cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

First Words

Author’s Note

A Note on Spelling and Pronunciation

MAPS

Palestine under the British Mandate, 1936

United Nations Partition Plan, November 1947

Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with Israeli Settlements, 2005

  1  Bell

  2  House

  3  Rescue

  4  Expulsion

  5  Emigration

  6  Refuge

  7  Arrival

  8  War

  9  Encounter

10  Explosion

11  Deportation

12  Hope

13  Homeland

14  The Lemon Tree

Acknowledgments

Bibliography: Works Cited

Source Notes

Index

About the Author

Also by Sandy Tolan

Copyright

About the Book

In the summer of 1967, Bashir – a young Palestinian man – knocks on the door of his childhood home in the town of Ramla in Israel, a home from which his family was driven some twenty years earlier. The door is opened by a young Jewish woman, Dalia, whose family settled in the house after fleeing persecution in Bulgaria at the end of the Second World War.

Thus begins an unlikely and difficult friendship, which bridges religious divides and lasts more than four decades. The Lemon Tree tells the story of this extraordinary friendship and offers a much needed human perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About the Author

Sandy Tolan has written for the New York Times Magazine and more than forty other magazines and newspapers. He has reported from twenty-five different countries, especially in the Middle East and Latin America, and his work has won numerous awards. He served as an oral history consultant for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, was a 1993 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs the school’s project on International Reporting.

FIRST WORDS

The house depicted in this book is an actual place, and the lemon tree in its yard is a real one. You could see the place for yourself if you boarded a bus in the West Jerusalem terminal, rode west, climbed and then plunged down the hills toward the Mediterranean, and banked up a two-lane rise until you came to a bustling, industrial town in a place once known as Palestine that is now the state of Israel. When you stepped off the bus, you’d walk down the busy main road known as Herzl Boulevard, past the juice vendors, the kebab stands, and the old storefronts selling trinkets and cheap clothing, and take a left at a street called Klausner. There, at the next corner, you’d spot a run-down gas station, and across the street a modest house with a pillared fence, a towering palm, and stones the color of cream.

This is the place, you could say to yourself. This is the house with two histories. The house with the lemon tree.

Also by Sandy Tolan

Me & Hank: A Boy and His Hero,

Twenty-five Years Later

THE LEMON TREE

The true story of a friendship spanning four decades of Israeli–Palestinian conflict

SANDY TOLAN

For the children, Arab and Jew, between the river and the sea.
And for Lamis, who brought me into the story.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

THIS BOOK IS firmly planted in the soil of non-fiction narrative. Many of the events depicted are from fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago; none the less, their retelling relies, like everything else in the book, entirely on the tools of reporting and research: interviews, archival documents, published and unpublished memoirs, personal diaries, newspaper clippings, and primary and secondary historical accounts. For The Lemon Tree I conducted hundreds of interviews in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Bulgaria over a period of seven years, mostly since 2002; visited archives in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Beirut, Sofia, London, New York, and Austin, Texas; and consulted hundreds of first- and second-hand sources, many housed in one of the world’s great research centers: the Doe Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

I have not taken liberties with the history, no matter how minor. At no point do I imagine what probably happened, for example, at a family event in 1936 and state it as fact; nor at any moment do I describe what someone was thinking unless those thoughts are based on a specific recounting in a memoir or interview. Rather, the scenes and sections of the narrative are built through a combination of the available sources.

For example: Descriptions of events surrounding the Eshkenazi family are based on family interviews in Jerusalem and Sofia; interviews with other Bulgarian Jews now living in Israel; documents unearthed in the State Archives of Bulgaria, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archives in Queens, New York, and the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem; and newspaper clippings and other historical accounts translated from the National Library in Sofia. The portrait of the Khairi family in al-Ramla in 1948 is similarly based on multiple sources: personal interviews of family members; memoirs and other accounts translated from the Arabic; Israeli military intelligence reports; documents from state and kibbutz archives; the memoirs of Yitzhak Rabin and Arab Legion commander John Bagot Glubb; U.S. State Department cables of the day; secondary historical accounts by Middle Eastern scholars; and years of my own interviews with Palestinians in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon. For details and additional historical context, see the source notes section.

An author’s refusal to take poetic license does not, of course, ensure that each event depicted speaks an ‘objective’ truth, especially when the topic at hand represents two highly subjective histories. Where else, after all, would the same event be remembered as the War of Independence by one people and the Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe,’ by another? In such cases, particularly when the history described is volatile or less familiar to Western readers, I have intensified my basic research approach, endeavoring to gather an even greater multitude of sources from various perspectives, thus ensuring that the emerging narrative is not based primarily on decades-old personal memories.

None of this, of course, means that The Lemon Tree represents a definitive history of the conflict between Arabs and Jews since 1948 (or, if you prefer, since 1936, or 1929, or 1921, or 1917, or 1897, or 1858). By juxtaposing and joining the histories of two families, however, and placing them in the larger context of the days’ events, I hope to help build an understanding of the reality and the history of two peoples on the same land.

