In a few weeks, the world will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, which ended partition and began the occupation. Israelis will celebrate the “liberation” of Jerusalem. They will gather at the wide open plaza of the Western Wall. Before the war this was a neighborhood called the Mughrabi Quarter: 135 houses with 700 residents, many of them of Moroccan and Algerian ancestry.
Yesterday at the Center for Palestine Studies in New York, Vincent Lemire, a French scholar, told a story about the destruction of the Quarter and the expulsion of those residents that he heard from Haifa Khalidi in her family’s house next to the former Mughrabi Quarter.
I would like to relate this visit and tell you how staggering was this discovery that led me to the archives. For several minutes I had many questions in my mind. Why Haifa Khalidi was sleeping in this tiny room, at the top of a small staircase, very narrow and very steep, at the top floor of this splendid Mamluk house in the center of the old city of Jerusalem, where she sleeps alone? Why is she sleeping in this tiny bed in this tiny room under the roof, overheated in summer and freezing during winter?
The answer was obvious. She was sleeping there because she is afraid. She was afraid that the settlers from the next door yeshiva could enter from the roof during the night to occupy the house, as they occupy several houses in the neighborhood. That’s why she is sleeping at the top floor– as the gatekeeper of the house.
And this scared– this frightness has direct connections with the destruction of the Mughrabi neighborhood 50 years ago.
Haifa Khalidi was born, as you know, in a prestigious Palestinian family in this very house in 1948 during the first war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And for 70 years she has never left this very place.
She wanted to take me on the rooftop. We switched from this tiny room to this boundless view… It was evening time. The night was wonderful. From there one can see Bethlehem to the south, the Mount of Olives to the east, and further, the desert and even see the first lights of Amman… The wailing wall– I have never seen in this light.
Haifa said, “Come with me downstairs to see from the bathroom windows.”
And here in the bathroom she told me the story– her story of the Six Days War and of the destruction of the Mughrabi neighborhood.
“It was from here that I saw the bulldozers raiding the Mughrabi neighborhood just at the end of the war. Sunday the 11th, Monday the 12th of June 1967. Two days and two nights… I remember the noise, the dust, the screams, the tears. The residents had two hours to collect their belongings and leave their houses forever. After the destruction, two old women were found dead under the rubble of their house.
“I was afraid that our house was going to crumble. Finally the bulldozer stopped just before the wall of our house. In front of this bathroom, just here–”
And she showed me the place with her hand. She was reviving the imagination from her mind. At that time she was 19 years old.
Back home I looked for pictures of this destruction. I found some. Not so much. In these pictures, we actually see bulldozers, piles of rubble, trucks, and we see the crowd of Israelis beginning to gather in this place, to pray and to sing, on Wednesday, the 14th of June, for the celebration of Shavuot.
The French consulate archives reveal that 200,000 Israelis came to visit the wailing wall during these days.
We are historians. Our duty is to report and to tell the history. And more than that our duty is to identify the blind spot, the dark places of yesterday and to light them, to make it visible and accessible for this day.
Shavuot is a Jewish holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses by God.
The Mughrabi Quarter had been preserved, till its destruction, by a waqf— an Islamic philanthropic trust– maintained from Algeria, Lemire said.
Below is a map of the Old City showing the Khalidi library at the northwest corner of the plaza opposite the Western Wall. It is two doors down from the house in the story. Here is the website for the Khalidi Library, containing a description of the Mamluk house in which Lemire met Haifa Khalidi.
Here is a photograph from that website of the Khalidi library, two doors down from the Khalidi house.