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Of Manuscripts and Thorns, Al-Ahram Weekly (August 9, 2005)

Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 09 - 2005

Stuart Reigeluth, in Jerusalem, visits the Khalidi Library and takes stock of the twists and turns of its recent history
Since 1967, Israeli authorities and Jewish groups have coveted the Khalidi Library for its enviable location on Bab al-Silsila Street in the Old City of Jerusalem. From the Haram al-Sharif (the Muslim Noble Sanctuary), the street ascends through various markets to Bab al-Khalil (Jaffa Gate) of the outer Ottoman rampart wall. Bab al-Silsila Street also separates the Jewish Quarter from the Muslim Quarter, and the new backyard of number 116, the Khalidi Library, is the Western Wall Plaza, where Jews congregate to pray, hoping for the return of the Messiah and the resurrection of the Temple Mount. However, the strong pressure exerted by Israeli political ploys and Jewish religious excuses has not succeeded in expropriating the Khalidi Library from the prominent Palestinian family.
During the Ottoman era, Sheikh Mohamed Sun'allah Khalidi began a personal collection of books in which he inscribed: "Only for men." He also established a waqf for the Khalidi family property on Bab al-Silsila Street, which comprises the family house, the library and its annex. In Arabic, a waqf implies a religious endowment fund, which renders a property unalienable, incapable of being surrendered or transferred. The plaque above the entrance attests that the library was founded officially in 1318AH (1900AD). At this time, the waqf was certified by the Palestinian judge, Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi (1866- 1952), the books were catalogued by Abdel-Qader al-Jazairi, and the library was open to the public. When the first librarian, Sheikh al-Amin al-Ansari died, the library fell into disuse. After 1967, Haidar Khalidi repudiated Israeli attempts to acquire the "absentee property," and reopened the library. His daughter, Haifa Khalidi, remains the sole caretaker of the family house and manages the vast collection of rare books that emanated from the idea of a collection meant "only for men."
In the wake of the 1967 June War, the Magharibeh (Moroccan) Quarter was razed and replaced by the Western Wall Plaza. During a Friday evening prayer in 1968, numerous bombs exploded along al-Wad Street of the Old City and near the Haram al-Sharif. Arab houses were confiscated and replaced by Israeli police stations, such as the one leading up and around to Bab al-Silsila Street. Thereafter, a passageway was dug beneath Bab al-Silsila Street to permit access for Jews and foreigners, but not Arabs, to the Western "Wailing" Wall. And in 1978, the Arab shops between the Khalidi family house and library were expropriated by Israel's chief Ashkenazi leader of Polish origin, Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), and converted into a massive multi-storey yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish Talmudic school and rabbinical seminary).
The Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi responded and asked the architect Rabih al-Masri to send renovation plans for the library to the municipality. Five years later, the plans were accepted and work began in November 1987. Then, on 31 December, 1987, Rabbi Goren and his lawyer presented a court order to stop the work. The case lasted another five years. The testimonies of two Israelis, Professor Amnon Cohen and archaeologist Dan Bahat, provided the conclusive evidence in favour of the Khalidi family, and renovation resumed in 1992. Three years later, another Israeli tunnel opened to the select public; it extends from the Plaza, beneath Bab al-Silsila Street, along the underground portion of the Western Wall to the Via Dolorosa where Christ is said to have dragged his bloody cross.
Also in 1995, the building across the street from the family house was turned into the Khalidi Library Annex. At the top of the stone staircase, the spacious reception area gives onto rooms containing 6,000 volumes, research facilities, an administrative office and a conference room. Fifty meters up the street, the Khalidi Library is locked. Like the annex, it is closed for good reasons to the general public.
The entrance room of the Khalidi Library is the turbah (burial site) of Amir Husam al-Din Barkah Khan and his two sons, Badr al-Din and Husam al-Din Kara, both of whom fought under the Mamluk Sultan Baybars against the Crusaders. In the adjacent room, there are books on display, photos of Rouhi al-Khalidi, Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, and Youssef Diya' al-Din al-Khalidi, who once served as mayor of Jerusalem and compiled the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary. And perhaps most revealing is a letter dated 1213AH (1798AD) from Jerusalem to the Ottoman Porte Sublime announcing the arrival of "unbelievers," in reference to Napoleon's disembarkation in Palestine.
The metal spiral staircase leads to a room with 1278 manuscripts -- 18 Persian, 46 Turkish, and the rest Arabic -- all encased for protection in anti-acid boxes. Haifa opens a gray box which reveals a 400-year-old Qur'an with beautiful gilded pages stamped by the royal blue emblem of the Ottoman Turkish Sultanate. Another box exposes a medical book on "Poisons and Remedies" from 843AH (l439AD). Haifa opens another box containing an 800-year-old book, dated 598AH (1201AD), written by the Arab historian Malik al-Nasr about the last battle between Salah al-Din and Richard the Lionheart. Then she extracts a 1000-year-old book of the Hadith (the Muslim Prophetic Traditions) dated 418AH (1027AD) and flips through the worn pages. She stops to read a passage and her fingers follow the calligraphy of Arabic words flowing across the rough paper. And then she replaces the manuscript amongst the rows of priceless volumes pertaining to Muslim scientific history and Arab cultural heritage.
Back in the family house, the proximity of the yeshiva is disconcerting. Haifa opens the curtains in a back room upstairs: the metal stairs of the yeshiva nearly touch the glass panes. The presence of cameras staring at the terrace and into the street below does not belittle the stunning view from the roof. Fringed by Israeli flags, the Plaza opens below. On the Haram al-Sharif above the Western Wall, the golden Dome of the Rock glimmers and the gray dome of al-Aqsa Mosque stands patiently. Haifa kneels and leans over the edge to tear out some wild weeds. Pieces of mortar crumble to the ground where an Israeli sits languidly in the shade. She tries to rip out the remaining weeds, but they are deeply embedded and have many thorns.

Source : https://www.masress.com/en/ahramweekly/15880