The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub
Or, How the Bethlehemites Discovered Amerka
Jacob Norris




OF ALL THE EXOTIC CHARACTERS passing through Hosh Dabdoub, it was Ammo Hanna who most fascinated Jubrail. His real name was Hanna Khalil Ibrahim Morcos. He was not an uncle in the strictest sense, but everyone called him “ammo” as a term of affection. Ammo Hanna had traveled to the farthest reaches of the known world and was a walking repository of fantastical stories. Most of all, he was the only person in Bethlehem to have traveled to Amerka and returned to tell the tale.1

In those days, Hosh Dabdoub was the first building travelers encountered as they approached Bethlehem along the path that forked off the main road from Jerusalem. Just at the point the road turned the corner at the top of Ras Iftays and offered its first view of Bethlehem on the ridge below, there was the house, hugging the steep hillside, providing a waystation for excitable travelers.2

Young Jubrail would creep upstairs from the living quarters and poke his head around the shop door to find a series of arresting scenes unfolding. A pompous Ottoman general, decked out in war medals, tarbush meticulously brushed, might be updating the local mukhtars on how the sultan’s troops had crushed the latest rebellion in Crete. Next to them, a barefoot dervish might be debating the merits of Monophysism with the local Syriac priest, his enormous beard showing up all the whiter against the brilliant blue of his brocaded robe. Or perhaps a group of shaven-headed Franciscans would be gathered around one of the European women who visited the shop from time to time, clamoring to offer her lodging in their guesthouse as they admired her voluminous skirts—a most unfortunate design, Jubrail always thought, for the unexpected gusts of wind that swept through town during the khamasin season.3

In the midst of these surprising encounters, Ammo Hanna would turn up unannounced, sending ripples of excitement through the house.

“Ahlayn Imm Hanna! What’s happening at the top of the hill?” he would greet Jubrail’s mother as she opened the door, a mischievous grin on his face. Despite his age, he cut an impressive figure with his wide gait and bushy mustache.

“Khush ya hajj, come in, come in,” Rosa would reply, curious to see what strange objects the old man had brought with him this time. Once, he had arrived wearing a bizarre type of headdress, round in shape and surrounded by a curiously stiff brim. He called it his “burnayta,” explaining it was popular in some distant corner of Amerka.4 Another time, he had brought a mysterious device that made a ticking sound as its mechanical parts rotated. He claimed it could measure the hour without needing to be adjusted with the changing of the seasons. This, he explained patiently, was how franji time operated: fixed, mechanical, and measurable to the nearest second. At this point everyone lost interest, agreeing such a contraption held no practical use given the length of the day was constantly changing and they already had the church bells and local muezzin to remind them of prayer times.5

Before Ammo Hanna could linger in the hallway, Jubrail’s father and elder brothers would usher him out to the rear terrace to drink coffee and puff on arghileh pipes. There the men of the house would talk business as they gazed out over the sea of olive groves that stretched to the east and then gave way to the barren hills of the Wilderness. They discussed exchange rates between unpronounceable foreign currencies, imports of mother-of-pearl shells, and the recent upsurge in Russian pilgrims. All the while, Jubrail sat patiently beside them, waiting for his moment. Eventually the conversation would die down and the old men would start to snooze on the diwan as the hills turned a golden color in the afternoon sun.

This was Jubrail’s chance. “Please, Ammo,” he would beg, tugging on his abayeh. “Tell us about Amerka!”

A-M-E-R-K-A. Even the word sounded exotic. Some of Jubrail’s friends said it was an island in the Red Sea, while others claimed it lay to the east of the Hindi lands. But Jubrail knew it lay somewhere faraway to the west, across a great sea called the Atlasi Ocean. Ammo Hanna had explained to him that to reach Amerka you first had to cross the lands of the faranja—those strange people who stayed at the Franciscan guesthouse and often came to buy mother-of-pearl carvings from the family shop.6 Jubrail imagined crossing those lands would be a perilous task. The faranja had a reputation for being quarrelsome, always meddling in the affairs of others, even when circumstance demanded a humbler approach. The Bethlehemites had a long history of welcoming them to their town and even finding ways to profit from their presence. But they had also learned to be wary of them. People still told stories about a particularly haughty general named Napoleon whose army had swept across Egypt and Palestine, attracting a few ambitious locals along the way. Among his local recruits had been a man from Bethlehem named Abdallah Hazboun who had found himself in a delicate position when the franji army was defeated at Acre. Facing a choice between the vengeance of the Ottoman armies or a retreat with Napoleon, Abdallah had wisely chosen the latter, traveling with Napoleon all the way back to France. It was said he had found success there, living in a city called Paris with a franji wife and embarking on further military expeditions, where he continued to help the French armies meddle in the affairs of others. But he could never return to Bethlehem.7

