Category Archives: Middle East

Making Palestine’s History: Women’s Testimonies, by Jehan Helou (Spokesman Books)

This interesting book brings to the forefront the struggle of Palestinian women for National and women’s liberation between 1969 to 1984. Comprising eighteen oral testimonies with Palestinian women, including a round table discussion, the author is to be commended on the quality of the translation and her perseverance in bringing these to the attention of a wider audience. That it took two years to translate the testimonies from colloquial Arabic into English, highlights the passion and commitment to this project.

The introduction to the testimonies by the author is a necessary requirement as it reminds the reader of the long period of struggle waged by women from the diaspora, as well as the occupied territories as part of the Palestinian Revolution, with most of the grassroots mobilisation and organisation through the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) – the umbrella organisation for the women’s movement.

As the Women’s Liberation movement emerged during the 1970s, many dedicated women’s journals, magazines and newsletters portrayed prominently the image of the Palestinian woman fidayi guerrilla fighter, which in turn became a symbol for revolutionaries all over the world. What this book does particularly well is not to underestimate the importance of those women who did not carry a gun. Reflecting instead on the equal importance of women organising and working in the fields of education, politics, health and providing child- care during periods both of relative peace and full-scale war.

The book is available here:

Val Wood

Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts: the Salonica Cohen family and trauma across generations by Rony Alfandary (Routledge, £29.99)

A number of Jewish people I know have found a few letters and postcards in Yiddish among their parents’ and grandparents’ possessions, sent by half-forgotten or unknown relatives living in Eastern Europe prior to the war. These ghostly messages from the past, in a faded script that could not be understood by the finder, sometimes disappoint when translated. The messages were often simply “hope you are well, hope your children are well”; flowery greetings with little news other than an engagement or a wedding. They sometimes seem like not very subtle ways of asking for financial support, perhaps for an engagement gift, sent to someone living here thought to be better off by those left behind.

Rony Alfandary’s family found letters, not just a few, which had been kept in a box by his grandparents, and which were later augmented by two further collections. These had been kept by a relative by marriage who had survived the war, unlike, it appeared, most of Alfandary’s relatives from Salonica. The exceptions were his maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from Greece to Palestine in the 1930s, where the author’s mother was born. Alfandary’s grandmother, Rita, was the source of the first cache of letters – written in French and Ladino with some legal letters in Greek. Some were written in the Solitreo script and needed a specialist to decipher them. The box was opened after his grandmother’s death.

Merged, the three collections of letters enabled Alfandary to reconstruct the lives of his family. Except it was a jigsaw with missing pieces, pieces that will likely always remain missing. The first cache included letters to Rita from the family in Salonica and from her brother Leon who had emigrated to France. The second and third boxes had belonged to Leon. which finished the triangle – letters from Salonica,  letters to and from Palestine and France. The last of the letters were from November 1942. Leon and his family were rounded up in France and did not survive (though his wife’s sister did, whose family inherited Leon’s letters). His Salonican relatives were among the Jews taken to their death from that city out of the Jewish population of 50,000, only a thousand of whom survived.

Though the Cohen family had been successful, and middle-class, their star had fallen in the economic circumstances of Greece in the 1930s. Some were unemployed, others in poor health. Here too there were letters – often not so subtle – asking for money. The three branches of the family, in all three countries, were going through hard times.


The poet Gerda Mayer, who died last year, came to Britain on a kindertransport. Her father was last heard of in Russia in 1940. At every reading Gerda included her much-anthologised poem “Make Believe”, a poem imagining her father had survived and came across her work in a bookshop, ending

when some publisher asks me

for biographical details

I still carefully give

the year of my birth

the name of my hometown:

GERDA MAYER born ’27, in Karlsbad,

Czechoslovakia…. write to me, father.

Reading Alfandary’s book I was reminded of this poem, feeling that in some ways that the volume under review is a message in a bottle that might be read by someone who knows something, at least to fill in more of the jigsaw. Indeed, in private correspondence with the author he mentioned that one early reader of his book was able to add a little information about a mutual connection. And, when writing the book, Alfandary was able to find two very distant relatives, whom he describes meeting. I said earlier that it appeared that all the Salonican Cohens save for his grandmother died. But what happened to Isaac and his wife Martha? Isaac was Leon and Rita’s brother, Martha his gentile wife. Early in the book Alfandary says both died in the Holocaust, but later he is less clear. They certainly vanished from history in France. They appear on no lists of prisoners, no lists of those transported. And Martha was a gentile. It’s likely Isaac did not survive, but what of Martha? Martha who? Her maiden name is unknown. Was she left behind when her husband was taken, did she remarry, are her children and grandchildren out there? This is one of the pieces of the jigsaw still missing, another is what Isaac did for a living… letters from Salonica to Leon and Rita complain that Isaac never writes to his family back home. Isaac’s own letters to Leon – usually asking for money, sometimes large sums desperately needed at once – come from all over France. Was he a gambler, or what? Alfandary writes that it often seemed like he was on the run.

The title of the book will attract some readers and put off others. It is aimed at an audience familiar with the words in the book title but, other than occasionally, is accessible to all. The author discusses postmemory, the concept that those who had no direct memory of an event or a trauma, are affected by it as if the experience was shared. In this case, however, the experience was shared as Alfandary was the favourite grandchild of Rita, who would tell him of the family members she had lost, and show him their photographs. Not surprisingly, she suffered from depression. Her parents, her siblings, nieces and nephews, friends, her home in Salonica – all gone. She had also been a reluctant immigrant to Palestine, it was her husband who had been a Zionist. The trauma was passed to her grandchild as her yerusha (legacy). Though his generation, his own siblings, have had successful and content lives, the memory, or postmemory, of what happened sustains. And of course, it is too late to ask Rita to fill in the holes in the story, the parts she did not mention and the parts missing from the letters that otherwise bring us into her family’s life. It’s mostly always too late. But we still want to know.

