On the verge of arrest, a Palestinian lawyer and author recounts the flight from arrest of an ancestor active during the Ottoman years [an excerpt from A Rift in Time (2011), published by OR Books].
“They’re coming to arrest you,” Hanan, my sister-in-law, called to warn me in her strong, matter-of-fact voice. “Samer is on his way.”
My mother had just called Hanan in a panic to dispatch my brother to my aid, convinced that the Palestinian security police would be at my door any minute. She was frantic. An anonymous official from the office of the Attorney General had rung her to ask about me because they did not have my phone number. Prudently, she refused to reveal it. “Don’t worry. We’ll find him,” he had menacingly said before hanging up.
I wasted no time. I quickly put on thick underwear, tucked my toothbrush in a pocket and pulled on an extra sweater, prison survival tips learned from experienced security detainees I had represented in the past in Israeli military courts. Jericho, the site of the new Palestinian security prison and the old Israeli military government headquarters, can get very cold at night. On that evening of September 18, 1996, I sat huddled in the courtyard of our new house and waited for the knock on the door, trying to pretend I was neither worried nor angry.
Those first years of the transitional rule of the Palestinian Authority were strange times. It was the rude awakening at the end of a fascinating and hopeful period for me, during which I had devoted all my energies to bringing about change and a conclusion to the Israeli occupation. I had spent years challenging illegal Israeli land acquisitions in the occupied West Bank. Ironically, the unfounded claim that was now being made against my client was that he was selling land to the enemy by going into partnership with an Israeli corporation for the establishment of a gambling casino in Jericho, and I was accused of helping him with this venture. It was a false claim fabricated by some powerful members of the governing Authority who were hoping to intimidate my client into withdrawing from the project so that they could replace him in this lucrative enterprise.
Prompted perhaps by disappointment over the false peace heralded by the signing of the Oslo Accords, and despite all the fanfare on the White House lawn, my thoughts had been turning to the past, to the time when it all began. I had been reading about my great-great-uncle Najib Nassar, who like me was a writer, and like me a man whose hopes had been crushed when the Ottoman authority of his day sent troops to arrest him. But unlike me he did not wait for the knock on the door.
It was from my maternal grandmother, Julia, that I first heard of Najib. But he was always spoken of with ambivalence. He was the odd man out in the Nassar family, the one who was preoccupied with resistance politics during the British Mandate period while his brothers were making a good living, one as a hotelier, another as a medical doctor, a third as a pharmacist, all well-to-do, established members of the professional middle class, while he mingled with the fellaheen, the peasants, and lived for a while among them. Even worse, he associated with the Bedouins, spoke and dressed like them and generally adopted their ways. My grandmother told me about a visit he once made to the family home in the Mediterranean city of Haifa.
“We did not recognize him. We almost threw him out. Then he said, ‘I’m Najib.’ We could hardly believe it. He looked emaciated, all skin and bones. His beard was long and straggly, he wore a keffiyeh on his head and he smelt terribly, as he had been living out in the open. I will never forget that sight.”
Hearing this, I was intrigued. No one had mentioned the order for his arrest by the Ottoman government. I was left to wonder why he went to live out in the wild. What was he running away from? And why was he so poor? How did he lose his money? Did he gamble it away?
Most of Palestine’s history, together with that of its people, is buried deep in the ground.
To locate the places where Najib found refuge during his long escape from the Ottoman police, I first used a map made by the Israeli Survey Department. But I soon discovered that, in the course of creating a new country over the ruins of the old, Israel had renamed almost every hill, spring and wadi in Palestine, striking from the map names and often habitations that had been there for centuries. It was the most frustrating endeavor. If only I could visit this area with someone able to read the landscape and point out where the old towns and villages had stood. I knew just the person, but the Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdulfattah was not allowed to cross into Israel from the West Bank. How Israel manages to complicate and frustrate every project!
After the failed attempt at mapping out Najib’s escape route using a modern Israeli map, I managed to retrieve a 1933 map from the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. What a relief it was to look at this and envision the country Najib would have recognized, with the villages, hills and wadis in which he had taken refuge reassuringly marked and bearing the names that he had used.
In planning the route of his escape, Najib had not been hampered by the political borders that many Palestinians are not allowed to cross today. Under the Ottomans on the eve of the First World War there was no administrative unit called Palestine. Haifa, Acre, Safad and Tiberias were part of the Beirut sanjaq (an administrative subdivision of a vilayet or province). South of that, including Jaffa, Gaza and Jerusalem, was the independent sanjaq of Jerusalem. The southeastern parts of Palestine were included in the sanjaq of Maan and all of these were part of the vilayet of Greater Syria. The River Jordan did not delineate a political border. Without delays Najib was able to ford it by horse and in no time found himself on the eastern bank in what today is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. When he finally gave himself up he was transported by train to Damascus, a trip that took no longer than two hours. So distorted has the geography become that for us West Bank Palestinians to travel north to Damascus we would first have to travel east, then north, crossing four different countries; and even that is possible only if we are fortunate enough to secure the necessary visas and exit permits from often uncooperative authorities, both Israeli and Arab.
