Searching the Shatat
When you get to the train station, turn left and you’ll find it. Directions in Venice are always convoluted, and directions given by a relative in Jaffa about a place in Venice create an even greater web. But that’s all my uncle told me about how I could find some family members in the city.
When I arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia train station, I went straight instead. I was drawn to the water, where the sunlight glistened like small fires. There, I could hear the ghosts of the Nakba—catastrophe—the mass exodus of Palestinians that occurred during the creation of Israel between 1947 and 1948. Some drowned, some were killed, some found refuge in places I’ll never discover.
I had come to Venice to be a writer-in-residence at Ca’ Foscari University, where I taught and researched Byzantine Venice. But I had also come to better understand my Palestinian family’s connection to Italy, and to seek out relatives I had recently discovered were living in Venice. I am from a deeply-rooted Bethlehem family, with links to all seven harats (quarters) of the Old City. On my father’s side, the Handal family is one of the biggest and comes from the oldest quarter, Harat al-Najajreh. Handal in Arabic means “bitter medicinal plant,” also known as bitter apple, native to the Mediterranean basin and Asia. My mother’s family comes from Harat al-Tarajmeh, the quarter of the translators. It’s said to have been established in the 12th century, predominately by Italians who married local Bethlehemites and worked as translators for the Franciscan clergy and for Italian pilgrims.
As a result of the occupation, most of these families no longer exist in the Old City. In the late 19th century, a branch of my mother’s family moved from Bethlehem to Jaffa and came to cultivate and export oranges. In 1948, almost all of my relatives who were in Jaffa fled by boat for Lebanon and Egypt. Some continued to Syria, Jordan, Italy, France and elsewhere. I grew up with family spread throughout the world in the shatat, the diaspora, with fragments of their stories, and with the looming presence of those we couldn’t trace. I craved the details of their exilic routes: what were they thinking on the boats, what did they carry with them, what did they do when they got to their new destinations, where did they live, what happened to them?
Over the years, my family has given me glimpses of what I’ve asked for: an image by the sea, a group of people behind a large house, endless orange trees, a port, boats. These glimpses keep me coming back for more, but they never tell the whole story. So I remain consumed by the past, with ancestry and connectedness, collecting stories of Palestinians, charting their journeys to understand the people and the place I’m a part of. The process is daunting as an enormous number of records, albums, and letters have been destroyed, stolen, or lost. Mapping the ruins of this country and family is like trying to gather particles after a detonation.
The previous year, I was having coffee with an Arab-Argentinian photographer at the Yafa Bookshop and Café. A man nearby apologized for intruding into our conversation and said, There is a house that the Talamas family owned in Old Jaffa port, close to The Old Man and the Sea restaurant, and it has a dream view. I asked him to explain which house he was speaking about. I was aware of the land my family once owned, but the photos I have are of houses on hills and orange groves. Today the city is completely urbanized. It takes effort to visualize where these old homes once stood.
My friend and I followed the man’s instructions. When we arrived at the location, we asked a Palestinian woman for help. She pointed to the remains of an old stone house on a plot of land not yet developed by the Israelis. The view of the sea filled my body quietly.
The Palestinian woman said, Now he lives in Ajami, a formerly affluent neighborhood turned Arab ghetto. Who, I asked? The man who owned this house, she replied. I grew hopeful.
I immediately called a local friend to help me find out more. The next day, we went to see a blind man said to know by heart one thousand telephone numbers. When we arrived at his office, he was behind his desk on the telephone asking for information about my uncle. My friend had briefed him about me. He put down the phone and told me, We had a person from the Handal family here. His wife was called Aziza. She was from Birzeit. They both died in Jaffa thirty years ago, or so. Then he added, As for the Talamas… There was Badiyah Talamas who died in the 1970s, and Emily Talamas who married Benoit Alonzo, their children are in Italy…Milano…three sons and one daughter. He named two, Amadeo and Romano. I asked, Who is Emily? He told me she was the daughter of Count Talamas, a relative who apparently had been given that title by the Pope as he was a generous supporter of the church and the Vatican.
He proceeded to tell me that the uncle I was looking for was a bit sick, and that he had three sisters, one in Amman who he thinks married someone from the Haifawi family. You know, he added, when families moved from one city to the city, their surname changed to the city they came from, Haifawi from Haifa, Nabulsi from Nablus. One rarely knew what the surname was before that.
That’s how information has been delivered to me throughout my life: pieces that need to be reassembled. My search has been among people afraid to speak for they’ve been tortured, or unable to speak for their wounds are too wrenched. And I’ve had to consider the cracks of memory, its blunders, the way information is transmitted from one person to the next, what was lost and forgotten, what was added.
The telephone rang. Someone had found my uncle’s number. As I listened to the blind man repeat it, the last three numbers, sitta, sab’a, thaalatha, echoed inside of me as if this were my last chance to meet a member of that generation. The call ended with the usual long Middle Eastern gratitudes: Shukran kteer kteer illak, shukran, bye bye, wala’himak, ahla. And with the final mumtaz, a common expression meaning “excellent,” we headed to my uncle’s house.
