“Old stuff. The Old World is full of it. But objects speak.They tell us things”.
The word “loot” derives from from the Hindi lūṭ or “booty” either from Sanskrit loptra, “booty, stolen property” orluṇṭ, “to rob, plunder”. It is one of the many words that entered into the anglophone vernacular in the wake of European imperial expansion. Charles James’s “Military Dictionary, London 1802, defines it as “Indian term for plunder or pillage”, and “goods taken from an enemy”. Like the very concept of empire itself, the word is a loaded one, loaded with historical memories, with national identities, and with differential moralities. Are goods taken in war by the victors as reparations or recompense for blood and treasure spent? Are they stolen goods that the perpetrators have a moral obligation to return to their rightful owners – or, as is the case with most of the inheritors of once imperial patrimony, the current territorial powers that be.
These questions loom large in the commentatary of an entertaining if lightweight, and yet, most informative programme running on the ABC at the moment, called, provocatively, Stuff the British Stole.
In this Australian-Canadian production Marc Fennell, the affable host the ABC’s Mastermind, trots the globe recounting the stories of the artefacts that ended up in British and Australian museums, galleries and churches during the days of Empire. Arriving in the wake of global protests that have seen statues ripped down and colonial legacies scrutinised with renewed vigour, the series offers an accessible beginner’s guide to the British empire’s long shadow and sticky fingers. Along the way, he encounters academics and diasporic communities for whom these objects, and the dispossession, death and cultural erasure they represent, have been open wounds for generations.
Each artefact acquired during the age of Empire is a reminder of colonial rule, be this benign or oppressive as determined from the perspective of the observer. For a long time, Britain’s best excuse for having nicked and then held on to many of these priceless antiquities has been that in a world of chaos and destruction, its institutions have long been the safest place to keep its ill-gotten treasures. The programme asks rhetorically in commentary and actually to museum curators: “is there an honourable way of handing in to your stolen stash?” Shouldn’t you be handing it back to its people? “Is this loot” asks the narrator of the director of the Art Galley of NSW. It is a public art gallery”, he replies.” … it belongs to the people of NSW … it’s there for education and discussion … I think it’s best not to use words like this right away … it was coming out of the rubble in the middle of a war zone … its a bit problematic”.
Britain was not the sole perpetrator of plunder, mind. A lot of loot of found its way into the museums of other European empires and and also the United States and Russia. And it was acquired in much the same way, in a mix of altruism, academic inquiry, subterfuge and outright banditry.
In our own travels, Adèle and I encountered an amusing tale of imperial skulduggery. When we were in Damascus, we stood by the modest catafalque of the celebrated Muslim war lord Salah ad Din al Ayubi, known in the west as Saladin, as our guide recounted the story of how before the First World War, the German Kaiser visited the Levant, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Whilst visiting the Old City of Damascus, Wilhelm cast covetous eyes over the famous sultan’s casket. It is said that his entourage attempted to poach Salah ad Din’s tomb and spirit it back to Germany, but was intercepted by the Sultan’s police. By way of contrition, the emperor presented Damascus with a gaudy new catafalque more suited, he reckoned, to the last resting place of a renowned warrior. The two monuments now sit side by side in Salah ad Din’s small mausoleum beside the looming Roman wall of the splendid Umayyad Mosque, and pilgrims weep beside them. Our guide, a Syrian Kurd, upbraided elderly fellahin visiting from the countryside for praying at the empty fake – “don’t you know that Salah ad Din al Ayubi was not Arab but Kurdi, and he is in that tomb, not this one!”
But I digress …
Marc Fennell with Stuff the British Stole
A stone and a rock, a statue and a shirt …
Episode One kicks off a tad earlier than Imperial age, and closer to home with Scotland’s Stone of Scone, the big brick upon which Scottish kings were crowned until Edward I took it home to Westminster as a symbol of Sassenach conquest. It has seated the arses of British monarchs ever since, and though it was sent back home to Edinburgh in recent times as a recognition of Scottish nationalist sympathies, it will doubtless be lent to London for the enthronement of Charles, Third of His Name.
But the usual imperial suspects follow. There’s the Koh i Nor Diamond “gifted” to Queen Victoria from an adolescent Duleep Singh, maharajah of the independent but defeated state of Punjab, along with his empire, in the mid-19th century It is now in Britain’s Crown Jewels, tucked away in the vaults of Tower of London (the ones on show to the public are replicas). Once the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition, the diamond is now set in a crown that Queen Consort Camilla may or may not wear at her husband’s coronation in May. Britain’s royals have amassed a Smaug-like treasure trove of bling that might featured in future lists of Stuff the British Stole.
The Peking Shadow Boxer is an ancient bronze statue “rescued” from the ruins of war by a British sea captain during the Boxer Rebellion at end of the nineteenth century and now somewhere in the storerooms of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – the rebellion was one of Australia’s first overseas war. Then there is the story of a ceremonial war-shirt once worn by Native American Blackfoot chief Crow Foot, his “uniform’ or regalia, if you will, “gifted” (no one really knows how or why) to the Mounties during treaty negotiations when Canada was a British Dominion, and now, “in a place where it does not belong”, in London’s V&A Museum. This episode was particularly visceral. Coming almost contemporaneously with the recent revelations of what happened in Canadian “residential schools” that endeavoured to “take the Indian out if the Indians”.
We’ve heard that one in Australia too as we still struggle to come to terms with our past. As Mark Twain quipped, history might not repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. And it is passing ironic that the final episode is a brief, sadly predictable chapter in Australia’s frontier war in the early Nineteenth Century.
The hunt for Yagan’s head
Yagan was warrior and Noongar man whose people lived by what is now the Swan River near Perth in Western Australia. Settlement land grabs and tit for tat robberies and murders, and revenge for the deaths for his brother and father provoked him to violence. The colonial authorities put a price of his head, dead or alive, for a payback killing in 1834-35 and he was shot in the back by two young settlers. His head cut off and was paraded around the colony to send a message to his people.
It took over a century to track down Yagan’s head. Ken Colberg, a Noongar war veteran and elder, made it his mission to find it. He traced it to a house in London – a colonial lieutenant had brought it back to England and endeavoured to sell it to a surgeon who was interested in such “trophies “. The surgeon declined to purchase it so the soldier conveyed it to Liverpool where he flogged it to Liverpool Museum. Over a century later, on the instructions of the museum, it was buried in Everton Cemetery near Liverpool in an unmarked common grave along other with other remains including 22 still born babies interred by a local hospital. Two English archaeologists agreed to assist Ken in his quest, tracing the location of the grave and negotiating with the authorities and descendants of the deceased children to effect Yagan’s exhumation.
It was handed over to a Noongar delegation in Liverpool Town Hall on 28th August 1997 – the day Princess Diana died in Paris. Ken made a passing reference to this during the ceremony: “That is how nature goes … Nature is a carrier of all good things and all bad things. And because the Poms did the wrong thing, they now have to suffer”. That went down well in the. Australian media, his comment prompted a media with newspapers receiving many letters from the public expressing shock and anger. Ken later claimed that his comments had been misinterpreted.
Yagan’s remains were finally laid to rest in Australian soil, on the banks of the Swan River on Noongar country.
And so concluded the first season of Stuff the British Stole. But there’s more to come – season two is promised and is already available as a podcast. It includes Tipu Sultan’s mechanical Tiger from Bengal, India, presently in the British Museum, commissioned by the sultan and depicting a tiger munching down on a prostrate English soldier. That one was taken when Tipu met his doom at the hands of Clive (of India, that is, and looter in chief of Indian artefacts). There’s there’s a revered chalice from Cork from a time when catholic worship was banned by British authorities; the Gweagal Shield acquired by Captain Cook when he hove to in Botany Bay; and the Makomokai tattooed heads from Aotearoa. And, of course, the most celebrated of artefact of all, the Elgin Marbles that most folk associate with the British Museum rather than with the Athens Parthenon which has served successively as a temple, church and mosque before Venetian ships bombed it in the seventeenth century – and from whence the eponymous Lord Elgin lifted them on the dubious pretext of preservation and plonked them down in perfidious Albion.