The quest for Najib—the details of his life and the route of his great escape—that consumed me for the next thirteen years was not an easy one. Most of Palestine’s history, together with that of its people, is buried deep in the ground. To reconstruct the journey of my great-great-uncle I could not visit any of the houses where he and his family had lived in Haifa, his point of departure. This mixed community of Arabs and Jews has become an Israeli city, with most of its former Palestinian inhabitants scattered throughout the world. Najib died on March 30, 1948, just months before the Nakba (catastrophe), the mass expulsion and dispossession of the Arabs of Palestine in 1948 upon the establishment of Israel. Perhaps he was fortunate to be spared that most tragic period in the history of his country. His son, wife, siblings and every one of our common relatives were forced out of Haifa, losing all their property. They did not realize that they would never be allowed to return to their homes and so did not take their personal belongings with them. Furniture, books, manuscripts, memorabilia, family photographs, heirlooms and even personal effects were left behind and never returned. Everything that belonged to them, everything that told their individual stories, was either stolen or seized and deposited in Israeli archives for use by Israeli researchers seeking to understand the history and character of the Arabs whom they were colonizing.
A further difficulty was that many of the villages and encampments in which Najib found refuge had also been reduced to rubble, as I discovered when I went in search of them in the hills of the Galilee. I had to scan the terrain with an archaeologist’s eye to determine where they had once stood. It was therefore a strange and yet a typically Palestinian quest. Strange because I had to rely heavily on my imagination and train myself to see what was not readily visible. Typical because the process I had to follow to uncover the history of a member of my family is similar to that followed by many Palestinians who had family in the part of Mandatory Palestine that became Israel. I have been able to find only one official Israeli map where all the Palestinian villages existing before 1948 are shown. Next to many of those appears the sinister Hebrew word harous (destroyed).
Najib was born in 1865. For the first decade of his adult life he had tried his hand at a number of professions, as assistant pharmacist, farmer and translator. Short and plump, he always wore a tarboosh (fez) that leaned forward towards his face in the manner of Beirut merchants. Unlike his brothers, he was not good at making money. He was always involved in pursuing unpopular causes and could hardly earn enough to sustain his family. In 1913, when he was forty-eight, he confessed in an article that he “despaired of living a free life under the Ottoman Empire.” This made him decide to emigrate to the United States, as many other members of our family had done. Once he had made that decision, he could “hardly wait to organize [his] affairs and prepare [him]self for the big move.” He was feeling “only regret for all the efforts [he] applied to establish [him]self in the country.”
I was perfectly capable of recognizing these sentiments. I had trained as a barrister in London, but when I returned to work as a lawyer in the West Bank under Israeli occupation I found no professional satisfaction in a ruined legal system. There is hardly a resident of Palestine today who has not considered the option of emigrating. I know all too many who, once they made that decision, regretted all the time they had wasted living in Palestine. I too went through a period when I felt the Israeli occupation would never end and I would be doomed to a life of humiliation, oppression and lack of civil rights. I seriously considered emigrating before turning to human rights activism and writing alongside my professional legal work. The outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 gave me hope that things would finally change and I dismissed all thoughts of leaving Palestine.
On July 24, 1908, Sultan Abdulhamid (who reigned from 1876 to 1909) granted his subjects a constitution. This was the same constitution that had first been adopted in 1876. Its introduction was part of the process of Westernization that had begun during the first half of the eighteenth century, with the aim of saving a decaying empire from collapse by creating one Ottoman nation out of many Ottoman subjects, including Muslims, who could be Turks, Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians and others, Christians, who could be Armenians, Greeks, Arabs and others, and Jews, who could be of various nationalities. It also attempted to stem the imperialist designs of Western powers upon the empire advanced by claims of protection for the non-Muslim communities. Constitutional government was to replace absolutism, uniting Muslims and non-Muslims to form “the Ottoman Nation,” based on principles of freedom, justice and patriotism. However, the newly elected parliament, which first met on March 19, 1877, was short-lived. After holding only two sessions Abdulhamid dismissed it and suspended the constitution. Now the experiment was being tried again.
At first Najib received news of the implementation of the constitution with much skepticism. He was not sure that “among the people or the civil service there was any readiness to act in accordance with its provisions and allow and safeguard the liberties enshrined in it.” Despite this, he decided “to pin his hopes on it and to support it.” As matters turned out, he was so impressed that such a revolution could have occurred without bloodshed that he decided to stay in the country and not to emigrate.
The Sultan abolished censorship. As a result the number of newspapers and periodicals published throughout the Ottoman Empire jumped to 350, a third of them new. Political opposition groups were allowed, political prisoners released and the army of spies, numbering 30,000, was disbanded. This revolutionary change, which was not to endure through the years of the First World War, was the work of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a secret association the Young Turks had formed in Salonica, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire. They were a group of army officers and intellectuals who were in power from 1908 until the end of the First World War. Up to that point most Muslim Ottomans were not averse to the establishment’s identification with an Arab past. Abdulhamid had once remarked, “We [Ottomans] are a millet [religious community] that has originated from the Arab millet … just as we took civilization from the Greeks, Europe has taken it from us.” This identification with the Islamic Arab heritage served to legitimate the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. The shift the CUP brought about in the ideology of the empire from Islam to Turkish nationalism proved detrimental to the future of the entire region. In the decades following the First World War the Middle East was reorganized. Rather than one multi-ethnic empire ruling the whole region, as had been the case for the last 450 years under the Ottomans, it was fragmented into Turkey in Anatolia and a number of small new nation-states created by the imperial powers of the day: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
As it turned out, Najib was right in his initial misgivings about the future. Nationalism was late in coming, but when it arrived it resulted in the genocide of the Armenian communities in Anatolia in 1915, the forcing-out of Greeks from Turkey and of Turks from Greece in 1923, and in 1948 of most of the Christian and Muslim Arabs from Palestine. Wars shatter tranquil worlds. This was how the First World War affected Najib. Until it ended he had insisted on defining himself as “the Ottoman.” With the intrusion of nationalism, Najib’s world was broken apart and restructured.