Jubrail was familiar with these legends of the first people to travel to the lands of the faranja. But only Ammo Hanna had made it all the way to Amerka. The older generation spoke about a man named Andrea Dawid who had set out for those distant lands nearly a hundred years ago. In the year 1796 word had reached Bethlehem of his death, but the event remained shrouded in mystery. The Dawid family lived just down the road from Hosh Dabdoub and still debated poor Andrea’s fate. Some of them said he had been consumed by malignant jinn living in the mountain caves of Amerka, while others insisted he had been devoured by sea monsters during the return voyage.8

The speculation over Andrea Dawid only served to heighten interest in Ammo Hanna’s stories as he turned to young Jubrail on the terrace and launched into one of his tales.

“For thirty days and thiry nights, we journeyed across the great Atlasi Ocean,” he would always begin, gazing wistfully across the valley as he stroked his mustache.

“Only Allah knows how we survived the perils of that mighty ocean. Wallahi, I saw sea monsters with fins taller than our church tower in Bayt Lahm. Waves as high as mountains smashed into the boat, sending passengers and crew rushing below deck!”

Jubrail would listen open-mouthed, straining to imagine this vast, mysterious ocean. There was no river in Bethlehem, let alone an ocean. The only body of water he knew was the Pools of Suleiman to the south of Bethlehem where spring water from the surrounding hills was collected and channeled northward toward Jerusalem. On trips there with his elder brothers he would splash in the pools, battling the sea monsters described by Ammo Hanna.

“Our ship had been battered by storms and the captain lost all sense of direction,” Ammo Hanna would continue. “Supplies were running out and the crew had given up all hope of navigating to safety.”

Jubrail loved these moments of suspense when Ammo Hanna would pause, shaking his head as he looked down at the floor.

“Then one night, as I looked up to the heavens in desperation, there he was, flying overhead, spear in hand, green robes billowing out from behind him. By the grace of Almighty Allah, it was al-Khadr guiding us to safety! I was not the only one who had seen him either. Several of the crew members saw the same flash of green and knew it was a sign to follow in that direction.”9

Jubrail knew all about al-Khadr and how he could transport himself from any one place to another in a single instant. “The earth folds beneath them,” they would say about that special category of saint known as ahl al-khitmeh.10 The faranja who came to Bethlehem even had the audacity to claim him as one of their own, calling him Saint George. But everyone in Bethlehem knew he was a local saint who kept special watch over the town’s intrepid travelers.

It was only through the intervention of al-Khadr that Ammo Hanna’s ship had been guided to the bountiful lands of Amerka. There, on the other side of the Atlasi Ocean, he had found a new world in a frenzy of creation. A land of great cities in the making inhabited by people from every part of the world, all come to make their fortune. Waiving his hands excitedly, he would explain how opportunity there was limitless, especially for a merchant selling Holy Land carvings from Bethlehem.

At this point Jubrail’s father would stir from his sleep and begin paying attention.

“The people there profess to be Christians,” Ammo Hanna would explain. “They hold anything from al-Quds and Bayt Lahm in great reverence. I swear to the Virgin, they flocked in great numbers to buy my rosaries and crosses. I only wish I had brought greater quantities from Bethlehem!”

He had arrived in a teeming port city named Rio de Janeiro.11 Located in a huge bay ringed by densely forested mountains, the city had been his home for several weeks. He had been surprised to discover people speaking the same languages and worshipping the same saints as some of the Franciscan friars he had met in Bethlehem. But once he ventured into the interior, he could no longer understand the people, nor did he recognize their saints. The landscape was like nothing he had seen in Palestine: so verdant and fertile that plants and animals sprouted gleefully from every crevice, no matter how tiny. Strangely, there were no seasons in this evergreen land. Rain fell the whole year, and it was just as hot in winter as in summer. Everyone and everything permanently dripped with water, either from the torrential daily downpours or from the constant sweating brought on by the unrelenting humidity.

