Jerusalem Stories: Still civilised after all these years

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The Independent Online

There can be few more civilised ways of passing the time in Jerusalem than to sip a coffee and chat, as I did recently, to Abu Walid Dijani in his cool office in the Old City's New Imperial Hotel. The century-old hotel just inside the Jaffa Gate, which has a legendary view of the city's landmarks from its roof and has been run by the Palestinian Dijani family since the late 1940s, is at the centre of a planned property sale to Jewish settler interests.

There can be few more civilised ways of passing the time in Jerusalem than to sip a coffee and chat, as I did recently, to Abu Walid Dijani in his cool office in the Old City's New Imperial Hotel. The century-old hotel just inside the Jaffa Gate, which has a legendary view of the city's landmarks from its roof and has been run by the Palestinian Dijani family since the late 1940s, is at the centre of a planned property sale to Jewish settler interests.

But Mr Dijani, a man of effortlessly good manners, betrayed little sign of what must have been his deep anxiety. One of his stories, from the Six-Day War in 1967 stood out. He was at home in the suburb of Beit Hanina, when he suddenly remembered that in the safe of the hotel - then occupied by Israeli troops - was a chocolate box filled with diamonds and entrusted to the family for safekeeping by a local Armenian jeweller.

The young Mr Dijani felt he had no choice but to make the perilous journey back to the hotel, where he told an Israeli officer of his mission. After a long delay the Armenian was summoned, told to check the box's contents - still intact - and take them home. After another long wait, the officer, to Mr Dijani's surprise, dispatched an army driver to get him safely home to Beit Hanina, where to his even greater surprise, the soldier opened the boot of the car, deposited a carton of food on the pavement, and drove off at speed. It was only when the same driver revisited the Dijanis months later that he understood why.

The driver told Mr Dijani's father Mohammed that the gift had been in recognition of the sense of duty shown by his son. "I wanted to thank you for bringing him up so well," he said.

I thought of this when I read a letter in The Independent last week from a couple recounting how their daughter had fallen sick while staying at the Imperial and how Mr Dijani had called his own doctor, lent her cash to buy medicine, and, when thanked, said he hoped it was what anybody would do for his own child. Mohammed Dijani is now, sadly, long dead. But he would still be proud of how he brought up his son.

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Lunching on Friday at Ticho House, the lovely garden restaurant in the oldest part of West Jerusalem, I was struck by how easily Israelis enjoy themselves when they are truly relaxed. The singing, first in Hebrew and Yiddish, and then in Russian, rang out at the 85th birthday party for Shoshana, a woman of Lithuanian origin.

The all-amateur entertainment group, not one, I would guess, under 75, consisted of a singer, an accordionist and a still pretty Russian woman who, a garland round her head, executed a folk dance so gracefully that it was all too easy to imagine her breaking Red Army hearts in Stalin's time.

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