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The House I Can See but May Not Enter

By Johnny Mansour

Throughout his youth, my late father held on to his ambitious dream of buying a small apartment on Haifa’s Abbas Street. Against the backdrop of the Galilee Mountains, this house overlooks the town of Haifa and enjoys a view of the sea. He was able to fulfill this dream only after long and arduous work, after he had saved enough of his earnings. That was in 1983. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree and taken on my first employment. Frequently, I had asked him why he was so determined to buy this house, knowing that apartments in other locations would cost much less. His answer was that he simply wanted to be as close as possible to his family home, located next to the Baha’i Temple Gardens. Pointing at that house, he told me to go and take a look, and clearly, I was captivated by its location and view.

My father’s family bought this house in 1945 after they had saved the required funds. His family was distinguished from other Palestinian families because in addition to the head of the household working to earn enough money to buy a family house, his sons also pitched in before they embarked on establishing their own independent married lives. The house was beautiful, and its lovely appearance reflected the calm that prevailed inside. Indeed, his family’s life there could not have been happier, more tranquil, or more serene. Built on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, the house overlooked the city’s panoramic seaside and offered a view of Haifa’s houses, churches, monasteries, mosques, institutions, and companies all the way to the port, built by the British Mandate authorities in 1932, with the historic city of Acre visible in the far distance.

Anchorage at Haifa in the early twentieth century.

But my father, the oldest among his siblings, was only able to spend less than three years of his youth in this house before the Nakba struck in 1948. The family’s calm life was brought to an abrupt end when Jewish military organizations began to attack the Arab neighborhoods following the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine (November 29, 1947, Resolution No. 181). According to this resolution, Haifa would fall within the Jewish state. Thus, the Arab neighborhoods were subjected to shelling and attacked by the missiles of militant organizations led by the Hagana. Terror and fear spread among the Palestinian citizens because their neighborhoods were scattered around the city’s downtown while the Jewish neighborhoods were located on the peaks of Mt. Carmel, which was an evident strategic advantage. The process of expelling the Palestinians from their neighborhoods began soon after and was carried out under what has been called Biour Hamits, the cleansing in preparation of the Jewish feast of Passover. With the collaboration of the British military forces, the Palestinians who fled to save their lives were directed toward Haifa Port, where boats were waiting to transport them to Acre or Lebanon. Of the 75,000 Palestinians who had lived in Haifa, only 3,000 were allowed to stay. Gathered in the Wadi al-Nisnas neighborhood, they were prevented from leaving, kept under strict scrutiny for months, and treated as enemies.

My father and his brothers weren’t any different from most of their fellow Palestinian citizens. They fled for their lives. Along with some of his brothers, he headed to the port and left on one of the boats bound for Acre. It took them days to get there because the docks were overrun and congested with others who tried to escape. A few days later, my father moved first to Tyre, Lebanon, and then to Beirut, where he stayed for several weeks until he decided to return to Al-Jish, the village of his forefathers, located in the Safad district in northern Palestine, hoping that the war would end soon.

Haifa. Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

But the Israeli military continued its war against the Palestinians and invaded this village like all the other Palestinian villages and cities in the Galilee region. My father received an Israeli ID, and the new State of Israel considered him one of its constituents. However, he could not return to Haifa because a military order was imposed on Palestinians that prevented him from going to Haifa unless he possessed a mobility permit. It took my father three years to obtain such a permit and visit Haifa. He went directly to his family house in the Abbas Neighborhood and knocked on the door that was opened by a stranger. When she asked him who he was, he answered, “I am the owner of this house.” She replied, “The owner of this house is the State of Israel, and you have no rights to it.” My father asked about the furniture, and she told him that it had been taken by state officials who had moved it to storage facilities. When he asked about his oud (lute), she denied its existence.

Thus, my father lost his beautiful family home in Haifa, all its furnishings, and the family belongings in the wake of an immoral and inhumane law called the Absentee Property Law – even though he was in no way absent and even carried an Israeli ID. The state considered him absent because he had been forced to leave his city as a result of the war, even though he had returned. He had managed to reach Haifa only after this law had been issued.

