Bells of Memory: A Jerusalem Childhood, May 3rd
Issa Boullata presents a loving portrait of his childhood in the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1930s and 1940s, during the latter days of the British mandate in Palestine. Now in his mid-eighties, this retired McGill professor of Arabic literature calls upon powerful stores of memory to provide details of the family home, his school days, family feasts and neighbourhood commercial and religious life.
These were tense times, with an ongoing tug of war between the Zionist movement, fighting to expand Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the long-established Palestinian Arab population, which felt threatened by this encroachment. The British were caught in between.
Professor Boullata is the author of The Bells of Memory: A Palestinian Boyhood in Jerusalem, newly issued by Linda Leith Publishing. This is a slim but eminently readable collection of essays covering different periods and aspects. One recurring theme is coexistence between different religious groups. (The Boullata family were Orthodox Christians.) Another is education: the author dwells perhaps a little too long on the identities of his teachers.
His parents struggled to create a sense of security despite the growing turmoil, but young Issa was exposed at age nine to the sight of a guerrilla sniper firing on a government building and guards firing back. However, only the last few pages of the book focus exclusively on war and politics. In 1948, the State of Israel was born, and countless Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes by fear or compulsion. This period became known in Arabic as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
“I saw the Nakba eat away at my country, destroy the fabric of my society, and disperse my people in different directions,” he wrote. In 1968, after all of Jerusalem came under Israeli rule, he left his beloved city, returning only once in the interim.
“I sensed no joy or freedom,” he told his Blue Met audience in reference to his 1998 visit. “If there is reconciliation, joy may return.”
The Blue Metropolis Festival runs until May 4th. Consult their website for more information.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montréal translator and former Mexico City correspondent and journalist.