My Grandmother’s Wardrobe, Keys, And Tears

Salwa Jarrah Novelist and Author Veteran Radio Presenter

I was three years old when my mother and I moved to live with my maternal grandmother, Hamida, in Borj al-Barjneh, a suburb of Beirut, at the beginning of 1950, because my father was on a six-month course at Marconi College in the city of Chelmsford to the north of London, updating his knowledge on modern telecommunications, to advance in his job with the Iraq Petroleum Company.  

My grandmother’s house was a modern flat accommodating her and my uncle Adel, and my two aunties, Mariam and Da’ad.  I can still remember the place with all its details because it became part of my childhood when we visited Beirut in the coming years during the summer holidays after we settled in Basra Iraq.  But those early years stuck in my memory very vividly, maybe because I was capable at that early age of capturing a lot of what was happening around me.  I even learned and repeated the story of Count Bernadotte, who was always described by everybody around me as the man who wanted to return the Palestinians to where they came from, Palestine, but the Zionists killed him.  I used to enjoy telling his story to whoever came to visit us.


Caption: Grandmother with grandchild Daad 


My grandmother and my two aunties were a very rich source of knowledge, each in her special domain.  Teta, Granma Hamida, ‘Umm Adel’ as they used to call her, was still in mourning for the husband she loved, my grandfather Najm El Deen, who passed away just before the marriage of my mom and dad.  So, when her first grandchild was born, she fell in love with Salwa, who filled a huge gap in her life.  Little did she know that by the time I learned to walk and talk, she would be forced to face what they call in short Nakba, the catastrophe of losing everything, one’s homeland and all the details it incorporates, the loss of Akka, the city of the Jarrah family, and the beautiful house that my grandfather built and still stands today in Akka and her livelihood.  The scattering of the big Jarrah family who used to be neighbours in Akka, in three countries, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, was another big problem.  Yet when she first came to Lebanon she refused to live in Beirut, and stayed in southern Lebanon near the Palestinian borders in a small mountainous town called Jezzine, saying in full confidence: Why Beirut?  It’s too far away, we are going home soon.” 


My grandmother had a spacious kitchen, with a unique centre of activity, a round low-legged table, “Tablia”, placed under the window where she used to sit on a low seat preparing all her delicious food refusing all invitations to move her creative work to the wooden dining table.  But the real magic was in her bedroom, a unique world of things very special and different, a brass four-poster bed and a dark ebony wooden wardrobe that almost touched the ceiling, with huge mirrors covering two of its three doors that are elegantly finished with three drawers at the bottom with big brass handles.  I used to sit on the floor and watch her magical hidden world when she opened one of the doors or drawers of that huge wardrobe.  Everything was wrapped in velvet material in bright colours embroidered with golden and silver threads, carefully arranged on the shelves, and dresses hanging on wooden hangers.  To this day I can still recall the scent of trees after a light rain that filled the room whenever she opened the door of her wardrobe or pulled out one of the large drawers. 

I used to sit still, watching her movements as she took out one of the velvet bundles and opened it carefully, to take out silk nightgowns embroidered with flowers of the same colour of the fabric, or handmade white lace tablecloths that would end up on the table in the middle of the living room, or on the large tray to serve lemonade and coffee when relatives and friends visited us.  But the most important ritual of all was taking out that large white handkerchief made of light fabric, and decorated with blue needlework of tiny flowers, around its edges, which she called an “Amta”, a head scarf, and carrying it to her bed, unties the big knot in it, and out comes a bundle of keys hanging from a white silk ribbon.  She will clutch her hands hard squeezing them.  After a while she will open her hand and examine them closely, turning them in her hand as she murmurs in a trembling voice: “This is the key to our house in Akka, your grandfather Najm El Deen’s house, may God bless his soul, and this is the key to his mill that was at the entrance of the market.”  Then she will gently hold my hand, and place the bundle of keys in it.  I never closed my hand on her keys, perhaps because I did not know the doors they unlocked.  I knew they were in the place that made her cry, Akka, the city by the sea, but I had never been there.  