As we walked through Ajami, I tried to imagine the once-majestic multicultural Palestinian city of Jaffa. Taking a stroll down the grand boulevard to the lavish Alhambra Cinema, or along the port, through the winding alleyways of the Old City where some homes had striking views of the sea, sitting on the grand balconies of Mediterranean villas with lush gardens or in music halls and cafes. My thoughts strayed to the early 1950s, when Jaffa, once Palestine’s largest city, became known as the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, and Palestinians became a minority, forced to live in neglected neighborhoods, patrolled and closed off with barbed wire.
We stopped at an iconic green pharmacy where the owner knew the stories of all the families from Jaffa. And a little further down, to the right, was Dar Talamas Street, known today as Sha’arey Nikanor Street. I paused at number 9, Count Talamas’s house, which had been converted into eight Israeli apartments. I looked at every new name beside the buzzers, and wondered what these inhabitants, or those before them, did with all of my family’s possessions: the furniture, paintings, albums, letters. How did they reconcile the fact that they slept in the houses of those forced into exile in Alexandria, Beirut, Trieste, Venice, Marseille, London, Paris, Santiago?
As I walked away, the sun resting on my back, I felt the trauma of my relatives sinking inside of me. Those who fled and have to live with a void, those who stayed and are second-class citizens in Israel or imprisoned behind the wall in the West Bank, their lives twisted with frustration, grief, and adversity.
When I reached my uncle’s house, I paused. He had come outside to greet me. I was struck by the common family traits: the rectangular face, the blue eyes, the tall and long physique. We embraced as if we had known each other all of our lives. Two more family members came out to meet me, and they too had piercing eyes. They immediately served me drinks and sweets. I admired the patterned fern green, white, earth-toned, and purple-red Palestinian tiles. I was struck by how familiar the house was to that of my grandparents—the wooden furniture, the embroidered tablecloth, the ornaments—and also how it contained the same energy, one that is deeply alive despite all the loss, one that is cultured and proud. That vigor decorated the house.
My uncle explained that he came from the branch that didn’t have the money to flee by boat in 1948. He showed me photos. I was surprised by how many women were nuns. He mentioned that there was still one in Jerusalem, but then added that he thought she passed away. I knew too well that even when the miles between us weren’t much, the reality that separated us was interminable. Before I left, he gave me an envelope of photos and told me to visit my relatives in Venice who had a restaurant. When I asked for more information, he said, When you get to the train station, turn left and you’ll find it.
Cities for many exiles tend to be easier places to reside in, their cosmopolitan texture a consolation. For Palestinians not permitted to live in the Holy Land, home has always been in inherited grief. In flight, in family dispersed around the globe. But even when we are conscious that the absence of home can never be filled, we are also aware that the presence of what’s absent can be found in some places.
Venice is one of those places for me. I see myself in the history of its crossroads, a 1000-year merchant empire that once dominated the eastern Mediterranean, in the memories of my mother while pregnant with me here, in the waters, the alley, and the stones, similar to those in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Every time I make the journey to Venice’s grand piazza San Marco, I have the sensation that I just walked from Bethlehem to Jerusalem’s Old City, from the Church of the Nativity to the Al Aqsa Mosque. And when I get to Doges’ Palace, the multi-colored columns; the recessed arches, domes, and frescoes; the quadriga of golden-bronze horses brought from Constantinople in 1204; and the two Syrian columns in the south façade, believed to have stood in front of the Genoan fort in Acre, evoke Joseph and Mary’s pilgrimage route. The only entrance to Bethlehem for centuries was through Ras Fteis street, today known as Star Street. It’s the last phase of the Pilgrimage Route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where the patriarchs of the churches lead a traditional procession every year on Christmas Eve.
The Old City’s harats are similar to Venice’s sestieri, as each one is a sixth of Venice. Star Street residents were families from my mother’s clan, al-Tarajmeh. This quarter holds the remains of some of the most historical Bethlehemite houses, with Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Levantine architectural influences and traditional central open courtyards, gardens, balconies.
Also in this quarter were the main mother-of-pearl handicraft ateliers. The practice began with local Christians in the 12th century, and was influenced in the 14th century by Franciscans who taught artisans the technique of marquetry and new ways of carving the mother-of pearl. In the 16th century, artisans began making architectural models of the main churches of the Holy Land, which led to the development of liturgical pieces. Today, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Vatican Museums have important mother-of-pearl collections made in Bethlehem.
After San Marco, I would often walk to Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the earliest areas settled in Venice. En route, I would try to find as many lions as I could. The winged Lion of Saint Mark, the patron saint of the city, is the symbol of Venice. To me, it’s a personal metaphor of being a traveler, as well as a familiar image. The winged lion stands on top of the Generali Building on Jaffa Road, one of the oldest streets in Jerusalem, which crosses the city east to west.
One day while at Campo Santa Maria Formosa, I walked toward a vendor’s table and saw a mother-of-pearl star brooch. I asked the vendor, Ana Maria, where she found it. She told me, Palestina. I turned the star around and on the silver plate it said, Jerusalem. I bought it.
