The Little Girl from Gaza

Salman Masalha

The Little Girl from Gaza

The little girl from Gaza
builds nests
of sea feathers.
The man who stands by the wall
hides in his eyes a necklace
strung of memory leaves.

When the street runs
beneath untamed steps,
the nests cracks
open with legends.
Boys scamper
in the dusk colors.
They gather the muffled voice
from the desert sands.

 At evening,
the necklace scatters the beads
from the eyes, and moisten
the seapath.
dispatches the smile
into exile.
The poet's soul
is spent in words.

Translated by Vivian Eden

From: Rish al-Bahr (Sea Feathers), Zaman Publications, Jerusalem 1999.

For the Arabic text, press here.
For Hebrew translation, press here.
For French translation, press here.
For German translation, press here.


The Language Angels Speak

Salman Masalha

The Language Angels Speak

Presumably like all kids around the world, I was once asked an immortal question: What would you like to be when you grow up? Quite bizarre and abnormal in the circumstances and conditions I was born to, and unlike other children who have dreamed of becoming doctors, advocates, engineers etc., my answer always was: I want to be a poet. Those who might think in terms like self-achievement of a little child will soon find out that they were completely wrong. As it became clear to me later, being a poet is not a self-achievement in any way. After all it seems to me now a kind of punishment rather than a joyful experience. Nevertheless, the world of poetry is a kind of prison world in which residency is still worthy.

Poetry is a prison within the chaos of letters, signs, words, lines and all possibilities that language with its generosity provides for us. In this sense the role of a poet is comparable with the role of the First Creator who has set an order in the universe from within the wide and huge disorder. Poetry itself has no sense of time nor sense of place nor sense of nationality. In its very essence poetry holds all times, inhabits all places, experience all lives and talks to all nations at once. The language of poetry is the language of human experience despite color, sex and tongues. It is a meta-language that goes beyond the tongues scattered from Babel in the four directions of the wind. The language of poetry is the first sense of divine creation and the first spark of eternity. Furthermore, poetry is the tool with which poets compete with the work that was done by God. It competes with God for it tries to reshape His unfinished clumsy work. Optimists might say, He did not finish the job for reasons of unknown divine generosity, with the aim of leaving some space for the taste of living to the Earthly people. Pessimists, on the other hand, and surely they include poets and others who belong to different disciplines of the arts, will say: He didn’t do His work properly as it should be done.

In the beginning there were words in chaos, and darkness covered the cell of the primal prison. In a moment of will, the poet emerged from the darkness and collected all signs and letters and put them on paper. He picked up some of them and set them in the order: L. I. G. H. T. Then all off a sudden there was light. With this light he could see all words of all languages in their chaos. And that was the first day. That was the first poem.

With this light the real poet can see all meanings that potentially exist in languages. He can form the word of love and let others love their way. He can reshape the smell of existence and give some hope to the increasing miserable ones on Earth. He can speak out about death and beyond similes and metaphors aims to show the hidden meaning of life. With its few lines, poetry enables us to communicate with other peoples and reveal other cultures. It enables us to make wings of words and fly into other spheres and stop in other lands for language is the one and only promised homeland for a poet. Now, that time has passed and I am not a naive kid anymore, I have figured out another thing: Poetry is a supreme inner-net, a supreme maze that never lets you reach any end. Within this eternal maze the poet will exist until the Day of Judgment, when he is supposed to present his provocative alternative work in front of the first sole reader whom he competed with initially and all the way long. If the world was created and was put in focus by the light of poetry in on first day, no doubt this light will last until the end of days. Now, I have nothing but another wish: I wish I could live then in order to watch that last fight, that last light.

Finally, despite a Muslim tradition in which we are told that the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden speak the Arabic language, and despite the fact that it is the language angels speak, I can testify, from personal experience, that Arabic is the tongue in Hell as well.


For the Arabic text, press here.


The Poem

Salman Masalha


Empty the sea of its fish.
Bring clouds back to the river.
Wipe from the infant’s lips
the weight of pregnant women.
Branches of grief shade all.
And legends are sorrows
milked from widows’ breasts.
When prophets depart
do not report the loss.
And never never say
that hope hides in
the poem.

Translated by Vivian Eden with the author


For the Arabic text, press here.

For French translation, press here.


The Song

Salman Masalha


The Arab’s Speech

Every time I say I’m hungry
a military genius hands me a fishing pole
and sends me to catch some fish in the desert,
but I hook only scales.
And as I don’t drink sand,
I can’t pass my water. Moreover
I suffer from constipation.
And as I am hungry, and truly love life,
I eat my toes, because I so regret
I agreed to go out fishing
in murky sands.

The Jew’s Speech

Every time I say I’m hungry
a political genius sends me to drink
the sea water. Then I pass,
with my water, a fish without scales.
I am unable to dish it up on my table.
It’s strictly banned by religious law.
And as I am hungry, and truly love life,
I throw it back into the sea, where it dies of thirst
for I drank up all its water first.
I laugh out of sorrow, as in my current state
I can’t even die
of laughter.

The Silent Majority’s Speech

Death to the hungry!
Death to the hungry!

The Fish’s Speech

Silence is boring!
Silence is boring!
If you don’t stop,
I won’t talk
and I won’t pass water
any more.

The Poet’s Speech

Enough! When
will this song end?

Translated from Arabic by Vivian Eden with the author

Published in: Modern Poetry in Translation, third series, No. 14 (Polyphony), ed. David & Helen Constantine, Short Run Press, Exeter 2010


For the Arabic text, press here.


In Haifa by the Sea

Salman Masalha

In Haifa by the Sea

(In memory of Emile Habiby)

In Haifa, by the sea, the smells of salt
rise from the earth. And the sun
hanging from a tree unravels wind.
In a row of trees bathed in stone
men, women and silence have been
planted. Tenants in an apartment
block called homeland.
Jews whose voices I haven't heard,
Arabs whose meaning I haven't understood.
And other such melodies I couldn't
identify in the moment that went silent.

There in Haifa, by the sea,
he had them all. Poet, exile
in the wind, seeking the past
in a question blessed with answers.
Pulling words out of the sea and
throwing them back to the waves
that, like Messiah, will return eternally.
A poet has returned to a poem he never wrote
in the night of captivity, and hasn't yet returned
to the place that he drew as a child in a cloud.

There in Haifa, by the sea, at the end
of the summer that broke on the treetop,
a moon unfurled. I return to the
silence I had split with my lips.
I return to the words asleep inside
the paper. Moist clods of earth
and a salty path have forever wrapped
the fisherman's pole. Little
words lay down to rest, and a poem
went silent there in Haifa, by
the sea.

Translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden
Published in: Haaretz Books, November 2008
This poem is from, "In Place" (Am Oved, 2004). It is performed by singer Micha Shitrit on his album “Shilhei Kayitz.”

For the Hebrew text, press here.


Patches of Color

Salman Masalha


On the wall that leans inward,
which I built of words that pecked
my path, I have drawn neither windows nor
door. And all this, for fear that undesirable
air will infiltrate my home. And I
am not as young as I was. But I hung
in their stead frames I had saved
from the days of my childhood. And I painted
in green the hands of a woman disguised
in mountain black. A white cloud,
with no storm in its wings, landed beside her
and played with the tail of a bird embroidered
on a floral scarf. The nurse who cares
for the old man feathers the nest in the faded
blue, and when the sun ignites flames
in my fragile dream plumes,
windows gape in the ceiling.
And a bird that was brooding
in my disputing heart flies
to the center of the sky
and lands at the opening
of the pit that is mined.

Translated by Vivian Eden


published in Haaretz, English Edition.


Honor Killing

Salman Masalha


There is not a single Arab locale in Israel or abroad that has not experienced murders in the context of what is known as “family honor.” Weak-minded Arab intellectuals try to minimize the important of these deeds with various claims, including the comparison of “family honor” killing with the crime passionel, murder provoked by romantic love or jealousy, which have always been known to human society. I will return to the matter of “romance” later.

No one has tried to investigate this appalling phenomenon in Arab society among Muslims, Druze and Christians. All too often we hear about such murders and we say nothing. But the nothing in the mouths of the Arab intellectuals turns into blood. The rivers of blood will continue to flow as long as many strata of Arab society, from the clerics who are trained in “Thou shalt not kill” to the intellectuals of the various communities, do not gather their courage and speak out resoundingy in their societies.