The return of Yagan. Ken Colberg is in the centre
Which brings us to the mosaic …
This is the story that enticed me into Stuff the British Stole and thence, into this post. Having enjoyed half a century of interest in the Middle East, I was immediately sucked in. And as with Yagan’s los head, it too has as Australian connection.
It is April 1917, during the second battle of Gaza, and British General Allenby’s army of soldiers from Britain and its empire is pushing northwards across the Negev Desert towards Ottoman-ruled Gaza and thence Jerusalem. It’s not officially called Palestine yet – the old Roman name, favoured by theologians, romantics, and British tourists and politicians, would not enter world politics and controversy for a few years yet. The Reverend William Maitland Woods is chaplain of the Australian and New Zealand Anzac division, and soldiers of a Queensland brigade of the Australian Light Horse are digging trenches at Besor Springs, near Gaza. The Reverend is an amateur archeologist and made a habit of entertaining the troops with stories about the Holy Lands where they were campaigning. The soldiers uncover the remnant of a 6th Century Byzantine mosaic dating from 561-562, during the reign of Emperor Justinian. A excited chaplain seeks professional advice from curators at the Cairo Museum and is given permission to organise a group of volunteers to uncover and remove the remains. Sapper McFarlane of the New Zealand Wireless Troop was given the job of drawing what they uncovered. That’s him in the picture below.
The reverend convinces his higher-ups that the mosaic must be saved, and sixty three crates are sent to Cairo. Egypt at the time was a British “dependency “ (good word, that).
There then commenced a tussle between British high command in Cairo and the Australian defence department. By September 1917, the Australian Records Section was feverishly collecting battlefield trophies. Charles Bean the official ANZAC historian liked to call them “relics”, consistent with the reverential language of “spirit”, “sacrifice” and “the fallen” he afforded his soldiers. The British : “It’s not a trophy of war – you cannot have it – it may be returned” or words to that effect. TheAussies: we wanted stuff for our prospective Australian War Museum, and anyhow, we’ve shed blood in this fight”.
And so, what would be called the Shellal Mosaic ended up in Canberra. Most of it, anyway. Other fragments found their way to St James Church in the Sydney CBD and in a church in Brisbane. It is believed that some diggers took pieces too. In 1941, when the War Memorial was under construction, an appeal was sent out to ageing members of the light horse regiments to return the bits they’d souvenired, but there were few, if any, volunteers.
Concerned, with very good reason, that the treasure might not get all the way Down Under, Woods gathered up several baskets of tesserae from the site, the individual fragments from which a mosaic is made, and commissioned an artisan to fashion an exact replica of the inscription headstone, one metre by half a metrre. He gave this to a friend, a Colonel John Arnott who at war’s end, returned to his family property at Coolah in rural New South Wakes and embedded itinto his garden steps. The farmhouse and its steps are with the family today.
Ancient History interlude: What makes the Shellal Mosaic such a significant archaeological find? For one, it was a Christian chapel from the Byzantine period when Hellenic pagan culture was giving way to Christianity. For two, the mosaic was made of marble, an expensive material and not commonly used other than by the very wealthy. And for three, the use of exotic animals from different lands, such as lions, tigers, flamingos and peacocks, common images in Byzantine art, all paying homage to a central chalice, could point to other pagan races and lands embracing Christianity.
The Shellal Mosaic
Yet, the tale gets curiouser and curiouser …
During the excavations, Maitland Woods discovered a chamber beneath the mosaic. It contained human bones lying with its feet to the east and its arms closed on the chest. The bones and inscriptions on the mosaic got the reverend quite excited, more so than the more mosaic itself as a rough translation of the inscription suggested to him that let him they were the bones were those of St George – of England and dragon fame, not the Dragons.the league football team of the eponymous suburb in southern Sydney which was not established until 1920. They were not, however. Saintly George lived in intolerant pagan Roman times and was martyred for his faith. More likely, they belonged to a local bishop time called as George. Woods feared these would be sent to England in perpetuity so he packed them up and gave a ‘parcel’ to his friend, Reverend Herbert Rose, for safe keeping, and this found its way to Rose’s home parish of St Anne’s in Strathfield in Sydney’s inner west, where they are interred in the floor in front of the church’s communion table. Woods’ fears were justified. During the delivery of the remaining bones from Cairo to London, George’s skull disappeared, never to be seen again.
In a highway service station Over the month of June Was a photograph of the earth Taken coming back from the moon And you couldn’t see a city On that marbled bowling ball Or a forest or a highway Or me here least of all You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms Or this baggage overload Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
From Joni Mitchell’s Hejira
When the Beatles and their partners, with Donovan and Mia Farrow in tow, travelled to India to sit at the well-kissed feet of the Maharishi, they would’ve travelled by BOAC jetliner. But hundreds if not thousands of young people from Europe and North America were already making their own own way, by boats, trains, trucks and automobiles, motorbikes and bicycles, and in extremis, shank’s pony, some ten thousand kilometres and more to the end of the line, be this Kathmandu, Kolkata (where I ended up), South East Asia (Tim Page, a recently departed friend, ended up there as a war photographer in America’s “crazy Asian war) or Australia (that’s where my uni pals washed up – see below). Other adventurers set out in the opposite direction from conservative Australia and New Zealand-Aotearoa heading for Britain, the “old country” and a wider world. The numbers would swell during the seventies and the “overland” as it was then called became the well-travelled “Hippie Trail” – until the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan wars effectively blocked it to all but a resolute and crazy-brave few.
The Beatles in India
I’d never intended to hit the hippie trail back in the day. In the northern summer of 1971, I didn’t even know it existed.
I’d just finished my final exams, graduating with a good degree, but after three exciting and formative years, it was as if everything had suddenly ground to a halt. Uni was over; a romantic relationship was on the rocks; I was footloose and free, floating and feeling the urge to escape elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere. I’d no idea at all what I would do next, other than an inchoate plan to undertake post-graduate study – guided by my tutor and mentor exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely, my academic interest was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that was to be down the track.
When the finals results came out, I spent the evening at the student union with friends, unwinding and getting pissed; and the very next day, I walked into the Student Travel office and booked a one-way air ticket to Athens (only my second time on an aeroplane), passage by steamer from Piraeus, Athen’s port, to Alexandria, Egytpt, via Limassol, Cyprus, and back from Egypt to Piraeus and thence to Tel Aviv, Israel, with no bookings for onward travel.
Seized by the idea of visiting the two principal antagonists of the almost recent Six Day War, I’d a naive and uninformed notion to view both sides of the Arab-Israeli puzzle (and we’re no nearer a solution today, and I’ve spent half a century since watching and waiting – but that is another story). Within a few weeks, I’d bought a second-hand rucksack and sleeping bag, converted my savings to traveler’s cheques – there were still currency restrictions in the UK on how much cash you could take out of the country – packed a few things, and in the words of Cat Stevens, I was “on the road to find out”.
That road took me through the Middle East, and on and on, until I reached Kolkata in Bengal. What was planned as but a two month holiday to “clear my mind out”, to quote that Cat song again, extended to over six months as the appetite grew with the eating.
I traveled through lands of which I knew very little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as eastwards I roamed, through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan); Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other as I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.
I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile and the Jordan, the Orontes and the Yarmouk, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperial endeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I crossed Lake Van, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, and the Bosphorus, from into Europe. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabad and Jerusalem.
On my return, my plan to specialize in Soviet Studies evaporated as I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life, imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona, my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.
Broken statues, empty tombs.
Ghosts of commoners and kings
Walk the walls and catacombs,
The castles and the shrines,
Marking lives and story lines,
Lie the ruins and the bones,
The ruins and the bones,
Ruins and bones.
