Thursday, November 26, 2009

Longings for Jerusalem

Salman Masalha

Longings for Jerusalem

It’s been many a day since first I came to Jerusalem in the 1970s. After all these years I’ve learned that their number can be considered as the blink of an eye in comparison to all the years of the city that falls and rises, falls and rises like a doll whose center of gravity is on the bottom. Jerusalem’s many days are its magic and the curse that has hovered over it ever since its dusts and stones became holy.

I drive to East Jerusalem and I think to myself that this city is so burdened with so much past – how will it find the leisure to think about the future? But it isn’t the city, or the dust or the stones that have made Jerusalem what it is. Only the people who have placed it at the core of their being. And the moment they did so it took control of them. It wrapped itself around them tightly and since then it has given them no rest.

There was a time when I’d walk in the grip of enchantment through the dim alleys of the Old City. I admit that I haven’t done this for quite some time. I go past the Damascus Gate and find that the Border Police who stood at the gate in the 1970s are still standing in the same place. As though the occupation has stood stock still.

After about a dozen years the intifada erupted in East Jerusalem as well and the city that had been joined together by asphalt and concrete, rifle and bayonet, once again went its separate ways, but this time not towards peace. Blood flowed in the streets of Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews lost their lives on the altar of the sanctity of stones and dust, as occupier and as occupied, in the war of tribes fighting over the past.

At one time Ziad Abu Zayyad dreamed about peace and he continues to dream about peace in Jerusalem: “’But first of all the Palestinians should be a liberated people. This is the first thing. That we return to our land. That we return to Jerusalem … Maybe to a distance of 200 meters from the Damascus Gate.’ He says these things to me in the heart of Jerusalem. How strange,” writes Amos Oz of his meeting with Ziad Abu Zayyad in the offices of the newspaper Al Fajr (The Dawn) in East Jerusalem. The newspaper breathed its last and stopped appearing and Abu Zayyad now roams the world with a Palestinian passport in his pocket and flying first class, as an elected member of the Palestinian Council.

The longings for Jerusalem from those days are longings for control of Jerusalem. This is what Ali Al-Khallili, a Palestinian poet and the editor of a literary supplement wrote back then when he dwelt in the ehart of Jerusalem: “In its beginning a cloudy day, / before, and also after, Salah al-Din / like all the people, all of them / again and again we will long / for the Arab Jerusalem / the celestial Jerusalem / the forgotten Jerusalem / and the Jerusalem engraved in every book. / We long and we walk though the magical lanes / Are we here?” (from: “A Cloudy Day,” Jerusalem, 1984).

He walks through the lanes, touches the city’s stones – and continues to long for it. His “Are we here?” is the key to understanding the situation. As long as you don’t control it, you will long eternally for Jerusalem. Every day and every hour, more than it reveals its complexities this Jerusalem reveals the complexes of those who love it, or more precisely – its lovers. When the city responds to them, they turn their backs on it and neglect it. They will always want it unattained, because only thus, when it is part of a fantasy, will they continue to seek it, to plead and pray to it, and to write poems to it.

Some of my best friends are secular Jews. One of them even describes himself as very devoutly secular. A week ago he managed to astound me when he said to me, perhaps seriously and perhaps in jest: “You Palestinians could do a really good deed. Instead of fussing over all kinds of nonsense, go look for the Red Heifer’s hiding place and get rid of her.”

Apparently they want the Arabs to do even this work for them. Of course this is not at all bothersome. I mention his remark as I talk with an ultra-Orthodox Jew on a hill overlooking the Old City. You look to me like someone who pondering a separation from East Jerusalem, I say to him. Why? He asks, puzzled. The Palestinians, I say, are establishing a state and its capital is East Jerusalem. There’s been so much talk of this that in the end it will happen, he replies, without managing to conceal his sadness upon hearing what I say.

He visits the Western Wall, he infrequently passes though the Old City market and he dreams there will be wealthy Jews who will buy a lot of shops in the market. “It’s impossible to do transfer by force,” he says. “It’s necessary to buy houses and do things legally,” he continues. “The country’s leaders are so hapless. Altogether, facts should have been established on the Temple Mount right in 1967, the way they did at the Wall. The Temple Mount is a sore. A very painful sore. All the governments have been wrong since 1967. They have been wrong in that they didn’t establish facts on the ground right after the war. They should have taken control of half the Temple Mount -- this place is the Jews’ Holy of Holies, while for the Arabs it’s of the third rank.”

So what will happen, I asked. Just pray. Pray all the time that the coming explosion catches us in a better position. “The Red Heifer,” he says, “is a sign that we are now very close to the coming of the Messiah. There will be a very strong earthquake, which will destroy everything, and then a Temple, complete and ready, will come down form Heaven.”

Don’t you think you’re crazy? I ask him, and he replies: It’s a matter of faith. And I glance over at the Old City, like a person who wants to get another picture before it collapses under the burden of apocalyptic fantasy. In a region that lives according to myths and sanctifies vanities, the Red Heifer isn’t just another domesticated animal for yielding milk and serving as an attraction for children. A Red Heifer is the pistol that appears in the first act of the horror play. I remember my secular friend’s remark and I think to myself – maybe he has something there.

Everyone seeks his own Jerusalem. The moment he obtains it, he starts to look for it in some other place. A young Palestinian poet, who also returned to Palestine in the wake of the Oslo agreements, had to take himself back to his exile in Sofia in order to write about Jerusalem: “From by balcony / I see Jerusalem at night / paths leading to me. / Prayers in memory of the blood. / Broken longings / silent bells. / Here the soldiers lean / and there is my smell. / Here is the dance floor that was never completed / and there a bird for worry. / From my balcony / I see Jerusalem at night / and I remember my friends / who still dream of return” (Khaled Darwish, from “Scenes” Sofia - Ramallah, 1995).

And today is the first Friday in the month of May, 1997. Fridays in Jerusalem were colored in a wealth of hues as many Palestinians, from town and village, flocked to the city, some to worship at the mosques, some to engage in commerce and some to do both – two birds with one stone. Today, in the wake of the closure policy imposed by the Israeli authorities, the city has effectively been cut off from the rest of the West Bank. Only few are allowed to enter the city and the Palestinian city is fading. Since the intifada the repeated closures most of the institutions have abandoned the city. Only here and there something remains.

Half-way between the place where the Mandelbaum Gate stood and the national headquarters of the Israel Police, on a side street, stands “a stone Arab house,” not far from “the stone Arab house” Amos Oz described. The eucalyptus tree at the entrance rising above the houses of the pastoral neighborhood does not loosen its grip on me. It takes me back many years to the village overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Hills to the east. I remember reaching out with my hand and touching those hills even before I knew Rachel Blauwstein’s Hebrew poem about doing that—“There are the Golan Hills” – for which Naomi Shemer later wrote a popular melody. There too, in the yard of the elementary school I attended, stood a eucalyptus tree under which strictly kosher Arab teachers pounded the Zionist creed into us concerning the key role played by the eucalyptus in the draining of swamps. In the days of the early “pioneers.” Since then they have dried up a lot of water along the Jordan.

This handsome “Arab stone house” has been serving for a number of years as the Al Wasati Gallery where Palestinian artists show their works. This is one of the few cultural institutions established in East Jerusalem in recent years. Suleiman Mansour, a leading Palestinian artist, manages the place. He sits at a desk laden with papers and chain-smokes. He looks a bit worried. I ask him: What’s up? He replies that he has been worried lately about the matter of where he lives. Mansour is a resident of Jerusalem who in recent years found himself living outside the city, like many of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. The creeping transfer policy is putting its imprint on east Jerusalem. Arab construction is restricted and usually this is private construction that over the years went through mayor Teddy Kollek’s sieve. In recent years it appears that the holes in the sieve of his successor, Ehud Olmert, are becoming blocked. When there is a closure, says Mansour, his mother, who lives a few hundred meters away, can’t visit him because she is outside of Jerusalem.

This is the encounter with the occupier that Ali al-Khalili speaks about. The Jews, says Ali al-Khalili, were soldiers. Those were the first Jews he met. And therefore, when he crossed the Green Line after the 1967 war he discovered children and old people, just like the children and old people in Nablus. Now he lives in Ramallah and is in charge of cultural centers in the Palestinian Authority.

I ask him how his world has changed during the past decade and he replies: First of all, there was the intifada and after that the Palestinian Authority came in. These two things, he says, helped greatly in the formation of a separate Palestinian identity. Had the occupation continued, there would have been a danger of the Palestinian identity getting assimilated inside Israel. Now we’re in the process of building the Palestinian identity and state. I try to challenge him and ask: Even though you can’t get to Jerusalem? And he answers me hesitantly: Yes, even despite that. We will talk about Jerusalem, and it will be the capital of Palestine, just as it is the capital of Israel.

