By Liza Foreman
(From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea, by Adel A. Dajani. Published by Zuleika London on March 11, 2021.)
What happened to the families of Palestine? Those that were ushered out of their country in 1948 with no place to go? Their properties taken. Their livelihoods upended. Their heritage, country and homes stolen.
In “From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea,” a 300-page memoir by Adel A. Dajani, who became the first Arab to go to Eton, what transpired for his elite, Palestinian clan begins in the heart of Old Jerusalem, where the family were the custodians of The Prophet David’s Tomb.
The story of this Palestinian family whose roots in Jerusalem date back centuries, continues through Egypt, and into Tripoli. On via Eton and Knightsbridge to Tunisia and the raw wrath of the Arab Spring come into close up in this book.
This is a remarkable story about survival between the loss of a homeland and multiple, subsequent revolutions. The journey begins with the Nakba in Palestine in 1948. The establishment of the Kingdom of Libya in 1951, the Gaddafi coup in 1969, as well as the Arab Spring Revolutions in Tunisia and Libya in 2011 are all yet to begin.
Dajani’s easy-to-follow narrative gives us a birds-eye view into the wanderings of this cosmopolitan clan, as they built and rebuilt their fortunes and family, betting on top education and unknown lands.
It is a window into a little-known slice of Palestinian history, lost in the global narrative of terrorism and refugee camps. A 20th-century “1001 Nights” tale, woven through political upheaval and personal loss.
“The story of a family, and its black swans,” is how Dajani, a seasoned investment banker, introduces his tale. Dajani was born in Libya. His story begins in Palestine.
“According to my maternal grandmother Faika Husseini Dajani, the sound of gunfire and explosions in Jaffa in the last years of the British mandate over Palestine was becoming frighteningly common. The explosion from the recent truck bomb outside the three-storey Serrani, Jaf- fa’s Ottoman town hall in which fourteen Palestinians were killed on the 5th January 1948, shattered the calm of Faika’s manicured gardens. The writing was on the wall.”
So begins his book in Jaffa in 1947 when the family decide to take a short trip to Cairo with the British “blustering” about leaving Palestine alone.
This trip turned into a “lifetime of wandering,” as Dajani puts it. Their hastily packed winter clothes were not enough to protect them from the subsequent loss of a homeland, and the confiscation of all of their properties, after the State of Israel was established in 1948. They lost everything under the Absentee Property Act.
A letter his father, an Oxford graduate, wrote from Cairo to the United Nations Commission for Refugees, listing all of these properties, was acknowledged with a letter thanking him for his enclosure, Dajani writes. His father kept the piece of paper listing his homes in his pocket after that.
For this family that had lived in Palestine for more than 1000 years, it was time to build their fortune again. There were many black swans along the way. From Cairo, Libya beckoned. It was about to establish its independence in which Dajani’s father, Awni, went on to play a major role writing part of the constitution.
“Awni’s first application was for the position of legal adviser to the Libyan Royal Court headed by Prince Idris al-Senussi, who was the Prince of Cyrenaica, a province in the east of the country under the British mandate. The application was initially rejected,” writes Dajani.
With his Oxford degree in hand, his lawyer father after a lot of pushing, soon however found himself working for the King of Libya. The young Dajani was raised inside its royal palace. He was taken straight from the hospital to the royal palace, following his birth in Tripoli. His life began in this Kingdom by the Sea.
Many of the tales that follow are magical. Summer holidays with the King and Queen. Giggling fits at dinner with visiting heads of State. Beautiful people. Rich parties. Dreamy beaches.
Until it was time to go to Eton and deal with the gloomy weather and depressing train rides in Great Britain for this 11-year-old. This education stood him in good stead. The beauty of the campus made up for some of the British gloom.
There were to be many more upheavals for the family. The Gaddafi revolution that landed his father in jail. Again threats to the ownership of their new homes when laws and regimes in Libya changed. Property confiscated. Dangerous trips over difficult borders to chase out squatters along the way.
Much transpired before the beginnings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia where once again angry people threatened the family stead there in 2011. Dajani kept it safe.
The doing and undoing of regimes in the Arab world unfold alongside the building of his family and career. The death of the family patriarch. The first-hand witnessing of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya appear before our eyes in this personal account of troubled regions in a troubled world.
At the book’s end, Dajani finds himself on a trip to Jerusalem with his son. His family graves desecrated. A hospital built by relatives has been renamed. History had become too big to carry on his shoulders.
“As we meandered aimlessly, lost in thought, around the cemetery where countless generations of our ancestors are buried, Rakan and I felt a unique sense of deep-rooted belonging. Yet at the same time we felt a crushing burden that we were helpless and alone in the struggle to preserve our historical links in Jerusalem for future generations. It was as if the family story that started in Jerusalem in AD 637 was going to end in 2017 on our watch and that the fault for that rested squarely on our shoulders. A millstone around our necks,” he writes.
– Liza Foreman is a former staff reporter for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. She now writes freelance for publications including the International Herald Tribune/NYTimes.com (Great Homes and Destinations/Style), and has contributed to The Times, The Financial Times, Reuters and The Observer. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.