Through the desert to the beyond …
I was at the end of the beginning. Having travelled through Egypt and Israel, I’d decided, for many reasons, that I wasn’t ready to return to England as planned, and recalling the advice of a fellow traveler I’d met in Cairo, I resolved to head east …
In early 1972, I wrote in an empty1962 diary: “Friday 20th August 1971, a fateful day indeed, when manifold and manifest destinies unfolded, when plans were forgotten and begotten, when the past was shelved and the future postponed. To the desert. Through the desert. To the beyond. To see. To decide. To move forever onwards with no direction home. With no grip of time to defeat me or dictate to me …”
Less prosaically, my actual travel diary recorded on that day:
“Arriving in Nicosia from Tel Aviv at 15.15 after a neglectful and body-shaking El Al flight, I headed straight into town from.an almost deserted airport. How much Anglo, how much Greek, how empty. Hot and boring in my mobile mood. Bought a ticket to Beirut and headed straight out again on the six o’clock Air Liban Boeing 707. A highly hospitable fifty five minute flight and by seven o’clock I was passing through Lebanese customs … “
The following day, I wrote:
Saturday, 21st August 1971, Beirut
“Now for a calculation space … I have £55 in travelers’ cheques and £25 in cash. Eighty quid in all. How far will that go? Syria? Iraq? Jordan? Afghanistan, Iran? Then home? Visas, maybe five quid? Amman to Baghdad, four? Damascus Amman Two? Amman to Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul 10 quid? That’s £21 all up. Kabul to Istanbul, £13, so £34 in all. £3 max in each for contingencies? £15 or £49. Leaving about 30 quid by Istanbul. Cutting Jordan, could save four. India? There is time, but little money … Even if the three quid were cut and Jordan too, that would leave £19 from Kabul to Delhi – but I must eat, I must eat somewhere – hence, no India…this time … “
But the appetite grew with the eating and the road led on and on …
Life on the road …
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia
Traveling was sooo different back then in the days before ubiquitous air travel, the Internet and mobile phones. On the road, our destinations were set, but these were fluid in their timeline and attainment. Much of our information came by word of mouth from other travellers on the road. You’d head to places other people had recommended, without having seen pictures and read descriptions on the internet. You couldn’t book a hotel room in advance so we often never knew where we’d sleep. You’d find a bed for the night once we’d arrived in a city, town or village or if you were in the information loop, you’d rock up at well-frequented hostelries like Amir Kabir in central Teheran, Mrs Dunkeley’s Guest House in the heart of New Delhi, and the famed houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir. Often, you slept on floors, in railway station waiting rooms, in constant fear of robbery, or beneath the stars. You’d spend long hours waiting in the post office to place a call home, and sometimes the operator didn’t know where that was. Letters would take an age to reach their destination. I wrote letters to England from Amir Kabir, and picked up the replies on my return journey months later. You’d work out how to deal with banks and money changers to convert travelers cheques to the local currency – and keep a close count of every cent because these were limited, and you were constantly worried about being ripped off.
Hotel Amir Kabir, Teheran
Like many on the road, I travelled on the cheap, crowded onto local buses, struggling to grab a third class seat on packed trains, eating street food. watched every dinar and dollar, rial and rupee. To supplement my diminishing funds, I washed dishes – and sold blood twice, to the Red Crescent in Jerusalem’s Old City (risky) and In New Delhi (in hindsight, potentially suicidal).
I’d only intended to be out of the country for about a month, but had cleaned out my bank account. I’d worked on building sites in Birmingham during the summer breaks from University, and had earned enough to keep me in books and records and other “luxuries” and also for travel. And I got to India and back to Istanbul before I ran out of cash and had to get my folks to wire me enough for a ticket home. My university pals who took The Overland a year later washed up in Darwin stoney broke and had to work their way all the way south to Bondi Beach, where they’d resolved to rent a flat overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Of the five who roved out, three returned to England, but two remained, establishing careers, marrying “sheilas” and raising children and grandchildren – by happy circumstance, I too settled in Australia six years later, and John (RIP) and Christian became my oldest friends in Australia.
Most of us travelled without cameras and so relied on travel diaries and memories. I had a dinky old Kodak and couldn’t afford a lot of film – I sold some for extra cash somewhere along the way – so I had had just a few pictures on a couple of rolls. And I had to wait until my return to England to take them to Boots Chemist for processing. And looking back, perhaps it was easier and also most adventurous in those days to be present, to live in the moment, and to be surprised over things you hadn’t seen before, not even in books and photographs. So many everyday things are now very practical with ATMs and mobile phones and travel advisories to hand, whilst our mobile phones and tablets absorb so much of our attention. In some ways these take away much of the vicarious risks and also, magic. I’m sure glad to have experienced travelling in the old-fashioned way.
If you never go, you’ll never grow
I’ll conclude this story by observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by mishap or misadventure, malice or malignancy.
The accidental journey was driven by a combination of whim, thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, by a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive feeling of dare-devil invulnerability.
Passers-by, and local people I’d meet would often ask where I was going and why I traveled thus. They’d tell me it was dangerous, that there were men out there who would rob me or do me harm. When I returned home, folk would ask if I faced danger and if I was afraid. Yet, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in a backpackers’ in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.
As I journeyed “there and back again”, I took risks on rickety buses and in reckless cars. I’d walk alone through slums and shanty towns and eat food sold on the streets. I risked typhoid and cholera outbreaks, caught “Cairo belly”, sold blood in “third world” clinics, and ran from thrown stones and the sound of gunfire. I was arrested for spying on the Aswan Dam in upper Egypt (though released soon afterwards) and handcuffed as a “joke” in a Beirut police station. I’d crossed a battle-scarred landscape between Syria and Jordan on foot, and watched the military buildup in Kashmir as the Indo-Pakistan war was breaking out.
So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien
The morning after the night before …
In late summer 1972 we housemates threw an all-night farewell party before going our separate ways. Christian, Brendan, John, Mike and Eric embarked on the hippie trail across Asia and ended up in God’s Own Country. Having recently returned from that same odyssey, I remained in London, but destiny saw me washed up DownUnder five years later. The first picture portrays the laid-back lethargy of that morning in East Finchley. Chris is in the shot so Brendan must’ve taken the photograph. The second is taken when we got it all together for a more formal tableau with Chris behind the camera.
Shortly thereafter, the five pioneers set off for Dover and the East. Many years later, Christian revealed these pictures from their journey. The first is of John and Chris soon after landing in northern Australia. The others are pictures of Chris’ tote bag. He still has it.
I wear the weave of history like a second skin, I wake with runes of mystery of how we all begin, I walk the paths of pioneers who watched the circus start, The past now beats within me like a second heart.
Paul Hemphill. E Lucivan Le Stelle
Whilst its scope is eclectic and wide ranging in content In That Howling Infinite is especially a history blog. It’s subject matter is diverse. Politics, literature, music, and memoir are featured – but it is at its most original and informative, a miscellany of matters historical, gathered in Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s back pages– yes, an appropriation of lyrics from two Bob Dylan Songs.
In compiling the annual retrospective for 2022, I decided I would put together a list of my favourite posts in each of the categories described above, beginning with the history ones. My primary criteria were not so much the subject matter, which is diverse, as can be seen from the ten choices (shown here in alphabetical order) but firstly, what I most enjoyed writing and secondly, those I considered the most original insofar as I referenced and republished few other voices, other than direct quotations from the sources I was consulting and books I was reviewing.
Western folk, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. Here, we widen that orientalist perspective.
“… one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”. An original, idiosyncratic and not strictly accurate journey through those foggy ruins of time.
We know how the story of Thomas Cromwell ends. It’s how Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel gets us there that matters. Our questions here are whether Thomas could sense where it was all headed, and whether he could have quit while he was ahead.
“A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on”. A brief dissertation on Thomas Cromwell’s English revolution.
It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound. Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River at time when two culturally and spiritually disparate peoples collided.
In the First century, the Roman Empire was a far-ranging and cosmopolitan polity extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of Persia. As far as we can ascertain from the historical record, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE. His father was a Greek slave in the Imperial Household of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome. These were turbulent times for Rome and Romans, but our hero managed to navigate through them.
The Sport of Kings’ is not a history book – nor is it an historical novel. But it is most certainly about history. And about identity. As Morgan puts it: “You would never escape the category of your birth”. It is also about memory and myth: “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. It is both a meditation on race, on slavery – America’s “original sin” – and a bitter inversion of the American dream.
An illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride andrevelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days. The horse” has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances, and yet, over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung.
