David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar: a stand-up’s cry of pain

David Grossman’s <em>A Horse Walks Into a Bar</em>: a stand-up’s cry of pain

At the weekend I read David Grossman’s latest novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar. Now I want to set down some thoughts about this intense and unsettling book. On stage in a comedy club in an Israeli town, a stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G, settles into his usual routine of edgy gags and mocking, abusive comments about members of the audience. Slowly, though, the spectators realise that they are watching a man falling apart before their eyes as Dovaleh G unfolds the story of a childhood trauma from which he has never recovered.

Since Grossman is a progressive Zionist and long-time advocate of peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, does his novel stand as a metaphor for a wounded nation? Or is it the study of a man who presents a public face of cruelty and cynicism whilst hiding deep within himself the vulnerable yet irrepressible child crushed and betrayed by what happened to him one day in 1973.

Continue reading “David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar: a stand-up’s cry of pain”


John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

Reading a lot of the stuff written in the British press about John Berger following his death two days ago, I have barely been able to recognise the writer that I have known and loved from reading –  a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, comprises ten novels, four plays, three collections of poetry and 33 other books, an unclassifiable blend of ruminations on art, politics and the simple joys and beauty of everyday life. The writer I am familiar with was certainly not the ‘bludgeoningly opinionated man’ of the Independent’s write up, nor the person depicted in the Guardian’s shoddy and mean-spirited obituary.

Berger was certainly one who had very definite views, but who always, it seems to me, advanced them as propositions to be debated, rather than assertions to be simply accepted (for example, the last words of his celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing are ‘to be continued – by the viewer’). He never seemed to demand our agreement as his reader or listener, merely our engagement. Continue reading “John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’”

The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

Remains in Imwas, al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian homes in al-Ramle today (photo by James Morris, That Still Remains)

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Refugee’

I was ten years old when a small branch library opened in the Cheshire village where I grew up.  Week after week I devoured novels, many of them beyond my childish comprehension.  One of the books that did made a powerful impression on me that year was Exodus by Leon Uris.

Published in 1958, Exodus was a hugely influential book, and  I was one of those who were deeply affected by the romance of its story of Jews fleeing from post-Holocaust Europe and struggling to establish a new homeland against tremendous odds. However, as I learned more about the origins of the state of  Israel and watched as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified I discovered that Exodus was little more than duplicitous propaganda.

In Exodus, the story of 1948 is exclusively one of the heroic establishment of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There is no sense of the corresponding catastrophe of uprooting and exile that Palestinian Arabs came to call the Nakba. Writing last year in Jewish Journal, Alan Elsner found re-reading Exodus a disquieting experience:

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as ‘high-breasted’, which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs.

‘There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,’ Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labour Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the ‘new Jew’ – the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenceless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a ‘strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,’ one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word ‘Arab’ rarely appears without the adjective ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ appended. Two examples: ‘Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.’ ‘How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.’

Like many others, I have made a long journey from Leon Uris’s racist fairytale in my understanding of the Israel – Palestinian question, a journey whose way-stations have been events on the ground such as the occupation and illegal settlement of the West Bank and the indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, but also films and books which have documented the origins of the state of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land.

Palestinian Walks, Raja ShehadehI recall 5 Broken Cameras, a superb documentary shot entirely in and around a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian WalksRaja Shehadeh’s brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country. Both film and book share a similar approach to the subject of the Israeli occupation but approach the issue at a tangent. Raja Shehadeh comes at it by way of seven walks through the landscape he loves; for Emad Burnat in the film it’s watching how his youngest son Gibreel, born in 2005, is shaped by growing up in a village in the occupied territories while the Israeli Army builds a section of the Security Wall between their village and a nearby Jewish settlement. In both book and film, Palestinians reveal their profound emotions for the land that has sustained them for generations.

Perhaps the most remarkable novel published after the 1948 ‘War of Independence’ aka Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, was written by an Israeli. Khirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh), published in 1949, tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land in 1948. The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an an intelligence officer in the Israeli army.

Sabbagh Palestine coverTwo more books have made a deep impression on me. In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. While Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces in the book as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court. Sabbagh wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of  title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.

The book is humane, compelling and meticulously written using both Jewish and Israeli sources. At the outset, Sabbagh writes ironically, ‘I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.’


City of Oranges cover

Adam LeBor’s City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa covers similar ground. Through the stories of six families – three Arab and three Jewish – LeBor tells the story of the ancient city of Jaffa, for centuries the main port of the eastern Mediterranean, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews, famed for the produce of its orange groves.

LeBor begins his narrative in 1920, when the British took over the administration of the city under the Mandate. He traces Jaffa’s transformation from the second city of Palestine to a crumbling, semi-derelict and neglected suburb of the Israeli capital, and then its revival during the last two decades as an artist’s colony and a possible model of Arab-Jewish co-existence. LeBor draws upon hours of interviews with several generations of Jaffa families, on memoirs, letters and personal archives to tell the story of six families, three Arab, three Jewish.  In the process he illuminates the underlying complexity of the makeup of modern Israel, by telling the story from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic perspectives, as well as from Christian Arab and Muslim points of view. Through the eyes of these families LeBor builds as picture how the founding of the state of Israel was simultaneously a moment of jubilation for the Jews, and a disaster for the 100,000 Arabs who fled Jaffa in 1948, most of them never to return.

Reviewing City of Oranges for the Guardian, Mark Cocker noted why, apart from common humanity, British citizens should have a particular interest in supporting progress towards a just settlement of the Palestinian question:

It is salutary to reflect that the 75 years of political strife, civil conflict and outright war that LeBor covers in his book were the result of a promise made by a British politician, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister, to the then leader of the Jews in London, Lord Rothschild. Known as the Balfour declaration, these 69 words of contradictory obfuscation offered the same land to two different peoples, and was the very moment that the dark genie of Arab-Jewish conflict was released from its bottle. A British administration then presided over the ensuing troubles for 30 years until they abandoned it, exhausted and baffled that the peoples of Palestine had not thanked them for the confusion and injustice. Not least for these reasons it is important that Britons remain morally engaged with the fate of the region. A good place to start would be to read Adam LeBor’s excellent and courageous book.

Lemon Tree coverThis brings me to the most recent book that I have read about this seemingly intractable conflict.  Highly recommended by several friends, Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree was published in 2006. Tolan is an experienced American journalist and his book is a meticulously-researched work of intelligent journalism. What he has attempted in The Lemon Tree – and has largely succeeded in achieving – is to  present an accurate history of the Palestine-Israel conflict through the true story of a Palestinian family driven from their ancestral home in the town of al-Ramla in 1948 by the Palmach, the elite Israeli fighting force, following an order from Yitzhak Rabin, (decades later to be awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his  role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank before being assassinated a year later by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords).

Tolan’s good fortune was not only to find a dispossessed Palestinian family, but also to discover the story of how, in 1967 following the Six-Day War which had overnight made him a citizen of the newly-occupied territory on the West Bank, Bashir Al-Khairi returned with two cousins to his childhood home, lived in since 1948 by the Eshkenazis, Jewish refugees from Bulgaria. There they were met by Dalia Eshkenazi who welcomed them into the old family home, an encounter that is the starting point for Tolan’s story of a relationship forged against the odds between two families, one Arab, one Jewish, and specifically between Dalia and Bashir, two individuals with very different perspectives on the conflict.

Refugees being removed from Ramla in 1948

Refugees being removed from al-Ramla in 1948

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In a balanced, even-handed narrative Sandy Tolan weaves the stories of Israeli Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian Bashir Khariri into a readable history of the conflict. Bashir’s father, Ahmad, was the scion of a prominent Arab family.  In 1936 he had built a home from cream ‘Jerusalem stone’ in the ancient town of al-Ramla:

Before long, Ahmad would turn his attention to the garden.  In the corner of the yard behind the house, he had chosen a spot for a lemon tree.  Once the tree was in the soil, Ahmad knew it would be at least seven years, and probably more, before the strong Palestinian sun and sweet waters of the al-Ramla aquifer would nurture the tree to maturity. The act of planting was thus an act of faith and patience.

But, in July 1948, when Bashir was six years old, the Khariri family were amongst the thousands of Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in al-Ramla as war erupted between the Arab and Jewish populations  of Palestine in response to the UN Partition Plan to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. On 15 May 1948 the civil war transformed into a regional conflict between Israel and the Arab states when a combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria entered Palestine and took control of over half of the area allocated for the proposed Arab state,  including the Jaffa, Lydda and the al-Ramla area:

At home the Khairis … and the rest of the people of al-Ramla had left behind their couches and tables, rugs, libraries, framed family pictures, and their blankets, dishes and cups.  They left their fezzes and gallabiyas, balloon pants, spare keffiyehs, sashes, and belts.  They left their spices for maklouheh, grape leaves in brine, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries.  They left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, passiflora and dried scarlet anemone, mountain lilies that grew between the barley and the wheat.  They left their olives and oranges, lemons and apricots, spinach and okra and peppers.  They left their silk and linen, silver bracelets and chokers, amber, coral, and necklaces with Austrian coins.  They left their pottery and soaps, leather and oils, Swedish ovens and copper pots, and drinking goblets from Bohemia.  They left their silver trays filled with sugared almonds and sweet dried chickpeas; their dolls, made with glued-together wood chips; their sumac; their indigo.

The people of al-Ramla were among around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from the area that became Israel and became Palestinian refugees. On 15 July 1948, notes Tolan, while the families from al-Ramla and Lydda were trudging through the hills in blazing heat, David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader, wrote in his diary:

The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramla, who are infuriated with the Legion.  They’re demanding bread.  They should be taken across the Jordan River’.

In other words, removed from Palestine to the Kingdom of Jordan – ethnically cleansed if you will. In mid-July, the Khairis arrived in Ramallah, along with thousands of other refugees.  Ramallah ‘had been transformed from a quiet Christian hill town in northern Palestine to a depository of misery and trauma’, writes Tolan.  This was where the family would remain, and where Bashir would grow up, eventually training to be a lawyer.

