We had to wait in line for a long time. When I was a little boy I used to have my hair cut at Abu Ramzi’s at the Silsila gate. A haircut for children cost two millims on ordinary days, and half a piaster or even a whole piaster during the feast period. Traveling barbers would even set up jerry cans in the streets, particularly at the Jaffa or Damascus gates, where the customer would sit, and they’d cut his hair very quickly or give him a nearly clean shave for two millims or half a piaster. After the haircut came the bath so each child could welcome the feast with a clean body. We welcomed this so we could wear our new clothes. Most people in those days did not have bath tubs or showers. The water would be heated in a jerry can over the primus and poured on the body from a round vessel or bowl. The skin would be scrubbed with a scratchy leafah and soaped briskly with Nablus soap.

In those days we led lovely domestic lives that were almost uniform all over the country. We made rounds of our aunts and uncles, kissing their hands. During feast days the kissing of the hands was always followed by good wishes for many happy returns of the feast, after which we always received the ‘idiyyeh — sometimes a shilling and sometimes ten piasters or two shillings. Then we would wait until our grandfather, father, and uncles had finished their prayers and walk out with them in a single file headed toward the old city, where the Aqsa mosque is. The road would be crowded with neighbours and peasants who had come walking from their villages for the feast prayer at the Aqsa. One of the loveliest scenes my memory retains is this vision of the affection and warm unity of society in those days. We’d see handshakes and hear congratulations and good wishes passing from person to person whether the people knew one another or not. Congratulations were a holy duty which everyone was committed to offer.

After I finished my university education, I continued our family traditions for the first days of the feast. We added trips to Qibya or the Solomon ponds or the Rawda gardens in Jericho with other Palestinian families, until the Destroyer of All Joys and the Separator of People came with the Zionist occupation, and the feasts lost their glamour and merriment. But I never felt we lost our authenticity and attachment to our traditions until I was forced to leave Jerusalem. Even now I still practice a few of those traditions, and yearn to go back to my roots in Jerusalem, so the joys of the feast might once again feel complete.

Translated by Salwa Jabsheh and Naomi Shihab Nye

Source: Salma Khadra Jayyusi (ed.), Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992.

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