Palestine—A Tribute to Human Spirit

On the seemingly desolate road to Jericho, I thought I was lost. (Un)happily I came upon an Israeli military patrol which had pulled over a donkey cart with a Palestinian child of no more than 12 with the reins in his hand, and a possibly 8 year old riding shotgun. The teenage, female soldiers gave us the directions and proceeded to have some conversation with the two boys. Without waiting to see what would happen, I just drove on towards the oldest, continuously inhabited, city in the world. On the entrance to the city is the gigantic ‘Oasis’ casino that the Israelis used to patronize in thousands up until 1999. Gambling is illegal in Israel. The casino was one of the first investments by the Palestinian Authority (PA), and was not open to Palestinians unless they held foreign passports. The irony of a casino only open to Israelis, in Palestinian controlled territory, across from a Palestinian refugee camp basically encapsulates what the peace process, Yasir Arafat, and his PA did for the Palestinians, and why Hamas has made inroads into Palestinian polity. 

The wonderful archeological sites in the city including Hisham’s palace and the ruins of the Neolithic era old city, are somewhat overshadowed by the beautiful banana groves surrounding the city and the towering Mount of Temptation where according to tradition Christ was tempted by the devil. Today most of Jericho’s economy is based upon Christian tourism to the city. Jericho is also, the last major settlement on the Jordan River before it terminates in the Dead Sea. Today the river is no more than a trickle, thanks to excessive water withdrawals by Israel to provide its populace and settlers a life style more appropriate for New Jersey than for the Levant. Jordanians are also to blame to a lesser extent. But the net result is that Palestinians are starved of water as is the Dead Sea, which is rapidly shrinking and is now divided into two parts connected by an artificial canal.

To go to Bethlehem, about 10 km from Jerusalem, one has to take a 45 minute taxi ride, to avoid the Israeli check posts. Skirting the extensive Israeli settlement of Har Homa, somehow one gets to Bethleham. I wondered that the whole point of the separation wall was to keep the so called Palestinian terrorists out of Israel, but if a taxi driver can skirt the check point, why can’t the terrorists? Therein perhaps lies the clue to the real motivations behind Israel’s separation wall.

Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ is predominantly a Christian town, with hoards of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. It is one of the better places, if one can use the adjective in the context, to experience the separation wall. Like a brooding giant with a clownish face, it divides neighborhoods and casts a malevolent shadow over the city. But the graffiti on the wall is an affirmation of the humanity and spirit of the Palestinians interred in the city. With some help from the inimitable Banksy, Palestinians defy the most odious symbol of Israeli malice with humor and creativity. The comedy in the face of such tragedy is perhaps more effective at undermining the moral and political authority of Israelis than all the protests, armed resistance and grave speeches at international forums. I wonder if the comedy of the changing of the guards at Wagha edifies our supposed adversaries as well as the Palestinian spray paint cans.

To avoid Israeli check points it takes two and a half hours to get to Ramallah from Bethlehem. The journey should really be no more than an hour over the 30 km distance between the two cities, through East Jerusalem. Ramallah is the seat of PA and at the height of 2800 ft. was a hill resort in pre-partition Palestine. Despite its recent violent history the town still has the feel of a carefree resort rather than that of one of the epicenters of the longest running nationalist conflict of the past seven decades. Yasir Arafat’s tomb and the adjacent PA authority secretariat is a modern white marble complex at one end of the town. Mr. Arafat’s body had been exhumed a few days before I got there for forensic tests to address suspicions about his death. Handsome and friendly Palestinian guards, with the ever-present cigarette in their hands manned the complex. In fact, if you ever ask a Palestinian for directions you are more likely to be taken to your destination instead of simply given directions. Palestinians are probably some of the most generous people on Earth—at least with their time. Massive unemployment in Palestine may also have something to do with it.

