A tour around Beit Safafa

In this episode I am taking you on a guided tour around Beit Safafa. We are listening to Ahmad Nabeel, a resident of Beit Safafa, who has great interest in history, archaeology and cultural heritage of the town. You can read along with the transcript of this episode podcast ! I hope you will enjoy. 

Transcript podcast episode 3, Beit Safafa, a guided tour

This is Stories from Palestine podcast, produced and recorded in Palestine. My name is Kristel and I am your podcast host. A couple of months ago someone asked me if I could do an episode about Beit Safafa. She had recently visited this Palestinian town that is now considered to be a neighborhood of Jerusalem.

[00:00:29] And she was curious to know more about its history. Of course, I can do an episode on Beit Safafa, because that’s where I live. My husband and my family in law are real Safafis, from one of the biggest families, the Elayyan family. I asked a family member about a historian. Unfortunately, the historian Mustafa Othman, who wrote a book in Arabic about Beit Safafa, passed away last summer.

[00:00:58] So bless his soul. But his sons pointed me towards Ahmed Nabeel. And with him, I took a walk around the town, a real guided tour.

[00:01:14] Before we start the podcast tour. I want to give you a short introduction and mention some of the things that we’ve missed out on during the tour. And that will clarify some of what we will hear from Ahmed. Beit Safafa is a Palestinian town between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It has archaeological remains that go back to the Canaanite period, hundreds of years before Christ.

[00:01:40] And it has been inhabited during the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Crusader, Ayyubid, Mamluk and the Ottoman period. In that last period that lasted for 400 years from 1516 until 1917, the land ownership of the villagers was registered by the Ottomans. They did that mainly so that they would know how much taxes each family should pay as this was based on their land ownership and thus

[00:02:13] the expected income from the crops. It is important to realize that Palestinian farmers do not live on their land. They live in villages as a community and their lands are surrounding the villages. So they would go walking or on the donkey to work on the fields. And then they would return home in the evening.

[00:02:36] This is relevant, especially in the context of today, the political reality in which the State of Israel, that was created in 1948 has confiscated about 2000 dunam, this is about 200 hectares, of the land of the people of Beit Safafa. On this land they built, for example, the Gilo settlement, the road that connects the settlement with West Jerusalem, different other roads, and recently also a six lane highway, right through the village, to connect the Begin highway with the route 60, that goes to the Gush Etzion settlement block in the West bank.

[00:03:20] In episode 9 of season 1, you can hear more about this road during the road trip to Beit Jala, an episode that I recorded in the car. Another settlement on Beit Safafa land is Givat Hamatos, set up in 1991 for the large influx of Ethiopian Jews. The settlement consisted back then of mobile homes and caravans, but last November, the Israeli authorities opened a bidding for the construction of around 1,260 housing units on the hilltop.

[00:03:55] The name Givat Hamatos means the airplane hill and it refers to an Israeli airplane that crashed here in the 1967 war when it was hit by the Jordanians.

In this podcast episode, you will hear us talking several times about 48 and 67. This refers to two very important years. That changed the reality for Palestinians in general, but for the people of Beit Safafa in particular.

[00:04:27] In 1948, the well-trained Zionist militias carried out the officially approved plan Dalet. This was a plan developed to depopulate the Palestinian villages. They attacked from three sides leaving one side open for the people to flee, always towards the closest border. In a few months time, over 800.000 Palestinians were killed or became refugees in surrounding countries in the West bank or in the Gaza strip.

[00:05:05] The town of Beit Safafa was also attacked in 1948, but unlike most of the villages around, they had help from Jordanian soldiers. And if I may believe the stories from the villagers here, there were some courageous men in the town who knew how to use weapons. So the Zionists backed off and Beit Safafa was not ethnically cleansed.

[00:05:30] However, when the armistice line was drawn on a map with a green pen, and that’s why it’s referred to as the green line, the village was split in two halves. The Western half with the important railway became part of the newly created State of Israel. The other half became under the Jordanian rule. So the village was literally divided with a fence in the middle.

[00:06:01] Nineteen years later in 1967, Israel military occupied the West bank. For Beit Safafa that meant that the whole village was now under Israeli rule. The fence was removed and the villagers were reunited, but as we will hear from Ahmed, the separation of 19 years, a whole generation, left its mark on the village that can be felt until today.