I walk though the exhibitions at Al Wasiti in East Jerusalem, and again find myself facing the gate to the city that was joined together, with the mosques at its center. In the background, the voice of Egyptian singer Abdelwahab continues to croon over the Voice of Palestine: “Our paths crossed again and all our dreams came true.”

Today is Friday, and I am on my way to East Jerusalem. And there is not a single scrap of those clouds in the sky that in Alhallili’s poem presaged a spell of dusty desert heat in the city and on the radio they are warning against burning twigs in the forests and the parks because the fire could spread quickly. Since the fire that raged last year, this reminder is repeated on all the news broadcasts. I tell myself there is no danger a fire will ignite suddenly in Jerusalem, because hardly any twigs are left here. The asphalt and the concrete and the heaps of stones are taking over ad closing the city off from all sides.

And if the fire does spread in Jerusalem, it will come from the flame in the dry bones beneath the surface. One tunnel has already ignited a conflagration, and it was put out only with difficulty. There the eternal flame flickers that is destined to devour the entire Middle East. I push aside these apocalyptic thoughts and cross the line that in the past connected/separated the two parts of the this schizophrenic city’s soul.

“The old Arab stone house” where the editorial offices of the newspaper Al-Fajr were located is still standing. The “dawn” that was supposed to break seems to be tardy. The place, not far from the Damascus Gate, is shrouded in gloom. Only the noise from Highway 1 disturbs the slumber that is occupying East Jerusalem at such an early hour of the evening. As though it were a high-tension line that hums in the heart of the city. And it isn’t that it disturbs the repose, it also cuts in half the city that has been joined together. There, near the traffic lights, every morning men stand offering for hire the strength of their limbs, their “porter’s kit” and the suffering in their eyes. Young boys from the Hebron hills ambush the red light in order to peddle their wars to driver waiting for the green light that in minutes will take them to the very heart of the Green Line, straight into the heart of West Jerusalem. This is a different city, they say – lively until the wee hours of the night.

It isn’t simple in Arab Jerusalem. Everyone has their eyes on it. But the moment they touch it, they leave it to its own devices and head for West Jerusalem. “I hadn’t planned to visit Jerusalem, because I knew that for several months now it hasn’t been easy to get there for anyone who isn’t an Israeli by birth, or holds Israeli citizenship. But my energetic sister, who had visited Ramallah a year earlier, was emphatic that visiting the country without going to Jerusalem would be considered an incomplete visit.” He was walking down Salah a-Din Street. “The last street in Jerusalem, ad I immediately remembered our last street in Fakahani, in Beirut. And it seems we are fated always to be in our last street. However, are we destined to lose our last street another time?” And thus a group of visitors goes to the overlooks to gaze at the Old City. They gaze and they tour, but they don’t go into the Old City. Instead they go over to West Jerusalem with the feeling: “How odd and painful it is to enter Jerusalem, fearful. And after all these years, what kind of feeling is it to know that you are the real owner of this place, and here you are going in like a thief in the night!”

He ends the diary: “And thus I found I had intended one thing and ended up at a different thing. I had intended to visit Al Qatza, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to walk on the ancient paving stones of the Via Dolorosa, and I found myself roaming the Israeli pedestrian mall. Does this fact have any meaning?” (from: A Diary: Several Hours in Jerusalem,” by Rasmi Abu Ali, a Palestinian writer, published in Al-Hayat, London, December 21, 1996).

And this Jerusalem looks to Palestinians as though it fell from the Oslo airplane in the middle of the Palestinian night. And God alone can save it. And in God’s holy war games, there will be no winners roaming the streets. More than anything it will look like a forbidden city. Only ruins and stones, the lovers of which decided to pile up as a memorial. Lines and lines of tourists, of all nations, will come to gaze at the city that ate its inhabitants, Jews and Arabs.

I walk around in Jerusalem and it increasingly seems to me like a heap of dry twigs. Or a mythological zoo. Burdened beyond recognition with history. Too much past and history are present in this city. Because of so much past it is impossible to see the future. I take a last look at the city and see the smoke rising over its roofs. Yet again the skies of Jerusalem have gone gray. Rain in May is a rare thing in this city. I wipe the drops off my face and suddenly they seemed to me like tears.


In the wake of “In the Land of Israel: Essays,” by Amos Oz, 1983.

The article was published in Hebrew the Independence Day Supplement of Yedioth Aharonoth, May 11, 1997

For Hebrew, press here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

All Clear

Salman Masalha


Amir hadn’t laughed so hard for quite some time, and certainly not upon hearing an announcement from the Home Front Commander. With his forces alert on all fronts he had learnt on his own flesh, the country’s flesh, the meaning of the Jewish experience. The more he tortured her, the more pleasure she felt and burst into yelps of joy that cut through the silence.

When Nurit Tzur phoned Amir to ask how he was doing “in these crazy times,” as she said, there was a somewhat jocular tone to her voice, though it didn’t quite conceal her tremendous anxiety. “Don’t forget to bring your mask,” she reminded him again before she hung up.

He had met Nurit Tzur – Nushnush to her friends – several years earlier. At that time, the time of the popular Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, she was living not far from his rented apartment in downtown Jerusalem.

One day Amir had gone to the neighborhood café where he was a regular, whether to meet friends or just for another anthropological session of observing the clientele. From afar, as he was still walking down the street and as he walked through the gate into the garden of the café, he noticed that a new girl had joined the table. Her laugh could be heard from quite a way off and she looked as though she were sitting with old friends. He pulled a chair away from another table and sat down next to her at a corner of the table that was free.

One of the guys -- Shimon or Nir, he can’t remember now – hastily introduced him to her: “Amir, Nurit,” said his friend and returned heatedly to the topic of the conversation. It wasn’t long before the argument died down and the conversation continued along calmer lines.

Unaware of the trap into which she was stepping, Nurit turned to him and asked: “I understand that you’re Amir. Amir who?”
Shimon, whose ear was always finely attuned to what was happening around him, was quick to tell her: Amir Cousin,” as everyone laughed. Shimon always had wisecracks of this sort upon hearing questions about “the northerner,” as he defined Amir, who had come from far away and settled in the holy city.
“Cousin?” Nurit wondered aloud, pursing her lips a bit?

“Not Cousin. A cousin, one of our Semite cousins,” Itzik corrected, eradicating with a single stroke the misunderstanding that Shimon had perpetrated.

“Ah, now I get it,” chortled Nurit, her laughter rolling form ear to ear.

Later, when everyone was lingering on the sidewalk before dispersing, Nurit related that apparently she too was going against the flow in that she too had left the Tel Aviv area and come to live in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem’s provinciality – I think it suits me better,” said Nurit, explaining her move from the trendy metropolis to the capital.

“Provinciality is a relative thing,” said Amir, as though he knew a thing or two about the provincial.

“There. Over there, on the other side of the neighborhood, that’s where I live now,” said Nurit, pointing, as they said goodbye, and her hand seemed to be caressing the treetops that moved in the gentle Jerusalem breeze.


In those days the word intifada had already begun to be naturalized into the Hebrew language. Initially, the media talked about disturbances, and as they weren’t ending and it didn’t look as though quiet would once again prevail in the occupied territories, the news people started using the term uprising. However, the sentries of the Hebrew language hastened to deplore the use of the Hebrew term, which is derived from the same root as the fancier and more right-wing of the two terms used for their war of independence, as well as the term for the Hebrew resistance and revival, and so as not to corrupt the youth. Thus, gradually the Arabic word infiltrated and dwelt secure in the tent of the Hebrew language.

A certain commentator on Arab affairs, versed in the Arabist tradition that is usually cut off from actual Arab experience, went one step further. He took the trouble to rummage in dictionaries and with a sarcastic grin smeared from ear to ear all across the screen, he brought his ridiculous merchandise to the viewers. Looking straight into the camera he opened his mouth and burst into an Arabist exegesis as though he had come upon a great treasure: “The original meaning of the word intifada in Arabic is: a camel’s orgasm,” explained the hyperactive commentator.

A few days later, at the usual table at the café, Nir turned to him and asked his opinion of the commentator’s linguistic “scoop.” Amir, however, with a typical wave of his hand, dismissed both the commentator and his discovery as utter folly, adding that he doubted that there is an Arab alive on this earth who knows this information, or takes it seriously. “The Arabs of today,” declared Amir, “barely know how to read those dictionaries that are no more than fallow land where rookie Arabists graze.”

During the course of the gales of laughter that ensued from the juicy discussion that had at long last descended from the meaning of life and other weighty matters to animal orgasms, Amir learned something about the orgasms of sea turtles in the Galapagos. Indeed, Nir had just recently returned all excited and enthusiastic about what he had seen on the distant islands.

“That’s where they should have established the Jewish state,” said Nir, trying to pour some oil on the flames of the argument that had died down.

“And who is going to do the construction work on the buildings there, who is going to till the land?” Itzik demanded.