Ramallah probably has some of the finest bars and restaurants in Israel and Palestine. The food is excellent and well heeled Palestinians are not averse to letting their hair down to throbbing music, and some of the finest wines and micro-brews in the world. In fact, according to young Palestinians, Ramallah anchors the young Palestinian party circuit including Bethlehem and Amman. Hebron, Jenin, Jericho and Raffah are evidently the more conservative small towns looked down upon by sophisticated Palestinians.

Palestinian Christians are at the forefront of the political, cultural and social life of Palestine. After all it was George Habash who formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which predated better known, but also with heavy Christian participation, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Today Palestinian Christians are some of the few Christian Arab communities that has kept an airtight solidarity with their Muslim brethren and vice versa—unlike the Lebanese Christians–despite insidious European imperialist and later Zionist attempts at forcing a wedge between the two communities.

A walk through the Qalandia checkpoint through the separation wall ushers one onto a bus that takes one back to Jerusalem. Standing in line to get through the iron gates as one is directed through a walkway resembling a cattle pen, a Palestinian artist standing next to me started up a conversation. Upon finding out that I was a Pakistani, he said, “You guys have the atomic bomb—right? Man if you could lend one to me I would certainly like to drop one on these bas….[Israelis]”. The intensity of emotions in his voice while waiting in that horrid space to be interviewed by a teenage Israeli soldier was understandable. But the hate and frustration in his voice was scary—and I don’t even live there—Israelis do. I just responded that my country’s possession of the bomb was not much of a point of pride for me. All its possession meant to me was that my country and my countrymen, who were proud of the bomb, were as stupid and vain as the Americans, Russians, Israelis and others who have the bomb. In my admittedly, fanciful world, I would like to believe that we are better people than them. But then again I could sense the hollowness of my moralizing in the face of that Palestinian artist’s daily humiliating reality.

Back in Jerusalem, sitting in a Sauna I was surrounded by senior citizens who probably fought in the 1956 invasion of the Sinai and then the 1967, 73 and 82 wars. One such seemingly kind gentleman asked where I was from. Hearing my response he practically exclaimed, “Pakistan?! That is a very bad enemy country!” I protested that what harm an enemy 3000 miles away could do to him. “Yes you can—our enemies don’t have to be close to hurt us.” And then he walked out. Just as well, now I had the sauna to myself and I like it that way.

I wonder why Israelis have to look for enemies—they have friends like American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Evangelical Christians in the US, Israeli settlers and above all ultra-right wing Jews who want all of West Bank (Judea-Sumaria) as part of greater Israel and the construction of the 3rd Temple over Haram-al-Sharif. Traveling in and out of Jerusalem one cannot miss the gigantic Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim—housing more than 35,000 settlers on decidedly Palestinian land. The scale and permanence of the settlement is evidence enough that Israelis have no attention of abandoning occupation—their facts on the ground speak louder than their empty statements of intent. Thanks to these settlers and their maximalist position on the Palestine Israel conflict, the two state solution is effectively dead. There is no way that there can be a viable Palestinian state with the on going settlement expansion—and the Israelis know it. They also know that the status quo cannot continue in perpetuity.

Ironically the religious Jewish right wing was most hostile to the socialist/secular Zionist movement, when it set out to create Israel. Of course once the State was formed the same right wing became its most extremist champion. I am sure this sounds familiar to us Pakistanis. As an instance of almost poetic justice, the maximalist position of the Israeli Right and its appropriation of the political discourse in Israel seems to constitute the biggest existential threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Palestinians will be a demographic majority in Israel, sooner or later and in the absence of a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, Jews will be a minority in Israel. I don’t think the consequences of our religious right wing’s maximalist positions vis-à-vis Pakistan bear repeating here.

Israel is supposed to be a refuge for the Jewish populace of the world. It is based upon denial of the wonderful contribution of Jewish people to diverse cultures across Eurasia and Africa. Not only that it is predicated upon replacement of the longstanding cultural and linguistic heritage of Jews from across the world with a constructed unitary, cultural, religious (according to the religious right in Israel) nationalist identity. We in Pakistan are sadly too familiar with that story. Today, Israel for Jews has become the most dangerous place on Earth, as Pakistan has for Muslims. Refuge? No thank you—I will take the world.