A NOTE ON SPELLING AND PRONUNCIATION

IN THE MIDDLE east, the use of a single letter – say, an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a’ – can be a political statement, or at the very least a declaration of identity. Take the case of Ramla – or, al-Ramla, or Ramle, or Ramleh, or Ramlah. Present-day Israelis use ‘Ramla,’ which is how the road signs read in English; in classical Arabic, it’s ‘al-Ramla’; in spoken Arabic, and throughout its history from the eighth century A.D., including during the British Mandate from 1917 to 1948, it was ‘Ramle.’ Israeli historians generally use ‘Ramle’ when referring to the era before 1948, and some Israelis continue to call it ‘Ramle’ rather than the Hebraized pronunciation of ‘Ramla,’ because, unlike other cities where Jews lived in antiquity, Ramle was always exclusively an Arab town, founded by Muslims in 715.

How to resolve this dilemma for a writer intent on conveying two histories? I have decided, after much experimentation, to use the classical Arabic ‘al-Ramla’ when looking at the city through Arab eyes and ‘Ramla’ when describing the place through the Israeli experience. This way, it is clear that I am referring to the same place – and, by the way, not to Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank about twenty miles to the east.

In single references, I tend to use the pronunciation favored by the person through whose eyes the reader is seeing at a particular moment. Thus, Bashir sees the hilltop at Qastal, not Castel, or Kastel, as many Israelis know it; similarly, Dalia looks upon the Judean Hills, known as Jabal Nablus and Jalal al Khalil (Nablus and Hebron Mountains) in Arabic.

For Arabic words, I have chosen not to use accent marks unfamiliar to most readers; rather, I have used spellings in English which will come closest to the actual pronunciation in Arabic. Similarly for the Hebrew. For example, the Hebrew letters kaff and khet, indicated as ‘ch’ by some writers, are pronounced like an ‘h’, but in a more guttural way, and I have generally used ‘kh’, which comes closer. (An exception is where the ‘ch’ spelling is commonly accepted, as in Chanukah.) This guttural ‘kh’ is also represented by the Arabic letter kha, and pronounced similarly – as in Khairi, Bashir’s family name, and Khanom, Bashir’s sister. Bashir’s name, by the way, is pronounced bah-SHEER.

Dalia’s family name was Eshkenazi, not Ashkenazi; despite how odd that spelling may look to many Jewish readers, it is common for Bulgarians, and Dalia assures me this is how her father always spelled his name in English. Her name at birth was Daizy, and she kept that name until she was eleven years old, when she changed it to Dalia. To avoid confusion, and after consulting Dalia, I have decided to refer to her as Dalia throughout the book.

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One

BELL

I

THE YOUNG ARAB man approached a mirror in the washroom of Israel’s West Jerusalem bus station. Bashir Khairi stood alone before a row of porcelain basins and leaned forward, regarding himself. He turned his head slightly, left to right and back again. He smoothed his hair, nudged his tie, pinched his clean-shaven face. He was making certain all of this was real.

For nearly two decades, since he was six years old, Bashir had been preparing for this journey. It was the breath, the currency, the bread of his family, of nearly every family he knew. It was what everyone talked about, all the time: return. In exile, there was little else worth dreaming of.

Bashir gazed at his reflection. Are you ready for this journey? he asked himself. Are you worthy of it? It seemed his destiny to return to the place he’d mainly heard about and mostly couldn’t remember. It felt as if he were being drawn back by hidden magic; as if he were preparing to meet a secret, long-lost lover. He wanted to look good.

‘Bashir!’ yelled his cousin Yasser, snapping the younger man back to the moment in the bus station men’s room. ‘Yallah! Come on! The bus is leaving!’

The two men walked out into the large waiting hall of the West Jerusalem terminal, where their cousin Ghiath was waiting anxiously.

It was nearly noon on a hot day in July of 1967. All around Bashir, Yasser, and Ghiath, strangers rushed past: Israeli women in white blouses and long dark skirts; men in wide-brimmed black hats and white beards; children in side curls. The cousins hurried toward their bus.

They had come that morning from Ramallah, a Palestinian hill town half an hour to the north, where they lived as refugees. Before they embarked, the cousins had asked their friends and neighbors how to navigate this alien world called Israel: Which bus should we take? How much is a ticket? How do we buy it? Will anyone check our papers once we board the bus? What will they do if they find out we are Palestinians? Bashir and his cousins had left Ramallah in the late morning. They rode south in a group taxi to East Jerusalem and arrived at the walls of the Old City, the end of the first leg of their journey. Only weeks before, these walls had been the site of fierce combat, leading to devastation for the Arabs and the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel. Emerging from the taxi, the cousins could see soldiers stationed at Damascus Gate, the northern entrance to the Old City. From there the three men turned west and walked away from the ancient walls and across an invisible line.

From the Old City, the cousins had walked west, away from the ancient shrines, across the line of an old boundary between nations. Until a few weeks before, this line had divided West Jerusalem and Israel from Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Now, after defeat of the Arabs in the Six Day War, Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights and were redeployed to defend the new frontiers. Bashir and his cousins had thus found it easy to cross the old no-man’s-land and into a territory simultaneously old and new. They had trudged in the heat for several miles, down crowded lanes and past stone houses that seemed oddly familiar. Finally the narrow streets had given way to busy, modern avenues, where the West Jerusalem bus station had come into view.

