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Chris Doyle

A generational journey: From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea

A riveting and powerful read from a scion of a major Palestinian family

Date of publication: 28 April, 2021

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Book Club: A compelling memoir by one of the first Arabs to go to Eton, Adel Dajani's account of life in Libya is bookended by tragic family experiences in Palestine.

From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea is a riveting and powerful read from a scion of a major Palestinian family, who was born in Libya in the 1950s growing up in an and around the Royal Court as a Libyan. Adel Dajani's sparkling account of life in Libya and Tunisia is bookended by the tragic experiences of the Dajani family in Palestine. 

Dajani's journey and that of his family spanning seventy years is a heady mix of joy and loss from someone who makes no attempt to hide his privileged upbringing. 

No matter how many 'Black Swans' have hit the family, from the Nakba of 1948, the Gaddafi coup of 1969 and the events of the Arab Spring, it is striking how they have always bounced back, set up new homes and embarked on fresh successful ventures.

The key Dajani explains is that the family had always focused on education like so many refugees. He was no exception, and was dispatched to Eton College in England, one of the most elite schools in the world, to become the first Arab let alone Palestinian or Libyan to attend. He was at the receiving end sadly of many racist barbs from being called a 'WOG' to a dirty Arab.

No matter how many 'Black Swans' have hit the family, from the Nakba of 1948, the Gaddafi coup of 1969 and the events of the Arab Spring, it is striking how they have always bounced back, set up new homes and embarked on fresh successful ventures

The Dajanis were one of the chief notable families in Palestine. Dajani claims his family first came to Jerusalem with the Caliph Omar in the 7th century and had lived there uninterrupted for over 13 centuries until the Nakba in 1948.  

Since 1529, the Dajanis had acted as the official custodians of the Tomb of the Prophet David, holy to both Jews and Muslims. On its upper floor is the Cenacle, the reputed location for the Last Supper.

Such was the status of the Dajanis that at one point the family had its own newspaper and a football team that participated in the national Palestinian football leagues. The Dajanis maintain their historic claim to properties in Jaffa and Jerusalem.

Dajani's maternal grandfather, Dr Fouad Dajani, founded Palestine's first private hospital in Jaffa in 1933. The Israeli authorities finally permitted a memorial to Fouad in 2000, a memorial lately desecrated over by Jewish extremists threatened by any trace of a Palestinian presence or history in Jaffa.

This extraordinary presence in Palestine came to a bitter end in 1948 during the Nakba. After deciding to leave Jaffa for Egypt, his mother made sure to pack winter clothes for her children, believing there was no need for spring clothes as they would be back home before the Spring.

Dajani's father and mother were to witness the death and birth of two nations, the end of Palestine and the birth of Libya. It was to this fledgeling North African state that Dajani's father headed as a legal adviser to the Royal Court of Prince Idris al-Senussi and it is here that Adel Dajani was born, on the Wheelus Air base in 1955, the largest American military base at the time outside the US.

Since 1529, the Dajanis had acted as the official custodians of the Tomb of the Prophet David

His account of growing up in the court of the Libyan King and Queen is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. He is unequivocal in his admiration for the founder of the Libyan state. It is infused with humorous anecdotes of the famous figures he met even as a child, including Gamal Abd el Nasser.

Unfortunately, at a private lunch the young Adel had to be unceremoniously ejected after a fit of uncontrollable giggles even though the Libyan and Egyptian rulers found it 'most amusing.'

As with Palestine, another black swan saw the confiscation of their assets in Libya in 1969 with the Gaddafi revolution. He laments the way in which Libya was devastated by Gaddafi's 42-year rule, whilst describing his joy at his downfall in 2011. 

At a private lunch the young Adel had to be unceremoniously ejected after a fit of uncontrollable giggles even though the Libyan and Egyptian rulers found it 'most amusing'

For much of the ensuing period Dajani lived in Tunisia and describes in detail the families contrasting experiences of the Jasmine revolution and the Libyan uprising. 

"Where is home? What is family? Where will we end our days? Does it matter? What is legacy? What are roots? So many questions, many without clear answers." 

These are the questions that remain unanswered for Adel Dajani. It is brought home when taking his son to visit Palestine. At the Allenby Bridge, an Israeli soldier asks him with no hint of irony, why he was born in Tripoli? 

Dajani remains an optimist despite all the black swans. Dajani sees Tunisia as the only democracy in the Arab world, and one that if managed properly could develop into the services crossroads between Europe and Africa.

As for his beloved Palestine, he argues that "history has a long memory in the Holy Land and the cry for freedom by the Palestinians will one day be heeded." Let us hope so.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech

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