Semiramis the night of January 5, 1948: Thunder, Lightning, and Rain. The Fall of Jerusalem’s Western Suburbs by Ali Qleibo PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ali Qleibo   
Tuesday, 18 February 2014 16:07

“‘How can you go out in this stormy weather?’
my husband reprimanded me. ‘You have a child barely two months old! How can you even consider carrying him out in this freezing wet weather?’”
Violette’s husband did not allow her to go to the party at the Semiramis Hotel in Qatamon.

“I was still a young bride and I had bought a new dress that I wanted to wear to the party.”
Violette recalls vividly the night of January 5, 1948.
“I went to sleep in tears. My girlfriends, from the Alonzo and Abu Suywaneh families, were holding a party.
‘Come, come join us; there will be dancing and we will have fun,’
they had insisted.”
“I was never to see them again. The next morning I learned that the Semiramis Hotel, of which my friends were part owners, was blown up by Jewish terrorists. My friends died in the explosion.”
“‘Wake up!
Mother’s distressed call jolted my sisters and me out of a deep sleep. ‘Wake up, girls!’ she startled us. ‘The drainage water pipe on the balcony is clogged and rainwater has flooded the house.’”
Mrs. Rose Naber remembers the lightening, the thunder, and the heavy thrashing sound of the rain the night the Semiramis Hotel was blown up.
“As we rushed around lifting the carpets, moving the furniture, and sweeping the wet floor, a blast louder than the sound of the cracking thunder shook the house. No one dared leave home to see what had happened. Fear and the stormy weather in Qatamon kept everyone in.”

“We were living on Sham’a Street الشماعه, not far from Jaffa Gate,” Frère Anthony Alonzo wrote in answer to my inquiry. “It was a stormy night. The wind was blowing, but in a moment the sound of a bomb was heard. No it was not the storm. Some seconds afterwards, the sound of the siren confirmed the bombing. We could not know what was happening, and it was not easy to sleep.”
“The next day we learned the sad news. As certain quarters of Qatamon and Talbieh seemed unsafe, one of the owners of the Semiramis Hotel had invited his friends and relatives to be together, and together they died.” The Qatamon explosion still puzzles Frère Anthony. “Why Semiramis? I cannot tell.
“The image of the Semiramis in ruins haunts me.” Rose describes the rubble: “I remember, as in a clear dream, passing the Semiramis on my way to school. British soldiers huddled around a fire whose flames they fed with the wood of broken windows, doors, and tables of the hotel. They tried to keep themselves warm. They crouched around the fire sipping tea and pouring it into cans from a steaming metal kettle blackened by soot, engulfed by the yellow flames.”

“Father decided that we should stay with my grandmother in the Old City,” Rose continued.

“There were nightly skirmishes. The Jews would launch attacks to occupy the Old City and the Arabs would fight them off. Each night we would go down into the shelter, a basement room. In the morning, life seemed to resume its ordinary course. We would wake up, go to school, and attend classes. I had to go all the way down from the Christian Quarter past the Via Dolorosa to Zion School. At that time everyone seemed to believe that in a matter of a week or two normal life would resume. ‘For a week or two,’ my father said, ‘until things calm down again.’”

Terror spread, and throughout the day following the blow-up of the Semiramis, residents were seen carrying their belongings and leaving Qatamon for fear that their houses would be blown up while they were asleep. Those who had relatives still living within the Old City took refuge with them until order prevailed. Many others held out. The neighbourhoods organised night patrols to keep watch and alert each other in case of danger. As the Zionist terror escalated, more and more people left Qatamon until almost all the Arab population had disappeared.

January 6, 1948, witnessed the first wave of forced exodus from greater Qatamon neighbourhoods: Talbieh, Al-Baq’ah, Lower and Upper Qatamon. On April 30, less than four months later, Khalil al-Sakakini with his daughters Dumia and Hala fled for safety to Cairo. They were the last Palestinians to hold steadfast to their home in Qatamon. In her precious chronicle, Jerusalem and I, Hala al-Sakakini preserves the charmed way of life they had left behind. Erudite, sensible, and sentimental, the book traces the deteriorating political situation step by step and provides an insider’s insight into the last days before the fall of Jerusalem in 1948.

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The ominous armoured van rumbled through the streets of Talbieh spreading terror in every Palestinian home.

Evacuate immediately!

The harrying command still reverberates in my memory.” Mrs. Laura Baramki Khoury remembers the way they were forced to leave Talbieh.
It is startling to note that throughout the interviews - only a few of which are included in this article - the narrators, who are educated, professional, middle-class Palestinians, had no awareness of the different Zionist political parties or of the various strategies to evacuate Palestine. The Nahshon plan for securing access to Jerusalem and evacuating the surrounding western villages, for example, 65 years later, is never mentioned.