Our forest neighbour, recently deceased and internationally acclaimed English photojournalist Tim Page ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’. He washed up in the great war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper. This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.
The story that dominated the news in the last year of the Eleventh Century was how the heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon the first of a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land and the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan.
In 1099, things changed utterly for east-west relations, whilst the crusaders and the fiefdoms they established in the Levant have haunted historical memory to this day.
The Crusades have enthralled me from an early age. From the television serials and films of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe to Ridley Scott’s dubious, flashy, but entertaining Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, westerners, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. In succeeding years, I widened my early, naive perspective, learned more about the crusades and actually visited many of the fortresses the invaders built to defend their stolen patrimony. A selection of my photographs accompanies this article.
What follows is a contemplation on the origins, character and events of the crusades. It does not claim to be a comprehensive and scholarly treatise – erudite and dedicated historians have been there and done that. Rather it is a synthesis my own knowledge of the history of the Middle East and opinions and observations derived therefrom. The inspiration and impetus derived from a three part documentary series that screened on Al Jazeera a few years back. I have my criticisms of the series – it is hammy and very badly dressed, with op shop clothes and fake beards and wigs – i would never have let my crusaders and saracens out looking like that! – and lots of running and galloping around in sand deserts (the Levant is anything but … ) This was most probably due to a meagre budget, but with academic talking heads from Europe and the Middle East giving a commentary in English, French and Arabic, it contains many stimulating talking points, and it makes for a fascinating if harrowing tale.
What’s in a word?
Let’s begin with etymology.
Saracen derives form from the Greek, Sarakēnós or desert dwellers. a term with negative connotations widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages to refer to Arab Muslims. The implication was that they were a shady bunch. Arabs themselves did not use the word, but, irony of ironies, in modern Arabic,sariqun means thieves and bandits – very much like the derivation of the word Tory from the Irish word tóir ‘, bandit or highwayman, but in reality, a member of the Irish resistance to the depredations of Oliver Cromwell’s army in the mid seventeenth century. Beware of the pit of false associations and assumptions.
The Muslims called the invaders – for that is what they were – Franks believing that the invaders came from the western European land. Muslim historians did not use the term crusader; to them, it was not a religious war or a Christian one – it certainly was an unchristian war even if the cross was its symbol. They regarded eastern Christians just as much as victims as Muslims – which was indeed the case. To fired-up Franks, all cats were black in the dark. But in time, Arabs too came to refer to the Crusades as al Hurub as Salabiya, the Crusader Wars, salib being Arabic for ‘cross’.
The words Crusade and Crusader have different connotations in the western and eastern worlds.
Arabs and Muslims generally regard the Crusaders as invaders motivated not by faith but by ignorance and prejudice, and by material and territorial gain. Back then, the Arabs, and also, the Byzantines, regarded the Franks as brave, bold warriors, but also as opportunists and hypocrites, and uncouth and under-civilized compared to themselves.
When contemporary westerners talk of crusades in a Middle Eastern context, it is an unfortunate appropriation that is intended to imply righteous and spiritually and morally-justified and resolute endeavour – and yet to other cultures, it transmits a contrary and sinister signal. Arabs (and Afghans, Iranians, Kurds, and others) run for their rocket-launchers or for meagre shelter. The word is catnip to the propagandists and recruiters of al Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban, and to Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Crusades were not originally called such. For a century, western Christians called it The Lord’s War”, The Lord’s Militia, and, without a hint of irony, The Pilgrimage. It was only later that it came to be called was called The Crusades by European historians – who were in the main, monks – in 12th Century Germany, when a word emerged that meant “marked by the cross”, and the “Crusader” entered common usage.
There are other lexicographical connections. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – for it is also said that ‘faranjiya’ was a transliteration of Varangarians, the Byzantine emperor’s Viking bodyguard, deriving from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a place name or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank).
To head down an historical byway, one particular commander of the Varangarian Guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire, England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans(in southern Italy) and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Constantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even traveled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See; Harald Went a ‘Viking).
Like most historical events, the crusades were not black and white. The Christian and Muslim claims on the Levant were and remain historically, geographically and archaeologically tenuous. Neither were traditional, indeed, indigenous settlers. It was and is still about conquest – to have and to hold. Hence the Frankish lords, and the Muslim warlords who confronted and in time felled and expelled them, laid claim to power by force of arms, and by their mission, Jihad – and then and now, Jerusalem!
Jerusalem has always been about faith and passion – and to this day, there has been no city on Earth that people have got more passionate about. It’s a place of exquisite beauty. For many, its long history is more a matter of faith than of fact, the prime place on earth for God to meet Man, and for for some, the best argument against religion. I feel it myself whenever i am there! The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium like some do.
The city was deemed sacred from pre-history. Jews have long called it Jerusalem the Golden – it constitutes the bedrock of their ancient faith. Christians venerate it as the site of the death and resurrection of the Christ. The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’.
Iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. The Haram ash Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. The Dome of the Rock stands atop the boulder on which Abraham was said to have sought to sacrifice his son Isaac when the Lord stayed his hand, and from which Mohammad was said to have leapt to heaven to meet with his prophetic predecessors after his Night Journey to Jerusalem on the back of of Buraq, a steed with a human face.
A city of the mind as much as of this earth,Jerusalem haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy Summers the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium.
It was and remains venerated, coveted and fought over. During its long history, it has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and destroyed twice. There is a harrowing account of the Roman siege and fall in 70 CE in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem – a Biography, a must-have travel companion when visiting. Whilst the Romans laid siege and starved the city, it’s population already boosted during Passover, the Jewish rebels within fought a civil war among themselves. Tens of thousands died, and more were enslaved, and the Jews of Roman Palestine scattered across the known world. The city was raised to the ground – you can still see the huge bricks of the temple scattered around the foot of the eastern wall, just along from the Kotel plaza – and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in the Roman style, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.
The taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders,15th July 1099
The Lord’s War
The crusaders were drawn to the biblical “land of milk and honey” promised by god to the Jews, and now, by Pope Urban, his representative on earth. The ordinary folk who joined the quixotic Peter the Hermit’s disastrous “people’s crusade” in 1096 set out for the Holy Land out of an ignorant and innocent belief in a release from the vale of tears that was their ordinary feudal lot. There is no reason not to believe that for many Christians, attaining the Kingdom of Heaven was more Important than our brig span on this mortal coil. For a poor man in feudal days, death and salvation on crusade was preferable to a lifetime of hard labour in the fields of an earthly lord.
The people’s crusade has been regarded as a prelude to the First Crusade or, as a distinct part it, to be distinguished from the “Princes’ Crusade” which followed it three years later. This was much more well-organized, well-armed, and well-funded, and its participants were of an altogether different and secular mindset, and cut from a brutal and acquisitive martial cloth: the younger sons of western European aristocratic families and their armed gangs, fighting men, and more aptly, bandits, of poor means and avaricious dreams, and warlords who craved lands and lordships, provinces and principalities. They sought not salvation but sovereignty. And they only agreed to participate in the crusades if there was something in it for them.
In our more secular, rational times, we condemn those who maim and murder in the name of their god. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator (and among some faithful, it still is).
Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, propelled young and old, rich and poor, the mighty and the meek down the long, hard, and for most, murderous road to Jerusalem. Many perished en route, including tens of thousands of Jews who happens to be living in what is now Germany, Austria and the Balkans, and as many Christians in Anatolia and the Levant who happened to look like, well, Muslims! Collateral damage was not a Twentieth Century phenomenon.
Though outnumbered and beset by fatigue, hunger and thirst, the soldiers of Christ stormed Jerusalem and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword – men, women, children and livestock, Muslims, Jews and Christians – it really didn’t matter because after all those long months and miles of trial and tribulation, their blood was up, and they were doing God’s work. Six months afterwards, a Frankish visitor recorded that the Holy City reeked still of death and decay.
There was nothing new here! Jerusalem has witnessed much bloodshed during its long history.
