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The Vagabond Café and Jerusalem’s Prince of Idleness

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 03.06.2008:

Salim Tamari

Jerusalem Quarterly

October 2003

Issue 19

The return of Khalil Sakakini from his American sojourn in the autumn of 1908 was an occasion for contemplating the creation of a new kind of cultural space: the literary café; a public meeting place to accommodate his newly-formed circle of literati, the “Party of the Vagabonds” (hizb al-sa’aleek). For Sakakini and many like-minded intellectuals of the period, the time was ripe. The new Ottoman constitution had just been declared and calls for decentralization, Arab autonomy and freedom of press and assembly were spreading throughout Syria and Palestine. Sakakini was penniless and heavily in debt. To supplement his teaching income he became a copy editor in two Jerusalem newspapers, al-Quds owned by George Habib, and al-Asma’i, a literary paper that had just been published by the al-Issa family in the Old City. 1 In 1911, the al-Issa brothers, Dawood and Issa, moved to Jaffa where they launched Falastin, the newspaper that became an instrument of the national movement and often clashed with both the Ottoman and British Mandate authorities.

In this essay I will attempt to trace the appearance and demise of a literary café, Maqha al-Sa’aleek (“Vagabond Café”), and its association with Sakakini’s circle of vagabonds in Ottoman Jerusalem during and immediately after World War I. Sakakini’s philosophy of pleasure (falsafat al-surur) and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that prevailed in Jerusalem during and immediately after the war years constituted the social milieu for this café-circle. I will also introduce Maqha al-Sa’aleek in the context of the earlier evolution of similar cafés in Ottoman Syria and Egypt.

A New Kind of Public Space

Jerusalem, as all medium-sized Arab cities of that period, had two kinds of public spaces where urbanites engaged in celebratory events. These were the major family revelries associated with weddings, births, circumcisions, baptismals and the like – all of which were celebrated within the confines of the household; and religious ceremonials involving ritual celebrations and processions. Those included Ramadan processions, Sabt en Nur (“Saturday of Fire,” following Good Friday processions), Nebi Musa, Purim, and al-Khader. Although obviously religious in character, many of these ceremonials had acquired a clearly worldly, if not mundane, character by the turn of the century. Some, like the Nebi Musa processions, were religious occasions that became almost exclusively nationalist in character. Nabi Rubeen celebrations in the south of Jaffa, in which Jerusalemites participated, had entirely lost their ostensible religious character by the end of the nineteenth century.

In earlier periods – probably around the sixteenth century – coffeehouses emerged elsewhere in the Arab world as an Arab (or rather Islamic) response to the taverna; that is, a site for secular socialization that did not serve proscribed substances.2 Ralph Mattox argues that the absence of a restaurant tradition in the early modernity of Middle Eastern towns (except for the traditional merchants’ khans for overnight stays) made the coffeehouse a necessary instrument for receiving guests outside the more intimate confines of the house. The domestic atmosphere of the house was too restricting, and the new public space of the café allowed the host to forgo issues of rank and prestige, which had permeated social interaction in family-controlled environments. “This would imply,” according to Hattox, “a subtle shift in the relationship of host and guest, and a break, if only symbolic, with old values.”3 It was this break that created a café atmosphere that was both informal and potentially dangerous. The danger did not come from coffee as a drink (which was attacked early on by some ulama as potentially intoxicating),4 but from the atmosphere associated with the coffeehouse, and the recreational activities that were soon to be hosted in it.

By the late Ottoman period Levantine coffeehouses served a predominantly transient population. Initially they served three kinds of clientele.5 In areas surrounding public buildings (land registries, courts, police stations) they received clemencers, applicants, and people waiting for official redress of grievances. Those cafés usually included a katib adiliyyah, or public scribe, who filled out official forms and petitions for a fee. A second type of café began to proliferate in mid-nineteenth century provincial centres, serving the travellers discharged from carriages and motor vehicles in the local square. A third type of café evolved in port cities and served mainly sailors, travel agents, and customs officers. These last two brands of cafés branched into other economic and social functions, becoming hang-abouts for porters, stevedores, and other itinerant workers seeking work and poste restentes for those bearing letters and packages to be picked up later by other clients.

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