[00:06:31] There are different explanations for the name Beit Safafa. Some scholars think it is related to the Syriac language that was spoken during the first century and that it means the house of the thirsty, referring to the lack of water resources in the village. In the Crusader time, we see the name of the village in documents written as Bethafava and as Bethsaphase.

[00:06:58] So it sounds reasonable to assume that these two names could have merged.

[00:07:10] And I think with this background information, you are ready to join the tour.

The lands of Beit Safafa and El Malha were confiscated to build a mall and train station

[00:07:23] I am here on the roof of my house with Ahmed. And I’m going to ask Ahmed to introduce himself so that we know who is talking to us, and then we will do a little round and describe what we see from the roof of our house before we go for a tour, a city walk in Beit Safafa and learn more about this beautiful town.

[00:07:46] Who are you and why do you know so much about Beit Safafa?

My name is Ahmed Nabeel. I’m from Beit Safafa. I am from Elayyan family, and I am interested in the history of Beit Safafa archeologically speaking and historical and folk tales and folk stories.

Ahmad Nabeel and Kristel during the walk in Beit Safafa

[00:08:11] As we are here on the roof, we are now looking towards the Western side. Can you describe what we see? Let’s just go around and describe for people who are listening, what Beit Safafa looks like.

View from the roof to west side of Beit Safafa with the ruins of the Crusader Burj in the front

You know Beit Safafa is originally built upon a lot of history. We are talking about Roman times, Byzantine times we are talking about Crusaders, Ayyubis, Mamluks, Ottomans.

[00:08:33] So basically we’re having all these periods of civilizations coming to this village. So this is how Beit Safafa reached its importance. And reaching to the modern history where it was divided into two sides, 48 and the 67. So we need to dig deep into the history to find out how important and precious this village is throughout this archaeological sites and historical events.

[00:08:59] So here we’re pointing out to the most iconic archaeological landmark here in Beit Safafa. It is called ‘El Burj’. El Burj is from the Crusaders time referring as it’s the birthplace of the Safafis, let’s say, or people of Beit Safafa, where they gathered at the first beginning, and then they were spreading and extending all over the lands of Beit Safafa.

[00:09:22] The iconic building of Al Burj was built in the Crusader time as a hospital for the Hospitaler Crusader Knights. They were being given hospitality and they were having time to rest over here. And even the injured ones who were coming here to get medicine and treated. After years, you know, after the Ayyubis and Salaedin coming to Jerusalem it was set up as a waqf for people to benefit from this archaeological site and important site until it was destroyed in 1927 by the big earthquake that hit Palestine. Then the people of Beit Safafa who were living in Al Burj, decided this is not a safe building anymore. So we had to move out and extend to the lands that we own around Al Burj.

[00:10:07] So this is how the old village was formed previously. Al Burj was a very strategic point to whomever is coming from the coast. We’re talking about the old rail station where the train was passing by. Imagine that there wasn’t any train station, imagine that it was only a road, then that road leads to the North and then to the coast.

[00:10:30] So it was a very strategic point to whomever is coming from the coast. Al Burj is literally translated as a tower. So it was like, if an army is coming from the Southwest, so we’re aware. If we having a signal from the old city, we can see that. Imagine that there wasn’t any buildings surrounding this area directly to the old city of Jerusalem, you can see the walls. If we can imagine that there isn’t any buildings or tall buildings around.

[00:10:53] I saw on an old picture of Beit Safafa, that not far from the Burj, from where the life started, there is also a water well and a cemetery. The cemetery, is it still there today?

Yes, it is. And there are plans of extending the cemetery because you know, the population and the demographic aspects are changing.

[00:11:21] So basically we’ll be looking for another ways of extending the cemetery. It’s the old cemetery. We have actually two main cemeteries in Beit Safafa one in a place called Karmuali and that’s for people who were separated in the 48 and we have the 67 cemetery. So we have separate cemeteries here in Beit Safafa.

The cemetery of Beit Safafa on the 67 side

[00:11:43] Since it’s the closest to El Burj where Beit Safafa families used to live together. That’s why it’s so close to Al Burj and to the iconic site of the pistachio, the big pistachio, our huge pistachio tree that is called ‘al butma’ or ‘al buttom’, which is now a mosque because they thought that it was a holy tree that needs to be preserved even by name.