The years immediately following the implementation of the constitution were an active time of hope and change. Najib’s fortunes improved. In 1908 in Haifa he started the Al Karmil publishing house and newspaper of the same name (which is the Arabic for Mount Carmel), transforming himself from a farmer and translator into a campaigning journalist. But the start of the First World War significantly complicated matters for him. As a public figure and editor of a major newspaper, his views on the impending war were known. He expressed them in numerous articles published in his newspaper. Perhaps this was the problem. As Najib was English-educated and Christian, it was only natural for the Ottoman authorities to assume that he would give his allegiance to the Allies and perhaps even cooperate with them in their war efforts against the Axis powers. The Germans knew he was opposed to Ottoman participation in the war on their side. Someone like Najib was dangerous at a time when propaganda was an important weapon in the war. They wanted him on their side. Or, if this was not possible, they wanted him silenced.
I have been able to find only one official Israeli map where all the Palestinian
villages existing before 1948 are shown.
In his autobiographical novel, Mufleh al Ghassani, penned at the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine, Najib describes in precise detail his movements during the years when he was on the run from the Ottoman police: the people he met, who gave him refuge and what he did throughout those three difficult years. As such it provided me with a wealth of information on which the account in this book is based. There is hardly any mention of his wife and children, but perhaps that is no wonder, as she ran away with an Ottoman soldier. Nor for that matter do women figure much in the book. Not only was it a world of men in which Najib moved, but there is never any mention of how he felt, never any complaint about the hardships he had to endure. Stoics seem to make bad novelists. And perhaps most annoyingly for me, he moves through the glorious countryside of the Galilee, but there is never any description of the landscape. Even with my anti-colonial sentiments, I came to appreciate T. E. Lawrence, with his great capacity for seeing and describing the landscape in which he moved and prefer reading him to reading my unseeing great-great-uncle.
Ned Lawrence, who would eventually become known to the world as “Lawrence of Arabia,” was described by a contemporary as having “a very keen face. You could see the pressure behind it.” He had fair hair and electric blue eyes—everyone always noticed his eyes. Too short to be a regular army officer, in 1914 he began working as an intelligence officer in Egypt. Before that he spent a summer touring on foot the chain of citadels built by the French seven centuries earlier to defend what is today Lebanon and western Syria. France’s determination to return to Syria was an ambition he was determined to thwart. The tribesmen he met on his travels he later recruited to help the British in their efforts against the Ottoman forces in the First World War. But it was not just the Ottomans that Lawrence hoped to remove: with Sharif Hussein of the Hijaz as figurehead, he believed they could “rush right to Damascus and biff the French out of all hope of Syria.” Thanks to a series of important postings he held during and after the war, he was able to play a crucial role in the formulation of British policies in the region.
In Najib’s account there is not a single admission throughout the three exacting years he spent on the run of being sick or feeling tired. The only time he complains is when he had to endure lice during the last stage of his escape on the eastern side of the River Jordan, while living as a shepherd with the Bedouins in the wilderness and sleeping with the goats. From tracing his life and reading his works, I developed a deep empathy with and appreciation of my great-great-uncle, but I disliked his novelistic account, which I found poorly written. Clearly the man was dedicated to the cause he espoused but had no talent for novel writing.
He describes two encounters that took place before his country’s participation in the war. The first was with the German director of the railway in Haifa. The line from Haifa to Dera’a, a northern village in what is now Jordan, had been completed in 1905 as an addition to the main Hijaz Pilgrim Railway, which ran from Damascus to Medina in the Hijaz, in the southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula. The director asked Najib when he thought the Ottomans would enter the war. Najib’s answers are blunt, revealing a man who was ready, whatever the personal cost, to speak truth to power. He said that he did not believe that those in government were idiotic enough to participate: “For many years we’ve been praying to God to pit the English and the Germans against each other so they would stay off our backs. Are we so crazy as to enter the fray now?” The director answered that he thought Najib was “more fanatical than the Muslims,” to which Najib responded that he was indeed “fanatical about [his] country and [his] people.”
The second encounter was with the German consul in Haifa. The consul summoned Najib to a meeting and proceeded to boast about Germany, its strength and capabilities. He assured Najib, “The interest of the Ottomans demands that you support Germany.” To which Najib answered, “If Germany had a fleet to protect the long coastline of the empire along the eastern Mediterranean Sea I would support joining your side.” The consul told him, “Mines can protect the coastline just as well,” but Najib was unconvinced.
Reading about this incident, I felt it was more foolhardy than brave for a citizen of a country on the brink of war to speak his mind so openly. But that was Najib’s way.
The consul then complained that “the Muslim Arabs are enamoured of England, the Christian Catholics infatuated with France and the Orthodox with Russia. As to the Protestants they too support England. Germany is loved by no one.”
Najib pointed out that, unlike the English, French and Russians, the Germans had not established missions, schools or hospitals. How, then, could they expect to win anyone’s allegiance? “In any case,” Najib added, “the support exhibited by the various sects to the French, English and Russians only demonstrates these people’s fidelity. So if Germany worked at protecting the Arabs from the oppression which the Unionist government is inflicting on them, their hearts would be full of admiration and support for Germany.”
