[Read Parts 1 & 2 below, posted earlier this month.]
When it came time to begin the practical side of my research, I posed the following question:
To what extent and in what ways can the books labeled “Abandoned Property” in the National Jewish Library at Hebrew University be linked to their prior Palestinian owners?
Since I was not scheduled to travel to Israel/Palestine during the months I was working on the project, I had to find someone else to gather data. An Israeli friend put me in touch with Kara, an American studying at Hebrew University, and she was amazing. On her first trip to the library, she spent hours requesting and then looking at just thirteen of close to six thousand books. The books are in closed stacks and their retrieval can take more than an hour. The slow pace of this kind of research and the care required with each volume made it clearer than ever that this study would be more qualitative than quantitative. However, it was also clear that the books provided a wealth of information, more than I had imagined (I had had a brief moment of fearing that we wouldn’t find anything at all). When all was said and done, Kara had examined (and photographed) thirty-four books, looking for stamps, signatures, and other markings that might indicate prior ownership. I looked through the photos she sent me and, with help from friends, translated the Arabic (likely from former owners) and Hebrew (mostly from librarians and researchers) into English.
Of the thirty-four books, only three books contained no markings. More than half contained request slips and check-out cards, at least some of which indicate that the books were once cataloged differently. Almost half contained librarians’ notes that provided more information than what was in the online catalog, further indicating a previous organizational system. A similar number contained marginalia, including everything from grammatical notes to guesses about the meaning of poetry to what appear to be simple doodles.
More telling were the books – about a quarter of them – that had owners’ names written in them. Several books belonged to Mohammad Nimr Al-Khatib, who a quick Google search will show you was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab Higher Committee in Haifa in the 1940s. He survived a 1948 assassination attempt by the Haganah, the paramilitary organization that would later become the Israeli army. You may ask, how do we know that this is the same Mohammad Nimr Al-Khatib? Well, the timing is right, many of the books are religious in nature, and most of all, we found a dedication in one book reading, “Haj Abdel Fattah Al-Khatib Husseini for his son Mohammad Nimer” [see image on left above]. The Khatib of Haifa indeed had a father named Abdel Fattah.
It had been reported that the books of the influential Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini were in the AP collection. Indeed, we found several books with either Khalil Sakakini’s name or that of his eldest son, Sari [see image on right]. In two books we also found the name of Dr. Yusuf Haikel, Yaffa’s last mayor before Israel’s occupation of the city in 1948. A smattering of lesser known people (at least to me and Google) also showed up in our study of these few dozen books. I can only imagine how many more names we would find if we were to examine all 6,000 books.
Last summer, after my research was technically over, I did go to the library and looked at a handful of books, some that Kara had viewed before and some that she hadn’t. It was incredible (if also both heartbreaking and infuriating) to touch these books, and quite tempting to leave the library with a page or two. Would the owners appreciate a page of their book back? Or would they rather the book remain intact in the hands of the occupier? This was not my decision to make, not now. I returned the books to the librarian who likely had no idea of their significance, and went on my way.
I returned to the library once again, this time with a Palestinian American woman who had contacted me to say, “I heard about your research. My grandfather was best friends with Khalil Sakakini and I think my grandfather’s books are also at Hebrew U. Will you help me find them?” We sat down together to look through the catalog, trying to request books somewhat strategically. Her grandfather read French, liked art, etc. Still, knowing no specific titles, we did not come across a book with her grandfather’s name in it. However, the very first book we opened together had the name “George Khamis,” to which my comrade said, “George! Let me tell you about George! He also drank tea every morning with my grandfather and Khalil Sakakini.”
These books have stories to tell, and I have only just scratched the surface.