War and peace: Jerusalem remembered from an Arab perspective

Ibrahim Elayam is one of many characters you don’t often hear about who has a wealth of stories about the capital.

May 14, 2019 01:26
IBRAHIM ELAYAM and his guide dog stand outside his family home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Je

IBRAHIM ELAYAM and his guide dog stand outside his family home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem.. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)

You may have seen him walking with his seeing-eye dog in Hamesila Park, alongside the old railway track in Jerusalem. 
His name is Ibrahim Elayam, but back in Tennessee they called him “Abe,” and he’s been walking along these same tracks since childhood, when a train actually ran on them.

Elayam is one of Jerusalem’s many characters you don’t often hear about who has a wealth of dramatic stories to tell about Israel’s capital.

If you take the time to read the historical plaques at Hamesila Park, you’ll see the name of his father among them.

Not far from the home in which he grew up, and where he still lives today, is a black-and-white photograph from the 1950s of a man wearing a traditional Arab keffiyeh headdress, talking with Israeli soldiers.

It hearkens back to the days when the train tracks divided the neighborhood of Beit Safafa between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel.

Elayam, 77, remembers the day he woke up to find he was the citizen of a new country. This was long before he lost his sight, before joggers and bicyclists populated the train tracks.

In an accent that is a mix of Arabic and the American South, he says, “Beit Safafa was [filled with] city people,” in contrast to the more rural neighboring communities such as Sharafat where his mother grew up.

Elayam’s story exemplifies the stories of the Arab residents of the Jerusalem outskirts from the 1940s, specifically the tale of Beit Safafa, which was divided in 1948. He sat down with The Jerusalem Post in his home where he shared memories and old photos from his childhood. His family chose to remain on the Israeli side, a tidbit of oral history that gives nuance to today’s situation.

“My father was an orphan. When he married my mother, they didn’t have anywhere to go,” Elayam states. “There used to be an old tower in the center of the city.”

He also recalls his family’s story during the 1927 earthquake, which killed some 130 people and injured about 450. “The whole building shook. My parents ran out of the room,” he says. “My father’s younger brother, my uncle, was sleeping on the roof.

“When the earthquake hit, Uncle Daoud jumped off. As soon as he hit the ground, a huge rock fell off and almost crushed him to death. He jumped out of the way just in time.”

In 1931, the family built a small room near their house. “It’s right by the lemon tree and the barn,” Elayam points out. “There was a well. My mother didn’t have any running water for four years. She used to go down to the spring where the zoo is now and carry water on her head on a metal can.” 

Today’s apartment prices in Jerusalem are sky high, and although Beit Safafa and the surrounding neighborhoods such as Talpiot and Pat are still not prime real estate compared to more central locations, they are worlds away from Elayam’s childhood.

“There was no washing machine or stove but we had a tabun,” he said describing the dome-shaped clay outdoor oven.

To little Ibrahim, Beit Safafa was the most progressive of the Arab villages and even today it is more middle class than other Arab communities.

“Malcha was backwards,” he says about the neighboring neighborhood. “Like city people in Atlanta would consider the country folks to be hillbillies.”

“My school was the only school in the area and the teachers were Jewish people from Iraq with degrees from Arab schools,” he describes. In fact, the school still stands today and is clearly visible from the bicycle path. Gradually, when the school gained more students, they hired Arab student teachers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

All of the residents in Beit Safafa in Elayam’s childhood experience were Muslim, as were he and his family. “We had a distant cousin who married a Christian woman, but that was the only one,” he says.

“Our village extended from Sharafat to Bethlehem,” he explains. The nearby community is today Arab-Muslim, he explains, “but this year a vast discovery of Jewish archaeological remains were uncovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority.”

Elayam remembers several landmarks from his past, including a multi-story flour mill that was destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence.

“People from all over the area used to grind their wheat,” he reminisces. “On the way to Talpiot we had an ice factory, where they worked day and night to make ice.”

The British finally agreed to end their 31-year rule of what was then called Palestine, in 1948. It was the age of Haj Amin El Husseini, the Nazi-supporting Mufti of Jerusalem, and of the Irgun Zvai Leumi headed by Menachem Begin.

Elayam described the continuous shooting that took place during the War of Independence, which lasted until 1949.

“We were the last house,” he said. “Our land had a stone ledge all around. The ‘resistance fighters.’ as they used to call them, were Arabs from Jerusalem, and on the hill we had Sudanese and Egyptians.

A sign along the old train tracks, now a bicycle path, explaining the division of Beit Safafa.