[00:12:06] So that’s why the mosque is called Al Butma mosque?! I never knew that! Oh, that’s interesting. Well, this mosque has been keeping me awake! When I moved to Palestine and I wasn’t used to hearing the mosque at the early morning, I used to wake up around 4 or 4.30 AM and I was like, “Oh…”, but actually now I got used to it.

[00:12:26] So Ahmed. When you describe now the Burj and the cemetery, we are talking about the Western side of Beit Safafa and what we see behind it in the distance in the horizon are all Israeli houses of West Jerusalem. And even we are looking at a part where there was another village, El Malha village, and there is now the Teddy football stadium. And there is the Malha shopping mall. Were those the lands of Beit Safafa?

[00:12:51] Yes. Beit Safafa residents used to own lands up until Katamon and Bakka. They were stone breakers. So basically if there’s a cool, let’s say, fact here, that they were the reason that the YMCA in Western Jerusalem was built, by them.

[00:13:14] So they built it and they built the British bank in the thirties, you know, where is Jaffa street, this is where they built it as well. This is a profession that they were very good at it. Even my father’s uncles, they were also stone breakers.

[00:13:32] So when you say stone breakers, are you talking about quarries? There were here stone quarries, and they used to cut the stone out of the quarries?

Yes. Even, even though we’re talking about hewing, forming the stones and cut it, that are ready to be built before the stone, they cut it from the bedrocks and they, they do the hewing or shaping yes. Shaping the stone so that the stones are ready to be built.

[00:13:51] That’s how many of these old village houses are built, by cutting from bedrocks shaping, hewing, ready to be built and through the help of the surrounding neighbors, which we call ‘al Ona’ in Beit Safafa, or in Palestine in general.

[00:14:13] Yeah. That’s also a big difference between where I come from in the Netherlands in order to make houses, we use bricks. So we take clay, we bake it and we have small pieces of bricks. When I look around me, all the houses that I see, whether they are old or new, they are made of this typical white limestone that is found and quarried here locally.

Also there is, I heard the British, they implemented a law that said that all the houses in Jerusalem, since the British time had to be made of these white locally quarried stones.

[00:14:40] And that’s why I think if you would take an aerial photo from up, you would see that Jerusalem is really a white city. You would probably think that it’s full of snow. Maybe.

Now we look at the West, but let’s turn around and we’re looking at the other side, the Eastern side of Beit Safafa. And it’s interesting because what I see is some houses of Palestinians close to us, but then when we look further in the distance on the hill, then all of a sudden we see the houses of an Israeli Jewish-only settlement.

[00:15:14] And I think we need to explain to people the story about how Beit Safafa was divided at some point. But I think when we go out for a walk. We are going to cross a border within the village. And I think that we should then talk about what happened here, because you mentioned 1948 and 1967 and to some listeners that may mean a lot but to other listeners, it may mean only years. They don’t know what happened.

[00:15:37] So we’ll go out for a walk and we’ll talk about how Beit Safafa was divided into two parts, reconnected and how it’s possible that when we look to the East, we see a Jewish Israeli settlements.

[00:16:01] So we’re going out for a walk into the streets of Beit Safafa. When we take left from my house, we’re going to the oldest part of the city. And what I see is houses that have rough cut stones. And that means that they are old because if they are new, then they are usually very straight cut and clear. And even some of the houses, they still have these beautiful arches above the windows, big window shutters.

[00:16:31] I always feel, Ahmad, that I am going back into time when I walk this part of the city. And we are walking towards the big mosque.

The Hamza mosque, Beit Safafa

Well, the Hamza mosque is generally not so old. The first was Al Burj mosque at the old compound of Al Burj.

So we are here in the famous arch of Al Burj where I believe that there were stories about camels getting inside Al Burj compound through this arch.

[00:17:02] Basically they had to put down the luggage. Because the camel was too high, so they had to put down the luggage and then let the camel pass through the arch. And then they put on the luggage.

The arch that gives entrance to the Al Burj hosh in Beit Safafa

Once again, mentioning the mosques, Hamza mosque coming from your house towards the center of Beit Safafa is actually a new mosque, generally new.

[00:17:29] I believe it was built in the seventies. And if you want to mention the old mosques of Beit Safafa we talking about Al Burj mosque, Al Butma Mosque and the Al Sharqi mosque.

And that’s where we’re going now, right?

We are now walking towards Al Burj mosque, which actually I’ve recently learned that there were Sufi circles taking place in that mosque. People don’t know about Beit Safafa that it was famous for Sufism.