Lurking in the forests were all manner of strange beasts ready to devour Ammo Hanna the moment he strayed from the beaten path. As he listened, Jubrail would feel his own skin burning with the poison of a giant tarantula, hear the barking of howler monkeys in the valley below, and see crocodiles slinking across the terrace. He memorized the names of brightly colored birds and poisonous snakes, and he drew maps of the coastline of Amerka as he followed Ammo Hanna’s meandering monologue.

Ammo Hanna would explain that the country surrounding Rio de Janeiro was a vast territory known as Brazil. He had concluded it was the ideal base for Bethlehemites to begin trading in Amerka. A powerful emperor named Dom Pedro II was opening the country to international trade in an effort to become one of the world’s great powers. Previously, the country had relied on African slaves to work its lucrative sugar and coffee plantations, but now the import of those slaves had been forbidden by the very same faranja who had created the trade in the first place. In response, Dom Pedro was encouraging workers from all corners of the world to travel to Brazil, where they would find bountiful work. New ports and roads were being built to accommodate the immigrants and goods pouring into the country, helping connect the cacao and coffee plantations of the interior to the coast.12

Ammo Hanna had seen workmen laying down two parallel lines of iron tracks outside Rio de Janeiro. He had been told this was an invention that would allow a mechanical carriage to travel at great speed along the tracks. Many years later, he would watch in amazement when the first such carriage rolled into Jerusalem amid a great cloud of steam and excitement. But upon first seeing those tracks in Brazil back in the 1850s, he had laughed at the thought that a carriage could pull itself along those tracks faster than a well-bred horse.13

Upon his return to Bethlehem, Ammo Hanna had become something of a local celebrity. The old men would gather in Bab al-Dayr to listen to his tales of Amerka, eager to hear about teeming jungles and strange inventions. Some laughed at his stories and called him a khurafa who had never made it further than the island of Cyprus.14 Others were more willing to believe he had crossed the Atlasi Ocean but suspected he embellished his tales for dramatic effect. But the young Jubrail hung on his every word, finding himself transported to another world. After hearing about Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon rainforest, he would run down to the terraced slopes beneath Hosh Dabdoub to search for cicadas, lizards, and snails among the apricot and fig trees. He would imagine that the lizards were the crocodiles described by Ammo Hanna and that the olive orchard at the bottom of the valley was a dense rainforest, full of human-eating plants hanging precariously overhead.

On days when he felt more adventurous, he would wander northward instead, up the hill past the last buildings on Ras Iftays. Following the road out of town, he would stop at the fork where it met with the Jerusalem-Hebron Road. Just past this junction in the direction of Jerusalem was Qubbet Rahil, the small domed structure that marked the boundary of the district of Bethlehem and the outer edge of Jubrail’s known world. It was said the dome contained the tomb of Rahil, the wife of Yaqub in the Holy Book, who had died when traveling that road. Christian and Muslim women went there to ask favors from Rahil. Occasionally, Jubrail would see strange-looking men dressed in long black coats, rocking back and forth as they uttered prayers in an unintelligible language.15 Peering in through the window, he would glimpse surprisingly long ringlets of hair descending from black fur caps. Was this how people in Amerka looked, he wondered?

Returning home, he would pull out the maps he had drawn of Amerka based on Ammo Hanna’s tales. Following the coastline, he would imagine himself on a great ship and wondered if one day he too would travel the road that stretched beyond Qubbet Rahil toward Jerusalem and the world beyond.


1. Hanna Khalil Morcos (b. 1824, d. 1900), or Ammo Hanna, as I have imagined him to have been known—was the earliest example I have found of a Bethlehemite traveling to the Americas and returning to tell the tale. He was recorded as arriving in Brazil in 1851. See Majid Radawi, Al-hijra al-ʿarabiyya ila al-Barazil 1870–1986 (Damascus: Dar Tlas, 1989), 48. His journey to Brazil led to further trips to the Americas among his family members, as shown in the Morcos family record books in the Bethlehem Latin Parish Archive. For example, his eldest son, Khalil, is recorded as having died “in America” in 1883.

