The Bells of Memory: A Palestinian Boyhood in Jerusalem

The Bells of Memory: A Palestinian Boyhood in Jerusalem
Publisher: Linda Leith Publishing
Published Date : 05 April 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1927535394

Book Author(s):

Issa J Boullata

Review by:

Maha Salah

Born in Jerusalem on February 25, 1929, during the British Mandate of Palestine, the author, Issa Boullata, a prominent Palestinian scholar, writer and translator of Arabic literature living in Montreal, shares with us a memoir of his childhood living in Jerusalem in the years before the Nakba in 1948. According to Boullata: "No year is burnt into the memory of the Palestinians as deeply and as painfully as 1948." However, despite all the tension that preceded the Nakba, Boullata paints a vivid, beautiful, and unique image of what it was like to be a boy in Jerusalem between 1929 and 1948 in a skilfully written memoir that is such a light read it leaves the reader hungry for more.

The book consists of seven chapters varying in length, the longest of which focused on his time in school when he attended the Christian College Des Frères. In another chapter, he focused describing the Old City. I found this to be nostalgic for those who have lived or visited Jerusalem and insightful, informative, and luring to those who dream about Jerusalem or wonder what it would be like to visit. I especially connected to the book as a Jerusalemite myself who has spent many summers there with my family and even lived there for a year. I have also heard countless stories from my grandfather about his childhood in Jerusalem and Boullata's writings reminded me of his stories.

Boullata begins his memoirs by talking about his roots in Jerusalem, not only his ancient roots in the Land of Canaan, but more importantly, the roots that connect him to Jerusalem through his memories and life experiences, which have defined his identity, culture, and who he is today. He also gives us some background information on his family, mentioning that his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born, was a master mason who built monumental edifices that still stand in Jerusalem.

He was especially close to his paternal grandmother, and notes that his paternal aunts and uncles, and extended family is spread across the globe, some still in Palestine, while others are scattered in the US, Europe and the Arab world.

His maternal grandfather was a reputable goldsmith and the last Palestinian to be buried in the Orthodox Cemetery in the Nabi Dawood neighbourhood in 1947, before the Israelis took control of the area, but he did not know his maternal grandmother as she died before he was born.

His next chapter focuses on the "lady teachers" that taught him in primary school. Throughout his book, Boullata pays tribute to all of his teachers, naming most of them by name and how they have impacted his life; it is so heart-warming that after all these years, he remembers every detail about his teachers and friends from school, even giving us details about where some of them have reached in life. In this chapter he recalls the happy years he spent in primary school, between playful learning and his budding love for reading, and praises his female teachers who impacted his school life and nurtured his love of school.

The third chapter is titled Turbulent Times and it sets a different tone to the book. In this chapter, Boullata begins to show the tensions that were bubbling underneath the surface before 1948. During this time, the armed Arab rebellion began against the British Mandate, and although Boullata was a young child, he and his siblings sensed that things had changed, despite the fact that their parents sheltered them and provided them with a stable home.

Their home, along with the homes of many other Palestinians, was ransacked by the British army and he witnessed his father being dragged away in his pyjamas with shaving cream still on his face. He also lived through the Arab strike, and describes the hardships they experienced; praising his mother for always making the best of their provisions and food shortages, always making sure every family member was properly fed and satisfied.

As a nine-year-old boy during this time, he noted that he was fully aware of the significance of these events, but he kept up with the military advancements, as it was what the adults mainly talked about, and he witnessed an exchange of fire between a Palestinian rebel and British soldier. This period was not only turbulent, but traumatic and marks his realisation of the tension in the city.

In his fourth chapter, Boullata refers to himself as a bookworm, and shows how his love for reading and literature grew. He talks about the various librarians who helped and guided him to love books, which later became not only his passion, but source of livelihood as an Arabic literature university professor.

His fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of the Old City; it pays homage to the city where he grew up. I believe that this is the chapter most people will connect to, as its descriptiveness gives us a sense of nostalgia; a feeling most Palestinians feel when thinking about their homeland, whether or not they have ever visited. When reading this chapter, I felt like I was there, having breakfast with his family, walking down the cobblestone streets, hearing the merchants conversing with their customers, and experiencing Easter in the Old City; his description is truly remarkable.

His final chapter marks the time of the Nakba; the year that changed the lives of millions of Palestinians. This chapter gives us a real glimpse into how the tension that lasted all those decades finally exploded and how it impacted everyone's lives at the time, and continues to affect generations of Palestinians until today. He even gives examples of the significance and effect it left on members of his family who were forced to leave their homes and either become refugees in Palestine or neighbouring countries, or to immigrate to Western countries, each going their separate ways.

I believe he was able to perfectly sum up what the Palestinians are experiencing in his final chapter when he said: "There are still more thousands who own no land and, like me, have not even lost their homes, Yet they feel the injustice resulting from the Nakba as strongly and as deeply as all the other Palestinians, because, like them, they have lost the dignity of having a country of their own, of being citizens of their own state, and of living a life of free human beings with all the inalienable rights that out to be theirs. They suffer and they remember." These simple words carry a lot of meaning and weight and I would consider them the perfect answer to those who cannot understand how many Palestinians can love a country they have never seen.

In short, this book is a touching recollection of a Jerusalemite's childhood, in which he gives us a glimpse into the pre-Nakba period, when people of varying religions and cultures co-existed in harmony. It gives us hope that one day, peace can be achieved and that, one day, the suffering and pain of the Palestinians will come to an end.

Winners of the Palestine Book Awards

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  • Except for Palestine: The limits of progressive politics
  • A history of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, awareness, and revolution in the middle east
  • Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands
  • Against the Loveless World
  • The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017
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  • Stone Men: The Palestinians who built Israel
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  • Where the Bird Disappeared