Bashir and his cousins hurried across the concrete terminal floor, past the station agents pushing tickets through metal bars, past the kiosk selling candies, gum, and newspapers in a language they could not recognize. On the platforms at the far end of the terminal stood buses bound for lands they had only heard about: the forests in the north; the southern deserts; the coastal plain. The three men held their tickets to al-Ramla and hurried toward platform ten, where their bus, painted in waves of aqua and white, was ready to take them home.

II

The young woman sat alone at the kitchen table. Sunlight streamed in through the south-facing windows of the stone house. The morning was clear, Dalia Eshkenazi remembered, and the quiet would have been broken only by her sips from a steaming mug of tea or the crunch of her teeth on black bread spread thick with Bulgarian cheese.

In recent days, life in Dalia’s home and her hometown of Ramla had returned to normal – as normal as could be expected, at least, in the Israel of 1967. The air raid sirens had at last fallen silent, and Dalia’s parents were back at work. Dalia, on summer break from Tel Aviv University, now had time to contemplate her emotions of the last few months.

First had come the unbearable tension and the trauma before the six days of war. Alien voices broadcasting from Cairo told her people to go back where they came from or be pushed into the sea. Some Israelis thought the threats were funny, but for Dalia, who had grown up amid the silence of unspeakable atrocities, it was impossible to fully express the depths of fear these threats awakened. For a month before the war, it had felt to her that the end was coming. ‘Not just the disintegration of the state, but the end of us as a people,’ Dalia remembered. Alongside this fear was a determination, born from the Holocaust, ‘to never again be led like sheep to the slaughter.’

Late on the first night of war, Dalia learned that Israel had destroyed the enemy’s air force. She knew then that the outcome of the war was essentially decided. Dalia believed God had a hand in Israel’s survival and compared her own feeling of awe and wonder with the feeling she imagined her ancestors had when witnessing the parting of the Red Sea.

Dalia’s parents had never been religious. They had grown up in Bulgaria, married in 1940, survived a pro-Nazi government, and moved to Israel after the war. Dalia was eleven months old when she arrived.

Dalia’s family had been spared the atrocities in Bulgaria by acts of goodwill from Christians she was raised to admire and remember. Now, she believed her people had a destiny on the land of Israel. This was partly why she believed what she had been told: The Arabs who lived in her house, and in hundreds of other stone homes in her city, had simply run away.

III

The 1965 Leyland Royal Tiger let out a low rumble, then a burst of exhaust, as the bus driver downshifted to descend the hills west of Jerusalem. Inside sat the three cousins, riding toward their hometown. They had boarded the bus in prior agreement not to sit together. First, this would eliminate the temptation to speak to one another, thus reducing any suspicion among the other passengers about their identity. By sitting apart, each cousin could also have a window seat, to take in every inch of the journey home. They sat three in a row, absorbing the scenery.

Bashir wasn’t sure if he wanted the trip to go quickly or slowly. If it went quickly, he would be in al-Ramla sooner; but if time slowed down, he could more fully take in each bend, each landmark, each piece of his own history.

The bus roared up the curving highway toward the crest of the famous hilltop at Qastal; here, a great Arab commander had fallen in battle nineteen years earlier, breaking the back of his people’s army and opening the road to the Holy City for the enemy. Beyond the hilltop, Bashir could see stone minarets of the mosque at Abu Ghosh, one of the few Arab villages that remained standing on the road between Jerusalem and the sea. The village leaders had collaborated with the enemy here, and their village had been spared; Bashir looked upon Abu Ghosh’s minarets with mixed feelings.

The Royal Tiger sped down the hillside, easing up as the mountain walls closed in, then opened to a broad valley below. Eight centuries earlier, Bashir’s Arab ancestors had battled the Christian invaders in hand-to-hand combat, repelling them for a time. Along the roadside, Bashir looked out the window to see the burned carcasses of vehicles blown up nineteen years earlier, in a more recent war, and the wreaths and fading flowers laid alongside them. The Israelis who placed these wreaths here were honoring what they called their War of Independence; to Bashir this same event was known as the Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe.’

The bus entered the valley, slowed, turned right onto a narrow highway bisecting rows of irrigated wheat fields, and angled up a low rise. As they passed near Latrun, Bashir suddenly recalled a journey made in haste and fear two decades earlier. The details were elusive; he was trying to remember the stories from when he was six years old, events he had brooded about nearly every day for the last nineteen years.

Bashir glanced at his seatmate – an Israeli man absorbed in his book. Looking out the window meant nothing to this man, Bashir thought. Perhaps he’d seen it so many times. Decades later, Bashir would recall feeling jealous of the man’s inattention to the landscape.

The bus hit a bump – it was the railroad crossing. Simultaneously, the three cousins experienced a familiar sensation, grooved into memory by a repetition two decades distant.

Bashir and his cousins knew they had arrived in al-Ramla.