“We’ll bring over Arabs like Amir and his friends,” said Nir, adding: “We really can’t live without Arabs.” After a brief pause, he continued: “And then, presumably everything will start all over again,” summing up the Zionist experience. More than anything else, Nir was impressed in the Galapagos by the cries of the coupling turtles that fill the primeval landscape. Nir likes to talk about sex a lot and about orgasms. He always said, half-seriously: “Politics is something people engage in and sex is something they talk about.”

“And how do you tell the difference between a he-turtle and a she-turtle?” Amir inquired of Nir.

“Search me,” answered Nir, adding in a challenging tone: “And what does our peasant and nature boy have to say on this issue?”
Amir couldn’t bear the condescension in Nir’s voice and riposted, to the laughter of the other people around the table: “Go to the turtle, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”
Nurit, who had also begun to sit at the table with the regulars, addressed herself to this issue that was heating up and added a new dimension when she asked with a smile: “Do she-turtles fake orgasms?”


The years go by quickly, apparently from the force of habit, thought Amir as he sipped his coffee, exhaling the cigarette smoke that made its way from his lungs back into the open air. Quiet had not returned to prevail in the land, because truth to tell it had never existed. And to all this was now added another threat, signs of which could be seen everywhere you looked. The packs and purses hanging over the backs of chairs had been joined by another accessory, a cardboard box dangling from a black plastic strap.

The fear of what might come was different now than it had been in other periods. Saddam Hussein’s threats to destroy half of Israel if his country were attacked hovered in the air. No one knew what surprises were up the sleeve of that man from Baghdad who had killed thousands of his countrymen with poison gases. In Israel they had already taken the precaution of distributing ABC – atomic, biological, chemical – masks to the all the inhabitants and had advised them to purchase masking tape to seal off the windows in advance of the trouble he might be sending their way.

Amir was uncomfortable with the hysteria all around but he was compelled, under not very moderate pressure from his friends, to report to the mask distribution center and take one. With a fair amount of misgiving he went to the distribution center, received a short explanation about its use from a young girl soldier and accepted a cardboard carton with a black plastic strap. When he got home he put the carton in the closet and did not even try to open it to see what was inside.

As the tension grew and the Iraqi attack seemed closer than ever, people were asked to take the cardboard boxes with them wherever they went. People were seen walking about town with a cardboard box dangling from their shoulder. People were seen crowding at the bus stops carrying the masks with them on their way to work or on their way home. Some people tried to conceal the masks inside plastic bags from the grocery store and some, mostly young girls, went so far as to paint their boxes bright colors or draw flowers on them.


Like a night borrowed from the stories, night fell on Jerusalem. The war was raging in far-off Iraq and missiles were striking in various places in Israel. “Why am I thinking about Shimon now, right at this moment?” Amir asked himself and he did not have a satisfactory answer. As the years passed, he found himself sinking ever more deeply into his isolation. He often felt as though a wave of a magic wand had detached him from the here and now and sent him floating in other worlds. Disturbing thoughts would come to him, erasing the here and now along their way.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Nurit, in an attempt to get him talking and elicit some irresistible charm from him in this situation in which she had found herself.

“Nothing,” he whispered into her ear, in a desperate attempt to not to reveal emotions that could cast a pall on the moment, and then he added a few worlds of encouragement: “I’m thinking about you, about us.”

“And maybe I want to avenge that liberated Palestinian girl who couldn’t bring Shimon to his knees, who couldn’t get past his Zionist guilt feelings about fucking the Palestinians on the one hand, and on the other crying about how they can’t fuck Palestinian girls” – this thought kept buzzing in his mind. Shimon had once confessed to him, during the first war in Lebanon, that he had not been able to respond to the flirtatious overtures of Souad, the daughter of a Palestinian public figure. “When the IDF is fucking Palestinians in Lebanon, I can’t fuck another Palestinian woman,” he had confided into Amir’s astonished ear.

“And maybe I have Shimon on my mind now because I find myself in Nurit Tzur’s bed, and she’s the daughter of Michael Tzur, a top Israeli officer?” This thought continued to distract him as his hand slid down her shoulder,
gliding slowly down the slope landing on a moving hip, like someone trying to outline dunes that stretch to the horizon. like someone trying to outline dunes that stretch to the horizon. “And what about my guilt feelings?” Amir continued to torture himself.

He surveys her soft body as his hand rests on her breasts and a warm nipple tickles his palm. He sees the whites of her eyes and recalls pure white patches of snow resting on the mountain peaks of the north. He greedily suckles the water of life from her mouth as though it were the Sea of Galilee and lowers the level of tension that is hovering over the land. His hand slides down the slopes of her back as though it were a bird circling and soaring on the updrafts of warm air rising from the green fields, then landing on the country’s narrow hips in the approach to a narrow plain that gathered at her navel. Far, far away at the edge of the bed her heel stretched taut like a spring that had coiled the moment his body reported the penetration of a force in the area of the sink holes of the Dead Sea.

Here the whole land was spread before him, thought Amir to himself. He just had to stretch out his hand to touch it, to fondle it as much as he wanted, to occupy it, to free it inch by inch with no resistance. Here she is, so close he could see the blue of her eyes, the gold tumbling on her shoulders, and now all her gates are open to him. Here she is, so close and yet so far.


Wondrous are the ways of this land, muses Amir. Such thoughts could surface even for no particular reason on another long night with Nurit Tzur, in whose bed he now found himself stretched out, exposed to her, and she exposed to him. Rather than slaking his thirst in her springs, satisfying his hunger on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that grows in her breasts, he finds himself redeeming the land inch by inch, and it seems as though he could go on knowing her forever.

Silence reigned outside. Quiet sheltered the house in the pastoral neighborhood and only regular breathing and groans with new notes rose from the bedroom she had turned into a sealed room, following the precise instructions of the Home Front Command. And as Amir was immersed in his war of liberation, suddenly the rising and falling wail of the siren was heard, rising and falling, rising and falling.

Nurit’s fears of this war were so compelling that upon hearing the siren she quickly pushed him away before he could perform the final act of liberation and bring about an all clear. She leapt from the bed and rushed to put on her ABC mask, urging him to put on his. As an act of sharing his fate with hers, he too donned the mask.

The mask changes the man, thought Amir,his eyes following Nurit as she walked over to turn on the television. Suddenly the both of them looked like creatures from outer space who had landed on a strange planet, on a stricken planet.

Not many minutes went by before the all-clear signal was sounded and they both hastened to take off the masks and breathe easy. However, despite the all-clear siren, Amir could still see the anxiety on her face.

“If heaven forbid something terrible happens in this country, will you keep me safe?“ Nurit asked in a somewhat jokey way that revealed her huge fear.

“Keep you safe from what? From whom?” Amir answered her with a question.

“Nuuuu – you know. You’re just pretending not to understand,” she pleaded as though he had the answer.
In a desperate attempt to divert the conversation to other matters, so as not to create conflict at a moment of togetherness, he blurted as though casually: “The Sabbath will keep you safe, Nushnush.”
She didn’t laugh and said, affronted: “Excuse me? What’s that you say?”

“I was just joking,” answered Amir, as they sat there embracing and staring at the television screen, watching the live broadcast.

“There has been a hit in the Central Area. There are no injuries,” reported the Central Command Spokesman, live. Upon hearing the reassuring words, the two looked at each other and suddenly burst into laughter until their eyes were filled with tears and strange and varied smells of rubber filled their noses.


Translated by Vivian Eden

The Hebrew was published in Maariv, May 7, 2008


For Hebrew, press here
For Malay, press here

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hearts and Diamonds

Salman Masalha

Hearts and Diamonds
At this summer’s end, ill-assorted sounds mingle in the air. During the days of this month of Ramadan that has just knocked at the city gates, unsynchronized voices of muezzins cut through the sky. Each voice, in its own way, rises from the recordings played through the minarets of the mosques scattered around the Arab city. Upon hearing these voices suddenly church bells ring out in a competing dance of sound that becomes louder and louder until it too fades away and makes room for other sounds arising from nature that are, in their own way, trying to be part of the city’s unfinished symphony.

It seems that the pinecones, looking like bats hanging from the branches of the trees, have begun to burst, perhaps this time with laughter, upon hearing the strange sounds carried on the hot air. No one touches the bats, as there is a prohibition on harming them because according to legend they once helped put out a fire in the city. When flames engulfed the Temple the bats flew to the sea and asked its permission to take some of its water to Jerusalem to douse the flames. And if the laughter of the bats crackling from the trees were not enough, then when this is done and it seems as though silence is descending on the city, suddenly the voices of the bulldozers roar into action as they excavate and clang against the rock with a deafening racket.

I look for King Solomon, who will tell the genies to save me from the punishment of the bulldozers. In the Arab tradition, King Solomon employed genies in the work of building the city and the Temple. The excavations carried out by the genies disturbed the inhabitants’ rest and the townspeople could not bear the noise the genies made. They took to the streets to demonstrate and raised an outcry against the regime.

