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.


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מיון החומרים

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

  • 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

    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
    The other half is crushed
  • Balkrishna Sama

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

    Read more


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)