Mrs. Khoury describes being home alone with her grandmother at the time. She was not allowed to visit her next-door neighbour until she finished her homework. “My parents were out visiting friends and we were alone at my uncle’s home where we had taken shelter from the Jewish snipers in Al-Musrara.”

It had become so dangerous that they had to leave their villa, the famous Baramki house next to Mandelbaum Gate.

“Eventually my parents caught up with us and we moved in with relatives in the safer Qatamon neighbourhood; we moved three times that year.”
The dignified lady sighs. “I was young with great dreams and expectations, and life was full of promise. We were robbed of everything that held meaning for us.”
By the mid-thirties Al-Baq’ah, Qatamon, and Talbieh boasted the modern elegant villas that housed the newly rising Palestinian bourgeoisies.

The Catholics had formed their own residential clusters in Talbieh, the Greek Orthodox community, too, had their own clusters in Qatamon, and in between, individual Armenians, Muslims, and Russians took up residence. The overall education, occupational pursuits, economic conditions, and way of life of the residents of Jerusalem’s greater Qatamon neighbourhood encapsulate the profile of the Mandate-era Palestinian-Arab middle class: bourgeois, generally well-educated, predominantly Christian, with an occupational structure similar to that of the new classes that began to emerge in the West starting in the late-eighteenth century. The urban Christian local community’s character was formed within specific historical conditions, as zhimmis ذميين, non-Moslem Ottoman subjects, and within the context of their respective churches. In accordance with the millet الملة Ottoman system they were represented legally and protected by - depending on the denominational ethnicity - the French Consulate or the Greek or Armenian patriarchate.

Father Faltas, the Franciscan bursar of the Custody of the Holy Land, explained in a private interview:

Our church records indicate that the Jerusalem Catholic community dates to the sixteenth century when the Latin Patriarchate started to encourage Catholics from all over Palestine, Transjordan, and even as far away as Italy and Spain to take up residence in Jerusalem.

According to Father Faltas, the Jerusalem Catholics depended on the church for their education, training, and economic survival.

“We gave them free housing in our monasteries to the extent that we even rented properties from the Moslem Awqaf where we lodged them gratuitously. We trained them in the tourist craft of mother-of-pearl woodwork, carving, and glassmaking. We introduced the first printing press and employed them; we taught them languages and trained them as guides for the incoming pilgrims.”

Unfortunately, the church archives consist mainly of dates of christenings, baptisms, marriages, and death; but no reference is made to employment or means of gainful living. Though Father Faltas’ statement is categorically correct, it is not necessarily absolutely true. There are cases of prosperous Catholics who had donated their properties to the Patriarchate for the mulk; land ownership, in pre-Crimean-War Ottoman law, restricted land ownership exclusively to the Muslim elite class who since the sixteenth century owned their own vinyards in which they built their summer residences north of the Old City.

All the Catholics lived in church properties until the end of the nineteenth century when Ottoman reformations in relation to land ownership changed and allowed land purchase, mulk, for local nationals, Muslim and Christian alike.”

The Crimean War (October 1853-February 1856) was a pivotal turning point that shaped Palestinian modern identity and history. Following the war, the Ottoman Empire made concessions to Western powers with special privileges given to France that altered Jerusalem’s urban landscape. Most churches and monasteries that we associate with Jerusalem’s panoramic landscape were built following the end of the war and corollary to the Ottoman’s shifting alliances: Notre Dame (opposite New Gate), St. Etienne (in al Musrara), the Rosary Sisters in Mamilla, the Russian compound, Augusta Victoria, and Gethsemane, to name a few. The belfries of the Lutheran and Franciscan churches rose prominently amidst the minarets.”

In a series of edicts, firman, the Ottoman Tanzimat, reforms, opened new vistas for work, education, and residential space. It became possible for Palestinians of all social classes to study, to become doctors and lawyers, and to freely pursue all means of gainful employment. With the influx of pilgrims organised by the churches, tourism and tourist-oriented business became an almost Christian monopoly. It was a lucrative business that provided the capital with which the Christian bourgeoisie gained their economic independence from the church but kept their loyalty even as they moved out of the monastery and built their privately owned houses. A prime example is the Meo family, which established one of the earliest tourist shops inside Jaffa Gate in 1872. A few decades later they built the sumptuous two-storey family mansion off King George Street, now the Horeb School.