[00:18:00] We have a history of Sufism here in Beit Safafa that we don’t actually talk about. And it’s called ‘Al Qadariya’ or ‘Al Qadariya el Kilanya’ or that’s the method of Sufism that was taking place in Beit Safafa and in Sharafat and right towards Al Walaja. So basically we have all these villages that actually learned Sufism through the sheikhs of Al Qadariya al Kilanya.

[00:18:28] That’s interesting, because in our previous episode it was all about Sufism. Last week we had a whole episode about Sufism. So people who haven’t heard that episode yet can go back to it and know what you’re talking about, and then realize that it wasn’t only in the old city of Jerusalem, there were actually zawiyas here where people would come sit, pray, learn and be taught by a Sufi sheikh. Even here in Beit Safafa.

[00:18:47] Super interesting. Nice.

We just went under this beautiful arch. It is about, I would say three to four meters long. When I walked in Bethlehem, we talked about the ‘hosh’. Would you say that this is also a hosh, can you compare that? Where families would live around a closed courtyard with a bit of privacy and that all the people were related around an area like this?

[00:19:15] So if you pass through the hosh that we’re talking about, you see the first thing you see when you look up is an old door. The Hosh, or the court in Beit Safafa, was structurally a demand because you know, a lot of people are living in the same compound, so they had a place, so they could let’s say breathe or sit together.

[00:19:38] A place to sit as a group was more important than a bathroom in Beit Safafa, because yes, it’s a place where we could have guests coming over. So we had, we need to have a bigger place than the places we sleep in.

[00:19:59] And so I’m pointing out towards the house of Hassan Awab and his brothers. It’s unfortunately it’s locked, it’s locked down. It has the first school of Beit Safafa, I believe it’s in the twenties. Unfortunately about a year and a half ago one of its Western walls had fallen apart due to the heavy rain. And there is a lack of renovation because it has two parts in it, part under the Israeli building regulations and part of it was the Israeli Authority of Antiquities.

[00:20:25] They’re both to be blamed. Adding to that, the family itself, not being able to fund this huge amount of money because renovating this kinds of this important building that has even a fireplace, I could show pictures. It has one of the first fireplaces in Beit Safafa. They can’t renovate it due to these regulations and lack of funding towards preserving these kinds of important buildings, which is like a compound close to Al Burj, to the important archaeological site in Beit Safafa.

[00:20:57] So let’s continue and go around the corner. And then we can see the Burj from close by because I’ve never realized that I live so close to Crusader remains! I’ve been really intrigued by the stories of the Crusaders. And I knew that they had Burjes (towers) all over the country and everywhere they are… [Ahmad greets a lady in the street in Arabic]

[00:21:27] Yeah. You must know a lot of people!

Oh yeah, here. Oh, this is interesting. We see really old stones, ruins and arches, and we’re going to, oh, we’re going to climb up. Okay. I’m going to get upstairs. And then there are, there’s not really a stairs, but it’s rocks put together so that you can get up here.

[00:21:50] I’ve never been up here actually.

These are from the original building.

Wow. So these are,… at least we’re talking about the Crusaders time, they came in 1099 the first time. Yes. So this is at least 900 years old. Can you explain us what we see? What is this?

We’re actually in the center of Al Burj.

Ruins of the Crusader Burj in Beit Safafa

[00:22:15] We’re surrounded with ruins. Unfortunately, they remained ruins until the municipality of Jerusalem, the Israeli authority of Antiquities and the Ministry of Tourism, they all had to decide with the people, the residents of Beit Safafa, what are the options of renovating this place? Because it’s not that easy.

[00:22:36] It’s not that cheap. And as well, you know, some people are still living in the compound itself. It’s not one place, it’s not one building. And the ownership of the people of Beit Safafa, it is divided. Every family has its own section in this historical building. So basically they don’t want to have a headache with getting in touch with all the people of Beit Safafa, all the residents of Beit Safafa, because of the ownership.

[00:23:05] And it’s, let’s say, nostalgic preferences towards this place because it’s a really, really important place to the residents of Beit Safafa and the people of Beit Safafa, historically, emotionally. And this is where their ancestors started from. This is the first gathering of this village.

[00:23:24] This is where it all started. So basically, having this all wiped out and having this place to turn into a tourists place is actually going to be a very big debate between all the ministries and the authorities I’ve mentioned and the residents and the people of Beit Safafa.

