In the early 80s, I lived directly across the street from the Orient House– the same street in Jerusalem where activists have gathered for several days to protest.
The Orient House, like most things Palestinian, is now occupied by Israel. Like déjé vu, or a nightmare rerun, we are watching another piece of our collective Palestinian soul plundered by Israel and converted into something exclusively Jewish.
The Orient House is a grand structure, much older than the state of Israel. It was built for an ancient Jerusalem family called El Husseini. Members of that family were leaders in Jerusalem and many died defending their city.
It did not always go by the name “Orient House.” It was originally built to be a family home. But Faisal Husseini, the quintessential son of Jerusalem, transformed it into a house for Palestinian society and it became a symbol of our belonging to Jerusalem. It is where international guests of Palestine were housed and where hundreds of thousands of exiled Jerusalemites lay their hope of returning home some day.
But before all this, twenty years ago to a few girls living across the street, it was simply the “Husseini Castle.”
Before the first uprising, I lived directly across the street from that the grand home. I was one of nearly two hundred girls who lived in an orphanage that was also once a Husseini home and hotel. In 1948, after a massacre in the peaceful village of Deir Yassin, Miss Hind, a member of the Husseini family, gathered the bloody orphans from that town and opened her home to them. In time, her property was transformed by her love into a Palestinian institution that made a home and school for young girls who had no place to turn. For a part of my childhood, I was one of those girls.
We all knew the “Husseini Castle” and several girls made up or repeated fantastical stories and ghost tales about the house. On a spring day, perhaps in 1981, I climbed the walled fence around the orphanage with one of the older girls to “watch boys.” I think that was the first time I ever did such a thing. The trees and flowers were in full bloom providing good cover from the headmaster, Ms. Hidaya. There on that fence, staring right at the Husseini Castle, I imagined that I was a princess living inside. The rooms and furnishings I imagined were ornate mosaics of fine splendor fit for royalty.
I fantasized that I would be a benevolent queen with the power to alleviate what seemed like an endless tragedy of my family and my people. I imagined that I would make sure the girls of the orphanage across the street would never be cold again in the winter. I’d make sure they always had enough to eat and enough hot water to bathe every day, instead of the five minute weekly cold showers we were forced to endure. I would give them toys and nice clothes and lots of shampoo. When I left the orphanage, the image and fantasy of the Husseini Castle from that day stayed with me.
Twenty years later, I returned. It was, just two months ago, in June, that I finally saw the inside of that house. The Husseini Castle had become the Orient House and its doors were open to the world to come and mourn the passing of her beloved son, Faisal Husseini. Outside, there was a larger than life photo of Faisal staring into the distance with his fatherly eyes that often seemed to hold Jerusalem’s tears.
As is the custom in mourning, or aza, the women and men pay their respects in separate quarters. I walked passed the men in the courtyard and climbed the steps to the castle of my youthful fantasy. Inside, women lined the walls and sipped black Arabic coffee, called “ahwe arabiya”. I got a cup of ahwe and sat silently by myself. The rooms were much smaller than I had imagined 20 years before and they were not as luxurious either. The decor was simple and elegant. The walls were old and wise. I didn’t want to leave.
I listened to an Israeli woman pay her respects with a short speech on
behalf of the Bat Shalom Women In Black human rights organization. It was June 8th,the day of their international demonstration against the Israeli occupation. I spotted a familiar looking woman whom I immediately recognized as Ms. Hidaya, the tough headmaster of the orphanage.
The place was full of Palestinians. There was Arabic all around me. I was surrounded by strangers whom I loved in the city from which my parents were expelled. I belonged. I savored the bitter ahwe and wept for Faisal, a man I had never met.
Sitting there, with pictures of Faisal, women in black, ahwe, simple elegance, wise old walls, and Palestinian embroidered pillows, I got another image from the perspective of a woman inside the Orient House. I took it with me when I left back into exile and filed it with the one of a girl across the street from the castle.
A few days ago, I saw a photo of an Israeli flag flying over the Orient House. The Husseini Castle of my youth, turned Orient House just became something Israeli. That is another image I’ll remember. I think those wise old walls must be weeping.
It is not the dollar value that matters. Israel has taken so much more from us in the form of homes, farms, orchards, and lands. But occupying the Orient House is like burning another page from Palestinian history toward the end of erasing all traces of our existence.
A hostile flag that vows to obliterate my history now flies over fantasies of my youth. Every bend it makes to the wind is a merciless slap of imperialism across the face of the natives of the land. It stings.
But tomorrow is another day, another rain, another child, another spring. Tides change and tables turn. The weak do not remain so, nor do the strong.
Faisal and Miss Hind are alive in us all. The Husseinis are natural Jerusalemites. And having been, Palestine shall always be.