I tried to share her feelings and feel sad, for she had left behind in Akka everything she loved especially the house with spacious rooms the garden with the large jasmine tree perched on its walls, and the mill at the entrance of the large market near Al-Jazzar Mosque.  I tried very hard, but the only thing I could feel was anger.  I was very angry with those who fiddled with my grandmother’s life stole everything she loved and left her with a bunch of keys that made no sense to me.  I found myself wondering how houses and mills could be stolen.  And how did the thieves enter the house and the mill without keys?  One day I decided to ask her.  She sighed deeply, looked me in the eye and said in a shaky voice: “They broke the door.”  I felt very confused: “So why then do you keep the keys?  Will your keys open the new doors?”  She held her shoulders high and muttered as she retrieved her keys from my hand: “It doesn’t matter, what matters is they are my keys.”  She put the keys back in the middle of the white handkerchief with the blue edges, wrapped them carefully, and put the small bundle in the big drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe.  She walked towards the bed, sat on the edge and said: “Your grandfather, Najm al-Deen, broke my heart when he died in the prime of his youth.  But now I say, he was saved from being tortured with sadness like us.”  She got up and went out to the small balcony adjacent to her room, raised her head towards the sky, opened the collar of her dress with both hands and whispered: “Oh God, may they never enjoy whatever they usurped from us.”


Caption: Salwa’s Grandfather Najmuddin Jarrah – A Grounder facility owner. 


I knew those words by heart because she repeated them all the time, but I never understood why she opened the collar of her dress while beseeching God.  I wondered whether that made her closer to God, or maybe she wanted him to see her broken heart, and that’s why she opened the collar of her dress.  I convinced myself of this idea, and I started doing the same thing whenever I prayed to get something I really desperately wanted.

One day my Auntie Da’ad heard what she was telling me about Akka and those who stole Palestine, and she said to her: “Mom stop this.  What happened has happened and we can’t change it.  We were forced to leave Palestine and Akka; Bernadotte is dead, they killed him mom, and we will not return to Palestine, and the Palestine Government is no more, and all the Arab armies were of no use to us and did not fight, they had no orders to fight. No orders.  And here we are now living in Borj al-Barjneh in Beirut, mother, not in my father’s house, not in Akka, not in Palestine.”  My grandmother said cynically: “Great.  We all know that.  What do you want me to do to be happy?  My aunt took a deep breath and whispered: “That’s it, mom.  That’s it, my love.  This little girl is still too young to understand what you are telling her about Akka and the keys.”  Grandmother looked at me and muttered with a smile: “Who said she doesn’t understand?  She understands very well.  Let her know the truth about what happened to us.”  My auntie gave her mother a hug: “Mom I mean, she is still young.  Why should she worry now, give her peace for now she will catch up later.” 

I did understand all these early lessons, in my early childhood and heard a lot about what happened to Palestinians from various sources how they were forced to leave Palestine, and how were hundreds of villages annihilated.  I saw tears and heard questions repeated again and again, why did this happen to us?  Why did we lock the doors and carry the keys but never went back?  It took me long years to fully understand these questions and find possible answers, and realise that the houses with missing keys, were placed among the so-called “absentee property” and seized by those who came from far away lands to live in them, and that all the keys no longer opened any of the doors of the houses in the villages that were wiped off the map or the houses that were occupied by strangers or demolished to build new ones.  That made me understand that the keys will always be a symbol of ownership of a homeland lost.  


Caption: Salwa at Najmuddin House – Palestine. 