[00:23:47] So what we’re looking at, are ruins of where the people of Beit Safafa used to live and the people before, let’s say Elayyan and Salman and Othman and all these families used to live in this place.

When you mention these family names, they come very familiar to me because I’ve heard them a lot. Can you say something about the idea of clans. The traditional life that people had here, moving from nomads and Bedouins into settling down in a village?

[00:24:11] Most of the families are coming from different other villages. Let’s say, Elayyan originally came from Battir. Salman came from Jordan, Husain I believe came from from Gaza. So basically all these families gathered here for different reasons that are actually, I don’t know if it is kept a secret or we don’t know more information about it.

[00:24:35] But what we know now is that we’re here and we would like to keep, or preserve, what is left from our ancestors, Mentioning so, that as Palestinians, we believe that every civilization that passed through this village, is our civilization. It’s not about Arabs over Romans [laughing]

[00:24:58] It’s about that as a Palestinian, every civilization that passed through this village is my civilization, is my history, which makes me want to preserve it even more. This variety, these beautiful ruins. I don’t want to call the ruins beautiful but like, let’s say what’s left of these civilizations we are talking about.

[00:25:18] This is where the Al Burj mosque is. It’s you know, you can see it stick to the compound itself. This place might fall in any minute. The Burj is no longer safe. Time by the time it’ll be like, fit to the ground and there is nothing to be done, which makes me so furious that the last time talking about Al Burj took place about 15 to 20 years ago.

[00:25:49] It’s nobody’s interest. Now nobody is talking about Al Burj as an important iconic landmark in Beit Safafa as it used to be 15 to 20 years ago. They might have done something years ago, but now things are getting more and more difficult.

Ahmad, are there any other archaeological sites in Beit Safafa? If you’re saying that there were so many different civilizations coming and going then besides the Crusader fortress, what other findings were there around Beit Safafa or in Beit Safafa?

[00:26:23] Beit Safafa is rich with its Roman and Byzantine tombs. Tombs mean that there were like buildings and people living around them, but not so close to them. It’s like, while I’m looking for the archaeological sites, me and my friend, Mustafa Husain, he’s an archaeologist by the way, and from Beit Safafa, we were looking for these archaeological sites through the Israeli authority of antiquities reports on Beit Safafa.

[00:26:51] And we found more than 15 archaeological sites that actually the people of Beit Safafa don’t know about. I don’t know why is it so classified that we don’t know about these reports. They need to be as general as, hello? [Laughing]

So yeah, we have a lot of archaeological sites and there are many archaeological sites that were buried under streets that we don’t know about.

[00:27:20] And the most important archaeological site is ‘Bir Abu Khashabe’ or ‘Abu Khashabe’s well’, which is one of the most iconic wells in Beit Safafa. It was actually connected to a winery right up the hill of the ‘Tabaliya’ [now Givat Hamatoz settlement] and the winery has channels from up the hills towards the well itself, in Bir Abu Khashabe. And it’s not the only winery. We have about three wineries in Beit Safafa, Roman and Byzantine ones.

[00:27:49] It’s also an interesting archaeological fact that they found a Greek vila in the fifties that has an inscription related to the mosaics in Madaba. [6th century mosaics depicting an accurate map of the Middle East, found in the Saint George church in Madaba, Jordan]

No way.

Way! It is called the inscription of Beit Safafa.

[00:28:12] [Laughing] The date is related to the Georgian calendar on the mosaics of Madaba. But it’s still under studies, but you know, we have nothing, we don’t know so many information about it because frankly nobody cares. It has two actually reports about the inscription of Beit Safafa. They’re trying to solve the inscription.

[00:28:34] We have pictures of it. That’s what we have. It was, I think it was excavated in the early fifties, ’53 I think. The only picture we’ve got is the inscription. And now it has a road over it and it was demolished.

A lot of lands of Beit Safafa’s people that own lands here, and also from the nearby villages, like Beit Jalla and Bethlehem, they have been prepared for Israeli roads, roads that are connecting the settlements with the city, with the town center.

[00:29:05] And I know that my father-in-law owned some lands that were taken and confiscated to connect Gilo settlement here with the rest of Jerusalem, with West Jerusalem. And then there is the road that is the old Hebron road, the road of the patriarchs they also call it, that goes from Jerusalem through Bethlehem to Hebron.

[00:29:25] And when they were widening that road, they also found the remains of a Byzantine church, right?

