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Khaldiyeh Library in Old City Jerusalem

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 31.05.2006:

By Jamal Qawasmi

My journey to the Khaldiyeh Library in the Old City of Jerusalem was quite difficult due to the obstacles I faced when maneuvering my wheelchair up the steps from the bottom of Al-Wad Street. After reaching the last gate, I found myself staring at a small, attractive and recently renovated building, Al-Khaldiyeh Library. Inside the library I met librarian Haifa Al-Khalidi. I was impressed by the enthusiasm of Haifa who shared with me the history of the library and its contents.

The Khaldiyeh Library was built at the site of Barakeh Khan’s tomb. Khan was an important military leader who entered a war with the Mamluks against the Mongols and died during a battle in Syria. He expressed in his will a desire to be buried in the Holy City of Jerusalem. His two sons, both of whom also became martyrs for the Islamic cause, expressed the same wish, and the two are now buried next to their father, which is why the place became known as the ‘Ground of Barakeh Khan’.

As for the library building itself, ‘Khalidyeh’ refers to the Khalidi family who used to own many properties in Jerusalem. To prevent the loss of any of these properties the family ensured that future generations would be unable to dispose of their birthright. They handed over all properties to the Waqf, the Islamic custodianship. After this, not a single Khalidi was able to sell any of the properties belonging to the family without first getting the permission of a Shari’a court judge. This policy is probably the reason why the library still remains Arab property despite Israeli attempts to take it over.

From the 17th Century on, the Khalidi family gradually amassed a large collection of manuscripts dealing with various subjects, such as religious science, political science, geography and history, amongst others. Today, the Khaldiyeh Library contains 1,278 manuscripts and more than 5,000 printed books.

Founders

The intellectual, national and political awareness for which the Khalidis were renowned was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the joint decision of some members of the Khalidi family to establish the library in 1890. One founder was Yousef Al-Khalidi, then mayor of Jerusalem, and the author of an Arabic-Kurdish dictionary, which still exists. A friend of the 19th Century Arab renaissance intellectual Jamal Ed-Din Al-Afghani, he was sought by the Ottoman Government for his outright opposition to its ruling. Another co-founder, Rawhi Al-Khalidi, was the Consul General of the Ottoman Government in France. He also wrote a number of books, including the famous The Eastern Question.

When the Arab nationalist Taher Al-Jazeeri was expelled from Algeria to Syria, the Khalidi family asked him to index the manuscripts contained in the library, which was to remain open until the early fifties. In the following years, successive members of the Khalidi family, who were all involved in Jordanian politics, did not find enough time to take sufficient care of the library.

Impact of the June War of 1967

Following the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in June 1967, the Khalidi responsible for the library was unable to return from Jordan to Palestine, which is why the Shari’a Court assigned Haidar Al-Khalidi, Haifa’s father, to take charge of the family’s properties. Haifa recalled how the Israeli occupation forces once put a sign on the library: ‘Absentee Property ’65’. Haidar, explained his daughter, ripped the sign down. Immediately, an Israeli officer put his hand on Haidar’s shoulder and said, “You are under arrest! These are State and absentee properties. How can you destroy such a paper?” According to Haifa, the rest of the conversation went something like this:

Haidar: “Do you read Arabic or English?”

Officer: “Yes, of course.”

Haidar: “So tell me, what was written on the sign?”

Officer: “The Khaldiyeh Library.”

Haidar: “Good. Now this is my identity card. As you can see, my name is Haidar Al-Khalidi. This library belongs to me, and I am clearly here and not absent. So what makes you think that it is absentee property?”

The officer left without saying a word.

Other Israeli attempts to obtain Khalidi family properties were more successful. In 1968, the Israeli occupation authorities confiscated a five-floor building belonging to the family and evacuated its inhabitants following an explosion in Al-Wad Street. Ten years later, they gave the building, which adjoins Al-Khaldiyeh Library, to the influential right-wing rabbi Shlomo Goren, who renovated it and turned it into a seminary.

The Israeli Government continued to support the seminary despite the illegal practices and violations committed by its occupants, including changes made to the exterior of the building. At one point Rabbi Goren submitted a letter to the Israeli courts, in which he protested against the renovation of the library’s courtyard, which houses the graves of Barakeh Khan and his two sons. They had been taken over by the seminary and used to erect scaffolding.