Haifa meant everything to my father: it was the place where he was born, had received his education, and worked his first jobs. I was able to discover Haifa and its history through the stories he used to tell me. Therefore, most of the historical, socio-historical, and educational information that I have is based on what he and hundreds of other people in the city have told me: An ancient settlement that had existed for thousands of years, Haifa was moved to its current location (a few kilometers farther west of the small village it had been at the time) and fortified by Sheikh Daher Al Omar Al Zidani in 1761. He built walls to surround the city, as was done in many cities in Palestine and the surrounding region during the Ottoman Empire. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the city thrived, as it began to play an increasingly important administrative and economic role while the status of Acre declined. The establishment of the German Colony to the west of the city in the mid-nineteenth century played a significant role in the city’s development in many fields and accelerated the influx of immigrants from other Palestinian regions as well as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. In 1905, the Ottoman Empire built the Hijaz Railway that connected the southern Syrian city of Dara’a to Haifa, in the process enlarging Haifa’s previously insignificant port, which led to the flourishing of trade.

During the British Mandate, the city witnessed its most prominent economic development as a new port and an industrial zone were built, which ensured employment for a growing workforce. Hence, the Arab residential neighborhoods and the immigrant Jewish neighborhoods expanded. These developments led to the manifestation of strong socio-educational sentiments among Haifa’s population, as evident in the establishment of organizations engaged in effecting social change and providing human services. This time also marked the founding of schools for various age groups and the establishment of scout, educational, and sports clubs for youth. English and Arabic newspapers circulated in the city, and publishing and printing houses increased in number, running 24-hour shifts 7 days a week to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for media among the educated and cultured population.

Haifa, 1925

Hundreds, even thousands of families from villages in the Galilee, the triangle region, and the West Bank moved to live and work in Haifa, and soon, the city became known as “The Mother of Labor.” But my father’s city was not satisfied with the cultural, industrial, and educational life it produced and was ready to welcome artists from the Arab world as well. It was frequented by Umm Kulthum, Mohammad Abdel Wahab, Farid Al-Atrash, and like personalities. In addition, it welcomed many theatrical groups, among them the Ramsis Theatre Company from Egypt, directed by Yousef Wehbi. At the same time, the city contributed to the organization of famous plays produced by the Carmel Theater, most prominently performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Haifa was never excessive. Instead, it was the “ultimate” Palestinian city that owed its growth to the collective accomplishments of its residents and the newcomers who longed for city life. My father’s town was open to modernity in all that this concept could offer. It was home to multiple nationalities, religions, and denominations and housed a variety of industries. But while Haifa was taking its most natural course of growth, it was also subjected to a colonization strategy that paved the way for Jewish immigration from countries in Europe or elsewhere. This colonization strategy contributed to the building of another city inside and adjacent to the city of Haifa.

In the early twentieth century, Haifa had transformed into one of the most metropolitan and bustling cities in Palestine and the Middle East. It represented the fusion of past heritage with the accomplishments of the present, flourishing and developing in all aspects. This development left a mark on the lifestyles of the people who lived there. They knew how to merge their inherited heritage with the modern and civil life they were gaining.

However, in April 1948, the train of the blossoming cultural, economic, and educational path was abruptly halted for the Palestinians in Haifa. My father’s dreams were thwarted as well. So were the dreams of thousands of Palestinian youth in Haifa. As my father lost his hometown, the place in which he had grown up and established roots, and the family home along with everything inside, he also lost everything it signified in terms of building a family and planning a future. But he did not give up.

My father spent 35 years to fulfill his dream and return to the neighborhood he loved, the place that held his aspirations and dreams of a bright future. He always longed to be close to his family house that evoked the history of his city every time he glanced at the horizon from his new balcony. I still pass by the lost family home. I look at it and, at times, converse with it. Could it provide an answer to what happened? How did all of this happen? And what will happen in the future?

Article photos are courtesy of the author.

  • Dr. Johnny Mansour was born in Haifa in 1960. He is a historian and university lecturer, as well as the author of more than 35 books on Arab and Palestinian history, and more specifically on Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land and the Middle East. His books include The Hijaz Railway, Haifa’s Arab Streets (in Arabic), the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and The Historical Dictionary of Palestine, coauthored with Ilan Pappe. He is married to Lilian and has two children, Elias and Adi.

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