“When there was a severe firefight, they told us you must vacate your house. So we picked up ourselves and ran to the mill,” he added.

“I was a little boy and my older brother was already married and his wife carried me. I was very tall for my age and my feet would drag on the ground as she carried me on her back.

“The fighting became so bad we had to leave in the middle of the night. That was the night the flour mill was burned. On the northeast part of Beit Safafa, several people were killed.”

Elayam recalled how his family initially wanted to go to nearby Sharafat but due to the danger, they headed to Bethlehem on foot instead. “I remember as if it were today, walking up a hill there was a man carrying a table on his back upside-down,” he said. “He was a thief looting someone’s house. Then there was a woman carrying a mattress on her head. She was walking on the edge of the road and to the right of us was a deep cliff and all of the sudden she toppled over the hill.”

The family found refuge in a Christian church, which Elayam described as being dirty and squalid. An insane asylum was nearby, and he remembers a strange teenager attempting to throw a rock at him and his pregnant mother. It was in the church that his baby brother was born.

“My father said, ‘Listen, I cannot tolerate this place. I would rather go back to my home and I prefer the Jews,’” Elayam relates.
They took refuge for several weeks in a cave where they lived with two goats and a donkey, all three of which died during bad weather.

“One day they said there was a ceasefire so we were going home,” he explains. “We picked up our belongings and the goats and we went down in the middle of the road. All of a sudden we see some Jordanian soldiers mounted on horses.

“They stopped us from going back to our home. My father said, ‘I prefer to live with the Jews than live with them,’” Elayam recalls. “They were chasing people and preventing them from going back... he refused to heed them, as did many others. The next day the village woke up to find a fence had been erected during the night dividing our village.

“[The fence] hugged the mountains parallel to the railroad,” he continued. “The Jewish forces never overran our village [as the Jordanians claimed]. There was a territorial swap with King Abdullah. After the Jordanian forces withdrew, they appointed King Abdullah, [the great-grandfather of the current Jordanian king] as governor to rule the West Bank.”

Elayam said that although it was a border into an enemy country, the Israelis allowed permits to cross in case of a wedding or funeral.

“In 1957, when my father died, instead of going straight to the cemetery in the Pat neighborhood, we took the path all the way and saw my maternal grandmother and my sister-in-law and other relatives who we hadn’t seen in years, including Uncle Daoud who had survived the [1927] earthquake.”

Whereas his relatives in Sharafat became Jordanian citizens “and still are,” Elayam says that he and his family became Israelis.
He notes with pride in his voice that his official Israeli ID card begins with three zeros, indicating “not even half a million people had been counted before they got to me.”

In fourth grade, Elayam said, many of his classmates were dropping out of school to sell ice cream and Popsicles, a lucrative business for a child.

But his father punished him when he found out that young Abe had skipped school.

He was sent to the Terra Santa Anglican school in the Talbiyeh neighborhood, closer to the city center, which still stands today.
“They taught English and Hebrew, and all the teachers were Christian Arabs,” he said.

But when classes were shut down due to lack of students, his father sent him to a French school on Hanevi’im Street.

“So [I went] from Arabic, to English, to French,” Abe says. “I didn’t know French so they put me in the first grade. I had to start all over. But I managed to jump three classes a year.”

After his father died, he returned to his family to help out at home.

He attended a Jewish night school called Beit Chinuch Tichon, which had a blond-haired, blue-eyed principal.

Elayam explains that the school was reluctant to take an Arab student because of several negative past experiences, but they gave him a chance.

“I was the only Arab in the school, but the teachers had a divine spark and they helped me,” he reminisces.

He particularly remembered a psychics teacher named Ada Moskowitz. “Jewish friends used to come to my home and invited me to their home.” he adds.

In 1962, Elayam left Israel for the United States, got married and settled down in Tennessee.

There he earned a doctorate in pharmacy and worked until he lost his eyesight.

Today he lives in his childhood home, which still retains its familiar rustic charm.

One can imagine the stone over in the back yard, the one that nearly fell on his uncle, and the call to prayer that still emanates from the nearby minaret, although today it is most likely broadcast from an mp3 audio recording instead of a live person.

Elayam stays active, walking the bicycle path, reading books in Braille, listening to the radio and visiting with family. His sister has worked for years at Shaare Zedek hospital.

The famous train tracks stop in front of his front door where the Jerusalem Municipality has rebuilt and transformed the old Ottoman site into a modern bicycle path.

His home has been re-addressed number 1. “Finally someone has recognized that I am number 1,” Elayam joked.

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