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Why Does The Times Own a Stolen House?

Ghada Karmi returns to Qatamon
A photo from an Israeli mapping website shows the Qatamon house where Ghada Karmi grew up. The original house was only the ground floor. The two upper levels, bought by The New York Times in 1984, were built around the late 1970s.
Ghada Karmi

In this excerpt from her book Return, the writer and physician Ghada Karmi describes visiting her childhood home in Jerusalem, which was confiscated by the Zionist state in the 1948 Nakba. The house is now “owned” by The New York Times as a residence for its Jerusalem bureau chief after it was acquired by Thomas Friedman in the early 1980s.

Ghada Karmi standing by the front door of her childhood home in Jerusalem’s Qatamon neighborhood in 2005. She wears a t-shirt, blue pants, and sandals. Her hand is resting on the handrail by the stair on the front porch.
Ghada Karmi standing by the front door of her childhood home in Jerusalem’s Qatamon neighborhood in 2005.

Crossing from the (Arab) east to the (Israeli) west of the city was a short car drive, but it might as well have been a journey to another country. The old dividing line that had separated the two parts of Jerusalem until 1967 had physically vanished, yet for most people it was still there, especially for Israelis, who did not like to cross it towards the Arab side even though it no longer existed on the map. But for me, Jerusalem was an undivided city where our old house still stood as testimony to Jerusalem’s Arab past — no matter what artifice Israel had later imposed on it.

A week earlier I had received a surprising invitation to visit The New York Times bureau chief, Steven Erlanger, in his apartment in West Jerusalem. I had not met him before, nor would I have expected to. The newspaper he worked for was not known for its sympathy with the Palestinians or their cause, and I did not imagine its Israel correspondent would have felt otherwise. Erlanger had written to me out of the blue, having somehow obtained my contact details, to tell me that he believed he was living in the flat above what had been my old home. He had identified it, he said, from reading my memoir, “In Search of Fatima,” which had described my early years in that house.

I was intrigued, not least by an approach from such a source, and agreed to his invitation to visit and see for myself. Rami, a young Palestinian lawyer and the son of the doctor and his wife, who had been fellow guests at Maher’s house in Beit Hanina, drove over from Ramallah to Jerusalem to take me to see him.

Before 1948 we had lived in a newly built area called Qatamon, north of the old German Colony, and at the time one of the more desirable suburbs of West Jerusalem. In those days it had been predominantly Christian, but many Muslim families such as ours lived there too, as well as a scattering of Jewish immigrants and other foreigners. Its detached stone villas, frequently surrounded by gardens, were much admired for their architecture and setting. After we and our neighbors were forced to leave in 1948, the Israeli government moved poor Jewish immigrant families into the vacated houses and the area underwent something of a decline. Some years later, however, it revived and became increasingly sought after by a well-to-do Israeli middle class which thought it was chic to live in old Arab houses because they had “character” and “features.” Whether any of the new incumbents wondered about the Arab owners who had once lived in those houses was not talked about, but they reminded me of a similar aspiring class in English society, which also sought to live in Victorian or earlier historic houses with “period features.”

Rami parked across the road from what had been our house. I got out and stood looking at it, the iron garden gate, the trees on either side, the steps leading up to the veranda with its mosaic floor, all still there. It was not the first time I had been back to see it after 1948. My first visit was in 1998, coinciding with Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, when the American Jewish tenants who lived there then allowed me inside, although with much trepidation, and again in 2000 when the Israeli tenants who succeeded them did not. My daughter, who was a teenager then, had been with me on that visit, and it was she who went up to the closed gate and asked the man standing behind it, staring at her pugnaciously, if I could look around as I had lived there many years before. He was a stocky Orthodox Jew with sidelocks and skullcap. “No!” he had shouted in a fury. “Go away or I’ll get someone on to you!”

To the side of the house was a flight of steps leading up to the second story, presumably the flat where Erlanger awaited us. When he opened the door, he turned out to be a civilized, pleasant-looking middle-aged man with brown hair and glasses. He welcomed us in and invited us to his veranda overlooking the garden. It was still light although swiftly darkening into dusk, as is the way in the Middle East once the sun has set. I asked him if he knew when the upper storey had been built, since the house we had left was a typical Palestinian villa with no second floor. He could only say that The New York Times had acquired the flat and started to place its bureau chiefs there sometime during the 1980s, and so it must already have been in existence at that time.

“You were right,” I said. “The villa below was indeed our house.”

The atmosphere was slightly awkward, and he looked ill at ease. I wondered if he had regretted inviting me to come.

“I thought so,” he responded. “The description fitted so well. And by the way, your book was marvelous. I enjoyed it. It’s good to meet you. And thank you, Rami, for bringing her.” Rami smiled and nodded.