Yes. That’s the ‘Kathisma’ [laughing]

Yes, well actually, Kathisma, or Kadisma or Kadisuma to the residents of Beit Safafa, or to the Safafis, was actually only a well.

[00:29:40] Because you know, people were dependent on wells, here in Beit Safafa, throughout the lack of water. There were a lot of wells. Roman and Byzantine wells, ancient day wells, surrounding Beit Safafa and they were very important wells.

[00:30:01] But one of the important wells, when there is a lack of water, people of Beit Safafa were heading towards the Kathisma to collect water because that’s their only, let’s say last resort. Up until 1992, when they were widening the Hebron street, they found this archaeological site, they found the church, not the well itself.

Ruins of the Kathisma church near Beit Safafa

[00:30:21] And then, oh my God, we found a church and then it wasn’t excavated until 1997 and it has a lot of interesting history, religiously, historically archaeologically. And it gained this huge tension right away as the seat of Mary.

Yeah. We learned in the Bible College that Mary and Joseph on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem passed by that place.

[00:30:46] Mary was very tired. She wanted to get off the donkey and she sat down on a stone and the stone became the center point of the church, that was built in an octagon shape. And eight is a very important number, I’ve learned, in the Bible. It is usually a symbol for resurrection and rebirth. So a lot of the churches that were built in that time, they were built in an octagon shape in Latin, they call it a Martyrion or Martyrium.

[00:31:12] And this means that it is a witness to an event that happened in the history. And that’s why, for example, in Bethlehem, the Nativity Church was also originally built in an octagon shape. The same with the Holy Sepulcher church. And then later, even the dome of the rock was also built in an octagon shape.

[00:31:39] We’re going to go back down the steps and we’ll take a little walk to where is the main road in Beit Safafa, I would say. And I’m going to ask Ahmad to explain us how it is possible that Beit Safafa has two sides, one where the people who live there have Israeli passports and are citizens of Israel, and the other side, the side where my family-in-law lives, the have only residency cards.

[00:32:07] So my husband, for example, he has a cousin who has Israeli passport and he can travel easily wherever he wants. And then my husband, if he wants to travel, he needs to apply for a travel document. And with this travel document, he can apply for a visa to another country.

But before we reach there, Ahmad is just pointing out something here. Tell me.

[00:32:33] This is the mosque I’ve been telling you about. That’s the old part of the mosque over here, but they’re connected to Al Burj and here is the extension of it. So this is where I believe that the Sufi circles were taking place. And the sheikh Mahmoud was a Sufi himself that I believe he came from Egypt right to the old city and then he moved to Beit Safafa.

Al Burj mosque in Beit Safafa

[00:32:59] He was teaching the people of Beit Safafa methods and ways of connecting to God through the Sufi rituals.

[00:33:26] So we have just crossed the main road in Beit Safafa. We didn’t want to stop there because there’s lots of traffic and a lot of noise. So we continued a little bit and went up the hill and we are now actually standing by the old train track that has recently been renovated by the Jerusalem municipality as a walking promenade.

Beit Safafa old train track promenade

[00:33:46] So we have people passing by walking, jogging and cycling. And we’re looking down into the valley that is running through Beit Safafa. And this is actually a very interesting part of the history because in 1948, when Zionist militias attacked all of Palestine and displaced, from almost 500 Palestinian towns and villages, the majority of the population, this town was attacked as well.

[00:34:13] But unlike the towns around where the people were ethnically cleansed, where they were kicked out of their homes and turned out to live in refugee camps, for example, in Bethlehem, the majority of the people of Beit Safafa stayed. And they were supported by some of the Arab armies to fight back to these Zionist militias.

[00:34:35] But it seems that when the State of Israel was created, they wanted this train track in their new State. And they did not want the rest of the people of Beit Safafa to become part of the State of Israel, because they were supposed to be a State for the Jewish people. And the majority of people in Palestine were not Jewish.

[00:34:54] They were Christians and they were Muslims. So we have a situation here where we have a border in the middle of the town. Ahmad, can you explain us a little bit more?

I’ll do an introduction actually, with the story, a personal story, that happened in my family. My great-grandmother was actually sent to prison for one year, or actually two years, for smuggling a chicken.

[00:35:20] So basically the fence was separating same families from both sides, families from Beit Safafa. They were separated through this fence that took place right through the village. And what do we mean by 1948 and 1967? When we say 1948, they are the lands that are actually under the Israeli new State authority.