He was so impressed that such a revolution could have occurred without bloodshed that he decided to stay in the country and not to emigrate.
Najib believed that it was German pressure that led the Ottoman government to adopt, prior to the start of the war, a policy antagonistic to the Arabs. Widespread arrests and hangings of Arab leaders were taking place more frequently than ever before. He argued in his newspaper that such oppressive policies had never been pursued in past wars by the Ottomans and blamed Germany for encouraging the Unionist government to pursue them now. He argued that this was causing deep divisions between Arabs and Turks.
As recounted in his novel, only at this point in the encounter did it become clear that the German consul was attempting to recruit Najib as a propagandist for the German cause. The consul tells Najib, “The love of Catholics for the French runs deep in their veins. It cannot be wrested out of them without bloodshed. As to the other denominations the time for working with them to win their allegiance has passed. We are in the eleventh hour. Do you understand what I’m saying? If you support Germany you will be rewarded with the assistance and payment we spoke about.” Najib claims that in response to this appeal for his collaboration he told the consul that the only way for Germany to win the hearts of the people was by changing its policy.
In late October 1914 the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the Germans. By then the war had been raging for some months and the devastation it would cause had already become evident. On the night of March 2, 1915 Najib’s brother Rashid, the pharmacist, who lived on Mount Carmel in Haifa, heard a knock on his door. He was expecting the Ottoman police to come and arrest him. Times were unsettled and hordes of people had been rounded up and either sent into exile or taken to Damascus for a brief military trial, after which many had been hanged.
Rashid opened the door a crack, asking, “Who is it?”
“Open up,” said a voice Rashid recognized as the town priest’s.
“What brings you here at this unholy hour? Aren’t you afraid to be out with all the patrols and spies who never sleep? These days even the walls have ears. Come in. Come in.”
The priest had come, he said, to advise Rashid to send his brother Najib away from Haifa.
“Why?” asked Rashid.
“Because Fakhri Pasha in Damascus has been enquiring about him and his political leanings. This is a time of war. A dangerous time, when even decent government officials are afraid to tell the truth for fear that they themselves will come under suspicion.”
“But where should he go?” asked Rashid. “Isn’t it better to stay where he is known, where government officials know him and would defend him against any accusation? If he flees it would raise suspicion that he is indeed guilty.”
“Had the government officials been able to protect him, the highest ranking among them would not have commissioned me to relay this advice to you. People are in a state of panic. Everyone is thinking: I have to preserve my own life and you can do what you want with the others.”
Najib writes that his brother Rashid could not sleep that night. He could hardly wait for the curfew to end. At daybreak he left his house and rode into the center of town, where Najib lived, in order to warn him. It was a clear wintry morning, the air crisp and still. Down below he could see the heartening view of the sky-blue Mediterranean stretching out across the bay of Haifa.
Najib describes himself as having been a constant source of trouble for the family and gives voice to his brother’s complaints about repeatedly needing to try to keep him in check. As I read his rueful description, I thought of my own brother Samer. More than any of my other siblings, he takes after the Nassars. He has that same deep, sonorous voice and wonderfully dry humor. He must have felt the same way Rashid did after my mother called him that night when she heard of the order for my arrest. Without hesitation he came over and, like Najib and his brother, we discussed what to do. Did Samer leave my house that night feeling burdened by my refusal to renounce activism and raise a family of my own, as he was doing?
Najib was surprised to see his brother this early in the morning, saying, “It’s not like you to come to visit so early in the morning. What brings you here?”
Rashid told his brother what the priest had advised.
Over breakfast the two brothers deliberated. Rashid tried his best to remove from his voice any hint of recrimination or blame. Najib told his brother of an incident two weeks earlier that still caused him anxiety:
“Our old friend Attallah came over and asked me to accompany him because there was something he wanted to talk about. It concerned his son, who had absconded to join the Allies. He said he had received a letter from him, asking for vital information that the Allied army needed. They were thinking of landing troops here and wanted information about the shoreline, the prices of commodities, available vehicles and the number of soldiers stationed nearby. Attallah asked me whether I would be willing to take the letter and go with him to the Anglican Church, where we could read it in peace and think of the right response. I asked him why he would not carry the letter himself. He said he was afraid. “When he said this,” Najib recounted, “my suspicions that I was being framed were raised, especially as the place to which he had suggested we go to read the letter was not far from the house of the German consul. So I answered, ‘What have we to do with such matters? We are no experts who can give such information. I suggest that if you have such a letter you immediately destroy it, because having it on you will constitute a danger to your life.’ I didn’t want Attallah to suspect what I was thinking, so I invited him to come with me to visit a mutual friend. Once there Attallah disappeared momentarily, claiming to have destroyed the letter on his return. Before he left I checked my pockets to make sure he had not slipped it there without my knowledge. I also checked all the places where we had been, but found no trace of the letter. What I suspect is that this ‘friend’ was trying to frame me and deliver me to the German consul on a charge of treason. This way he would have removed any suspicions that the desertion of his son had placed on him.”
As it turned out, this was only one of a number of attempts throughout the course of the war when fellow Christians tried either to frame Najib or to attribute to him blame for the treasonous actions of others.
Rashid now understood the background and became convinced that his brother was in danger of being arrested, put on military trial, charged with treason and hanged.
“You must go into hiding,” he said with real urgency.