Finding Al-Quds in Jerusalem

A day walking through the occupied walled city of Jerusalem (al-Quds) was the most enchanting, depressing, awe inspiring, infuriating and spiritually uplifting experiences of my life. I could not believe that I could experience the intensity of all those emotions within a few hundred meters of land in a few hours. The Western Wall—a remnant of the Jewish Second Temple (Hebrew: Bet HaMikdash; Arabic: Beit al-Quds) destroyed by the Romans in 70BC, reminded me of the similarities between the rituals and ethos of Islam and Judaism. The mesmerizing rhythm of hundreds facing the wall, reciting the Torah, whilst swaying back and forth felt so comfortingly familiar yet seemed tragically alien. I did, however, note with some wicked satisfaction that women were crammed like sardines in 25% of the Western Wall. Men were comfortably praying with ample room to spare along the remaining 75%. Thank goodness, that like a naughty child Muslims too can protest criticisms of our spatial and social discrimination against women, by pointing out that Jews do it too, in fact they did it first!

One of the things one cannot miss in Israel is the proliferation of archaeologists and archaeological sites. There are a number of those around the Western Wall, Haram-al-Sharif compound, and in the rest of Israel. Archaeology as a discipline and practice is one of the key contributors to Israel’s legitimizing historical narrative and imagination. Never mind that archaeology, like history or any other discipline, is invariably embedded within the prevailing social and cultural discourses. The knowledge generated by the discipline is therefore also inflected by the prevailing political and cultural ethos. A somewhat obvious point that Columbia University Anthropologist Nadia Abu El Haj argued and got into trouble for in early 2000s.

The somewhat scripture like legitimacy that Israelis assign to archaeology is remarkable.  Israelis, like everybody else generally cannot agree with most of the rest of the world about what happened within historical and living memory time spans. But for most Israelis archeological evidence about the motivations, religious affiliations and accomplishments of the (definitely) Jewish rebels at the citadel of Masada along the Dead Sea in 73 C.E. is incontrovertible, as is the religious lineage, location and significance of assorted Jewish holy and secular sites from thousands of years ago. Ruins of Arab villages from a few decades ago or living communities of Palestinians on the other hand are an anti-Semitic illusion. As one tour guide said to me—of course we know the location of the 2nd temple—archaeology tells us! As if faith ever needed scientific confirmation to be real. I guess some Israelis need the scientific historic legitimacy for their faith, just as many Muslims with little knowledge of the Quran or science, seek science in the Quran and vice versa.

The Western Wall forms the western boundary of the 35 acre Haram-al-Sharif or Temple mount complex housing the visually better known Haram-al-Sharif or dome of the Rock, and the less picturesque but politically better known–amongst the Muslims—al-Aqsa mosque. The entrance to the complex is typically manned by right wing Israeli extremists protesting its very existence, Israeli police, who asked me to recite the Surah Fateah to establish my Muslim faith to let me into the complex, and employees of the Waqf that manages the complex, who further make sure that non-Muslims may not sneak in. The Israeli government maintains a strict policy of no non-Muslim prayers allowed in the complex to avoid provoking any religious trouble. Non-Muslim tourists are only allowed into the complex between 7:00 am-12:00 noon, and that too in tour groups. When in there they may not enter the two buildings of Haram-al-Sharif and Al-Aqsa mosque. To be inside the two historic, exquisitely beautiful and spiritually significant buildings was a deeply moving experience for me, especially to be at the spot where according to tradition Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ascended to heaven. But that experience was tinged by a deep regret that I could not share a beautiful monument to my spiritual heritage with my non-Muslim colleagues and friends.

