Tiberias: The Beginning and the End

Anis Sayigh, Sunday 14 May 2023

Extract from Anis Sayigh's book ‘13 September’, Beirut, 1994



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 30 April 1998


Thirty years ago I was on a flight from London to New York. To ward off the tedium of conversation with unknown fellow-travelers I had taken a book along. But here was an American man in the seat beside me and Americans abroad chatter incessantly...

Turning to me, the American man said: "I am So and So, from Such and Such a state."


"And I am So and So, from Tiberias," I answered.


Naturally, he took no note of my name, which is unrecognisable to foreign ears. But Tiberias rang a bell, though he couldn't remember where and when he'd heard it.


"Where is Tiberias?"


"It's a town in Palestine."


"Palestine?" he asked in astonishment.


"Yes. The country you [Americans] helped usurp and where you founded a state you call Israel."


"Oh, Israel. Right. Now I know where it is. But where exactly is Tiberias in Israel?"


"It's on the west bank of Lake Tiberias, or what you call in English the Sea of Galilee."


"I know I have read about Tiberias, but my memory fails me. Would you remind me of the famous figures associated with it?"


"Christ, for one, came to Tiberias. He wandered along its shores, walked on its waters and did not drown. He made miracles in Tiberias, fed the multitudes with two or three fishes. There, at His cry, the swine from Trans Jordan became mad and ran to their death. He healed the blind, raised the paralysed and turned the fishermen into philosophers and exegetists."


He nodded in agreement for he had recalled. Then he asked: "And who are its famous citizens?"


"There was Peter, the chief apostle of Christ and His most loved disciple. And ... and..."


I went on to enumerate the names of 11 out of the 12 disciples, all of whom were from Tiberias and its environs. Only one among the dozen was from Jerusalem -- Judas Iscariot, who betrayed his master and sold him to the Jews for 30 pieces of silver."


He was a very insistent neighbour, prodding me for more names of famous figures. I recited names of Romans, Muslims, Jews and Crusaders who were either born in Tiberias or lived there. He just couldn't get enough and kept asking for more[...] but I had run out of names. I knew I had to dredge up some name with which to end the litany, before we could both fall silent.


Finally, I said: "Anis Sayigh."


"I've never heard that name before. Could you please spell it out for me so that I can look it up in the Encyclopedia Americana. There's not one famous person who's not in it."


I said: "S-A-Y-I-G-H."


He pulled his diary out of his pocket, jotted down the letters which he intoned aloud to make sure he got them right: "S-A-Y-I-G-H."


I went back to my book[...] After the plane landed I went through security and customs where the officers satisfied themselves that I was not carrying explosives, hashish or Communist pamphlets. Walking towards the exit I saw the American....


"Good-bye. I'll go to the public library first thing tomorrow morning and look up that famous man from your hometown: Mister S-A-Y-I-G-H." Then he gave me a triumphant smile, for he had not forgotten the name.


Ours was the last house to the north of the town. From there the road took you to Safad and Umoum, in the north of Palestine. Only a kilometre away from the house is a series of some of the most important archaeological, touristic and Christian sites, among them Al-Tabgha and Kafr Nahoum. 


There you find scenic vistas where the sea meets the land in stretches that are neither land nor sea: when the tide flows, they become sea; when it ebbs, land. Sugar-cane stalks, reeds and papyrus cover them. Monks and nuns tend them and look after the thousands of visitors from all over the world. I confess here, and for the first time, that Al-Tabgha and Kafr Nahoum surpass Tiberias in beauty. Because they were under the supervision of Catholic monasteries while we are Protestants, we rarely visited... but whenever we had guests we would make that an excuse to go with them to these marine paradises...


I see that green strip of trees between our house and the seashore where the Lido, the most famous and certainly the classiest establishment in north Palestine, once stood. This was built in the 30s by a German man called Grossman. During the war, the British charged him with Nazi sympathies and threw him in prison where he committed suicide. Then the Jews took over the Lido and changed its name, in revenge against Grossman. One of the things I remember is that Grossman had a sign at the entrance which said, in Arabic, English and German, literally: "Dogs and Jews Forbidden on the Premises."...


Our gardener was the brother of the gardener at the Lido, so our family and the Grossmans used to trade flowers and compare notes about them, and on feast days we'd exchange gifts with them. I, of course, used to get the lion's share of the lovely German toys and clothes, being the youngest son, and therefore spoilt rotten by everyone, even the Nazis. 


Indeed, the Grossmans, the hospital doctors..., the minister and the Scottish Protestants -- all used to call me "the little minister" because, like my father, I am plump and have a rotund face set in a big head, though obviously I was not, at the time, bald like my father. The sobriquet did not bother me at all because it guaranteed that I would get most of the nice presents. What did cause me distress was that people would always pinched my cheeks by way of greeting, particularly during visits. How I envied my brothers their lean cheeks which nobody ever pinched...


... Adjoining our house inland was Yakfi, an elegant villa built by a Scottish (or maybe Australian, I can no longer remember) retired missionary called Miss Varten. Some of the simple townswomen used to call her El-Sitt Miss Varten. My father, who for reasons unknown to me, mistrusted her, used to say that she was in fact Armenian and that her real name was Vartanian but that she had changed it to claim she was Scottish or Australian and therefore blue-blooded.


Miss Varten had two infirm, elderly women living with her who in their youth used to help her spread the word. One of them, Sitt Mariam, was a Sunni Muslim from Syria, while the other, Sitt Saadi, was a Druz from 'Ebiah, Lebanon. They had both converted to Christianity long before we met them, and in fact before they came to live in Yakfi as Miss Varten's guests. 


With the passing of time Miss Varten died, followed by Mariam, and Saadi was left alone. She was poor, and my mother felt sorry for her, so she invited her to have lunch with us every day of the year. But Saadi was so frail and sickly that she couldn't come and go on her own. My brother Mounir and I used to take shifts going over to the villa to collect and then escort her back. Sitt Saadi's only worldly possession was a gold watch.


When I went to fetch her she would say she had willed her watch to me after her death, as an expression of gratitude and I was overjoyed, only to discover that the following day she had said the same thing to my brother Mounir on his shift. So it was that, between Mounir and Anis, the promise of the watch alternated 360 times a year. Then Saadi died while we were away at boarding schools (Mounir in Beirut, I in Jerusalem).


I still do not know to whom the watch fell -- exactly like Palestine, promised us but lost in a moment of forgetfulness, to become Israel.


Translated by Mona Anis and Hala Halim


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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