Each door holds a small mystery, a hidden history. In this series, we knock on a door to retrieve the story behind it. Part one: Dar Al Sabagh.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Saleem Anfous

‘Yes, this is a beautiful door, and it is open to everyone. But I am afraid there is also a rather sad story to it. Do you want to hear?’ Mr. Iyad Handal beckons me in. Do I want to hear? I sure do! I have been walking through the Old City of Bethlehem, especially Star Street, which is on UNESCO’s Word Heritage list. This area contains many historical buildings, often 200 years old or older, and practically all have beautifully decorated entrances. It is one of the great Palestinian traditions. When Palestinian families build their homes, they make sure their entrance door is decorated with all kinds of symbols, which tell us who they are and what gives them pride.

Two doors in one

Unlike others buildings in the area, this one is not empty but has been renovated. It has not one but two doors. The smallest is not very decorated, but the bigger one is. It has two square columns on each side and decorative metal bars shaped like crosses on top of the door. ‘From 1850 to 1940, the Al Sabagh family lived in this house’, Mr. Handal explains. They are one of the original Palestinian families from Bethlehem. Initially, they lived in a relatively small house with a simple door.’ He points at the smaller door. ‘The family had three sons. Around 1940 the youngest two, Shahada and Mikhael, moved to Chili for business purposes. They regularly sent money to their oldest brother, Jeries, who used it to expand the house, so that their own families could also live in it. ‘And this new, bigger house was completed with a new, bigger, and beautifully decorated door’.

Dramatic event

Then the expression on Mr. Handal’s face changes. ‘After a couple of years, Shahada and Mikhael wanted to return home. But the British Mandate refused them entry! Nearly thirty thousand Palestinians shared their fate and weren’t allowed to return to their homeland either.’ Because of this dramatic course of events, the Al Sabagh family moved out. In 2017 Alberto Kasis, one of the great-grandsons of the family, was able to repurchase the house with the help of George Al Ama, and the Bank of Palestine. After consulting both George Al Ama and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation they decided on a new destination for the building. It became a Research and Study Center for the Palestinian People in the Diaspora. The building is called Dar Al Sabagh, ‘dar’ being the Palestinian word for ‘house’.


‘We have had a lot of support from the local people and churches to collect data and family trees that date back to the eighteenth century’, Mr. Handal explains. ‘It illustrates the cultural richness of Bethlehem and Palestine.’ That Dar Al Sabagh is not only about the past is proven by the paintings and craftworks by contemporary artists from the George Al Ama Collection, which are displayed in the center. Maybe it is more than just a pleasant coincidence that the family name ‘Sabagh’ derives from the Palestinian word for ‘fabric dying’. Before saying goodbye, I ask Mr. Handal what his hopes and dreams are for the center. He replies: ‘Our goal is to connect the diaspora people with their homes, streets, and cities and that one day they can revive their homes and the beautiful Old City of Bethlehem’.


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