With the new money and the new land laws it was possible to move outside the Old City, buy property, and build homes adjacent to the newly built monasteries and outside Jerusalem’s city walls west of Jaffa Gate.

“The Latin Patriarchate bought land and built properties in Qatamon,” Father Faltas continued, “but the previous policy of gratuitous lodging did not apply outside the city walls. The suburban apartments, houses, and shops were contractually rented and paid for in cash.”

The land on which Talbieh was built belonged to the Church of the Cross دير المصلبه and was known as Karm al-Ruhban (the monks’ vineyards),” Beatrice Habesch explained.

“The Greek Orthodox Church approached Mr. Anton Albina,” Violette, in a separate interview, further explained. “They offered to sell him part of the land. He shied away. Instead Mr. Salameh, a Lebanese immigrant who made his fortune in Jerusalem, purchased the vineyard and parceled it into plots that were sold in the early twenties.”

Karm al-Ruhban formed the nucleus of dominantly Catholic Talbieh. Members of the Greek Orthodox community, on the other hand, bought the plots on which they built their houses under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Qatamon, around the Greek Colony. The community among whom many Muslims lived extended south of Talbieh and west of the German Templar community adjacent to the Wa’ry and Nammary neighbourhoods which were exclusively settled by members of these two Muslim extended families in the neighbourhood known generically as Al-Baq’ah.

Talbieh was the most prosperous suburb that boasted Jerusalem’s nouveau-riche sumptuous villas surrounding the Salameh villa, which the owner rented to the Belgian Consulate. In fact, most of these luxurious villas and apartment buildings on and around Salameh Square were economic investments. The owners would live the first year in the new house before renting the property to high-level British administrators, foreign diplomats, or wealthy European Jewish immigrants.

Talbieh boasted the crème de la crème of “les bonnes catholiques” of Jerusalem: the Ayyubes, Albinas, Habesches, Jamals, and Deebs, among many others.
Edward Said’s father rented a flat in one of the apartment buildings in the neighbourhood and Edward was born there. The Habesch family owned a building of six apartments and rented five of them to European Jewish immigrants.

“Queen Nazly, wife of King Faruq, came to Madame Levi, an Austrian couturier, who rented one of our apartments,” Beatrice Habesch told me. “Three daughters accompanied her,” her sister Claire explained and then added in a lament, “Jerusalem was a different city: it was gay, prosperous, and cosmopolitan.”

Jerusalem of the 1920s and 1930s attracted the great divas of Arabic music such as Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash, the leading Egyptian theatre groups with top actors such as
Yusef Wahby, and prominent Egyptian intellectuals, professors, and scholars who enriched the urban cultural scene. The leading Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’rawi came often in support of the emerging Palestinian feminist movements represented by local feminist Zuleikhah Shihabi and in whose house on Al-Zahra Street she was hosted. Jerusalem was also the media center. Leading Lebanese and Egyptian journalists started their careers in the Holy City. Lebanese Salim Al-Louzy wrote in the daily newspaper Falastin, and
Mohammad Hasanen Haikal wrote innumerable reports from Jerusalem. Public lectures with local and international scholars were well attended. Khalil al-Sakakini documents the scene vividly in his diary. We glean a glimpse of the old gracious life in his daughter Hala’s book, Jerusalem and I.

Sadly the Sakakini narratives of the idyllic lifestyle corroborated by my own interviews reveal the tragic irony; namely, that the distinctive middle-class characteristics of the cosmopolitan suburbs had inadvertently accelerated the process of collapse by rendering it inure to the serious threat and eventually ineffectual in responding to the life-threatening crisis during the decline of colonial civil order brought about by Jewish terrorism. Humanist liberal bourgeois aesthetics, values, and ethos sequestered the Palestinian middle class and alienated them, thus rendering them individualistic, vulnerable, and defenceless. “Reality” was misconstrued. The ensuing lacuna among educated Palestinian middle classes impeded their perception and appraisal of the imminent Zionist threat. They were the first to stampede outside Jaffa, Haifa, and other lost cities. With their early exodus they left behind the uneducated rabble.

The structural myopia, méconnaissance, of the Palestinian bourgeoisies was further confounded by the misleading, highly distorted nationalist rampant discourse and distracted by the inter-Palestinian problematic rivalries such as that between the Husseini and Nashashibi partisans. On one hand the Palestinian educated professional middle class were misinformed by highly eschewed rhetoric manipulated by local politicians seeking favour, power, and recognition of Arab foreign states who in turn had their own self-serving agendas. On the other hand the inter-Palestinian conflict between the Palestinian political regional parties obstructed the development of a unified nationalist consciousness and ultimately a centralised administrative body. Consequently they failed to set up their own intelligence centres that would gather and systematise Zionist strategies in preparation for the takeover of Palestine.

