The pit and the pendulum

Archieve (2001):
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.

Salman Masalha ||
The pit and the pendulum

Memory isn’t made of metal and therefore it does not rust. To put it mildly, this might sound strange. However, for us, the second generation of the Nakba, the Festival of Freedom, Passover, is the symbol of the liberation from that round lump of dough baked with a pit or pocket in the middle. No one ever bothered to explain the meaning of that pit and with time I simply accepted that it would remain a gap in my education.

In those days, when there was nothing to spread in the pit, parents would hoodwink their children with a common Arab trick, They would spread some oil in the pit and sprinkle sugar on it to sweeten our daily bread, which would come to be known in our language that has no “p” in it as “bita.”

When matza appeared in the village, we gave thanks that it saved us from the pit in the pita. Matza came to us as a savior, first of all for the simple reason that it is fragile and refuses to be folded and secondly, but just as importantly, it does not have a pocket in it. On the contrary, it is made up of tiny holes, rows and rows of pinpricks. The traditional trick was no longer available to our ancestors and thus we became aware of the existence of various spreads that had made the pilgrimage to our dreams from the cold lands of the north.

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. Moreover, we did not have goblets, never mind gladness. However, we knew very well how to bless freedom, indeed we did: For I have expelled, I have exiled, I have robbed, I have exploited, I have redeemed, I have taken, I have murdered and I have inherited. Not just words, but a dictionary of freedoms was engraved in our minds rather than the four goblets; the wars and any trouble that could land on our heads.

Nevertheless, how is this night different from all other nights? Now – as Ariel Sharon stands at the top of the pyramid and Shimon Peres is continuing to upholster our region with dreams of the world to come and I for some time have been a free man – there is reason to talk about another pit.

It has been nearly three decades since I tried to persuade Ariel Sharon of the existence of the Palestinian people in its homeland. In the 1970s, Sharon stood in a Hebrew University auditorium and claimed, as a disciple of Golda & Co., that they don’t exist – neither a Palestinian people nor a Palestinian entity. I, as a disciple of freedom and liberty, challenged him then: The Palestinian people c’est moi and now would he please be so kind as to prove to the audience in the auditorium that I do not exist.

I did not get an answer from him then, of course. The answer came that same night when “Jerusalem’s finest” knocked on my door with a search warrant signed by a judge, as proper in a land of law and order. The report listed the “dangerous items” found in my apartment: four pamphlets issued by Matzpen, “The Socialist Organization in Israel.” The Palestinian people in it entirety – c’est moi – spent the night in the police lockup in the Russian Compound. The pit that gaped in the relations between me and matza spread rather than healed.

Memory is not made of metal, and therefore it does not rust. Nights went by and the days were the days of Yitzhak Rabin’s first government, and Shimon Peres as minister of defense, and the days were the days of Land Day, and the days were the days of the month of Nissan when Passover falls and the days were the days of hurt and bruising and shemura matza, watched over by eagle-eyed yeshiva scholars from the moment of milling the wheat to the moment of baking lest the slightest trace of leavening action contaminate it.

Behind bars, my opinion of matza had undergone a pendulum swing. Suddenly, the pit in the “bita” looked to me like the axis around which my national experience revolved. Though it was just a pit, it became clear to me that it was my pit and only mine. Sitting in a different pit, where the dough closing in on me felt like it was made of concrete, I penned a letter to Shimon the defense minister at that time and at this time the foreign minister.

No, I wasn’t thinking then about the pit in the pita or the hole in the ozone layer but rather about freedom and the right to oppose the occupation. To date I have not received an answer from Peres either but I have reason to believe that the letter did reach high places. Several years later a friend who had been summoned for questioning told me that my letter had been read out to him and he was questioned about the relationship between us. To reassure me, my friend told me he had denied any connection between us, on the grounds that it was a superficial acquaintance since we happen to be “from the same village.”

About three decades have passed since then and we have not yet lost hope, as the Israeli national anthem declares. Maybe when the foreign minister retires (if such a thing is even conceivable to him), he will yet find time to answer my letter. If he finds the afikomen, the matza hidden to keep children awake and interested at the Passover table, he is promised a prize: At long last I will send him an emotional letter declaring my support for his idea of the new Middle East. And if he does not, I will write a poem denouncing him as practicing coitus interruptus in his capacity of sanitation worker in the garbage dump of Sharon’s policies.
Published: ”Yidiot Ahronot“, April 6, 2001

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