A House in Jerusalem holds the memories and grief of Nakba, dispossession

Muayad Alayan’s film is the story of a Palestinian girl and a Jewish girl seeking answers and discovering that their grief intertwines.

Palestinian film director Muayad Alayan has barely begun talking when he’s interrupted, a producer asking him to slightly move so that he can get a better shot.

Alayan smiles, changing his position. Trim, and in his late 30s, he’s been here before. He knows this story. He’s lived it. He stares into the camera and resumes.

Alayan’s latest film, A House in Jerusalem, tells the story of a British Jewish girl and her father moving into a home they inherited from her grandfather in Jerusalem.

However, on another level, it’s about much more than that.

Alayan’s film, released in cinemas in the United Kingdom last month, details the multiple intersecting traumas, occurring across different families and generations and continents, all connecting in the airy, well-lit rooms of the imposing house of the title.

The setting, Jerusalem, a city that has been divided since 1948 and the eastern half of which has been under occupation since 1967, remains a place of divides as deep as the disputes that simmer there.

In the film, the young girl, Rebecca, goes to Jerusalem with her father, Michael, following a family tragedy.

Muayad Alayan headshot
Muayad Alayan’s family were ethnically cleansed from West Jerusalem in 1948 [Courtesy: A House In Jerusalem]

There, she encounters Rasha, the spirit of a Palestinian girl locked within a tragedy of her own, one reaching all the way back to the 1948 Nakba, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were violently ejected from their homes to clear the way for Israeli settlement.

Alayan knows Jerusalem’s tragedy well. He describes how both sides of his family were forced from the city during the Nakba, the memory of that time living on in the stories of lives and neighbourhoods consigned to the past.

You “carry this trauma and, this weight and of the past and the memories with them,” he tells Al Jazeera. During a nighttime drive through West Jerusalem around 15 years ago, Alayan came across a scene that eventually led to his film A House in Jerusalem.

Alayan describes passing through his family’s old neighbourhood, one whose topography he already knew through the stories of his grandfather’s butcher’s shop, where his father had worked – the monasteries, churches and schools that, before 1948, had been their world.

There, he spotted one of the sprawling old houses whose original owners he also knew.

A cab was parked in the driveway.

Rebecca Rasha By The Well [Courtesy: A House In Jerusalem]
Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), right, and Rebecca by the well in the garden [Courtesy: A House In Jerusalem]

“This family was getting their luggage out of the van and into the house. It looked like a newly immigrant Jewish family,” he says, describing how he had sat and watched as the parents and their daughter had made their way through the night into the house, the street lamp coating them in an ethereal, almost ghostly light.

“You know, I was like, ‘What if this girl meets the ghosts of the people who lived in this house? What is she being told by her family about this house?’,” he says of the stories families tell themselves about how they come to occupy such imposing and storied properties.

“And what possibly could she find out on her own?”

Memories of the Nakba

Knowing nothing of the history of the region and with her own father consumed by grief, Rebecca – and, by extension, the viewer – is left to chip away at the tragedy of the past on her own.

Over the next hour and three quarters, there follows a poignant exploration of the horrors of the past and how they can reach forward to ensnare the traumas of the present.

Together, themes of grief, loss and powerful longing intersect to create something unique, one that speaks as much to contemporary Jerusalem as it does its past.

Rebecca With Elder Palestinian Woman
Rebecca embarks on a journey to find the truth behind their house’s history [Courtesy: A House In Jerusalem]

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of nationalist flag-waving Israelis marched through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, just a few miles from where Alayan now lives, chanting racist slogans and attacking Palestinians.

To the south, in Gaza, the death toll from Israel’s war on the enclave has surpassed 37,000.

“Thousands and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in the Nakba in 1948,” Alayan says. “But never, ever did I imagine that the film would be released during such a time when, once again, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are displaced, their homes are destroyed and bombed … thousands of people are killed and injured.”

Portraying this through the eyes of children, for whom the fate of a missing doll outweighs the generations of occupation and injustice, was a deliberate choice.

“Children are, through their innocence, brave,” Alayan says, describing how he used the central character of Rebecca, transplanted from England and with no knowledge of the region’s past, to explore Jerusalem and challenge the narratives believed by many modern Israelis to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

“Some are told it was an empty land,” he says. “You know, some are told [the Palestinians] just left and the houses were empty,” he says incredulously.

“I mean, I’ve heard so many different stories,” he adds, recounting how he’s been told more than once that Palestinians weren’t even from Palestine, but from Jordan and Iraq. Now, at least in West Jerusalem, their traces can only be found underground or in water tanks, like the remains of a lost civilization that modernity has erased.

Into this void, Alayan places the two girls: one, Rebecca, who must reach into the past from the present; and another, Rasha, a Palestinian, whose world was never allowed to progress beyond the Nakba. Connecting their lives is the railway line that runs from the house in Jerusalem to the refugee camps of Bethlehem – where many of the Palestinians of Jerusalem ended up.

“The railway used to go in front of my grandfather’s house,” Alayan recalls.

“My father, even when he was in his 70s … could walk on the tracks with his eyes closed, because he remembered them from his childhood,” he says, describing how his father could still recall the distance between sleepers as they snaked their way past the villages of al-Maliha and the remnants of other communities destroyed to make way for Israeli roads and dividing walls.

Alayan sits back in his chair. The producer is silent.

Old Tradittional Doll
Rasha’s doll that Rebecca rescued from the well, its embroidery still vibrant after more than 70 years submerged [Courtesy: A House In Jerusalem]
Source: Al Jazeera