There is no basis in religion or canon law for these murders. Neither Islam nor its Druze offshoot permits horrible murder of this sort, and neither does Christianity, certainly (nor Judaism). Nonetheless these murders have always occurred in Arab society. How is it possible that at the end of the 20th century Arab public figures and elected office-holders like mayors and municipal council members, or newspaper editors and poets, dare not full-throatedly condemn this appalling phenomenon? (“It is uncomfortable” for them to denounce it, they say.) And how is it possible that there are Arab journalists and “intellectuals” who decry “rebelliousness” when they discuss the latest incident in Daliat al Carmel and who see a woman’s freedom of choice as “social and moral rebellion?” In face of these forces of darkness, there are a few bright spots, such as Muhammad Naffa and Knesset Member Saleh Salim, both of Hadash, who have clearly condemned the murder and also the tough editorial on the issue in the newspaper Al-Ittihad.

But again: What is the source of these immoral traditions? To answer this question it is necessary to examine the vague concept known as “Arab honor” from another perspective. Ever since it came into the world, back in the period before Islam, Arab society has been a tribal society. The tribe is the only political unit the value of which supersedes any other value – such as homeland or country or any other social system. The honor of the tribe supersedes a person’s value as an individual and therefore the attitude towards the individual’s life is dubious.

Islamic ideology declared war on, among other things, the Arab tribal tradition but its success in this was limited to a brief period. Resurgent tribalism wiped out all of the cultural achievements of Islam in the Middle Ages. The Arab society of today continues to conduct itself according to purely tribal criteria and every Arab village constitutes a kind of microcosm of the Arab world as a whole.

In a tribal society the human being, the individual, is not the supreme value and this is also true in a society based on religious monotheism. In both instances there are entities that are above the human being. In the one case it is the tribe, with all its values, and in the other it is God. Between the two of them the individual loses his honor and in may cases also his life.

And this is is not only a tribal society. It is a male tribal society, with all this implies. In such a society there are weak links. The first weak link is the individual, but the woman is an even weaker link. When the ideologies – tribalism and monotheism together – deny human beings, individuals, their existence as autonomous entities who act in accordance with universal human values, the individual finds himself – or herself –deprived of human dignity.

And because Arab society is a male tribal society, it denies the Arab male his dignity and honor as an individual and leaves him only one escape route, a route by means of which he tries to seek his lost honor in the weakest link of all, which is the Arab woman. More precisely, his honor and dignity lie between the legs of his daughter, his wife and even his mother, who want to be free individuals in control of their own selves and their own bodies.

In these murders there is indeed an element of the romantic crime passionel, but no one has dared to discuss this point publicly as it really is. It works like this: The tribe – social or religious – constitutes a kind of small national unit. Its primary value is to marry within the tribe and preferably – within the most proximate link, with a cousin. When inter-clan marriages take place, this is perceived as the establishment of relations between two nations (and therefore commerce in brides exists among different clans). However, marriages to other clans take place only in the absence of an alternative.

The male is the property of the tribe, and the woman is the property of the male, and in the profoundest way: She is the property of her brother, her father, her son. When an Arab man rises up and murders his daughter – or his sister, or his mother – he is giving expression to his “romantic” jealously in this way. He is jealous – because she has freed herself from his hands, she has betrayed him. The Arab male, in the depths of his soul, wants to maintain his romantic connection with the woman who is related to him. However, since the social taboos are so strong, he directs his property – his mother, his sister, his daughter – to the male who is closest to him. Only in this context is it possible to understand the frequency of marriages between relatives in Arab society.

In order to exit this bloody social cycle it is necessary to establish the human being, the individual, as the primary concern of Arab society. It is necessary to restore to the Arab male his personal honor and dignity as an individual – it is the denial of this that has made him a potential murderer. It is necessary to re-educate Arab society in all its tribes and branches, and this is the first thing that needs to be done by Arab public figures, academics and intellectuals if they truly aim to build a modern society with universal values. Their silence or their professions of understanding for “honor killings” makes them complicit in grave crimes. My place is not with them.
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Published in Haaretz Magazine, October 27, 1995

For Hebrew, press here.


In the Dark Room

Salman Masalha

In the Dark Room

In the dark room, you see things
you can't see in the lit room.
The alien light that comes from afar
slips into the yard like a shadow
fatigued by the darkness. A black
bird on the windowsill
suckles honey in the fog.
I bear a blessing from the Book
Of Secrets. I reveal the story
of the Vale of Tears. The man
who swam in shallow water
gathers goldfish from
the puddles and protects them
from the thieves for the child
who drowned wetly in a teardrop.
In the dark room you remember
things you had forgotten
in foreign lands. In the darkness
that rises from the longings
for the boy who is not, there is
a back room, filled with a grown
child's memories. Sealed like
a past that never knew a present.
Packed, like a life,
with a surfeit of death.

Translated by Vivian Eden

Published in: The Guardian, Books, May 17, 2008


Tribal Tribulations

Salman Masalha

Tribal Tribulations

On May 2nd, 1860, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a Jewish boy was born to Jacob and Jannet in the city of Pest, which later joined Buda to form Budapest. They called him Theodor. Young Theodor wandered in many places and settled in Vienna where he studied law, a profession in which he never worked.

This young Jewish intellectual quickly became aware of the “Jewish question”, and started working within the Jewish community, making great efforts to find a suitable answer to the question. He drew up a program that could provide an answer to the Jewish problem, and put his ideas in writing. The term “Jewish question”, used by the founder of the Zionist movement, required an answer that had to be Jewish as well. His awareness of the Jewish fate led him in 1896 to write “The Jewish State” (Juden Staat), in which he drew the lines for his solution to the Jewish problem, a dream that came true five decades later.

Theodor Herzl did not trouble his mind with the “Jewish question” as an intellectual game only. The question came up because of the hostile attitude toward the Jews in all the places they had settled in Europe. Anti-Semitism, as he stated, surely will be found wherever the Jews go and settle no matter what they do: “No one can deny the gravity of the situation of the Jews. Wherever they live in perceptible numbers, they are more or less persecuted... Shades of anti-Jewish feeling are innumerable... The nations in whose midst Jews live are all either covertly or openly anti-Semitic.” (The Jewish State, Chapter II).

Thus, as Herzl saw it, the solution for the Jewish question should be part of the interests of all governments in the countries that have Jewish subjects and face tension on an anti-Semitic background. Therefore, he added, there is a need to find a place where the Jews can live together far from those hostile feelings and animosities. He stressed that such a solution should be brought about in collaboration with the super-powers of those times.

On one hand, it is amazing to see how the Jewish boy from Pest thought through all the details needed for building a state for the Jews. To accomplish this, he proposed forming two organizations: the Jewish Society and the Jewish Company. The former would be responsible for ideology and political arrangements with governments, and the latter would deal with the whole process that is needed to make the dream come true on the ground. He thought about the way settlements should be run, he thought about shopping malls, and about paving roads and about the hours that employees are supposed to spend in work, and about ways of bringing the Jews to the Holy Land. He did not forget to remind the Sultan in Istanbul that the Jews would even think of paying the debts and loans of Turkey, if His Highness, Abdul Hamid II, would collaborate with the idea.

On the other hand, there was just one “small” thing that Herzl did not think about when he was writing his program for the Jewish state. He didn’t think of the people living in Palestine.

At that time, towards the end of the 19th century, my late grandmother was born in the Arab town of al-Maghar, a small village in those days, which lies 10 kilometers northwest of the Sea of Galilee. The people of this village, in the Land of Galilee at the end of the 19th century, were not aware at all of the “Jewish question” that troubled the mind of the Jewish advocate. In fact, why should they have been aware of such a question at all? They lived in a small community under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and their efforts were directed mostly towards making their living from their lands.

Some questions come to mind when thinking of what happened in the last century. What makes a young Jew at the end of the 19th century dream of the idea that may be summed up in the famous phrase: “A people without land to a land without people”? What made him dream of such an idea, while at the same moment my Arab family was living and cultivating the land of the Galilee that is said to be, according to him, without people? The absence of my existence, since the very beginning of the Zionist movement, is a major factor in the on-going conflict to this very day. Herzl died in Europe and did not live in Palestine.