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Meanwhile, in the three years following the war, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel – one third of them having fled, or having been expelled, from countries in the Middle East, while others came from the countries of Europe ravaged by the Holocaust.  Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi were Bulgarian Jews who moved to Israel in the autumn of 1948 – beneficiaries of an emigration scheme agreed between the Bulgarian government and the Jewish Agency. (The story Tolan tells of how the Bulgarian Jews survived the war in a country allied to Nazi Germany only because of the decency of a handful of Gentiles forms one of the most interesting chapters of his book, and was certainly a revelation to me.)

On 14 November 1948, Moshe and Solia were among a busload of immigrants (mostly Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians and Poles) who arrived in al-Ramla:

They were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency. … It was a simple procedure, immigrants would recall; they were free to enter a house, inspect it, and claim it.  The paperwork would come later.  Moshe and Solia came upon a house to their liking.  It was in good shape and virtually empty, though not brand-new.  Clearly, someone had lived there before.  It was a stone house with an open layout and plenty of space. … In the yard in back there was a lemon tree.

So the empty Khariri house became the Eshkenazi ‘s new home, and the house where Dalia grew up:

In a black and white photograph taken in the backyard of the stone house in Ramla, Dalia stands beside a lemon tree, looking into the camera with tears in her eyes.  The image was taken in the summer, perhaps of 1950; Dalia would have been two and a half.  She’d been crying briefly, offended by the sparrows who had chosen to fly away rather than stay and eat bread crumbs out of her hand.  ‘Why should they fly?’ she cried to her aunt. ‘Why? I love them.’ It is her earliest memory.

In another passage we get a glimpse of the settlers from eastern Europe easing into their new life:

In the evenings, Moshe and Solia would invite Bulgarian friends for gatherings in the backyard.  They laid out plates of black olives, watermelon and Bulgarian chees, pouring glasses of boza, a sweet Balkan drink made from wheat.  They’d talk of news from Bulgaria, and Dalia would hear them telling off-colour jokes in Ladino, the fading language of earlier generations that she could understand only slightly.

It is important to note, when reading passages such as these, with their fictionalised tone, that Tolan has been meticulous in ensuring that everything in the book, down to the smallest detail, is fact, gained from the journalist’s tools – interviews, archival documents, published and unpublished memoirs and diaries, newspaper clippings, and primary historical accounts.  ‘I have not taken liberties with the history, no matter how minor’, he writes.  ‘At no point do I imagine what probably happened, for example at a family event in 1936 and state it as fact; nor at any moment do I describe what someone was thinking unless those thoughts are based on a specific recounting in a memoir or interview’.

So, when we read a passage such as this, in which Tolan describes Dalia’s growing awareness – and confusion – about the place where she has been born, we can sense the truth of how a generation of young Israeli’s came to see their place in the world:

Growing up, Dalia would frequently ask her parents and teachers: ‘What are these houses we are living in?’

‘These are Arab houses,’ she was told. ‘What are these Arab houses that everyone talks about?’ she would reply.

Dalia’s school was in an Arab house, and there she would learn Israel’s history. She learned about the creation of the state of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews. She studied the War of Independence as the story of the few against the many. The Arabs had invaded, Dalia would read, in order to destroy the new state and throw the Jews into the sea. Most nations confronted with such hostilities would have been paralyzed, but tiny Israel had withstood five Arab armies. Little David had defeated Goliath. As for the Arabs, Dalia’s text-books would report that they ran away, deserting their lands and abandoning their homes, fleeing before the conquering Israeli army. The Arabs, one textbook of the day declared, ‘preferred to leave’ once  the Jews had taken their towns. Dalia accepted the history she was taught. Still, she was confused. Why, she wondered, would anyone leave so willingly?

One afternoon when she was about seven or eight years old, Dalia climbed up the black metal gate that Ahmad Khairi had placed at the end of the stone path in the front yard. Atop the gate perched a delicate piece of wrought iron in the shape of a star and crescent: the symbol of Islam. It bothered Dalia. ‘This is not an Arab house,’ she said to herself, and she grasped the delicate crescent and began wrenching it back and forth, back and forth, until it came loose in her hands. She clambered down and threw the crescent away.

Tolan sets the story of his two families against the background of the history of the conflict, told in the clearest way. Every statement is supported by references, not in footnotes in the text itself, but in a 70-page appendix and extensive bibliography which together constitute a quarter of the book.  Tolan skilfully shows how Dalia and Bashir are both swept up in the fates of their people, and reveals their lives as a personal microcosm of more than half a century of Israeli-Palestinian history.

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi, 2011

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi in 2011

Meanwhile, the Khairis had lived as exiles in their own land – first in Ramallah, then in Gaza, and finally returning to Ramallah when Bashir was fifteen years old.  In the early 1960s, in Cairo studying law, Bashir had become deeply involved in activist politics, and particularly with the Arab Nationalist Movement led by George Habash, himself a refugee from Lydda who had been among the refugees who had walked in the heat through the hills to Ramallah in July 1948.

In  June 1967, Bashir was practising law in Ramallah when news came of  Israel’s surprise attack on Egyptian airfields following a period of rising tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours.  When the Six Day War was over, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank meant, paradoxically, that it was now easier for Palestinians exiled in 1948 to visit their old homeland.  That is how Bashir and his cousins found themselves in al-Ramla in the summer of 1967, ringing the doorbell of the house where Bashir had lived as a child. ‘Come in, feel at home,’ said Dalia:

It was a universal welcome – Make yourself at home; Mi casa es su casa; Ahlan wa-sahlan; Baruch habah – yet these particular words seemed especially strange to Bashir as he approached the front door: Feel at home.

Life cover 23 June 1967

As the cousins are shown around the house they see the bedroom that is now Dalia’s but was once Bashir’s. On the wall above her bed Dalia has tacked a poster of an Israeli soldier celebrating in the Suez Canal after the overwhelming Israeli victory in the Six Days War of 1967. For Israelis the image stood for liberation and survival, but standing with Bashir in the doorway to the bedroom, Dalia suddenly realises, for the first time, that Bashir might see the poster differently. In his childhood home, in the lemon tree his father planted in the backyard, Bashir sees dispossession and exile; Dalia, who arrived as an infant in 1948 with her family from Bulgaria, sees hope for a people devastated by the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, from this unpromising encounter a long friendship develops, even though Bashir becomes a senior member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and is charged with being  involved in the bombing of a supermarket in Jerusalem  in 1969.  Bashir spends two decades in a total of 17 Israeli prisons, detained after hearings in closed Israeli military courts on suspicion of links to acts of terror carried out by the PFLP, and for helping to organize the first intifada. Bashir remains committed to a programme of resistance to gain for dispossessed Palestinians the right to return to their homeland.

Despite Bashir’s circumstances and politics, Dalia maintains a friendship with the Palestinian, and begins to understand Bashir’s grievances about his family’s lost home. In 1991, she donates the house as a kindergarten for Arab children in al-Ramla and as a peace and educational centre called Open House which is still operating today.

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008, following publication of The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan commented on the central place of 1948 in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. ‘In Exodus,’ he wrote, ‘ the story of 1948 is exclusively about the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Arabs are alternately portrayed as malicious or pathetic’.  But for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba, or Catastrophe, a story not of survival and re-birth, but dispossession and loss:

The Nakba remains little known in the West, despite the rivers of ink and forests of newsprint that have chronicled the last six decades of struggle between the two peoples. Yet it is as central to Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to the identity of Israel.

Seen through a Palestinian lens, the creation of Israel, sanctioned by the United Nations vote, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews – was not ‘western civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust,’ as the historian Michael J. Cohen has written. Rather, Palestinians saw themselves as ‘the indigenous majority on its ancestral soil,’ as the Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi has noted, and therefore ‘failed understand why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust.’ Neither did they grasp why the Jewish side, with one third the population, should be awarded 54 percent of Palestine and more than 80 percent of its cultivated citrus and grain plantations. This helps explain why the Arabs of Palestine, in peace talks five and six decades later, would fail to see Israeli concessions as ‘generous’: From their perspective, they lost 78 percent of their land to Israel in the 1948 war, and are ill-inclined to make further compromise on the 22 percent that remains.

Curiously, although Tolan’s book takes as its focus 1948 and the story of one house that changed hands in that year, I gained a greater sense from his historical account of the greater significance, not of the Holocaust, but of Zionism as being fundamental to understanding Israeli justifications for policies of territorial conquest and occupation.  A liberal delicacy often surrounds the question of Israel, rooted quite naturally in the idea of the state as a refuge for Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. But the historical background sketched in by Tolan (or contained in many other histories) confirms the origins of the problem: the Zionist dream of Jewish homeland, a religious state in which Jews would be a majority in their own nation in a territory closely approximating the historical Eretz Yisrael.  With its roots in 19th century Europe, and gathering pace following the British acceptance of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ in the  1917 Balfour Declaration, the Zionist project clearly pre-dates the Holocaust.  The Zionist belief that the settlers were returning to a ‘land without people for a people without land’ soon provoked the first stirrings of nationalism among the Palestinian Arab population.

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramla today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

The house and the lemon tree.  However the history is interpreted, the evidence is plain: in 1948 some 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  Although they maintain their friendship and shared commitment to the Open House, Bashir and Dalia cannot come to any kind of agreement about the ‘right of return’: in other words, the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel and have access to their stolen property. Dalia can understand the right to return as a recognition of a past injustice, but for her it can never be, practically speaking, put into place because of the suffering it would cause Israelis and its implication for the state of Israel. For Bashir, return is simply everything he has believed in and worked towards.

In the most recent encounter between Bashir and Dalia that Tolan records in his book, in 2006 Dalia travels the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, through military checkpoints and in the shadow of the Wall – the ‘security barrier’ that in the previous four years has been constructed to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel. When the pair meet their differences are revealed in a passage in which Dalia urges Bashir to recognise the value of negotiation and compromise, exemplified by the peace process established under the Oslo Accords of 1993-5:

Bashir leaned forward.  ‘For Palestinians it didn’t change the daily life.  It went from bad to worse.  I didn’t go back to al-Ramla.  We don’t have our independent state, and we don’t have our freedom. We are still refugees moving from one place to another place to another place to another place, and every day Israel is committing crimes.  I can’t even be on the board of Open House.  Because I’m Palestinian, not Israeli.  If somebody comes yesterday from Ethiopia but he’s Jewish, he will have all the rights, when I’m the one who has the history in al-Ramla.  But for them I’m a stranger.’

