The Storyteller of Jerusalem is a remarkable and unique memoir of the life and times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a talented composer, oud player, poet and chronicler from the Old City of Jerusalem. The memoir is a collection of observations, notes on his personal life and recordings of historical moments in Jerusalem's history. Spanning over four decades, they cover the city's most turbulent changes.
His account takes us from the Ottoman period into the era of British control, and the lead up to the establishment of Israel, covering the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, known as the Nakba. Through his writings we gain an insight into the changing Jerusalem as it grows outside the confines of the city walls and passes hands. We are offered intimate glimpses into these times and the characters that shape them.
Jawahariyyeh writes in the foreword: "I am no skilled writer, famous historian, or experienced traveller. I am simply a civil servant who was forced out of school by the First Great war. But I feel compelled to document situations, surprises, and incidents which emerged in my life during the Ottoman and the British periods in my country of Palestine, some of which are amusing."
In this admission lies the beauty of the memoir. It is not a memoir of a member of high society; Wasif is immersed in all strata's of Jerusalem life and his heart seems to beat with the city. Born to Jiryus Jawhariyyeh, a mukhtar (communal leader) of the Eastern Orthodox community and a member of Jerusalem's municipal council, and Hilaneh Barakat, the daughter of Andony Barakat, who belonged to one of Jerusalem's Arab Greek Orthodox families, he is not from the wealthiest of families but enjoys the connections of his father when times are hard.
It is during his boyhood that Wasif constructs his first instrument from an empty can of Easter egg dye, inserting a wooden stick into which three nails were hammered and a piece of string tied to them. It begins his love for music, a love which is threaded throughout the book. Wasif gathers the music from the people he meets, from the fields and from the streets. In the process, we learn about the sounds of Palestine's past, their meaning to local people and their shifting roles as the region undergoes huge changes.
Jerusalem now stands carved by the separation wall and expanding settlements, controlled by a policy which allows free access to the city for one people but not for another. Jerusalemites have been fractured and scattered. The beauty of this memoir is that it offers us a glimpse of a time when communitarian values threaded Jerusalem's people together and builds in anyone that reads it a yearning for the Jerusalem of Wasif's boyhood.