"Oh Jerusalem, the choice of Allah of all his lands. In it are the chosen of his servants." -- Sayings of the Prophet Mohammed "If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; If I prefer not Jerusalem above my highest joys." -- The song of the exiled Children of Israel, Psalm 137
Sari Nasir defied history the other day and entered the room where he was born, a corner of the gracious stone house his father built more than 50 years ago on the highest hills of Jerusalem.
"What do you want here?" asked Jacob Liberman, the blond, blue-eyed Israeli whose desk, office files and Japanese-made motorcycle now fill the space.
"I was born in this room," replied Nasir, a black-haired Palestinian with a thick mustache and dark eyes. "This is my house."
For Nasir, the encounter marked the first time he had been inside his childhood home since he fled snipers with his parents and brothers and sisters during the battle for West Jerusalem in 1948.
For Liberman, head of the purchasing department at the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, it marked an intrusion on his workday at the offices his department has set up in the old Jerusalem home, now Israeli government property, taken, according to the family, without compensation.
Tension hummed as they fixed each other for a moment in a dramatic tableau of the clashing and seemingly irreconcilable claims of Jews and Arabs for ownership of Jerusalem. Beneath the claim of three religions on the Holy City and Israel's political claim for a historic capital life thousands of such competing personal claims, based on the city as a place to live, work, give birth and die.
It is easy to overlook these simple claims in the debate over Jerusalem's political future after a complicated recent history. Yet a drive along the road leading in from Bethany, along the Mount of Olives and looking across the Kidron Valley toward the Old City's Eastern Wall, immediately underscores the beauty that has given Jerusalem a special hold on its inhabitants -- and its former inhabitants.
That same scene looks down from enlarged photographs in dozens of Beirut offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Table conversations with Palestinians whose families fled Jerusalem to Amman, Beirut or a dozen other Arab capitals in 1948 or 1967 turn repeatedly to talk of the city and their former lives in its narrow lanes, stone stairways and tiny shops.
The PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, is said to have been born in Jerusalem.
His guerrilla groups in Beirut recently sponsored a day of special remembrance for the city. They called it "the day of Jerusalem, a day of steadfastness and the rifle."
As old Palestinian woman died in Amman a few months ago, still complaining that she never had been able to return to dig up the jewels she buried in the garden of her family's Jerusalem home as she fled it in 1948 for what she thought would be a brief absence.
Another Palestinian woman, this one wealthy and secure in the Jordanian capital, recalled with a note of pride last week that her family's former home -- now occupied by Dutch Jews -- is only a few doors down from what has become the residence of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the fashionable Rehavia neighborhood.
Many such stories have a particular poignancy because the Palestinians telling them have never seen Jerusalem. Young PLO officials in Beirut or commandoes in southern Lebanon often repeat the tales of their mothers and fathers with no idea that 12 years of Israeli control over the entire city have irrevocably altered its face.
The pastoral hills evoked in their stories in many cases have been filled with multistory apartment buildings for Jewish families. Posters stuck on walls around Beirut for "the Day of Jerusalem" showed the city as it has not been for a decade, minus the four-lane roads and Jewish housing blocks.
Driving to visit his old family home, Nasir looked at one of the developments on French Hill in East Jerusalem and pointed to a cluster of small Arab homes still standing nearby.
"Look," he said. "Look how they are making the Arab houses insignificant with their big buildings."
Jerusalem plays such a role in Nasir's life that for three years before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war he commuted daily the 60 miles to his job as a sociology professor the the University of Jordan in Amman.
"I just felt that if I was in the Middle East, Jerusalem was it," he said. "It was the place to be.
"Jerusalem runs in your blood. You become addicted to something called Jerusalem. Of course, I grew up here. But it's not only a place I have lived in and that I like. It is something I am related to, through my forefathers. Part of my personality is here."
Nasir and his nine brothers and sisters grew up nurtured on love of Jerusalem from their father, Abu Ahmed, now in his late seventies. For him, the loss of Arab sovereignty over Jerusalem is just another chapter in the turbulent history of his family's life in Jerusalem for generations behind recall.
"Jerusalem has been destroyed seven times," the old man said. "It can be destroyed again and we will go back [to our home.] We never thought we could leave our houses for the Jews to occupy. It was impossible. But it happened. Now it is impossible for us to return. But maybe it will happen." h
Nasir's American wife recently painted a picture of the home Abu Ahmed built in 1921 for his family and left during the 1948 fighting. On the back of the painting, the old man has written a poem that says:
"Oh, house, you are my house, from the first year. Oh house, others than we have come into you. Take care of them, oh house, until we return. And if we return, and the world comes back to us, I will bring to you, oh house, two measures of henna and I will decorate you with henna, oh house, like a bride." m
Abu Ahmed came along with his son the other day to visit the old place. He had been back several times since Israel conquered and annexed the entire city in 1967, ending the division between Israeli and Jordanian sectors that had endured since 1948. But each time it makes him sad, he said, because rust is eating at the iron shutters, the balconies need repair and junk lies strewn about the yard.
The neighborhood, a rural northwestern suburb when Abu Ahmed built in it and Jerusalem had about 80,000 residents, has become an industrial zone serving the city, which now has a population approaching 400,000.
The view that used to sweep down a hillside town the Old City now stops at a bottling plant in the next lot, transformed into a workshop for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. A little shop down the street was called Aub Issa when Nasir and his brothers went there to buy groceries. It now bears Hebrew letters and Jewish children now stop by.
Abu Ahmed, has entered his old home several times since he fled along with more than 20,000 other Palestinians and moved to the eastern section of Jerusalem. But for his son Sari, 46, who has lived in Amman since Israel took over all Jerusalem in 1967, earlier visits had resulted in slammed doors and he never got inside.
His visit the other day, accompanied by two American reporters, resulted instead in strained cordiality. Israeli office workers stood back as he walked from room to room, pointing at the window he had studied by as a child, at what used to be the kitchen and outside at the tree he used to climb.
"Look at it," he said. "They are letting it wither and die. It's not right."
"It is a very delicate situation," said Liberman.