Who will listen to me now?

Khalil Al-Sakakini, Monday 15 May 2023

In these excerpts from his diaries, prominent Palestinian educator Khalil Al-Sakakini records the conditions of life in Jerusalem in March 1948, and gathers reports of a great Arab victory when a Jewish convoy returning to Jerusalem was ambushed and destroyed

Khalik Sakakini
Signed portrait of Khalil Sakakini, Jerusalem, 1906. Institute for Palestine Studies photo archives, Ramallah


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

Issue: 19 March 1998


Saturday, January 17, 1948

I was sitting behind my desk, and [my son] Sarri was standing next to me reading Al-Ahram newspaper when he said listen to that and began reading loud: "Fouad the First Academy of Arabic Language held a session yesterday and elected two new members: Mr. Mohamed Reda Al-Shabibi from Iraq and Mr. Khalil Al-Sakakini from Palestine."


What I began in the spirit of playing has now turned into a serious matter, and here I am a member of the Academy of Arabic Language. I am now one of the immortals, let it be known to all!


Tuesday march 16, 1948

I do not know how for God's sake are we supposed to hold off before the aggression of the Jews, who are well-trained, organised, united and equipped with the most sophisticated weapons while we lack all that. Cannot we understand the unity and organisation will win over fragmentation and anarchy, and that preparedness wins over negligence?


We formed a delegation and went to the [headquarters] of the [Arab] Supreme Committee. We were received by Dr. Hussein Al-Khaldi and Ahmed Helmi Pasha. We asked for arms. They said: "We have no arms." We asked for guards. They said: "We have no guards." We said: "What shall we do then?" They said: "Arm and defend yourselves."


We said: "We do not have arms, and even if we buy some we do not know how to use it. This is very serious, our neighbourhood following the blasting of the Semiramis Hotel, the Shahin block of flats, the houses of Dr. Freig, the Anatbawis' and the Bediris', as well as other houses, has become very hazardous, and we can be attacked again any minute. It is your duty, being members of the Supreme Committee to provide us with arms and men. Where are all those trained volunteers? Where is all that money being collected from Arab and Islamic countries? Is it a matter of much ado about nothing?"


Following that meeting a delegated from the Supreme Committee in Jerusalem came to visit us and enquire about how we were faring. He assured us that guards had been stationed in Katamon.


Sunday, March 21, 1948

The Jews launched a severe attack on Katamon last night at mid-night. It is mid-day now and they have not finished yet. The amount of shells fired by cannons, bullets from all sorts of guns and machineguns, and mines used are unprecedented. Kitchner, perhaps, had never heard in all his battles such shelling as that we have been hearing since last night.


Last week Abou Moussa [Abdel-Qadir Al-Hussein]  visited us along with some of his men: Abou Al-Abd Ibrahim Abou Diah, from Soreif; Mukhtar Rafat Abou Atta and Kamel Erikat. I seized the opportunity and drew their attention to the ethics to be followed in every war, anywhere and at all times:


  1- The wounded must be taken good care of.


  2- The hostages must be well-treated.


  3- Anybody killed must be handed to his people.


  4- We must follow Abou Bakr's (the first Guided Khaliph) commandments to his army on its way to Palestine: "Do not kill a child; an elderly, or a woman; do not burn trees, or demolish a single house; do not chase someone running away; do not mutilate bodies of the dead; and do not come near those who dedicate themselves to worshipping."


If it were for me I would say: "let your swords rest in their shields, do not fight anybody, there is enough room in the world for all." But who would listen to me now or pay any attention to what I think. Like Jesus, I say "my kingdom is not of this world".



The hiss of bullets goes day and night, unabated, the sound of like we had never heard before, not even during the past world wars. Whenever we get into our houses we expect the celling to fall on our heads, and whenever we walk it is always in the shadow of a wall or sand-filled barrels as we are always afraid of a stary bullet hitting us.


It is worth recording that whenever the roaring of bombs and mines or the hissing of bullets intensify, friends and family members phone us one after the other, no matter at what late hour. Our house is located at an area of Katamon that looks from afar like the mouth of a volcano constantly throwing fire and smoke. They keep phoning to know whether we still exist. We congratulate each other on safety, though we feel the same way Mutanabi felt when he said:


"Though safe now, I may not exist for long. For I walk from death to death."


