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Talbiyeh Days: At Villa Harun ar-Rashid

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 29.11.2007:

George Bisharat


Jerusalem Quarterly

Issue 30

Spring 2007

My paternal grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat, built a home in the Talbiyeh quarter of Jerusalem, outside and to the west of the Old City, in 1926. This was the same neighbourhood where Edward Said was born in 1935. I’m not aware that my family and Edward’s crossed paths during those years, although it is likely they did, given the intimacy of Palestinian society then and even today. Nonetheless, our two families, in many ways, followed similar trajectories. Like Edward’s father, Wadi’, my grandfather eventually shifted his business activities in Cairo. The family traversed the same Cairo-Jerusalem-Beirut axis, with its concentration of economic, political-administrative, and educational-cultural resources, that Edward’s family and many others did. My father and his brothers attended the American University of Beirut. Like Edward, they eventually came to the United States for education (in my father’s case, advanced medical training) and, after the Nakba (the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948), remained here.

My father shared Edward’s deep appreciation of Western classical music, and was an accomplished painter, having been influenced by New England artist Charles Burchfield. He took up such quintessentially American pastimes as hunting and fly fishing. As a youth, I witnessed many curious encounters between my father, this shotgun-toting Palestinian psychiatrist with his elegantly-accented English, and American farmers and ranch hands whose fields we sought to hunt. Occasionally, my father would attempt a kind of folksy American vernacular, which, to me as a young teenager, was acutely embarrassing. These exchanges between figures almost emblematic of cultural poles always seemed to me fraught with potential disaster (although, on the positive side, at least we were armed, too!). But, to my amazement, they inevitably ended warmly–a tribute, perhaps, to some facility in crossing divides and making human connections that my father brought with him from home. More than once my father dispensed on-the-spot medical advice to these Americans, who opened their lands and hearts to him.

Like Edward, my father could have easily turned his back on Palestine, and his past, and enjoyed a comfortable and fulfilling life in the United States–but chose not to. Instead, they both remembered. This tradition of remembering has continued in successive generations of the Palestinian Diaspora.

So why do those of us who could forget choose not to? That is the question that I will try to answer, by way of an account of one sliver of Palestinian society of the pre1948 period, the one lived by my family, and some reflection on what it signifies to remember it.

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