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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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 Mu'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

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For Arabic, press here.


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

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    The Islamic revolution, which brought the ayatollahs to power in Iran, awakened messianic demons from their sleep. The rulers dreamed of a greater Iran and acted to export the revolution beyond their borders.

    The decay in the Arab world

    With great sadness, it can be said that in the absence of a sane civil alternative, the Arab world will continue along this path.

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  • The Massacre of Arab Nationalism

    It must be admitted that the siege imposed on Gaza ever since Hamas took power there isn’t just an Israeli siege. It’s also an Arab one – because a single Egyptian decision would be enough to break the siege on Gaza’s border with Egypt.

    A Feeble Middle East

    The West learned on its own flesh that this region conducts itself by other codes. Iran has continued to entrench its standing by means of its religious ideology. The toppling of Saddam Hussein shattered the illusion of the existence of a unifying “Iraqi identity” .

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  • Neither Arab nor Spring

    The vicissitudes that have, for some reason, been collectively dubbed the "Arab Spring" are neither Arab nor Spring. One can say that they are actually living proof of the identity crisis and reverberating bankruptcy of Arab nationalism.

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  • Welcome Back to History

    Islam, like other imperialist ideologies, still needs enemies to flourish. Enemies have served Islam in the past as fuel for its wagons. Without enemies Islam declines and stagnates...

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  • The pit and the pendulum

    In those days, we did not drink four goblets of wine, because everything that gladdens the human heart is not a part of our custom.

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  • Solomon’s Mosque

    Religion, every religion, is the No. 1 enemy of nationalism. But under conditions of tension, such as tribal warfare, these polar opposites combine into a toxic soup that consumes all common sense.

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  • Never-ending tragedy

    The Israeli right, in all its forms, wants exclusively Jewish control over all of the Land of Israel. To the Palestinians who live in this space, it promises residency – temporary, of course, on condition that they keep their heads down, accept their designated status and behave accordingly.

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  • Hamas in the service of Israel

    Hamas rule isn’t the enemy of the Israeli right. Au contraire, it’s the loyal servant of all the right-wing governments. Since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, all Israeli governments have devoted all their time and energy to fighting the Palestinian national movement


מיון החומרים


Selected Topics

  • Martin Niemöller

    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.

    Read more