Jacob Norris, The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub: Or, How the Bethlehemites Discovered Amerka (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jacob Norris (JN): Spending time in Bethlehem over many years, I became acutely aware of the town’s remarkable connectedness to the wider world. Everyone has a cousin, an auntie, a brother, living on the other side of the world, mostly in Latin America. When I began to look into the history of movement and migration that underpins this, I became fascinated by the dynamic of a small town’s sudden encounter with far-flung, strange places in the mid to late nineteenth century—a sense of the bizarre, the enchanting, the unreal. I realized this was a story that needed telling, one that had somehow slipped out of sight in Palestinian historiography. It seemed all the more urgent given the contrast between this history of mobility and the acute restrictions on movement Bethlehemites face today. Like all Palestinian towns, Bethlehem is increasingly hemmed in by the Wall, settlements, checkpoints, permits, and various other forms of colonial control.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JN: I decided to narrate Bethlehem’s global migrations through the eyes of one man, Jubrail Dabdoub (1860-1931). Jubrail was among the pioneer generation of young men sent abroad by their fathers and uncles to search for new trade opportunities. A new type of family business had arisen in Bethlehem thanks to the town’s booming trade in Holy Land souvenirs, mostly carved from mother-of-pearl. The model was highly patriarchal and centralized, and young men like Jubrail were the shock troops, allowing businesses to extend their tentacles across the entire globe. His biography seemed particularly interesting as he was the first person from Palestine/Syria to travel to the Philippines (1881), before later spending long periods in the Americas and Europe. He was also the beneficiary of a miracle in his later years, brought back from the dead in 1909 by a locally revered nun, Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas.
But like most of his generation, Jubrail proved a slippery character. Despite spending years collecting weird and wonderful sources relating to his life, there is still so much I do not know about him, including what he looked like. I decided to embrace a more creative form of historical writing, using all the contextual information at my disposal to imagine how certain episodes of his life may have played out. This led me to think more widely about the relationship between history and fiction. In the end, I wrote the whole text as if it were a kind of magical realist novel in an attempt to capture the sense of wonder, confusion, and absurdity that seemed to accompany the Bethlehemites on their early journeys. I had always loved reading authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and Salim Barakat. Now I started trying to mimic particular stylistic devices they used to write about Jubrail’s arresting encounters. Magical realism seemed well suited for that—bringing out the contradictions of life on the fringes of capitalist modernity and inverting our sense of what is normal and what’s “supernatural.” It was daunting at first, but a lot of fun too.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JN: In terms of the subject matter, I have been publishing articles about Bethlehem’s outwards migrations for quite a while. But the book is a big departure in terms of the emphasis on narrativity and fictional devices. When I first discovered Jubrail was involved in the miracle with Marie-Alphonsine, I began drafting chapters and giving conference presentations that explained the event in terms of established anthropological and sociological theory—patronage, reciprocity, the idea of a gift-exchange economy. But these very rationalized ways of seeing the miracle seemed to ignore the actors themselves and how they experienced and understood the event. I began to experiment with a different way of writing, embracing the so-called “ontological turn”—the recognition that people inhabit very different realities that cannot be explained through universally intelligible symbols. What would happen if, when describing Jubrail’s resurrection, I took it as a given that some kind of supernatural intervention had occurred? There were a lot of potholes along the way, not least the thorny question of my position as an outsider narrating the history of another people, another culture. But in the end, I came to see the new approach as a more honest way of recognizing the subjectivity of my role as a crafter of stories rather than a purveyor of concrete facts.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JN: Bethlehem played an important role in the creation of today’s global Arab diaspora. Today there are tens of millions of people of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian origin living in the Americas, and many thousands spread out across West Africa, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia. In almost every country, they tell an origin story of young men from Bethlehem selling mother-of-pearl rosaries and crosses, paving the way for larger numbers to follow. So I hope the book will be read by people interested in broader histories of diaspora and migration. I also hope it will resonate with Palestinian historiography. So often Palestinians are presented as the passive victims of globalization—via Zionism, British colonialism, global capitalism, and so on. While it is vital we do not lose sight of Palestinians’ historic dispossession, there is so much more to the story. The history of Bethlehem in the late Ottoman period shows Palestinians were shapers of globalization. They were out in the world, discovering for themselves the bewildering contradictions of the nineteenth century: what it meant to be cosmopolitan and parochial, rational and pious, modern and traditional, all at the same time. In addition to being peasants, notables, and intellectuals, Palestinians were arch-capitalists who helped forge the consumerist world we live in (especially when it comes to buying religious knickknacks). Ultimately, the richness and diversity of this pre-1948 history only reinforces the tragedy and violence of the Nakba.
J: What other projects are you working on no?
