The following are excerpts from the recently published memoirs of Serene Husseini Shahid, entitled Jerusalem Memories, edited by Jean Said Makdisi and introduced by Edward Said (Beirut: Naufal, 2000). They are reprinted here with kind permission of the author.
The Oak Tree
The oak tree grew in Sharafat.
"Before my grandfather, Faidi al-Alami, had become Mayor of Jerusalem, he was a government official when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. One of his duties was to survey the country. This was not a time of comfort and motor cars. It was a time of slow journeys on horses, mules, or donkeys through the hills and plains of Palestine. Grandfather loved the countryside and enjoyed every twist and turn of the road. He also liked people and easily made new friends.
One summer day he was, with his aides, laboring on horseback up a hill between Beit Safafa and Sharafat, near Jerusalem. It was noontime, and despite a cool breeze wafting up from the valley, the sun was hot. They looked around for a place to rest. Then they saw the oak tree on a hill in the distance and headed towards it, longing to relax in the cool shade of its branches.
Some villagers from Sharafat noticed them approaching and came out to meet them. They wanted to know who the gentlemen were and to offer help if it was needed, as was the custom. This small event was a turning point in the life of my grandfather and his family. He fell in love with the oak tree, a love which lasted all his life and through the generations after him. Later, he was told by experts that the tree was over one thousand five hundred year old.
The owner of the oak tree was one of the villagers who had greeted my grandfather and his companions. As the two groups sipped coffee together in the shade of the tree, grandfather made a proposal. Would the owner sell him the oak tree and its shade?
The man was delighted to do so. Thus Faidi Effendi, as my grandfather was known, became a lifelong friend of the village. The villagers suggested that he should buy enough land to build a house. He did so, and in time Sharafat became a happy summer home for all the family.
By the time I was born, Sharafat had become the focus of many family occasions. I grew up in the shade of the oak, and by the time I was nine or ten, I had conquered the tree and climbed to its topmost branches.
Being the eldest child in my family, I was lonely for friends, and Sharafat in summer was heaven for me. We were the only city family living in Sharafat, so I was eagerly received by the girls and boys of the village. They took me to their homes and I brought them to mine, and we played in the garden for hours on end. We ran like hounds behind my father when he went hunting in the nearby hills. We sat close to Uncle Musa in the evening when he received the village men in a tent in the garden outside the house. Often the hakawati, the village storyteller, sat with his rababi, playing the instrument as he told stories of bygone days.
There was so much to discover and enjoy. Each morning when I woke up I immediately looked through my window to the houses across the road and felt a tremor of happiness in anticipation of the day to come.
Early each morning Abed, the son of Eid, the gardener, would be waiting for me downstairs, and we would run out to pick ripe figs in the soft light and sweet morning air. Then mother would call us to come and have a proper breakfast of za؟tar (thyme) and olive oil with country bread, and an egg to make us grow stronger.
Then the day؟s adventures began. Abed and I enjoyed climbing every kind of tree, just as we loved watching his mother bake bread on the heated stones of her tabun, the simple oven buried in the ground. Once he took me to see his mother؟s big hen, who glared at us fiercely as we entered the barn. I did not believe him when he told me that she was sitting on eggs that would soon burst with chicks, and so he pushed the protesting hen off her eggs to show me. One of the eggs fell and broke, spilling a form of life, the shadow of a chick, a sight I never forgot.
Later we would join our other friends in the village for more fun and games. I loved to show off by climbing to the very top of the oak tree. Standing on the highest, thickest branch, I would call at the top of my voice to Miriam, my friend:
"Hey, ya Miriam, hey!"
"Weinik!" she would answer, "I؟m coming!" in the village dialect. I liked calling her "Miriam," as they said her name in the village, and not "Mariam" as we called my aunt in Jerusalem. I was proud to feel part of the village and its dialect.
Miriam was the eldest daughter of Ali Mishaal, the mukhtar or headman of Sharafat. He and his family had become our closest friends in Sharafat, their house just across the road from ours. Miriam was a few years older than I, which made me look up to her. She was my best friend, but if for some reason she could not come to play, there were always her sisters and cousins. We would spend the morning playing under the huge oak tree, the center of our lives. There were certain rules to be observed with regard to the tree. We had been taught never to injure its branches, never to pick a leaf or an acorn, and always to behave nicely beneath its canopy. This was the famous oak tree that was said to be more than a thousand years old, and experts had all sorts of theories about it. But we children measured it differently. We would join hands around its massive trunk and see how many of us were needed to surround it؟ten, six, four. The number diminished, as we grew older.
The long summer days passed quickly. We children grew taller and became a little more self-conscious. Our families grew closer together, exchanging customs and habits. We learned village cooking and they learned city ways, and our lives were enriched.
I was happiest when Grandmother asked me to invite the Mishaal family over for morning coffee. I would proudly climb to the top of the oak tree and call:
"Hey, ya Miriam, hey!"
"Weinik!" would come the reply, "we؟re coming!" Our voices echoed through the village and the wadi, and passersby, familiar with our calls, would smile approvingly at the friendship between the city and the village.
In the mornings, Grandmother preferred to receive her guests under the pine trees near the house, where she could supervise the activities within. Many years earlier, Uncle Musa had helped his father start the little pine wood from seed, the idea being that if, God forbid, the oak tree should die of old age, the pine trees would be a consolation.
In anticipation of the arrival of the guests, I ran around with Grandmother helping her prepare a place to receive them. Over a base of dried pine needles, we spread a thick, hand-woven, striped woolen rug. Cushions were scattered over it. Then we sat waiting in the shade of the trees.
Gracefully the women arrived in their colorful costumes and flowing white headdresses, their daughters following respectfully behind. Greetings and compliments were exchanged, the women finding plenty to talk about. The little girls sat down shyly, shedding their playfulness in the presence of the older women and behaving like young ladies.
The years passed, and eventually I learned that Miriam was engaged to be married. Now, when I looked at her, I was filled with awe and excitement. Village girls were married much earlier than girls in town. She was perhaps fifteen years old, fair and beautiful, with a smile that lit up her face. During those morning visits, I sat opposite her on the rug, fascinated by her every movement. Her beauty was enhanced by her close-fitting headdress and her embroidered robe, a work of art, which spread around her as she settled on the rug. Soon, when she became a bride, little coins would be sewn on to her headdress, surrounding her face.
She would reach for the bundle containing her embroidery, which she always carried with her, and begin to sew. I knew that she was working on her trousseau. I can still see the silks laid out on the rug beside her, reflecting the rays of the sun. Her hand would move up and down in perfect rhythm as she plied her needle. The gentle sunlight filtering through the pine trees caught her threads in flashes of pink, green, and red.
Years after these events, our lives were shattered when our lands and our houses were occupied and our people were scattered round the world. Under the United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine, Sharafat remained Arab, and its inhabitants, feeling safe, stayed on their land.
Decades later, I was living with my husband in Beirut when one evening we heard over the radio: "Sharafat, a small village west of Jerusalem, has been attacked. The house of Ali Mishaal, the mukhtar, has been blown up, killing him and his family."
Later we learned more details. Miriam and her little daughter had been buried up to the waist in the rubble for a day before being rescued. They were taken to hospital, but died soon after.
I think of Miriam sometimes, and my heart cries out, "Hey, ya Miriam, hey!"
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