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A Jewel called life. A Jewel Called Sabri Hammoudeh

A German-Palestinian life spanning over 60 years.

  • May 02 2024
  • Annamaria Olsson
    is an NGO founder, writer, and activist, living in Berlin since 2008. The text is an excerpt from the book “Borderland: A European Mosaic of Walls and Welcomes”. The book was recently dropped by its German agent due two chapters referring to the German-Palestinian history.

The flea market on Strasse 17th June can be compared to an entry-level archaeological dig through Berlin’s complicated history. Eccentric ladies with mini-dogs, weekend tourists, and the general public all rub shoulders among the Burberry trench coats, plundered masks from the former colony of Namibia, Russian brooches, GDR memorabilia, and generic Prussian oil paintings. The jewelry dealer Sabri Hammoudeh, a Palestinian Nakba survivor who came to the city in 1961 - the year as the Wall was built - has as many stories as the market itself.

Sabri waved from his stall. He is one of those people who stays alert, even as age begins to slow the movements of the body. His remaining gray hairs are scattered sparsely around the back of his head; his hazel eyes are warm and his body slender. One instantly feels at home in his presence, like he’s a long-lost uncle. 

His stall doesn’t stand out; it’s an anonymous white market stall with a set of scales, and a simple business card printed with an email address. In front of the two-man, family-run sales team of Hammoudeh is a glass case showcasing various treasures. By Sabri’s side is his nephew Adil. Adil’s warm Hammoudeh eyes made him seem friendly, despite his imposing stature as the stall’s security guard. Sabri has actually been a pensioner for more than twenty years, but has no desire to step back from the business. He loves the market, and several relatives in Jordan are still dependent on the revenues it generates. Having worked here for more than thirty years, he seemed to know virtually everyone. A Jewish-Canadian woman who once sold esoteric bric-á-brac comes by on her lunch break. A saz player from Aleppo wants to know how much a certain family heirloom is worth. In between chatting with customers, Sabri takes out some jewelry to show me. Our coffee cups wobble on the table as he brings out some heavy stones. Sabri puts a heavy sapphire bracelet over my bony wrist, then a necklace with pink-purple stones, so perfect they almost look fake. Entranced, I survey the jewelry adorning my hand which presently is dressed with chipped metallic two-euro nail polish.


fig. 1


“Sometimes when people walk past they look at us skeptically and ask if it’s a bijouterie. You’re here selling this? We don’t sell everything here. It’s too risky. We sell a lot on commission,” he says, scrolling through photos on Whatsapp. 
“We visit people at home to show them the gems they’ve queued for. You know trading in jewelry in a public place is not entirely legal here. It is legal everywhere in Germany, except in Berlin. The law has stayed unchanged since Bismarck, and Hitler. Back then, trading in gemstones was mainly something Jews did, and the [racist authorities] wanted to cut off their sources of income, so they banned the buying and selling of precious metals in public places. For some reason this law is still in place, but both the Ordnungsamt and the SPD politicians turn a blind eye to it. They’ve got other fish to fry.”

Sabri stands up unsteadily to greet a customer. I can’t help thinking about the historical irony of this elderly Palestinian who has become a refugee as a consequence of Germany’s genocide of six million Jews, only to end up in Berlin, running what had, for centuries, been designated as a “Jewish business”, and which is, at least on paper, only quasi-legal because of a hundred-year-old anti-Semitic law.

“Most of our goods are bought by a small circle of loyal customers. Last week Adil gave a private viewing of a 5.5 carat diamond to one of our other regulars,” Sabri says with a wry smile, making the wrinkles cross at the corners of his eyes. He takes out a business card decorated with a swanky coat of arms featuring a royal crown and two crossed-out phone numbers. Heinz Wolfgang Fürst von/Prince of Tyss-Wittelsbacher the name read. It all looked like something a child would come up with, playing kings and queens and castles. A quick Google search showed that this was not so far from the truth. Prince Wolfgang was a self-made millionaire who had grown up in impoverished circumstances with his grandmother. Well into his forties, he contrived to have himself adopted by a businessman who had developed a unique business model: selling family titles to nouveau riche arrivistes like Prince Wolfgang as a way to inject fresh capital into historical aristocratic families in troubled financial straits. Perhaps they inhabited a dilapidated palace in need of renovation. Maybe country living didn’t appeal, and the grandchildren had headed to the big city to marry for love rather than money leaving some family members with historical debts and dusty hunting trophies.