Solomon convened his viziers and the genies under his command for a consultation. The king addressed the genies and said: “What kind of genies are you? Don’t you have some way of excavating into rock without making that deafening noise?”

“There is only one genie who can help you,” replied one of his genies. “His name is Sakhr and he lives far, far away in a distant sea.” Upon hearing this, Solomon immediately ordered that this Sakhr be brought to him.

Clamor and uproar, I recall, have been heard in this city ever since first I set foot here. King Solomon doesn’t live here any more, I tell myself, and there isn’t anyone who is going to lower the level of noise, there isn’t anyone who is going to stop the excavations in stone and there isn’t anyone who is going to put an end to the sawing into the stone the way disturbing thoughts saw into an unquiet soul.

Not far from here, on a hilltop looking out over the Old City a blue and white flag flutters in the breeze. This is a different blue and white flag that came from far away, beyond the sea. Robert Bruce, the King of Scotland, very much wanted to come to Jerusalem but as he could not realize this dream he commanded that after his death his heart would be interred in the soil of Jerusalem, the land where Jesus was crucified. When the Bruce passed away, his knight the Black Douglas took his heart and placed it in a silver coffer, a kind of casket befitting the heart of a king, and carried the heart with him.

Fighting the Saracens in Spain, Douglas threw the heart in its casket into the battlefield and said: “Go first, brave heart in battle, as thou wert wont to do and Douglas will follow thee.” Afterwards the casket was found pierced by spears. It was returned to Scotland and there Bruce’s heart was buried in a church in Edinburgh.

The Scottish soldiers who came to Jerusalem with the British forces in World War I had not forgotten their admired king’s last will and testament and founded the Scottish Church here on the hilltop in commemoration of Bruce’s “brave heart.”

Only dust and ashes. One past is followed by another past and thus time piles up layer upon layer, dripping from the sky over the city that has no tomorrow. The many days of this city have known blood and sweat. However, not only are there many days in the city of Jerusalem, there are also many strangers in it. Often very strange strangers.

Strangeness in this city is different from strangeness in other cities. Strangeness here is the essence of poetry. Jerusalem has ever been, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, will forever be an attraction for a jumble of the dazed and the moonstruck. All kinds of pilgrim dreamers and lunatics – from kings to the most humble, from every nation, religion and color, have flocked to it. Unlike any other city in the world, its name is associated with a phenomenon of mental disturbance, certified by learned doctors, called “the Jerusalem syndrome.” The medical men say that there are those who come to the gates of the city and believe that they have been endowed with prophetic powers, messianic powers that presage the end of days. There are so very many days in this city, but no end yet.

And thus it happened that in the seventh decade of the last century I too came through the gates of the city as a stranger, though I was not yet moonstruck. The Jerusalem of those days looked to me like a magical place. All I remembered of it was a roof looking out over the Damascus Gate and the Old City. I came to the city that had not yet been “reunited,” as the Hebrew cliché would have it after the war that was still to come at the beginning of June, 1967. The Hebrew name of that war, the Six Day War, was taken from the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis. In Arabic, however, a special term was invented for it: Naksa, a term that nods to the huge defeat of the Arab armies. The Naksa, then is a bowing of the head and a temporary retreat prior to the great Arab revival, and it will be as though the Arab head had never hung down low. That Naksa, however, has lasted now for more than four decades, and counting.

Back then, I came from the far-off Galilee on a elementary school trip. Barbed wire fences split west from east. The east was governed by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – so near and far was the east. We, the survivors who remained in the homeland after the nakba -- catastrophe -- of 1948, stood here in the west on the roof governed by the kingdom of the Israelites and looked out wonderingly at the walls of the Old City, the vibrant market square, the hubbub at the Damascus Gate and the masses of people being swallowed up into the walls.

And then on a summer’s day a decade later I found myself sitting in a café in the city’s center. Now and then people cast a glance at the “summons” issuing from the hubbub, but continued on their way. People of all colors and speaking every language were going about their business in the city’s navel until suddenly a rhythmic cry was heard: “The Holy Land, deceivers and sons of whores …” The man and the voice made their way through the crowd, coming closer, passing by me and moving on until both of them, the man and the echoing voice, disappeared behind a building up the street. Only traces of the voice remained behind. They were etched, here and there, as restrained smiles on the faces of passersby in the path of the man and the voice.

During the course of the years I have seen how this city has changed its appearance. Step by step hills have been excavated, a wall and towers have sprung up on the horizon and new walls have closed in on the city and on the hearts of its inhabitants. Not far from that café, they are still digging and digging in this city. They are trying to build the infrastructure for tracks for a light rail system, or so they say. It isn’t a track to hearts that they are laying in Jerusalem, but rather a track for a train that will cut clumsily across the city, a train that goes from nowhere to nowhere as though trying to unite east and west. But this city has no east and it has no west. Only an axis of time spinning over a gaping maw, like an inverted tumor sucking everyone who comes through the gates into the black hole called Jerusalem.

When Solomon commanded his genies to bring him Genie Sakhr in order to find a way to stop the noise, the genies told the king that this was a very difficult mission. They explained that this Sakhr is endowed with tremendous strength and that there is only one way to overwhelm him and bring him: Since it is Sakhr’s habit to come once a month to a particular spring on a certain island to drink his fill of water, in order to bring him it would be necessary to dry out the spring and replace its water with wine. He will come, they went on to explain, he will drink until he becomes drunk and he will lose his strength. Solomon listened carefully to what the genies had to say and then commanded them to bring Sakhr to him in any way possible, adding that it made no difference to him what method or trick they used to get the job done.

The city of Jerusalem is built of legends. In the attempt to find legitimacy for the new religion that had sprung up in the desert, Islam sent Muhammad from the Arabian Peninsula to Jerusalem riding on al-Buraq, that same winged horse that had belonged to King Solomon himself, as a Muslim tradition tells us. Here Muhammed parked al-Buraq hitched to the rock, and from here he ascended to heaven. However, unlike the Muslim tradition, the Jewish tradition did not allow Moses to enter the promised land and this city because he chose to beat a rock rather than reason with it. The Jewish tradition left him to gaze on Jerusalem from afar, there on a hilltop across the river.

I walk along another hilltop, in the neighborhood of Abu Tor, and gaze out over the Old City and that desert across the river. I look up at the sky, trying to imagine Aaron’s coffin as the Children of Israel saw it circling in the sky over the city.

This hill I am standing on now is Tur Haroun – Aaron’s Hill – according to an Arab tradition. The legend relate that when the Children of Israel worshiped the Golden Calf, Moses wanted to come here and talk to his God. His brother Aaron asked to go with him, saying: Take me with you, for I am not certain that the Children of Israel will not do anything new in your absence. Though Moses was angry and did not like the idea, in the end he did take Aaron with him.

As the brothers were walking along, they passed two men who were digging a grave. Moses and Aaron went over to the gravediggers and asked: “Whose grave is this?”

And the gravediggers replied: “This grave is intended for a man exactly that size,” and pointed to Aaron. Then they said to Aaron: “For the love of God, get into the grave so we can measure it.”

Aaron removed his clothing and stepped into the grave and laid down in it. At that very same moment God took Aaron’s soul and the grave closed over him. Moses gathered up Aaron’s clothing, turned on his heels and went back the way he had come, weeping over Aaron’s death.

When Moses returned to the Children of Israel without Aaron, they accused him of having killed his brother. Moses, who did not know how to explain his brother’s disappearance, prayed and cried out to his God. God answered Moses’ prayer and showed the Children of Israel Aaron’s grave circling in the sky above this hill, Tur Haroun.

The genies set out, as Solomon had commanded them, with the aim of bringing him the terrifying genie from far away. They came to the spring that the genie habitually visits, replaced its water with wine and hid themselves to wait in ambush for him. Several days went by and Sakhr didn’t appear, until they almost gave up. As they were puzzling their genie minds over what to do, all of a sudden Sakhr the Genie popped up out of nowhere, striding lightly towards the spring. To his surprise, he found that wine instead of water was flowing in the spring and he didn’t know what to do. He turned on his heels and left without slaking his thirst. After several days during which Sakhr returned to the spring without drinking, he finally broke, drank until his thirst was quenched and keeled over drunk as Lot. The genies who had been waiting in ambush fell upon him and tied him up and carried him off to Solomon’s court.

As flames poured from his mouth and smoke from his nostrils, Sakhr addressed Solomon: “Your Majesty, what is the meaning of bringing me from far away, as you know that I do not go among humans?” Solomon explained to him the fuss and the outcry that had arisen in the city because of the noise the genies were making as they excavated the rock. The king added that it had come to his attention that only he, Sakhr, knows the way to reduce the noise level.

The fuming Sakhr, smoke still pouring from his nostrils, nodded and said: “You have to bring a whole eagle’s nest here with the eggs inside, as upon the face of the earth there is nothing that can see as well as the Eagle.”