They discussed how Najib should set about it and whether he should leave the country and go into exile. Najib was concerned about his family, his young wife, two sons and daughter.
“Should I take them with me?” he asked his brother.
“No. Leave them in Haifa. I will take care of them,” Rashid promised.
His brother wanted him to move away from the areas under Ottoman control and, as many exiles had done, flee to Egypt, where the British were in control. But Najib refused. He feared that if it became known that he had gone abroad the authorities would assume that he had joined the enemy and this would put his family in danger. It was best to stay in the country but remain out of sight. For the time being they resolved that the wisest course of action for him was to leave his home in Haifa and go to live in Nazareth, thirty kilometers to the southeast. So the next day, telling his wife nothing about the danger facing him, Najib simply said that he had business to attend to in Acre in the north. He had to leave immediately but would return the next day or, failing that, the day after.
Compared with other major Palestinian towns—Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus and neighboring Acre—Haifa is a relatively new city. In its present location, its existence began in the mid-eighteenth century when, in 1764, the governor of Acre, Dhahir al ’Umar, laid waste the older hamlet of Haifa al Atiqa, located some two and a half kilometers to the west of the modern site, and transferred the population, numbering around 250 people, to a new location that he had surrounded by a protective wall. He also built a citadel overlooking the settlement to the south, the remains of which were still in use at the time of the British occupation in 1918.
Haifa has been compared to Beirut, with its similar large buildings, glass shopfronts, red-tiled and broad-windowed houses, vibrant life and beautiful natural surroundings. Perhaps that was why the Nassars chose to settle here. Their first impression of the city when they arrived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century from their village of ’Ayn Anoub in the Lebanese mountains was how clean the paths and alleys were, and how well behaved and educated the people. Here they could lead a proper urban life. They had no doubt that, next to Beirut, Haifa was the most advanced town on the eastern Mediterranean.
Najib pointed out that, unlike the English, French and Russians, the Germans had not established missions, schools or hospitals. How, then, could they expect to win anyone’s allegiance?
The oldest and most densely populated part of modern Haifa in Najib’s time was the agglomeration of residences and public buildings clustered between the narrow central stretch of seashore and the mountain slopes west of the bay and east of the Carmel promontory. Residences in this area were almost entirely confined to the center and flanks of the narrow valleys, Wadi al Nisnas and Wadi al Salib, though a few isolated buildings had sprung up outside these valleys, such as Rashid’s house on Mount Carmel.
The shops and bazaars, churches and mosques were located in the center of the city and along the northern seashore. Like most Palestinian cities, Haifa also had a major street called Jaffa Road. Jaffa was the Mecca of Palestine to which all roads led, much like ancient Rome. In Haifa, Jaffa Road was the town’s principal artery, originally connecting the eastern and western gates. This was also the main market street, divided into sections, each housing a specialized trade. It was by following this road that Najib fled the city. The covered marketplace he passed had been cleaned just before the start of the war, its roof repaired, its alleyways paved with tile.
Further east along the seashore were to be found the oldest public buildings: the post office and government house, which was locally referred to as the saray (Persian for house). The small mosque, the public slaughterhouse and prison built from the remains of a Crusader castle were also in this central area, following the coast in both directions. The area functioned as the buffer zone between the residential sectors of the town—the eastern and western quarters. Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities lived in their respective quarters, which were rigidly adhered to in the nineteenth century while sharing the same marketplace and public facilities. In earlier times the traditional quarters had been squeezed between the mountain and the sea and had converged on the shoreline.
New buildings spread southwards to the flanks of Mount Carmel and even to the mountaintop. Initially it was the European, urban immigrant community who bought land and built on the mountain outskirts. The local population then began to follow suit, though on a much smaller scale. The more affluent, like Rashid, built homes on the slopes of Mount Carmel, but Najib could not afford that and lived with his family in Wadi al Nisnas, not far from the old pier built by the Russians in 1905. Here Mount Carmel was closer to the sea and less steep. The town was altogether smaller yet quite attractive. A good place to live.
He could not have conceived of the fragmentation of the region into the mosaic of countries it would become. How different this seems from the way the conflict is perceived today, as a struggle between Israeli Jews and Muslim Arabs.
In the 1890s, a French company had won a concession to run a railway line from Damascus to Beirut. This was completed in 1898, depriving Haifa of some of the traffic in grain from the Hauran plain. But when in 1905 the railway line to Dera’a and Damascus was completed, Haifa regained its importance as a port for the export of wheat and barley from the Syrian interior. A large new central railway station was built to handle the traffic and the old pier was extended. The Damascus-Haifa line, incorporated into the Hijaz railway network, was designed to divert economic benefits to the southern shores of the eastern Mediterranean. It was also a way of undermining the importance of Beirut, with its growing local nationalist aspirations and domination by European powers. Both projects, the pier and the railway, had important repercussions on the town’s development. In particular the employment opportunities they created attracted a large labor force, mostly Muslim Arabs, from all parts of Palestine as well as from neighboring Syria and Egypt.
On the flanks of Mount Carmel stood the burj (citadel), commanding a bird’s-eye view of the central town. Directly below it lay the religious centers of the Christians, Jews and Muslims. To one side spread Harat al Kana’is (the church quarter), where the Maronite, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Latin churches were congregated. The Great Mosque, with its spacious public forecourt, was nearby. That clear sunny morning in March 1915 Najib’s broad-shouldered, imposing figure could be seen crossing Jraineh Square in front of the Great Mosque and going to Sahat al Arabat (the transport center), where he hired a horse-drawn carriage to take him south to Nazareth.
