From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea

29 November, 2021
The King­dom by the Sea—Tripoli, Libya in the 1970s (pho­to Shara Esseidy).

From Jerusalem to a King­dom by the Sea
, a mem­oir by Adel A. Dajani, 
Zulei­ka Books (2021)
ISBN 9781916197770


Prophet David was rec­og­nized and revered by Jews, Moslems and Chris­tians. Although not fash­ion­able nowa­days in the black-and-white sound bite of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, these monothe­is­tic reli­gions had at least agreed on their prophets.


Rana Asfour


In 1529, the Ottoman Sul­tan Suleiman the Mag­nif­i­cent gave a fir­man (dec­la­ra­tion) bestow­ing on Mus­lim Sufi mys­ti­cal leader Al Sayyid Sheikh Ahmad al-Sharif and his descen­dants the cus­to­di­an­ship of the King David Tomb in Jerusalem. “The fam­i­ly was here­after to be known as the Daja­nis or the Daud­is (‘Daud’ is David in Ara­bic) as an hon­orif­ic emblem for the Moslem fam­i­ly entrust­ed with look­ing after the Tomb of the Prophet David.”

And so from that time onward, the res­i­dents of Jerusalem gave the Sheikh and his descen­dants the title of al-Daud­is. Addi­tion­al­ly, the Cena­cle — the room of the Last Sup­per, reput­ed to be locat­ed on an upper floor of King David’s Tomb — was also under the cus­to­di­an­ship of the Dajanis.

Dajani’s mem­oir is pub­lished by Zulei­ka Pub­lish­ing.

How­ev­er, in 1948, with the estab­lish­ment of the state of Israel in Pales­tine, the unin­ter­rupt­ed “umbil­i­cal con­nec­tion” with a coun­try that was the Daja­nis’ home for over a thou­sand years, dat­ing back to AD 637, was cut at a stroke, writes Adel A. Dajani in the open­ing chap­ter of his mem­oir From Jerusalem to a King­dom by the Sea, and with that the fam­i­ly, whose sur­geon patri­arch had found­ed the first pri­vate hos­pi­tal in Jaf­fa, “lost all its pos­ses­sions, iden­ti­ty and the dig­ni­ty of belong­ing” in what the author names as the first of the “black swans” — unfore­seen events with extreme con­se­quences — that would upend the family’s life time and time again.

Adel’s par­ents, Awni and Salma, with almost noth­ing but “the clothes on their back” ini­tial­ly fled the Nak­ba in Pales­tine to Cairo for what they thought would be a short stay, while things set­tled down enough for them to return to their Jaf­fa home. As it soon became appar­ent that they would be among some three-quar­ters of a mil­lion Pales­tini­ans forced into per­ma­nent exile, Adel’s father decid­ed that it was time to look to a future out­side his homeland.

And so, from Cairo the fam­i­ly moved to Libya in the ear­ly 1950s after Awni, an Oxbridge grad­u­ate, and bar­ris­ter of the Mid­dle Tem­ple, secured a posi­tion as the bilin­gual and mul­ti­cul­tur­al legal advi­sor to the Roy­al Diwan of Prince Idris Al-Senus­si of Libya. Although the coun­try at the time was a poor one with no nat­ur­al resources, depen­dent on the indul­gence of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, Awni found him­self right in the mid­dle of a cru­cial time in the country’s his­to­ry as he played a major role in the for­mu­la­tion of the nascent con­sti­tu­tion of the coun­try, which need­ed to pre­cede the for­mal dec­la­ra­tion of a new­ly inde­pen­dent state in Octo­ber, 1951. Mean­while, Adel’s moth­er, Salma, and the future Queen of Libya, Fati­ma Idris Al Senus­si, the daugh­ter of Free­dom Fight­er Sayyid Ahmad Sharif Al-Senus­si — leader of the Senus­si reli­gious order that fought against the Ital­ian col­o­niz­ers — formed a close friendship.

“The bap­tism by fire of the cre­ation of the King­dom of Libya anchored the rela­tion­ship of grow­ing friend­ship and mutu­al respect between my par­ents and King Idris and Queen Fati­ma,” writes Dajani. “It was this deep bond of fam­i­ly with the roy­al fam­i­ly that marked my child­hood and that of my sib­lings and defined our jour­ney into the mag­ic King­dom by the Sea.”

And thus it was into this charmed milieu that invest­ment banker and writer Adel Dajani was born in Tripoli, Bride of the Sea, in 1955, whisked from the hos­pi­tal to the roy­al palace, upon the insis­tence of Queen Fati­ma, whom Adel would lat­er address as “Mawlati” (your high­ness) while his par­ents’ apart­ment in Tripoli was being refur­bished. Fur­ther­more, Awni asked the King to name his new­born and he chose the name “Adel” which means “just” in Arabic.