Time passed and the Ottoman Empire passed away and into the Land of Galilee a new ruler walked –the British. During the course of the World War I, British policy became committed to the idea of establishing a Jewish home in Palestine. After some consultations with Zionist leaders, a decision was taken and on November 2nd, 1917, Lord Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, in which the British government recognized the Zionist aims, and expressing: “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and views “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

My late father was born in the first decade of the 20th century. It was about the same year when David Ben-Gurion, who later became the first prime minister of Israel, went to Sejara, in the Galilee, and spent some time working on a farm. Ben-Gurion never met my father, and unlike Ben-Gurion who came from Poland, my father grew up in his land during the Ottoman Empire, then saw the British Mandate and died few years ago in the State of Israel. My father never left the village, and never traveled far away. He spent his whole life as a farmer, and had a very intimate relation with soil, trees and animals as well as people. Although he was illiterate, he knew the all names of the different kinds of clouds, the stars, the winds, plants, flowers, animals, soils, water springs and the like.

Unlike Herzl, who dreamed of a “land without people”, Ben-Gurion did in fact see reality as it is on the ground. About two decades after publishing Herzl’s program, and a year after the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion wrote: “The Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) is not empty of population... In the western part of Jordan alone there are three quarters of a million inhabitants. It is forbidden by any means and under any circumstances to violate the rights of these inhabitants”. But, in the same article Ben-Gurion mentioned a very important idea that may reveal the fundamental basis for the tension in this part of the world. There is a difference between the interests of the two communities, Ben-Gurion stated. “The “non-Jewish” (bilti-Yihudim) interests are preservative. The Jewish interests are revolutionary. The former are devoted to maintaining the existing order; the latter to creating the new, to changing values, to repair and building.” (David Ben-Gurion, Talks with Arab Leaders, Am Oved, Tel-Aviv 1975).

These remarks of Ben-Gurion’s are of great importance, because they uncover the deep roots of the conflict in Palestine. They reveal the original sin that created the tension between Zionism and the Palestinian Arab’s aspirations in Palestine. If we deal with these remarks from an objective point of view, we can state the confrontation thus: revolution versus tradition. This may have many progressive aspects when it occurs in a homogeneous society, within a single society that is struggling for the best of its future. But, in our case. this revolution that may have positive aspects from a Jewish point of view, shows its dirty aspects when it goes along with confrontations with the “natives” who live in their own homeland. This homeland happened to have been the place in which the Zionist revolution intended to take place.

Furthermore, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 in the place that is deeply rooted in the Jewish religion did not aim only at finding a place where the Jews could live among themselves. It also, and perhaps primarily, aimed at building a new society, or at least it tried to melt together Jews from many different cultures into one entity through transferring them from vastly different countries into the Holy Land, ignoring the existence of the people living in their homeland.

From the Zionist point of view, this is a process of transforming a merchant and wandering society, especially from the European countries, into an agricultural and industrial society that is based on land that is not empty. In principle and objectively speaking, such a process is, by its nature, a very revolutionary one and to some extent is aggressive. It resembles other cases that have occurred in the course of history of mankind. However, the interests of the “non-Jews”, i.e., the Arab people of Palestine, are preservative in nature. In a time prior to national local patriotism, the Palestinians were not crystallized as a distinct nation, and their main aim was to keep their land and culture in a homeland that was part of a larger entity. In our context the Zionist ideology, by its very nature, creates tension with the Palestinians who lived peacefully in their homeland and devoted their efforts to preserving their lands and hopes.

To this day, things have not changed much. There is a separation between different types of citizens in Israel. For example, formally I am a citizen of the state of Israel who was born in Israel and who holds an Israeli passport. But, like all Arabs in Israel, I am still considered “non-Jewish” in the Israeli media and official Israeli policy. This term implies that I can be at the same level as a Chinese, a Russian, an African, a European, or a foreign worker in Israel -- but not a Palestinian Arab who lives in his own homeland. This terminology did not come about by accident, as this term was the term used by Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister. From a Zionist point of view, using a national category to describe me and the “natives” in Palestine leads to a confrontation with the basic principle of the Zionist ideology. This attitude reveals the deep-rooted tribal-national system which stands behind the term “Jewish state” to describe Israel. This may also explain why it took so long to reach the point of mutual recognition with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and why we are still living the conflict.

Furthermore, there is another point that is worth dealing with, as it plays a great role in the socio-political arena in Israel. Unlike other cases, there is no separation between religion and nation in Judaism. At least, that is how the Jewish people see things, and I am not going to argue with them about this issue. But, at the same time, it is a part of the conflict we have been facing for many decades.

On my birthday, November 4, 1995, in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv, three bullets were fired by a young Israeli at Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, with the aim of changing the course of history as it had been evolving in the country and in the Middle East after the signing of the Oslo accords. In order to understand the process that led to Rabin’s assassination, there is a need to look at some of the terminology used by the Israeli public, and by both right-wing and mainstream parties since the 1967 War, when Israel occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights and above all, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Examining the terminology used in the context of the Holy Land can provide us with some explanation of what has happened during the last decades, and what may happen in the future if the use of such terminology continues.

Note all the feminine and even sensual imagery used for the homeland and the country. The image of the homeland as mother is quite a common thing. The feminine image gathers sensual momentum when we encounter an image like “Israel’s narrow waist” and so on. Rabin, in the eyes of a Jewish fanatic, abandoned parts of the matriarch Sarah or Rachel or Rachab, or any other familiar woman one may choose, to Arafat and the Arabs. To do this he did not even hesitate to get help from Arab Knesset members. Didn’t all the fanatics of the Jewish tribe accuse him of not having a Jewish majority? Is it not the case that arguments of this sort are still often raised today, several years after the assassination? In a tribal society, and religious-fanatic Jewish society is no different in this respect from the other fanatical monotheistic religions in the world, the individual has no value as such, even if the individual happens to be a prime minister. The value of an individual in such a society is measured only by the extent of his integration and his behavior according to the rules of tribal morality. Any deviation from these strict rules leads to an extreme reaction, even to the point of premeditated murder. A murder of this sort is always planned in advance in great detail, and there is always an attempt to blur the evidence.

This is even more true when what are involved are sexual animal instincts that suddenly rise to the surface. Therefore, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is not at all different from the murder of a girl in Arab society for having desecrated the family’s honor. True, this was a political assassination, but it is called political only because the murder victim filled a political role. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin goes far deeper than an extreme reaction to a political disagreement. Thus: The truth of the matter is that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered for reasons of sexual jealousy. In other words, for reasons of “desecrating the honor” of the family or the tribe. Only in this context is it possible to understand the assassination. No other explanation gets to the heart of the matter. Rabin, as far as the assassination is concerned, is comparable to the Arab girl who tries to grasp a bit of modern thinking and modern behavior, while turning her back on benighted ideas from the collective tribal culture of the past.

Rabin preferred Israeliness, that is modernity, over incurable and insular Judaism. And thus, in the eyes of the tribal fanatics, he crossed the red lines of tribal morality. In other words, instead of being “one of us” he began to keep company with “them”. Instead of protecting mother and Sarah and Rachel and Rachab, he let Arafat feel them up and touch the “narrow waist” of mother homeland. To all this can be added the cult of the patriarch, or more precisely the cult of the tombs of the patriarchs and the matriarch that are so common in this country among broad strata of the Jewish tribe. Thus Rabin crossed the red lines of Jewish tribal morality. And in a political act for which he took the responsibility, backed by the Israeli majority in the Knesset, there was a sort of separation of religion and state. To the fanatics this act looked like the red cape dangled before the fierce bull of a Jewish state. It was not by chance that the tribal elders gathered and resurrected from the pages of ancient Jewish law concepts that sanction vengeance against “pursuers” or individuals who hand a fellow Jew over to hostile authorities and so on. And when things reached this point, only a minor question remained: Who would carry out the judgment of the tribal elders?

Therefore, it was not the lone individual who was the assassin, but rather the entire conceptual world behind the murder. As long as such concepts are not rooted out and as long as religion is not separated from the state, there will be murders in this context. And there will be great tension between the Jewish tribe and the Arab tribe.

