‘She said the earthquake parted them’


The 1927 earthquake in the British Mandate of Palestine.

From Words Without Borders:

My grandmother’s house still stands. When she was born in the 1920s, the streets had no name. She said the earthquake parted them. And when my mother was born, two years after 1948, my grandmother says they were trapped inside their home, damp and cold, because of a snowstorm that covered Jerusalem by surprise. This is my lineage, my connection to the city, a place marked by both natural and man-made disasters. But the city’s disasters don’t follow me the way they do my mother and grandmother.

My curiosity about Palestine developed late—after my grandmother lost her husband and moved from Jordan to Texas to live with us. In the month following my grandfather’s death, she acted solemn and played her part of the ritual. I knew she wasn’t really mourning. She never truly loved him. But that same year, when her youngest son suddenly died of a heart attack, that hit her hard. He was only forty-three years old.

She became silent. Before that, she was known for her humorous affection and storytelling. Her sorrow grew deeper. That’s when I asked her to draw me a map of her house—perhaps that would help her grief. I also wanted to travel to Jerusalem and see what became of the house. I recall playfully buying bottled hot sauce to get her talking about the “magical pepper tree” from her childhood. My Jerusalem was in the pepper tree story that she obsessed over. Out of love and pity, my mother would plant every pepper she could find, but none of them would ever grow into the tree that my grandmother longed for. Our garden was transformed into a metaphorical graveyard of memories.

My grandmother is now ninety years old. Her face is symmetrically wrinkled, like the creases on the paper map of Jerusalem she drew. When she gets upset, her wrinkles cover her face as if they were drapes. But nothing could really curtain my grandmother’s anguish.

“A Map of Jerusalem”, Sousan Hammad, Words Without Borders