Dalia’s arms were folded tightly across her chest.  She unfolded them and took a breath.

‘Bashir.  Maybe I have no right to say what I’m going to say.  We need to make sacrifices if both of us are to live here. We need to make sacrifices.  And I know it’s not fair for me to say that.  I know. I mean, you cannot live in your house in Ramla.  I know it’s not fair.  But I think we need to strengthen these people who are willing to make some compromise. Like Rabin, who paid with his life. … By not accepting the state of Israel or by not accepting the state of Palestine, I think none of us has a real life here.  Israelis don’t have a real life here, either.  But if you’re not okay, we’re not okay.  And if we’re not okay, you’re not okay.

Now in his seventies, Bashir Khairi continues to live in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, barred from the country of his birth.  Jerusalem is only 10 miles from Ramallah  but given Bashir’s circumstances it might as well be Timbuktu.  I tried to find how the relationship between Bashir and Dalia has evolved since the publication of The Lemon Tree, but there isn’t much to go on.  This is Dalia, quoted in ‘Enemy at the door‘, an article on the Sofia Echo website, in 2011:

The last time I saw Bashir was with Sandy Tolan in about 2006. He can’t come to Israel; he doesn’t have a permit because he was allegedly involved in an act of terror (a supermarket bombing) in 1969.

Has he ever admitted his crime?

I don’t know what he admitted or didn’t admit in court because it was behind closed doors. I have confronted him with this and he has never said that he did NOT do this. He just said ‘why do you call these people terrorists? They are freedom fighters’, so what do you understand from this?

But he’s still your friend and that’s how you see him?

I see him as something that grows from the same earth, from the same hole, in a way somehow part of my fate, shall we say, like family. It’s a very strong connection, to know that you’ve been living in someone else’s house.

That same year, Bashir Khairi was quoted by Noozhawk columnist Karen Telleen-Lawton in ‘Sustainable Peace and The Lemon Tree’:

She has an extraordinary conscience. She offered me back the house because it released her conscience from having a house belonging to someone else.

‘Dalia was willing to sell and give me money, or rent and give me rent,’ he said. ‘My reaction was that the house represented Palestine and Palestine was not for sale or rent. I suggested this house go for Arab children and be called ‘Dalia Kindergarten for Arab Children’ to appreciate and mark her high-class humanitarian position.’

Dalia supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This is the official U.S. position despite the Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza that put to question its feasibility. Khairi disagrees.

‘I still back a one-state democracy for both, with everyone having the same rights and duties,’ he told us. ‘I believe this is the best guarantee for future peace living together. Palestinian land is available for all — Christians, Muslims, Jews — all can live here. We have previously. Thoughts that we can’t live together on one land — this is a short-sighted vision that doesn’t serve peace.’

For me, too, one state seems the solution. Though it might appear as much pie in the sky as a democratic South Africa with a black president would have seemed 40 or 50 years ago, I have believed it to be the only outcome that guarantees any justice and security since reading the late Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.  This week  the House of Commons voted overwhelming in favour of recognition for the state of Palestine.  But how can there be a viable Palestinian state when Israel refuses to relinquish control of the occupied territories where illegal Jewish settlements continue to spread?  Surely there is a matter of principle here?  When the world demanded the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, there was no suggestion that a just outcome would be white control of the greater part of the territory while granting black South Africans independence in the bantustans or homelands. Like Bashir, I believe that only a single secular, democratic state will guarantee peace and justice for all.

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, Ramla (httpborisfenus.blogspot.com)

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, al-Ramla (photo: borisfenus.blogspot.com)

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth…will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware ! Beware ! Beware !
Of my hunger
And my anger!

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Identity Card’ (1964)

See also

Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’

Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’


Gaza August 2014: ‘less pity on school children’

How does one avoid despair at the news these days?

The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

It’s been a terrible few weeks: death and destruction in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya, all overshadowed by the appalling events in Gaza. This morning’s Guardian adds to the gloom with news that 40,000 Kurds from a minority sect of Zoroastrians are surrounded by jihadist forces of Isis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, known in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. Alongside that is a report by from Israel by Giles Fraser (one-time Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, who resigned during the Occupy encampment there).  In it, he paints a picture of an Israel in which there is almost total support for the war in Gaza, newspapers and TV channels are ‘simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza’, and peace activists are fearful of making a public stand.

One of the people to whom Fraser spoke was the writer Amos Oz, ‘Israel’s great literary conscience’. Fraser senses a shift even in Oz’s outlook:

He says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of ‘right versus right’. But now, he says, this is a battle of ‘wrong versus wrong’.

Actually, to me, ‘wrong versus wrong’ seems a more clear-sighted assessment of both the present situation and the historical background than ‘right versus right’.  Certainly Oz has always issued side-swipes at well-meaning European liberals who, in his view, fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.  The ‘right versus right’ concept comes from a speech Oz made in Germany in 2000, later issued in a little book, How to Cure a Fanatic. This is how Oz began:

Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: The Vietnamese people were the victims, and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: You could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for civil rights, for liberation and equality, and for human dignity was right. The struggle between colonialism and imperialism, on the one hand, and the victims of colonialism and imperialism, on the other, seems relatively simple–you can tell the good guys from the bad. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: These are the angels, these are the devils; you just have to support the angels, and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.

The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation. The Palestinians have tried, unwillingly, to live in other Arab countries. They were rejected, sometimes even humiliated and persecuted by the so-called Arab family. They were made aware in the most painful way of their “Palestinianness”; they were not wanted by Lebanese or Syrians, by Egyptians or Iraqis. They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country that they can hold on to. In a strange way the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have had a somewhat parallel historical experience. The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were kicked out of Europe some seventy years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, “Jews, go back to Palestine,” or sometimes worse: “Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.” When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we realize that no one has horns and tails–and the trouble will go away. This is based on the widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, first, I have bad news for you: Some conflicts are very real; they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: There is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world. So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee, which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble.

But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise. The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need a compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. A compromise means that the Palestinian people should never go down on its knees, neither should the Israeli Jewish people.

Amos Oz

Amos Oz

In his Guardian piece, Giles Fraser writes of his attempt to ‘come at things sideways’ with Oz by talking about Israeli poetry. Fraser tells him he has always loved a poem by Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, who died in 2000 aged 76. The poem is ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Amichai was invited to read from his poems at the ceremony in Oslo. ‘God has pity on kindergarten children’ was one of the poems he read that day. Less than a year later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In the weeks just gone there has been no mercy in Gaza even for kindergarten children.

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.

The events of this summer have echoed with chilling synchronicity those of one hundred summers past. As the forces of Isis have swept all before them this summer, determined to eradicate the borders established by the colonial powers in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, we have been made painfully aware of the loose ends left by that war in eastern Europe and the Middle East.  In a blog post the other day, Mary Beard wrote about attending the commemorative event at the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons on Monday. Everyone there was given a booklet by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explaining how many graves the commission looks after and where they are. Flipping through it, Mary Beard discovered with a shock that there are over 3000 graves in Gaza from the Great War.  They hold the remains of British soldiers who fought to take Gaza city in 1917. It is a reminder, Beard wrote, ‘of a complicated story of conflict in that region which reaches down a century’.

Deir al-Balah cemetery damaged headstone

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza: headstone damaged by Israeli shelling in 2009 (photo by Eva Bartlett)

Coincidentally, on Monday’s Channel 4 News, Paul Mason visited the Deir al-Balah cemetery which had been hit by a couple of Israeli shells. The cemetery, which is in the centre of Gaza, has been maintained by the same Palestinian family for three generations, and was badly damaged by shelling in 2009.

Where can we seek consolation amidst all the ruination?  I have no idea.  The only hope seems to be to hold onto the vision, offered in another of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, of a weary and tarnished ‘wildpeace

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Deir al-Balah cemetery

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza (photo by Eva Bartlett)

Palestinian Walks: the extraordinary patience of things

Palestinian Walks: the extraordinary patience of things

‘such a beautiful, spoiled country’

I’ve only just got round to reading Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, even though it’s been in the house for three or four years.  I had been reminded of Raja Shehadeh’s book while reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, in which MacFarlane writes of joining Shehadeh, an old friend and walking companion, for the first time on a walk near Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.

Shehadeh’s book was first published in the UK in 2007, and I should have read it much sooner.  It’s a brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country.  Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, novelist and political activist who has lived on the West Bank since his family fled Jaffa in 1948. He is a founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, and in 2008 was awarded the Orwell prize for political writing for Palestinian Walks.

For decades, as a temporary escape from the stress and disappointments of legal appeals against Israeli orders expropriating Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, Raja has found comfort in walking, following what in Arab culture is called sarha – meaning to roam  freely, at will, without restraint: to go where the spirit  takes you. In Palestinian Walks he invites the reader to accompany him on six walks that span a period of twenty six years. Walking through the undulating hills and wadis of the West Bank, Shehadeh evocatively describes the natural beauty of his homeland: valleys where, after spring rains, wildflowers bloom in profusion with cyclamen, thyme, poppies and asphodels. As he wanders, Shehadeh passes olive groves and fruit trees, encounters gazelles and goats.

As he walks, Shehadeh meditates on Palestine’s history and political struggles, and his growing sense of disappointment and disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership after the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, which he sees in legal terms as a key strategic error that opened the way to the process which has transformed the landscape he loves – and the fate of his people, as one West Bank hilltop after another is claimed by the Israeli authorities and yet more settlements are established, the familiar view changes beyond recognition.

So Palestinian Walks is an elegy for a vanishing landscape. The beautiful hills, rivers and sacred springs, and the landmarks familiar to him from childhood are being concreted over, torn apart by new highways that connect the settlements that rise on the hilltops.  The Dead Sea recedes a metre every year as a consequence of Israel’s diversion of the river Jordan.  Along with his compatriots, Shehadeh experiences everyday humiliations and harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers – and, for him much worse, many of the paths through the wadis can no longer be walked, out of bounds to a Palestinian.

