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The Storyteller of Jerusalem
The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948
edited by Salim Tamari & Issam Nassar; trans. by Nada Elzeer; foreword by Rachel Beckles Willson

published 2013 • 6" x 9" • 304 pages • b&w photos
ISBN 9781566569255 • paperback • $25.00


“In this autobiographical memoir of Jerusalemite Jawhariyyeh, a Palestinian Christian, the reader will find intensely personal narratives of a native son amid the backdrop of major events in the holy city and the Holy Land witnessed during the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught chronicler, poet, local historian, and musician, Jawhariyyeh had a photographic memory, which enabled him to recall not only the dramatic but also give vivid, firsthand renditions of daily life in the alleys of the city and its environs. Through this eclectic collection of real stories, observations, and anecdotes the reader is immersed in the life of the city, particularly its Arab quarters. Published initially in Arabic in a more extended version by the Institute for Palestine Studies, this English-language translation attempts to convey the richness of the original work. Extensive notes and a glossary enhance these vivid stories. Verdict More than a personal memoir, this is eyewitness testimony to major historical events in Jerusalem from the waning days of Ottoman rule and the beginnings of the British mandate to the emergence of the state of Israel. It will prove a valuable source of primary material, recording Palestinian urban life and the rise of national consciousness. Highly recommended for historians of the era and for anyone interested in a legacy of Jerusalem”
—Library Journal

“This extraordinary memoir describes the author’s experiences and impressions as the city of Jerusalem evolved from a surprisingly small provincial town to a modern city. His account encompasses Ottoman rule, the British Mandate, the first stirrings of Palestinian nationalism, and its collision with the Zionist movement. Jawhariyyeh was a member of a prominent Orthodox Christian family, whose father was an important member of the Jerusalem town council under the distant rule of the Ottomans. As a youth, Jawhariyyeh witnessed and recounts the ebb and flow of the daily life of the city, which he recalls as idyllic. Children rode to school on donkeys, sumptuous meals were a family affair, and the interactions and friendships between Jews, Muslims, and the various Christian groups were accepted as natural. The introduction of motorized travel and the expansion of the city well beyond the confines of the medieval walls seems seamless. Perhaps he describes a harmony that never fully existed. Still, he provides a valuable portrait of a culturally rich and diverse city as it copes with the turmoil of the twentieth century.”

“It is no overstatement to say that the appearance of The Storyteller of Jerusalem is a very significant event… revealing new facets of Palestinian life before the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment — and challenging many preconceptions and stereotypes… a rare glimpse into “middle-class” life in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman period… Jawhariyyeh’s access to the upper echelons of Jerusalem society, as well as his formidable memory for anecdotes, also deliver personal insights into Britain’s colonial governors… As well as this unique insight into the leisure lives of the upper classes, Jawhariyyeh’s depictions of late Ottoman and Mandate Jerusalem give us eyewitness accounts of the diverse society destroyed by the establishment of the State of Israel. Here, Muslims, Christians and Jews not only lived alongside one another, but participated in each other’s religious festivals and cultural celebrations, drawing no meaningful distinctions between one community and another… this is a book about which one can be unequivocally enthusiastic. For those with background knowledge of Palestine under Ottoman and Mandate rule, it will be source of fresh perspectives and details. For those new to the period, the book provides a highly readable, intimate account of life for urban Palestinians. And for all readers, its portrayal of a diverse, vibrant society is a bitter-sweet glimpse into what Palestine might have been, in a world without European and Zionist colonialism.”
— Electronic Intifada


The memoirs of Wasif Jawhariyyeh are a remarkable treasure trove of writings on the life, culture, music, and history of Jerusalem. Spanning over four decades, from 1904 to 1948, they cover a period of enormous and turbulent change in Jerusalem’s history, but change lived and recalled from the daily vantage point of the street storyteller. Oud player, music lover and ethnographer, poet, collector, partygoer, satirist, civil servant, local historian, devoted son, husband, father, and person of faith, Wasif viewed the life of his city through multiple roles and lenses. The result is a vibrant, unpredictable, sprawling collection of anecdotes, observations, and yearnings as varied as the city itself.

Reflecting the times of Ottoman rule, the British mandate, and the run-up to the founding of the state of Israel, The Storyteller of Jerusalem offers intimate glimpses of people and events, and of forces promoting confined, divisive ethnic and sectarian identities. Yet, through his passionate immersion in the life of the city, Wasif reveals the communitarian ethos that runs so powerfully through Jerusalem’s past. And that offers perhaps the best hope for its future. 

Salim Tamari is a professor of sociology at Birzeit University and co-editor of Jerusalem Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Year of the Locust: The Erasure of Palestine's Ottoman Past.

Issam Nassar is a professor of history at Illinois State University and co-editor of Jerusalem Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including Laqatat Mughayira: al-Tasweer al-fotografi al-mubakir fi falastin (Different Snapshots: Early photography of Palestine).

Nada Elzeer received her doctorate from Durham University and is now senior lector of Arabic at SOAS, University of London.

Rachel Beckles Willson is professor of music at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of numerous articles and three books, including, most recently, Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West.

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Of Related Interest:
Jerusalem in History
Jerusalem Interrupted