IV

Dalia finished rinsing the morning dishes, wiped her hands on a towel, and walked to the kitchen doorway, which opened onto the garden. In recent days, since the end of the war, she had been carrying on a silent dialogue with God that she began as a child. Why, she thought, would You allow Israel to be saved during the Six Day War, yet not prevent genocide during the Holocaust? Why would You empower Israel’s warriors to vanquish its enemies, yet stand by while my people were branded and slaughtered a generation earlier?

For a child, it was difficult to comprehend the trauma of the people who surrounded her. Only after probing could Dalia begin to understand. She had asked her mother: How were the people branded? Did they stand in line? Did it hurt? Why would anyone do these things? Over the years, Dalia’s curiosity would fuel her empathy. It helped her understand the silence of the children she grew up with – children she would invite home after school and try to cheer up with her elaborate skits and solo performances in the garden.

Through the doorway, Dalia looked out at the jacaranda tree her father had planted amid the flower beds. As a girl, Dalia had loved to water the deep red Queen Elizabeth roses, with their overwhelming perfume. Near the jacaranda stood the lemon tree. Another family had planted that tree; it was already bearing fruit when Dalia and her parents arrived nearly nineteen years earlier. Dalia was aware she had grown up in an Arab house, and sometimes she wondered about the previous residents. Had children lived here? How many? How old? In school Dalia had learned that the Arabs had fled like cowards, with their hot soup still steaming on the table. As a younger child, she hadn’t questioned this story, but the older she got, the less sense it made: Why would anyone voluntarily leave such a beautiful house?

V

Bashir, Yasser, and Ghiath emerged from the bus into a hot, glaring world at once bizarre and familiar. They could see the old municipality building, and the town cinema, and the edge of the neighborhood where they were raised. But none of the streets seemed familiar, at least not at first; they all had new names. Most of the old buildings were covered with brightly colored signs in blocky, indecipherable Hebrew lettering. On some of the building archways, the remnants of the original flowing Arabic cursive remained.

Suddenly Yasser, the eldest, spotted something he knew: the old neighborhood butcher’s shop. He quickly walked inside, his cousins following, and threw his arms around the butcher, kissing both his cheeks in the customary way of the Arabs. ‘Abu Mohammad!’ Yasser shouted in glee. ‘Don’t you recognize me? Habibi, my dear friend, I recognize you! We meet again!’

The Jewish butcher couldn’t have been more startled. Abu Mohammad had left many years before. ‘You are right, habibi,’ the man told Yasser, stammering awkwardly in the language of his visitor. ‘Once there was Abu Mohammad. Now, no more Abu Mohammad. Now, Mordechai!’ The butcher invited his guests to stay for kebab, but the cousins were too stunned by the man’s true identity and too distracted by their own mission to accept his offer of food. They walked out, flustered.

‘You were pretending you know everything here!’ Ghiath teased his older cousin as they left the shop. ‘You don’t know anything here!’

The three men turned a corner and found themselves in the quieter streets of the neighborhood where they once played. They felt at ease and happy, and they forgot their earlier admonitions about speaking to one another and conversed openly in their mother tongue.

They came upon Yasser’s house and approached the door; Yasser stepped forward to knock. A woman in her forties came out, looking at them strangely. ‘Please,’ said Yasser, ‘all we want is to see the house we lived in before.’

The woman grew agitated. ‘If you don’t leave the house, I will call the police!’ she screamed. The cousins tried to calm her, explaining their purpose. The woman continued shouting, taking a step forward and shoving them back. Neighbors began opening their doors. Eventually the cousins realized they might soon find themselves in trouble with the local authorities, and they retreated in haste.

Yasser drifted along in a silent daze. ‘It was as if he had no soul,’ Bashir recalled. ‘He was a walking body, nothing more.’

‘I cannot accept such a feeling,’ Yasser said finally. ‘It is something that I really cannot bear.’

Soon they came upon the house where Ghiath had grown up. Outside was a large sign they couldn’t read and a guard armed with a machine gun. The two-story stone house was now a school. The guard told the men to wait while he went inside, and a moment later the principal came out and invited them in for tea. She introduced herself; her name was Shulamit. She told them they could walk through the rooms when the class period ended, and she left them in her office to wait.

There they sat, silently sipping their tea. Ghiath removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. He put them back on and tried to look cheerful. ‘I can’t control my feelings,’ he whispered.

‘I know,’ Bashir said quietly. ‘I understand.’

When the principal returned, she invited them to tour the house. They did so, Ghiath crying the whole time.

After their visit they left the house and walked in the direction of Bashir’s old home. No one could remember exactly where it was. Bashir recalled that it had both a front door and a back door that faced a side street. It had a front gate with a bell, a flowering fitna, or plumeria, tree in the front yard, and a lemon tree in the back. After walking in circles in the heat, Bashir realized he’d found the house. He heard a voice from somewhere deep inside himself: This is your home.

Bashir and his cousins approached the house. Everything depended on the reception, Bashir told himself. You can’t know what the outcome will be, especially after what had happened to Yasser. ‘It depends,’ he said, ‘who is on the other side of the door.’

