The Introduction establishes the book's key premise: to capture the sense of wonder and confusion that greeted the global journeys of Bethlehemite merchants in the late 19th century. The Introduction summarises the key ideas that underpin the narrative that follows, introducing the notion of a 'magical realist' historical prose, employed as a commentary on the history itself.
This chapter imagines Jubrail as a young boy of around six or seven years old in the mid-1860s: a period when Bethlehem merchants were just beginning to explore the possibilities of trading abroad. The narrative focuses on the historical figure of Hanna Khalil Morcos (b.1824, d.1900), or 'ammo (uncle) Hanna – the person from Bethlehem known to have travelled to the Americas (or "Amerka" in local terms) and returned to tell the tale.
This chapter gives an overview of Bethlehem in the 1860s, describing the town's location and its paradoxical relationship with outsiders. The Bethlehemites had long profited from the presence of foreigners, especially the Franciscans who had maintained a presence in the town since the 13th century. There is a particular focus on the Christmas celebrations in the town.
This is the first of two chapters that backtrack to the years before Jubrail's birth, sketching out the essential context behind the rise of Bethlehem's merchant families as producers and sellers of Holy Land devotional objects carved from mother-of-pearl. The chapter then focuses on the early life of Jubrail's parents, Yousef Hanna Dabdoub (1816-1885) and Rosa Isa Batarseh (1826-1878). The narrative emphasises how the Franciscans' dominance of Bethlehem's souvenir industry pushed the likes of Yousef and Rosa to form new types of businesses aimed at more direct interaction with pilgrims and tourists.
Following on from chapter 3, this chapter recounts the decision of Jubrail's parents, Yousef and Rosa, to build a new type of family home outside Bethlehem's old town, around the time of Jubrail's birth. This combination of house and shop, known as Hosh Dabdoub, was located on the steep eastern slopes of Ras Iftays, the traditional entrance point into Bethlehem from the northwest, sparking a new building spree among Bethlehem's emerging merchant families.
This chapter describes Jubrail growing up in Hosh Dabdoub in the period when the Dabdoub family business first began to take off. He takes trips into the valley below the house, Wadi al-Jamal, where he enacts scenes from ammo Hanna's tales from the Americas. His favourite companion in these games is his cousin Elias Dabdoub who will later go on to become the most revered mother-of-pearl carver in all Bethlehem.
In the year 1868 Bethlehem is struck by a freak dust storm (khamasin) that decimates the town's souvenir industry. This coincides with the death of Jubrail's elder brother Murqus from cholera at the age of 17. Jubrail, aged just 8, is traumatised by the death after being forced to look at Murqus' sunken eyes during the funeral wake.
Jubrail is visited by Murqus in his dreams. Meanwhile, the souvenir industry in Bethlehem picks up once more, sending out a steady trickle of young men to the Americas, producing great excitement on the streets of Bethlehem.
This chapter introduces Part 2 of the book by stepping back from Jubrail's individual story to look more broadly at Bethlehem's emigration explosion in the late 19th century. By the early 1880s, the initial trickle of migrants out of the town had turned into a surge as hundreds of young men set off for the Americas. The chapter provides an overview of those movements, focusing on the two countries that would eventually see the largest Bethlehemite communities take shape: Honduras and Chile.
This chapter imagines Jubrail's first trip abroad at the age of 18, to take part in the Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1878. He is bewitched and enchanted by the size of the city, its fabulous architecture and the strange dress habits of its residents. Once inside the exhibition grounds, he encounters a series of bewildering exhibits, including the Statue of Liberty, that leave him unsure where the limits of reality lie. Concocting a scheme to illegally sublet their stall, the Dabdoub brothers are unceremoniously evicted from the exhibition grounds and forced to return home.
Upon returning to Bethlehem, Jubrail finds his mother Rosa on her deathbed. In the Dabdoub family memory, Rosa is described as a formidable woman who played a key role in the establishment of the family business, as well as maintaining the household. The chapter imagines the devastating impact of her death on the family home and business, as well as how Jubrail begins planning a trip to the Philippines to revive the family's prospects.
