Model Role Details

Hanna Giacaman

Sector : Public Figures , Public Figures

Personal Info

  • Country of residence : Palestine
  • Gender : Female
  • Born in : 1922
  • Age : 93
  • Curriculum vitae :


Hanna Giacaman 1922–2006 Homage to a Heritage Keeper

Whenever I sat with the late Hanna Abdullah Giacaman in his Bethlehem home, I would wait for the story about the shoes. His shrunken body would lean forward as animatedly as that of a boy, and fixing me with his earnest eyes, he would excitedly commence his tale, "Two women at a wedding are eying each other’s shoes," he would say. "One of them asks the other, ‘How much did you pay for your shoes, yahkti?’ His words, slurred and slippery with age at the best of times, would now rise to mimic the women, as I rose to the challenge of picking them out of his voice stream. ‘One hundred,’ the other answered. ‘One hundred shekels?" the first woman asked. ‘Shuu, one hundred shekels!’ she answered indignantly, as Hanna’s voice would rise to scathing heights in imitation. ‘One hundred dollars!’ she crowed. ‘They’re orthopaedic.’ But tell the same woman to buy a book about the history or heritage of her town and country for 50 shekels," he sputtered, "and she would say in equal horror, "It’s too expensive!"

I didn’t read Tuesdays with Morrie, but Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays couldn’t have been as interesting as the few scattered afternoons I spent sitting with this octogenarian author, I would reflect. For I knew that just as I was dying to hear Hanna Giacaman's tales, he was living to tell them. And so I would settle down for an hour or so to hear in person tidbits from the life and works of this man who had compiled an eight-volume history (in Arabic) of different parts of Palestine-especially Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth-by going through papers at monasteries and other overlooked sources. Back and forth through the centuries, he would lead me on a dizzying whirl, conjuring up images of Bethlehem boys sent to study in Muslim Spain, scaffolds and scuffles in the Nativity Church, the life stories of people behind some of Bethlehem’s landmarks, tribes of dark-skinned pre-Islamic Arabs who came here after the breakdown of the Ma’arib Dam, or blue-eyed Afghans and green-eyed Kurds who came during Ottoman times. Rattling off names and dates, he would weave such detailed and textured pictures of deeds and doings of bygone days that it could have been yesterday. From time to time, he would disappear for a moment and emerge with a stack of handwritten notes. His works cleared up the mystery as to why the nuns in the Convent of the Hortus Conclusus in Artas are sometimes referred to as Italian and others as Argentinean. They even provided material of direct relevance to my own Iraqi family-history research. Heritage seeker that I am, I would take all these shifts of scene in my stride. That of all these stories, it is the one of the Shoes and the Books which sticks out most in my mind is fitting. Not that Hanna Giacaman, a contemporary of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, the author of the Bethlehem memoir, The First Well, didn’t appreciate shoes: the sight of the feet of barefoot Bethlehem boys slapping on the slabs of stones must have been part of Hanna’s childhood experience. Who can forget how Jabra’s dream of owning a pair of boots was fulfilled, only to be snatched away by the poverty of loving parents who had to sell them to survive? Somehow, however, I doubt that this poignant picture would present itself to the ladies in the story, as heels of their new shoes tapping after the wedding, they tripped past the blue sign for Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Street on the side of an old building.

Though in the Bethlehem of Hanna Giacaman’s childhood, neither shoes nor books could be taken for granted, it is to books rather than shoes that Hanna Giacaman’s life story is intimately tied: books lost and found; books begged or borrowed; books bought and unbought, the fate of particular books, and the story behind his own books, which began when he was a boy. It is then that he began his collection of books, buying them one at a time with his pocket money, and then that the boy scouts instilled in him a sense of patriotism and life-long interest in photography. The camera was always in his pocket, ready for every occasion, and long after he grew up, people would say-"Bititnatnit zay walad zaghir"-you jump around like a little boy, as he tried to get just the right angle or the right light. The right angle sometimes took him to the rooftops of the Schmidt or Freres schools in Jerusalem, while the right light often required repeat visits. These photographs found their way into his books decades later. As for writing, Hanna recalled, "I always liked to scribble. It didn’t matter what." He attributed this in part to the fact that his mother, as well as his father, was literate and had had several years of formal education, a rarity in those days.

But as the boy became a man, the demands of daily life didn’t leave him much time to devote to his passion. Studying accounting and later hotel management, the search for a livelihood brought him a wide range of experiences in different places, including stints as an accountant in Rafah during the Mandate, as a contractor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Saudi Arabia with Aramco. He had no time to write during this period, but took every opportunity to read. In the meantime, Palestine went through the wars of 1948 and 1967. Getting wind of the Israeli census being conducted, a well-wisher tipped off Hanna’s wife, urging her to tell him to come back while he could.

Hanna did manage to come back to Bethlehem but had many shocks in store. Not only had the world of his childhood been swept away by the political situation and its aftermath, but he was unable to find suitable work. As he had been abroad, people suspected that he might be a militant, which might bring them even more troubles. He finally opened a shop near Cinema el Amal where he sold sandwiches. People called him the "Dukanji," or shopkeeper. Nor could he find solace in his book collection. Most of the books that he had painstakingly collected from his pocket money had disappeared, either lost or borrowed and never returned. During his twenty-year absence, the neighbours would come to his mother and say, "Ya Im Hanna, I’etina Chitab, Khalina Nitsalla"-Give us a book to pass the time. He had to try to get them back from all over.