VI

Dalia sat in a plain wooden chair on the back veranda of the only home she had ever known. She had no special plan for today. She could catch up on her summer reading for the university, where she studied English literature. Or she could peer contentedly into the depths of the jacaranda tree, as she had done countless times before.

VII

Bashir stood at the metal gate, looking for the bell. How many times, he wondered, did his mother, Zakia, walk through this same gate? How many times did his father, Ahmad, pass by, coming home tired from work, rapping his knuckles on the front door in his special knock of arrival?

Bashir Khairi reached for the bell and pressed it.

Two

HOUSE

THE STONE LAY cool and heavy in Ahmad’s open hands. Pockmarked and rough, the color of cream, it was cut in foot-thick slabs, with the blunted right angles of the stonemason’s chisel. Its dips and rises defined a landscape in miniature, like the hills and wadis of the Palestine it came from.

Ahmad stood in an open field in his coat and tie and Turkish fez. He looked down, crouched low, and laid the first stone upon its foundation. Hundreds of other chiseled slabs, known as white Jerusalem stone, were stacked high beside him. With the first stone in place, Ahmad looked to the cousins, friends, and hired laborers beside him. They began to place stone upon mortar upon stone.

It was 1936, and Ahmad Khairi was building a home for his family. The house was to stand at the eastern edge of al-Ramla, an Arab town of eleven thousand on the coastal plain between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean. To the north lay the Galilee and southern Lebanon; in the Bedouin lands to the south, the sands of Palestine and Sinai.

Al-Ramla was named for sand, some believed, from the Arabic word raml. Mostly the soil here was good, bearing citrus, olives, bananas, lentils, and sesame. The year Ahmad Khairi built his house, Arab farmers in Palestine would produce hundreds of thousands of tons of barley, wheat, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, figs, grapes, and melons. The Khairis tended oranges, olives, and almonds in a communal waaf, land owned collectively by the extended family and administered under Islamic law.

The Khairis traced their history and landed wealth to the sixteenth century and the religious scholar Khair al-Din al-Ramlawi. Khair al-Din came from Morocco to preside as a judge for the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, based in Istanbul, would rule Palestine for four hundred years. At its height, the empire stretched from the outskirts of Vienna through the Balkans, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. From Istanbul, the Ottoman sultan bequeathed to Khair al-Din the productive waqf lands that would sustain the family for centuries.

By 1936, Palestine was under the rule of a new overseer, the British, who had arrived at the end of World War I as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. By this time, the Khairis of al-Ramla had their own family quarter, an expanse of open grounds and houses connected by stone gates and archways that made it possible to travel from home to home without ever leaving the compound. The women rarely ventured out, leaving the shopping to maids and servants.

The Khairis owned the town’s cinema, and on Tuesdays it was made available for the exclusive use of the clan. Dozens of family members would come to watch the latest films from Egypt. In the privacy of their own theater, the Khairi women would not be exposed to the looks of strangers, especially men. Khairis rarely married outside the clan, but at his wedding seven years earlier, twenty-two-year-old Ahmad was an exception: His bride, Zakia, nineteen, was from the Riad family of al-Ramla. Quiet, discreet, and loyal, she was considered a good housewife and was much loved by the Khairis.

Ahmad’s uncle Sheikh Mustafa Khairi was both the family patriarch and the longtime mayor of al-Ramla. Mustafa was like a father to Ahmad; when Ahmad was seven, his parents died, and Mustafa’s family had raised the boy as their own. Mustafa was popular both with the town’s citizens and with the British colonial overseers, despite growing tensions.

The British had arrived in 1917, the same year of the historic Balfour Declaration, in which England pledged to help establish a ‘national homeland for the Jewish people’ in Palestine. This was a triumph for Zionism, a political movement of European Jews founded by Theodor Herzl. The British had authorized ‘an appropriate Jewish agency’ to help develop public works, utilities, and natural resources – in essence, the beginnings of a Jewish government in Palestine. In recent years, Jewish immigration to Palestine had driven the Arabs and the British further apart, and Sheikh Mustafa, as mayor and town patriarch, had to mediate between the colonial overseers and his restive fellow Arabs.

Ahmad watched his walls go up from the loamy soil on the eastern outskirts of al-Ramla: from foundation to roofline, fourteen layers of Jerusalem stone. His decision to move out of the family compound, and its world unto itself, was unusual. Ahmad wanted to feel independent, however, and he conferred with Sheikh Mustafa. They agreed that from the young man’s inheritance, his own share of the Khairi waqf income, and the income from his al-Ramla furniture workshop, his family’s home would rise. It was time. Zakia, now twenty-six, was pregnant with her fourth child, which Ahmad hoped would finally be a boy.