Jubrail journeys to the Philippines in 1881, along with his travelling companion, Issa Anton Sa'di. These two young men are the first people from the Arabic-speaking Ottoman Syrian to appear in the Philippines immigration records. Arriving in Manila after a terrifying journey across the Indian Ocean, the two men initially struggle to establish themselves, but eventually open a small shop selling Holy Land wares on the aptly named Calle del Rosario in the Binondo district. The voyage is a life-changing event for Jubrail, not least because it serves as the catalyst for dozens of other families from Bethlehem and the wider Syrian area to begin trading in the Philippines.
Jubrail returns from the Philippines to find his social stock has risen considerably. The economic success of the trip, combined with the fact that he and his companion Issa Sa'di are the only people in town to have travelled to the islands, makes him an attractive marriage proposition at the age of 22. Before long, Jubrail is engaged and married to the daughter of one of Bethlehem's leading merchants, Mariam Issa Handal, cementing a powerful and enduring alliance between the two families.
Moving forward in time, Jubrail returns from another successful overseas trip, this time from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. He and his brother Mikhail hold court in Bethlehem's central square, Bab al-Dayr, describing to a crowd of eager listeners their voyage to Amerka and the wonders of the exhibition. The crowd is fascinated by the medal of honour awarded to the brothers in Chicago. Jubrail and Mikhail allow them to exaggerate the significance of the medal and speculate on all kinds of reasons for its award.
At the age of 40, Jubrail scales the Eiffel Tower during the Exposition Universelle of 1900, and reflects on his life over the previous two decades. Paris has become the centre of the Dabdoub business empire with their shop on Rue Saulnier in the Temple district acting as the hub of global operations. Jubrail rues the sense of dislocation produced by his transient lifestyle that has left him little time in Bethlehem to spend with his wife and children.
This chapter introduces the third part of the book by recounting the early life of the Jerusalemite nun, Marie-Alphonsine (nee Sultaneh Ghattas) – a woman canonised by the Vatican in 2015 and today celebrated as "the first Palestinian saint". This woman would spend much of her life in Bethlehem in the late 19th and early 20th century, where she became known for the miracles she performed, including the one that saved Jubrail Dabdoub's life in 1909.
Jubrail returns to Bethlehem from a lengthy trip to the Americas in 1909 to find the town in a mood of great excitement as various new building projects and technological innovations are producing reactions of awe and confusion. His attention is drawn to the construction of a series of opulent pink-stone mansions, far from the old centre of Bethlehem, that completely overshadow the older merchant houses on Ras Iftays.
This chapter returns to the story of Marie-Alphonsine, describing her role in the foundation of the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters in the early 1880s, up to the time of the miracle that saved Jubrail in 1909. The chapter reveals the connections that tied Marie-Alphonsine to Bethlehem's merchant community who are frequently cited in her memoirs as providing her with financial support.
The chapter reconstructs the miracle performed by Marie-Alphonsine in 1909 when she is held to have brought Jubrail Dabdoub back from the dead. Using a combination of Marie-Alphonsine's own account of the miracle, subsequent interviews with Jubrail's relatives, and wider contextual sources that describe attitudes towards miracles and near-death experiences, the chapter imagines Jubrail going through an out-of-body experience having been pronounced dead from typhoid fever.
Written in the present tense, the Epilogue finds Jubrail on his second deathbed in 1931 (the year of his final passing). He reflects on his life and the miraculous times when young merchants from Bethlehem first set off in search of their fortunes. His mind then turns to darker times that followed: the devastation of World War I, and then the collapse of many Bethlehem businesses during the Great Depression, including his own business. He laments the arrival of Zionism and the clashes with Jewish settlers taking place in the hills surrounding Bethlehem. To his distress, many of his family have permanently moved to the Americas, causing him to fear the family is losing its connection to Bethlehem. As he approaches his final death, Jubrail wonders if the age of miracles has come to an end.
The Author's Commentary expands on the Introduction by providing a more detailed and theoretical exploration of the book's sources, methodology and style of writing.