The prime minister of Israel was murdered on the tense border between the Jewish and the Israeli. He was murdered by the emissaries of the Jewish tribe because he had the courage to try to expand the grazing lands of the Israeli tribe, which may include the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, at the expense of the pure Jewish tribe. Thus the Golem took revenge on its creator. It is also important to note that it is not by chance that in the national anthem there is no hint of “Israeli-ness.” On the contrary, the emphasis in “Hatikva”, the Israeli anthem, is on the deepest religious connection to time (history) and place (the Land of Zion): “The Jewish soul yearning ... the eye gazing towards Zion ... the Land of Zion, Jerusalem." The combination of the two, the soul and the place, cannot but be mytho-religious. The Israeli national anthem is a Jewish religious prayer and not a statement about being Israeli. Therefore Israel is a religious Jewish legal entity and not a secular state. And when the leaders of the state were not wise enough, or were unable to, or perhaps did not want to break this link between religion and state, they sinned the primal sin of Zionism.

Two decades later came the June, 1967 war and brought the Jewish tribe into physical contact with the places that are so laden with mythological times and values. The noose grew tighter. To the primal sin was added another sin. In every nuance, Israel has never succeeded in adopting a value discourse that has self-confidence in facing the religious discourse. On the contrary, Israeli secularism has been taken over by feelings of inferiority facing fundamentalist religious discourse. For this reason Israeli secularism has not attributed importance to written words and to words spoken in the public arena. The right, of all hues, religious and non-religious, has known how to exploit to the fullest the words that are laden with sanctity. And this is the great breaking-point.

Thus, again and again mythological figures have cropped up from the past -- Amalek, Pharoah, Haman and even figures from the recent past like Hitler. The right, which is nurtured on religious texts and claims family and tribal values, has eyes in the back of its head like someone in the clutches of constant paranoia. It also sees the future with magic spectacles that are always showing it pictures from the monstrous past. The right wing tries to infect everyone with this paranoia. Such a view does not grow up in a vacuum. Its source is in part in the fact that deep down the right is aware that it has done a terrible injustice to the other, and the other in this case is the Palestinian.

The Israeli right, in its very essence, is imprisoned in this trap. Part of the left, not all of it, is trying to get out of it with as few casualties as possible. Yitzhak Rabin, although it was a bit later, did understand the grave danger that lies in this trap. He was aware that he as Chief of General Staff had got Israel into it. When he saw how things were, he had the courage to begin to seek ways to get out. But, being a general, he wanted the retreat to take place with the minimum of casualties. This is also the reason for his hesitancy and suspicion.

To get out of the trap Rabin was prepared to take great steps forward. He was prepared to tip the balance in favor of Israeli tribalism rather than Jewish tribalism. The right’s reaction was to come to him with the racist demand for “a Jewish majority.” This demand even managed to seep into his own party, the Labor Party. In a desperate attempt he tried to unravel the tangle and began to talk in different language. Terms like racism and apartheid, of which he accused the right, came out of his mouth in despairing tones, and this is how they were described by the government broadcasting channel just a few days before the assassination.

This poison potion of tribalism and religion is the place where the ideology grows that sprouts not weeds but base murderers, even if the victim is a Jewish prime minister. The shock and astonishment expressed by many people at the fact that “a Jew had done this” is indicative of hypocrisy and stupidity. This is the battle between human law and the law of the tribe and God, who knows only vengeance. This is also, in part, the reason for the rejoicing that was heard among small parts of the Jewish public in Israel and elsewhere.

On November 4, 1953, five years after the establishment of the State of Israel in collaboration with the super-powers and the United Nations, I was born in al-Maghar, a village that lies west of the Sea of Galilee. As a little boy in the 1950s I was not aware of what had happened in the region only few years earlier, in 1948. As a little boy in the 1950s I was not aware of what had happened in the land of Galilee. As a little boy, I was not supposed to know or understand wars and struggles between nations and super-powers. I grew up and gradually began to hear stories. I heard for example that I could have been born as a refugee, as during the war of 1948 my family fled out of fear to a nearby village in which with other families stayed for several days. But the closeness to the land and to the olive trees quickly brought them back on foot to al-Maghar. They had in mind one thing only: Either we live in our homeland or if we are fated to die, let us die in our homeland in the Galilee. At that time they did not think of Palestine as a national entity with historical borders. Homeland in their view at that time, and in my opinion, now, is still like that, a narrow idea. Homeland in an Arab peasant culture is the few square kilometers of the village where you were born. Moving a few kilometers to another village, which rarely occurs, sounds to them like immigrating to a new country.

Many times, when going to visit al-Maghar, I have faced the question: When are you coming back? When I ask what is wrong with living in Jerusalem, their answer would be sentimental and could be summed up in one word: Homeland. For them that means a few square kilometers in the area of al-Maghar. Is their answer a part of the conflict in the Middle East? My reply is categorically, YES. This answer is connected to the main problem that lies behind the conflict in the Middle East, and I mean the refugee problem. Some may think in political terms in dealing with the conflict, and tend to think that it can be solved within the frame of establishing a Palestinian state. In fact, those who think so ignore the basic essence of the Palestinian social structure.

In order to make this point clearer, I may refer to a new survey that was conducted by Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) among 1948 and 1967 refugees. The survey shows that the vast majority the refugees, 99.8 percent of the overall refugee population, believes that return must be to their original villages and towns within the borders of Israel. The survey shows that only 1.5 percent of the refugees believe that the PLO has the right to waive the right of return in their name.

Now, the time is August 2001 and both of us, the same Jewish boy from Pest and myself, stay in Jerusalem, the city that at the moment occupies the news headlines in almost all the international media. The Jewish boy rests on a small hill named after him, Mount Herzl. I, myself, don’t have the courage to think even of having a street named after me in my homeland in the state that was born before me and is said to be the Jewish State. The term, from its very beginning, brought tension to the country. The evacuation, by force or under the circumstances of war which may be characterized now in terms of ethnic cleansing, of nearly 70 percent of the Arab population, “non-Jews” as they are characterized in Zionist terminology, who lived in their land, has not brought about a solution to the “Jewish question”, as the early founders of Zionism thought initially.

I would like to end with a new quotation from a column written by an Israeli poet, Chava Pinchas-Cohen, that was published in the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv, on August 27, 2001: “We came back home and found that there were new tenants”. This image reveals the deep roots of the unfinished conflict. The ideology that lies behind the use of the phrase “coming home” means: It’s our home and we came back to settle in it. The others, as they appear the second part of the quotation are “new tenants”. This means that the people to which I belong is nothing but a new tenant, that is to say not the owner of the house. This is exactly the ideology that has not changed for almost a century. And this is the ideology that will keep on bringing disasters to this troubled place, that has not gone beyond religious and tribal morals.

Jerusalem, August 2001

Firstly published in German (2001)



Salman Masalha


I walk in the clouds.
My horizon tinted dew.
Mirages are the myths.
My life has passed in vain
Looking for the true.

If a friend would ask me back
To the land of the sane,
I'd never leave the sands,
I'd never leave the track.

Thoughts stretch taut at night.
Desire is a light
That sparkles in the eye.
I am a mad song.
Like an echo, I fly.

Translated by Vivian Eden


For the Arabic text, press here.

To listen to the poem in Arabic, composed by Kamilya Jubran,
press here.


Anthem for the Tribe of Israel

Salman Masalha


Yitzhak Rabin was murdered on the tense border between the Jewish and the Israeli. He was murdered by the emissaries of the Jewish tribe because he had the courage to try to expand the grazing lands of the Israeli tribe at the expense of the Jewish tribe. Thus the Golem took revenge on its creator.

It is not by chance that in the national anthem there is no hint of “Israeli-ness.” On the contrary, the emphasis in “Hatikva” (The Hope) is on the deepest religious facet connected to time (history) and place (the Land of Zion): “The Jewish soul yearning ... the eye gazing towards Zion ... the Land of Zion, Jerusalem." The combination of the two, the soul and the place, cannot but be mytho-religious. The Israeli national anthem is a Jewish religious prayer – and not Israeli. Therefore Israel is a religious Jewish legal entity and not a secular state. And when the leaders of the state were not wise enough, or were unable to, or perhaps did not want to break this link between religion and state, they sinned the primal sin of Zionism. Two decades later came the June, 1967 war and brought the Jewish tribe into physical contact with the places that are so laden with mythological times and values. The noose grew tighter.

To the primal sin was added another sin. In every nuance, it has never succeeded in adopting a value discourse that has self-confidence facing the religious discourse. On the contrary, Israeli secularism has been taken over by feelings of inferiority facing fundamentalist religious discourse. For this reason Israeli secularism has not attributed importance to written words and to words spoken in the public arena. The right, of all hues, religious and non-religious, has known how to exploit to the fullest the words that are laden with sanctity. And this is the great breaking-point.

