A Musical Memoir: Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s Jerusalem

By Lynne Rogers

A Musical Record of Jerusalem
Storyteller of Jerusalem, the Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948
Edited and introduced by Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar
Translated by Nada Elzeer
Olive Branch Press, 2014, 304 pages. 

Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s memoirs describe his prominent Eastern Orthodox family and his everyday life in Jerusalem from 1904 to 1968, beginning with the last years of Ottoman Rule, through the treacherous British Mandate, and then concluding with the author’s refugee days in Beirut.  Jawhariyyeh’s father, an icon painter and attorney, taught his young son to recite the Qur’an, a skill which later greatly enriched both his musical talents and active social life. After his father’s premature death, Jawhariyyeh was taken under the wing of the prominent political figure, Hussein al-Husseini. 

Through these tumultuous political times, Palestinians also became acquainted with the amenities of modern life, such as the introduction of refrigerators, gas lighting, and, more important to a young aspiring musician, the phonograph.  Still technology could never replace the camaraderie of late night drinking, hookahs and live music in the streets of Jerusalem where participants included local and international musicians.  In Jawhariyyeh’s Jerusalem, Muslims, Christians and Jews celebrated their holidays and special family occasions together as neighbors until the British arrived with their divisional policies and promises to help establish a Jewish homeland.

Jawhariyyeh’s unadorned memoirs, translated by Nada Elzeer, describe everyday life for a young child in the Old City, a life enriched by events such as taking plates of food to the prisoners in Habs el-Dam, “as was the custom at the time.”  The boy’s first real music teacher, a Moroccan caretaker, made a tan boor for his pupil out of pumpkin shell and goatskin. 

Throughout his life, Jawhariyyeh learned from every musician he encountered. His music came to reflect these experiences and the rich cultural tapestry of Jerusalem.  Later as an adult, he remained a civil servant rather than join the Palestine Broadcasting House, because he saw his “art as a religion, which I would follow solely for the love of it, just as I had been raised to.” 

Jawhariyyeh’s multiple careers as a civil bureaucrat, collector and musician gave him entry into the many social circles in and around Jerusalem.  While the memoirs contain entertaining details concerning Ragheb Bey Nasahibi’s Jewish mistress and their nights of carousing, they also  document the physical, political and cultural geography of Palestine.  As a civilian bureaucrat and a tax collector, Jawhariyyeh witnessed, at close hand, events ranging from the arrival of the British, who were initially greeted with celebrations that filled the streets, to the subsequent disillusionment with British policy, the imposition of heavy taxes, the early strikes of the Palestinians, and the Palestinian currency issued with the Hebrew phrase “the land of Israeli.”  Drawing upon the author’s geographical and financial memories of who owned what where, and who ran what café or pharmacy, a reader could literally draw a map of the old city and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Some readers may wonder how such a patriot could find himself buying canaries for Andrews, the British appointed governor of Jerusalem, a man who made no secret of his disdain for Arabs (and was later assassinated) or  Jawhariyyeh’s partying with Sir Ronald Storrs, a colleague of Lawrence of Arabia.  Never claiming to be a fighter, the author voices his political distress while still trying to maintain his integrity as a humanist and a musician without boundaries.

After fleeing his home and burying his wife, Jawhariyyeh finds himself renting an oud which badly needs repair and asks himself  “Has time been so unfair to me that now I have to rent an oud on a monthly basis, having left back home in the Jawhariyyeh Collection seventy-two Western and rare Eastern musical instruments?” The reader will soon discover that “The Storyteller of Jerusalem, the Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948,” provides a valuable resource for a wide range of disciplines, from urban history and economics to musical and cultural anthropologists.  

This review appears in Al Jadid Vol. 18, no. 67.

© Copyright 2013 AL JADID MAGAZINE


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