The young couple had envisioned a house with an open design. Ahmad had gone over the master plan with a British friend and builder, Benson Solli, one of only a few Jews who lived in al-Ramla. For the Khairis, as for many Arabs, Jews like Mr. Solli, as Ahmad’s children remembered him, were simply part of the landscape of Palestine. Jews from the kibbutzim bartered for wheat, barley, and melons at al-Ramla’s Wednesday market. Arab laborers worked in nearby Jewish fields, pushing hand plows made in the kibbutzim, and Jewish farmers brought their horses into al-Ramla to be shod. Arabs would recall Jewish engineers and conductors working for the Palestine railroad that passed through town; some remembered bearded, Arabic-speaking Jews riding by donkey to purchase bags of cement at the local factory. For the most part the two communities lived and worked in separate worlds, but their degree of interaction was undeniable. The well-to-do of al-Ramla traveled to Tel Aviv to have suits cut by Jewish tailors, fezzes cleaned by Jewish drycleaners, or portraits taken by Jewish photographers. Khairi women recalled traveling to Tel Aviv to have their dresses made by a Jewish seamstress. One of the Khairi family physicians, Dr. Litvak, was Jewish; and at the Schmidt Girls College in Jerusalem, where Ahmad and Zakia’s daughters studied, many of the girls’ classmates were Jews. ‘They all spoke Arabic and were Palestinians like us,’ one Khairi daughter would remember decades later. ‘They were there – like us, part of Palestine.’ Mr. Solli, an architect and builder, was a quiet man, unassuming, with daughters named Rosalie and Eively. He spoke Arabic and, according to later generations of Khairis, coexisted comfortably among the town’s Muslim and Christian Arabs.

Ahmad and Mr. Solli designed large living and sleeping quarters separated by double wooden doors in the center. Workers walled off a small bedroom in a corner. They laid tile, hung wire for electric lights, and ran pipe for indoor plumbing. Zakia would have an inside kitchen with a modern stove. Instead of baking her Arabic bread in the taboun, the open-air, wood-fired oven found at most traditional homes, she now had the luxury of sending her dough to the communal ovens in al-Ramla, to be brought back as warm bread ready for the table.

These were new luxuries for the town founded twelve centuries earlier, in 715 A.D., by the Muslim caliph Suleiman Ibn Abdel-Malek. Suleiman, it was said, did not name the place for its raml, or sand, but rather for a woman named Ramla who had been generous to him as he had traveled through the area. Suleiman made al-Ramla the political capital of Palestine, and for a time it became more important than Jerusalem. The town lay halfway between Damascus and Cairo, and soon it was a stopover for camel caravans hauling leather, swords, buckets, walnuts, barley, and cloth. Suleiman’s workers built the White Mosque, considered one of the most beautiful in the Arab world. They built a six-mile-long aqueduct to carry fresh water to the town’s residents and to irrigate its fields. The gently sloping lands surrounding al-Ramla would be considered among the most fertile in Palestine. By the tenth century, a Muslim traveler would write of al-Ramla:

It is a fine city, and well built. Its water is good and plentiful; its fruits are abundant. It combines manifold advantages, situated as it is in the midst of beautiful villages and lordly towns, near to holy places and pleasant hamlets. Commerce here is prosperous, and means of livelihood easy . . . Its bread is of the best and the whitest; its lands are well favoured above all others, and its fruits are of the most luscious. The capital stands among fruitful fields, walled towns, and serviceable hospices. It possesses magnificent hostelries and pleasant baths, dainty food and various condiments, spacious houses, fine mosques and broad roads.

In the next thousand years, al-Ramla would be conquered by the Crusaders, liberated by the Muslim hero Saladin, and ruled by the Ottoman sultans from Istanbul. By the 1930s, the town housed a military garrison used by British forces and a colonial office for a subcommissioner dispatched from London. British officers were fond of hunting fox through the olive groves, over cactus hedges and stone walls, with hounds from the town’s kennels. A British subcommissioner filed periodic briefings to His Majesty’s government in London. In a cursive scrawl with his blue fountain pen, he noted crops, tonnage, and, by 1936, as Ahmad Khairi’s house rose, an increasing disintegration in the public order.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler had taken power in Germany, and the situation for Jews was deteriorating across Europe. Within a few years, demands for Jewish immigration to Palestine increased. Underground Zionist organizations began smuggling boatloads of Jews in ever greater numbers from European ports to Haifa, along the northern Mediterranean coast of Palestine. The British authorities struggled to control the flow. Between 1922 and 1936, the Jewish population of Palestine quadrupled – from 84,000 to 352,000. During the same time, the Arab population had increased by about 36 percent, to 900,000. In those intervening fourteen years, as the Jewish community in Palestine had grown more powerful, a nationalistic fervor began to rise among the Arabs of Palestine. For decades, Arabs had been selling land to Jews arriving from Europe. Gradually, as land sales increased and Jewish leaders pressed their call for a state of their own, many Arabs began to fear Jewish domination. Already more than 30,000 Arab peasant families, or nearly a quarter of the rural population, had been dispossessed through the sale of land to Jews, many by absentee Arab landowners. The families arrived impoverished in the cities of Palestine and in many cases earned wages by building houses for the new Jewish arrivals. By the mid-1930s Arab leaders had declared that selling land to the Jews was an act of treason. They were opposed to a separate Jewish state, and, increasingly, they wanted the British out of Palestine.

