Described as “a love letter to Jerusalem,” the historically significant The Bells of Memory: A Palestinian Boyhood in Jerusalem chronicles the life of someone raised in the holy city during the period of political upheaval that led to the establishment of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians following the end of the British Mandate for Palestine on May 14, 1948. The title itself is evocative of a city where the Palestinian presence continues to diminish, yet where ringing reminders of a distant past remain ubiquitous, in this case, for an octogenarian who now calls Montreal home.
Writing in eloquent prose, Issa Boullata’s heartfelt recollections of his formative years are vivid. As the eldest of six children, he describes his childhood in a loving, patriarchal and Orthodox Christian household with parents who did their utmost to shield their children from any feelings of insecurity amid the climate of fear that prevailed.
A gleeful child, Boullata was an earnest and shrewd pupil. He reminisces about the sense of wonderment he experienced on his first day at Thawri Elementary School for Boys and Girls, which was situated in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood atop a mountain. It was an autumn day in 1934 and his teacher had just prompted the students to recite the first prayer in the Quran, Al-Fatiha (The Opening), which they did in unison. Boullata quickly realized the words he was hearing were of a prayer different from the Lord’s Prayer, which he had been taught at home by his parents and was accustomed to dutifully repeating at daybreak and nightfall. Nevertheless, he learned Al-Fatiha and began reciting it aloud with his fellow classmates. It is an anecdote that characterizes the pluralistic nature of Jerusalem’s society at the time, in addition to the harmonious relations that existed amongst its inhabitants, even in times of adversity.
For example, during the 1936–39 Arab revolt, which took place across Palestine against the British Mandate, Boullata recounts how a general strike, which began in April 1936 and lasted for six months, brought life to a standstill. At the time, the Palestinians were demanding that the British suspend Jewish immigration and begin negotiations to form a national government for Palestine. A sense of solidarity was palpable as all Arab shops were closed; all Arab buses and trucks had ground to a halt; all Arab workers refrained from unloading shipments of imports and loading cargoes for export; and all Arab trading had ceased.
Shortages of staples such as rice, bulgur, lentils and flour were ubiquitous and accessible food was scarce. As Boullata recalls,
once in a while, a butcher appeared in our neighbourhood, slaughtered a sheep clandestinely deep in Karm Karimeh, a grove of olive trees on the incline by the main road next to our home, hung the carcass on a tree, and was swarmed by neighbours wanting to buy fresh meat; he had to finish his business quickly before he was discovered by the roving members of the “national committees” who enforced the strike.
Despite the tension, Boullata continued to attend school. In fact, the most profound memory he cherishes from his days at Thawri School for Boys and Girls is that around eight years of age, he succeeded in reading his first book from cover to cover in one sitting. Entitled Al-Dajaja al-Saghira al-Hamra’ (The Little Red Hen), it signified the beginning of a lifelong passion for literature.
Boullata grew up to be a voracious reader and developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, delighting in his interactions with his teachers and fellow classmates, many of whom he would often vie with in class when questions were being posed.
As a high school student at the Collège des Frères, which is an international Catholic teaching order, faith continued to play a fundamental role in Boullata’s life. “As far as I could in my boyhood,” he writes, “I clung to my Orthodoxy, with my parents’ guidance, and I attended the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Mar Ya’coub (St. James) near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the Sundays when I had no school, especially during the summer holidays. This cathedral was the main parish church of the Arab Orthodox community of Jerusalem to which my family belonged.”
Boullata was 19 years of age when Al-Nakba occurred in 1948. (This is the Arabic term that refers to the establishment of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians and it means “The Catastrophe.”) Expressing his agony, he writes, “I saw the Nakba eat away at my country, destroy the fabric of my society, and disperse my people in different directions as Israel rose to become a new nation, a Jewish state, immediately recognized by the US and other countries, while the truncated remnants of Palestine languished in disarray.”
As I read that, I was struck by the sense of powerlessness and regret that Boullata describes, which seems to echo Edward Said’s 1979 manifesto, The Question of Palestine: “the fact of the matter is that today Palestine does not exist, except as a memory or, more importantly, as an idea, a political and human experience, and an act of sustained popular will.”
Boullata explains that he was unwillingly made into a person without a country and that he has been forced to bear the consequences of this reality until the present day. For example, as a result of Al-Nakba, he notes that more than one million Palestinians sought refuge outside of Palestine. In his case, while some members of his extended family fled to the West Bank, others built new lives for themselves in Jordan, Egypt, America and Canada, leaving behind all they had lost, their livelihoods, homes, lands and properties. Boullata himself stayed in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, working as an accountant and studying law, going abroad to study Arabic in London, returning to Jerusalem and eventually leaving for good in 1968, a year after the Six-Day War.
Unsurprisingly, Boullata found his calling in academia; first as a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and then in Montreal, where he was a professor of Arabic literature and Quranic Studies at McGill University from 1975 to 1999. He continued post-retirement teaching until 2004. Of his siblings, two live in London, one lives in Berlin, and although one passed away in Bethesda, Maryland, another remains there. Successful lives, perhaps, but this poignant memoir illuminates an experience that is shared amongst generations of Palestinians—of identity and, undeniably, of loss and exile.
In the preface, Boullata writes that the experiences in his book speak of the city he has loved infinitely and will love to the end of his days. Moreover, based on the premise that he is deeply rooted in Jerusalem, readers are given a rare glimpse into a Palestine that has in a sense long been gone, but has not been forgotten, despite the passage of time and the current intractability that defines Israeli-Palestinian relations to the present day.
Ultimately, this is a hauntingly beautiful account of the bells of memory that still toll for so many Palestinians wherever they may find themselves on this earth.