My Muslim colleagues and I did try to sneak a Hindu friend into Haram-al-Sharif pretending that she was a Muslim but we were thwarted by the Waqf functionaries. Frustrated with our failure, I went off on the waqf functionaries on why they would prevent non-Muslims from admiring the glorious architecture? Why do they want to convey to the non-Muslim world that Islam is somehow an exclusivist secretive religion? Why would they not want to win friends on their side by showing the architectural marvels that are being threatened by fundamentalist Jewish aspirants to building the 3rd temple on the temple mount? Aren’t all children of God entitled to enter the house of God with respect and humility, for God to decide what is in their hearts? They were deeply apologetic and protested that it was not their decision, and they didn’t like enforcing it. In fact, if anything many Palestinian tour guides could earn a living by conducting tours through the buildings. But there were real threats by extremist Jews to the two structures and any adverse event could usher in world war 3, they protested.

The reasonable security reasons for protecting the two buildings notwithstanding, it seemed to me that blanket exclusion of non-Muslims from the buildings and from the complex was inimical to the interests of the local Palestinians in addition to disastrous public relations—something that the Palestinians and the Muslims definitely do not need. To my mind there was no need to replicate the salafist paranoid exclusion being enforced in Saudi Arabia. After all before 2000 the complex was open to non-Muslims, only to visit and not to pray, and before the creation of the State of Israel to people of all faiths to visit and to pray. 

The onward visit to the Holy Sepulcher via the enchanting Cotton Market Street, and then Via Dolorosa—the path Christ took with his cross on the way to crucifixion was the third stop. Holy Sepulcher is one the holiest shrines in the Christian faith built over the site where Christ was crucified and his body interred into a cave. The site like the Western Wall and unlike the Haram-al-Sharif is open to followers of all faiths to visit and to pray. The resonant Catholic mass by Benedictines followed by a ceremony of the Orthodox Christians is a feast for the eyes and the ears. The church is adjacent to the Umar Ibn-Khattab mosque built by Caliph Umar in the 7th century upon conquest of Jerusalem. The church is closed at night and its keys are handed to a local Muslim family for safe keeping—just in case either one of the Christian denominations get any funny ideas about excluding the others from entering the church the following day.

The bazaars and narrow alleys of Al-Quds are charming to the extreme. The walled city is 90% Palestinian–Christian and Muslim, with the 10% Jewish population concentrated in the newly reconstructed Jewish Quarter at the south-eastern end of the city. The streets of the old city are abuzz with tourists and pilgrims from India, East Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. But old Jerusalem is a living city, which doesn’t just cater to tourists. There are vibrant communities of artisans, and tradesmen, along with a number of small women owned businesses.

Outside of the walled city Arab neighborhoods of Sultan Suleiman, Salah-ed-Din, Sheikh Jarrah, American Colony, Wadi el Joz and Ras el Amoud give a flavor of Palestinian life under occupation. Even though Palestinians in East-Jerusalem are technically Israeli citizens very few if any have opted for Israeli nationality.

Moving into Palestine from Israel was not just a move across town but across a geopolitical fault line. A simple Muslim greeting opened doors and hearts and brought broad smiles on scowling older Palestinian women’s faces. Life has to go on in the longest lasting military occupation in modern times, but it doesn’t go on without perpetual passive and intermittent active resistance. A few dozen Jewish settlers in a complex next to my hotel in Ras-al-Amoud had a daily flavor of such passive resistance through the exceptionally loud fajr Azan. The Azan was followed by the loudest and longest speeches seemingly intended more to wake up the denizens of the Jewish graveyard surrounding the neighborhood, rather than calling the faithful to prayer. I am sure that tested the settlers’ resolve, in addition to my sanity every morning.

Resistance has seemingly diffused into the cell structure of the Palestinian society. Walking along an alley in East Jerusalem I saw some Palestinian children burning some loose paper and shouting Allah-Akbar. As I turned the corner, the reason for the commotion became clear. The little children were taunting an Israeli military patrol, composed of young fresh-faced teenagers itself. In that moment to me was the saddest snapshot of the two societies–young men, women and children being brutalized as oppressors, occupiers, resistors and victims. It is to the reflections on that reality that I will turn to in my next and last essay.