Amoula il Majnoona

Amoula's blog from Ramallah

Thursday, December 14, 2006

for my father

I was 13 years old standing next to my father in Bethlehem one sunny and windy day when he took my hand and pointed to the settlement of Gilo and said: "See baba, see there?". Then my eyes followed his finger as it moved across the landscape and stopped at the settlement of Har Gilo; "and there. See? They are going to build settlements just like those all around us". Then with his arm still outstretched, we turned in a circle and I watched his finger pointing at the horizon line around Bethlehem and Bayt Jalla, he said "One day they will encircle us."

This post is for my father Yusuf Nasri Suleiman Jacir. My father who taught me what it means to be free, what justice is, how to fight, and who gave me his love for Palestine. He is my biggest hero. He is the most giving and loving person I have ever known in my entire life. His first priority has always been his family and he did anything he could to make us happy.

If he could have done what he wanted in his life he would have been a professor. That was his dream. For him this was the highest and most honorable profession. No one deserved more respect than a teacher. But a poor man from Bethlehem, with a family to support and family back home to take care of, could not afford to indulge in such bourgeoisie fantasies.

He fought hard to get where he is and he did it all by himself. Nothing was handed to him. He always had a lot of hardship in his life but he made it through and he did a great job. Because of him, I know that it is possible to do anything, at any age and that it is never too late.

My father was born and raised in Bethlehem where, although he came from a historically famous and wealthy family (our family tree goes back to 1500), he grew up poor. The Jacir family had gone bankrupt in the 30's and lost absolutely everything. What remains of their legacy is the historic "Jacir Palace". My great grandfather Suleiman built it in 1910 with the intention that him and his 5 brothers families would all live in the house together, and they did for a short time but then the family lost everything and his dream was lost forever. Suleiman had quite a reputation around the region for his incredible generosity, everyone knew that if you were hungry you could go there and he would feed you.

The Jacir “palace” is currently owned by Padico and is an International Hotel but prior to this it has had an interesting history of occupants. In the 40’s the British used it as a prison. In the 50’s it was a private school called Al-Ummah, and in fact my grandfather Nasri taught there. Al-Ummah was originally located in Al-Baqaa’ in Jerusalem but after the 1948 catastrophe it was reborn in Bethlehem. Later the house became a government secondary boys’ school and then at a later stage was transformed in to a government girl’s school. Ironically, I saw recently in an Israeli tourist guide the Jacir palace described as built by a "Turkish Ottoman Merchant". Not surprising as they are working on all fronts to erase and distort our history.

My father did not have the opportunity to go to college until the age of 33. He was newly married with kids on the way, and working a full-time job and yet he managed to get his B.A.. He kept struggling so that eventually he got his master's degree at the age of 39 from the University of Chicago which was a major achievement. Of course he could have never accomplished this without the help and support of my mother who worked a retail job selling clothes, and did things like hand sew clothes for us to wear. My father would work full-time and take night courses, and then he would come home where my mother would have dinner waiting for him. Right after he was finished eating, she would make him study until the wee hours of the morning. He said there was no way he could have done it without her. Her background was different then my fathers. She was well-educated at a young age and already had a bachelors degree at the time of her marriage. Her dream was to get a masters degree which she started to slowly work on after getting married.

Eventually my father decided he was willing to go and live in a country where he would be deemed a "guest worker" and be made to feel estranged. This was Saudi Arabia and he accepted it so that his kids could have a better life then he did. Most importantly he wanted us to have a chance to have what he couldn’t get until he was in his mid-30's - a college education. Saudi Arabia was not easy for my parents and they had to make huge sacrifices and adjustments. They were forbidden from practicing their religion and their culture. They were forbidden from holding hands, or displaying any signs of public affection. Their children could not study in an Arabic school because we were not Saudi nationals so the only option was the foreign schools. There was no cinema, no dance, and no theater. At one point my mother found out about a dance teacher who was secretly teaching and she immediately signed me and my sister up....but alas the teacher was found out and promptly thrown out of the country (along with my 8 year old dream of becoming a professional dancer). All foreign teenagers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at that time were forced to leave to pursue their high school education outside the country as it was forbidden for them to stay. Coming from a traditional Bethlehem family you can imagine what a sacrifice this was for my father to have to send his children away from him. It was unheard of and heartbreaking for him. I will never forget the day I left home for Italy at the age of 14, my father (who was always open and free with his emotions which is another reason he is my hero) wept openly as he hugged me good bye.

In Saudi Arabia, my mother could no longer pursue her Masters degree and had to give that up. She managed of course, and became the first Arabic teacher at the American School in Riyadh. She also got involved in several Saudi women's groups. Best of all, was that she refused to wear the black abaya. She thought it was too dark and depressing and decided to make her own abaya. Her abaya was also black, and followed the rules by covering her body head to toe, but her abaya was covered in giant brightly colored flowers - they were pink, purple and green. When I was a young girl I was embarrassed at the way she stuck out of the crowd and wished she would wear a plain black one like me and my sister, but now when I look back at it I am proud.

But we were close to Palestine. We were near our homeland and for my father the most important thing was being able to go back as much as we could. We went back (sometimes three times a year) in the 70's and 80's via Jordan and the infamous bridge where I have many deep memories of being stripped searched as a child, and having things like my chewing gum confiscated. Working in Saudi Arabia also gave my father the ability to support his family still in Bethlehem. When I was growing up, he worked almost 7 days a week, office hours were not 9 - 5, they were 8 a.m. to midnight. He would come home for dinner but then he would have to rush back to the office where I always felt he worked like a slave. In Bethlehem, it seemed our family and other people had no idea what our lives were like outside Palestine and I heard them say many things. It didn't matter what we said, they had a fantasy in their mind about how we lived and nothing would change that. When I would complain about this to my mother, she would just quietly say "let them talk".