Nazareth seems an odd choice for a city to hide from the Ottoman authorities, for this was where the leader of the army squadron resided. In fleeing there, Najib was coming to the regional seat of power rather than running away from it. But then he had good relations with Ottoman officials and wanted to consult them on what he should do. In the novelized account of his escape, on which I relied heavily in tracing his escape route, Najib makes no secret of his unshakable allegiance to the empire and the good relations he had with its officials. Today the prevailing popular view among Arabs is that the four centuries of Ottoman rule comprise our Dark Ages. Except for recent revisionist accounts, history books have nothing good to say about that time or the long-surviving empire. Its waning years were the war years, marked by famine and pestilence. Conscription into the Ottoman army meant almost certain death. These were the terrible memories that persisted in people’s consciousness for many decades, the way such experiences do. Four centuries were judged by the last four years. This was why, when a recent edition of Mufleh al Ghassani was published in Haifa, the publisher found it necessary to include an introduction that justified Najib’s favorable views of the Ottoman authorities. Sixty years after his death, Najib’s views remain controversial.
Yet he was not alone. His colleagues at Al Muntada al Arabi, a literary society that advocated improving the conditions of Arabs within the Ottoman Empire, did not consider themselves enemies of the Ottomans or desire the defeat of the Sultan. Even though he was a Christian in a Muslim state headed by a Sultan claiming to be the Caliph of the Muslims, Najib believed that it was possible for the three “Religions of the Book” to coexist and live freely within the Ottoman system he sought to perpetuate. His call was reformist in nature and not based on religion. As a Christian he did not seek to separate from the Muslim Ottomans. He wanted decentralization and a greater measure of autonomy for the Arabs, who to his mind included Muslims, Christians and Jews, all of them Ottoman citizens belonging to different millets. He could not have conceived of the fragmentation of the region into the mosaic of countries that it would become. How different this seems from the way the conflict is perceived today, as a struggle mainly between Israeli Jews and Muslim Arabs.
Najib had always thought of himself as a loyal Ottoman citizen. He had expressed this position in his articles in Al Karmil. He knew reform was needed and advocated strong Arab independence, but within the Ottoman structure. His main concern was what would happen to his country if the Ottomans were no longer there to protect it from the onslaught of the colonialists and in particular the Zionists, whose plans for Palestine he was more familiar with than most. To him the true fight was against colonialism. Whether victory in the Great War went to the British or the Germans, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would open the gates for the colonization of the Levant. The Ottoman regime might need reforming but it was a multi-ethnic system that never attempted to colonize the land.
Unlike Hussein Ibn Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, who in June 1916 started the Arab Revolt in the Hijaz with British support, Najib’s struggle was not against the Ottomans. He did not want the empire destroyed and many of his contemporaries must have held similar views. But to state this publicly, as Najib did after the collapse of the empire, when there was a growing belief among Arabs that it was the Ottomans who had brought ruin to them with their 450-year-long rule, was an act of both courage and foresight. Just as he had been among the first to recognize the danger Zionism posed to the Arabs of Palestine, so he was one of the first to appreciate the virtues of the Ottoman system.
Najib was a trusting character and perhaps naively placed unwavering confidence in the Ottoman regime. After leaving his wife and children in Haifa and coming to hide in Nazareth, the first thing he did was to call on two Ottoman officials. The first was Sabih Nasha’at, the Iraqi general who led the Ottoman squadron stationed in Nazareth. For a couple of hours the two men discussed the prevailing situation. They had different views on what constituted the graver danger. Najib was more concerned about the Zionist onslaught and how it was likely to benefit from the war. Nasha’at was more worried about German colonization should Germany be victorious. Najib tried to sum up the issue thus: “To a large extent we now have self-rule. The hand clutching our throat might be coarse but it is not an iron grip. This is because it is weak and has an eastern character. If we should be gripped by a European hand it will surely be bronze even if it wore a silk glove.”
After leaving the general, Najib went to see Fawzi Malki, the qaim makam (district commissioner) of Nazareth. He then went to have lunch with his friend Nameh Safouri at the Victoria Hotel, before taking his afternoon nap. (Reading this, I marveled at the similarity between us. Even in the worst of times Najib would not miss his nap, just as I am loath to miss a meal.)
He was awakened by knocking on his door. It was the Anglican priest, Salah Saba, who had just been to Haifa. He looked perturbed. When Najib asked what was happening, the priest seemed reluctant to speak. Najib grew impatient.
“Tell me the news,” he said. “I can take it.”
“The gendarmerie have just been to your brother’s house. They searched it and arrested Rashid. They also searched the homes of your other relatives and sent a telegram to Acre asking for you.”
“And what have they done to Rashid?”
“They said they wanted to banish him to Damascus with others. As for you, they want you to appear before the military court.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“Go into hiding,” said the priest emphatically.
“But wouldn’t it raise suspicion if I went into hiding?”
“You must do it while we try to find out what they want from you.”
Before he could decide on taking such a big step Najib felt he still needed more advice. He went to the house of his friend the venerable Sheikh Wajih Zaid Kilani, a well-known dignitary held in high esteem by the Ottoman authorities.
The sheikh told him that the order of the day was chaos: “Periods of transition to a state of war are always a source of worry. The transfer of power from the hands of civilian and judicial administrators to those of military men only leads to chaos. Leaders become so drunk with power that they relish senseless assaults, seizing every opportunity to avenge themselves against those who dare to criticize them. The mere word of an informer or spy is enough to have them do away with the life of the innocent. It is as though governments at war are consumed by fire.”
