WHEN I WAS A CHILD it seemed that everywhere I went I came across traces of my family’s history in Jerusalem. My father once told me that we Nusseibehs came from a long line of thieves. All family dynasties, he explained with an expression between earnestness and jest, can trace their histories back to some act of brigandage. I think he said this because of the pride Arabs often take in their ancient roots. You have to live in the present, Father lectured to me over and over when I was a child. Whereas I never pinned down precisely who the thieves were, I had no trouble finding old gravestones with names chiseled into the eroded limestone that in my imagination magically connected me up with 1,300 years of forbears, all the way back to the hot sands of Arabia.
My family’s story in Jerusalem begins with Mohammed’s Night Journey. By the time the Prophet took his legendary pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he and his few companions had already been forced out of Mecca to Medina. It was on the outskirts of this desert town that he was met by his first followers: fourteen tribal leaders who pledged their allegiance to him and to Islam.
Surprisingly, given the way the contemporary world views the role of women in Islam, four of the fourteen tribal leaders were women, and one of these was Nusaybah, from the warrior tribe of Khazraj. (She was also called Umm Umarah al-Maziniyyah, which is short for Umm-Omara alc Maazinia al-Khazrajiyyah min Bani-Amir alc Ansaria.) After the Prophet returned from his Night Journey, he and his followers, including Nusaybah and her clan, directed their prayers toward Jerusalem.
Nusaybah, the progenitor of my family, was a fierce fighter who, on horseback, skillfully defended the Prophet with life and limb. In one battle she lost two sons and a leg, yet continued fighting. Islamic chronicles tell us that Mohammed was so taken by her bravery that he promised that she and all her offspring would always have a place in heaven.
When dealing with more than 1,300 years of family history, there are bound to be some fuzzy points. Much of what I breathed in as a child as irrefutably true is no doubt an innocent mixture of fact and fiction. But in Jerusalem, the source of the magical relation between man and city is precisely the beautiful mosaic of tales rooted in events both real and imagined.
One of my favorite childhood yarns is the story of the caliph Omar’s entry into Jerusalem in A.D. 638. By then Mohammed had already died, as had his first successor and hence first caliph (caliph meaning "successor to the Prophet"), Abu Bakr. Omar the Just was the second caliph. Humble, pious, and ascetic in his living and his style of dress, he was also a general on par with Alexander and Napoleon, and led armies to one conquest after the next. Following his lead and the banner of Islam, the hitherto chaotic bands of Arabian raiders and camel herders swept across the lands of Persia, Egypt, and Byzantium; with a mixture of bravery, strategy, and brutality, they brought old civilizations under the control of Islamic armies. Peoples and religions were coming to terms with this dynamic force shaking up the ancient world.
Eventually Omar’s army reached the walls of Jerusalem. Panic broke out inside the city. Less than a century earlier, Persian hordes had sacked Jerusalem, burning most of its churches and monasteries and slaughtering thousands. Invoking similar atrocities in their imaginations, people feared the worst.
For me, the most intriguing part of the story when I was a child was how Omar took the city. Like every boy, I liked tales of noble riders bearing arms cutting and slashing their way through hapless foes. But Omar’s conquest of Jerusalem was different.
Omar’s Muslim faith led him to consider Jerusalem unlike any other place. It was there where his teacher, the Prophet, was miraculously transported on the Night Journey, and he had prayed with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus next to the Rock of Ascension. This was no city conquerable by man’s sword. Violence and bloodshed, which had worked wonders elsewhere, were not to defile Jerusalem.
Thinking that their lives were at stake, the people of Jerusalem endured a long siege. But after two years, with their supplies running out, and faced with the specter of starvation, they asked for the terms of surrender. Omar, fighting skirmishes in the north at the time, sent back his reply. He requested that Sephronius, the Byzantine bishop of Jerusalem, meet him outside the gates. Meanwhile, at Omar’s instruction, the armies ringing the city walls refrained from all attacks.
At the determined time, Sephronius, dressed in the gilded raiment of his office, came out to meet Omar, expecting to find a royally armored conqueror. He was surprised to meet a simply dressed man leading a camel mounted by Omar’s manservant. The two had traveled together from the north, taking turns riding the camel. The humbly attired commander of the Muslim army promised Sephronius that the people, property, and holy sites of the city of Jerusalem would be spared. Moved by his pledge, the bishop handed Omar the keys to the city gates, and to the Holy Sepulcher.
Sephronius ushered Omar to the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest church in Christendom and a repository of divine history. Adam, the first man, was buried there. This was the place of Christ’s empty tomb, and it was there that Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, had discovered the true cross and the crown of thorns. For centuries, legends of the salutary effects of a visit to such sites—just a touch of the sacred stone of the tomb was said to cure deadly diseases—had been luring pilgrims throughout the world.
