Monday, February 06, 2006

The Jamaican Option

The prospect of serving in the army did not fill his heart with joy. Like many young men in the country, he felt alienated from the government, from the official State that demanded taxes and obedience and imposed limitations of all kinds. Having discussed the matter with his family, it was decided he would disappear, dodge the draft so to speak. He would have to leave the country, away from where the army could reach him. The obvious choice was South America, those vast, fertile lands of opportunity so many had chosen before him. But for that, a great deal of money would be needed. Travel was expensive and he would need money to bribe his way out of difficult situations. The old grandmother had a stashed treasure, just for this type of situation. It had even earned her the nickname everyone knew. “Old Gold Bagger” would be a fair if slightly creative translation.
After a long and arduous journey, he made it to Buenos Aires. One can only imagine how that bustling metropolis presented itself to the young man from the Galilee, gazing at the harbour from the crowded deck of the steamer. Buenos Aires was the place he'd start his new life, away from compulsory service. He had a cousin who had fled like him, a few years before. The cousin was waiting, probably wearing his finest, hair all sleek with brilliantine. You can add a carnation on his lapel, yes, why not? Be it as it may, the young man came on shore and met this cousin of his, whose letters had never stopped making their way to the Old Country.
They proceeded to the immigration officer, that much we know. The language barrier was obvious, and the cousin acted as interpreter. The conversation must have been short, but it produced the much awaited document. It went something like this:
[The officer writes down the ship's details, the date and the port of entry, checks the cousin's papers and proceeds to address the newcomer:]
“Ah, we have a lot of those”, said the officer and wrote down the name as he knew it: ABRAHAM”. He thus produced the I.D. Card for Abraham Jerris Siaga, originally from Kfar Yassif, Akka Perfecture, Southern Syria Province.

I first heard about this episode, which took place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, during World War I, when my parents were about to paint their house in Haifa. They contracted a painter, a Christian Arab from Kfar Yassif, now in Northern Israel. The man, Khalil Jerris led a family business of painting houses and buildings. He had two of his brothers working with him, notably one who had the expression of eerie beatitude which is so common among Christian monks. In fact, that's just what he was, and his vows made him take only a minimal wage in exchange for his work. “Everything else”, he said once, “God gives”. The Jerris brothers did several jobs at the house and everything went just fine.
One day, Khalil came with old letters and documents, asking for help. He had to write a letter abroad. To Jamaica, of all places. Since the materials were in Arabic, I was called to help, and that's when Khalil explained the whole family situation. He told me about the cousins who'd left for Argentina. About Ibrahim being issued an Argentinian document for “Abraham”, and also about the death of the first “Argentinian” cousin shortly after the arrival of his young relative. This young man decided to leave Argentina and move to another place in the Americas. He made a stop or two, until he landed in Jamaica were he adopted “Old Gold Bagger”'s nickname as his official last name, spelling it SEAGA.
Years passed, and the son of this immigrant, the Palestinian Christian immigrant who did not want to serve in the Ottoman army and risk his life for the last Sultan, became a successful man, made money, raised a family and had his children educated as well as possible, being British subjects in a flourishing colony, the famous “Island in the Sun”. One of his children was particularly successful and ambitious. He's name was Edward. In fact, he is Edward Seaga, who at the time was Prime Minister of Jamaica. And Khalil wanted to renew family contacts, especially since the Jerris-Seagas of his branch in Kfar Yassif hadn't been blessed with too many children.
So I found myself writing in English, based on Arabic letters and documents in Spanish – writing to the Prime Minister of Jamaica. We sent the letter along with copies of the papers proving the details of the family's history since 1915 or so. Loyal to my task as post-Ottoman Israeli-Palestinian scribe, I introduced Khalil in the beginning of the letter, florid and festive as Arabic demands: “We are your family, the Jerris family also known as Seaga, from Kfar Yassif, Akka Prefecture, Southern Syria Province, in what used to be the Ottoman Sultanate. We are writing to you, cousin...”
Edward Seaga answered, sending a signed official portrait and some carefully worded details about his family's history in Jamaica, subtly confirming the long-lost ties, careful as a poltician can be. The story was confirmed and Khalil was elated. Around us, in Israel, the first Intifada was raging. He was worried about the future. One day, at my parents' house, he told me in his quiet voice: “What will happen to us? What will be our future? If you Jews aren't strong, we're all finished!”


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic incredible story!

moon said...

incredible story!
demonstrate in my view, what more do we need to happen for us Israelis and Palestinian to realize our mutual existence, and well being are bond, even stronger then blood (instead of shattering this blood - we should join ...but well, human nature is forever brimming with mediocre qualities - that it will take time and God knows what else, for us to realize this)

Rachel, north said...

Beautiful story!
We enjoyed so much

Anonymous said...

When talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is easy to think of a problem between Moslems and Jews and neglect the fact that the Palestinian group contains other groups such as the Christians.
In this article you very well remind us all that the Christian group is almost totally forgotten as far as their wishes, thoughts, history and national belongings are considered.
Very well done, Ioram, and I am very happy you haven’t forgotten them.
As for your words…as always, I am thrilled to read them and I find myself awaiting the next article.