Sudden Journeys: The Villa Salameh Bequest

29 November, 2021
The Vil­la Salameh in Jerusalem hous­es the Bel­gian Con­sulate and is sur­round­ed by Israeli gov­ern­ment build­ings (pho­to Nass­er Atta).

 

This is the first instal­ment in Sud­den Jour­neys, my month­ly col­umn about unex­pect­ed worlds, his­to­ries, and peo­ple, often encoun­tered just around the cor­ner. Per­haps curios­i­ty and talk­ing and writ­ing and ser­i­al dis­place­ments, being an insid­er and out­sider at once, and Pales­tin­ian, enables a cer­tain open­ness, a ten­den­cy to wan­der into rab­bit holes like Alice. In a taxi to Istan­bul air­port with my son Mil­lal, then 13-years old, we struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with our Kur­dish dri­ver who had worked as an office guard of Abu Jihad dur­ing an assas­si­na­tion attempt, and he had been wound­ed. From his sto­ry and the taxi we emerged breath­less. “What are the chances of that?” my son mar­veled as we walked into the air­port. “I do not even ask that ques­tion any­more,” I answered. We will always live Sud­den Journeys.

 

Sudden Journeys/Jenine Abboushi

 

A month ago when I was in Lebanon, I could not find an antique store I vis­it­ed years ago, locat­ed before just reach­ing the Byb­los bank branch that lies across from Red Shoe on Ham­ra in Beirut. I walked up and down this stretch sev­er­al times before I gave up, now expect­ing con­stant and dis­ori­ent­ing trans­for­ma­tions of the shops and peo­ple of Ham­ra. The last time I was in town, at the out­set of the 2019 rev­o­lu­tion, so many shops trans­formed to dried fruit and nut dis­plays, with hills of can­dy-cov­ered almonds and some gaudy orange, green, and red strips of sweets, all cater­ing to khal­i­ji or Gulf clien­tele. Now Ham­ra, like all of Beirut, seems less pop­u­lat­ed alto­geth­er. We hear oth­er dialects, main­ly peo­ple from Iraq, and if they do not make pur­chas­es, no one else can keep open the shops dur­ing this des­per­ate eco­nom­ic fall­out, explains a friend with a mod­est con­ve­nience store near the Com­modore hotel. In Ham­ra these days, there are few famil­iar dialects, stores, or faces.

The antique store that I could not find was bare­ly there when I lived and taught at uni­ver­si­ty for sev­en years up until 2017 when I moved to France. It had been closed most of the time. I only once hap­pened by and found it open, so I quick­ly descend­ed the few steps need­ed to open the door. The store itself looked dis­placed, and it could have as eas­i­ly been in a French city, were it not for a Moroc­can star lamp in the vitrine—the only bazaar item in there. Oth­er­wise, the col­lec­tion inside was well-groomed in Euro­pean taste, like the elder­ly lady within.

Her soft white hair was gath­ered in a low bun, her expres­sion kind and pen­sive, but she looked fatigued. We greet­ed one anoth­er, and I moved clos­er to a small dis­play to exam­ine del­i­cate objects from Chi­na and Turkey. Smil­ing faint­ly, she remarked that I had light­ed onto the most pre­cious of her trea­sures. We start­ed a con­ver­sa­tion, and I asked about her cir­cum­stances and work and she told me about her life. Her father, she explained, had dis­ap­proved of her pas­sion, not only the antique deal­er career that she launched when she was in her ear­ly 20s, but it was unseem­ly for a woman of her stature to have a career at all. And yet from time to time she saw him dis­creet­ly pass by her store­front to admire her vit­rine. She informed me calm­ly that her chil­dren would soon close her store, and were I to hap­pen by even next week she would cer­tain­ly be gone. When she woke up in hos­pi­tal one week before, she explained, her son Con­stan­tine told her that they near­ly lost her. He now dis­ap­proves of her open­ing the shop, like her father before him, but for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. Her demeanor and atti­tude struck me as so gen­tle for such a clear­ly deter­mined, inde­pen­dent woman.

She returned, over and again, nar­rat­ing in frag­ments and cir­cling from a height, like a war pigeon, the fam­i­ly vil­la on Bal­four Street in JerusalemShe want­ed to tell me some­thing about the Israeli hold on Vil­la Salameh.

