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Sami Mustaklem, fireman

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 08.01.2008:

Putting out Jerusalem’s Fires

Civil defense under Jordan and Israel

Charmaine Seitz


Jerusalem Quarterly

Summer 2005

On July 22, 1946, Sami Mustaklem was car shopping with his wife in Jerusalem. The manager of Bartlett’s Bank had a honey of a vehicle for sale and was just quoting Sami Mustaklem’s Memories the then-town magistrate a price when they heard a loud explosion, and debris rainedof Civil Defense under down. The hapless couple raced inside the Old City walls, where they heard that the King David Hotel had been bombed; later it was learned that explosion set by the Jewish Irgun had killed 91. The next day, when Mustaklem returned to work at the town planning building just down the road, he saw bodies being lifted out of the rubble. He didn’t buy that car.

But the day was marked in Mustaklem’s mind as a seminal moment in the passing of the British Mandate and the beginning of his long career as the head of Jerusalem’s fire department under Jordanian and then Israeli control. There weren’t so many blazes in this city of stone, but the fire brigade formed one of the hubs of civil defense through conflict and wars.

First, however, there were months of uncertainty. The departure of the British Authorities meant instability and few jobs. Mustaklem’s luck was to find work abroad with Aramco; he flew to the Gulf from Qalandia airport on Lebanon’s Middle East Air. After four years he returned with joy to his family to work as an inspector of public works under the Jordanians. Then, in 1957, fire chief Mahmoud Shuabi passed away and Mustaklem was hired to take his place after an arduous application process and meetings with mayor Ruhi al-Khatib. He was trained in Zarka at a military school in fire safety, firefighting, the deployment of ropes as rescue lifts, and the use and care of ambulances and fire engines. The Jordanians, like governments before them, saw the civil defense brigades as a bridge to the local population.

“Greek Fire”

The history of firefighting is tied to the exercise of empire, with the Roman emperor Augustus reportedly instituting a corps of fire-fighting vigiles [watchmen] in 24 BC. This organization included the institution of regulations for fire prevention, and the hiring of a watchman to keep lookout. Buckets were used, passed down a line of people, to carry water to a blaze. Axes and building-toppling hooks were also employed to create fire breaks and prevent the flames from spreading.

But the Fatimids were particularly adept at both using and fighting fires. It was a major component of the modern warfare that they waged in sweeping west across Europe and into Palestine. Learning fire’s power first-hand when Constantine twice waged war against them employing a mysterious concoction called “Greek fire”, the Arabs developed a reputedly weaker flammable liquid of napha, sulfur and quicklime. From ramparts and the bows of ships, bronze tubes were used to deliver the weapon. Glass was filled with the concoction – the early molatov cocktail – and hurled at the other side.

To defend against this weapon, the Crusaders developed a fire-fighting and rescue service. The Knights of St. John, as they were called, used the symbol of the Maltese Cross, which remains part of the western firefighting tradition. The lore around these knights repeated through firemen’s associations today ascribes to them the “first” organized hospital and the “heroic” Crusader’s battles against Suleiman the Magnificent.1 (Interestingly, there is little archeological evidence to support the idea that the Muslim advance on Palestine was accompanied by the burning and physical destruction of cities – this must have been solely a weapon of immediate battle.)

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