This is how Raja Shehadeh introduces his account:

As a child I used to hear how my grandfather, Judge Saleem, liked nothing more than coming to Ramallah in the hot summer and going on a sarha with his cousin, Abu Ameen, leaving behind the humid coastal city of Jaffa and the stultifying colonial administration which he served and whose politics he detested. It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear  for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn’t have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha.
Going on a sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high, Palestinian-style.

His book concludes on a shared high – a drug-induced one – in an account of a walk entitled ‘An Imagined Sarha‘. You wonder, as you read, whether this walk actually happened, or whether his narrative is a metaphor for Shehadeh’s mixture of hope and despair for the future. On this last journey he encounters a young Jewish settler – a man with ‘kind, intelligent eyes’ and a ‘soft, kind voice …almost apologetic, most untypical of an Israeli’ – a man who, like Shehadeh, had grown up and spent his life in the very same hills. The man performs a small act of kindness, and, unwillingly at first, Shehadeh falls into conversation with him.

“You are aware, I hope, that your presence here means perpetual war.”


“Because you’ve taken our land and refuse to even recognize the fact.”

“Let’s say we give it back: What guarantee would we have that you won’t ask to get back Jaffa and Haifa?”

“What about international law?”

“It’s for the weak.”

“It’s a marker of a better, more civilized world.”

“I went to the army for three years. I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will just have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence.”

“Independence from whom?”

“The British.”

“But they came to take our country from us and give it to you. Haven’t you read the terms of the Mandate?”

“They restricted us. They wouldn’t allow the immigrants to come. They wanted us to have only a tiny piece of the country. Israel would not have been a viable state. We had to get rid of them to run our own affairs, to be able to welcome here any Jew from anywhere in the world without anyone telling us not to.”

“Will you pay compensation for the properties you took in ’48?”

“If you pay for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen.”

“What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen? Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases.”

“They’re Arab, aren’t they?”

“You’re just repeating what you’ve been told. If you just think about what you’re saying you’d realize how ludicrous it is. Let’s say we accept that you keep your settlements, would you be willing to be confined to the built up areas?”

“You want to turn us into ghettos in our own land. We’ve been through that in Europe. Never again.”

“Then if you want to expand over the entire land will you allow us to buy or rent in your settlements?”

“No. These are areas for Jews.”

“Let us assume that your settlements are built on what you call public not private land. What people would agree to have areas of their country carved out and given to members of another nation and not even be allowed to share the land?”

“But you’re not a nation. You never had your own government.”

“Are you going to repeat the famous position of Golda Meir, that we Palestinians do not exist?”

“No. I didn’t say that. I know you exist. I can see you standing before me. And I know you are not Israeli. You exist, sure enough. But you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel.”

“And you did?”

“Yes, we had a kingdom right here in Judea.”

“That was more than three thousand years ago.”


“So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?”

“It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?”

“You want the whole of the land to yourself and you’re not even ready to share it. Don’t you think this is discriminatory?”

“What’s discriminatory about it? What’s wrong with what we’re doing? You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas.”

“I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came. I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete.”

“And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for every thing, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here.”

There was little to say after this. But I made one last effort to alert him to what was being done to the land by those who claimed to love it. I said:

“The way it’s going we’ll end up with a land that is crisscrossed with roads. I have a vision of all of us going around and around in circles. Whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze.”

The book concludes with the two men smoking together, sharing the young settler’s water-pipe:

All the tension of the times, the worry about going through area C, the likely prospect of encountering soldiers or settlers, or getting shot at or lost, was evaporating. With every new draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it.

This young man was an artist at preparing a good nergila, I thought. He had talent.

“What’s in this?” I asked.

“It’s hashish that has been opiated.”

I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land. Shots could be heard in the distance, which made us both shiver. “Yours or ours?” I asked. But how could we tell? We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks.

Raja Shehadeh, left, with a Palestinian farmer on a hillside overlooking Ramallah, West Bank.
The six preceding chapters of Shehadeh’s book do more than describe the landscape through which he walks; each walk takes place at a different stage of the recent history of the Palestinian people and maps his changing mood.  At first he describes his attempts as an idealistic lawyer to uphold legitimate Palestinian claims to land, but as case after case is decided against his clients, he becomes increasingly angry, embittered and disillusioned.  Where once he was pleased the Israeli authorities were designating certain areas as nature reserves, he changes his mind when those areas were closed to Palestinians after the Oslo self-rule agreement in 1993 – a catastrophic error in his judgement, resulting in a doubling of the number of Jewish settlements since then. He sees raw sewage from the settlements pouring untreated onto the land of Palestinian farmers. He recognises the psychological damage ordinary people are suffering, and admits to his own ‘internalised defeat’ as the idealism of resistance gives way to a sense of helplessness (as much in the face of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority as the injustices of the Israeli occupation).  Above all, he begins to sense that the changes he is observing are irreversible: he quotes Ariel Sharon in 1980, then Israel’s defence minister, as promising ‘a new map of the country’.

When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was travelling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the world.

All my life I have lived in houses that overlook the Ramallah hills. I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colours during the day and over the seasons as well as during an unending sequence of wars. I have always loved hill walking, whether in  Palestine, the Swiss Alps or the Highlands and outlying islands of Scotland, where it was a particular joy to ramble without fear of harassment and the distracting awareness of imminent political and physical disasters.

I began taking long walks in Palestine in the late 1970s. This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place. The hills then were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique to such areas.

As our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying for ever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land which many Palestinians will never know.
In the course of a mere three decades close to half a million Jewish people were settled within an area of only 5,900 square kilometres. The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate.

I witnessed this complete transformation near where I grew up and I write about it here. Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed, by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever.

Shehadeh’s narrative is peppered with the moving stories of those whose rights to their land he tries to defend as a lawyer. For example, he tells of Ayoub, an old distant relative, ‘as strong and as nimble as a goat’, who built a qasr (a farmer’s house on the hills) with his new wife during their honeymoon. The building of a qasr is usually a communal business, but being an only child and having cousins who had emigrated to America to study and were, in his terms, ‘useless’, Ayoub decides to tackle the work by himself. He goes to the hill property and, with his wife Zariefeh, starts clearing ground and carrying large blocks of stone. In the evening, they light a fire to keep warm and keep the jackals off, and they spend the night in the open air. For a week, they work together until Ayoub has built a perfect qasr entirely out of stone, with no cement. For Ayub this is paradise: on his beloved hills in God’s open country.

For Shehadeh, too, walking allows him briefly to forget the situation on the ground. He experiences the pleasure of being out beyond checkpoints, walls and barriers, of feeling ‘giddy with joy’ under a wide-open sky. But walking also provides the means for journeying inwards, his traverses through the landscape being both a deeply private and intensely political experience. As the landscape changes around him, he writes of profound shifts in his own spirit, yet to hold on to a determination to resist:

But the most destructive development, which boded only misery and spelled continued conflict for the future, was the wall being constructed by Israel. This stretched in a jagged course that was determined not only by Israeli military considerations but also by the special interests of settlers and land mafia lords, slicing through the hills, destroying their natural shape, gulping large swaths of Palestinian areas. Only in part did it follow the 1967 armistice’s internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which has now been deleted from official Israeli maps. The ‘settlement blocs’ Israel planned to annex, which thrust like daggers into the Palestinian land, were now sheathed by the wall.

Still, I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements.

The construction of the Israeli Security Wall in al-Walaja village

The more I read Shehadeh’s accounts of his walks, increasingly affected by the construction of new highways and concrete settlements on the hilltops, the more I began to wonder whether what he was describing would have occurred whatever the nature of the administration that ruled this land.  Whether, indeed, he is describing a process that has overtaken treasured landscapes in almost every part of the world.  And then, curiously, it seemed that Shehadeh began to arrive at a similar conclusion.

He becomes conscious of the evidence in the landscape of the vast span of geological history: the knowledge that he is walking on limestone which had formed as the bed of an ancestral sea.  As he begins to view his frustrations at the Palestinian predicament in this broader context his anger begins to dissipate:

Thinking in the long term made it possible for me to separate ‘the present’ from the rest of time and thereby realize that what Palestine and Israel are now would not necessarily be for ever. I was here on earth for a relatively short period and after that time passed, life would go on without my points of view, biases and fears.

Though the Palestine he knew, the land he thought of as his, was rapidly being transformed before his eyes, ‘viewed from the perspective of the land’ these changes hardly count:

A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated.  Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they may have been. … Empires and conquerors come and go but the land remains.

To illustrate this perspective Shehadeh quotes from the poem ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers:

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;   
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide   
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty   
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:   
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Thinking in these terms, as well as writing about the experience of his parents and grandparents in the nakbah of 1948, has enabled Shehadeh to overcome his anger. His book stands not only as an account of the psychological trauma of the Palestinian experience, it also illuminates the way landscapes become part of people and help define them.

Slideshow: Raja Shehadeh narrates excerpts from Palestinian Walks.

My friends,
Those left alive among you
Will let me live another year,
A year to walk together,
To fling a river on our backs
Like gypsies,
To break the remnants of the structure down
To bring our tired soul away from its long exile….

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Another Year Only’

The road is long like an ancient poet’s night:
plains and hills, rivers and valleys.
Walk according to your dream’s measure: either a lily

follows you or the gallows.

– from Mahmoud Darwish, ‘To a Young Poet’

See also

The Palestinian Nakba: an Israeli perspective

This year Nakba Day, the Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of the 1948 war in which an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed, has been particularly marked by violence, reflecting the current unrest in the Middle East.

During the Nakba, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, both those outside the 1949 armistice lines at the end of the war and those internally displaced, were barred by the newly declared state of Israel from returning to their homes or reclaiming their property. Today they number several million people, divided between Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with another at least quarter of million internally displaced Palestinians in Israel.   It was this loss of Palestine and the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian people that came to be known as al-Nakba.

All of this has been in my mind as well because I’ve just read Khirbet Khizeh, the novel of which Ian McEwan spoke in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speechKhirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh) was published in 1949 and tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence for Israelis, the nakba for Palestinians.  The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an intelligence officer in the Israeli army in 1948.  Yizhar was, as David Shulman writes in an afterword to the new Granta edition, ‘the first major writer to describe in credible, unforgettable detail one emblematic example of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their homes by Israeli soldiers’.