As the story goes, when the time came for the Muslim prayer, Omar refused to pray in the church, for fear of setting a precedent. If he prayed there, he feared later Muslim leaders might be tempted to turn the glorious church into a mosque. Instead, the caliph chose a spot outside the church to perform his ritual.
Omar then asked the bishop about the site of the Holy Rock and of Solomon’s Temple. The bishop didn’t know exactly where the temple was, as the plateau where it had once stood was now a vast garbage heap. There were piles of bones and human dung, animal skins, and— most shocking of all for Muslims and Jews—pig carcasses.
Out from the nearby crowds, says Muslim legend, a Jew stepped forward. It was he who now offered to help Omar locate the site of the temple and the rock. And so the two burrowed their way through the rubbish until they came to the spot. "It is here," the Jew said to Omar. "This is the place you seek."
Omar began digging with his own hands. Once he had cleaned away the debris and wiped the Holy Rock clean with his robe, he performed a prayer.
One of Omar’s companions to Jerusalem was Nusaybah’s brother, Ubadah ibn al-Samit. Before leaving the city, Omar installed him as the first Muslim high judge of Jerusalem, and handed him the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He then charged Ubadah, along with five other heads of families, with keeping the Holy Rock clean. (As a child, I liked visiting Ubadah’s tomb, in the southern corner of the wall enclosing the Holy Sanctuary.)
Ubadah’s sons were the first Nusaybahs (now spelled Nusseibeh) born in Jerusalem. Over time, the family became wealthy, with vast landholdings. Centuries run into one another here: for long stretches, our family is not much more than a list of names and titles neatly divided into judges, Koranic scholars, Sufi sages, and landowners.
The family’s political fortunes have always depended on the particular empire that controlled Jerusalem. Whether in favor or not, though, the family has fastidiously performed its duties of dusting off the Holy Rock and safeguarding the key.
Keeping the rock clean soon got easier. Within a few decades of the Muslim conquest, the construction of the Dome of the Rock began. The Islamic caliphate had moved to Damascus in A.D. 661, setting off an architectural revolution. The Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik, wanted to construct a magnificent mosque on the site of the Holy Rock. But unlike other mosques, it was not to be designed to face Mecca. As the place of the ancient Temple of Solomon and of Mohammed’s Night Journey, it didn’t need to point anywhere. Some storytellers say that the son of the Jew who pointed out the Holy Rock to Omar was the architect charged with the mosque’s design. As a Jew, the storytellers say, he constructed the new house of God, the Noble Sanctuary, or Al-Aqsa, with the original temple in mind. The Dome of the Rock was completed in A.D. 691.
As control of the church of the Holy Sepulcher was the main bone of contention between Latin Christians and Muslims, possession of the key was a matter of supreme diplomatic importance. And so, over the centuries, my family performed its duties: an ancestor opened up the door, the Christians filed in, at night they left again, and the door was locked until the next morning.
During the Crusades, with the Franks in control of the city, the Nusseibehs yielded up the key. The clan’s only survivor from the Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem was thankfully pregnant, and she fled to the north of the country. A century later, in 1187, after the Kurdish warrior Saladin drove the Crusaders out of the city, her offspring returned to Jerusalem.
Back in Jerusalem, the leader of my family clan, Sheikh Ghanim ben Ali ben Hussein al-Ansari al-Khazrajy, took up a leading post in government. For the first few years after the defeat of the Crusaders, there was no need to unlock the door to the Holy Sepulcher, because Christians weren’t allowed back in Jerusalem. In 1192, the Muslim governor of the city returned the key to the Nusseibeh line after Sultan Saladin and King Richard the Lionheart concluded an agreement to allow Christian pilgrims to visit the city.
These were the salad days for the family, especially during the reign of the Mamluks in Damascus. The clan lived off vast tracts of land that Sheikh Ghanim had received from Sultan Saladin. This may have been where my father came up with his story of the Nusseibehs having been "thieves." Peasants worked the soil and paid tithes to us, their feudal masters, who in turn used some of the proceeds to benefit the Dome of the Rock.
Financially, the family fortunes slid precipitously after the Turks expelled the Mamluks in 1517. One of my ancestors wasn’t happy at all about the new overlords and decided to join up with a Mamluk prince in his hopeless guerrilla campaign. Both he and the prince lost their heads, and the Nusseibeh family lost its lands and most of its rights. The one major property they kept was the Suq al-Khawajat, the Goldsmith’s Souk, one of the main markets within the ancient walls of the city.
A few years ago my cousin Zaki, the family historian, stumbled across a good example of our declining fortunes. It is in a four-hundred-year-old document painted in gold on deerskin and sealed with the sign of the Turkish sultan, declaring that henceforth the Nusseibehs had to share the rights to the key with the Joudeh family, a local clan on far better terms with the Turks. And so it was. For the last half millennium, a Joudeh has brought the key to a Nusseibeh at 4:00 a.m., and the Nusseibeh has proceeded forthwith to the church.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Country by Sari Nusseibeh.
Copyright 2007 by Sari Nusseibeh.
Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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