JN: The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub led me to carry out research in Central America where some of the largest Palestinian communities in the world can be found today. This has opened up a whole new area of research for me: the young Palestinian revolutionaries who joined local resistance movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Chile, and beyond in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I am currently planning a collaborative project that will explore these histories—how the Palestinian struggle has been historically embedded in the revolutionary politics of Latin America.
J: Is Bethlehem’s history of migration unique among Palestinian towns?
JN: In some ways, yes. There is no town in the wider region that experienced emigration as intensely and as early as Bethlehem. But it is also a much wider story. Hundreds of thousands of women and men were leaving Mount Lebanon by the 1880s, following similar migratory paths across the Atlantic. In Palestine, the trend was less pronounced, but there were still several towns and villages dotted around the hilly interior that followed in Bethlehem’s wake. Not only neighboring Christian villages like Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, but also Muslim towns like al-Bireh and Ramleh. Today it is well known that, in a city like Ramallah, virtually all the old families now live in the United States—a historic process that began in the late Ottoman period. Bethlehem was the trailblazer for these movements. It was also a town that exerted considerable influence on the Palestinian socio-economic landscape in the early twentieth century, thanks to the considerable sums of money and cultural influence flowing into the town from abroad. As one correspondent for the newspaper Falastin remarked in 1913: “Today the visitor is stupefied upon entering [Bethlehem] as the lofty palaces and great buildings come into view, the likes of which are rarely found in our biggest cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa, and it would not be an overstatement to say Beirut either.”
Excerpt from the book (from chapter 1, pp. 17-21)
Of all the exotic characters passing through Hosh Dabdoub, it was Ammo Hanna who most fascinated Jubrail. His real name was Hanna Khalil Ibrahim Morcos. He was not an uncle in the strictest sense, but everyone called him “ammo” as a term of affection. Ammo Hanna had traveled to the farthest reaches of the known world and was a walking repository of fantastical stories. Most of all, he was the only person in Bethlehem to have traveled to Amerka and returned to tell the tale.
In those days, Hosh Dabdoub was the first building travelers encountered as they approached Bethlehem along the path that forked off the main road from Jerusalem. Just at the point the road turned the corner at the top of Ras Iftays and offered its first view of Bethlehem on the ridge below, there was the house, hugging the steep hillside, providing a waystation for excitable travelers.
Young Jubrail would creep upstairs from the living quarters and poke his head around the shop door to find a series of arresting scenes unfolding. A pompous Ottoman general, decked out in war medals, tarbush meticulously brushed, might be updating the local mukhtars on how the sultan’s troops had crushed the latest rebellion in Crete. Next to them, a barefoot dervish might be debating the merits of Monophysism with the local Syriac priest, his enormous beard showing up all the whiter against the brilliant blue of his brocaded robe. Or perhaps a group of shaven-headed Franciscans would be gathered around one of the European women who visited the shop from time to time, clamoring to offer her lodging in their guesthouse as they admired her voluminous skirts—a most unfortunate design, Jubrail always thought, for the unexpected gusts of wind that swept through town during the khamasin season.
In the midst of these surprising encounters, Ammo Hanna would turn up unannounced, sending ripples of excitement through the house.
“Ahlayn Imm Hanna! What’s happening at the top of the hill?” he would greet Jubrail’s mother as she opened the door, a mischievous grin on his face. Despite his age, he cut an impressive figure with his wide gait and bushy moustache.
“Khush ya hajj, come in, come in,” Rosa would reply, curious to see what strange objects the old man had brought with him this time. Once, he had arrived wearing a bizarre type of headdress, round in shape and surrounded by a curiously stiff brim. He called it his “burnayta,” explaining it was popular in some distant corner of Amerka. Another time, he had brought a mysterious device that made a ticking sound as its mechanical parts rotated. He claimed it could measure the hour without needing to be adjusted with the changing of the seasons. This, he explained patiently, was how franji time operated: fixed, mechanical, and measurable to the nearest second. At this point everyone lost interest, agreeing such a contraption held no practical use given the length of the day was constantly changing and they already had the church bells and local muezzin to remind them of prayer times.
Before Ammo Hanna could linger in the hallway, Jubrail’s father and elder brothers would usher him out to the rear terrace to drink coffee and puff on arghileh pipes. There the men of the house would talk business as they gazed out over the sea of olive groves that stretched to the east and then gave way to the barren hills of the Wilderness. They discussed exchange rates between unpronounceable foreign currencies, imports of mother-of-pearl shells, and the recent upsurge in Russian pilgrims. All the while, Jubrail sat patiently beside them, waiting for his moment. Eventually the conversation would die down and the old men would start to snooze on the diwan as the hills turned a golden color in the afternoon sun.