I remember walking the streets of Bethlehem as a child and holding my fathers hands, I was always in awe as it seemed everyone knew him, everyone! My father never did resolve the fact that his children were growing up away from his parents and extended family. This fact hurt him and has always made him doubt if he made the right decision to leave Palestine.

Before my father got married and went to college he worked in Hebron from 1962 until 1969. He was working for UNRWA as the Area Welfare Officer for the Hebron and Bethlehem areas. The UNRWA headquarters was in Hebron and it's area covered Bethlehem and all the surrounding villages and refugee camps. My father's specific job was that he was in charge of case work, youth activities, welfare distributions, and sewing centers, in Bethlehem, Hebron, Arroub Camp, Fawwar camp and Deheishe camp. He also supervised case workers, youth leaders and sewing center supervisors. This job gave him the opportunity to travel to the USA for the first time in 1966 as a representative of Jordan to the Chicago International Program for Youth Leaders and Social workers. He spent 4 months in America and visited New York, Washington and Chicago. As a joke, they decided to dress in traditional Arab costumes when they flew to America to play with the American’s stereotypes of who we Arabs are.

During his eight year time period as a social worker, he used to commute daily to his work in Hebron from Bethlehem on the Hebron/Bethlehem bus. It was bus number 23. This bus originated in Jerusalem and made its way along the Jerusalem-Hebron road through Bethlehem and onwards to Hebron. He tells me that he had fun on his daily bus ride. In those days it was a long trip, depending on the weather and traffic it normally took anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes for him to get to the UNRWA office.

I tried to find this bus a few weeks back. It no longer runs. It stopped running ten years ago. There is also no way to get from Bethlehem to Hebron now on the Jerusalem-Hebron Road as the Israelis have chopped it into pieces and blocked it in several places. I tried to follow its route but instead of the wide open road, I found various checkpoints and at several points the wall completely closing the road. It seems like only a few years ago when I could follow this exact route.

My father was in Hebron at work when the war broke out on June 5, 1967. He managed to return to Bethlehem on UNRWA transportation from the Hebron office to the UNRWA office in Bethlehem. From the UNRWA office in Bethlehem he walked home to his house as the Israelis were shelling the city.
Meanwhile my mother at the same time was on her way from Amman to Bethlehem by car. Her car was attacked by the Israeli army and run over by a tank. She spent three days hiding in the hills and made it back to Bethlehem on foot.

My father eventually realized that UNRWA was created to ensure that we remain beggars and never create the means to help ourselves. UNRWA seemed to do nothing but keep us stagnate and in a state of permanent waiting.
He left.


This photo essay was taken the day I tried to follow Bus Number 23’s route, my father’s daily commute to Hebron.
He was right.
They have completely encircled us, not only by the settlements, but by the wall, and the by-pass roads.
Bethlehem is a ghetto.


At 2:26 PM, Blogger divaesq said...

Emily, what a beautiful, moving account - what a tribute to your father...shukran...

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Ayman said...

Many thanks Emily for the breathtaking story about your father; it touches me so deeply simply because I went through similar hardship to only complete my degrees –and more to come. By the way Emily, it is Ayman the guy from Australia whom you’ve helped conducting the Film Festival downunder; it is possible if you could give me your contact details. (I want to give you a call, send it to or ). Please send warms salaams to your wonderful family and special big kisses to your father. Ayman :-)

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Raed said...

thanks very much for this lovely story, i did really enjoyed it.

i was born in Bethlehem in August 1984, and studied at your family's palace.

I was always wondering and thinking about the palace and its owners while in class.
I remember very well how we used to smell the tear Gas and run away from school(The palace) almost everyday.

My grand Dad (Rabah Abdeen)who owns the petrol station few meters away from your family's palace, told me alot about your family's generosity and i heared about that from so many people in the city, old and young, everybody knows about it.

recently i moved to study and work in England, sometimes i work 15 hours a day to pay for my university and expenses, your dad's determination and life story has given me the courage and strength to continue when I'm nearly fed up.

thanks very much indeed - Emily
All the best.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your story is beautiful!

My family-Handal-and yours were friends. My parents were born in Bethlehem and we still own the house there on the hill.
Where do you live?
I was recently in Bethlehem and went into the Jacir Palace and thought it was magnificent.
I am going again on Sunday with my cousin to Amman and then the West Bank.

Best and shukaron,

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Aljael1 said...

hello emily, my name es alain jacir, i was writting you on facebbok please contact me. i ´m the coordinator of UGEP in barranquilla colombia, and i want to let the people see your film "the salt o this see". please contact me or call me or something i live in colombia

At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Sebastian gutierrez turbay said...

Hello emily this story is all i was looking for. My mother had always talked to me about our ancestry and how our family went bankrupt and had to leave the country. MY family now lives in Colombia and i feel very identified with this story... MY mother used to tell me what you said about our ancestors generosity and i didnt really believe her until today. This story gave me a real sense of identification and i would like to know more about our family background. I've added you on facebook... my name is sebastian gutierrez turbay perez jacir.. half colombian have arab as i said.. it would be great if you could get in contact with me... my e-mail is

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