Thus, again and again mythological figures have cropped up from the past – Amalek, Pharoah, Haman and even figures from the recent past like Hitler. The right, which is nurtured on religious texts and claims family and tribal values, has eyes in the back of its head like someone in the clutches of constant paranoia. It also sees the future with magic spectacles that is always showing it pictures from the monstrous past. The right tries to infect everyone with this paranoia. And it does not grow up in a vacuum. Its source is in part in the fact that deep down the right is aware that it has done a terrible injustice to the other, and the other in this case is the Palestinian.

The right, in its very essence, is imprisoned in this trap. Part of the left, not all of it, is trying to get out of it with as few casualties as possible.

Yitzhak Rabin did understand the grave danger that lies in this trap. He was aware that he has Chief of General Staff had got Israel into it. When he saw how things were, he had the courage to begin to seek ways to get out. But, being a general, he wanted the retreat to take place with the minimum of casualties. This is also the reason for his hesitancy and suspicion.

To get out of the trap Rabin was prepared to take great steps forward. He was prepared to tip the balance in favor Israeli tribalism rather than Jewish tribalism. The right’s reaction was to come to him with the racist demand for “a Jewish majority.” This demand even managed to seep into his own party. In a desperate attempt he tired to unravel the tangle and began to talk in different language. terms like racism and apartheid, of which he accused the right, came out of his mouth in despairing tones, and this is how they were described by the government broadcasting channel just a few days before the assassination.

The mourning that swept through the Arabs of Israel after the assassination was genuine and true, it sprang from the deepest source, from that border that divides biological parents from adoptive parents. This is the mourning of a child who was abandoned in 1948 by his biological parents, and after Oslo understood finally where he stood and in what family he had grown up. He had even begun to love the adoptive family and was not afraid of expressing his feelings in public. Rabin gave this child a spark of hope of adoption by the new state of Israel and of becoming an integral part of the Israeli family. However, this was also the reason for the assassination. Therefore, the public debate following the murder tried to avoid the mourning and fate of this child, who constitutes 20 percent of the citizens of Israel (50 percent of those who participated in the rally on the night of the murder, according to the assassin).

This poison potion of tribalism and religion is the place where the ideology grows that sprouts not weeds but base murderers, even if the victim is a Jewish prime minister. The shock and astonishment expressed by many people at the fact that “a Jew had done this” is indicative of hypocrisy and stupidity. This is the battle between human law and the law of the tribe and God, who know only vengeance. Yhis is also, in part, the reason for the rejoicing that was heard among small parts of the Jewish public here and abroad. I venture to predict that the next struggle will not be over the question of who is a Jew. It will be a struggle over the question of who is an Israeli. And participating in this struggle will be all the citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs.

Jerusalem, November 1995

Translated by Vivian Eden

From the Memorial Book for Yitzhak Rabin:
Asher Ahavta et Yitzhak (Yitzhak, Whom You Love), ed. Zisi Stavi, Aliza Zeigler, Miskal - Publishing & Distribution, Tel-Aviv 1995

For Hebrew, press here.


The New Arab Order

Salman Masalha

The New Arab Order

Could a social and political arrangement be reached, with the aim of governing Arab life so as to move beyond the perpetual state of conflict that Arab peoples and regimes have been locked in for generations? Is there a true will to reach such a formula? And can the new Iraq provide a model to be emulated in this respect?

On the one hand, it is clear that the Arab political culture hardly provides a model worth emulating. But on the other hand, those who call for imitating Western culture ignore the nature of Arab societies and their political history.

In Iraq, for example, we may ignore all the shortcomings that we suffer from in order to call for a united Iraq while disregarding the ethnic and religious diversity of its population. And what applies to Iraq applies to other Arab countries as well.

The Kurd, for example, sees himself as a Kurd first and Iraqi second. The same applies to other groups such as the Sunnis, Shiites, Turkmen and other minorities. Yet in other countries such as France, people identify with their country before they identify with their religious or ethnic affiliations.

The world today deals with political entities and not with ethnic or religious groups. Thus, if the people of Iraq want to make a model to the region out of their country, they should apply a secular constitution. The Iraqi Arab, for example, must be prepared to accept a Kurd as president. The same applies to other sects.

Consequently, it is important to separate religion from state if Iraq is to be a model for the region. And since we are aware of the sensitivities involved in such a framework, the presidency should be rotated among the different ethnic and religious sects of the country with a two-term limitation.

Such a vision may not be an ideal one, but since when has the Arab situation been ideal? The Iraqi constitution may be subject to review after a century with the Iraqi identity having been entrenched in the people. And for those seeking another regime, there is the constitutional monarchy, which remains a reasonable option.


Published in: Al-Hayat, May 12, 2003

For Arabic, press here.


The Apache War

Salman Masalha

The Apache War

Summer Rains. Thus spoke the Israel Defense Forces muses and a pleasant chill emanated from the radio and television receivers and seeped into the heart of the sticky consensus in the heat of a new summer. Before long the Israeli media buried the wicked use of the Hebrew language, meant to conceal crimes perpetrated by the IDF in Israel's name, in the Gaza Strip. And since they still haven't found a name for the summer rains that began to fall in the north, wordsmiths are now being called upon to emerge from the shelters and to enlist in the reserves.

Two wars, which are one, are currently being waged in the region. One is an internal Islamic war between the Sunni stream and the Shiite stream based in Iran. The objective of this war, which began with Khomeini's Islamic revolution, is the imposition of the jihad doctrine throughout the Muslim world - as a first step - and afterward, the spearheading of a global war between Islam and the rest of the world, and especially the West, with Christianity at its center. This is just how things happened in the early days of Islam. And in words that should be especially clear to the Hebrew reader: It's a war about "restoring former glory." The Arab and Muslim world lives in a world of contrasts that it has difficulty bridging. Raised on a legacy of the glorious past, it looks around and sees that ever since those days of splendor it has not been able to escape the backwardness that has gripped it in every area and in every corner.

Al-Qaida is also part of this internal Islamic war. The September 11th attack was a desperate attempt by Sunni fundamentalism to put itself on the map as a standard-bearer of the holy war of Islamic renewal. It did so because Khomeini's Shiite Islamic revolution had taken the reins and led this war. The toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime and the rising capital of the Shiites in Iraq only exacerbated this internal Islamic war.

Against this backdrop, one can understand the stance taken by the Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as well as by others, against "the rash adventure" of Hezbollah's action against Israel. And only against this backdrop is it possible to understand the fatwa (religious ruling) issued on July 17, 2006 by Sheikh Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman Jibrin, a leading Sunni cleric in Saudi Arabia: "It is absolutely forbidden to come to the defense of people of this rebellious party (i.e., the Shiite Hezbollah). It is absolutely forbidden to obey their orders, and forbidden to pray for their victory. We advise people of the Sunna to turn their backs on them and to hand them a defeat ..."

Grapes of Wrath and Summer Rains and other such appellations are offered by the Hebrew muses in order to camouflage the death and destruction sown behind the images and the metaphors. But the Iranians have muses, too, and they know how to use their Persian language, which draws heavily from Arabic and from Islam. They give their instruments of death names like fajr (dawn), raad (thunder) and the musical-sounding zelzal (earthquake). And just to remove any doubt, they use names like Khaybar, to conjure up the massacre of Jews in the 7th-century ethnic-cleansing operation in the Arabian Peninsula. And when the mullahs' emissary in the Iranian presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declares that Khomeini's blood and spirit are flowing in Nasrallah's veins, he is referring to that same global war between Islam and the rest of the world, the world of the devil and of all the heretics.

We can learn something about this spirit of Khomeini from a speech the late ayatollah gave in 1981 on the occasion of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. Among other things, Khomeini preached: "The days of Allah are when Allah, exalted and praised be He, will cause a zalzala [a tremor, an earthquake] ... Why do you, the religious sages, follow only the imperatives of prayer and fasting? Why do you read only the verses of mercy, and not the verses of killing? The Koran says: Ye shall surely kill, ye shall surely imprison. Mercy is something that is opposed to God ... Mihrab [the niche in a mosque that faces Mecca; the direction of prayer, where the imam stands] is a place of war [from the Arabic root harb - war]. It is from the mihrabs that the war should erupt, just as all the wars of Islam erupted from the mihrabs [that is, from the mosques]."