It has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and destroyed twice. There is a harrowing account of the Roman siege and fall in 70 CE in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excelent Jerusalem – a Biography, a must-have travel-companion when visiting the Old City. Whilst the Romans laid siege and starved Jerusalem, it’s population already boosted during Passover, the Jewish rebels within fought a civil war among themselves. When the legions finally broke into the city, tens of thousands died, and more were enslaved, and the Jews of Roman Palestine were scattered across the known world. The city was razed to the ground – you can still see the huge bricks of the temple scattered around the foot of the eastern wall, just along from the Kotel plaza – and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in the Roman style, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.
When the Christian Crusaders sacked Jerusalem a millennium later, they left it standing with all the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim architecture that we see today, but slaughtered the unfortunate inhabitants. The next conqueror, Salah ad Din was more merciful a century later – he released the Christians who paid a ransom, though enslaving those who couldn’t raise the cash – it is said that he actually put his hand in his pocket to release a a few sad souls. Instances like this fostered the occidental myth of the noble and merciful Saladin that has endured in fiction and in film.
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing. They were, in modern parlance, a colonial project, the First Crusade was followed by a new campaign in Western Europe, not for pilgrims and solders, but for the common people to settle, live and work in the Holy Land – Germans, French, Italians. Former serfs became landholders. Minor nobles styled themselves as lords and monarchs in the lands they had seized, and displayed all the material accoutrements of rank and status. Wherever there was land and water, the newcomers moved in, seizing and settling the fertile coastal littoral and the fertile valleys – and iconic though arid Jerusalem, of course, and leaving the desert wastes and wadis to the Saracens.
“Settler colonialism” the crusader kingdoms might have been, but unlike other colonial projects from Romans to the British and French empires, many of the newcomers came to admire and mimic local ways. The Franks and Germans settled down, became landholders and aristocrats, settled down and absorbed the local vibe – clothes, food, hygiene habits (including regular bathing) and sexual relationships. In old British Empire parlance, they “went native”.
The Seven Crusades in Brief
That First Crusade owed its success more to Muslim disunity than to military might. The Franks were few in number, their ranks depleted during their oriental odyssey by battle, disease and defections – as ambitious lords and their entourages established their own domains in the cities they seized – Antioch, Tyre, and Acre, and in the east, the outlier Anatolian County of Edessa – out and out land grab and coup d’état by Baldwin of Boulogne, younger brother of Godfrey, who became the first king of Jerusalem.
The Franks soon fractured; the ‘Leper King’ of Jerusalem was surrounded by power-hungry warlords who pushed against his policy coexistence with the Muslims – principally Raymond de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan, garishly portrayed as storybook villains in Ridley Scott’s slash-and-bash Kingdom of God.
The Muslim fight-back began, however, when they found capable warlords who enforced unity, cohesion and purpose amongst jealous and competing emirs. First, there were the Zengids, Imad ed Din and his son, Nour ed Din, both murdered by recalcitrant emirs, who seized Edessa – and then the Ayyubids – most notably, a Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ed Din Ibn Ayyubi,
Salah ad Din, the legendary Saladin, was clever, cunning, and for all his fictional and cinematic credentials as a very “noble savage”, a cold-hearted and cruel emir. Back in his day, Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatamids – he engineered a military putsch and massacred them all. But he is revered to this day as an Arab and Muslim hero – notwithstanding his murderous methods and his Kurdish pedigree.
Salah ad Din al Ayubi guards the Damascus Citadel
The Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to Salah ad Din in 1187, after the devastating defeat of the crusader army on the Horns of Hattinin Galilee, and the surrender of the city by Balian of Ibelin (portrayed inaccurately with stiff upper lip by Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott’s film). This is what Hattin looks like today, still as hot and dry as it was on that fateful day so long ago. The photographs were taken by our friend and guide Shmuel Browns of Isreal Tours.
Though they lost Jerusalem and Acre, the crusaders held on to their other domains, and successive popes and potentates fired hopes of its deliverance into the hands of true believers. Once again, the Muslims were their own worst enemies. Salah ed Din, the renowned soldier and schemer, could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?), and his death left the Ayyubid lands in the hands of lesser men. Pilgrims weep beside his tomb adjacent to the glorious Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. There are actually two catafalques – one modest and one extravagant, the latter donated by Kaiser Wilhelm of First World War fame during his celebrated tour of the Levant. It is said that his entourage attempted to poach Salah ad Din’s tomb and spirit it back to Germany, but were intercepted by the Sultan’s police.
Further crusades followed; there were to be seven in all, several headed up by the Holy Roman Emperor (an empire that was, in eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbons’ words, neither Roman nor holy), and the kings of France and England – the latter being Richard I, the celebrated “Lion Heart”, remembered by Muslims to this day more for his brutality than for his deeds of derring-do. The Second, launched to recapture Edessa, and failing in that, to take Damascus, was beaten back by Imad ad Din. The Third was King Richard’. He’d hoped to take back Jerusalem, after several military successes, languished on the Mediterranean coast.
There has been much folklore build around the contest between the Lion Heart and Saladin, but in fact the two never met. Salah ad Din’s brother handled the inconclusive negotiations. Richard eventually headed home, a journey which saw him held for literally a “kings ransom” for over a year in what is today’s Austria. After an absence of four years, he returned to England to confront his brother John who has acted as regent whilst he’d been gallivanting through the Levant. Hence the finale of so many many bad Robin Hood and Ivanhoe fictions and films – one always anticipates the friendly, avuncular brogue of Sean Connery. Richard died on campaign in France five years later, in 1199 whilst besieging a nondescript French fortress. He was killed by a crossbow wound that turned gangrenous – a scene reenacted in another of Ridley Scott’s dubious historical epics, about Robin Hood, of course – he really should have stuck to xenomorphs. Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, his guts in Châlus (where he died), and the rest of his body at the feet of his father Henry II (of The Lion in Winter fame) at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.
Between the third and fourth, there occurred in about 1212 a quixotic venture that has gone down in historical memory and indeed, myth, as the Children’s Crusade, a dream-driven and ultimately fatal frolic intended to convert the Muslims of the Holy Land to Christianity, but instead, led to tens of thousands of children from France and Germany to be sold into slavery.
The Fourth Crusade demonstrated how for many soldiers of the cross, greed trumped creed when they sacked Constantinople in 1198, the greatest Christian city in the world, and slaughtered thousands of its inhabitants in what has been interpreted as the Papacy’s assault on the Orthodox faith – in reality, it was a brutal and bloody smash-and-grab. The Fifth made for Egypt in 1217 in what Winston Churchill might have described, in another time about another place, as a”soft under-belly”, and failed, just like Winston’s disastrous Dardanelles campaign, when the River Nile’s floods quagmired the Franks’ heavy cavalry.
The Sixth, led by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, recovered Jerusalem without bloodshed, Frederick having made a deal with Salah ed Din’s son Kamil, who had fallen out with his siblings. But fifteen years later, in 1244, it was reconquered. The Seventh returned to Egypt – what do they say about those who ignore history, etcetera? – and came up against the Mamluks, a Caucasian slave army raised bu Egypt’s Ayyubid rulers. In 1250, the Mamluks checkmated (ironically, a transliteration of the original Arabic), the invaders and their commander, French King Louis IX (later to be called Louis the Pious, but, whatever …) was taken captive. The king and his nobles were ransomed, and the rest given the choice between conversion and decapitation. And yet, the end of the Ayyubid dynasty followed soon afterwards when the the slave solders seized power for themselves and set their emir on the throne.
As often happens, the tides of history turn as events further afield intrude – and these afforded the crusader kingdoms a reprieve. In defending their stolen patrimony against the Arab push-back, the Crusader Kings conveniently colluded with another new power that had emerged out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out off the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire; and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. When they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and then collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’. They even employed the same hit-men, the infamous Hashashiyun, the Assassins, shadowy knives for hire, who although Shia in religious persuasion, and opposed to Sunni rulers, hired themselves out to Muslims and Crusaders alike.
The Mongol warlord Hulagu stormed Baghdad in 1258 and put it to the sword. It is said of old, that before the advent of Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia” (the British and Indian Armies learnt this the hard way during the disastrous Mesopotamian Campaign of 1916). The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam Hussein.