Solomon turned to his viziers and his aides and ordered them to do as Sakhr said. And indeed, the nest was brought and placed on a mountaintop in the desert, and orders were issued to build walls of transparent armored glass to enclose it.

When the Eagle returned home, he found neither the nest nor the eggs where they had been. He soared into the sky and circled way up high until he saw the stolen nest on the distant mountain in the desert. He landed there, but he could not make his way to the nest and the eggs because of the transparent armored glass wall enclosing it. He tried pecking the glass with his beak and scratching it with his claws, but to no avail. He despaired and flew away.

The next day the Eagle came back to where the nest was, bearing the samur stone in his beak. He circled high above the nest and dropped the samur, which split the glass enclosure. Then the Eagle dove from on high, picked up the nest and flew away. The samur the Eagle had dropped remained there. Sakhr went to the site, found the stone and brought it to Solomon.

Jerusalem is surrounded by hills. Among the hills there is one hill where there is a cave that resembles a house. In the distant past, people would visit that cave, the dwelling. When night falls on the hill, the cave is illuminated by a glowing light, even though there are no lanterns nor lamps nor candles inside it, as the Arab legend relates.

Ever since I read that story, I’ve been roaming the hills of Jerusalem searching for that cave, that illuminated dwelling. Recently, I found it. I am keeping its location secret and from time to time I go there to be alone. Deep, deep inside the cave there is a spring from which twisting rivulets spread in all directions. In these rivulets flows a sparkling liquid the color of wine. With all that noise all around, I have made up my mind that next time I visit there I will quench my thirst with the red, red liquid and I don’t care if I lose my strength.

Solomon, who knew the language of the animals, ordered his genies to bring him the Eagle. Solomon spoke with the Eagle and asked him about his samur stone, and where it can be found. The Eagle explained that the stone can be found on a very high mountain far, far away to the west.

Then Solomon spoke to his genies and told the to fly swiftly to that mountain with the Eagle and bring him back some of that special stone. The genies went and brought back as much of the special stone as they could carry. Some say that the samur is the diamond, with which from then on the genies excavated and cut the stones of Jerusalem without making noise and without disturbing the tranquility of the inhabitants.

King Solomon doesn’t live here any more, I say to myself, whereas the racket of bulldozers clanging on the rock of Jerusalem is filling the sky over the city and giving me no rest. To distract myself from that nuisance at this moment, I stand up and pour myself a glass of wine and light a cigarette. Then I set the glass down on the windowsill and watch red, red tears slide down the inner side of the transparent glass, gliding back on the walls like dewdrops of diamonds gradually blending with the red glow over the Old City at sunset.

Jerusalem, August-September 2009

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

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For the Hebrew version, press here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

All Birds Lead to Rome

Salman Masalha


At the end of the 1950s, I was a young boy, and quite naïve and innocent. It never crossed my little Arab mind to wonder about the hidden intentions of the flocks of birds that would land, as the olive harvest approached, in the fields of olive trees of the village of Maghar that looks out over the Sea of Galilee. Every autumn, when a cloud of black birds crossed the horizon and settled on the olive groves, the villagers would go out carrying all kinds of noisemakers and hasten to scare away the invading birds with the aim of saving the olive harvests, the main source of their living in those days. However, by the time the villagers arrived in the groves, the birds had already eaten their fill of the oily fruit and would fly away taking with them provisions for their journey. The cloud of birds would detach itself from the tops of the olive trees, climb beyond the hills into the sky and fly westward until it disappeared beyond the horizon.

Thus, year after year and season after season, the flocks of birds returned, ate their fill and flew off westward to the sounds of the villagers’ noisemakers which more often than not were spiced with explosions from double barreled hunting rifles. We, the children, were also able to contribute to the preservation of the food chain by eating our fill of the black birds.

Many olive harvests came and went and many flocks of birds flowed through the olive groves before I grew up and set out for Jerusalem to acquire knowledge and wisdom. However, with the wisdom that Jerusalem afforded me, my naïveté drifted far away never to return. And now, many years later, I find myself sailing away again and again on journeys in search of that lost innocence, of that vanished Paradise.

I say that I sail away, but for anyone who lives in Jerusalem it is difficult to use the expression taken from the world of water. It takes an hour to drive from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean Sea, and sailing from the city can only be on the wings of metaphor. Yet nevertheless, anyone who is really determined to embark on a voyage can use the pages of books as sails.


The American writer Mark Twain was appalled when he came from the distant West, in the middle of the 18th century, and entered Jerusalem. He was able to immortalize what he saw in the city in the pages of his diary:

It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem. Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic, assail you on every hand, and they know but one word of but one language apparently--the eternal "bucksheesh." … Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here (The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 53, 1869).

However, unlike Mark Twain, I have been living in Jerusalem for three decades. And now another bleak night is descending on the city and the darkness that is enwrapping it at the beginning of the third millennium seems to have descended on it from another time and another world. There is a tradition that cites Abdullah Ibn-‘Abbas, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and one of most important recorders of traditions. This tradition teaches us that “all the adornments of Bayt al-Maqdis – that is, Jerusalem – came down from Paradise. But al-Rum – the Romans – put their hands on them and took them to their city, Rumiyyah (which is Rome). And it is also told that riders could travel the distance of five nights on horseback by the light they shed,” and not know a moment’s darkness.

And in the Jerusalem darkness of the present I ask myself how it happened that in the 7th century A.D. Abdullah Ibn-‘Abbas told the story about the ornaments that were taken from Jerusalem to Rome to shed light there for the distance of five nights of riding. And I can’t escape the thought of a different light. Is this not an echo of traditions that had spread in the east about the beautiful ornaments of Jerusalem that were looted there by the Romans in the year 70 A.D.? And what is this light if not the light of the Menorah, the pure golden candelabrum that was lit with olive oil and is memorialized in the carving on the Arch of Titus?


Once again it is the time of the olive harvest and the season for producing the oil is at the gates. On a Jerusalem night that is darker than ever, I am trying once again to navigate the byways of the distant past. Yes, the past. Because we in the East are always looking for our future in the past, perhaps because we here have too much past. Yes, we in the East march forward but our eyes are in the back of our head. And thus we fall and rise and fall and rise without having the sense to stop for a moment and screw our heads on the right way around. And here I am sailing way to faraway places in search of that hidden and stolen light.

Many people have come and gone between East and West, whether in times of war or in times of peace. And just as the East enchanted some of the travelers (though not Mark Twain) from beyond the seas who landed on its shores and were smitten by its charms, or stole light from it that they spread in the West – the West has always enchanted the people from the East who set foot on the land of Europe beyond the sea.

In the 9th century A.D., Al-Walid b. Muslim of Damascus, a protégé of the Ummayads, cites one of the merchants who set sail on the Mediterranean Sea on a trading voyage. The trader relates: “We ride the sea and the ship deposited us on the shores of the Kingdom of Rummiyah, which is Rome. We sent a letter to the people of Rome, saying: We would like to trade with you. The people of Rome sent a messenger to us whom we accompanied in the direction of the city of Rome. Along the way we climbed one hill and another hill and another mount, and behold! We saw at some distance away a greenish area like the surface of the sea. And when we saw what was revealed to our eyes we cried ‘Allaahu akbar,’ and invoked the name of God to say Allah is great and there is none like unto him. The messenger, who was astonished to hear our cry, inquired as to the meaning of it. Why have you said Allaahu akbar? And we answered him: This is the sea, and it has been our tradition for generations to invoke the name of the almighty God when we catch sight of the sea.

And here I am in Jerusalem trying to follow the footsteps of those merchants, trying to figure out how the Arabs made it their custom to call out the name of God in the cry Allaahu Akbar, when they catch sight of the sea.

Before all the provinces of Syria fell into the hands of Ma'awiya ibn Abu Sufyan, he thought about invading the lands of the sea. Ma'awiya was in the habit of sending messengers bearing letters to the Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab, who dwelt in the Arabian Peninsula, begging the ruler to allow him to muster armies and prepare ships, with the aim of setting out to invade the kingdoms of the sea. While Ma'awiya was resident in the city of Hums in Syria, he sent a letter to the caliph in which he told him about the island of Cyprus, and its proximity to the shore of Syria, and this is what he wrote: "In one of the villages in the district of Hums the inhabitants can hear the barking of the dogs and the crowing of the roosters that belong to the inhabitants of the island." However, the caliph did not want to give the order before he also heard other opinions. He wrote the commander Amr ibn al'As: "Describe to me the sea and its riders." And the latter replied: "It is a large creature whose rider is a small creature, and there is nothing except the water and the sky. If it is calm – the heart is fearful, and if it is in motion – the mind is lost."

Upon hearing such descriptions and others about the sea, the caliph reconsidered the issue and wrote to Mu'awiya: "I swear by He who sent Muhammad to bring the world of the true faith to the world, I shall not allow any Muslim ever to ride it, as I have learned that the Syrian Sea surrounds the longest provinces on the face of the earth, and night and day it asks God's permission to flood the land and drown it. How can I give the soldiers permission to ride upon this infidel?"