2. The construction of Hosh Dabdoub around 1860 is explored further in chapter 4. Its location appears to have been deliberately chosen to attract visitors to its shop as they caught their first glimpse of Bethlehem. The excitement around this location was captured by the English reverend James Kean in the 1890s, possibly while standing on the roof of Hosh Dabdoub itself: “Seated on this perch, you gaze south across the valley upon Bethlehem, the eye dwelling especially on the vast confused conglomeration of lofty buildings at the east end. These cover and contain the cave wherein our Lord was born. A certain whiteness seems to add majesty to the general aspect of Bethlehem.” See Rev. James Kean, Among the Holy Places: A Pilgrimage through Palestine (London: T. F. Unwin, 1895), 114. I also discuss the house’s architectural innovation in Jacob Norris, “Mobile Homes: The Refashioning of Palestinian Merchant Homes in the Late Ottoman Period,” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 83 (2020): 9–33.

3. The khamasin is a dry hot wind from the Sahara that brings dust storms to Bethlehem and the surrounding area every spring. It takes its name from the fifty-day period in spring in which it usually arrives. In European sources, the khamasin is often referred to as a sirocco. The 1860s and ’70s was the period in which package tours of the Holy Land began in earnest, sending a greater variety of visitors to Bethlehem from Europe and North America, alongside the more traditional array of pilgrims, clergy, and mystics. Among the newer visitors was a greater number of European women whose styles of dress frequently invoked bemusement from the local population. See, for example, Mary Eliza Rogers, Domestic Life in Palestine (London: Poe & Hitchcock, 1865), 43. For the birth of modern tourism in Palestine, see Timothy Larsen, “Thomas Cook, Holy Land Pilgrims, and the Dawn of the Modern Tourist Industry,” Studies in Church History, no. 36 (2000): 329–42.

4. The term burnayṭa is used in Bethlehem to denote any type of Western-style hat. This contrasts with the turban or ʿamāmeh worn by most men in Bethlehem during the time of Jubrail’s childhood. The tarbush, or fez, meanwhile, only began to be adopted in Bethlehem in the early twentieth century, but by then many of the younger generation were already wearing Western-style hats they had picked up abroad. Early photographs taken in Bethlehem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often show a contrast between younger men wearing these stiff-brimmed Western hats and the older generation of men, who still wore the turban or sometimes a tarbush. Numerous examples of such photographs have been collected in the Planet Bethlehem Archive at the following link: (see especially the William Victor Kattan and Katrina Saʾade collections).

5. In interviews with descendants of Jubrail and his peers, pocket watches featured consistently in stories of new objects brought back to Bethlehem by merchants in the mid to late nineteenth century. Pocket watches began to gain popularity among the elites of big cities in the late eighteenth century but were still relatively rare in provincial, rural areas like Bethlehem up until the late nineteenth century. In these areas, the standard way of measuring time remained sundials, which captured “seasonal hours” that varied in length according to the season. For example, a daytime hour in the summer was longer than a nighttime hour to ensure high noon was always at six o’clock and sunset always at twelve o’clock. For this reason, I have imagined that Bethlehemites viewed a European-style or franji pocket watch in the 1860s as having little practical use given the agricultural day revolved around a fixed time for noon and sunset, as well as for times of prayer.

The ringing of church bells was officially permitted for the first time in the Ottoman Empire under the Reform Edict of 1856, shortly before Jubrail’s birth in 1860. But travelers’ accounts frequently mention the ringing of bells for ceremonies prior to that date, indicating how the town’s majority Christian population was able to preserve an exceptional status for itself on certain religious matters. Meanwhile, the town’s small Muslim population was granted its own mosque in 1860 (discussed in chapters 2 and 5), bringing the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer to Bethlehem for the first time in a regular fashion.

It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the Ottoman state embarked on its famous building spree of clock towers in cities across the empire, including the one completed in Jerusalem in 1908. Even then, most mechanical clocks and watches were set to Islamic time (referred to in European sources as alla turca), whereby the day would be divided into two segments to ensure prayer times were structured around the changing time of the setting sun. The first of these segments would begin at sunset and run for twelve hours, followed by a second segment that would run until sunset.

For further discussion of these shifting ways of measuring time, and the sociopolitical meanings attached to them, see Ron Fuchs and Gilbert Herbert, “A Colonial Portrait of Jerusalem: British Architecture in Mandate-Era Palestine,” in Nezar AlSayyad, Hybrid Urbanism: On the Identity Discourse and the Built Environment (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 89–91; Avner Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca: Time and Society in the Late Ottoman Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Mehmet Bengu Uluengin, “Secularizing Anatolia Tick By Tick: Clock Towers in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, no. 1 (2010): 17–36; and A. Bir, Ş. Acar, and M. Kaçar, “The Clockmaker Family Meyer and Their Watch Keeping the alla turca Time,” in Science between Europe and Asia, ed. F. Günergun and D. Raina, vol. 275, Historical Studies on the Transmission, Adoption and Adaptation of Knowledge, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011).