The antique, strategic and economically powerful cities of Aleppo and Damascus fell soon after, and with the fall of Baghdad, this ended the Abbasid caliphate. Only the Mamluks in Egypt held out, and under Sultan Saif ad Din al Qutuz, – born in Transoxiana in Central Asia – fought back, stemming the Mongol tide at Ain Jalut, Goliath’s Spring, in Galilee, in 1260. The Mongol forces, commanded by a Christian mercenary, included a sizeable contingent of Muslim and Christian Allies. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The victory established the legitimacy of Mamluk power in the Levant. And yet, Qutuz was assassinated soon afterwards, and the blond, blue-eyed former slave soldier Malik az Zahir Rukn ad Din Baibars, born just east of the Volga River, took power – it was said that he had a hand in Qutuz’ murder – and for seventeen years, he engaged in perpetual jihad against the Salabiyin. Village by village, town by town, fortress by fortress, all the way from from Cairo to Antioch – which fell in 1268. He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Baibars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. it was Baybars who brought the crusader kingdoms to an end – in 1291, when Acre, the last remaining crusader cities, fell to his forces.
Faith’s flickering flame
The causes of the decline in crusading and the failure of the crusader states are multi-faceted. The nature of crusades was unsuited to the defense of the Holy Land. Crusaders were on a personal pilgrimage and usually returned when it was completed. Although the ideology of crusading changed over time, crusades continued to be conducted without centralized leadership by short-lived armies led by independently minded potentates, but the crusader states needed large standing armies. Religious fervour was difficult to direct and control even though it enabled significant feats of military endeavour. Political and religious conflict in Europe combined with failed harvests reduced Europe’s interest in Jerusalem. The distances involved made the mounting of crusades and the maintenance of communications difficult. It enabled the Islamic world, under the charismatic leadership of Zengi, Nur al-Din, Saladin, the ruthless Baibars and others, to use the logistical advantages of proximity.
The curtain was descending on the Crusader kingdoms. The remaining enclaves endeavoured to deal with Baybars, but he died when he inadvertently ate the poison he had intended for his dinner guest – or so it is said. His successor, Al-Ashraf Salāh ad-Dīn Khalil ibn Qalawūn, opted for jihad, setting his sights on Tripoli. The Crusade, meanwhile, had run out of steam. The Roman church was losing respect and influence in Europe as kings and princes contested its dominance and dissident preachers condemned its decadence and hypocrisy.
The Crusader fire flamed, flickered, and died.
There would be no help forthcoming for the beleaguered folk of Outremer – promoting the the beginning of “Frankish flight”. The Muslim forces of the Levant and Egypt united to take Acre, the last crusader foothold, in 1291. Those farangi who could could not flee or be ransomed, were enslaved, the ultimate and unfortunate fallout of failure. Qalawun was assassinated by dissident emirs two years later. Levantine Sultans would have had problems getting life insurance.
Crusader cemetery at Atlit Beach, near Haifa, Isreal.
Farewell to the Faranjiye
When all was done and dusted, when the last ships departed, the unfortunate thousands who were unable to escape, were consigned to military barracks, slave markets, and harems. Their descendants’ genes added to the Middle East’s ethnic kalabash, along with the DNA of Persians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans who went before, the white Circassian boys and girls enslaved in succeeding centuries, and the French, African, Indian and Anglo soldiers who followed on in recent history.
And those who could, went “home” – strangers in a strange land. The crusades built a bridge between east and west, between civilizations. When they decamped the Levant during the Muslim “reconquista”, the fleeting Franks carried in their cultural luggage many incendiary materials that arguably helped to spark the Renaissance and the Reformation. They imported vocabulary, fruits and vegetables and exotic spices that we savour still. With al oud, they gave us the lute (although this may have infiltrated via Moorish Iberia – eternally blessing us with the Spanish guitar). Other stowaways included Arabic translations of long-lost Greek texts on philosophy, politics, medicine, science, astronomy and more, and Arabic scholars to translate them into Latin.
The Crusades were long, brutal and bloody, and ultimately a pointless failure. And yet, the world would be poorer but for the cultural legacy of these two centuries of contact and conflict.
The Christian passion for Crusades did not end with the fall of Outremer. Contrary to popular belief, the passion for aggression in the name of the One True God do not end with the lonely old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Once kindled, it took centuries to subside – if it indeed has today!
In Eastern Europe, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, blooded in the Holy Land, sought to deliver the pagans of the Baltic lands to the Lord – by the sword. The blood lust did not abate, nor the desire for land and its resources as they turned on the already christianized Poles, Lithuanians and Rus. Soviet cinema icon Sergei Eisenstein tells the story in epic style in Alexander Nevsky. Wartime propaganda it might have been, but nonetheless, it did happen.
In France during the Thirteenth Century, Catholic nobles turned their wrath on the unorthodox Cathars – they called themselves the “good Christians” – as the Albigensian Crusaderaped, pillaged and burned its way through the Languedoc, consigning thousands of ‘heretics’ to the cleansing fire. As in the Levant, loot and lands reinforced the prophet motive behind what became known as “the burning times”.
In Spain, Catholic kings clawed back the Muslim Moorish kingdoms of Andalusia in the Reconquista. The last Muslim kingdom fell to Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castille in 1492, the year they dispatched Christopher Columbus westwards to seek a passage to the Indies and expelled the Jews from Spain. Columbus himself saw his mission as the beginning of a great crusade against the Ottoman Turks and for the liberation of Jerusalem. This did not eventuate, but those who followed him to the New World became “conquistadors” in the service of God. King and mammon.
Demonstrating Mark Twain’s aphorism that whilst history does not repeat itself, it sometime it rhymes, a populist rightwing (and Jewish) candidate in the upcoming French presidential election has named his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party “Reconquête” or “Reconquest”.
The rise and rise of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453 rekindled the crusader fire in the breasts of Christian kings – faith forever furnished by the prospects of lucre. When Sultan Sulayman The Magnificent, laid siege to Vienna in 1529, the Catholic kings of Europe dispatched troops to frustrate him and force him to retreat. Vienna was the high tide the Ottoman ascendancy, and it was down hill all the way to what became known in the Nineteenth Century as the Eastern Question: “what shall we do about the Old Man of Europe?” This was diplomatic code for how France, Britain and Russia could benefit from the disintegration of a moribund Ottoman Empire. One of the triggers for the quixotic, heroic, pointless and bloody Crimean War was the tussle between France and Russia over the right to protect the Holy Places of Jerusalem.
The Eastern Question did not go away after this bloody stalemate. Conflict between the empire and breakaway Christian states continued for over half a century, with the European powers as ever seeking an edge – until an assassination in the once Ottoman City of Sarajevo changed the game entirely. The Holy Land assumed a strategic importance during the World War that followed, and remained a magnet for politicians’ millenarian fantasies. Welsh Pentecostal prime minster Lloyd George succumbed to the spell of the Promised Land and the return of the wandering Jews to their ancient homeland “from Moab to the sea”. That gave us, among other contemporary troubles, the Balfour Declaration, the State of Israel, an Nakba, the Occupation, and in contra-flow, the Palestinian National Movement, “the right of return”, and the Hamas Charter. Roots and fruits .
So when in the wake of 9/11 George W Bush referred to his War on Terror and invasion of Iraq as a crusade, small wonder Muslims the world over became agitated, and many declared Holy War against al Salabiyin.
On the trail of the Crusaders – a journey in pictures
... canyons and castles pass pass ageless and ageing and captive in time. Valences, Paul Hemphill
Monarchs and lords have built castles for millennia for security, to guard strategic places, and to coew the local, often conquered populace or routes, and to impress and cow the local populace. People feel strong behind castle walls, they feel powerful, and they feel safe. But their impregnability is often illusory. Enemies can scale them and climb over them, and they can dig under them, or by subterfuge, suborn, beguile or bribe a turncoat or waverer to open the gates or reveal a secret entrance. Those great crusader castles of Syria and Palestine, Krak de Chevaliers, Sahyun Castle and Belvoir, fell not by storm but by subterfuge.
We have had the privilege and pleasure of visiting many crusade castles in Syria and Israel, and present below a small gallery of pictures taken thereof.
