It was midnight. 27 Nov 1917.
Khalil al-Sakakini had put aside the book he was reading and was getting ready to go to bed when a knock on the door of his home in the Katamon area of Jerusalem jolted him, gentle though the knock was.
“Alter Levin!” gasped Khalil on seeing his midnight visitor. Levin was known to Khalil as an American citizen, an insurance agent, and also a poet of some repute.
Worse, Levin was a Jew.
“Give me refuge,” pleaded Levin. As an American citizen, he had been ordered to surrender himself to the Ottoman authorities.
The War was going on. Khalil could hear the rumble of artillery around Jerusalem rolling like reverberating thunder. The British troops were closing in. Any foreigner who failed to surrender to the authorities would be considered a spy, as would anyone sheltering one.
Here was a Jew seeking refuge at the door of a Muslim.
Khalil was not a bigot. Rather, he was a scholar, an educator and a writer.
“If I accept him, I’m a traitor to my government; and if I refuse him, I’m a traitor to my language,” Khalil wrote in his diary later. By “language” he meant his Arab identity and loyalty to it. “I told myself that he wasn’t appealing simply to me for refuge, but to my whole people as represented in me. He was appealing to the literature expressed in my language, before the coming of Islam and after it. He was appealing to that ancient Bedouin who sheltered a hyena fleeing from its pursuers and entering his tent. And I should add that he had bestowed a great honour on me by coming to me for refuge.”
He opened his door to the virtual enemy.
A week passed. Khalil was beginning to feel confident about the safety of his guest as well as himself when another midnight knock on his door jolted him.
The police had tracked Levin down. They had arrested and beaten up a Jewish woman who had been asked by Levin to smuggle kosher food to him.
“Man, why didn’t you eat our food, God forgive you? If you thought our food was impure, then we must be impure too... So how could you take refuge with us? Oh, religions! Oh, foolish minds, rather! How many victims have you claimed?” We read in Khalil’s diary. [Highlight added]
Death was the penalty for treason. Both Khalil and Levin counted the moments left to them.
But the Ottoman Empire was in the throes of death. Chaos prevailed over Jerusalem.
"Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Jesus had cried two millennia ago.
Khalil and his Judas, both spent 40 days in prison before being released. Khalil joined the Arab Revolt forces which were fighting with the British forces in the World War.
When the War was over, in 1919, Khalil and Levin met each other in Jerusalem. Levin bowed his head in gratitude.
In 1933, Levin committed suicide apparently because his business was in trouble.
Khalil al-Sakakini died in Cairo in 1953 as an exile. His diary, Such Am I, O World, describes the formative period of Palestinian resistance to Zionism. It illustrates the shattering of Arab nationalist hopes, the sharpening of Palestinian identity, and the growing despair and militancy of Palestinians as they watched their land being bought up and settled by Jewish immigrants.
Note: I have adapted the post from Anton La Guardia’s book, Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians, London: John Murray, 2002. I bow my head in shame and grief over the killings going on in Gaza.