Abou Hannah’s real name is Abdallah Morcos. “Abdallah” means “servant of God” while the Morcos family name derives from St Mark, the Gospel writer. The family traces its distant origins back to Yemen, where some Arab tribes were baptized in the first centuries after Christ, possibly due to evangelizing activities by St Mark’s followers who might have travelled from Alexandria in Egypt southwards to the Arabian Peninsula.
Abou Hannah was born in 1917 just a few days after the Balfour Declaration was issued. In that declaration, the then British Minister of Foreign Affairs promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine under the condition that the rights of what were euphemistically called the “non-Jewish” citizens would not be infringed. Abou Hannah’s life thus spanned the whole conflict in Palestine, the end of which he did not live long enough to witness.
Surprisingly, he was born not in Palestine but Chile. During the second half of the 19th century, many Christian Bethlehemites acquired a good knowledge of languages and made international contacts through the Christian missionary schools and institutions then established in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The making of Holy Land products flourished, especially olive wood sculptures and mother-of-pearl products. Some of the more adventurous businessmen started to establish export markets in the Catholic Latin-American countries, and emigrated. They sometimes did so under the pressure of the deteriorating circumstances in Palestine before and during the First World War when young people tried to escape recruitment into the Turkish army. During his first years Abou Hannah grew up in Santiago de Chile. The young kid was brought back to Palestine by his mother and uncle, while his father, for business purposes, stayed in Chile where he died shortly afterwards.
During the 1930s Abou Hannah married with Emily Salman (a name derived from “Suleiman” or “Solomon”). They enjoyed their honeymoon in Jericho, a winter resort where people at the time used to watch horse races. He was fortunate enough to find work in a cafetaria of the British Mandate army, in a garrison in the southern part of Jerusalem. There he acquired his life-long admiration for British organization and discipline. The British time was comparably favorable from an economic point of view, especially during the 1940s, yet very insecure politically, with the continuous disturbances between Arabs and immigrating Jews. After 1948, the Jordanian time was the opposite, politically stable but economically difficult. In that Jordanian period, traveling was remarkably easy for Abou Hannah and his family. While the inhabitants of the West Bank now have difficulty to leave their town or village, he and his wife went freely to Damascus and Beirut to buy fashionable clothes there, just in one day. For Palestinian youth now, Damascus and Beirut are like lightyears away, cities only familiar from TV.
Abou Hannah first worked in a Bethlehem grocery and later in a garage for car spare parts so as to be able to take care of his family.
Toine van Teeffelen, Bethlehem Diary
Culture and Palestine series, 2002