Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Souvenir from Gethsemane: Portrait of the Albina Brothers

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Souvenir from Gethsemane: Portrait of the Albina Brothers

Article excerpt

When in 2004 my daughter, in search of family background, asked, "Which language did your dad speak best?" I swiftly responded, "Silence." The answer seemed flippant, and we both laughed. But in truth, in spite of the number of languages he could speak, my father, Jamil, spoke little. Oh, there were the philosophical answers to my inane questions as to which one of us six offspring he loved best or when his birthday was. There was also the seemingly volatile but funny in the aftermath frustrated enacting of scolding us, which one day led him to fall off the three-step-high stoop at the house in Amman, much to our combined amusement and alarm. But my answer that afternoon had sprung from a September day in Jerusalem, in 1963, as he and I walked from the taxi station outside the Old City walls toward Damascus Gate and Notre Dame de Sion, within the walls. I am not sure what prompted me to turn toward him, captivated as I was by the decorative merlons at the top of the towers ahead of us. This 64-year-old man who always stood upright, head high, shoulders well back, as if in defiance of anything that would dare make him stoop or bend, was crying in the midst of the crowds, tears visibly pouring down. He said nothing of course, and in my young girl's self-absorption, I attributed his tears to his being upset over our impending separation. Without stopping, he wiped his face and blew his nose, held my hand behind his back as he always did, and we walked on. He dropped me off at boarding school that day, and three months later he died of a massive heart attack.

I was often to come back to that event in later years; in those few moments of crying, Father had revealed more than he had said in the short twelve years I'd known him.

He had drawn me into a world beyond his silence, but could not stay to show me around. And life had an uncanny way of making me move on, making the past seem irrelevant for the time being, making me leave questions and wonderings pending. Between school and war, new countries and different cultures, work and family, the day came when finding answers to questions seemed too late; time also had passed. So I satisfied myself by snuggling to the memory of that day as a special moment between father and daughter, and again I moved on.

But Father's silence was to impress itself upon me again in 2006. Surfing the net in search for information on the Safieh side of the family, a photo emerged of "Jamil Albina, Najib Albina, and Lewis Larson, developing motion picture film for the American Colony."1 On its own, the idea of my father, who would have then been 107 years old, on the Internet was strange enough. But why in connection with the American Colony? Bits of conversation filtered back. Mother in her renditions of the past had often mentioned the American Colony, but always in reference to it as a landmark, never in connection with Father's work. As far as we in the family knew, Jamil and Najib, his younger brother by two years, had shared a photography studio in Jerusalem. So here was a photo that, like Father's tears decades earlier, gave me another entry point into his inner world. A quick search for the source of this photo led to the Library of Congress, the American Colony, and the Eric Matson collection.2

A year later, when a good friend of mine discovered among his father's photos in Northumberland, England, pictures of holy sites in Jerusalem that seemed to duplicate in content and style ones that my father had taken and that my friend had seen, my years- long complacency turned into the urge to know more - and immediately. On the back, the photos bore a "Matson Photo Service" stamp. Scans to family members confirmed that some of those photos could well have been taken by Father. The discovery begged the question: How exactly was Father connected to the American Colony? To Matson? And what about Najib? But more to the point, other than Father, this man who went out to work in the morning, came back at night fingers yellowed with developing chemical, and sometimes cried in public, who was Jamil Albina, and what else did his silence keep from us? …

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