Yizhar was a Zionist: he believed in the right of the Jews to the land. But the greatness of his book is that in Khirbet, he is a man at war with himself. The young Israeli soldier who is his main protaganist attempts to reconcile the rights of his people with the rights of the Palestinian villagers.  Troubling thoughts and moral dilemma is ever-present in the thoughts of Yizhar’s central character.  Near the beginning of Khirbet Khizeh, he speaks of the risks for a soldier of thinking about the actions on which he is engaged: ‘we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking’.

In the story, a squad is detailed to clear a Palestinian village on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line and pack its residents off in trucks with only the clothes on their backs (emblematic of the 41 villages that were forcibly evacuated and at least 228 more where the residents fled under attack by Zionist forces).  When the narrator, mindful of how Jews were exiled by their persecutors, blurts out a protest, one of his comrades retorts:

Are we killing them? We’re taking them to their side. Let them sit there and wait. It’s very decent of us. There’s no other place in the world where they’d have been treated as well as this.

Reading Khirbet Khizeh, I felt I was in the presence of a classic of 20th century humanist, anti-war literature – to be ranked alongside Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Barbusse’s Under Fire. It is a work of parallels, as Yizhar uses the language of exile to describe the fate of the Palestinian villagers.  The narrator realises that his people, who had lived in exile for two thousand years, were now sending others into exile:

This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . .I have never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like . . . but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction, in books and newspapers, everywhere: exile. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?

The narrator is filled with deep foreboding.  Watching a mother and her boy in the procession of refugees being led to the lorries that will transport them from their land, he thinks:

We could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him, the same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child.”

In the powerful conclusion, the narrator reflects:

When they reached their place of exile night would already have fallen. Their clothing would be their only bedding. Fine. What could be done? The third truck began to rumble. Had some astrologer already seen in the conjuncture of the stars in the sky over the village or in some horoscope how things would turn out here? And what indifference there was in us, as if we had never been anything but peddlers of exile, and our hearts had coarsened in the process. But this was not the point either.

And how does it end?

The valley was calm. Somebody started talking about supper. Far away on this dirt track, close to what appeared to be its end, a distant, darkening swaying truck, in the manner of heavy trucks laden with fruit or produce or something, was gradually being swallowed up. Tomorrow, both painful humiliation and helpless rage would turn into a kind of casual irritation, shameful, but fading fast. Everything was suddenly so open. So big, so very big. And we had all become so small and insignificant. Soon a time would arise in the world when it would be good to come home from work, to return exhausted, to meet someone, or walk alone, to walk saying nothing. All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon the last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond stillness – then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

Yizhar Smilansky was born in Ottoman Palestine of Jewish settler parents, and was later a left-wing Zionist member of the Knesset. His writings under the pen name S. Yizhar contained some of the earliest and most powerful criticisms of Israel’s foundation from an Israeli Jewish perspective. The book was first published in Israel just after the end of the 1948-49 war, despite attempts by the military censor to ban it.  Khirbet Khizeh remains an optional text on the Israeli school curriculum, the significance of which is debated by David Shulman in his afterword to the Granta edition.

In the aftermath of the 1967 war that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Yizhar wrote in an essay, ‘If there is indeed a ‘Jewish consciousness’, it must pause here to ponder our own selves …. What does victory by armed force actually bestow upon the victors? . . . Because you don’t get a country by means of weapons. Any such acquisition is unjust’.

In a lengthy review of Khirbet Khizeh in The Guardian, Jacqueline Rose wrote:

It is the abiding importance of Khirbet Khizeh … that it returns the issue of justice squarely to the heart of the nation, and then leaves it hovering – like the cry of the villages, or like the question that trails the narrator of the story as he wanders through the landscape: ‘some kind of question that posed itself of its own accord, or a kind of aside, that must be said’.

Palestine: the prize, the novel and The Promise

The Israel-Palestine quandary has been churning around in my head lately (when does it not?). First there was Ian McEwan’s decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize for literature, a decision for which he was heavily criticised in a letter to the Guardian from a group called British Writers in Support of Palestine, including John Berger, and urged to boycott the award ‘a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state’, adding: ‘the Jerusalem book fair… is organised by the … municipality, a key institution of the Israeli state and a major instrument in the illegal colonisation of East Jerusalem’.

Then there was McEwan’s acceptance speech which, in part at least, comprised an eloquent attack on ‘continued evictions and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of the right of return granted to Jews but not to Arabs, the so-called facts on the ground of hardening concrete over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today’ and called for an end to settlements and encroachments on Palestinian land.

Though his words were powerful, I still thought he should have stayed away. In a subsequent letter to the Guardian, a number of British, Israeli and Palestinian signatories from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement wrote:

After rejecting the Palestinian call to boycott the state-sponsored Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan has massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group. Should his detractors …now ‘eat their words’? We think not. Had McEwan refused the prize, protested in Jerusalem at his own expense, and attacked not Israel’s “nihilism” but its colonialist zeal, his own words of condemnation would have had integrity and bite.

As it is, McEwan has given Mayor Nir Barkat a golden platform for his outrageous views. Jerusalem is not a city where all may “express themselves in a free way”. Activists are arrested and deported, while racist internal laws allow the municipality to flout the Geneva convention by creating illegal settlements – a policy designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them appears rank hypocrisy.

A contrast to McEwan’s stance is provided by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who today explains in The Guardian why he decided not to perform in Tel Aviv in 2006:

The Palestinian advocates of a boycott asked that I visit the occupied Palestinian territory to see the wall for myself before I made up my mind. I agreed. Under the protection of the United Nations I visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. The wall is an appalling edifice to behold. It is policed by young Israeli soldiers who treated me, a casual observer from another world, with disdainful aggression. […]

Sadly, in the intervening years the Israeli government has made no attempt to implement legislation that would grant rights to Israeli Arabs equal to those enjoyed by Israeli Jews, and the wall has grown, inexorably, illegally annexing more and more of the West Bank.

In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair-minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance.

Where governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal. For me this means declaring an intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government’s policies, by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.

The questions of Palestine, the Nakba, and the Wall were also central to the major four-part drama, The Promise, which screened on Channel 4 last month.  In terms of drama, it was noteworthy for the striking central performance by Claire Foy as Erin, a sulky, sullen teenager who (rather implausibly) decides to accept the invitation of her best friend Eliza, an English girl with joint Israeli citizenship, to accompany her to Israel during her gap year and stay with her well-off family when she is called up to do national service. Erin carries with her a diary kept by her grandfather  when he served with British forces in Europe and in Palestine during the 1940s.

Reading it, Erin discovers that her grand­father, served both at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in Palestine in the tense months before Israel declared itself a state in 1948, when the occupying British army was subject to a sustained terrorist campaign by Zionist groups. With this dramatic device, the writer and director of  The Promise, Peter Kosminsky, was able to juxtapose issues in the present with the Mandate period and trace the connections – expressed symbolically by the key that Erin finds in her father’s diary.  For her, the key is a mystery which she slowly unravels. It’s a symbol of the Palestinian refugees’ dispossession, still, 63 years later, the subject of continuing conflict and negotiation.

The Promise made full use of Dickensian-style coincidences and secrets, but in the concluding episode coincidence stretched credulity to breaking point. There were unlikely geographical leaps from Jerusalem to Haifa to Hebron and Gaza, whose only rationale appeared to be to incorporate every significant aspect of the conflict into the story. Most extraordinarily, Erin’s grandfather and a young Arab boy were depicted walking in broad daylight like a pair of sightseers around Deir Yassin where 107 Arabs were slaughtered by the Irgun on the eve of Israel’s creation, as the massacre unfolded. (It was, in fact largely conducted between midnight and daylight.)

But for all these faults,The Promise was still an exceptional drama. The two central performances by Claire Foy and Christian Cooke – playing her grandfather as a young man – were compelling. The cinematography brilliantly captured the sense of Palestinian streets during the Mandate and of the various facets of Israel today – from the dazzling houses of Caesarea, the country’s richest city where Eliza’s family lives, to the twisting streets of the occupied territories and the looming Wall. Above all, it was surely important that a drama that grappled with a crucial and unresolved issue of history – and Britain’s forgotten involvement – should be screened on prime-time TV.

In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, Ian McEwan spoke of his recent discovery of a novel by S Yizhar – Khirbet Khizeh, published in 1949:

the luminous account of the clearing of an Arab village during the ’48 war, and of a protest that never quite leaves the throat of its narrator as the houses are demolished and the villagers driven from their land. It is a tribute to an open society that this novella was for many years required reading for Israeli schoolchildren.

Well, I had not heard of that novel, but was intrigued to know more.  Now, in today’s Guardian Review, I learn that the book is published in English this month by Granta.   The short novel was written in 1949 and tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence for Israelis, the nakba or catastrophe for Palestinians.

Near the beginning of Khirbet Khizeh, the narrator describes the danger for a soldier of thinking about the actions on which you are engaged: ‘we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking’. In her Guardian article Jacqueline Rose calls Khirbet Khizeh ‘a tribute to the power of critical thought to register the injustices of history’.  She writes:

Yizhar Smilansky, author of Khirbet Khizeh

Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence or liberation, as it is referred to in Israel; for the Palestinians, the nakba or catastrophe. By the end of it, 750,000 Palestinians had become refugees. This story, this moment, is, to say the least, still controversial. In July 2009, Israel’s education ministry announced that the term nakba, introduced two years previously into Palestinian-Israeli textbooks, was to be removed on the grounds that its use was tantamount to spreading propaganda against Israel. In May last year, a law was passed – widely termed the “Nakba Law” – that withdraws government funding from any group judged to be “acting against the principles of the country”, which includes the commemoration of the nakba. The law effectively criminalises the right of the Palestinian people to remember.

So the book really was, as McEwan said, an Israeli school textbook – but not any more.  I shall have to read it.

Racism in Israel

Why keep returning to the issue of Israel?  Because the Israel-Palestine conflict is the most serious threat to stability in the Middle East, and because the Israeli state is coming increasingly to resemble apartheid South Africa with its corralling of Palestinians into bantustans surrounded by an obscene Wall, its military oppression and violence, and its deepening racism.