This infidel? I read this over and over again and ponder the story and suddenly my heart cries out like Archimedes. Eureka! I've found it! I've found it, I say to myself. If so, then it is the sea's unbelief that impels the Arabs to cry out Allaahu akbar when they catch sight of the sea, as though in their hearts they are imagining that they are invading the lands of the infidels. But these people of whose journeys the Damascene tells us, have not come as invaders, but rather as merchants whose ship has brought them to Rome. But a tradition is a tradition, and crying Allaahu akbar is a custom that they have inherited from their forefathers of long ago and there is no alternative but to act according to it.

When the Roman messenger heard the cry of Allaahu akbar issuing from their mouths, and upon hearing the explanations that the merchants gave him about their ancient custom upon encountering the sea, the dumbfounded messenger was overcome with laughter. Once it subsided, he turned to them and said: This is not the sea at all, but the rooftops of Rome, for all the roofs are covered in sheets of molded lead.”

However, it was not just the roofs of Rome that confused and dazzled the people of the East. When they entered the city they roamed through its streets and its markets – the agoras, the palaces and the cathedrals. They saw the works of art of which Rome was so full, both painting and sculpture, and they could not but be amazed by what their eyes beheld. Like Mark Twain, they returned home and wrote about their experiences. The testimony to their amazement remains fresh to this day.

About the Romans, one traveler wrote: “They are men of medical knowledge and practice, and of all the peoples of the world, they are considered the best with respect to the craft of painting. Their painter paints a human being and does not leave out a single detail. If he so desires, he makes him young, and if he so desires he makes him old, and if he so desires he makes him ancient, but this does not suffice for him. As if this were not enough, if he so desires he makes him handsome, and if he so desires he makes him laugh, or cry. And he distinguishes between the laughter of the joy at someone else’s discomfort and the laughter of embarrassment, between gales of laughter and a smile, between the laughter of a happy man and the laughter of a madman.”


Hundreds of years have elapsed since the merchants invoked the name of God at the sight of the sea of rooftops and the lovely ornaments of Rome. Times of peace and times of war have alternated since, and now we discuss the Mediterranean as a basin of cultures that have enriched one another. However, it would seem that the more we bring this topic up for discussion, the more it exposes the deep truth that is concealed by lip service and fine words. Bringing up this topic again and again exposes the deep abyss that exists between East and West, between North and South.

And this abyss is not new. It is necessary to knock on the gates of myth in order to learn something about the relations between the cultures of the Mediterranean Sea. From an Arab myth that was widespread during the Middle Ages we can learn something about this basin. In the distant past, this Mediterranean around which we are living and which we are trying to praise did not exist at all, for the sea came into being as a result of a struggle between the North and South.

An Arab writer of the Middle Ages sets forth the story of the emergence of this sea thus: “I have read,” he writes, “in quite a number of books about Egypt and the lands of the Maghreb that after the Pharaohs vanished from the earth there ruled kings of the Bani Dalukka dynasty. Among these kings were Darkon bin Melotes and Zamatra. These two kings were very wise and also very powerful. In addition, they also dealt in magic. And the Romans desired to vanquish the Kingdom of Egypt and rule in their stead. But the Egyptians found a stratagem and a way to defend themselves from the Romans. They punched a hole in the great ocean to the west, Bahr al-Zulumaat, which is the Dark Sea, and the waves of water that burst through flooded and drowned lands and many flourishing kingdoms, until the water reached the shores of the land of Al-Shaam, which is Syria in the east and the land of the Romans in the north. And since then the sea has been a barrier between the land of the Romans and the land of Egypt.”

Thus, this sea was created to serve as a barrier between the North that wants to conquer and dominate and the South that defends itself. And when the paths of the North and the South, the East and the West diverged, their views of the world also diverged.

Over the generations this sea has come to separate between the individual and the tribe. It separates the individual freedom and the democracy that developed on its northern side, from the tribal tyranny that allows the individual no freedom of action on its southern and eastern shores. And where the individual has vanished, variety and creativity have also disappeared. The Mediterranean Sea today constitutes the border between the grapevine and the date palm, and, if you like, between wine and the prohibition of wine; between the product that grows better over time and the date as a fruit of the here and now that leaves nothing behind.

In the past this struggle between the northern shores of the Mediterranean and the cultures to the east and the south of it produced another Arab myth that explains the Romans’ staunch invincibility in face of their enemies. Arab traditions relate that around the king’s throne in Rome stand a hundred columns covered in gold, and on each column stands “a bronze statue in the shape of a man holding in his hand a bell on which the name of a certain nation has been engraved. And these inscriptions are talismans. And if any king of those nations plotted to invade the kingdom of Rome, the statue of that nation would begin to move and the bell would ring. In this way the kingdom of Rome found out about the plot and could plan and defend itself.”

But the kingdom of Rome, as a symbol of the Western world, not only defended itself but also attacked, occupied and exploited the South for decades and centuries. Evidence of the West’s attitude towards the East may be found, for example, in Mark Twain’s citation, in “Innocents Abroad” (Chapter 50), of a text by one “William C. Grimes” – a composite of a number of travel writers of his day – who traveled to the East and committed his impressions to writing: "I never lost an opportunity of impressing the Arabs with the perfection of American and English weapons, and the danger of attacking any one of the armed Franks. I think the lesson of that ball not lost." Has anything changed since then?


Once again, autumn is descending on Jerusalem, the olive harvest is here and I turn a page and another page until I find not only the ornaments and the light of the East were taken to Rome. Now I discover one thing more: that the olives from the village of Maghar were carried by the birds to Rome in their beaks and their claws: “And in front of the church there is a large piazza surrounded by walls. In its center there is a brass pillar on there stands a golden statue of a bird with a talisman inscribed on its chest. The bird holds an olive in its beak, and in each of its claws. When the olive harvest season comes, this bird chirps and than all the birds of its species from all over the world arrive, each bearing three olives in the beaks and their claws and they drop them on the head of the statue. The gates of this piazza are locked and trusted sentries are posted there. When the piazza is filled with olives at the end of the harvest season, the sentries gather and crush the olives. They give the king and the patriarchs and the nobles their share and the rest of the oil is used for the lamps and lanterns in their places. All the oil in Rome comes from this talisman.”

And I say to myself that apparently ever since the sea came between Rome and Egypt, between North and South and between West and East, the West has turned to more sophisticated methods. Treaties have been signed between the West and the East, and gifts have changed hands between them. As part of this, and among the wealth of gifts, Rome has known how to slip in a gift of another sort: “When Kabadh (the king of Persia) made peace with Caesar (the king of the Romans), Caesar sent him many gifts. Among the gifts was a statue of a singing girl, made of gold. At certain watches of the night the statue would sing and contentment and sleep would steal over everyone who heard the singing …”

While the inhabitants of the East have been asleep on their watch, the flocks of birds have continued to land in their groves, to take the harvests and to transfer them to the West. So deep is this sleep that has stolen over the peoples of the East, that it would appear that to this day they have not succeeded in awakening from it.


Translated by Vivian Eden

For Hebrew, press here.
For Arabic, press here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Going Back with Words

Salman Masalha

Going Back with Words

'Isaba al-Jurjani, a medieval Arab poet, divided the world's civilizations into two. One is that of the Persians, who belong to Sasan, founder father of the Persians, the second is that of the Arabs who belong to Qahtan, founder father of the Arabs. The Persians in his verse are praised as being the best of peoples, but the best place to live in is Babylon, and the best of Islam is Mecca. But the best of all places in the whole world is Khurasan. In medieval Muslim times the Khurasan region, which nowadays stretches through parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, was the place where the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 A.C.) began, led by Abu Muslim al- Khurasani and brought to its end.

In an interview given to an Arab journalist before September 11, Usama bin Ladin leapt over centuries of history and political borders by calling the country he stayed in, Afghanistan, by the medieval Islamic name, Khurasan. This remark can shed some light on the ideology and cultural background that guide him.

A very deeply rooted attitude towards history and civilization in Muslim thought is inherent in the concept that describes the era of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 A.C.), and the era of the four Righteous Caliphs that ruled the Muslims after his death (632-661 A.C.), as the most glorious era in Islam. This attitude towards life leaves no chance for an Arab or a Muslim to look forward. On the contrary, for centuries the Muslim and Arab mind always goes backward, as they see glory in past times only. No place for tomorrow, unless it serves the cause of the Islamic ideology. There is no place for the future unless it is the future of the Day of Judgment, a day when the faithful Muslim will win the life in Eden, and win eternal life with the Houri virgins. On that very day God "will deliver to every Muslim a Jew or a Christian and say: That is your rescue from Hell-Fire", as the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, (Sahih Muslim, no. 6665).