During the last incident, the rabbi destroyed a wall that separated the two buildings and attempted to create several windows, forcing the Khalidi family to seek the assistance of the courts and the Jerusalem Municipality to prevent further attacks on their property. The windows were subsequently closed.

Reconstruction

In the early eighties, Walid Sameh Khalidi and partner Jamal Al-A’raj, the son of the mayor of Beit Jala, began drawing up plans for the reconstruction of the library and seeking donations from wealthy Palestinians. Once some US$70,000 had been collected, a renovation application was submitted to the mayor of Jerusalem.

In 1987, the custodian of the building received permission to start the necessary work, which continued until 31 December 1987. Then Walid received notice from the Israeli court to stop all renovation work in the library. Around this time, Rabbi Goren visited Haifa in her home, and after introducing himself and his companion, a female lawyer, he asked to speak to a man. He then passed Haifa an order to stop the renovations and advised her to visit a lawyer.

During the next five years, the Khalidis were taken to court twice. In the first case they were stopped from building a second floor for which they had obtained a permit from the Jerusalem Municipality. While the rabbi continued to do whatever he pleased, the Khalidis were prevented from carrying out much needed work due to so-called security reasons. In the second case the rabbi claimed that the room opposite the reading room of the library belonged to the seminary.

Luckily, says Haifa, a number of people were prepared to testify in court in favor of the library, including Israeli archeologist Dan Bahet and Amnon Cohen, a lecturer at the Hebrew University who specialized in the history of the Ottoman period. Both men had been frequent visitors to the library in the past while preparing their research papers. Bahet was particularly interested in the library from an archeological point of view because of its Mamluk history.

“Of course, we had very strong proof with regard to the true ownership of the building,” says Haifa. “There was a magazine called Levant, issued by the British Archeological School. In 1973, the school sent an archeologist by the name of Archie Wales, and he took photographs of the library and wrote about it in the magazine. In 1978, Rabbi Shlomo confiscated the room, but we were able to prove – due, in part, to the article in Levant – that the room in question was ours. Five years later, we won the case, and the rabbi lost his appeal. Even today the problems continue and students at the seminary frequently throw rubbish into the courtyard and climb over our roof.”

Cleaning

“In the early days, I had no idea about the true value of the books and manuscripts in the library although I spent many hours helping my father to clean and take care of both the library and its contents. In 1967, when my father took charge of the properties and the library, he prepared a list of the names of the books and manuscripts.

“At the time, I had no interest in the hot and stuffy library and would frequently complain about having to spend all my free time dusting and polishing. We used to spend hour upon hour cleaning, and my clothes were always covered in dust. As my father became older, I found myself obliged to help him in many things, including the administration of the custody of the library.”

In 1986, Walid Al-Khalidi sought the help of the researcher Lorenz Conrad, who worked with Haifa for three weeks, during which they separated the manuscripts from the printed material. The manuscripts were subsequently taken to another building belonging to the family.

“Some of the manuscripts were covered with gold and extremely beautiful,” she says. “One particularly interesting manuscript whose first page is covered in gold was written in Hindu, and later translated into Persian and Arabic. It was about that time that I developed a real interest in the library. Now I cannot imagine life without working here.”

The manuscripts are kept in a well-sealed room in special boxes that protect them from the effects of acids. Unfortunately, some of the manuscripts have holes. The holes are caused by humidity and maggots eating away at the pages, says Haifa. “To keep damage to a minimum, we smoke the building once a year in order to kill the maggots and various kinds of insects found inside the books. We have been doing this now for the past four years.”

Current plans for the library involve further renovations, to add a new building, and to prepare an alphabetized and computerized list of the manuscripts. There is also a plan to bind the books, but this, explained Haifa, will require an enormous amount of money.

The researcher Lorenz was accompanied by a Dutch female student from Leiden University in Holland. When the student returned to Holland, her supervisor read the report on the library, and shortly afterwards the Dutch Government, which often grants donations to cultural centers, contacted Walid and promised to grant the library an annual donation of US$350,000 for the next three years. Another contribution of US$60,000 was donated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and yet another of US$31,000 by the Welfare Cooperation Institute. Approximately one year ago, the Arab-Kuwaiti Fund made a further donation of 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars.

Al-Khaldiyeh Library is a beautiful mosaic portraying the history of the Palestinian people, but one that is in need of even greater care and attention.

The Jerusalem Times

10 April 1998

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