There has been much to substantiate this perspective in recent weeks.  The illegal construction of Israeli settlements has continued, whilst evictions of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to make way for incoming settlers continue apace.  A recent comment summed up the process in this way:

‘Judaising’ East Jerusalem is a stated policy of numerous settler groups and their financial and political backers, and every home demolition and family eviction expedites the process of ethnic cleansing already embarked upon.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says 14 bills, now working their way through the Israeli parliament, are antidemocratic. These include a law that would demand that Arab citizens swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  Last week a Palestinian man was convicted of ‘rape by deception’ after having had consensual sex with an Israeli woman who believed him to be a fellow Jew.

Meanwhile, Haneen Zoabi, the Arab member of the Knesset who was stripped of parliamentary privileges for joining the Gaza aid flotilla, has spoken about the impact on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who makes up a fifth of Israel’s population:

‘It took us 40 years for us to admit that we were even Palestinians. Another 15 years passed before we realised that the peace process started under Oslo had been a disaster. The Zionist project was to domesticate its Arab citizens as the hewers and drawers of water. But the carrot-and-stick approach failed, and now we see Israel is prepared to throw away its liberal side to control us. We were passive once and now we are becoming active about our national identity. We did not immigrate to Israel. Israel immigrated to us. We are the indigenous people of a land from which we are being gradually expelled.’

Recently Rachel Shabi wrote in The Guardian:

Such racism doesn’t emanate, as some have argued, from the Jewish component of Israeli nationhood. It is informed by the Eurocentric cornerstones of the country: the belief, expressed by Israel’s founding fathers and still current, that the nation should be a bastion of the “enlightened” west in the heart of the supposedly savage Middle East.

It seems increasingly clear that the one-state solution- bi-national, secular, non-racist, democratic – must be the answer. Although Zoabi’s Balad party still officially favours a two-state plan, she has expressed doubt that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, could negotiate any state from Israel ‘bigger than a local authority’.

Remember the policy of ‘separate development‘, ‘homelands’ and forced removals in apartheid South Africa?  Ultimately doomed – though it seemed far from being so, back in the 1970s.


Israeli terror and the Gaza flotilla

My anger and my sadness are so great that I have to deliberately draw a deep breath from time to time to ease the bands I feel around my chest. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that millions of people in the world are feeling the same. People everywhere see and understand what is happening.

That’s Ahdaf Soueif writing in today’s Guardian in response to yesterday’s storming of the Gaza aid flotilla by Israeli commandos and the deaths of as many as 19 activists.  She so perfectly expresses my feelings that I reproduce her piece in full below.

Can we hope that the international outrage that this action has provoked will at last lead to Israel being required to accept the norms of international law and human rights? Strange that Israel is not regarded as one of the world’s ‘rogue’ nations when its actions do so much to create instability, injustice and violence and contribute to global disorder. What is the difference between this action and North Korea’s attack on a South Korean warship in April?

Israel is a nation founded on fascist principles by terrorists. The leaders of the Stern Gang were willing to enter into negotiations with the Nazis to gain support in their war against the British occupation in Palestine, and last week The Guardian revealed how Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1975. That story confirmed what has been understood for a long time – that Israel does have nuclear weapons.

Last year, following the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the UN commissioned a fact-finding mission on the conflict.  It was conducted by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. His report accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes and “possibly” crimes against humanity. But in a conflict that saw 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians killed compared with about 1,400 Gazans, Goldstone was particularly scathing about Israel’s “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population” – which he said amounted to “collective punishment”.

Killed In Crossfire by Tom Paulin

To me the Zionists, who want to go back to the Jewish state of 70 AD (destruction of Jerusalem by Titus), are just as offensive as the Nazis. With their nosing after blood, their ancient ‘cultural roots’, their partly canting, partly obtuse winding back of the world, they are altogether a match for the National Socialists.
– Victor Klemperer, 13 June 1934

We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainers jeans and a white teeshirt
is gunned down by the Zionist SS
whose initials we should
– but we don’t – dumb goys –
clock in that weasel word crossfire

First published in The Observer, Sunday 18 February 2001

Meanwhile the Wall is extended and settlements in the West Bank grow by the day. Just last week Ahdaf Soueif wrote about how Palestinians living in Jerusalem are being driven from their homes by archaelogical excavations conducted by an agency that is in reality an executive arm of the Israeli government. This comes at the same time as the row between Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel peace prize winner, and a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem over the accuracy of his recent statements about housing developments that reflect systematic discrimination against the Arab population in the city.

The United States will, no doubt, continue to back Israel, reflecting the strength of the American Jewish lobby.  But, as a recent piece  by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books argued: Israel and its defenders in the American Zionist leadership threaten the interests of Jews everywhere.

Israel reveals its true face by Ahdaf Soueif

This will count. A flotilla of relief boats attacked in international waters. Armed commandos boarding a vessel carrying supplies for a besieged civilian population. More than 10 peace activists reported killed. This has to be made to count.

The dead have joined Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, James Miller and Brian Avery in giving up their lives for the Palestinians. None of these young men and women went out to die or wanted to die or was accepting of death. Each and every one of them ultimately believed that they were safe; that there was a boundary – call it a boundary of legality, a boundary of civilisation – that Israel would not cross. They were wrong. And in proving them wrong, Israel has revealed, once again, its true face to the world.

This face, of course, the Palestinians know well. They see it every day in the teenage soldiers of the occupation chewing gum as they dish out humiliations, in the settlers shooting young Palestinians with impunity, in the soldiers firing gas canisters at the heads of demonstrators. The world saw that face in January last year when Israel unleashed the might of its air force on Gaza – the only time in modern warfare that a civilian population was sealed in as it was being bombed and shelled. Now Israel is out on the high seas killing internationals.

So never mind the multimillion-dollar public relations campaign – actions speak louder than words, and the murder of these peace activists is Israel’s message to the world. It does not matter what Mark Regev or any other Israel spokesperson says. It does not matter what spin the Israeli government tries to put on this; the only link between Israeli words and Israeli deeds is this: Israel uses words as a decoy and an obfuscation and a cover for its deeds. It has done so for 62 years. These internationals, dead now, murdered, have ensured that anyone who does not see this is wilfully blind.

Western governments are fond of holding up Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East”. So should we assume that the Israeli people are behind their government? That they approve these killings? Last month I was at al-Quds University in Abu Dis. Israel’s wall shaved the edge off the campus. On it, in tall blue letters, a Palestinian student had written: “My Israeli sisters: this is not the answer.”

A few days ago, young Jewish Israeli activists told me they saw that the only hope for their country lies with the international community. Israel is on a path to self-destruction, they said, and it will take the region with it. It will not stop, they said, until the price it pays for its actions becomes too heavy. This price has to be a moral and economic price imposed by the world.

My anger and my sadness are so great that I have to deliberately draw a deep breath from time to time to ease the bands I feel around my chest. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that millions of people in the world are feeling the same. People everywhere see and understand what is happening. Many of us feel that Palestine is nearing its South Africa moment. This latest outrage must push it closer. And it will.

Donations will, I’m sure, flood in to the other relief boats waiting in harbour. More and more people will take the boycott to heart. More civil bodies will insist on divestment from companies that do business with Israel. The time has come for the governments that represent us to stop engaging with Israeli lies and excuses. The price of Israel’s action today has to be to put the issue of sanctions squarely on the table.


Saturday 5 June: The Guardian publishes Henning Mankell’s private diary of the events leading to his capture. Back home in Sweden he concludes:

I listen to the blackbird. A song for those who died.  Now it is still all left to do. So as not to lose sight of the goal, which is to lift the brutal blockade of Gaza. That will happen.

Beyond that goal, others are waiting. Demolishing a system of apartheid takes time. But not an eternity.

The previous day, the newspaper had reported that Gaza flotilla activists were shot in head at close range.

Palestine: A Personal History

Palestine A Personal History

Karl Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces here as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court.

In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh has combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. He wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of  title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.

The book, which I’ve just finished,  is clearly written and his case is presented in a measured and reasoned manner, always citing sources which are often Jewish and Israeli (for example, the detailed research work of  Benny Morris into the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-8).

Sabbagh aims to challenge stereotypes: “I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.”

A previous edition of the book was subtitled ‘History of a Lost Nation’ – which is probably a more accurate description of this account of how Palestine has been subjected to outside interference and control since at least the 18th century, the period at which Sabbagh begins his narrative. There is less ‘Personal History’ of the Sabbaghs woven into the story than the present subtitle might suggest.

Sabbagh writes that “many different ‘peoples’ have lived in Palestine over the centuries.  I say ‘peoples’ in quotes because there is no really accurate way to determine from historical texts and excavations the precise connections or ethnicities of the groups who have left traces of their presence.” He presents the Sabbagh family as representative  of  the vast majority of the Arab population of Palestine – Muslim and Christian, who have lived in Palestine for more than 300 years, alongside their Jewish neighbours.

We are given snapshots of the Sabbaghs at different times, and learn especially about his father, Issa, who was for many years a broadcaster for the BBC Arabic Service during the eventful years of the 1940s and 1950s.  But Sabbagh’s repeatedly diverges from his personal narrative to explore the wider political story of machinations by the British and the Zionists in Palestine between the wars. It’s a familiar story of  the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, the various  inter-war  Commissions, and the way in which the tiny Zionist movement mysteriously influenced politicians in Britain and America who were often completely ignorant of the land, its peoples and its history.

The lesson I take from his survey of this history is that no people has a monopoly of virtue. The parallels (and in some instances, the collaboration) between Zionism and Nazism are unnerving – once again highlighting the terrible legacy of European nationalism, here in its most extreme forms: both deeply racist, both seeking an ethnically pure nation-state, through whatever means necessary. Sabbagh quotes Avraham Stern, leader of the terrorist Stern Gang (who approached the Nazis with an offer of an alliance against Britain), as describing the Arabs as ‘beasts of the desert, not a legitimate people…The Arabs are not a nation but a mole that grew in the wilderness of the eternal desert.  They are nothing but murderers.’

From The Guardian review by Adam LeBor, author of City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, another poignant book about Palestine before the state of Israel.