[00:35:45] And by the 1967, it’s like from the 1949 until the war of 1967, there were the lands that are actually under the Jordanian authority. It wasn’t an easy life. The life in Beit Safafa, actually they were like farmers, they were simple farmers. They were working as a stone breakers and, you know, in farms.

[00:36:08] So basically they didn’t have any kinds of privilege except that, you know, this intimate family relationship between them, that was actually separated through this fence. What actually can be taken into consideration is that the fence has also made a huge gap between the families themselves. If we have a funeral, I’ve heard a story about people smuggling the body from under the fence from the 48, till the 67 to be buried there.

[00:36:40] I’ve heard that they have had three smuggling stations so that they could pass on food to the 48 from the 67, because the 48, the people that under the new State authority, they were like lacking food, lacking harvests, lacking sheep. They were like, condition is getting worse. They cut off of the sources that are like in the 67.

[00:37:08] Also, they were cut off of the educational system. They are cut off the privilege of traveling abroad through Jordan. So they were kind of isolated. Because nobody was going to agree on accepting their new passport at that time. All that made a huge gap between the families when the village was reunited. At the 67 people started realizing those gaps that actually occurred during the separation fence.

[00:37:39] You know, people are speaking Hebrew on the 48 while the people on the 67 are not speaking Hebrew. So they are struggling with the language. There was a lot of challenges that the village had to go through. There was this famous picture of a Safafi wedding, a Palestinian Safafi wedding, where there’s a fence in the middle, people from the same family clapping on the right side and the other side.

Wedding in Beit Safafa on both sides of the fence. From the Mustafa Othman collection.

[00:38:03] It’s an iconic picture that when people ask us, how do you describe that period of time in the sixties? We go like, take this picture. Look at it. You’ll get a glimpse about what was going on, but only a glimpse because it was through the details of this hard life, restriction of movement, at that time, this fence had a huge impact on people up until these days.

Beit Safafa Al-Tawhid street

[00:38:28] Now it’s called ‘Tawhid al Qariya’ or Uniting-the-village street. It’s not that easy after like so many years of separation between the two families, if they want to meet, they had to do a detour through Cairo or whatsoever. Or through Kuwait. Because residents of the 67, were having the privilege to travel, you know, to Arab countries, such as Kuwait, which many of the residents of Beit Safafa or intellectuals of Beit Safafa, were going to study to Egypt and the United States.

[00:39:00] As I recall, Halima Othman was the first female in the fifties, I think in 55, something like that, that had a bachelor degree in English literature, I believe.

Fatima Othman, the mother of Halima Othman, the first female University student of Beit Safafa, from the Mustafa Othman collection

Now that you mentioned Halima, I was just wondering about the women in Beit Safafa. I’ve heard that compared to other neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and we have to say that Beit Safafa became a neighborhood of Jerusalem now, I mean, it was a village the way that we’ve been talking about it and describing it, but for the Jerusalem municipality, this is just one of the many neighborhoods.But I’ve heard that women here tend to be a bit higher, educated, have more chances to have jobs. Can you say something about that?

[00:39:44] In Beit Safafa it’s not a choice not to get education. In Beit Safafa, as I call my father in the fifties, they where like competing. He described one of the classrooms where little girls were sitting in the front row, while the boys sit in the back rows.

[00:40:04] So it wasn’t much of a choice not to get educated here in Beit Safafa, whether you’re a boy or a girl, you will have to be educated, intellectual, and people compete to educate their daughters and sons so that they get higher education, get positions, very well positions. Brag about it, let’s say, “I have my daughter studied a PhD or bachelor degree”.

[00:40:29] The main thing, in the old times, that prevented the Safafi girls and women from being educated is the amount of poverty they live in, so that they are not capable of getting the proper education. That’s the only obstacle. Because they had to help milk the cows, make cheese, press olives, collect olives, all these kinds of hard work, hardworking tasks. Women in Beit Safafa had a huge role in building.

[00:41:03] I’ve heard a story from my father about a man that actually built his house with only his wife. He was carving the stones, shaping them, putting them on his donkey and then the donkey goes right to his wife where she puts off this stone and put it where it needs to be put. I can tell you that women took a very big part in building the current Beit Safafa.