The corruption of language inevitably leads to the corruption of man, the corruption of nature and the extinguishing of life. The intensity of the response and the destruction being sown by Israel in Palestine and Lebanon derive from an impulse to grab, on the one hand, and from existential anxiety, on the other. And when Ahmadinejad endlessly repeats his mantra of Holocaust denial, his words have one meaning: A Holocaust never happened, meaning, a Holocaust will happen. And when rhetoric collides with "rotary" war machines and when the rotary is loaded with rhetoric, death is the sole victor.

And it also turns out that this god, the Lord of Hosts and God of Vengeance, whose name everyone takes in vain, is the worst invention the Semitic nations ever gave to humanity. It's like a mechanism for self-destruction, a monster that rises up against its creator and eventually brings about the destruction of the idea itself. Mercy isn't opposed to God, as Khomeini said. The reverse is true. Death is what is opposed to God. Death is what does God in.

Grapes of Wrath, Summer Rains, Spider Webs, Webs of Steel - they're all part of this dance of death. We have fajr, raad and zelzal, too. But above all of them hover the spirit and fate of the Apache: The Apaches were bold warriors who wanted to live as free people on their land. But the pioneers didn't want Indians near their farms, and launched attacks against them. The Apache responded with reprisals of their own, and so it went, again and again. Cochise, the tribe's chief, knew that many white men were coming to settle in the area, and in order to defend his tribe, he made a nonaggression pact with them. But this pact was soon violated and the wars between them resumed, until Cochise surrendered in 1872. His tribe was placed on a new reservation.

The Apache in our part of the world, if you like, is the Palestinian whom the secular and religious Zionist zealots are trying to imprison in reservations behind walls of cement and barbed wire. And, if you like, it is the Israeli for whom the zealots of Islam are trying to designate reservations, too, to put it mildly.

We don't need any Webs of Steel or Zelzal missiles here. We don't need a war over ancestors' graves that will lead to the digging of graves for our sons. This is the time to make a conscious turnabout, among both the Israelis and Palestinians, before we all march gloriously to hell. Needless to say, the deluge won't follow.


Published in: Haaretz, August 3, 2006


He Made a Homeland of Words

Salman Masalha

He Made a Homeland of Words

(Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008)

"My homeland is not a suitcase and I am no traveler," Mahmoud Darwish wrote in an attempt to give poetic expression to the Palestinian tragedy. But it seems that after he decided to up and leave Haifa of his own accord in 1970, eventually joining the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he wandered between airports and "sat on suitcases" more than any other Palestinian did.

His first departure from Palestine took place in the year of the Nakba ("The Catastrophe"), like the rest of the Palestinians. This exile didn't last long, and he returned as a boy with his family, among a group deemed "infiltrators" by the state, to Birwa, his birth village, only to discover that the village had been destroyed and no longer existed. And thus the young Darwish joined the band of "present absentees"-people who hadn't been in the country when the first census was taken.

The meaning of the term watan (homeland) is narrow in Arab culture, confined to the borders of the village. Therefore, Darwish discovered upon his return that he had come back from exile in Lebanon to a new kind of exile: "I had been a refugee in Lebanon and now I was a refugee in my own country," he wrote on the return to the village that was no longer, to the "lost homeland." That, in effect, is the common thread woven through Darwish's entire body of poetry throughout the years.

He went to school in Deir al-Assad, a Galilee village not far from the ruins of Birwa, his lost paradise. In those years, his teachers hid him from the police, because as an "infiltrator" he was illegal in the eyes of the enforcers of the new Israeli law.

As the years went on, Darwish began looking for an outlet to express the complexity of his life in a country that had changed its visage. He found his way to the Arabic-language press of the Israeli Communist Party, and his star as a poet quickly rose. After the war of June 1967, not only were the two sides of Jerusalem connected, but Palestinians on both sides of the border were joined as one group with a fresh wound. Even the neighboring Arab world suddenly discovered an Arab-Palestinian minority, whose members had been forgotten in parts of Palestine and who had become citizens of the State of Israel.

Darwish felt suffocated in the country, and wanted to aim higher, stronger and farther. He aspired to reach the Arab spotlight, beyond Haifa, in the capital cities of the Arab world. And thus, after he left in 1970 and was received abroad with open arms, he found that scores of spotlights were turned on him. But as the years passed and the dreams of the liberation of Palestine grew more distant, his remorse over his hasty departure from the land, his personal homeland, began to eat away at him. He settled in Lebanon and wrote poems about Beirut. But the Lebanese, who were embroiled in their own wars with the Palestinians, weren't happy to haveone of them, albeit a popular poet, writing about Beirut. He later explained to Halit Yeshurun in an interview that they told him, "'This isn't your city.' They said I was a stranger. I felt temporary."

Following the First Lebanon War, Darwish and the rest of the PLO in Lebanon were uprooted, first to Cyprus, then to Tunisia. From then on, terms like "here" and "there" began to appear frequently in Darwish's poems, part of his new search for belonging. "I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here," he wrote in the collection "Fewer Roses," becoming submerged in his memories: "I come from there and I have memories / Born as mortals are, I have a mother / And a house with many windows / I have brothers, friends / And a prison cell with a cold window-/ I learnt all the words and broke them up / To make a single word: Homeland" (from "I Come From There," translation by Fady Joudah).

From this feeling of foreignness in exile, Darwish began to make his way to his true homeland: "I love to travel / to a village that never hangs my last evening on its cypresses." But he knew that his way back wasn't a bed of roses: "I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee" (translations by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche)

It was no coincidence that Darwish chose the name "Al-Karmel" for the literary quarterly he edited over many years of exile-in Beirut, Cyprus and eventually Ramallah. Though he had left the Galilee and the Carmel, his "private" geography, in search of glory in Arab capitals, he continued to carry his small homeland on the wings of metaphor.

In more honest moments, he would reveal his true feelings (not just the slogan) regarding his real homeland, which he kept under lock and key. He admitted in the interview with Halit Yeshurun that he wouldn't want to live in Gaza, that he didn't like Gaza and that Gaza wasn't his homeland. But it wasn?t only that Gaza felt like exile: So did Ramallah, where he settled after the Oslo Accords. Again, he felt he was living in exile in a "political homeland." As he told Adam Shatz in an interview with The New York Times in 2001, "I had never been in the West Bank before... it's not my private homeland. Without memories you have no real relationship to a place." With these words, "the Palestinian national poet" exposes the problematic nature of belonging to the Palestinian homeland, but he evades an explanation of what his real homeland is.

These kinds of utterances never found their way into interviews with the Arab press. The homeland is a slogan touted by many, but no one tries to pick it apart, discuss its deeper significance or indicate its limits and what it symbolizes in the private and collective consciousness of the Palestinians and of the Arabs in general. Arab mass media treated him like a symbol surrounded by an aura of sanctity. Therefore, a real discussion of those kinds of questions seemed like the desecration of something holy.

"Record! I am an Arab"

Against his will, Darwish turned into a Palestinian symbol, from both a poetic and a political perspective. It was hard on him, and he tried more than once to free himself from the shackles of the narrow Palestinian niche that other Arab poets, envious of his success, designated for him. The masses, as is their nature, look for symbols, and the masses loved him. Moreover, Arab culture has always, even before the advent of Islam, looked to its poets to be the spokespeople of the tribe. And suddenly in the midst of the Arab masses appeared an ideal spokesman for the Palestinian tribe, the Arab tribe-standing tall before his enemies: "Record! I am an Arab," he said defiantly in one of his early poems.

And thus, consciously or not, Darwish turned discourse on the watan into his poetic profession. "He said to me on his way to his prison: I will know when I am released, / that speaking in praise of the homeland / like speaking dispraise of the homeland / is a profession like any other profession," he wrote in "State of Siege." And indeed, being a skilled craftsman, Darwish wrote extensively about the homeland. He even described his native land as being made of words, "lana balad min kalam"-we have a native land of words (from "Fewer Roses").

On some level, admiration of Darwish was a form of permissible defiance of Arab regimes, insofar as discussions of Palestine in the Arab world were the only shelter for dissidents. These repressive regimes were essentially throwing a bone to Arab citizens by letting them wave the "flag of Palestine," on the condition that they not go near the rulers themselves. The masses loved Darwish's inferior poems, not the better poetry that he crafted in his last years. The masses would often request that he read one of the poorer poems, and he would refuse, attempting to free himself from the constraints of those works, the constraints of the symbol that so burdened him.