Telling these stories is a way of remembering, and honouring the dead. The author uses psychoanalytic theory to try to create a coherent narrative of the experience and the impact on himself. Others tell their stories through drama and even children’s writing. I’m thinking here of Tom Stoppard’s partially autobiographical play Leopoldstadt, and Michael Rosen’s book The Missing, which is about the gaps in his family history he was able to fill in.

One of Rony Alfandary’s other books is a psychoanalytic study of Lawrence Durrell. While I can recommend the book under review I think he sometimes allows his other interests to edge their way in, not always successfully. He wonders, for example, whether Leon’s path could have crossed in Paris with Henry Miller. Alfandary asks “Is it a justified interpretation to support my wishful thinking that perhaps he [Leon] was also influenced by the likes of Henry Miller?”. My answer would be “I don’t think so”. The strength of the book is the background story and the letters, reprinted in yearly chapters from 1923 to the end. They are incomplete, at times mundane, at times confusing, but I was drawn into the life of a long-dead family, and I cared about them.

The book is available here:

Ross Bradshaw

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: a new biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller ((Profile, £16.99)

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is not a tourist guide but an attempt to see the city – and Teller really does mean the Old City, the walled city – beyond what is sometimes seen as a binary, Israeli Jews versus Palestinians. Of course there’s the added spice of Jerusalem also being one of the holiest sites in Christianity with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion as well as the Jewish Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque, all within 300 yards of each other.
That there are four quarters in the city suggests the situation is already more complicated. But who drew up the lines deliniating the them – the Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian quarters? Teller tracks this back to one George Williams who pitched up in Jerusalem in 1842. He was (well, I never!) an Old Etonian, probably did not speak Arabic and was Chaplain to the first Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, a Chritian evangelist who was a convert from Judaism. Teller points out that these quarters were fabricated divisions, with churches, synagogues and mosques scattered outside their religious boundaries. But henceforth these quarters had power – they were on the map, every map. Yet 90% of those who live in the Old City are Arab.
90% of only 35,000 people. There might be a few people on the planet who have not heard of Jerusalem, but the Old City, the site of some of the holiest places of the three Abrahamic religions, has a population just a bit more than the St Anns estate in Nottingham in the 1960s. But two thirds of them are under 30… which means population growth will become unsustainable. In conversation at the online launch of this book (on our YouTube channel soon) Teller said that many young people leave – for Ramallah, the commercial capital of Palestine, or abroad – probably never to return.
But back to the book – and the nine quarters. Teller explores the minorities within the major communities and outside those communities. So we hear from the Karaites, a Jewish religion whose synagogue is the oldest in the city. It’s been going since the eighth century though the number of Karaites now in Jerusalem is tiny. The eighth century and still in use! Though they follow the Jewish Torah, many of their practices are similar to Islam – a religion predated by the Karaites. And within Islam there is the Sufi minority, and the ethnic minority of African Muslims – Afro-Palestinians if you prefer. And the Indian Muslim hospice.
Huge areas of Jerusalem are owned by the Greek Orthodox church, but everyone is represented – Copts, Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian Orthodox… And these are only the ones who have a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Famously the Status Quo agreement of 1757 means that each of the groups control a bit of the Church and in 2022 they control only the part they controlled in 1757. But to ensure nothing goes wrong one Muslim family (the same once since 1757) holds the keys, another Muslim family (the same one since… yup) unlocks and locks up the Church. And then there’s the ladder that serves no purpose but nobody has been able to move it since the eighteenth century as the Status Quo rules.
Perhaps the group least known group within the Old City are the Domari, the thousand or so Gypsies (the description they prefer if English is used). The Dom are outside all the communities, though most are Muslim by religion. They are the poorest, the least educated and are subject to racism by the others. The Arab word to describe them is “Nawar” – black, but not in a good way. Teller interviews Amoun Sleem who set up the Domari Society to educate and train Domari people. But Teller makes it clear that this unmarried woman (a rarity among the Dom) has her problems within her own community. The Dom, by the way, are scattered across the Middle East and are the equivalent of the European Roma, with a shared ancestry in India.
There is one missing quarter – the Moroccan quarter that was destroyed in 1967 to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall when Israel took Jerusalem in the Six Day War, its residents dispersed, in some cases back to Morocco. Teller interviews one of the few remaining in the Old City.
You will have noticed from the review that the author, a journalist, does not talk much about the Jews in the Old City, though they are represented and he does remind us that the period of Jordanian control was not exactly a period of religious tolerance. Teller is Jewish, his Bar Mitzvah was in Jerusalem, when he was taken to the Western Wall, and he has been back most years over the last forty years. He loves the city, but does not love the modern settlers who are buying property expressly to Judaise the city, or who are using dubious legal means to take over homes in suburbs like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Their views are not represented in this book. He ends his book by envisaging a New Jerusalem, freed from “the nationalist fever-dream of partition” where Jerusalemites, and their compatriots in the wider hinterland, can “live without polarisation, under protection of the law, their rights assured, their aspirations respected, in dignity…” You can see why he does not wish to include the voices of the settlers.
Every story he tells has a backstory, often stretching back hundreds of years. The book is well-written. It will tell you things you didn’t know about Jerusalem and remind you of what you might have forgotten if you do know the place.
Matthew Teller’s book is available here:
Ross Bradshaw