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Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Memoir Traces Growth of Famed Arab Intellectual

Elie Chalala

First Well CollageJabra Ibrahim Jabra’s father once said to his sons, “I rejoice immensely, and so does this mother of yours, when we see you both reading books. Why? Because the word is holy. Yes, indeed. The word is from God.” Jabra and his older brother Yusuf developed an interest in storytelling because of the tales their father often spun for them and for the entertainment of the family.

Later, when young Jabra was unjustly thrown out of the Rashiddiya School in Jerusalem over a misunderstanding, it was his illiterate father, broken by years of hard labor and a painful case of sciatica, who limped to the school’s headmaster and begged for a chance for his son to be reenrolled. The once scornful headmaster, deeply moved, said, “I am proud to see a man in as bad a condition as you are, who insists on educating his son.”

“The First Well”, a memoir which covers Jabra’s earliest childhood recollections, offers insight into the way in which a young boy, from a humble upbringing, the son of two illiterate parents, who often spent his childhood nights watching the rats crawl through the rafters of his simple house, became one of the Arab world’s greatest intellectuals. As he describes his antics – the day he mistakenly allowed his family’s three pigs out of their pen and had to chase them through the streets – and his fond memories – the hours he spent up in the tall tree outside the family home – the reader glimpses the marvel of any memoir: tracing the clues, present in childhood, that help explain the later development of the adult. One witnesses Jabra’s early interest in literature, such as the wonderful passage in which he details his first encounter with “1,001 Nights”, his emerging interest in music, the way in which he was captivated by art. This is, after all, the story of the child who would later become a novelist in his own right, who would translate Faulkner, Beckett, and Shakespeare into Arabic, and who would influence the culture of the Arab world.

Indeed, the title of the memoir does not reference a physical well. Rather, Jabra explains in his preface that, while writing, he kept in mind Wordsworth’s saying, “The Child is Father of the Man.” Childhood stories, he says, “are stories of events which have become a blend of memory and dream,” but they are important to record because of their “nearness to the source of being.” The well is the metaphorical place, where experiences are collected like rainwater to be hauled up and sipped at a later time.

In detailing the ways in which his love of literature, history and music were initially sparked, Jabara also does something else; he paints a realistic and important portrait of life in Bethlehem in the 1920s. “The First Well” is a careful and thorough depiction of the neighborhood, the school system, the business and personal interactions of Bethlehemites, along with the bright and dark moments of everyday Palestinians during the British mandate. It is a rendering of the ways in which people, who had suffered through the First World War, survived in uncertain and difficult times. Given the efforts made to erase and rewrite Palestinian history, “The First Well” fulfills an important role in testifying to what once was.

Susan Muaddi Darraj

The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood
By Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Foreword by Mohammad Shaheen. Translated by Issa J. Boullata.
Hesperus Press, 2012

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 66, 2012-’13.

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