King Idris and Queen Fati­ma of Libya with the author (pho­to cour­tesy Adel Dajani).

And so begins a most excep­tion­al part of the mem­oir that offers a first-per­son account of a monar­chy about which lit­tle is known, since the coup d’état by Colonel Gaddafi brought it to an end on Sep­tem­ber 1st, 1969. It wasn’t until the upris­ings of 2011 against Gaddafi’s ruth­less regime that posters of Libya’s “first and last” King would re-emerge on the lib­er­at­ed streets of the coun­try, her­ald­ed by rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who were not even born when the King died in exile in Egypt in 1983.

What Dajani’s mem­oir does is offer insight into the mind and heart of a benev­o­lent, down-to-earth monarch, one who was in touch with his Sufi prac­tices, with a pro­found love for his coun­try, his peo­ple and most of all, his Queen. Although Libya was impov­er­ished, King Idris wield­ed sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal influ­ence, ban­ning polit­i­cal par­ties to replace Libya’s fed­er­al sys­tem with a uni­tary state in 1963. Many still look to his era as a gold­en one in which after the dis­cov­ery of oil, the coun­try caught up with the world eco­nom­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly while build­ing its mod­ern infra­struc­ture. At a time when at present, the “Libyan peo­ple have become despon­dent and dis­il­lu­sioned, and many are impov­er­ished whilst the state is sell­ing over one mil­lion bar­rels of oil per day,” writes Dajani, the words of the “wise” King of Libya ring ever truer: “I wish you had told me we had dis­cov­ered water.”

The mem­oir oscil­lates between Dajani’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry in the Old City of Jerusalem and the orange groves of Jaf­fa, to the spires of Oxbridge in the 1930s and to post-war Lon­don in the 1950s. Lat­er on, the we move to Adel’s per­son­al his­to­ry that includes ado­les­cent sum­mers spent abroad with Libya’s King and Queen and their adopt­ed daugh­ter Suleima drink­ing tea and din­ing with the likes of Pres­i­dent Nass­er of Egypt, and King Paul of Greece. Dajani then goes on to his school­ing, first at the British-run Tripoli Col­lege before head­ing to Eton as the first Arab and Libyan pur­port­ed­ly to go there, and where he used “to spin all sorts of sto­ries, main­ly from One Thou­sand and One Nights, about my pet camels and so on. And the thing is, peo­ple believed them.” Since then, the fam­i­ly has estab­lished a trav­el grant for school leavers to go to the Arab world as part of a research assign­ment to bet­ter learn about the region. Dajani’s two sons have sub­se­quent­ly gone on to attend Eton, fol­low­ing in their father’s footsteps.

The giant [Ben Ali] was made of salt, and the real­iza­tion that peo­ple once empow­ered, can get rid of dic­ta­tors was a lib­er­at­ing and euphor­ic feeling.

The Dajani fam­i­ly with patri­arch Azmi in the mid­dle and the author far right (cour­tesy Adel Dajani).

The nar­ra­tive takes a dark­er turn as the author’s father Awni is impris­oned in Gaddafi’s jail fol­low­ing the fall of the monar­chy and lat­er the family’s flight from Tripoli to Tunisia, as yet again as in 1948, their prop­er­ty is con­fis­cat­ed and they are forced to aban­don a beloved coun­try. Adel, in sub­se­quent chap­ters, writes about his mar­riage and a career in finance that finds him gam­bolling between the UK, Hong Kong and Tunisia.

It is near­ly 40 years after his wit­ness­ing the fall of the monar­chy in Libya, that Adel and his fam­i­ly are wit­ness­es to the arrival of anoth­er “black swan” at their doorstep: the 2011 pop­u­lar upris­ings in Libya and Tunisia against “unem­ploy­ment, poor eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion and polit­i­cal autoc­ra­cy.” In his chap­ter on Tunisia, Adel describes the atmos­phere in the streets in the ear­ly days of the upris­ings as “a friend­ly buzzing cock­tail par­ty, with peo­ple going out of their way to be sup­port­ive and car­ing.” How­ev­er, it quick­ly became appar­ent that with a pow­er void cre­at­ed by the fall of the regime, “the only pro­tec­tion was going to be local neigh­bor­hood watches.”