[00:41:40] We’re heading to our last stop. But before we do that, I want to just say something to the listeners that I find always hilarious, because I come from the Netherlands. We have different system and different ways. Here you still have in the middle of the village, PO boxes where people who are getting letters have their own little PO box.

The PO-boxes in Beit Safafa

[00:41:59] It’s just in the middle of the town. You have all your little boxes and then if you have something bigger, you get a paper in your box and then once a day, about an hour a day, there is a man who sits there and who will open for you, the bigger storage where you can get your parcels from. So it is very traditional way.

[00:42:18] Anyway, the life in Beit Safafa is still much of a village life. A lot of people are related. There’s lots of marriages between the families, people know each other, they go and see each other regularly. There’s nobody here who would be lonely. Most of the time, the older people still live with their children.

[00:42:37] So they would be taken care of. Not a lot of people would live in an elderly home, for example. We can already see that when Ahmad is walking around Beit Safafa, that he knows a lot of people. It’s not like living in a city where you are very anonymous. That could be considered positive, if you, if we’re thinking about the collectiveness and that’s what I noticed, living here myself with my family in law,

[00:42:59] they live upstairs, we live downstairs, is that I always have help with my children. There’s always people at home, especially during last year during the pandemic. We never felt lonely. We always had each other. Also a big advantage that my mother-in-law cooks amazing Palestinian food.

[00:43:20] So I always have great food, but the downside is maybe that you don’t have a lot of privacy. And if you are, maybe different or you want to live your life a bit different way, different lifestyle, you will have people looking at you. Just wondering about how you make your decisions in life. Do you feel that sometimes Ahmed?

Number one about living in an Arabian community or society that you need to adjust to the system right away, first of all.

[00:43:49] And then understand it in order to understand where this is coming from. But people might like it that we’re having, you’re surrounded with people that are asking you, if you fell down, what happened, and then you find 10 to 20 people gathering around to know how can they help. Some people say, no, if I fell down, I might stand up, I don’t want anybody looking.

[00:44:09] It is, as you said, it’s up to you to decide which kind of lifestyle you prefer. Personally from my own experience, I think that regardless of how intimidating the Arabian community can be, it’s part of how every culture has its own style of living. If I had to recall it to the old days, many of the houses of Beit Safafa wouldn’t have taken place.

[00:44:37] If there wasn’t people surrounding you at some point. So if that didn’t happen in the first place, you wouldn’t have your house done. Because stone breaking huge stones, big stones, like you need three to four men to carry them, you can’t do that alone. I know some people may think that they’re invading your privacy, but if you just spoke to them about your privacy, they would have taken it into consideration.

[00:45:05] It’s like, you need to be strict and firm about it. Other than that, they’ll just, you know, since it’s not all of them, some people might say that this is none of my business. And some say that no, they need help. They insist of giving you some help. “No, I don’t need it.” “Definitely you need it.” [laughing]

[00:45:28] The same way they’re always insisting on you to eat more food. “No, I had enough.” “No, you need a little bit more!”


[00:46:03] We ended our tour by the Beit Safafa soccer fields. Unfortunately, I forgot to press the recording button, my mistake, mea culpa, sorry Ahmad, but I remember what you said. You showed me that the soccer field was established on ‘waqf’ land [islamic endowment to support a mosque or charity] belonging to the nearby mosque. So Beit Safafa football club has its own football field and the Beit Safafa football club plays in the Palestinian league.

Beit Safafa soccer field

[00:46:32] The old mosque has been renovated and was enlarged. And you were very upset that this was done with little respect to the shape and style of the old mosque, that is now hidden behind the new modern building. And right next to it, you pointed out to me the house of your grandfather that is now being renovated at this moment, the house from which your great grandmother went out to smuggle that chicken.

[00:47:05] And that’s about how we ended our guided walk through Beit Safafa. I want to express my sincere gratitude to Ahmed for this wonderful experience. Thanks also to Musa Othman for pointing me in Ahmed’s direction. And his father Mustafa Othman is the historian who wrote a book about the history of Beit Safafa.

[00:47:26] And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you want to see some photos of Beit Safafa, then go to the website https://www.storiesfrompalestine.info or to my Facebook or Instagram accounts which you can find on https://podspout.app/storiesfrompalestine

[00:47:54] That’s where you can also find the link to buy me a coffee or a falafel sandwich on https://ko-fi.com/storiesfrompalestine

I really appreciate it. It helps me to keep producing new episodes.

Hopefully you will tune in again next week.