I called my cousin in Colombia, Karen David Daccarett, who is an art historian and descendent of the Handal clan. She co-edited a pivotal book on Palestinian mother-of-pearl, El Arte Palestino De Tallar El Nácar, and is knowledgeable about pieces like the brooch I found. She was able to discern that the piece was made in Bethlehem, circa 1920. George Al Ama, a collector and researcher of Palestinian art and material culture, further explained that Armenian artisans in Jerusalem made the silver setting, which is why Jerusalem was inscribed on the back.
I looked at the star made in Bethlehem every day in Venice.
But unlike Venice, today in Bethlehem—with the Old City impoverished, and pollution tarnishing the façades of the historical houses and The Church of the Nativity—only at dawn can you catch a glimpse of its once glistening limestone. The sister cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem are now divided by a wall, a scar in a formerly abundant landscape of olive trees and vineyards. The trees are gone; the analogous settlements, like stains in the earth, have replaced them.
If you take a right from the main entrance of Venezia Santa Lucia train station, you’ll end up at the Ponte della Costituzione. If you take a left and stay on the main pedestrian route, Rio Terà Lista di Spagna, you’ll find yourself on a bustling street. I walked down that street numerous times in slow motion looking for an Arabic restaurant or a sign that might lead me to my relatives. But I found nothing. In the meantime, I reached out to a few friends and family members for help.
A week later, a Venetian friend’s Lebanese friend’s Egyptian friend told me he found my relative. That afternoon, I looked attentively at the light departing. Sunset is a ballet here. A series of chains choreographed perfectly, red hues circling the golden yellow light. A piqué arabesque by the wave.
A call interrupted the moment. My Venetian friend had another clue: Look for an Italian not an Arabic restaurant. Of course, I said, and laughed. The search is a tangled net.
The following evening, the Lebanese friend took me to the restaurant. It was on the same busy street I had walked on countless time. There was nothing to indicate that the owners were Middle Eastern; it was a typical Italian bistro. I asked the hostess for the owners. She told me they were visiting Jerusalem and would be back in a few weeks.
Days later, I received an email from another uncle from Jaffa who now lives in the United States. I immediately called him. He told me he was fourteen when his family took the boat to Lebanon in 1948; that as they moved further away from the port he could feel his mother’s resentment. For losing everything. She repeatedly told him of her magical childhood; of going to her uncle’s in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, to attend school; of returning to Jaffa to marry his father. My uncle remembered their house on Jebel Aractinji, a small hill in the heart of the city; their large terrace, patio, garden of roses and jasmine; their orange groves; their abundant orchard in Wady El-Hawareth. They eventually ended up in Damascus, where they lived at first in the old city, then in a house with no view, then in an apartment with buildings in front of it.
I had heard similar stories before, all of them heartbreaking. Yet daily, I ask the ghosts to tell me something about their hearts by the Abu Nabut Fountain on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road.
One day while walking, I replayed the conversation I had on the telephone with my uncle: The Shamouti or Jaffa orange is radiant, its sweet taste unforgettable. I watched my father count them as he placed them in the crates—wahid, ithnaan, thalaatha, arba’a, khamsa, sitta, sab’a, thamaaniya, tis’a, ‘ashra. He knew every orange he picked up. Every year he took a long journey to Liverpool, Malta, Gibraltar, Lisboa with them. He sat with them as if they were the Arabic language, the tunes of home. Each one a harmony. A key. A beat. Habibti, the soul of an orange, when it falls, catch it.
Suddenly, I found myself in front of an osteria called Ruga di Jaffa, with a big orange on top of the name. Astonished by the coincidence yet aware I don’t believe in happenstance, I went in for coffee. The owners told me the name was inspired by the trading days between Jaffa and Venice. Then I walked until the end of the street, proceeded to a small bridge, and there was Campo Maria Formosa, where I had bought the brooch made in Bethlehem.
Shortly before leaving Venice, I reread The Travels of Marco Polo, which has been a constant companion since I discovered it in the 1980s. His famous sail across the Mediterranean, from Venice to Acre—one of Venice’s most important trade hubs—reminds me of our links. When I finished the book, I went to my family’s restaurant again and asked after the owners. They hadn’t returned. But I was certain we would eventually cross.
On my way out, an older Arab man who overheard my conversation gestured to me. Cara, yalla sit please, he said. We belong insieme, insieme, he repeated, together. And I did. We didn’t say another word.
And I realized, for the first time, that it’s not the details that are most important to me in my search in the shatat, it’s the act of listening; that in listening we understand what we aren’t able to say, and we become aware of the ways the heart resists.
Later, I picked up a photograph of relatives from the 1930s, one wearing a tarbush, another standing in front of a Ford. A note underneath read: Don’t forget to see our family in Napoli and in 04023—the code for Formia, a coastal town between Rome and Naples.
It is these fragments, after all, that promise wholeness, so I journey toward them each time.