He now started rebuilding his library and collecting materials in earnest. He was fifty before he began writing-for he did not want to write just any book, but had a very particular kind of book in mind. At the time he began his research, he found no specialized history of any particular city in the world: history was written in periods, he explained. Up to 1800, change was slow, and glimpses of Bethlehem could be found in various works. But after Napoleon, there were so many changes that people couldn’t keep up with them. Ten books would be needed on Ibrahim Pasha alone, Hanna claimed. The eventful history of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala was virtually unknown. It is on these towns as well as Jerusalem and Nazareth that Hanna focused. Hanna was also aiming his book at the general reader rather than the specialist. The books of the historian Aref Aref, though very precise, for instance, were not useful for people without a historical background, in Hanna’s view. Hanna explained that lack of funds for printing had caused that author to write in a very condensed manner.

Hanna set out on a cross-country trail of the works he needed in order to write the kind of books he wanted, seeking documents that shed light on the history and ways of life of towns, institutions, and families year by year. He looked up a priest who had been in charge at the Salesian School when he was a boy scout, for example, telling him about his project and asking for books. The priest told him that five years before he had collected some books and put them in a carton, and that the rest had been thrown out! Luckily for Hanna, the book by Yohanna Nahas, a student at Father Belloni’s orphanage who had written in depth about Father Belloni and other figures and events at the turn of the century, survived. He went to the Carmelite Convent in Bethlehem and asked what they had in the way of records and documents. "I only have this one book," the nun told him. "Lend it to me." he pleaded. That one book helped him write about the Palestinian mystic, Sister Mariam Baouardy.

But it was for his knowledge about the fascinating history of Bethlehem’s families that I had first sought Hanna Giacaman. "If your parents don’t know your history, how would I know?" he would ask those who wanted to know the history of their families when he started to write. Nevertheless, he devoted a good section of one of his books to the history of the various clans of the original Bethlehem families and to notable individuals in them. How did he collect this information? I wanted to know. Hanna explained to me that the head of the clan or family used to record events affecting the family or community; a plague of locusts or a severe snow might be noted as would divorces or disputes. For it was to the clan head that the parties would first resort out of respect. Only if they were dissatisfied with his decision would they take the matter to court.

Collecting this information was every bit as hard as the other documents and books he collected. "Why, what happened to the records?" I asked. "Young people were silly in those days too," he answered. "They paid the garbage man to come and haul off the collections of books that their fathers and grandfathers had spent their lives building." This often happened when they moved out of the old core of Bethlehem into new houses. "They thought themselves modern and didn’t want to take their old things to the new house." Other times, people took the papers with them when they emigrated to Chile. But occasionally someone would bring them back: during one phase of his research, Hanna went nightly to a restaurant for two months to copy by hand the information from the book of a former classmate.

Hanna saw himself as a builder. "It is true that I took information from many sources and many people," he conceded. "Each of these was like a brick. But I am the one who arranged them into an edifice," he said. When it came time to publish his books, Hanna found, like so many others before him, that he would have to pay for the printing costs himself. Since he hadn’t skimped on details or photos, his oeuvre comprised eight volumes and this was a costly proposition. Some are still awaiting printing. It is a shame that the photos he collected and took himself are not done justice in the version he could afford to print, many of them the quality of poor photocopies. Only the colour photos on the cover hint at what might have been.

Like all heritage keepers who operate more for reasons of passion than profession, Hanna had his detractors. When he showed his book to one of the priests who used to frequent his shop, he laughed and said, "You wrote this? You? the Dukanji?" But Hanna Giacaman was not cowed. "Abuna," he responded with dignity. "In 1940, where were you?" The priest replied, "My father was born in 1940. Where would I be?" "Don’t you think I learned anything in my life?" he asked. Some people were eager to read his books, but reluctant to pay. A family once took a whole set of his books promising to pay later. "Everyone in that family read the books, and then they returned them without paying, feigning lack of interest," Hanna recalled. No wonder he wanted to amend the Arab proverb "Three things should never be lent: your wife, your horse, or your sword." He said that these days, the proverb should end, "… your wife, your car, or your books."

Some institutions rejected his books, claiming that they were missionary works because of their focus on Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth. Some said that the books weren’t academic enough or that the style wasn’t polished enough, though they usually acknowledged that they were factually correct. Eventually some universities did buy them, and they were incorporated into the courses of tourism and hotel management at Bethlehem University, so close to his home. But as far as I am concerned, his achievement in collecting and compiling the material is so significant that I wouldn’t care if they were written in Pig Latin.

And that is just a short glimpse into the life and works of the late Hanna Giacaman. Yes, Hanna Giacaman was late, but the rest of us are even later. I am too late to ask him about how the bagpipes passed from Mandate armies to Palestinian boy scouts so that I can answer the query on, and too late to give him the gift that was in my car for months, as I went back and forth to Bethlehem, because I was running late. But we are all too late-too late to see the remarkable photos he took, which were lost or stolen when the printer moved shop. Most of all, we are too late to give Hanna Giacaman the credit and homage he deserved. "Why do you wait until we’re dead to honour us," he once asked. "Why not honour us while we’re alive?" Why indeed? I, for one, am betting that Hanna Giacaman’s books will be sold long before someone else can fill his shoes.

Leyla Zuaiter is currently on the editorial board of and the advisory board of the Artas Folklore Center.


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