Home » Palestine » Mahmoud Shukair القدس و حدها هناك (Jerusalem Stands Alone)

Mahmoud Shukair : القدس و حدها هناك (Jerusalem Stands Alone)

This is not really a novel though in some respects it is. It takes the form of a series of linked (very) short stories, all revolving around a neighbourhood in Jerusalem with the focus on a core set of characters, including the unnamed narrator,who is a journalist, who writes a daily column (I don’t dwell on politics, in the paper or anywhere else.) and will later plan to write a book on Jerusalem, and a Palestinian family consisting of the fishmonger Abd el-Razzaq, his wife, Khadija, their daughters Rabab and Asmahan and their sons Marwan and Abd el-Rahman. Marwan is drifting around the world looking for the woman he loved and his family have no contact with him and Abd el-Rahman is in prison at the beginning of the book but is released during the course of the book before being rearrested as the police cannot believe that he is not planning some nefarious deed(s). Asmahan and her mother are worried as she has her first period The family have a tenant, Suzanne from Marseilles.

Jerusalem is very much a character in this book and Shukair treats it as such. He also often delves into its past. We see this with Yoram, the slightly unhinged police chief who keeps finding references to the past and thinking they might refer to the present. For example he reads an article about a Lebanese journalist who was critical of the standard of hotels in Jerusalem. Yoram proposed banning him from rentering the city again, not realising that the man has been dead for many years. Yoram will also see a brigade of horsemen in unfamiliar uniforms, clearly ghosts from the past. It soon becomes clear that what Yoram sees – and this is not all he sees -and others also see visions from the past – are the various invaders of Jerusalem in the past.

Our narrator was born in 1965. He comments the war was two years old. The war, of course, is the Six-Day War which, for Palestinians, never ended. He too looks back to the past. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had been born in the time of Tankz al-Nasiri or Saladin the Victorious.

He mainly observes, though he does wander around the city and tells us about it. During his wanderings he is accosted by Israeli soldiers and he tells us about that. As regards our family, we learn about them but then he gets to know them later, being interested in Rabab, who reads the Shakespeare assigned to her in college, Bertrand Russell and T. S. Eliot.

As for our family, they are afraid. Fear is in the markets and streets, beneath the entryways and porches. The father fears for his house and shop, convinced of the treachery of the times. The son is scared of failing his exam and of girls rejecting him when it’s time to get married because of his slight limp from an old illness. The mother fears for her daughter, who has just developed breasts, and the daughter is scared of the nightmares stalking her sleep.
Abd el-Razzaq has good cause to be afraid. Five men with long beards move in next door, well armed with rifles. They use the family’s porch, leave rubbish lying around, have a gate which our family has to squeeze past to get out and clearly have their eyes on our family’s home as they, as happened to many other Palestinians, have no formal proof of their ownership of the property.

Suzanne is unaware of this issue and we learn much about her. She has a job and a boyfriend. She loves Jerusalem. loves listening to the radio (but hates television), gets on well with Rabab and left Marseilles because she did not like her mother’s boyfriend.

But there are ghostly phenomena. We have already heard of the Yoram’s troop of horsemen and other ghosts of the past But thr narrator also sees shades of the past. Yoram seems to have a ghostly double while Rabab and the narrator see Saladin.

The narrator soon has Rabab move in with him and starts cluttering their rooms with antiques, furniture and the like, which she often does not like and not just because there is no room for it.

Obviously this is to a certain degree a political book. We see the five armed bearded men who are clearly intent on taking our family’s house as well as frequent searches and the imprisonment of Abd el-Rahman. However, though we follow the stories of our family, our narrator and the somewhat deranged Chief of Police, Yoram, there is no doubt that the hero of this book is Jerusalem or, perhaps, more accurately Al-Quds, the Arabic name for the city. The city was destroyed seventeen times and now has been rebuilt for the eighteenth. Praise be to God, the city has once again risen from the dead. Invaders may come and go but Jerusalem will survive them all, which, by implication (though never explicitly spelled out) includes the current occupiers.

This book works very well as Shukair mixes in straightforward accounts of various characters, what can be best described as magic realism, a good bit of history, some political commentary and a group of varied and sometimes colourful characters, with a few good stories thrown in.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Nawfal, Beirut
First published in English in 2018 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by Nicole Fares