Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in British Mandate Palestine: The Wasif Jawhariyyeh Story

A while back I was trying to find out about what I could about Palestinian music. I was also scratching an itch in terms of my curiosity about the British Mandate period and the city of Jerusalem. The Mandate period was when the British Empire took control of Palestine in 1917 under the auspices of the League of Nations. Britain facilitated the partition of the country in 1948, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs.

One of the first things I came across online which appeared to tick all the boxes was a memoir by a Palestinian musician and Jerusalem resident Wasif Jawhariyyeh entitled The Storyteller of Jerusalem. Wasif was from a well-connected Orthodox Christian Arab family. Working in the civil service as a tax inspector from 1904 to 1948 by day, by night he partied away singing and playing the oud, a stringed instrument similar to a lute. His social connections meant that he was hanging out with some of the key political players of the time. For this reason and a whole load of others, his memoir blew my head off, and I’d like to share some thoughts on it. It shows a fascinating perspective of the Palestinian Nakba, (‘catastrophe’), but it also has lessons for all of us today.

It was an extraordinary scene and and an innovation in the science of inebriation.
The Storyteller of Jerusalem

An interesting thing about his memoirs is that that they were never written for a wider audience. Wasif started gathering them as a refugee in Beirut, where he fled along with other Palestinians after 1948. He dedicates the book to his son Jiryis to be “a reminder of his ancestors’ deeds.” Displaced from the city that enabled him to live the life he describes, it appears he intended his memoirs to be a heirloom. Perhaps this is one of the reasons there is slightly gossipy feel to the descriptions of the goings-on amongst the Jerusalem elite of the time.

Wasif’s childhood was both traditional and bohemian. He describes amongst other things a cross-dressing wedding party in his family home. He also depicts religious festivals and community events that happened in Jerusalem as he is growing up, making the book a unique and valuable social chronicle of the times. One thing that comes over is how integrated the various Palestinian communities are described: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They share the same geographical space quite happily, and there doesn’t appear any friction between them until Zionism comes on the scene. Wasif, a Christian, even spent time developing his singing by studying the Quran.

This idyll is shattered by the World War One, followed the disintegration of the Ottoman empire in Palestine in 1917. The feeling of relief at the end of the war results in a wave of partying that the young Wasif, already skilled as a singer and an oud player, jumps into with great enthusiasm. Some of his up-close stories will have resonances for those who have lived a similar life: late-night parties playing music, a cast of unforgettable eccentrics, drinking, cavorting, cocaine use and sleeping all the next day. At one point, Wasif worries that he is becoming a “vagabond.” And yet all the while, he is guided not by hedonism but by his love of tarab, an Arabic word that is similar to duende in Spanish: the passion that comes from creative expression.

Wasif finally gets a grip on himself and, through his connections to the notable al-Husseini family, secures a job in the civil service as a tax inspector, with the country now under British rule. This doesn’t stop his music nor his taste for partying, however, and he soon comes to the attention of Sir Ronald Storrs, the Governor of Jerusalem. Storrs is fluent in Arabic and a music lover, and the two strike up a bizarre friendship despite their political and social differences.

As the book progresses, the Palestinian Arabs discover that they have been saved from the Ottoman frying pan only to be thrown into a British fire. Details start to leak about the Balfour Declaration, whereby the British occupiers agreed to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Zionist movement of Jewish settlers starts to make its presence felt there, and trouble starts. Wasif, too, is alarmed by these developments, and writes a satirical song to express his frustrations:

Instead of Anwar and Jamal, our rulers will be

Shabtai, Sholem, and Haim, who hate us

What a pity to lose you, dear homeland, and to lose our men,

And to see the gazelles around us turn into monkeys…

Storrs finds this song hilarious, and persuades Wasif to come and play it at a party he organised “worthy of royalty,” where Wasif describes himself as “the only second class citizen there.” Wasif is nervous, but emboldened by drink proceeds to play his song, and the audience burst out with laughter.

Only the British ruling class would have the arrogance to display this extraordinary mixture of appreciation and contempt in one single gesture!

Wasif’s job as a tax inspector takes him into the surrounding area, where he gets to know the villagers and learns about their lives, earning their respect in the process. He also travels as a musician, and gains a very different perspective. In particular, he travels with Persifon, a business woman, agronomist and mistress of his friend Ragheb Bey al-Nashashibi to the villages of Beit Wusin and Deir Amr. There, he learns traditional music from the people he meets. Tragically, in 1948 as Zionist forces complete their occupation of Palestine during the Nakba, these villages he visits were ethnically cleansed.

As the book progresses, Wasif becomes a notable musician in Palestine, and is known as a collector of rare and unusual artefacts. A gig in Jerusalem by many big names in Arab music would not be complete without a visit to his home. He even describes his encounter with Egyptian legend Um Kulthuum, a woman who is still regarded as the greatest singer ever in the Arab world.

All this and more occurs against the backdrop of growing friction caused by the Zionist project. Strikes, massacres and futility start to permeate the book. What makes Wasif’s story so powerful is not just what he describes but the growing sense of being engulfed by political events so massive and catastrophic they are almost impossible to contemplate, let alone resist. But even as his story reaches inevitable tragedy in 1948, Wasif, by then a family man, heads to Jericho to work with refugees created by the partition of Palestine and Israel into Jewish and Arab states. This too overwhelms him, however.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Palestine, Israel and Zionism or music and politics generally. The English translation by Salim Tamari is astonishing, and it reads like a cross between a fairy-tale recreation of a lost era, a rock-and-roll memoir and an ultimately tragic political novel. You can find a copy here.

Mt track “In the Days Before the Floods” is based on Wasif’s memoir and you can find it here:

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