The Sabbagh family history shows the absurdity of Israel Zangwill’s claim that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Sabbagh’s grandfather was a lawyer in Tulkarm. His relatives were businessmen and traders, part of an intricate web of societal links that reached across Palestine and the Levant. Palestinian Arab society was highly developed, especially in the towns and cities, with a sophisticated cultural and political life. Sabbagh is good on what might be called the second “lost history of Palestine”(if the first is that of the Palestinians themselves): the good relations between many Jews and Arabs before 1948. When Sabbagh’s uncle had a car accident outside the Jewish town of Nahariya, local people took him and his passengers in, gave them tea and cakes and tended to their injuries. A man called Azmi Audeh recalled the local Jewish fishmonger who served his father: “The Jew looked exactly like us; had the same skin colour, spoke the same Arabic language, dressed exactly like us, and even had the same nose. He seemed to be a very nice man, eager to please. So why was this man a problem?” The problem was, of course, not piscine but political: the Yishuv, the Zionist state in waiting, claimed Palestine for itself.

The Palestinians were no match for the determination of the Jews. Riven by factionalism and incessant feuding, their leadership had no strategic plan to capture Palestine once the fighting started and no united military command. Sabbagh skilfully uses material extracted by Israeli historians from Israeli archives to show the dark reality of the 1948 war, which makes uncomfortable reading for those raised on the myth that the Palestinians simply ran away. But Sabbagh does not mention the pledges of Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, who promised “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre” of the Jews, which would “drive them into the sea”.

When Sabbagh returned to Safad in 2004, to seek relatives who stayed after 1948, he found houses occupied by Jewish immigrants, the Arabic inscriptions above the doors scratched out. But his guide was a Jewish Israeli called David, whose family had also lived in the town for 11 generations and well knew the Sabbaghs’ lineage. The two men, the Israeli local historian and the Palestinian-British writer, had much to talk about. And talking is better than fighting, as this poignant, often moving work shows.

The Life and Times of Mahmoud Darwish

I want to sing. I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, to what power there is in us to overcome this cosmic isolation…I’m screaming at a moment when screams can go nowhere. And it strikes me that language must force itself into a battle in which the voices are not equal.
– Mahmoud Darwish

Last night I attended another Arabic Weekender event: a poetry evening celebrating the life and work of  Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, presented by Arts for Palestine at the Al- Ghazali Centre on Earle Road. The Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah who was a friend of Darwish introduced his work and read his poems in Arabic, followed by English translations.  Nouri al-Jarrah was born in Damascus in 1956, lived in Beirut in the early 1980s, and now works in London as a journalist. He established Al-Katiba [The Woman Writer] literary magazine and has published seven collections of poetry. He read one poem he had written to Darwish.

Darwish has written:

“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down… I always humanise the other. I even humanised the Israeli soldier,” which he did in poems such as A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies, written just after the 1967 war. Many Arabs criticised the poem, but he says: “I will continue to humanise even the enemy…The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.”

The poems read included an extract from The Dice Player, an extract from Mural,  And We Have Countries… and  The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The Dice Player (extract)

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you?
I’m not a stone
Polished by water
To become a face
Nor am I a stick of cane
With holes made by the wind
To become a flute ….
I’m a dice player
I win sometimes
I lose sometimes
I’m like you
Or a little bit less than you
I was born beside the well
Beside the three lonely trees
As lonely as nuns
I was born with no celebration or midwife
I was given my name just by chance
I belonged to a family
By chance
I inherited their features, habits,
And sickness.

I could have not existed
My father could have not married my mother
By chance
I could have been like my sister
Who screamed and died
Not knowing
That she had lived only one hour
Not knowing who gave her birth.

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
At the door of the church?
I’m nothing but a dice throw
Between predator and prey
I gained more awareness
Not to be happy with my moonlit night
But to witness the massacre
I survived by chance:
I was smaller than a military target
And bigger than a bee
Flying among the flowers over the fence
I worried a lot about my brothers and my father
I worried about a time made of glass
I worried about my cat and my rabbit
About a charming moon over the high minaret of the mosque.

I could have not been a swallow
If the wind had wished it so
The wind is the traveller’s luck
I went north, east, west
But the south was too hard for me
Too far from me
Because the south is my country
I became a metaphor of a swallow
Floating over my debris
In the spring, in the autumn
Baptizing my feathers with the clouds of the lake
Prolonging my greeting
Unto the Nassiri who never dies
Because in him is the spirit of God
And God is the prophets’ luck
It is my fortune that I am the neighbor of Godhead


It is my misfortune that the cross
Is the eternal ladder to our tomorrow!
Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
Who am I?
I could have not been inspired
Inspiration is the luck of the lonely souls
“The poem is a dice throw”
On a board of darkness
That may or may not glow
Words fall
Like feathers on the sand
I did not plan the poem
I only obeyed its rhythm

To life I say: slow down, wait for me
Till in my cup drunkenness has dried
There are flowers in the garden, flowers to all
The air cannot escape the flower
Wait for me
So that the nightingales don’t escape me
And I don’t break the rhythm
The singers stretch the cords of their lutes in the square
Ready for the song of farewell
Slow down
Long live life!


I don’t say: Life over there is real
and has imaginary places . . .
I say: Life, here, is possible
and only by chance
did the land become holy:
its lakes and hills and trees
aren’t a replica of a higher paradise,
but a prophet set foot there
and when he prayed on a rock it wept
and the mount fell prostrate in piety
then unconscious

And by chance the field’s slope in a land became
a museum for the void . . .
thousands of soldiers perished there,
from either side, defending two leaders
who say: Charge! Two leaders who wait inside two
silken tents for the loot of either side . . .
Soldiers repeatedly die but never know
which side triumphed!

And by chance, some narrators survived and said:
If those had triumphed over these
our human history would have different addresses

O land “I love you green”, green. An apple
waving in light and water. Green. Your night
Green. Your dawn, green. So plant me gently,
with a mother’s kindness, in a fistful of air.
I am one of your seeds, green . . .

and this poem has more than one poet
and did not need to be lyrical

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you,
I could have not been who I am
I could have not been here

The plane could have crashed
with me on board that morning
but it’s my good fortune that I sleep in

I could have not seen Damascus or Cairo
the Louvre or the magical towns

And had I been a slow walker
a rifle might have severed
my shadow from the sleepless cedar

And had I been a fast walker
I might have become shrapnel
and a passing whim

And had I been an excessive dreamer
I could have lost my memory

It’s my good fortune that I sleep alone
and that I listen to my body
and believe my talent in discovering
pain in time to call the doctor
ten minutes before dying . . .
ten minutes, enough for me to live by chance
and disappoint the void

Who am I to disappoint the void
who am I, who am I?

Mural (extract)

‘A stunning duel with death, fierce, moving and immaculately paced, it is a defiant hymn to loss, a brilliant outcry at having little but language to uphold a sense of continuity…’ (Charles Bainbridge, Guardian)

This is your name,she said
And vanished into the spiral corridor…
I see a heaven within reach. A white pigeon’s wing lifts me toward
another childhood. I didn’t dream that I had been
dreaming-everything is real.
Clearly , I laid myself to rest and flew.


One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a thought that no sword
nor any book will bear to the wasteland.
A thought like rain on a mountain opened by a blade of grass.
There will be no victor, neither might nor justice, that fugitive!
One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.


O my name, you will grow when I grow.
You will carry me and I will carry you.
Strangers are also brothers.
We’ll enchant the woman with the weak letter dedicated to the flute.
O my name, where are we now? Tell me:
What is now and what is tomorrow?
What is time and what is space?
What is old and what is new?
One day, we’ll be what we want to be.

We were good and pious without Christ’s teachings
and stronger than grass at summer’s end
You are my truth and I your question
We have inherited nothing but our names.


I want to live… I have work to do aboard the ship.
Not the work of rescuing the bird from our hunger or seasickness
but to be eyewitness to the flood: what comes next?
What are the survivors to do with the old land?
Will they repeat the story?
What is the beginning? What is the end?
No one came back from the dead to tell us the truth.

Death, wait for me beyond this earth, in your kingdom.
Wait, while beside your tent I say a few words to what’s left of my life.
I want to read all Tarafah, so give me time.
The existentialists tempt me to exhaust every moment
With freedom, justice, and the wine of gods.
Death, give me time to arrange my funeral.
Give me time in this fleeting new spring.
I was born in spring to keep the orators from endlessly speaking
about this heartbreaking country,
about the immortality of fig and olive trees in the face of time and its armies.


Death, wait while I pack my bag: a tooth brush, soap, a razor, cologne
and clothes.
Is the weather mild there?
Does the weather in white eternity change?
Does it stay as it is in both autumn and winter?
Will one book be enough for me
to kill no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there,
common colloquial or classical Arabic?

The collection, The Rhythm’s Passion, is composed serially in 47 passages. It evokes a poetics of presence-absence, written on the edge of identity, where loneliness is empathic and tender, and persists through the lyrical density of the work – and the lyrical instability brought about by the continual redrawing of its “map of absence.”

The Rhythm’s Passion enacts the drama of being in a radically unsettled place, looking for something to be at home with. The passages that follow are from this poem.

And We Have Countries…

And we have countries without borders, like our idea
of the unknown, narrow and wide – countries whose maps
narrow to a gray tunnel as we walk in them and cry out
in their labyrinths: “And still we love you.”
Our love is an inherited disease. Countries that grow
by tossing us into the unknown. Their willows
and portrayals grow, their grasses and blue mountains.
A lake widens north of the soul. Wheat spikes
spring up south of the soul. The lemon shines like a lamp
in an emigrant’s night. Geography emits sacred texts.
And the ascending chain of hills reaches higher
and higher. The exile tells himself: “If I were a bird
I would burn my wings.” The smells of autumn
become the image of one I love, soft rain seeps
into the dry heart and imagination opens to its source
and becomes reality’s terrain, the only true place.
Everything distant becomes rural and primitive,
as if the earth were still gathering itself to meet Adam
descending from his paradise. I say: These are the countries
that bear us…so when were we born?
Did Adam take two wives? Or will we be born again
to forget sin?

The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The exiles don’t look back when leaving
one place of exile – for more exile
lies ahead, they’ve become familiar
with the circular road, nothing to the front
or to the rear, no north or south.
They emigrate from the fence to the garden,
leaving behind a will with each step across the yard
of the house:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

They travel from the soft silk of morning to midday dust,
bearing a coffin filled with artifacts of absence:
an identity card and a letter to one beloved, address unknown:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

With a wounded gesture of victory
they journey from the house to the street,
telling those who see them:
“We’re still alive, so remove us from memory.”