Being faithful to classical Arabic poetry, Darwish rightly continued to adhere to the tradition that gave weight to the musical aspect of poetry, the aspect that differentiates it from prose. But he tried in recent years to soften his strict adherence to metrical poetry. To his credit, he never rested on his laurels, but rather persisted in his quest for his own poetic expression. Darwish?s poetry flowed out of him like a fountainhead, although, in my opinion, he sometimes had a penchant for the flowery superficiality of irritating metaphors that lacked poetic foundation. For example, "Saqf al-sahil" (The ceiling of the horse's neigh) and other such kitschy metaphors that sound like they came off the assembly line of a factory for plastic toys.

Darwish didn't like criticism (though who does?), and my own criticism, published in Arabic here and abroad, did not spare him in recent years. Darwish looked for love at any cost-from both the regime and the people, and there is no greater contradiction. In his desire to have his cake and eat it too, he never took an unambiguous position based on a moral foundation, and he always tiptoed. On the one hand, he didn't want to upset the regime, any regime-not the corrupt Palestinian regime on which he was dependent for many years, and not the regimes in the rest of the Arab world. On the other hand, he didn't want to upset the Arab masses, whose populist love he needed like oxygen.

However, let's put aside the populist aspect that surfaced in his pamphlet poems-poems that were published under the influence of events, moments of anger and justified emotional outbursts. Darwish is a wonderful poet who discovered early on in his artistic path the hidden secret of true poetry. He gave his readers moments of happiness, albeit melancholy happiness, as is befitting great poetry.

Now, at the end of his poetic wanderings, he will remain, for many years, the ultimate poetic "present absentee," both in the Palestinian canon and in Arab poetry as a whole.


Published in English: Haaretz Books Supplement, September 2008


For the Hebrew text, press here.


The Cat, the Cross and the Cream

Salman Masalha


Is the Israeli cat trying to guard the cream? Or are we going to get lost in Nazareth? And what is the connection between all this and the people that is vanishing as the end of the millennium approaches? Are you confused? This is a sign that you are on the right track.

Once upon a time in the land of the Galilee, in the time before the state of Israel, there was a village where the children of Ismail, Christians and Muslims, lived side by side, or, as we like to say here - in peace and tranquillity. The years passed, each man under his vine and his fig tree, until one day someone in the Christian neighborhood began to excavate foundations for an additional house for his growing family. He dug and dug, until he suddenly found that he had exposed an ancient mosaic decorated with a cross and depictions of figures from the New Testament. The entire Christian neighborhood came out to see this discovery. The heads of the community decided that instead of building a house on the site, they would keep on digging until the whole archeological site was uncovered. Thus they unearthed another cross and another Virgin, and the celebrations got underway in the Christian neighborhood. Sheep were slaughtered in honor of the discoveries, and the sounds of rejoicing reached the homes of the Muslims, whose neighborhood was at the other end of the village.

When the Muslims heard the sounds of rejoicing coming from the direction of the Christian quarter, they decided to send duly appointed representatives -- the mukhtar and other notables -- to find out the reason for the sudden jubilation. The delegation set out, and when they came to the gates of the Christian quarter, they were greeted by distinguished representatives of the Christians. The latter conducted the delegation to the site and explained to the Muslims that the cause of the rejoicing was the discovery that the village had been a Christian site since ancient times, and as proof of this they displayed the antiquities that had been uncovered. The Muslims looked, and were awe-struck, yet gradually a veil of unhappiness descended on their faces. After feasting with their Christian friends, they returned to the Muslim neighborhood, where they related what they had beheld. After some discussion, a decision was taken in the Muslim quarter that the following morning they too would begin to excavate in their neighborhood. They dug and dug but they found nothing. For seven days the excavations continued, and then they dug for another month or more and still they found nothing. Despair began to trickle into their hearts. But, as they were trying to decide what to do next, all of a sudden everything changed. One of the diggers came running to the mukhtar and told him that they had found proof that the village belongs to the Muslims. Everyone rushed to the site and they were overwhelmed with joy. That night, the festivities began. They slaughtered sheep. Sounds of singing filled the air and their echo was heard in the Christian neighborhood on the other side of the village.

From a distance, the Christians heard the joyful noise coming from the Muslim neighborhood and decided to send representatives to find out what was happening. The priest and a number of other people volunteered to set out as a delegation. They went to the Muslims, who greeted them smiling from ear to ear and invited the Christians to partake of the slaughtered sheep, as the customs of hospitality require. After the feast was over, the Christian delegation inquired as to the cause of the rejoicing. The Muslims did not want to answer in words because they knew that what the eye sees is far more telling than what the ear hears. They conducted the Christian delegation to the site, where the mukhtar stood and announced to the Christian delegation: Here we have discovered that the village has always been a Muslim village. When the priest asked: And what have you found? The mukhtar, without blinking, said: Behold. Here we have found Muhammad's cross.

Is there any connection between Nazareth and Islam? And will the millennium bring bloodshed? At the beginning of the century that is about to end, a French scholar named Casanova published a study of the beginnings of Islam. His book was entitled Muhammed et la Fin du Monde. Among other things, Casanova noted that Muhammad's new religion, Islam, which was born in the Arabian Peninsula, came into the world under Christian influences. Muhammad, according to Casanova, had a very strong sense that the end of days was imminent, and therefore preparations must be made.

I myself have vague memories of the city of Nazareth. At the end of the 1950s I got lost in its lanes. In the mind of a little boy who had come from the village, the visit to the developing city of Nazareth was an unforgettable urban experience. I and a friend, another little boy of about my age, walked hand in hand through the maze of the market, when suddenly my family disappeared from view. Thus we found ourselves lost among the crowd that filled the market on weekends. Many years have gone by since then, and even today I sometimes feel like I am still looking for something in Nazareth, but it seems that I have not yet found myself there. In the Nazareth of today, on the brink of the millennium, the people of Nazareth are looking for something else there. In the Nazareth of today, they are looking for their bones, not for themselves.

Now, we are but a footstep away from metabolism of the toxic spiritual materials of the end of the millennium. And Casanova, whom I have recently recalled, is also the name of a street in Nazareth. Not far from there, on the road that leads up to the market of Nazareth, stands the Christian Church of the Annunciation from which the streets branch out that lead to the market where I got lost. There, in the open space in front of the church, Muslim activists have taken possession of a piece of land. There, a large tent stood that became an improvised mosque on the grounds that exactly on this spot is the grave of Shihab al Din, a soldier who served in Salah al Din's army, which liberated the holy places from the Crusader conquest. This site has become a source of friction between Christians and Muslims in the city on the brink of the millennium.

To paraphrase the previous story: Have the Muslims at the end of the millennium in Nazareth also found Muhammad's cross? Or is this another sword that is destined to rip the city to shreds and not leave any bit of it standing? The Israeli government, of course, is trying to mediate between the Muslims and the Christians! And in this state of affairs, I cannot be sanguine. Peace in Nazareth is already in the process of being slowly digested in the gut of the Israeli cat that is guarding the cream in Nazareth.

Jerusalem, Autumn 1999

French: "Le chat, la croix et le pot crème", Qantara: magazine des cultures arabe et méditerranéenne, Nº 34, 1999‑2000


The City of the Walking Flower

Salman Masalha


Here, on the watershed of the winds, between reality and imagination, between the Utopia of the celestial spheres and the reality of the underworld, stands Jerusalem as piles of stone that separate sea from sea, tomorrow from yesterday, the green from the desert and above all, the sacred from the profane. The city stands here like a broad cosmic-political terminal, as the starting line for the competitions in which all the participants race to other places and other times. Here in Jerusalem, and in the four corners of the earth, the descendents of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad jostle one another on the track to take part in the Olympics of the evil spirit that knows no rest. They are all poised crouching to the ground in awe of the holy, waiting for the starting gun of the race to defeat the forces of gravity.

