The legend of Jaber Yassein
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 07.01.2007:
By Mike Odetalla
“Jaber Yassein” was a name that I heard quite a bit as a young child when I lived in our small village in Palestine. The name seemed to “come up” quite frequently, especially when we kids would intrude or drop in on an adult conversation. The adults would be conversing on a serious subject, and when we would pop in or stop to listen, the name “Jaber Yassein” would pop up out of nowhere and the adults would either change the subject or stop and tell us to leave!
It seemed to me that “Jaber Yassein” was a very well-known and respected man because all the adults in our village knew him and spoke out his name on a regular basis. I even heard his name uttered frequently when the Israeli army would come into our village or when a stranger would come into our village and ask questions. Yes “Jaber Yassein” was indeed a very dark and mysterious man, and I had no idea who he was, how he looked, what he did, where he lived, or if he were still alive at all. I was very curious about this man, as many children my age were, but no one would tell us anything about him. He remained a mystery to me!
That is, until I was 18 years old. In the summer of 1979, I travelled back home to Palestine for the first time since 1969, when I left at the age of 8. It had been 10 years since I last saw my mother, who had been the focus of my life, my inspiration, and my role model (she still is).
Shortly after my arrival, I sat down with my mother and asked her a question that I had been waiting to ask for well over 14 years. It was morning, and we were enjoying a cup coffee – the first time for me as an “adult”- under the canopy of our 75-year-old grapevine that snaked its way around the staircase that led to the second-level veranda and dazzling bunches of golden grapes dangling above our heads. I finally got around to asking her about this mythological figure. I had even heard his name mentioned a few times in America. In fact, it seemed to me that the only people who uttered this man’s name were from our ancestral village of Beit Hanina. No one else seemed to know of him outside our village.
I looked my mother in the eye and asked her point-blank: “Who or what is Jaber Yassein?” I blurted out. She looked at me for a moment, and then let out a loud laugh. “Jaber Yassein?” she asked. “Why are you asking about him?” Patiently, I spelled out my fascination and indeed the curiosity that had been bottled up inside of me for such a long time. I simply wanted to know who this man was and why his name was spoken so often by the elders of our village. For the next hour or so, my mother told me the secret story of “Jaber Yassein …”
It seems that sometime in the early 1900s, the people of Beit Hanina decided that they should form a kind of “village watch” whereby armed men of the village would take turns patrolling the village streets, especially at night. These men were supposed to look out for strangers and thieves who liked to sneak into the villages and steal from them. Also, there was fear of the growing population of Zionists who were seen sneaking in and around the villages, collecting information, and spying. This type of spying by the Zionists helped them immensely in their attacks during the war. They used to go through the villages disguised as surveyors and agricultural experts, often taking precise notes of the strengths and weaknesses of each village. (This was documented in Meron Benvenisti’s book, Sacred Landscapes.) Also, the Zionists would often dress up as Arabs and raid the rural villages of Palestine, sabotaging, killing, and causing much destruction.
The “watchmen” who were going to patrol the village, especially at night, wanted to be able to identify friend from foe from a distance. They didn’t want to have to get up close to people without knowing whether they were from the village or not. After much discussion, it was agreed upon by the people of Beit Hanina that they would employ a “secret password” to be used exclusively among themselves. This password would enable anyone from the village to identify themselves to each other, especially at night, since Beit Hanina, like most rural Palestinian villages, had no electricity!
The password that the people of Beit Hanina agreed on was the nonexistent “Jaber Yassein.” Just by uttering this name, people were allowed safe passage in and around the village. And so the legend of “Jaber Yassein” was born. The cries of “who goes there” would be met with an enthusiastic, “Jaber Yassein!”
The name soon became a codeword used frequently by the villagers of Beit Hanina, especially the elders. If they happened to be discussing something that they didn’t want to share with outsiders or us kids, they would inject the name “Jaber Yassein” into the conversation, whereby everyone knew to either change the subject or just end the conversation. It was widely understood what the codeword meant, and it had many other uses besides what it was originally meant for.
If my mother had guests and could not talk on the phone, she would just say “Jaber Yassein,” and I would know what she meant by it. Also, if I slipped up and said something stupid or inappropriate in front of guests or strangers, all my mom had to do was say “Jabber Yassein,” and I would instinctively know to either shut up or change the subject entirely!
Last summer, while back home in Palestine with my wife and kids, my eldest son came up to me and wanted to know who “Jaber Yassein” was. I asked him where he heard it, and he said that he heard his grandmother say the name to the taxi driver, who was also from Beit Hanina, as we were going through the Israel army checkpoint … The legend of “Jaber Yassein” lives on!
Mike Odetalla, a Palestinian/American businessman and a father of three, was born in 1960 in the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem. He lived through the 1967 War and moved to the US in 1969. Although he has lived in the US since then, he has made numerous trips to his homeland where he still has many family members as well as his family’s lands and orchards. Visit his website at www.hanini.org.
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