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The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub

Or How the Bethlehemites Discovered Amerka

By Jacob Norris

Stanford University Press, 2023, 290 pages

Available online at https://www.sup.org/ from $25.00

Also on sale at the Educational Bookshop, Salah al-Din Street, Jerusalem

The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub is a book about the remarkable transformation of Bethlehem in the late nineteenth century under the influence of its globetrotting young merchants. Beginning in earnest in the 1870s, young men set off on the backs of donkeys to all corners of the world in a quest to expand the town’s flourishing trade in religious objects. The effect was revolutionary, even magical. Money flowed into the town like never before, new cultural habits were adopted, social relations transformed, and radical politics championed. By the turn of the twentieth century, Bethlehem was the most globally connected and possibly richest town in all of Palestine.

Artist’s impression of the resurrection of Jubrail Dabdoub in 1909, signed “Michelini.” Photograph by Carol Khoury. Courtesy of Rosary Sisters Congregation, Beit Hanina.

To tell this story of perilous journeys and triumphant returns, the book focuses on the life of one merchant, Jubrail Dabdoub. Born in 1860, Jubrail was among the pioneers of the emigration explosion. He travelled to the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, was the first Ottoman merchant to arrive in the Philippines in 1881, and later helped establish branches of the Dabdoub family business in San Salvador, Paris, New York, and Cochabamba. In 1909 he was the recipient of a miracle when local nun Marie Alphonsine (née Sultaneh Miriam Ghattas) brought him back to life after he had been declared dead from typhoid fever.

The experiences of Jubrail, like others of his generation, seem to lie somewhere beyond standard ways of researching and writing history. Their globetrotting journeys slip between the cracks of institutional archives and national historiographies. Their economic success combined hard-nosed business acumen with deep-seated faith in Bethlehem’s local saints and religious practices. The stories they told upon their return to Bethlehem blended fact with fiction, replicating the folk tales (or khurafiyya) they had heard growing up.

To capture this blurring of the real and the imaginary, the fantastical and the folkloric, the book adopts a magical realist style of prose, recounting Jubrail’s life in the style of a novel. As a literary genre, magical realism has been adopted by writers around the world interested in communities’ abrupt exposure to forms of capitalist modernity. Authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Emile Habibi famously reverse our expectations of the “normal” and the “paranormal.” Supernatural experiences are described in a deadpan manner, while encounters with modern technologies or forms of colonialism are recounted in terms of the fantastical, the bizarre, and the traumatic.

Following Jubrail’s journeys from a young child growing up in 1860s Bethlehem to his voyages to the far reaches of the Earth, the book employs this magical realist tone in an attempt to capture the atmosphere of wonder, excitement, and bewilderment pervading Bethlehem in the late nineteenth century. Those interested in the research process that underpins the story can turn to the back of the book, where they will find detailed notes contextualizing each section of the narrative.

A family from Bethlehem sets out on a journey, c. 1900. Photo courtesy of Palestineremembered.com.

The net result is a book that probes beyond the usual depictions of Palestine on the eve of its fateful encounter with Zionism. This is a Palestine of global connectedness, cultural transformation, bizarre juxtapositions, and restless experimentation. Integrating these micro-histories into the wider Palestinian story only emphasizes the richness of the society that was later torn apart in 1948 and beyond.

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