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

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

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Arab spring (16) Arabs in Israel (46) Art (1) Education (9) Elections (24) environment (1) Essays (10) Islam (4) Israel-Palestine (49) Jerusalem (8) Mid-East (79) Poetry (38) Prose (5) Racism (58) Songs (3) Women (5)


Selected Topics

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    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.

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  • Salman Masalha

    Vanishes into mist
    Roams like rain that pours
    He’s holding in his fist
    A book from years of yore
    Appears, then is no more
    Like dew in the day’s first blush
    In stories shared aloud
    His soul behind a door
    Half his heart is melted cloud
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