A Final Visit: The Kanafani Home in Haifa
By: Mona al-Omari
Published Friday, November 16, 2012
With a balcony overlooking the sea, the vacant Kanafani home in Haifa was the source of daydreams and reverie for passersby. Then the construction crews arrived; the home was to become an office. A writer documents the home’s last days.
Haifa – I often stop by the old Kanafani house on Bourj Street in Haifa. It belongs to the family of Abdul-Latif Kanafani, a cousin of the celebrated Palestinian author and activist Ghassan Kanafani who was murdered by Israeli operatives in Beirut in 1972. The street became a frontline during the 1948 war, and the family fled to nearby Akka before being displaced a second time and becoming refugees in Lebanon.
Whenever I am there, I become engrossed in the place. I imagine how the house and its occupants must have been, the details of their lives, and what became of them in exile. The place continues to exude a yearning for a proud and dignified life. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to it when my spirits need lifting. I sit on one of the abandoned balconies overlooking the sea and feel the cells of my body being renewed
I felt an urge to go there early one morning last week. As I parked in front of the neighboring house, belonging to the former mayor of Haifa, Abdul Rahman al-Hajj, I could hear the sound of demolition machines coming from the Kanafani house. I was horror-struck. I stood behind an olive tree and took pictures of them demolishing parts of the house. What should I do? Who is the owner of this house? Who should I contact? What are Abdul-Latif Kanafani and his descendants doing in Lebanon these days? Who can inform them?
I resolved to go inside and ask what they were doing, even if they were from Amidar, the Israeli state-owned housing company which controls the property of dispossessed Palestinians. I imagined myself getting into a futile row, after which I would end up cursing history, before some wise guy would say, “The whole country’s gone, and you’re worried about the Kanafani house?” wherein I’d respond with some heavy duty insults.
I could not hear the sound of my footsteps from the clatter of the demolition machines. As I approached one of the workers, I realized from a prayer sticker on his truck that he was Arab. He couldn’t hear me from the racket he was making, but when I waved my hand in his face he switched off his hydraulic drill.
“What are you working on here?” I asked.
He gave me a disparaging look and said, “We’re renovating the house.”
“How come you’re renovating it? Who for?”
“For the owners.”
“How come? Who are its owners?”
“The house has been sold. It’s being turned into lawyers’ offices.”
By this point he’d had enough of the conversation and directed me with his finger to the contractor who was sitting drinking coffee. Feeling devastated, I approached him. He snapped, “What do you want?”
I couldn’t think of a quick answer. Should I tell him what I really want – for them to leave the house alone and for us to rebuild it and and put shutters in the windows? Or should I give a standard formal reply, tell him that I’m a journalist and interested in this house? The truth is, I’m more than just interested.
After a few moments, I responded by asking, “Do you know who the original owner of this house is?”
He indicated that he did not, and with a puzzled look on his face, stuck his nose into his coffee cup. I continued, “This is Abdul-Latif Kanafani’s house,” hoping the name would mean something to him. He had the gall to reply, “It was. We demolished another house like it in Hara al-Tahta last month.”
I only had one other question for him, “Can I take photos?” He nodded his consent.
I recorded the last images of the house before its soul was extinguished and it is turned into an office just like the building next door – which used to be the Haifa headquarters of a Sufi order – and the mayor’s house. The homes of the dispossessed are to be filled with Israeli lawyers. Perhaps they will work on land confiscation cases in Sakhnin or Um al-Fahem right from the Kanafani family’s confiscated home.
When I spoke to the Jewish woman whose family took over the house next door, I asked whether they had kept any of the original family’s furniture or belongings. She replied that they had the coffee grinder. She said her grandfather told her that when they seized the house, they found coffee in a pot that was still warm.
I took picture after picture. Maybe the photos would be able to capture the house’s final breaths. In the kitchen, I imagined the mother calling out that lunch is ready, and everyone gathered around the table having a nice ordinary conversation. In the living room I could see the head of the family seated on a couch, smoking a pipe and reading the papers – al-Karmel or Filasteen.
I went to the balcony to look at the port and breathe in the familiar air of the house. I remembered something Abdul-Latif Kanafani had written about this balcony. He recalled standing on it as a boy during Ramadan to watch the muezzin, or prayer caller, of the Jreineh mosque wave a banner to signal the end of the Ramadan fast, how the children would put their hands over their ears, knowing that the boom of the Ramadan cannon, which could be heard all over the city, would follow.
I tried to conjure up the image by looking over to the mosque, but all I could see was a large depressing building blocking the view.
In his book Number 15 Bourj Street, Abdul-Latif Kanafani described this house as “my first homeland, a real homeland made of real soil.” He continued, “It stuck to me as I stuck to it, and got under my fingernails and into my hair and the fibers of my clothes, and my siblings and I left our fingerprints on every corner of it.” He detailed the different fruit trees and flower bushes that grew around it, and recalled how they rejoiced whenever the pomegranate tree bore its delicious fruit.
The chinaberry tree outside one of the bedrooms has grown, Abdul-Latif. I will always remember this house, and I will always remember its owners, even though I do not know them. The imagination runs free until they return, and until the pomegranate tree blossoms.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.