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Haifa al-Khalidi says that she’s not a librarian. Fine. But the al-Khalidi collection on 116 Bab al-Silsilah Street in the old city of Jerusalem doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a library so maybe Haifa simply means she’s not a scholar, even if she’s now acquainted with a thousand rare manuscripts and many more works in print that are housed here. One of the first she shows us is a beautifully decorated Arabic translation of a work on poisons and remedies by a 12th-century Indian physician. (Later I learn it contains a tale about metabolic resistance and how it’s possible, carefully and slowly, to administer a poison to a subject whose antibodies enable him to survive, even though someone else who touches him will die. Actually, that ‘he’ in the story is a her, tanked up to become a poison pie and set before a king.)

The al-Khalidi library was founded in 1900 by one of Haifa’s forebears, who rationalised the family collection and added to it. It’s housed in a Mameluk building, about 700 years old, with a raised courtyard reached by a set of steps leading up from the elegant entrance off the street. If that sounds like a real estate pitch it’s probably because a place like this is a valuable property, not des.res. exactly, but a prize worth fighting for in the war for control of East Jerusalem that Israel has been waging, slowly but surely, by non-military means.

About thirty years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, first head of the IDF Military Rabbinate, secured a chunk of Bal al-Silsila between the old al-Khalidi family home and the site of the library and built a yeshiva. This, too, was property held by the al-Khalidi family, directly or as part of a religious endowment. The library was now impoverished by lack of revenue from the endowment, which had seen several of its buildings appropriated or demolished after 1967; some were knocked down to make way for the Western Wall plaza. After the 1967 war, the library itself only just avoided being seized as an ‘absentee’ property.

Spurred by Goren’s coup in Bab al-Silsila, the family cast about for financial support and put in a bid for a renovation permit. It took five years to come through and when it did, Goren opposed it. A further five years went by as the court deliberated. Two Israeli scholars, meanwhile, rallied to the al-Khalidi family. At length the tide turned and in the 1990s the rehabilitation of the library began.

The result is where we’re standing, and it’s beautiful in its cautious way: caution is everything for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Blue sky over the courtyard and pale light in the room to the side, where Haifa has brought down a few rarities from the collection kept in cases upstairs.

The ace in her hand turns out to be an early 13th-century manuscript depicting the military prowess of Saladin in what look very much like campaign illustrations. On one of the illuminated pages is a grid of small squares in different colours with fine annotations. Battle dispositions? Maybe, but very different from the coloured blocks that stood for rival armies in the history textbooks I remember. All the squares are contiguous, as on a chessboard, so it’s hard to imagine the topography of this battle, whatever it was. But then, on another page, there’s a superb illustration suggesting movement across space, in time.

Battle narrative from a 13th-century work in praise of Saladin, at the al-Khalidi Library, Jerusalem

Battle narrative from a 13th-century work in praise of Saladin, at the al-Khalidi Library, Jerusalem. Photo © Ra’ouf Haj-Yiyha

No one’s sure if we’ll find an account of the battle of Hattin in this exquisite volume, or whether we’d recognise it if we saw it. It’s the one people know, and not only because of the scrambled depiction in Ridley Scott‘s weird movie, Kingdom of Heaven. In 1187 the Frankish armies marched from Saffuriya to relieve the siege of Tiberias; they underestimated the dangers of thirst, leaving the water-source at Turadin to which they should have stuck a little longer (this was July). Saladin’s soldiers deployed either side of them, took Turadin and cut off any possibility of retreat.

The history of the struggle for power in this region often leads back to water. Israel, for example, can restrict diesel supplies to Gaza as part of the anti-Hamas blockade. Result, in January 2008, a year before Operation Cast Lead: 40 per cent of Gazans with no drinking water. The Palestinians have a powerful weapon too, in the form of a growing population. Yet lack of water weakens even this potential advantage. Israel, which has a huge say in three of the main aquifers serving the West Bank, set water quotas for the territory back in the 1990s, and they’ve remained stable as the population has surged. A bad year with poor rainfall, as 2008 was, means shortage turns to a trickle. It leaves Israeli owners of lawns and swimming pools feeling inconsolably sad, but it’s driven Palestinian farmers to the edge of ruin.

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