She looked at me, paus­ing thought­ful­ly for a long time, and I held her gaze. She asked me where I was from and I answered that I was Pales­tin­ian. I respond­ed to her ensu­ing ques­tions, telling her freely about myself. We had tak­en an instant lik­ing to one anoth­er. She sat down in an antique red arm­chair and motioned for me to take a seat, and talked about her fam­i­ly and their Pales­tine, telling how they moved back and forth often, how the jour­ney from Beirut to Jerusalem until the 1940s was an easy after­noon ride. She told me that her son Con­stan­tine was named after his leg­endary grand­fa­ther Con­stan­tine Salameh, a wealthy Lebanese entre­pre­neur who had built the mag­nif­i­cent Vil­la Salameh in the Tal­biyeh neigh­bor­hood in Jerusalem in 1935, a small part of a con­se­quen­tial hold­ing through­out Jerusalem and Jaf­fa and one of the biggest for­tunes in Pales­tine. Madame Salameh, wife of Constantine’s son Charles, as I lat­er worked out, talked to me for over two hours about her life. She returned, over and again, nar­rat­ing in frag­ments and cir­cling from a height, like a war pigeon, the fam­i­ly vil­la on Bal­four Street in Jerusalem. Like the oth­er fine homes in the Pales­tin­ian neigh­bor­hoods of Tal­biyeh and Qata­moun, the Israelis dis­pos­sessed the Pales­tin­ian fam­i­lies that fled but were con­vinced they would soon return after the fight­ing calmed down. She want­ed to tell me some­thing about the Israeli hold on Vil­la Salameh.

I lat­er read about Vil­la Salameh in more detail, and found out that the father Con­stan­tine and his fam­i­ly fled in 1948 with almost no belong­ings, and he had bril­liant­ly arranged to lease the house to the Bel­gian con­sulate – where­as many of the oth­er prop­er­ties in Tal­bieh and Qata­moun were tak­en over by the Haganah mili­tias in 1947 and 1948. I read about Constantine’s grand­son, the son of Madame Salameh, who was also a busi­ness­man. I dis­cov­ered pho­tos of an affa­ble-look­ing man who holds degrees from MIT and Stan­ford, and who is involved in social-impact devel­op­ment projects in Africa as well as renew­able ener­gy projects. I had heard of his father’s fate­ful meet­ings in Cyprus with the Israelis, who stole the Salameh prop­er­ty in Palestine…I would read in detail about the Israeli offer to buy the vil­la for small change on the con­di­tion that the Salameh fam­i­ly renounce all rights to their exten­sive prop­er­ty in Palestine.

Madame Salameh told me care­ful­ly, recount­ing in minute detail, how her hus­band met the Israelis in a Cyprus hotel, and was offered $700,000 dol­lars for their his­toric vil­la built by Mar­cel Favier (who also built the French con­sulate in Jerusalem). She looked away, raised her arm and dropped it to her lap in aban­don­ment, glanc­ing back at me briefly. We both then looked down­wards and sat there in silent com­mu­nion for some time. I stood up to take leave of this dear elder­ly woman. I cupped her hand in both of mine, then her fore­arm, smil­ing at her wist­ful­ly. I told her that she should rest now. She sat back in her chair.

It was a thought­ful and delib­er­ate sto­ry she wished to trans­mit. I was grate­ful and trou­bled to hear it, and won­dered if Charles Salameh actu­al­ly accept­ed the Israeli pay­ment. A recent Haaretz arti­cle recounts the sto­ry of ‘Vil­la Dolorosa’ and the relent­less­ness of David Sofar, the cur­rent Israeli hold­er, who seized Israel’s high court in an attempt to oust the Bel­gian con­sulate and ter­mi­nate Con­stan­tine Salameh’s 99-year lease to them, caus­ing diplo­mat­ic ten­sions between Israel and the Belgians.

I think about Charles Salameh and whether a busi­ness instinct so ingrained in men­tal­i­ty and method ren­dered him quite vision­less, his­tor­i­cal­ly and social­ly. Could he have been capa­ble of tak­ing Israeli pen­nies in “com­pen­sa­tion” for its his­toric theft, at that moment in Cyprus when he under­stood that all was lost, that he may as well clutch his fist around a small amount instead of noth­ing? And if so, was it real­ly at that point in his­to­ry his prop­er­ty to renounce or did it belong to all of us, the Pales­tini­ans? Charles’ aging father Con­stan­tine lived in a sump­tu­ous vil­la in Cairo by then, and of course need­ed no Israeli hand­out either. Did the Salameh fam­i­ly even think through the trag­ic dimen­sions of sign­ing off on this colos­sal Israeli theft? How tak­ing this pit­tance would offi­ci­ate Israeli crimes? Or are they those strange crea­tures that exist in tiny soci­eties of wealth and pow­er any­where and nowhere? They may have become so, once dri­ven from their homes and into exile. But Con­stan­tine Salameh’s fam­i­ly before 1948, Haaretz tells us, was very much root­ed in their home­town Jerusalem, Pales­tine, and their cir­cles includ­ed Pales­tin­ian Jew­ish friends.

But I most­ly think of Madame Salameh, of her deci­sion to dis­pose of what she clear­ly con­sid­ered a per­son­al and col­lec­tive grief, in the enve­lope of her beloved bou­tique where we con­versed. I feel she want­ed to pass it on, and that she con­sid­ered this sto­ry of loss also belong­ing to me, and to us all.

 

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