Arab and Muslim thinkers in our time must have the courage to face and deal with these traditions in order to show another alternative to new Arab generations. They must do that for their nations and for the benefit of their new generations. Without facing these sensitive issues, nothing can be built for the future. At the same time, this step must meet with genuine backing from all freedom supporters all over the world.

The recently published UNDP report, which deals with the human situation in the Arab World shows no way to escape from the Hell, in which the Arab nations found themselves. This Hell, in many of its aspects, is in fact a self-made one, supported and encouraged by the hypocritical Western world.

For decades the Western world has been supporting the most reactionary regimes in the Arab and Muslim World. For decades, Arab and Muslim liberal intellectuals found themselves fighting on two battle fields; on one hand they are facing the reactionary streams based on folk religion and misinterpretations of faith, and on the other hand they face the so-called secular regimes supported by the Western countries.

In fact, these regimes have never been secular by any means. On the contrary, they are based on inferiority complexes when facing the religious streams. This is the reason behind the fact that most of the Arab and Muslim oppositions have found their way to the mosques. There they found themselves protected to some extent facing the regimes that suffer from their inferiority complexes towards religious clerks. This situation must end, and this can be achieved only with a real support from liberal streams and freedom supporters around the globe. If this support is not be given to Arab and Muslim liberal powers, the situation all over the Arab and Muslim World will get worse and worse, and surely this will affect the whole world.

Something can be done and achieved quickly without any delay. The first step to be taken is to find a just and democratic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This solution can be based only on Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands since the 1967 war and the establishment of a Palestinian democratic state that will live side by side with Israel. The European Union can play a great role in this direction by accepting both states, Israel and Palestine, as special members in the EU. A step like this, supported by the USA and the whole world community, will neutralize one of the most dangerous conflicts on earth that might turn into a global war between civilizations. Such a step can also show another alternative, a different future for the new generations in the Arab World, a future that has been blocked for decades by oppressive regimes and dictatorships all over the Arab world. When a prosperous and different future is put before these generations they will stop looking backwards.

In order to deeply understand the Islamic and Arab approach towards life, It is necessary to refer to poetry again. In a poem called "The Clock", Musa Maroofi, a modern Afghan poet, gives us some insight to what has happened in the last decade: "In our kitchen in Vienna/ A clock ticks./ Its hands herald the time/ Moving forward./ In our kitchen in Kabul/ A clock ticks./ Its hands heralds the time/ Moving backward./ The first adores the future,/ The second worships history./ Both moving fast,/ They pull the time in opposite directions./ But the time is running away/ In search of the present./ Alas, by the time it finds the present/ The present will be history."

Furthermore, if we are dealing with history and traditions, I would like to mention another tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. He said: "The Devil (al-Dajjal) will come out from the East, from a land called Khurasan, and he will have followers with tough wide faces". It appears that the Prophet Muhammad had forecast, in this tradition, the appearance of the Devil and his followers coming out of Afghanistan.

April 2006

Thursday, August 20, 2009

GM Sheikh: "Kahat Kabir"

"Kahat Kabir" - Says Kabir

Visual interpretations after Kabir's verses
Gulam Mohammed Sheikh

1- (1997)

"Ya ghat bheetar soor chand hai
Ya ghat nau lakh taara"

"The sun and moon reside in this vessel
so do nine hundred thousand stars."

2- (2001)

"Ek achambha dekha re bhai
Thaada sinh charaave gai"

"Look brother, I saw a great wonder!
A lion was guarding a herd of cows!"

3- (2002)

(Kahat Kabir, Walled City)
"Kaajar keri kotadi kaajar ka hi kot.."

"The little hut of soot in a castle of soot.."

English by GMS

GM Sheikh: photo by Salman Masalha

For Arabic translation, press here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

ETERNITY, Kabir (d. 1518)

Kabir (d. 1518)


The kings shall go, so will their pretty queens,
courtiers and all proud ones shall go.
Pundits chanting the Vedas shall go,
and go will those who listen to them.
Masochist yogis and bright intellectuals shall go,
go the moon and sun and water and wind.
Thus says Kabir only those can remain
whose minds are tied to the rocks.

Translated by Arvind Krishna Mebrotra

"Kahat Kabir", painting by Gulam Mohammed Sheikh
For Arabic translation, press here.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Salman Masalha


The shape of the new Israeli government as it looks right now means one thing. It means the postponement of the dealing with the main issue that has caused this land to bleed in the past decades. I mean the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Looking at both sides, the shape of the coming Israeli government on the one hand and on the other the internal Palestinian geographical and political dispute that has created Palestinian agendas in Gaza and in the West Bank, we see a deep crisis that doesn't help in moving forwards genuine efforts to deal with issue, let alone to taking steps towards solving the problem.

The Labor Party's decision to join the new coalition, pushed by its leader Ehud Barak who is supposed to continue serving as the defense minister in the next government, may indicate that there are hidden things that might happen and that this country might be facing in the near future with respect to the Iranian nuclear issue.

Bearing this in mind and in light of what I've said above, it seems that speaking now about bringing an end to the Israeli occupation sounds unrealistic with this government.

Hope in such a situation can be found only if the international community, the USA and the EU as well as others, decides to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation and on the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist. The international community can give assurances and aid to both if they choose to take this path. Otherwise, this conflict will keep causing suffering to both nations in this part of the world as well as far beyond this area.

Jerusalem, March 28, 2009


Monday, February 16, 2009

What's Next?

Salman Masalha

What's Next?

Speaking about peace after the war on Gaza may look difficult, but it is time to deal with the core issues that are preventing peace between Palestinians and Israelis: Israelis must think Israelis first, not Jews, and Palestinians must think Palestinians first, not Muslims. Otherwise the conflict will become a deep religious fracas over holy tombs, with no room for compromise. In recent decades, it seems that both sides have been sinking slowly into this bloody religious ocean.

To pull both sides out of this filthy water there is a need for heavy international pressure: on Israel to withdraw completely from the occupied territories including East Jerusalem in order to form a Palestinian nation state, and on the Palestinians to genuinely recognize Israel’s right to exist as an Israeli nation state.

At the same time, both states must constitutionally separate religion from state. Europe, which played a major role in creating the problem, can be a vital part of the solution by ensuring the acceptance of both Israel and Palestine into the European Union once they reach this solution. If not, this bloody tragedy will surely reach Europe sooner or later.

Published in German in: Kunst+Kultur

For German, press here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Salman Masalha


The street paved with illusions
like an unraveled dream,
the sleepers on the bedding of their humiliation
and the awake on a broken sidewalk.
The weepers over their bitter fate
and the seekers of success,
The hiders of their prayer in their hearts
and those who have gone with the wind.
The boat forgotten beside the river
in the morning light -
pictures from the exile that the night
flung in my path and then departed.
O night that has forgotten the dew on my heart,
take me to a land that has garbed itself in death.
My body is a lamentation.

Translated by Vivian Eden

For Arabic, press here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Two Enemies in the Same Pit

Salman Masalha

Two Enemies in the Same Pit

One of the most difficult problems facing the Islam-based Arab societies is the absence of a culture of reckoning of conscience. In other societies reckoning of conscience is an established element of the culture and allows for self-correction, but in the Arab societies there are no such mechanisms. Religion does not provide these mechanisms, the corrupt regimes are not interested in such mechanisms and the Arab intellectuals, apart from a very few exceptions, do not provide these goods.

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has passed away and will not be able to address the war in Gaza now. However, before his death Darwish published, in July of 2008, a poem entitled “Scenario Prepared in Advance,” a hypothetical scenario about two enemies who find themselves in a pit. The one is the poet himself and the other is “The Enemy,” with a capital “T,” without specifying his identity as the reader can easily figure this out for himself.

And now the pit of Gaza is gaping wide open and the two enemies have fallen into it. And now the Palestinian is once again finding himself impotent in face of his self-deception. In an article published in the Ramallah-based Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam (January 10, 2009), Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri protests that the reaction of the Palestinian public in the West Bank to the dimensions of the killing and destruction in Gaza appears wan. In his eyes, this reaction “looks more like solidarity actions that are organized elsewhere in the world and less like actions that should be coming from members of the same nation. Even the solidarity actions in other places have been larger than the solidarity that has been expressed by the public in the West Bank.”

Time after time the lament on the bitter Palestinian fate surfaces without any attempt to conduct a real reckoning of conscience. “We are weak, we are defeated … therefore forgive us our dead children,” writes Abdullah Awwad, firing the arrows of his criticism at the Palestinian leaders: “Why are Abbas and Mashal not going to Gaza?” inveighs Awwad. “A leader should be among his people. It is not the television screen that is the place for leaders … and up until now not a single one of the leaders has appeared among the fighters, among the people” (Al-Ayyam, January 8, 2009).

Palestinian author Ali al Khalili regrets that the Arabs and the Palestinians have entirely abandoned the role of the victim and have left this role to the murderer who has all the might. “The amazing thing,” writes al Khalili, is that “the world is accepting this Israel perception” (Al-Ayyam, January 8, 2009). Al-Khalili stresses that he wants to take advantage of the “Holocaust” of Gaza to restore the role of victim to the Palestinian, because in his opinion this is the role destined for the Palestinian in face of the Israeli murderers.