I know about this all too well. My father was a victim of the chaos that prevailed in the West Bank in the mid-1980s before the First Intifada.
The sheikh continued, “Under these circumstances prudence dictates that if you know that someone has informed on you, you must do all you can to avoid falling into the hands of the military. I advise you to go into hiding while we try to find out why the government is really after you. And stay in hiding until the fire is extinguished and it becomes possible circumspectly to inform those responsible of the truth about you.”
Najib listened intently. He was now convinced that he must not give himself up. He had to go into hiding. Once he had made the decision, he began to feel that all eyes were upon him. I know that feeling also. In its early days the offices of the human rights organization I had helped establish, Al Haq, were stormed by the Israeli army. After that they kept us under surveillance. On one occasion I went into the office to smuggle out some files and as I walked into the street with them I felt that everyone was looking at me. It was the same street I had walked along thousands of times during my life in Ramallah. I knew every one of the shopkeepers along the way. Yet that morning everything appeared disconcertingly different as I walked, fearing that there were spies watching me, preparing to report my every move to the Israeli military authorities.
Najib waited until after dark before moving into the home of a close friend, Kamel Kawar, who had a wife and two sons. There he was given a room that was kept closed to everyone except members of the household. He describes Kawar as a descendant of the Ghassanids, one of two Christian Arab tribes living in the Syrian countryside before the Islamic conquest who did not convert to Islam. Perhaps this was why he called the main character of the novelistic account of his escape Mufleh, a good Arab name meaning the successful one, and Al Ghassani, in reference to the Ghassanids.
The Ghassanids came from Yemen and for a time dominated the Syrian countryside. Their main base was in Busra, but they also had another one in the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory under Israeli occupation since June 1967. They had been commissioned by the superpower of the day, the Roman Empire, to protect the borders from marauders such as the Bedouins and other invaders. Despite the domination of the land for many centuries by Muslim rulers, Christian Arabs survived and still have notable families like the Kawars, who trace their lineage to that ancient minipower that now only historians remember.
Najib planned to stay two weeks with the Kawars to plan his next move. No one knew his hiding place except the owners of the house, his friend Sheikh Wajih Zaid and Najib’s own brothers. But news travels fast and he began to get visitors.
When Najib was alone he devoted himself to writing. He was working on two novellas which, once they were finished, he gave to his brother to store in a tin can that could be buried in the garden and retrieved once the war was over. But his brother later destroyed them for fear that the invading British forces might find them and prosecute him. Then he began a book on dry farm agriculture that he based on his readings about the subject and his own experiences. This was another way in which I felt an affinity to my great-great uncle: we both shared an interest in agriculture. His last years were spent between Haifa and Beisan, where he had a banana farm. He believed that the scarcity of water in the country made it important for farmers to know about methods of cultivation that required minimal amounts of water. In this Najib was ahead of his time. He was thinking of developing the kind of agriculture suited to a country that suffered from scarcity of water while the early Zionists were going the other way. They were preparing schemes for water-intensive farming, for which they needed to control the water sources. With the creation of Israel, these would become the hallmark of a state that, in pursuing policies based on then popular notions of controlling nature rather than living in harmony with it, would create endemic water shortages in the country.
Najib was sure he would not be able to stay long at his friend’s house. Once the Ottomans joined the war, food became scarce and the authorities began conscripting able-bodied young men. Until 1908 Christians had been spared military service, but that year the exemption was lifted. This meant that both Kamel and his elder son were eligible for the draft. The family lived in dread of the men being taken away. Both had to leave the house every time they suspected the authorities were coming for them. To harbor a wanted man was dangerous and Najib had no wish to add to the family’s burden.
Najib’s friend Salim al Ahmad Abdulhadi was hanged on the morning of August 21, 1915, after a brief military show trial. The news of his death profoundly shocked Najib.
As it was impossible to remain there without exposing his friend to danger from the military authorities, he decided to leave and rented a garden shed in the grounds next to the Austrian Hospital. Nearby was a jubkhana (Turkish for an arms depot) guarded by soldiers headed by Abu Faris, a lieutenant from Aleppo. One day the Austrian director of the hospital complained to the head of the squadron that the soldiers guarding the jubkhana were stealing his almonds. Abu Faris was called in and warned, so that night he and his men stayed up. Around midnight they heard rustling in the trees.
Abu Faris pointed his gun in that direction and shouted, “To the ground or I’ll shoot.”
A man stood there, frozen with fear. Abu Faris went up to him and saw it was Abu Sharra’, the man who sold vegetables that he brought on his donkey from the village of Saffuriya.
Abu Faris threw him to the ground and proceeded to beat him.
The man screamed, “Leave me alone and I’ll give you a valuable bit of information.”
Abu Faris ordered his men to tie him down and leave. When they had all gone, he asked the man for the promised intelligence.
Abu Sharra’ blabbed, “Over there in the garden shed not far from here is a political man, a fugitive, wanted by Jamal Pasha. In the morning I will lead you to him and you will be paid handsomely for capturing him.”
Next morning Najib was still asleep when he heard a knock on the door. He rose from his bed, overcome with fear. But he controlled his voice and asked quietly, “Who is it?”
Abu Faris shouted, “Open up.”