Apart from Abdel Qader Husseini who undertook pre-emptive action, Palestinian resistance remained sporadic and invariably reduced to retaliatory responses. The state of chaos was augmented by the fact that the nationalist resistance parties were infiltrated by the rabble undermining the credibility of the leaders and turning them into rabble-rousers.
The last days in Qatamon read like a tragic-comic satire. Following the night of the Semiramis explosion a meeting was held at Khalil al-Sakakini’s home in Qatamon. The gathered men decided that they needed to protect themselves from Zionist terrorists. They had a few guns that they did not know how to use. As in a tragedy, we read with pity and horror the demise of the bourgeoisies in Sakakini’s chronicles. The first group dispatched to protect Qatamon produced frictions and problems with the residents that required Abdel Qader el Husseini to interfere. They were replaced by the more suave single guard, Mr. Abu Dayyeh, aided by a single assistant! Once he is shot down, the last residents are left defenceless.

Believing the Arabic rhetoric, the classical Palestinian tragic flaw (hamartia), they huddled around Khalil al-Sakakini naively holding steadfast, waiting for the Arab armies to come to save them. No one came to the rescue: the emptying of West Jerusalem from its Arab residents was pre-arranged as a preliminary step to separate the West Bank from Israel.
The error in judgment is the fatal flaw that combined with external forces, British policy following the Balfour Declaration, and Zionist ideology, to bring on the Palestinian tragedy: al-Nakba. Ironically, 65 years later, the same socio-political conflictual structures persist: dependency on and shifting alliances with foreign Muslim Arab, non-Arab, and occidental powers in the context of the sacrifice of the public good with preference for material gain, individual power, and prestige. In this demoralising context corruption becomes rampant. Throughout, the educated bourgeoisies remain marginalised, misled, and alienated from the national struggle. In fact, the Palestinian socio-political structures perpetuate the Nakba; it is not induced from without, it is produced from within.

From greater Qatamon, and the rest of the lost cities, the Palestinian educated middle class dispersed all over the world. The Nakba, in this context, was a major blow not only to the Jerusalem Christian community but to the Palestinian bourgeoisies as well. In the diaspora they have become the silent alienated majority replenished by continued forced migrations. It was the onset of the “brain drain” that let Jerusalem and other urban centres devolve into backwater provincial towns. In the ensuing vacuum the rabble has taken over; the Robin-hood mentality in its negative sense has dominated the Palestinian sphere of political action. We have been misrepresented; the image of the Palestinian has become synonymous with terrorism.

The zeal for building as a means of consolidating newly acquired wealth continued until 1947, impervious to the Zionist danger. In Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem investment in real estate and the building of department stores, apartment buildings, factories, and cinemas were telltale signs that the forthcoming tragedy of the forced exodus was inconceivable.
“My father finished building his printing press in al-Sham’a (where Mamilla Mall now stands) and had ordered the new printing machines from Europe when the movement between the zones became life threatening and permits impossible to obtain.” Beatrice Habesch described the family ordeal. “The new printing paper and cardboard had been delivered and stacked in storage and my father had ordered the new printing machines when the partition plan was announced in May 1948. It was followed by the Jewish declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, and the violence in Jerusalem intensified.”

“We moved from Talbieh to the Winter Palace Hotel in Jericho in April. My father went ahead to Jordan where he rented a big house. We followed him a month later.” Beatrice arrived to find a typewriter and small table waiting for her. “It took me four hours to type the letter. Father stood by my side and dictated, corrected, and rewrote the letter to the company in Europe asking them not to send the printing machines to Jaffa but to Beirut…”

My attention was drawn to an old photograph on the bureau. I inquired. Claire brought over the picture. “It is my parents’ wedding.” The wedding procession took place in the Old City. “Initially we lived in the Christian Quarter. In fact, everyone lived in the Christian Quarter then.”

I never ask questions when I conduct interviews because I want to avoid limiting the discourse by my own interests so I let the interviewer free associate. This time I could not hold myself back, for Beatrice, besides her gracious charm, is extremely literate, honest, and well informed, and I knew she would give me the correct answer.
“Why do Christians, who are Arabs like us, carry European names such as Natalie, Claudette, Marie-Therese, Claire, Violette, Julia?”