They emerge from their story to breathe and to bask
in the sun, think of flying higher…
and higher. They rise and fall. They come and go.
They jump from an ancient ceramic tile to a star.
And they come back to a story…
there’s no end to the beginning.

They flee from somnolence to an angel of sleep,
pale and red-eyed from thinking of the blood
that’s been shed:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life…”

He is quiet and so am I…

He is quiet and so am I.
He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee.
That’s the difference between us.
Like me, he wears a wide, striped shirt,
and like him, I read the evening paper.
He doesn’t see my secret glance.
I don’t see his secret glance.
He’s quiet and so am I.
He asks the waiter something.
I ask the waiter something…
A black cat walks between us.
I feel the midnight of its fur
and he feels the midnight of its fur…
I don’t say to him: The sky today
is clear and blue.
He doesn’t say to me: The sky today is clear.
He’s watched and the one watching
and I’m watched and the one watching.
I move my left foot.
He moves his right foot.
I hum the melody of a song
and he hums the melody of a similar song.
I wonder: Is he the mirror in which I see myself?
And turn to look in his eyes…but I don’t see him.
I hurry from the café.
I think: Maybe he’s a killer…
or maybe a passerby who thinks
I am a killer.
He’s afraid…and so am I.

A Soldier Dreams Of White Lilies

Written in 1967 and inspired by a conversation that Darwish had with an Israeli soldier. The poem humanises the Israeli soldier, which caused controversy at the time of writing.

He dreams of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.
He dreams of a bird, he tells me, of lemon flowers.
He does not intellectualize about his dream. He understands things as he
senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return
at nightfall.
And the land? I don’t know the land, he said.
I don’t feel it in my flesh and blood, as they say in the poems.
Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.
I asked him, but don’t you love the land? My love is a picnic, he said, a glass
of wine, a love affair.
– Would you die for the land?
– No!
All my attachment to the land is no more than a story or a fiery speech!
They taught me to love it, but I never felt it in my heart.
I never knew its roots and branches, or the scent of its grass.
– And what about its love? Did it burn like suns and desire?
He looked straight at me and said: I love it with my gun.
And by unearthing feasts in the garbage of the past
and a deaf-mute idol whose age and meaning are unknown.
He told me about the moment of departure, how his mother
silently wept when they led him to the front,
how her anguished voice gave birth to a new hope in his flesh
that doves might flock through the Ministry of War.
He drew on his cigarette. He said, as if fleeing from a swamp of blood,
I dreamt of white lilies, an olive branch, a bird embracing the dawn in a
lemon tree.
– And what did you see?
– I saw what I did:
a blood-red boxthorn.
I blasted them in the sand…in their chests…in their bellies.
– How many did you kill?
– It’s impossible to tell. I only got one medal.
Pained, I asked him to tell me about one of the dead.
He shifted in his seat, fiddled with the folded newspaper,
then said, as if breaking into song:
He collapsed like a tent on stones, embracing shattered planets.
His high forehead was crowned with blood. His chest was empty of medals.
He was not a well-trained fighter, but seemed instead to be a peasant, a
worker or a peddler.
Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his
wife, the other of his daughter.
Did you feel sad? I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.
I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death,
turning space into a black bird.
He told me about his first love, and later, about distant streets,
about reactions to the war in the heroic radio and the press.
As he hid a cough in his handkerchief I asked him:
Shall we meet again?
Yes, but in a city far away.
When I filled his fourth glass, I asked jokingly:
Are you off? What about the homeland?
Give me a break, he replied.
I dream of white lilies, streets of song, a house of light.
I need a kind heart, not a bullet.
I need a bright day, not a mad, fascist moment of triumph.
I need a child to cherish a day of laughter, not a weapon of war.
I came to live for rising suns, not to witness their setting.
He said goodbye and went looking for white lilies,
a bird welcoming the dawn on an olive branch.
He understands things only as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he said, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return safely,
at nightfall


The Clerks: Qudduson


Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

I arrived at St George’s Hall Concert Room for this event soaked by the rain and battered by the wind on a stormy night. The music presented by the Clerks and their collaborators was, however, serene and transcendent. The concert was the opening event of this year’s Arabic Weekender.

Qudduson – Sanctus – Holy: the word reverberates through the sacred music of East and West. In this new programme, The Clerks joined three singers from Syria, each a virtuoso in the music of their own community.

Exploring music within very different faith traditions, Qudduson set aside the boundaries between cultures and religions. ‘It is a conversation between Eastern and Western musical genres and techniques. What unites these traditions is the power and transcendence of the human voice’. Edward Wickham, the artistic director of The Clerks, read a short poem by Ibn Arabi, (1165 – 1240, born in Spain, settled in Damascus) Sufi mystic and philosopher, that Wickham said encapsulates the impulse behind this project:

A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.
My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

The programme has evolved from musical director Edward Wickham’s work with choirs in the Middle East, and consisted of the following sequences:

  • Sequence One: Quddus -including Sanctus from Missa pro defunctis by Pierre de Ia Rue, Qadishat (Syriac), The Beautiful names of God
  • Sequence Two: for Holy Week – including The Passion Narrative (Gregorian chant), Vexilla regis by Pierre de la Rue, extracts from the liturgy for Holy Week (Syriac), Kyries (Byzantine)
  • Interlude: Alleluia -various Alleluias from both western and Byzantine traditions, including pieces by Perotin and Alleluia in Syriac Fifth Mode.
  • Sequence Three: A Lament for the Children of Gaza -this sequence, compiled for an event at the Barbican in March in aid of the Save the Children Gaza Appeal, included Vax in Rama by Giaches de Wert and Hymn for the Holy Martyrs (Syriac).
  • Sequence Four: Secular Songs of East and West -including Arabic inuwashah and songs by John Dowland

From the programme notes:

In truth the primary impulse behind Qudduson is far more basic: a fascination with two different sound worlds which are linked by a fundamental ambition to worship through the medium of the voice. The juxtaposition of vocal timbres and melodic modes, of harmonic as opposed to melodic approaches to the elaboration of traditional chants, and of ‘composed’ and ‘improvised’ performance techniques: these are the tensions, the disjunctions that have made this project so stimulating. A further impulse — which one might describe as ideological with a very modest ‘i’ — is to create an aural analogy to the sound-world of many Middle Eastern cities, but in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where the Call to Prayer might receive an unwitting harmonisation from the pealing of Christian bells. Each musical tradition has its own discrete, proud identity and Qudduson is not intended as a reductive fusion of these distinct elements, nor of the faith traditions that inspire them; but rather as a celebration of the diverse and transcendent qualities of the human voice.

More from The Clerks website:

Qudduson presents Middle Eastern chant and Western polyphony side-by-side. The ancient Syriac liturgy of Aleppo – thought to be the oldest Christian chant repertoire in the world, the Islamic music of Sufism and songs from the Armenian community based in Syria are set alongside chant and polyphony from the Cathedral repertories of the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance.

East meets West

Melody is paramount in the sound-world of Middle Eastern vocal music, with its rich quarter-tones and virtuoso ornamentation. Musical forms are shaped out of the sophisticated elaboration of familiar melodies. Western church music likewise uses exuberant flourishes in the ecstatic jubilations of the Alleluia and other chants.

This fascination with melody and its elaboration lies at the heart of Qudduson. It reveals some astonishing parallels between East and West – between the improvisatory songs of Sufism and the highly decorative songs of late 14th-century France; between the formalised liturgical chants of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the structured cantus firmus mass settings of the 15th century; between the emotive songs of Armenia and the simple, declamatory power of the Renaissance anthem.

Religion and Music in Modern Syria

Contemporary Syria is an elaborate patchwork of religious communities and musical traditions. The chant of Greek and Syriac Orthodox churches can be traced back to the 3rd century AD. That of the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo – which traces its origins to the Church in Edessa (in modern Turkey) – is arguably the oldest continuous Christian chant tradition in the world. Its musical connection to medieval Sufi repertoire mirrors the close relations between Christians and Muslims in the region.

Syria is rightly proud of the way in which its religious communities, so antagonistic in many parts of the world, have sustained a long history of toleration. As 20th-century Armenian refugees have arrived with their own musical repertoires, the heady mix of influences on Syrian music continues to grow.

The performers:

Abdul Salam Kheir oud and baritone
George Qas-Barsoum baritone
Merit Ariane Stephanos soprano

The Clerks:
Lucy Ballard, Kim Porter altos
Roy Rashbrook, Nicholas Todd tenors
Ed Grint, Edward Wickham basses
Director: Edward Wickham

George Qas-Barsoum is a medical doctor and surgeon and bass soloist at the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo, which was built by refugees fleeing Edessa in the 1920s. His experience and knowledge of singing the Syriac Orthodox liturgy of this ancient community, some of the oldest Christian chant in the world, is unsurpassed.

Merit Ariane Stephanos is a Coptic Egyptian/German singer and composer, who draws on Arabic and Western classical contemporary influences in her music. She is particularly interested in exploring dialogue between people and musicians from different cultures. She sings regularly with medieval group Joglaresa, classical Arabic ensemble Al Farabi, her own Arabic/Jewish ensemble Jaljala, her duo Hjaz with pianist Alcyona Mick, contemporary modal group Troja Nova and as a guest singer with virtuoso string Trio Kosmos.

Abdul Salam Kheir studied music at the Lebanese Conservatoire, specialising in Muwashahat (classical Arab song) as a singer and oud player. There he also focused on composing in various musical idioms, which has enabled him to travel all over the world performing and promoting Arab music in live concerts and with ensembles of many nationalities.

The Clerks Qudduson Part 1

The Clerks Qudduson Part 2

Syriac choir of Nouri Iskander, Aleppo

Syriac Christian Orthodox sacred chant performed by the Choir of Nouri Iskander from Aleppo: an extract from a French documentary Le Silence des Anges – Terres et Voix de l’Orient Orthodoxe, by Olivier Mille and Jean-François Colosimo (France – Belgium, 1999). Nouri Iskandar was born in Aleppo in 1938. He has composed Syriac folk music since the early sixties.