Ahmad and his workers hung wooden shutters on the windows. For the exterior fence, they fastened lengths of iron bar to limestone pillars. They laid the tiles for a small garage – for a car that Ahmad didn’t yet own but hoped someday he would.

Before long, Ahmad would turn his attention to the garden. In the corner of the yard behind the house, he had chosen a spot for a lemon tree. Once the tree was in the soil, Ahmad knew it would be at least seven years, and probably more, before the strong Palestinian sun and sweet waters of the al-Ramla aquifer would nurture the tree to maturity. The act of planting was thus an act of faith and patience.

The Khairis’ stone house was finished by late 1936. To celebrate, the family butchered a lamb and prepared a huge feast: Chicken stuffed with rice and great piles of lamb were common for such occasions, along with handmade couscous, date-filled cookies made with soft buttery dough, and kanafe, a hot, pistachio-covered sweet that is shaped like a pizza and looks like shredded wheat. Cousins, sisters and brothers, and Sheikh Mustafa would all have come from the Khairi family compound to admire the new home, with its layers of white Jerusalem stone rising up from the earth. There stood Ahmad, in his coat and tie and fez; a pregnant Zakia; and their three girls – Hiam, six years old; Basima, four; and Fatima, three. Ahmad still waited for a son. He came from a good family with land and wanted to pass on the inheritance in the way of his ancestors. Zakia understood this clearly.

Ahmad and Mr. Solli had designed the house to withstand the weight of three floors. Ahmad and Zakia hoped later to expand the home as the family grew and the income provided.

But the sense of security the Khairis might have hoped for in their new home, on the land their families had inhabited for centuries, was tempered by the reality of daily life in Palestine in late 1936. By then, their homeland was in the midst of a full-scale rebellion.

The Great Arab Rebellion had erupted the previous fall, when an Arab nationalist named Sheikh Izzadin al-Qassam took to the hills near Jenin in northern Palestine with a small band of rebels. Arab nationalists had long suspected the British of favoring the Jews over the Arabs in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration had helped put in motion the machinery for building a Jewish state, including a trade union, a bank, a university, and even a Jewish militia, known as the Haganah. As for the Arabs, Balfour said simply that the Jewish homeland would not adversely affect ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ In the fall of 1935, when the British authorities uncovered a Zionist arms-smuggling operation but did not find and prosecute the organizers, Arab mistrust of the British deepened, and Sheikh al-Qassam launched his rebellion. He was convinced that only armed insurrection could bring about national liberation for the Arabs.

The British suspected al-Qassam’s band of causing two firebomb deaths at a kibbutz and other killings. They called the sheikh an ‘outlaw’; Zionist leaders said he was a ‘gangster’; both agreed he was a terrorist. In November 1935, al-Qassam, who liked to declare, ‘Obey God and the Prophet, but not the British high commissioner,’ was hunted down and shot dead near his cave in the hills. ‘The band was liquidated by police action,’ a British report stated. Arabs of Palestine spent the winter mourning the death of their first Palestinian martyr and organizing for the long fight ahead.

On Wednesday evening, April 15, 1936, as Ahmad Khairi and his friend Benson Solli made plans to break ground in al-Ramla, the trouble began. On a road twenty-five miles north of town, two Jews crossing northern Palestine by car were held up by what the British authorities would later describe as ‘Arab highwaymen.’ The Arabs robbed the Jews, then shot and killed them. The next night, two Arabs near Tel Aviv were killed by Jewish assailants. In the coming days, Jews stoned Arab delivery trucks and looted Arab-run shops. Rumors, apparently false, spread quickly of the murder of two Arabs at Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv; Arabs responded with violence. The attacks, reprisals, and counterreprisals had begun.

The British brought in military reinforcements to Jaffa and Tel Aviv and imposed a state of emergency. Colonial authorities imposed strict curfews, arrested Jews and Arabs, searched their houses without warrant, and censored letters, telegrams, and newspapers. Arab guerrillas, meanwhile, set up national committees in towns and villages across Palestine to serve as the bases for an insurgency. Leaders of Arab political parties in Palestine had formed the Arab Higher Committee, led by the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who called for a general strike and a boycott of Jewish goods. The mufti, who had been appointed by the British to represent the Muslim community in Palestine, had turned against his former colonial masters. His Arab Higher Committee demanded an end to Jewish immigration, an end of land sales to Jews, and an end to the British Mandate in favor of a single state.

Arab fighters in checkered keffiyehs, or head scarves, struck from the hills, firing on British forces and Jewish kibbutzim. The rebels, known as fedayeen, cut phone and telegraph lines, sabotaged water pipelines, mined bridges, burned forests, derailed trains, and sniped at Jewish settlements and detachments of British forces. ‘There have been widespread acts of murder and other outrages by gangs of armed terrorists,’ declared a report of His Majesty’s government. British troops responded with baton charges, live ammunition, and a new tactic: demolitions of the stone homes of suspected rebels and their relatives. ‘This preliminary work of demolition,’ one British communiqué declared, ‘will be punctuated by frequent detonations and crashes of falling masonry . . . the neighbourhood should not be surprised, misled, or alarmed when they hear these noises.’