“The use of French names dates to the Ottoman period when the various religious communities were defined by the denominational sect they were born into irrespective of ethnic origin, known in Arabic as millet, ملة. The Ottoman term specifically refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to personal law under which minorities were allowed to rule themselves (in cases not involving any Muslim) with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government. Whereas the Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians conducted their legal affairs under the aegis of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Catholic community, after the Crimean War, fell legally under the aegis of the French consulate that represented Catholic interests in the Ottoman Empire. Within that context it was easier to adopt French names for bureaucratic procedures.”

Is that all?” I egged her on.
Beatrice smiled. She started to speak. She hesitated, shrugged her shoulders, and we both understood that certain subjects cannot be talked of openly. It was a moment of intimate complicity.
Claire asked whether I prefer tea or coffee.
“Or do I pour more Courvoisier?”
Beatrice resumed her narrative of the Nakba days.
“We had barely settled in when floods of Palestinians started pouring in in droves through Amman. We lost our dreams, we lost our life; everything. I am often overcome by the feeling that I live a life not mine.”
Claire interjected, “I had wanted to become a doctor.… I started to study medicine.… The war put an end to everything.”
A moment of awkward silence ensued.

Amman was a small town then. There were no hotels except the Nazzal Hotel (now Philadelphia). It had ten rooms. Mr. Nazzal, the proprietor, referred the refugees to our house. We bought mattresses that filled the large lower-floor room from wall to wall. There were no sheets. I remember that they would arrive battered, beaten, and hot. It was May and the heat was scorching. We fixed sandwiches and offered cold water to the guests. They would sleep the night and continue the next day to Syria, to Lebanon, to Iraq: all over the world. This is the saddest memory in my life - watching Palestine being emptied out.”

“We then moved to Beirut to wait for the delivery of the printing machines. My father suffered a constant headache in Beirut. Mother and he could not endure being far from Jerusalem.

“He sold the machines and his British life insurance policy, and with that money we returned to Jerusalem to begin again.”
Claire added, “It was aboard the first Middle East Airlines flight to Qalandia Airport in 1951. It was a single-propeller plane that could barely carry the six members of the family.”
“But life never returned to the way it was before. Jerusalem had lost its soul and we had lost our lives.” The two octogenarian matrons nodded their heads in unison.
Internecine fighting, random shooting, and explosions here and there followed the stormy night in Qatamon. The blowing up of the Semiramis Hotel signalled the last days in Jerusalem’s western suburbs, and people started to leave. Following the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9  pandemonium spread.

As the peasants of the western villages of Ein Karem and Al-Malha fled in panic, the residents of Qatamon followed suit. On April 15, as the bombing intensified, Mr. Sakakini sent his library and manuscripts for storage in his sister’s house inside the Old City.

On April 30, at around six in the morning, Khalil Sakakini and his two daughters Dumia and Hala left Qatamon to take refuge in Cairo.
Of Jerusalem a tiny fraction survives. The modern suburban Jerusalemites escaped from Talbieh, Qatamon, Al-Baq’ah seeking temporary refuge first in the Old City and later spread all over the earth. Behind them they left their furniture, their clothes, their family albums, their libraries, their well-stocked pantries, and all their personal possessions, the residue of many personal histories that form the collective patterns and sensibility, in terms of which each historic era expresses its genius. What a rich cultural museum we would have found had their remains not been tampered with!

Overnight thousands of professional Jerusalemites found themselves homeless and jobless, crammed within the walls of the Old City, living with their parents and grandparents. I remember the Old City bustling with people, but it was fraught with sadness. Almost everyone seemed to be waiting for an immigration visa to America or a job in the Arabian Gulf.
Since Laura Baramki’s maternal uncles were from the Nasser family of Birzeit, they took shelter with them. From Birzeit they moved to Beirut. Laura married the young, promising Dr. Abdallah Khoury who was stationed soon afterwards in Gaza. When they returned to Jerusalem in the fifties it was to a torn, divided city in grief. Laura writes,
Palestine was like a beautiful tapestry, with myriad brilliant colours all tightly woven together with communities living together in harmony. Alas, we came back to a ravished tapestry, all torn, its threads scattered all over the country, indeed countries.”

Jerusalem by the early sixties had developed the character now deeply impressed in me; a city of old people clinging to memories about a period of time in the past, when families lived together: a paradise lost and a civilisation gone with the wind.

Jerusalem is a sad city. Al huzon, nostalgic melancholy, permeates every step that Jerusalemites take. The spectre of solitude hovers over each home; not a single family has been spared the wounds of separation. People’s major preoccupation is waiting; waiting for the return of peace, for the return of loved ones, and for the return home.
Nostalgia, melancholy, and an unfathomable sense of solitude; Jerusalem has come to embody these feelings. Al-huzon dwells in Jerusalem.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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