The only Palestinian intellectual who has written sharp criticism of Hamas is Hassan Khader. The aggressive attack on Gaza, he writes, has aims beyond one military achievement or another that Israel can obtain. Its aim is to carry out experiments with the fourth generation of weapons and to carry out experiments in new tactics of warfare. The Hamas has provided Israel with all the conditions for this attack. The Israelis know, says Khader, that God has given them the gift of ideal enemies, who produce a lot of noise and rhetoric. “The Hamas militia,” he adds, “has not kept any allies or friends, neither for the Palestinians nor for their cause. The Hamas organization has done everything possible in order to convince anyone who has not yet been convinced that in truth the Palestinians are Goliath and therefore they must be dealt with by force” (Al-Ayyam, January 6, 2009).

The poem that Darwish published before his death ends like this: “Here, in this place, murderer and dead man are in the same pit / and some other poet will have to continue this scenario / to its end.” And now, in the wake of the war in Gaza, another Palestinian poet, who is an Israeli citizen and an honorary candidate on the Hadash party list for the Knesset -- Samih al Qasim, a pretender to the title of national poet – has taken upon himself the job of finishing the scenario. In a poem entitled "Sermon for the Friday of Redemption," he writes: “I am the king of Jerusalem. Descendent of the Jebusite. Not you, Richard …/ From the Negev to the highest peaks of Galilee / Gather up your swords, gather up your shields, Richard / and start emigrating. / You are destined to wane, I am destined to wax … / The time has come to emigrate, Richard … I am the king of Jerusalem / leave me the cross / leave me the crescent / and the star of David … / If you wish, you will emigrate alive / and if you wish, you will emigrate dead” (from the Internet site of the Israeli Hadash party, January 10, 2009).

In contrast to this bogus rhetoric, Hassan Khader’s words shine like a lighthouse: “It is an irony of fate that the bogus Goliath is threatening the real Goliath … and declaring that Israel’s end is near while the real Goliath is battering the Palestinians, bombing them and weeping,” Khader summed up (Al-Ayyam, January 6, 2009).

In a poem that Darwish published following the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, he refers to Palestinian self-deception: “How we lied when we said that we are exceptional … Believing your own lies is worse than lying to others,” he wrote (Al-Hayyat, June 17, 2007).

As I write these words, the bloody game is still being played. It appears that both the players and the audience here in this place are continuing to demand more action in the unfinished tragedy. Therefore, in order to finish the bad scenario that is being written by bad people here where we are, this place needs above all a wise and courageous director to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian blood wedding. And since there aren’t any wise playwrights and directors here where we are, the director must come from outside this place, in the form of heavy international pressure to end the Israeli occupation and to establish a Palestinian state on all the territories that have been occupied since 1967 and to push the Palestinian and Arab side to a genuine internalization of the recognition of the state of Israel. If not, almost certainly this tragic play will embark on another world tour of bloody performances.

Jerusalem, January 12, 2009


Published in German: 14. Januar 2009, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Published in: Middle East Transparent, English, Arabic

For the Arabic text, press here.

For the German text, press here.

For the Hebrew text, press here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On the One Hand, on the Other Hand

Salman Masalha


These things must be said in an unvarnished way. The situation that has developed in this land that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River – call it the land of Israel if you like, or call it Palestine or any other name that crosses your lips – is above all a man-made tragedy, though the heavens have touched upon it.

On the one hand, the Hamas organization, sadly, is not fighting the Israeli occupation. Anyone who claims otherwise must first of all bring proofs from the mouths of spokesman for the Hamas organization itself. As long as the claimant does not define the boundaries of the occupation and reinforce his claim with quotations from the mouth of Hamas that it is fighting “this occupation,” anything he says will be tantamount to vanity of vanities, to put it mildly.

The Hamas organization in Palestine, like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban people who fought the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan with the encouragement and support of the United States, was born with the aid of the Israeli occupier and is tantamount to a Golem that has risen up and turned on its creator. For many years Hamas enjoyed the support of the leaders of the Israeli occupation, who wanted to create a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was waging the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. This attempt was made following the attempt – the previous failure – by the leaders of the occupation who were nourished by a mistaken Orientalist conception that had several years earlier pushed for the creation of the Village Associations in the occupied territories to constitute a counterweight to the urban leadership, which had taken the PLO path.

The Hamas organization, in that it is deeply immersed in the Islamic ideology, first and foremost endangers Palestinian nationalism, and this for the simple reason that it entirely negates this nationalism, as it does any other Arab nationalism. From the perspective of Hamas and its Islamic ideology, Palestine is nothing but an occupied stretch of land that belongs to the Muslim nation that aspires to restore its ancient glory in the form of the great Islamic caliphate of which Palestine constitutes but a tiny province. The Hamas organization has drawn encouragement not only from the success of the Khomeinist revolution that has taken root in Iran, but also from the “Jewish Hamas” that has emerged in Israel in the wake of the deepening of the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories after the war of June, 1967.

On the other hand, all of the moves that Israel and its many governments have made here in the past decades have been aimed at continuing the Israeli occupation, deepening it and perpetuating it in order to thwart the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories. It should be noted that even the peace agreement that Israel was compelled to sign with Egypt was signed in the end with gritted teeth on the part of the Israeli right that believes in occupations. Even the peace agreement with Egypt was made, inter alia, in order to neutralize the largest Arab country for the sake of the continuation of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. “The Palestinian Autonomy” that was included in that agreement revealed Israel’s real intentions, for in the autonomy plan, as Menachem Begin made clear in 1979, the reference was to autonomy of persons and not to autonomy of territory. In other words, the Palestinian inhabitants would administer their own affairs but they would not have the right to administer the territory. For indeed, the territory, according to the “Jewish Hamas,” is sacred Jewish land that no government has the right to relinquish. And thus, the occupation grew deeper and the Jewish settlements expanded and multiplied.

And just as the Palestinian Hamas is inimical to the Palestinian “national” interest, so the “Jewish Hamas” is inimical to the Israeli “national” interest. And thus, in the context of the conflict the two emerging “new nations” have gradually sunk into national-religious quicksand. And the deeper they sink into the land of Israel quagmire and into the Palestine quagmire, the more those who claim exclusivity over the swamp, as well as those who are sinking in it, fight each other and drown more and more people under their trampling feet.

In order to rescue the dwellers in this swamp of quicksand from the fate that is known and expected for both sides, there is a need to move on to a process of drying out the swamp instead of one side passing its water on the other, and that at a time when both of them are splashing around in a swamp that is sodden with blood in any case. Although the drying process is not easy because it requires a change in consciousness, a change in the culture that created the swamp that is devouring its inhabitants, there is no other way of getting out of the mud in which both sides are floundering. Neither the graves of Jewish patriarchs nor the graves of Arab patriarchs should be the aspirations of Jews and Arabs, for whoever sanctifies graves of patriarchs will end up interring sons in them. Many sons, from both sides, have already been swallowed up by this swamp and the mouth is still gaping open.

I am not a believer in nationalism of any sort. To my mind, nationalism is a serious illness of the human race and when it is mixes with religion that sanctifies graves it becomes a malignant and contagious disease, and this is the reality that has developed in this land before our very eyes.

Therefore, this land of quicksand needs courageous leadership, both on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. This land needs a courageous Israeli leadership that will act in a serious way, without stuttering or winking, to end the Israeli occupation in all the territories that were occupied in 1967. Yes, including Palestinian East Jerusalem. This land of quicksand equally needs a courageous Palestinian leadership that will also act seriously, without stuttering or winking, to end the occupation of 1967 and speak courageously and frankly to its people in order to bring about reciprocal recognition between Israel and Palestine as two independent states with all that this entails in international law. The moment each of the two peoples, in the two independent states, builds a secular and democratic state on its own side, in any case the border between them will be of no significance. Until then, we will be waiting for two “Messiahs,” an Israeli Ataturk and a Palestinian Ataturk. Until then, both sides will have to realize that there is no greater land of Israel and there is no greater Palestine. Period.

Everyone in whose heart the love of this entire land, with all its landscapes, sites and inhabitants, is deeply planted must partition it into a smaller Israel and a smaller Palestine. Precisely in this case, it is the splitting that will preserve the whole. For if not, this will not be a land of the living, neither for Jews nor for Arabs, neither for Israelis nor for Palestinians. For if not, only death will have a flourishing country here.

Jerusalem, January 5, 2009

Translated from the Hebrew by V. Eden

The article in Middle East Transparent.

For the Hebrew text, press here.
For the Spanish, press here.
For the Portuguese, press here.

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    جمجمتي اللّاهثة.
    تتمة الكلام

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    Composer: Stephen Feigenbaum