This was Jubrail’s chance. “Please, Ammo,” he would beg, tugging on his abayeh. “Tell us about Amerka!”
A-M-E-R-K-A. Even the word sounded exotic. Some of Jubrail’s friends said it was an island in the Red Sea, while others claimed it lay to the east of the Hindi lands. But Jubrail knew it lay somewhere faraway to the west, across a great sea called the Atlasi Ocean. Ammo Hanna had explained to him that to reach Amerka you first had to cross the lands of the faranja—those strange people who stayed at the Franciscan guesthouse and often came to buy mother-of-pearl carvings from the family shop. Jubrail imagined crossing those lands would be a perilous task. The faranja had a reputation for being quarrelsome, always meddling in the affairs of others, even when circumstance demanded a humbler approach. The Bethlehemites had a long history of welcoming them to their town and even finding ways to profit from their presence. But they had also learned to be wary of them. People still told stories about a particularly haughty general named Napoleon whose army had swept across Egypt and Palestine, attracting a few ambitious locals along the way. Among his local recruits had been a man from Bethlehem named Abdallah Hazboun who had found himself in a delicate position when the franji army was defeated at Acre. Facing a choice between the vengeance of the Ottoman armies or a retreat with Napoleon, Abdallah had wisely chosen the latter, traveling with Napoleon all the way back to France. It was said he had found success there, living in a city called Paris with a franji wife and embarking on further military expeditions, where he continued to help the French armies meddle in the affairs of others. But he could never return to Bethlehem.
Jubrail was familiar with these legends of the first people to travel to the lands of the faranja. But only Ammo Hanna had made it all the way to Amerka. The older generation spoke about a man named Andrea Dawid who had set out for those distant lands nearly a hundred years ago. In the year 1796 word had reached Bethlehem of his death, but the event remained shrouded in mystery. The Dawid family lived just down the road from Hosh Dabdoub and still debated poor Andrea’s fate. Some of them said he had been consumed by malignant jinn living in the mountain caves of Amerka, while others insisted he had been devoured by sea monsters during the return voyage.
The speculation over Andrea Dawid only served to bolster Ammo Hanna’s aura as he turned to young Jubrail on the terrace and launched into one of his tales.
“For thirty days and thiry nights, we journeyed across the great Atlasi Ocean,” he would always begin, gazing wistfully across the valley as he stroked his moustache.
“Only Allah knows how we survived the perils of that mighty ocean. Wallahi, I saw sea monsters with fins taller than our church tower in Bayt Lahm. Waves as high as mountains smashed into the boat, sending passengers and crew rushing below deck!”
Jubrail would listen open-mouthed, straining to imagine this vast, mysterious ocean. There was no river in Bethlehem, let alone an ocean. The only body of water he knew were the Pools of Suleiman to the south of Bethlehem where spring water from the surrounding hills was collected and channeled northward toward Jerusalem. On trips there with his elder brothers he would splash in the pools, battling the sea monsters described by Ammo Hanna.
“Our ship had been battered by storms and the captain lost all sense of direction,” Ammo Hanna would continue. “Supplies were running out and the crew had given up all hope of navigating to safety.”
Jubrail loved these moments of suspense when Ammo Hanna would pause, shaking his head as he looked down at the floor.
“Then one night, as I looked up to the heavens in desperation, there he was, flying overhead, spear in hand, green robes billowing out from behind him. By the grace of Almighty Allah, it was al-Khadr guiding us to safety! I was not the only one who had seen him either. Several of the crew members saw the same flash of green and knew it was a sign to follow in that direction.”
Jubrail knew all about al-Khadr and how he could transport himself from any one place to another in a single instant. “The earth folds beneath them,” they would say about that special category of saint known as ahl al-khitmeh. The faranja who came to Bethlehem even had the audacity to claim him as one of their own, calling him Saint George. But everyone in Bethlehem knew he was a local saint who kept special watch over the town’s intrepid travelers.
It was only through the intervention of al-Khadr that Ammo Hanna’s ship had been guided to the bountiful lands of Amerka. There, on the other side of the Atlasi Ocean, he had found a new world in a frenzy of creation. A land of great cities in the making inhabited by people from every part of the world, all come to make their fortune. Waiving his hands excitedly, he would explain how opportunity there was limitless, especially for a merchant selling Holy Land carvings from Bethlehem.
At this point Jubrail’s father would stir from his sleep and begin paying attention.
“The people there profess to be Christians,” Ammo Hanna would explain. “They hold anything from al-Quds and Bayt Lahm in great reverence. I swear to the Virgin, they flocked in great numbers to buy my rosaries and crosses. I only wish I had brought greater quantities from Bethlehem!”