fig. 2


A man in a washed-out Levis and backcombed hair turns up at the stand and lights a cigarette with a Zippo from his back pocket. He studies the items in the case and shows Sabri a silver elephant he’s just bought. “Just something small for the collection. Six hundred euros. Bloody love elephants,” he says in a deep baritone.
He leans nonchalantly towards Sabri. “Um, can I borrow a thousand euros in cash ’til tomorrow? I need to pay for an antique pencil box.”
Sabri nods at Adil, who opens his money belt and takes out notes that are handed over without batting an eyelid.
“Also a regular. We call him the Trash Millionaire. He’s built up some kind of recycling service for big companies,” Sabri says, and we discreetly share a laugh.

I wonder if his customers could imagine that their gem collecting was paying hospital bills and university tuition in Jordan. This wasn’t something Sabri bragged about. It was simply a self-evident financial reality for him and for millions of other people. All over the world entire communities depend on the remittances sent home by diaspora relatives. More than two hundred million migrant workers around the world worked to send over 715 million dollars to their home countries in 2019. Of these, 551 billion dollars supported 800 million families in low-income countries such as Jordan. After fifty years in the country, Sabri was no longer a migrant worker, but the beginning of his story was the same.

“When I arrived here my sister was living in a refugee camp with ten children in a single room. It’s impossible to comprehend,” he says indignantly. “‘We need to get you out of here,’ I said, but my dad didn’t want to. Where shall I go? I’ve got my friends here, we can drink coffee and play cards. I’ve already lost everything once. ‘Think of your daughter,’ I said. ‘She’s got ten children. A year from now you can drink coffee and play backgammon with your friends in a real flat!’”
Sabri shook his head.
“We collected money, and, with 800 Marks, my sister laid the foundation of a proper house in Amman. The house didn’t have hot water, and the women were still doing laundry by hand in ice-cold water out in the yard. It was physically painful to look at. Large sheets, pillowcases, and bed covers for the whole family. Elvira, my wife, was very connected to the family. We always brought presents. When she dragged me to Amman to buy them a washing machine it turned into a manic shopping spree. On top of a washing machine we came back with a water heater, a TV, and God knows what else. The women couldn’t believe their eyes when we heaved all the boxes through the door. And we brought jewelry, large and small, which, with time, became dowries, contributions to university studies, and investments in the house, which grew bigger and bigger.”

Sabri takes a sip of the coffee, long since gone cold. “Nowadays there are twenty-six people living in the house in different flats. Three generations under one roof. They get along, mostly, because they have to, and because it’s our culture. Everyone is everyone else’s lifeline and pension plan. But they do clash sometimes. Two family members didn’t talk to one another for four years. Thank goodness that they lived on different floors! That’s how it is sometimes. You get over it when things just have to work.”

A few sunbeams creep in through the tarpaulin roof, spreading a warm light over his face, beautifully folded by time. A testimonial to a life lived with dignity and pride that, for multiple reasons, will not make it into official history books. Instead he has become the beloved “Uncle Sabri” to everyone touched by his grace, creating roots for every Palestinian family member after him, one jewel at a time.



In loving memory of Sabri Hammoudeh, who passed away in the summer of 2023 and was thus spared from witnessing the horrors of the recent war/genocide in Gaza. 



    Cover: Sabri´s photographs from the 1960's when he arrived and one of the houses he helped build in Amman. (2019). Personal archive of the author. Courtesy of the author. 

    fig. 1: Sabri´s jewels (2019). Personal archive of the author. Courtesy of the author. 

    fig. 2: Sabri (2019). Personal archive of the author. Courtesy of the author.



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