Krak des Chevaliers
The Crusader fortress of Qalaat al Husn in the Homs Governate of Syria is considered to be one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world, and one of the most spectacular. T. E. Lawrence described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. In places the walls are 100 feet thick. In its day, it garrisoned some 2,000 men – and their horses: see the picture below. It was known by its crusader name Castle of the Horsemen or Knights. But the name Krak originated in the earlier castle Qalaat Akrad – the Castle of the Kurds. It is one of many fortresses that were part of a defensive network along the border of the old Crusader states. The fortress controlled the road to the Mediterranean, and from this base, the Knights Hospitallers could exert some influence over Lake Homs to the east to control the fishing industry and watch for Muslim armies gathering in Syria.
The stables of the Castle of the Horsemen
Qala’t Salah ad Din
Sahyun Castle also known as the Castle of Saladin is a medieval castle in northwestern Syria. It is is ocated 7 km east of al Haffah town and 30 km east of the city of Latakia, in high mountainous terrain on a forested ridge between two deep ravines The site has been fortified since at least the mid 10th century. Early in the 12th century the Franks took control and it became part of the newly formed crusader stare of the Principality of Antioch. The Crusaders undertook an extensive building programme, giving the castle much of its current appearance. In 1188 it fell to the forces of Salah ad Din after a three-day siege. In 2006, the castles of Qal’at Salah El-Din and Krak des Chevaliers were recognised as a World Hertiage Site by UNESCO.
Qalaat Salah ad Din The entrance bridge across the ravine
Belvoir Castle (Kokhav Hayarden), situated just south of Beit She’an in northern Israel, was built by the Hospitaller Knights in the late 12th Century to guard the sugar trade between the Jordan Valley and Acre. It surrendered to Salah ad Din in 1189 three years after the battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem and Acre. It was destroyed in 1220 to prevent its reoccupation during subsequent crusades. Young French archeologists were busy here during our visit. It was good to watch then at work.
Belvoir Castle, Isreal;
Old Akko, once Ptolomais, and Acre, was major seaport for Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Cleopatra came here. Richard the Lion Heart committed a bloody atrocity here. Napoleon besieged it. And the famous jailbreak that inspired Leon Uris’ Exodus took place here – those scenes in the movie were actually filmed at Akko Prison. Excavations in the Ottoman citadel and in exercise yard of Acre Prison revealed a magnificent crusader city buried below. Dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, it includes the fortress of the Order of the Knights of St John, the Hospitallers. The world heritage site is a series of beautifully conserved and where necessary, carefully reconstructed halls, chambers, passage wants and streets.
The Subterranean Crusader City at Akko
Qal’at Namrud is situated on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan some 800m above sea level, It was built bt Salh ad Din’s nephew to guard a major access route to Damascus against armies coming from the west. It was captured by the Mongols, recaptured by Mamluk Sultan Baybars, and it lost its strategic value as the Crusader threat receded. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century. Sic transit gloria.
In 1101, the Frankish army under King Baldwin I conquered the ancient Herodean city of Caesarea. It was captured by Saladin in 1187 after only a short siege and was retaken in 1191 by Richard the Lion Heart, , who exiled the Muslim inhabitants. The cathedral of the Crusader city was built on the podium raised by King Herod to serve as his city’s acropolis. The end of Crusader Caesarea came in 1265, when the Mamluk Sultan Baybars attacked the city. After a short siege, the Crusader defenders gave up hope and evacuated the city. The conquering Mamluks, fearing a return of the Crusaders, razed the city’s fortifications to the ground.
Adele and Shmuel at the castle gate
Ceasarea gate house
Atlit Castle lies on the Mediterranean cost between Caesarea and Haifa. Today it is a military facility and access is forbidden. However, one can still wander through the derelict crusade cemetery close by. Atilt Detainee Camp, where Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution where incarcerated behind barbed wire. In October 1945, the Palmach underground army, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, carried out a daring raid which released all the prisoners.
Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief]
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i don’t know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire,Home
A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley,Exile
Historical and social memory, and indeed, remembrance and commemoration, and their opposites, forgetfulness and letting go, are intrinsic to our human story. Often our interpretation of history, and our historical narrative, is a version of what we want rather than what actually existed. And hence, the enduring, enthralling, captivating, and almost existential power of invention, if not quite myth, in the telling of our national stories. It is of particular potency amongst people who have for one reason or another left their native land and reside in another.
It is to varying degrees applicable to all migrants – myself included as a migrant to Australia in the Seventies, and my parents, as working class Irish immigrants to England in the late Nineteen Forties – but it is most poignant and melancholy with respect to exiles and refugees.
“We cannot imagine, us in our safe, comfortable, connected anglophone worlds the pain of exile. We cannot begin to imagine. No amount of empathy and Saint Paul’s exhortation to walk a mile on the shoes of The Other. For thousands, tens of thousands, hundred of thousands, millions even, there is no going home. For there is no home. “Crying for home”, as Van Morrison so lyrically sung it, the idea of homecoming is a chimera, a forlorn hope. Van the Man could, can, and will forever be able to go home, just as I, an immigrant and the son of immigrants can go home. I can return to my father’s town, my mother’s town, my home town, and London Town”. From In That Howling Infinite‘s No Going Home
I live in a our country town in northern New South Wales, and work as a community volunteer with Yazidis – mostly Iraqi Kurds but also Syrian. These were the ethnic and religious minority that suffered egregiously at the hands of Islamic State ( and indeed have suffered throughout history at the hands of Muslims who regarded their ancient religion and its rever bee for the mystical Melek Taus, The Peacock Angel, as akin to devil-worship. It is salutary to listen to their stories and to understand how they cleave to their history, faith and culture, and also, hold onto their pain as they adapt to living in Australia. I am conscious of their terrible homesickness, and the pain that they feel because for them, there is no going home – home for many of them no longer exists. I have Bosnian friends from once cosmopolitan Sarajevo who endured the Serbian siege and still have family in Sarajevo and Belgrade. They visit their relatives often but their Bosnia, their Sarajevo, their childhood and youth, indeed, are gone forever.
For the exile, the refugee, the involuntary migrant, their’s is a yearning, a longing, an absence of belonging – an existential homelessness and rootlessness, that is almost like a phantom limb. It is a bereavement, a loss, a spiritual and cultural death that could qualifies for descriptors drawn from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: (Shock and disbelief), denial, anger, bargaining, depression, (testing) and acceptance.
One way the refugee can assuage his or her anguish is through writing. Chicago librarian and writer Leslie Williams notes: “The literature of exile encompasses bitter, impassioned indictments of unjust, inhumane regimes, but also includes wrenching melancholy for lost homes, lost families, and a lost sense of belonging. The pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home echoes across centuries of exile writing” (read here her The Literature of Exile).
It is from this perspective that we look at the poetry of Syrian Palestinian poet Ghayath al Madhoun. His work is the fruit of two exiles. His father fled Palestine for Syria in 1967 after the Six Day War, known to Palestinians as al Naksa, ‘the setback’. and the occupation of the West Bank, and marrying a Syrian from Dara’a in southern Syria. He settled in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. Occupied by rebel militias and ultimately Syrian and Russian forces during Syria’s civil war, Yarmouk was devastated and Madhoun fled to Europe, washing up in Stockholm, Sweden, where he now lives and writes.
Yarmouk camp,.Refugees wait for UNRWA food-deliveries February 2014
Of his life as a Palestinian in Syria, he wrote:
How beautiful life would’ve been if I had an ID card in my pocket. I’d travel with it to my mother in Daraa without explaining to the policeman from Idlib the difference between the Palestinians of 48 and the Palestinians of 67 — or I’d just lose it as my friends do.
In Sweden, he was a stranger in a strange land – “like an olive tree at the north pole,” he once said. However, the irony is that while he was struggling alone with the northern ice, he became, after the Syrian exodus, a host in the house of exile. In I Can’t Attend, he writes:
In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence.