6. Throughout the book, western Europeans are referred to as faranja (franji in the singular). This is the local Arabic term widely found in sources from Bethlehem at that time, derived from the Crusader-era term Franks or Frankish, which denoted western Europeans generally, rather than French-speakers in particular. In Arabic, the verb tafarnaja also carries the meaning “to become Europeanized.”

7. The story of Abdallah Hazboun and his career with Napoleon’s “Mamelouks de la Garde” is recounted in Ian Coller, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798–1831 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 131–32, 148–50.

8. Andrea Dawid’s death is recorded in Latin Parish Archive, September 7, 1796, with the sole note, “Morto in Latin America.”

9. In interviews with descendants of Bethlehemites who traveled to the Americas in the nineteenth century, stories of saintly interventions during perilous journeys were frequently told. These were not stories witnessed firsthand, but rather tales passed down through the generations. The idea here is to recapture that sense of listening to those tales as travelers returned to Bethlehem and to explore the extent to which they were understood through a world view in which saints and miracles were an expected part of life. I have been greatly influenced by the work of James Grehan, whose concept of agrarian religion explores how the religious practices of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in nineteenth-century Palestine and Syria often strayed wildly from textual orthodoxy. These religious beliefs cut across sectarian boundaries and were rooted in the turning of the seasons, more visceral forms of worship, and belief in the miraculous power of local saints, dervishes, and mendicants. Grehan also emphasizes the extent to which this religious culture was not unique to the countryside but was also embedded in towns and cities. See James Grehan, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), especially 14–19.

The most common figure in Bethlehemites’ tales of saintly interventions during the early journeys to the Americas is Saint George, or al-Khadr (“the green one”), who enjoys a particular veneration in the Bethlehem area. As in many parts of Bilad al-Sham, local traditions in the Bethlehem area have merged the Muslim saint/angel al-Khadr with the Christian figure of Saint George (Mar Jiryes in Arabic). This holds special significance due to the nearby shrine (which is today a church) in the village of al-Khader, named because of its association as the site of Saint George’s imprisonment by the Romans and venerated for centuries by Muslims and Christians alike for the healing powers of its relics (the chains in which Saint George was bound). Al-Khadr thus appears in Bethlehem tradition as a green-robed figure able to fly long distances who offers protection, fertility, and prosperity to local residents. For more on this local tradition, see William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East (London: Flamingo, 1998), 339–44.

10. In Arabic, the phrase is “Btintwi al-ard ilhun.” See Tawfiq Canaan, Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (London: Luzac, 1927), 123.

11. The former Syrian consul in São Paulo, Majid Radawi, lists Hanna Khalil Morcos as the first migrant from Syria and Palestine to arrive in Brazil in 1851. See Radawi, Al-hijra, 48.

12. For a discussion of the transformation of Brazil’s economy under Dom Pedro II in the mid-nineteenth century, see Robert H. Mattoon Jr., “Railroads, Coffee, and the Growth of Big Business in São Paulo, Brazil,” Hispanic American Historical Review 57, no. 2 (1977): 273–95.

13. The arrival of the first train in Jerusalem in 1892 is described in chapter 13. The first railway in Brazil opened in 1854, around the time Ammo Hanna was recorded as entering the country. See Mattoon Jr., “Railroads.”

14. According to the celebrated Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi, “A khurafa is a man who offers up—by way of excuse—the claim that he has acted under a genie’s spell . . . but isn’t believed by people, who say he’s just ‘telling fairy tales.’” See Emile Habibi, introduction (“Oration”) to Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale, trans. Peter Theroux (Lake Worth, FL: Ibis, 2006), 8–9.

15. This description is inspired by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s account of his visits to Rachel’s Tomb when he lived in Hosh Dabdoub as a young boy in the 1920s. See Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Al-biʾr al-ula: fusul min sirah dhatiyah (Beirut: al-muʾassisah al-ʿarabiyah lil-dirasat wa al-nashr, 2001), 89.