In the summer of 1936, the entire Khairi clan, along with the rest of al-Ramla, prepared for the annual festival of Nabi Saleh. Despite the rebellion and the British crackdown, thousands of Arabs came from across Palestine to honor this early miracle-working prophet who foretold the coming of the Prophet Mohammad. Delegations from each city in Palestine would come to the ancient mosque at Nabi Saleh, planting their city flags. ‘Women went to his tomb in al-Ramla to pray for fertility and better health,’ Ahmad and Zakia’s daughter Khanom remembered. ‘There would be singing and dancing and prayer and picnics. This event was the highlight of the year.’

News of the conflict reached the family sporadically. The rebels were exacting a toll. Many Jewish farmers couldn’t get their crops or livestock to market, and those who tried were often attacked and their animals killed. Water projects were suspended as survey crews were attacked. Rural guerrillas had mastered hit-and-run tactics, firing upon British patrols, in some cases retreating to nearby villages to disguise themselves as women. A British report underscored the frustration. Colonial troops ‘were continually finding themselves shot up on all sides,’ only to find ‘that the hostile area was apparently populated by unarmed peaceful shepherds and agriculturalists.’ On one occasion, ‘a small party of British troops were bathing near Beisan on the 12th August [and] were subject to a surprise attack by a large Arab armed band. Unfortunately their Lewis gun ‘jammed’ and those who were on guard were killed by the band, who succeeded in capturing the Lewis gun and some rifles.’ The rebellion was just as alarming to the Zionists. ‘On one side, forces of destruction, forces of the desert, have risen,’ declared Chaim Weizmann. ‘And on the other side stand firm the forces of civilization and building. It is the old war of the desert against civilization, but we will not be stopped.’

At night, fedayeen fighters moved from house to house, sleeping in their muddy boots in the homes of peasants or city dwellers. Family oral history suggests some Khairis were also sheltering rebels. Organizers in the local committees set up networks for smuggling arms and for collecting ‘taxes,’ sometimes by intimidation, to finance the insurgency. Rebel leaders were pressuring urban Arabs to abandon their fezzes and put on the keffiyeh, so that the rural rebels would not stand out. It isn’t clear if Ahmad’s furniture workshop was a target of such ‘tax collection,’ but increasingly, his uncle, Mayor Mustafa Khairi, was facing threats from rebels who saw him as too close to the British. Despite the pressure from all sides, the family tried to continue living normally.

With the birth of baby Khanom, Zakia and Ahmad now had four daughters. Ahmad still waited for his son, and he had begun to wonder if his wife was capable of bearing one. ‘We also didn’t have any uncles,’ Khanom said. ‘So it was even more important to have a male baby.’ Of her mother, she said, ‘Of course we thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.’ At home Zakia always wore a dress: a housedress for family and fancier dresses with dark stockings for visitors. She smelled of Bombay perfume, which she applied from a special flask shaped like an Indian woman. Most people in al-Ramla in those days used the public baths, but the Khairis had their own; sometimes the girls’ schoolteachers would come to use the bath, which shocked the children. ‘When we were young we thought teachers were like angels and did not need to bathe or eat or sleep,’ Khanom recalled.

Usually Zakia would send the servants to buy the food, but sometimes she would do her own shopping. When she left the house to go to Wednesday market, she put on a jacket and dark cape and wore a veil over her face. Occasionally she would take her daughters along.

At the market the girls would gaze up at the stalls of eggplants and peppers; tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley; spices and herbs; and live chickens and squab. Village men rode to the oil presses perched atop sacks of olives in flatbed trucks. Horse-drawn carts creaked into market overburdened with produce. Village women would barter chicken and eggs – or, in hard times, silver bracelets and old Ottoman coins – for Syrian silk, Egyptian linen, and cotton from Gaza. The women chose dyes for their embroidery: indigo from the Jordan Valley, red from the sumac growing wild in the fields of Palestine, yellow muchra from the soil found near the Egyptian border.

The Khairi girls could see how each villager’s dress told a story. Some were embroidered with patterns of sesame branches; others with sunflowers or field tulips. In al-Ramla, a citrus-growing region near the sea, patterns of orange branches were woven into the embroidered bodices. These were surrounded by green triangles to represent the cypress trees used as windbreaks beside the orange groves. Below that, undulating lines of indigo stood for the waves of the nearby Mediterranean.

At home, Zakia and her servants often cooked the girls’ favorite, makloubeh, or ‘upside down,’ a lamb-and-eggplant casserole they would turn over and sprinkle with pine nuts just after it came out of the oven. The girls would gather around their mother in the kitchen as she sprinkled sugar and pistachios atop the kanafe. The main meals were served at midday in the dining room. Zakia would call the girls to the table; Ahmad would come home from his carpentry workshop to join them; and the family would dine around a short-legged table called a tablieh. When guests came the parents would retire to the salon, where they would sit on couches of engraved wood covered in dark blue velvet, on which the girls were never allowed to sit.