No wonder, with such a state of affairs, that inhabitants of Katamon are constantly thinking of moving to another neighbourhood, or even another country. They want to run away from this constant worry and the danger confronting them day and night. What depresses one so much is the terror which overtakes women and children. Many people have left either to the old city, to Beit Jala, to Amman, to Cairo or wherever. Very few of the proprietors have remained. Us, the Mahfouz brothers, Farid Srouji, Daoud Taleil and Youssef Abdou.


Sunday, March 28, 1948

All day we have been collecting whatever news we can get on the battle in the south between a Jewish convoy and the Arabs. All what we knew at the beginning was that the Arabs attacked the convoy while on its way back to Jerusalem. We also learned that the Arabs erected barricades like high walls in the way of the convoy, and that the [British] army was unable to get to the battlefield. We kept hearing deep shelling from afar, and we were afraid that the army was ponding the Arabs with its cannons. It was even said that the Jews bombed the Arabs from airplanes using tons of bombs. At nine o'clock we opened the radio and listened to what it had to say:


"14 Jewish men were killed, while nearly 45 others were injured. The rest ran to shelter in an empty house but the Arabs surrounded the place and kept firing. When the army interfered the only thing it could do to stop the fighting and prevent more bloodshed was to ask the Jews to surrender their weapons and equipment and to walk out with their arms above their heads and that they be searched on their way out. The Jews could not but accept as they came out shaking away the dust of death. The Arabs won 150 mortar and other guns, a ton and half of ammunitions, bombs, armoured vehicles, many light weapons and first aid and medical equipment. The Jews transported to Jerusalem by vehicles belonging to the [British] army."


This battle was so far the biggest blow dealt to the Jews, and the biggest victory achieved by the Arabs. It is worth recording here that many inhabitants of the neighbouring villages participated in this battle, under the leadership of Ibrahim Abou Diah from Soreif. He advised on the planting of the mines here and there, and the erection of strong barricades, he armed those without arms, he deployed his men everywhere, and his orders were obeyed by all, as if a great general who had mastered the art of war, with many victorious battles to his name.


What made all the peasants from the neighbouring villages respect him and follow his orders was the fact that he was one of them, they knew him the same way he knew them, and they knew he was fighting for the sake of his country and nothing else. He is the first to be seen when death looms, and the first to shun away any of the gains to be obtained from war. He shares everything with his men, attends to their needs, eats when they eat and gets hungry if they hae nothing to eat. He works and stays the night awake with them.


He treats his men very well, while being firm at the same time, not tolerating any negligence. If he appoints one of his men to a nightshift and, upon inspection, finds that man asleep he immediately expels him from his army that is if he does not punish him severely. When it comes to duty, he has no friend. He is very young and small in physique, but when it is battle time, he is as the strongest of lions. Despite all this, newspapers never mention his name as if he was the unknown soldier. It was that little known young man who dictated his conditions on the British Army and they had to obey.


Had he been a city boy, or a member of the family of so and so they would have waxed lyrics around his name. Holding parties in his honour, putting huge amounts of money to dispense of. I am afraid that he himself would notice how he is being treated, or that somebody will draw his attention, and then we be divided, good forbids, as peasants versus city people, as what happened before.


I must record here also that among those who did well in that battle was Kamel Erikat. Some say that it was him who lead the battle and that Ibrahim Abou Diah was under his command, but only God knows the truth. Another person who deserves mention here is the Mayor of Rafat, Abou Atta who oversaw the guarding of Katamon in the absence of Ibrahim Abou Diah. This mayor is highly intelligent, skillful and patriotic.


In talking to him one might mistake him for a graduate of the highest academy. He expresses himself in a combination of eloquent speech and mature opinions, and he possesses the strongest of resolves. Wish so and so be it this or that mayor were like him ...wish even a great number of the members of the Supreme Committee, highly educated but illiterate compared to him, were like that man. I have evidence that he provides Ibrahim Abou Diah with money whenever in need. Another man who always responds to the call of duty, and whose name must be recorded here is Abou Fouad Jawdat Al-Amd. In the morning, he works at his shop, and in the evenings he carries his gun and spends all night up in the ranks of the fighters.

* Khalil Al-Sakakini, writer and educationalist, fled his home in Jerusalem on the last day of April, 1948. He took refuge in Cairo, where he died five years later and is buried. The extracts above are translated from his book Kaza Ana Ya Donia (That is the way I am), published posthumously in 1955.


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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