“Well, thank you for reading it,” I said. “But I’m curious to know why you decided to get in touch. Was it just to confirm your suspicion about the house?”

“No, not just that,” he said earnestly. “I found parts of the book fascinating, particularly the description of life here in the 1940s. Great stuff, and I wanted to meet and maybe show you your old house. You see, I know the people downstairs, they’re really nice and we talked about you coming to visit. They’d be delighted to meet you. I want to take photos of you in the house that you can keep. Here,” and he pointed to a large professional-looking camera on a table in the sitting room.

“Were you thinking of writing a piece about it for your paper?” I asked.

He looked taken aback. “No, no, the photos are for you, I thought you would want to have a memento of your old house.”

“That’s very kind, but have you thought of doing an article on this story?” I persisted. “It would be a bold step, I grant you, for your paper to agree. But it would make a refreshing change to present this story from the Palestinian side, don’t you think?”

He cleared his throat. “That’s not the idea at all. I simply wanted to have you get inside your old home, because I know that’s not so easy for many Palestinians to do. I know how they get turned away when they try.” The memory of the aggressive Orthodox Jew who had lived here before flashed through my mind. “So, there’s a friendly family living in the house who’re happy to let you in. You can look around for as long as you like.” He made it sound like largesse from the current owners. “And we should go while it’s still light.”

“Thank you. It’s an offer I won’t refuse. But can I ask you another question?” He looked faintly alarmed. “You’ve read my book and identified this place as being my family home. You also know that we’re no longer in it because of what happened in 1948. The fact that you’re here, your newspaper’s here, and your friends downstairs are here is because we’re not here, if you see what I mean. I know you didn’t need my book to tell you that. But it gave you the story again from a personal, human angle, how it felt to have to leave this house and the details of what happened here.”

He nodded, waiting for me to continue.

“So, knowing what you know, seeing me right here in front of you, and Rami too whose parents were dislocated from their homes in 1948 just as we were, I wanted to ask how that makes you feel about Israel now.”

Clearly he had not anticipated any of this. After a pause, he said he was aware of how difficult matters must have been in 1948, but that was in the past and things had moved on since then. He had not answered my question and I felt it was important for him to do so, even though it must have seemed ungracious to respond in that way to the kindness he was perhaps doing me by inviting me to see my old house. But there was an underlying smugness about him which I found irritating.

“What I’m really asking you is if you feel comfortable being in a country which came into being like that? Which had to get rid of people like me and take their place to build its state? Which keeps me from returning, from getting my house back? I mean, you can see the result: You’re physically occupying a house which belonged to other people. And you feel nothing about that?”

“Look, these things are difficult. They’re not black and white. You have to remember history’s important here. Some things aren’t either right or wrong.” I pressed him further to answer my question and not to evade it, to examine the contradictions in his position. But no matter how hard I tried, he remained evasive, sticking to his line that it wasn’t that simple, historical reality could not be ignored, and the like. Should I have expected anything else from him, a man employed by The New York Times, whose line on the Middle East was consistently pro-Israel? Yet Erlanger struck me as one of a type I was familiar with and usually liked, cultivated New York Jews with refined tastes and good minds, descendants of Eastern European immigrants who came to America in the early years of the twentieth century; they were frequently liberal, left-leaning or radical about many political issues, and so should have been capable of understanding the Palestinian situation.

Meeting Erlanger, who had taken the unusual step of reading my book, an account unmistakably written from the Palestinian point of view, and a person I found to be congenial and civilized, led me to imagine that he might have been one of that minority of Jews whose first-hand experiences had made them question the whole Zionist enterprise. But nothing in his responses to my probing suggested anything like that had happened, although he remained courteous and pleasant. There was no more to be said, and we went down to the ground floor, where his friends came out to greet us.

They were agreeable, liberal Israelis, whose origins, like Erlanger’s, most likely lay in Eastern Europe. They welcomed me into the house solicitously, as if I had some disability which made me especially fragile. Retiring tactfully, they left me to see the rooms inside on my own. I felt like a cross between a tourist and a prospective house buyer, and I wished I had not come. Nevertheless, I forced myself to look around, but all I could think of were the many alien people who had lived in these rooms after us, and how each one erased more and more of our presence there.

Outside once more, I let Erlanger take photographs as he had proposed. He took a great many of these and did so with such enthusiasm that I was tempted to think it might have been a form of recompense for his earlier prevarications. But nevertheless it had been a kind act, and, I think, well meant. I never saw him again for the rest of my stay in Palestine. We didn’t move in the same circles, and he made no further contact beyond that occasion. If my visit had meant anything to him it didn’t show in his subsequent pieces for The New York Times.