In Libya, things were not much bet­ter as the family’s assets were again being seized, this time by thug­gish Libyan squat­ting fam­i­lies fueled by the Gaddafi slo­gan that “the house belongs to who­ev­er is in occu­pa­tion” and that “pos­ses­sion is nine-tenths of the law.” Adel soon found him­self engaged not only in try­ing to secure his prop­er­ty but dis­cov­ered that he could also be use­ful as an agent of inter­na­tion­al media mobi­liza­tion through his var­i­ous net­work of con­tacts and jour­nal­ists, and through finan­cial and human­i­tar­i­an support.

Unlike the Palestinian/Israeli con­flict where peo­ple feel most­ly help­less in influ­enc­ing the course of events, Libya, at this crit­i­cal junc­ture of his­to­ry, was dif­fer­ent. Any­one who engaged could make a difference.

And so, it is through­out Dajani’s nar­ra­tive chron­i­cling the events in Libya and Tunisia as well as his attempts to sal­vage his busi­ness with­in this mael­strom, that it becomes fas­ci­nat­ing to observe how the mak­ing and dis­so­lu­tion of the Dajani family’s per­son­al gains and loss­es has always played against a back­drop of the con­tin­u­ous­ly shift­ing pow­ers in the Arab world, whose colos­sal effect on this fam­i­ly have con­tin­u­al­ly forced it to adapt in order to sur­vive and re-build, yet in the inter­im, leav­ing it in a per­pet­u­al search for a place to belong.

As the mem­oir begins in Pales­tine, towards its end, it comes full cir­cle as father and son return to the land of their ances­tors. Adel’s son, Rakan, an Oxford grad­u­ate, is work­ing on a dis­ser­ta­tion inspired by the Banksy Walled off Hotel in Beth­le­hem. Their trip togeth­er is a chance to exam­ine the feel­ing of ambiva­lence of iden­ti­ty and exile that all peo­ples of exile feel, a feel­ing that Edward Said so elo­quent­ly cap­tured in his writ­ings, in par­tic­u­lar his mem­oir, Out of Place.

Part of the tragedy of the Pales­tin­ian exile is that even in death, most Pales­tini­ans are not allowed by the Israeli gov­ern­ment to be buried in their coun­try of ori­gin. For my father this would have been in the Dajani ceme­tery along the ancient walls of Jerusalem, but like so many oth­er Pales­tini­ans, he was deprived of this choice of bur­ial in the land of his ancestors.

A long-time invest­ment banker, Adel A. Dajani found­ed the first licensed invest­ment bank in the Maghreb. Edu­cat­ed at Eton Col­lege and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, he is a qual­i­fied bar­ris­ter and a mem­ber of the UK, Hong Kong and Libyan Bar Asso­ci­a­tions. He is a Fel­low of the Roy­al Geo­graph­i­cal Society.

Dajani writes about how “trag­ic and iron­ic” it was to see that the fam­i­ly bestowed with pro­tect­ing King David’s Tomb had had its ceme­ter­ies des­e­crat­ed by extrem­ists, so that “not only the liv­ing but even the dead Pales­tini­ans are not spared by this ongo­ing colo­nial occu­pa­tion.” He also wist­ful­ly not­ed that the fam­i­ly patri­arch, Awni Dajani, had to be buried not in his beloved Jerusalem, but in Tunisia. Dajani fur­ther shows how Arab res­i­den­tial areas such as Sheikh Jar­rah and Sil­wan are method­i­cal­ly being tak­en over, “rub­ber-stamped by an Israeli judi­cial sys­tem.” What is par­tic­u­lar­ly trag­ic, he adds, is that “the Arab Jerusalem res­i­dents have few weapons of resis­tance in the face of an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty that has giv­en up and a polit­i­cal lead­er­ship that has failed them.”

As Adel leaves Pales­tine to head back to Jor­dan, with ques­tions on home, lega­cy and roots still prey­ing on his mind, he is mes­mer­ized “by the beau­ty of the sun­set over the life­less Dead Sea that strad­dles the bor­der between Jor­dan and Occu­pied Pales­tine and that of the con­trast­ing sun­set on the sea of the Mediter­ranean: calm, change­able, mer­cu­r­ial, tem­pes­tu­ous but alive,” like his ongo­ing jour­ney from Jerusalem to the King­dom by the Sea.

Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, Dajani’s mem­oir spans five decades and man­ages to sen­si­tive­ly cap­ture the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of gen­er­a­tions of Daja­nis to reveal a fam­i­ly com­mit­ted to resilience in the face of adver­si­ty. It is a Pales­tin­ian sto­ry of sumud, stead­fast­ness, in the face of the “Goliath of Occupation.”