Najib put his abba (the long, dark-colored loose robe traditionally worn by Arab men) over his shoulders and opened the door to see a tall, imposing soldier filling the whole frame.
“Please come in,” said Najib, looking straight at the officer with his bright brown eyes.
“Would you like to come and visit me? I’m the lieutenant of the jubkhana.”
“First will you have a cup of coffee with me?”
“Why not? I will even have breakfast with you and then you’ll come to visit me at your leisure.”
The two breakfasted and became friends, and Najib was pleased with this new contact, who might be of help to him in the future.
The day after, Abu Faris arranged for someone to take the donkey belonging to Abu Sharra’. When Abu Sharra’ came looking for it, Abu Faris told him, “Even though you implicated me in stealing almonds from one of our allies, the Austrians, I’ll help you find your donkey. But I have one condition. After we find your donkey you will leave Nazareth and never show your face here again.”
After this Abu Faris continued to visit Najib and when there was a search in the neighborhood Najib would go to the jubkhana to hide until the raid was over.
Najib had that open, generous nature which made him endearing. Throughout his long escape he always managed to find those who would feed and hide him even at risk to their own lives. In his character and sociability Najib was more like my brother and father than me. I expend a lot of my energy guarding my privacy. Not so Najib. He was not someone who cared about money or material comforts. He was generous with his time and would do anything for his friends, and in return they would do anything for him. But unlike my brother Samer, who is not embittered, Najib’s life would end in disappointment.
One of those who came to visit Najib around this time was Salim al Ahmad Abdulhadi of Jenin (the nearby town now in the Israeli-occupied West Bank), a member of the Decentralization Party, which advocated autonomy for Arabs within the Ottoman Empire. He had come to Nazareth on his way to Aley, in the Lebanese mountains, to stand military trial on trumped-up charges. He was brought to visit Najib by Abdullah Mukhlis, who had bailed him out. Najib asked Salim whether the soldier in charge of delivering him to the court would agree to cooperate in his escape. Salim answered that he would agree to anything.
“Then,” said Najib, “after Abdullah hands you over, you leave Haifa as quickly as you can.”
“And go where?”
“Hide with one of our friends until we find out how things are going.”
“I cannot risk exposing my family to persecution. Anyway, I have many Ottoman friends who respect me and will surely stand up for me.”
Najib continued to insist. “We’ll be together,” he said. “You must not risk going to the mock military trial.”
But his friend said, “Save your energy. I have made up my mind.”
Najib risked leaving Nazareth from time to time to see his family. He had grown a beard and he wore peasant clothing as a disguise. This must have been how he looked when he visited his brother Ibrahim, my grandmother Julia’s father, at the Nassar Hotel in Haifa’s Street of the Kings. It was this image that had stayed with her. Many years later in Ramallah she described how she failed to recognize her uncle, taking him for a beggar knocking at the door asking for alms. She also said he had lost a lot of weight. Eating good food was central to my grandmother’s life and she felt sorry for him. At least in Nazareth he was staying in relative comfort.
But soon after matters worsened. With the failure of the February 1915 attack on the Suez Canal by the Axis powers, in which many Arab conscripts perished, Arab discontent with the war increased. The policy of hanging Arab leaders on the flimsiest of evidence did not help. They felt they were being sacrificed for a war in which they did not believe. To quell the rising rebellion against the war, Jamal Pasha instituted a reign of terror. He called for expediting the trials taking place in Damascus and Aley of the members of the Ottoman Decentralization Party and the members and president of Al Muntada al Arabi, to which Najib belonged. All of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were hanged in the central square in Beirut, which came to be known as Sahat al Shuhada (Martyrs’ Square). Their bodies were left hanging for weeks, clad in white djellabas fluttering with the wind, with flies swarming all over their bent and broken necks.
Najib’s friend Salim al Ahmad Abdulhadi was hanged on the morning of August 21, 1915, after a brief military show trial. The news of his death profoundly shocked Najib and he decided he must leave Nazareth. He asked his friend Sheikh Mahmoud Tabari (so called after Tiberias, which in Arabic is Tabariah) for a horse and was given a sturdy steed.
His plan was to ride first to Tiberias. The route took him through the towns of Ableen and Hittin, passing through ’Ayn Mahel. Hittin, eight kilometers northwest of Tiberias, was a particularly attractive village with breathtaking views. Its houses stood on descending terraces. Built of stone, with roofs made of arched wood, these dwellings were surrounded by orchards. Nearby was the grave of Nabi Shu’ayb, the holy prophet of the Palestinian Druze community, who identify him with Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. Najib intended to stay in Tiberias for a few days at a friend’s house before moving on. And so began his flight, which lasted for another two years and two months, in the course of which he moved through the Lower Galilee region, crossed the River Jordan and spent time disguised as a shepherd on the eastern bank of the river.
It was this trek that I was determined to reproduce, exploring the route on foot wherever possible. And this is what I was thinking about on the night of September 18, 1996, as I waited for the knock on the door, not knowing that thanks to the intercession of friends—and the promise I subsequently made to appear next day before the Palestinian prosecutor—I would be spared the humiliation of arrest and incarceration.
**Raja Shehadeh** is the author of A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle (OR Books). He has also written Palestinian Walks, for which he won the 2008 Orwell Prize, and Strangers in the House, described by The Economist as “distinctive and truly impressive.” Shehadeh trained as a barrister in London and is a founder of the human rights organization Al-Haq. He lives in Ramallah, on the West Bank.