Jamila Freij (Umm Sam‘an) was born in 1930 in “new” Jerusalem, what is now called West Jerusalem. Her family had lived in Jerusalem’s Old City for 15 generations until 1925 when her father and his brother built houses in Bak‘a (which means “beautiful area”), then an unpopulated land outside the Old City walls. The family fled their homes just days before the establishment of the state of Israel. They never returned. Umm Sam‘an describes their life in Bak‘a, their flight in 1948 and return to the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and the family&rsuqo;s disintegration.
A mother of four and widowed for the past 17 years, Umm Sam‘an is a social worker who has worked on mother-and-child health issues in Ramallah area villages since 1964. She is known in the villages for her no-nonsense approach to problems, her natural empathy and advocacy of women’s rights. I spoke with her in her large but spare kitchen in Bayt Hanina while she prepared with her married daughters a Palestinian dish, kufta wa batata bi-tahina, a process which took twice the usual time as she stopped and reminisced about how her life in Jerusalem had been changed by wars.
Bak‘a was empty, land was cheap. I remember there were wild hyenas. We had a big family. My father and uncle built houses next to each other with their family name — Freij — in white tiles on the red carmide roofs.
Our city was full of foreigners: Jews, English, Germans. There was Arab and Jewish segregation. Our street was all-Arab, Muslim and Christian; Jews lived nearby but there were strict boundaries. For example, my father ran a liquor shop; he bought ‘araq from Bethlehem or Ramallah, but wine and spirits from Jews in Rishon [south of Tel Aviv] and sold them to Arabs. Jews never came to Arab shops, although Arabs frequently shopped in Jewish areas. We did business with them but — like today — whenever anything happened we were as one against them. As Christians, we were taught to be against them, for religious reasons.
In 1936, when the Arab revolt began, we stayed home from school for six months and my father’s shop was closed. Three of my uncles were arrested. Two were sentenced to six months for bringing goods from Iraq. Everyone respected my Uncle Foti, a doctor, who spent two years in jail for being a member of the Higher Arab Committee. He went on to become minister of economics in the first Palestine government, set up in Gaza in 1948. He died in Lebanon of Alzheimer’s disease in 1956. We all knew it was from the shock of the loss of our country.
The best times for us were during World War II. Although there were blackouts, there were no direct problems affecting us. We felt the British were foreigners ruling us and a day would come when they would leave.
In Jerusalem, there were protests against large groups of immigrants who were being brought into our country. Our family supported the protests but did not participate in them. My father always said, “Politics is a waste of time.”
I went to a German Catholic school and many of my teachers were put into camps. The Schmidt School was well-known as the best school. My sisters and cousins all went there. The boys in the family went to al-Nahda which was run by a Lebanese man. I was forced to leave in the eleventh grade, when I was engaged, in 1947. I married in September of that year. If I had known there would be war, I would not have married.
My husband and I lived only two months in our own house; it was the last Arab house, on the last piece of land, before the Jewish settlement of Biker Ha‘im. The Egged bus company only served the Jewish areas; the number 7 bus went past our house and to the settlement without stopping. Sharikat al-Basat al-Wataniyya [the National Bus Company] was the Arab bus company; it went everywhere in Palestine.
The partition of Palestine was the beginning of our troubles. We were very afraid. The Jews used to explode houses on people while they were asleep. The first three nights after [the United Nations] partition [decision] were unbearable. Our Arab neighborhood was very small and next to a large Jewish settlement which was surrounded by trees, like a screen. On the third night, we moved all of our new wedding furniture to my parent’s house and never went back. We stayed at my parent’s in Bak‘a until May 1948, when we were forced to leave again.
We were the last family to leave the neighborhood on May 2, 1948. I was nine months pregnant. I didn’t want to leave and I argued with my mother. She said, “They will open your stomach and take your baby!” We had heard what happened at Dayr Yasin just a few weeks before. So we left: my grandmother, my parents, my eight brothers and sisters, my husband and I. We had a truck and took a cupboard and some mattresses. My uncle’s family, who lived next door, also loaded a truck with the children and their few possessions.
We went to Bethlehem where we rented a room. My father, my husband and my eldest brother commuted from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for work. My grandmother had gone to the Old City to visit relatives, and for 20 days we were separated because of the fighting and the roadblocks. There were 5,000 mortars in one night in the Old City. Then my grandmother walked back to Bethlehem with a donkey and a guide she had paid because the roads were so dangerous.
We stayed three months in Bethlehem. I delivered my first child in the rented room. Jerusalem became partitioned and our house, my school, my father’s shop — everything I knew was now in the Jewish part. Jordan built a wall to show where no man’s land was. It was four to five meters high. I would stand in front of that wall and sigh and curse.
They began a new road to Jerusalem [from Bethlehem] in June, but still it took three hours by bus. My husband and I had no choice but to move to the Old City, to one room in someone’s house in Harat Espaniol in the Christian Quarter. The conditions were very bad. Two other rooms in the house were rented to other families. There was one toilet for the whole house, one water tap, and a space for a kitchen. We stayed there one month, then moved to another family’s house which was slightly larger. We remained for four months but then we had to move to my parent’s house because we were unable to pay the rent of four Palestinian pounds.
My husband had lost his job with the municipality; only one third of the work force was kept after the war. He worked in a bar which served ‘araq and turmus (wax beans) for men. After that he worked in a grocery, then in another bar, until he got a job in Nablus with UNRWA.
We stayed with my parents for another four months. When I was pregnant with my second child, we moved to the Assyrian neighborhood, to a slightly larger house we could afford. We were very poor. We ate eggs only twice a week and lived on beans, rice and some milk. I made my own bread which I sent out to a local oven for baking.
From 1953 to 1965 we lived in the Old City in one room in my husband’s family’s house. Life was awful. It was the worst, sharing everything, even the toilet. I was not raised in this way. All at once my life had deteriorated. Our family soon separated. My father ran a lemonade factory in the Old City after he lost his shop. When he died in 1956, my brothers couldn’t manage the business. My uncles went to Lebanon and Syria where they started clothing factories; they asked for my brothers to go and help them. My eldest brother went to Iraq to try to find work. In 1959, my mother also left for Syria. She cried; she did not want to leave her sisters and sisters-in-law.
Transportation and communication was easy then between Palestine and the Arab world. Even though family members might live in Syria or Jordan, their ties to Jerusalem were close. We could travel in one day — without permits or payments other than the taxi. My family came often to Jerusalem for visits. Although my youngest sister was raised in Syria with my mother, she was married in Jerusalem.
By 1965, we needed more room. My son, three daughters, my husband and I were still sharing one room. There was no place in the Old City, so we rented a house in Bayt Hanina [a northern suburb of Jerusalem]. I was happy to leave the oppression of the Old City. Then another war came [in 1967]. The foreigners left and the schools were closed for one week. We had been told not to go to work. I was home, asleep, when someone said the war had started. It was 9 am…. The first thing the Israelis did was to destroy the wall [dividing the city]. They were not afraid of the Palestinians. I took my daughters to see my family’s house in Bak‘a. The next year it was destroyed and a factory was built in its place.
Now my family can come to Jerusalem only as visitors, with Israeli permission. I have grandchildren who were born in Syria who may not come here at all.