When I was a child, in my imagination Jerusalem was inextricably linked to the Apocalyptic day of the great dash forward from which there is no return. The scenario, including the instructions issued by the director sitting on a raised platform in the dome of the sky, was determined in advance and minutely detailed. In the play of the End of Days, no freedom to improvise is given to mortal actors. These must play the roles determined for them in advance, with complete faith and with no reservations or questions like what if and maybe and nevertheless. The Jews, says the scenario, are destined to destroy the Muslim mosques in Jerusalem. In reaction to the unlimited support given the Jews and the Jewish state by the West, which as everyone knows is largely Christian, the Muslims will rise up and destroy the Christian churches. The West's reaction will not be long in coming: it will gather its armies to conquer the K'aba. And thus, in an uncontrollable chain reaction a great world war will break out, which is the Apocalypse, until the Messiah comes and brings a new world order, entirely different from the one everyone is talking about these days. I never imagined, back in the days of my childhood, that Fate would call me to rub shoulders with the inhabitants of this city, nor did I conceive of the possibility of living in the eye of the storm destined to take place at the End of Days.

In the year 1690, there was also someone who thought that the end of days was happening before his lightless eyes. No one knows his name, and chances are that no one ever will. A man from Aleppo, 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi by name, arrived that year in Jerusalem, prayed there, strolled through its markets, met its people and, as is the habit of many pilgrims, put his impressions down in writing. One day he went out to a hill west of the city walls. The hill served as a Muslim cemetery, and the graveyard still exists in the center of Jerusalem in the Mamilla quarter. His guides related that here at the edge of the cemetery someone once tried to dig a grave, and suddenly found within the grave a Muslim man sitting and reading the Koran. The man from the grave addressed him, and asked what had happened, whether the Hour, the End of Days, had come. The digger, frightened by what he saw, fled for his life. However, after a while he returned to the place accompanied by other people and found no trace either of the digging or of the grave.

About 200 years later, someone else thought the End of Days was near. In 1874 a Dutch woman came to the city of Jerusalem. Here, the citizens called her the Dutch Princess. She decided that it was not enough to dream, and the time had come to see to the practical aspects of the Redemption and the End of Days. Therefore, she embarked upon the construction of a building that was to serve as a huge hostel that could accommodate the 140,000 of the Children of Israel who would remain alive at the End of Days. The place she selected was none other than that same plot west of the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla. The man from the grave in the previous story is of the Children of Ishmael, but had his luck been with him, he might have been fortunate enough to have lodged in a five star hotel as the "Shabbes goy" (a gentile who performs household tasks prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath) for the surviving Children of Israel. The Dutch Princess never completed her project because she ran out of money, which just goes to show you that even in the business of the End of Days things run according to the prices of the earthly marketplace.

On that site now stands the Liberty Garden, which, like many of the Liberty Gardens in the Holy Land, serves as a site for encounters of the sort which was accompanied by the expulsion from the Garden of Eden its day. Thus, throughout the years, the people of Jerusalem, the living and the dead, dwell there in expectation of the Day of Judgment that will certainly come. Jerusalem is slowly borne above the earth's surface. As if the stone of the city were not the same stone, as if the wind were not the same wind and as if the people were not the same people.

Jerusalem, unlike other places, has laws of its own. The laws of physics do not apply here. The city of Jerusalem is born above the earth's surface by supreme metaphysical forces, and any attempt to descend with it to the firm ground of reality, to the street, to the cafe, to the noise of the buses and the municipal garbage leads to the crashing of dreams soaked in the holiness of the end of days and fantasies soaked in the juices of divinity. Thus the city is famous for its syndrome, the Jerusalem Syndrome. Anyone who strolls through the streets of the city is likely to encounter people whose dreams have all shattered on the ground of reality in this strange city. Where in this world is there another city with a syndrome all its own?

Jerusalem is best kept in the cellars of the imagination. It is recommended, and perhaps desirable, to write about it and to write poems for it. The city does right by poets and provides them with an abundance of color, images and metaphors. However, it is not a good idea, and perhaps even dangerous, to break it down into small details, because reality could hit you in the face and dealing with this will be difficult. Jerusalem, all of whose inhabitants are strangers, does not welcome strangers, because strangeness here has its own hierarchy. I too am a stranger in Jerusalem and it does not welcome me either. But what am I, a mere mortal, compared to its many days through which so many mortals have passed?

During the 1870s, about a hundred years before I myself came to Jerusalem, a man of Damascus called Nu'man al-Qasatili, came to the gates of Jerusalem seeking progress and openness. The Damascus of those days looked to him like the epitome of backwardness, so he set out for what he imagined to be the city of lights. Of course he did not find the city of lights, and he immortalized his impressions in a chronicle of his journeys in the provinces of Greater Syria. He noted that there were about 40,000 inhabitants in the city at the time. The natives were a minority in Jerusalem. The rest were a motley of strangers, Jews, Muslims and Christians. The majority of the city's inhabitants had arrived there from distant places, that is, from beyond the sea and from beyond the desert. Today, the population of Jerusalem is more than 400,000 souls. The inhabitants of today are new strangers, or the descendants of yesterday's strangers. The strangers of today are the fathers of the strangers who will be born here. Gradually it becomes clear that strangeness is an inseparable part of the city. The strangers who have settled in the city like it when strangers come to visit. They wait expectantly for the delegations of visitors because they provide a significant part of their income, as al-Qasatili says. Those who have already settled in Jerusalem do not love the other strangers who have already settled here, but all of them want the money of the strangers, that is to say -- the tourists -- because that is how they earn their living.

Who builds whom? Does man build a city in his own image, or is it the city that builds man in its image? This question looks simple, but it is not at all with respect to Jerusalem. Cities that are built along the seacoast take their character from the sea. They face the sea and draw serenity from it. The cycle of the ebb and flow of the waves beating endlessly on their shores pervades them with a sense of life without end. In Jerusalem too, there is a cycle, but it is the cycle of a volcano and you never know when it will explode. There is also a sea near Jerusalem. But in this Jerusalem sea you always lie on your back with your eyes looking up towards heaven. You needn't lift a finger in order to float because Jerusalem's sea always pushes you upward. You can sink only into hallucinations of other places and other times. Any attempt to stand with your feet on the ground, to be in reality, demands a supreme effort and in many cases it demands a lot of tears, and not always because of the salt of the Dead Sea.

I, as I have told you, was not born in Jerusalem. I came there in the seventh decade of this century, to join the congregation of strangers that inhabit it, because Jerusalem is ultimately a city of eternal strangers. The connection to the city is not a connection to place, but rather a connection to time. The connection is not to stone, object, or anything earthly, but rather to moment, to feeling, to experience. And Jerusalem, as opposed to many cities, has too much time, too many moments and too much past. And with so much past in Jerusalem, it is hard to see the future, because the future of Jerusalem always pulls towards the past. The people of Jerusalem walk through it with their eyes stuck in the backs of their heads and their faces eyeless. This is perhaps another reason why the people of Jerusalem frequently fall down in the street. Every movement in it, even the smallest, leads to a wound. Every stone you turn over in this city could be hiding a scorpion, because, as the tradition has it, Jerusalem is a golden chalice full of scorpions. The Jerusalem of yesterday, today, and presumably tomorrow sits on the watershed of the winds, between the desert and the mountain. It is a mixture of Hebron and Warsaw. Two seas battle for it, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. A sea of life and a sea of death, exactly like its history. But its seems as though more and more it is turning its back to the west and not dwelling in the east. It pulls towards the past, to Creation. Too much past has passed in Jerusalem, and in a place where the past is so dense, it is hard to see the future through it.

And at that very place in Mamilla, al-Nabulsi writes, he saw something wonderful. He noticed a plant the size of a finger, green in color and with a flower. The plant has two arms and four legs and a small red head with a white tuft on top. It also has a reddish pink tail with vertebrae, and this plant is alive and it walks on its legs. Hope hides in the legend that al-Nabulsi relates. The day will come when not only Torah will go forth, but also the flowers of Jerusalem will begin to walk freely on its earth. I have been living in Jerusalem for a number of years now, and I pass by this place often. Every time, I examine the ground, hoping to see that walking flower. However, in the meantime, I make do with other walking flowers, which I have been seeing for years. They have arms and legs, but not their own. These are the arms and legs of the girl who makes the rounds at night, trying to sell flowers in the bars of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Summer 1999

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מיון החומרים


Selected Topics

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    First they came for the Communists
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Communist.
    Then they came for the Socialist
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Read More

  • Salman Masalha

    Beyond my door which faces west
    Lives a woman who'll never rest.

    She likes to tease my nomad soul
    With words she keeps for gloomy fall.
  • Balkrishna Sama

    He who loves flowers, has a tender heart.
    he who cannot pluck their blooms,
    has a heart that's noble.

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