The other favourite thing in my Granny’s room was her four-poster brass bed. I loved to lie next to her and be filled with that scent of hers, orange blossom, listening to her many stories, especially the ones she read from that huge book with a green leather cover.  They were stories of adventure and love and always ended with the victory of righteous ones.  I trained myself to draw a picture in my mind for all the characters, the beautiful Princess Badr Al-Bodour and the courage of the brave Hassan, who fights thieves on the prairies and pirates on the seas.  Then I started noticing that my grandmother would stop reading for a while and would just run her eyes over the lines in silence.  Then she would turn a few pages and mutter: “The important thing is, Hassan married the princess and they had a wedding party that lasted seven nights and seven days.”  I would look at her suspiciously, and somehow I could tell that she was hiding something from me.  One day I said to her: “Why do you skip pages?”  She tried to look very serious: “They are not important.  Just trivial details.”  For some reason, I did not believe her, and became increasingly convinced that she was hiding important things from me, and promised myself that someday, I would read the book and discover all the pages that she had skipped.  I had no idea that day that when I would read those pages, I would burst into laughter and bless her soul over and over again.

I have to admit that I did not realise during my childhood that my grandmother had to invent a new life for herself and her family missed everything she left behind in Palestine, and settled in a small apartment that was furnished with bits and pieces of furniture loaded on the truck that was used at my grandfather’s mill. Her initial wish to stay in Jezzine in southern Lebanon near the borders of Palestine was her way to cling to her dream of returning to Palestine.  It took her some time before she accepted the fact that she was not returning to Akka, abandoned the idea that she had left for a temporary period of time, and contented herself with keeping her keys and whispering to her friends and relatives when they celebrated a happy occasion, the famous Palestinian saying “To our return, God willing.” 

This desire to return to the land and homes left behind became a blessing to Palestinians over the years.  My mother’s Palestinian friends in Baghdad repeated the same greeting on Eid: “We will return, God willing,” even though this return has different meanings in the minds of Palestinians because it is linked to the city or village they came from.  Hence, to every member of the Jarrah family Palestine is simply Akka.

Caption: Salwa at Najmuddin House years ago.


Over the years, I tried to draw a picture of Akka in my mind, but the few pictures we had of the city and my family while living there did not go beyond snapshots of my grandfather seated on a chair, hardly smiling, with a Tarbush on his head; or of my mother and two aunties, and my grandmother, Umm Adel, in the living room of their house in Akka.  I did not see pictures of Akka or my father jumping from the wall into the sea, of my mother’s school, the famous Akka prison, or even of my grandfather’s mill near the Jazzar Mosque.  That’s why Akka remained in my mind a place of wild dreams.  Then it all happened, I visited Akka, a woman approaching fifty with a British passport.  I walked its streets, unable to believe what I was seeing all the stories of my grandmother, father, and mother, the places and the names, were coming true, Al-Jazzar Mosque and the Fountain next to it for people to drink, exactly as my mother used to describe them, my grandfather’s mill in the corner at the entrance to the market, the sea and the rocks that my father used to tell stories about his adventures jumping the wall into the sea, my mother’s school run by Miss Nassar, the Jarrah family’s “burial catacomb” that contained their remains for over a century.  I stood on the doorsteps of my grandfather’s house, remembering everything my grandmother told me about it.  I did not stand on the threshold for long because the house was turned into four flats inhabited by four Jewish families who came from Poland.  My consolation was that I lived in this house for the first few months of my life.  I stood in front of what was left of my grandfather’s mill, which, as my grandmother told me, used to grind all types of grains.  I entered Al-Jazzar Mosque and saw the room where my paternal grandfather, Anis Jarrah, used to sit reading books.  The room had a sign above its door that said in beautiful handwriting, “contains valuable books.”  I walked around the great wall of Akka, and clearly understood the secret of the proverb that my mother used to repeat whenever she wanted to express her bitter sarcasm: “Does Akka fear the roar of the sea!”  Akka is famous for its Great Wall.  

I found myself wondering, as I watched people around me, whether they were the descendants of those who knew my family, or the ones who came to settle in my family’s homes.  Despite that, I felt that I had paid my respects to my grandmother, and every member of the Jarrah family who loved Akka and experienced the heartbreak of being deprived of it.

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