“Ghayath al Madhoun’s poetry is full of paradoxes, news, and scientific and historical information. It’s crowded with names. It’s a poetry with appetite for saying. It wants to argue, but it doesn’t want to do that immediately. It conjures more the tools of modern art, especially installation art. A poetic narration comes out of a cluster of vocabulary and miscellaneous meanings. This narration combines magic and real, eastern and western, question and answer.
al Mahjar – or émigré – poets carried on their shoulders a renaissance burden, and their poetry was characterized by nostalgia, but they didn’t present examples of the environments and the struggles they went through at these exiles. This is what we find in the writings of the author of “Each Time the City Expanded, my Room Became Narrower.” His poetry faces, especially in his two latest books, questions entangled with the idea of European centralism. We who followed him to the north can see the reality of this struggle. The stereotypes faced on this journey can be summarized as follows: Islamophobia; anti-Arabism; hostility toward Palestinians by Israel’s supporters; the hostility of citizens – who may not have animosity toward Islam or Arabs – toward immigrants; and the resentment of previous generations of immigrants regarding the new ones, based on fear of losing their privileges. Furthermore, if a person survived all of this, then there is the impassable bump: the hatred toward the eastern men. Being an eastern man in the west means you despise women and seek to assemble wives like slaves.
On the edge of these sharp blades, the poet stands in confrontation, and converts this conflict into poet material, inquiring about the Palestinian’s rights and condemning the Mediterranean Sea, which has turned into a “predatory animal.”
Despite all the political background, al Madhoun doesn’t write political poetry. He writes about a life he knows. It’s true that its trait is violence, terrorism, oppression and asylum, but it’s true also that he searches for a horizon of possible life”.
Madhoun’s entry in Wikipedia is unusually lyrical”:
“The central themes in al Madhoun’s poetry, which has been translated into numerous languages, are war and destruction, death and fight, exile and homesickness. The speaker is a witness to violence and demise and, as the only survivor, lends his voice to the dead … The protagonists of the poems are the victims of the Syrian civil war, the injured, people fleeing and seeking asylum, and those who remain in the war zone. The complex, prosaic poems are nourished by the rich imagery of Arabic poetry as well as the traditions of European poetry. “Cruelty, brutalization, and love are just as universal in al Madhoun’s texts as the language of poetry. They impressively demonstrate that the Palestinian refugee from Syria is much closer to us than many would like to believe” (Deutschlandfunk). »His poems are carried by graphic vividness, absurdity, and great stylistic sensitivity”.The FAZ wrote: “He is the great poet of a great catastrophe”.
We present I Can’t Attend in full below, in English and also in the original Arabic. We also republish two other poems by this excellent poet.
In the poem, we meet the exiled poet as a stranger in a strange land, enjoying all the benefits of an advanced, heterogeneous Scandinavian country but constantly thinking of his homeland and endeavouring to justify to himself why he cannot return. The exile can never shake off a pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home.
The obvious reason for his exile is the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year, which has shattered his country and scattered its people across the globe – and which has killed many of his friends. He now has a a northern girlfriend who he suggests has caused him to forget, though but for a while, for the memory of his life in Damascus and his family there.. He gives us a pathetic excuse – who will feed his fish when he is away.
He is terribly homesick and suffers from grief and depression, and also, survivor’s guilt. He has this deep longing, a wrenching melancholy for his lost home, his distant family, his sense of identity and belonging. He feels guilty about his exile, It is as if the line between what was, what is and what shall be is blurred, as if he has become a non-person, a living ghost indeed. He fears that he will lose his connection with home, that he will loosen and loose the threads that bind him to his home – his memories.
But the war is forever in his thoughts, Its imagery shapes his prose poem, and he feels the immense loneliness, dislocation and uncertainty that is part of being a stranger, a dark-skinned Arab stranger at that, in a Nordic Land. There is, after all no place like home, and but home is far, far away. He juxtaposes the two societies:“Slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death”. There is a paradox at the heart of a western society, a society that protects you from being killed by others but is unable to protect you from yourself.
The poem concludes with a litany of excuses as to why he is in Sweden and not in Damascus. These become more and more fanciful, more and more mystical, magical realism indeed. He no longer speaks his own language. His old self is disappeared. It is as if he has died inside.
In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence. Emigrants, travellers, refugees go by me, genuine inhabitants, bogus inhabitants, tax-dodgers, alcoholics, the newly rich and racists, all of them crossing in front of me as I sit in the North thinking of the South, composing spurious stories in order to cover up my absence and explain how I can’t attend.
Yes, I can’t attend, for the road between my poem and Damascus is cut off for postmodern reasons: these include the fact that my friends are ascending to God at a rapidly increasing rate, faster than my computer processor, while other reasons relate to a woman I met in the North who made me forget the taste of my mother’s milk, and some are connected to the fishes in the fish tank, who won’t find anyone to feed them in my absence.
I can’t attend, for the distance between my reality and my memory confirms that Einstein was right and the energy produced by my longing equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.
I can’t attend but I can be absent, yes, I can be absent with great skill. I’ve become an expert in recent times and I’ve acquired a diary where I make a note of the times I have to be absent and I have memories that haven’t happened yet.
I can be absent as if I have never existed, as if I am nothing, as if air has never entered my lungs, as if I’ve never had enemies before, as if I’m concentrated memory loss, a coma transmitted like a contagious disease.
I can’t attend as I’m currently busy with the cold war I fight daily with isolation, with indiscriminate shelling by darkness, with systematic depression, with the attacks of loneliness that target the kitchen, the checkpoints that stand between me and summer, the bureaucracy caused by the separation of the legislative and executive powers, the routine procedures of the tax department. You’ve talked to me at length about the war, now let me tell you a little about the peace that I enjoy here in the North. Let me tell you about gradations of skin colour, what it means when people don’t know how to pronounce your name, about black hair, about the democracy that always favours the rich, the health insurance that doesn’t cover your teeth because they aren’t part of the body. Let me talk to you about the tasteless vegetables, the flowers with no smell, the racism masked by a smile. Let me tell you about the fast food, fast trains, fast relationships, slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death.
Will you believe me if I say to you that my shoes are tired, that inside me is a wolf I can’t restrain once he’s smelt blood? Will you believe me if you see on my body the marks of the bullets that have hit my friends there, while I’m sitting here in front of a computer screen? Do you believe in coincidence? My absence is a coincidence planned with extreme care, a well-considered random act. I’ve discovered by coincidence that it’s no coincidence that coincidences happen, and in fact the coincidence is when they don’t happen. The point is, will you believe me if I swear to you by music? I swear by music that a European residence permit prevents us from being shot but makes it more likely that we’ll kill ourselves.
Fine, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you why I can’t attend. It happened on a summer’s evening when I met a sad woman on my way home. In her hand she carried a forest and in her bag a bottle of wine. I kissed her and she became eleven months pregnant…
That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. Damascus caught me in bed with another woman. I tried to put things right, to say what happened was a spur of the moment thing, nothing more, and it wouldn’t happen again. I swore by everything, by the moon, fireworks, women’s fingers, but it was all over, so I fled to the North.
That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a child I didn’t know anything about the market economy. Now, after I’ve become a citizen of a first world country, I don’t know anything about the market economy.
This isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was intending to come, my suitcase collided with an item of breaking news and my language was smashed to bits, the passersby grabbed hold of the pieces and I no longer had a language…
That isn’t what is stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m dead, yes, I died several years ago.
That isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth…
Translation: Catherine Cobham
I Can’t Attend
لا أستطيعُ الحضور.
في الشمالِ، بالقربِ من سياجِ الله، مستمتعاً بالتطورِ الحضاري وسحرِ التكنولوجيا، وبآخرِ ما توصلتْ إليهِ البشريةُ من أساليبِ التمدن، وتحتَ التأثيرِ المخدرِ الذي يمنحهُ الأمانُ والتأمينُ الصحيُّ والضمانُ الاجتماعي وحريةُ التعبير، أتمدَّدُ تحتَ شمس الصيفِ كأنَّني رجلٌ أبيض، وأفكرُ بالجنوب، مختلقاً أعذاراً تبررُ غيابي، يمرُّ بجانبي مهاجرونَ ورحالةٌ ولاجؤون، يمرُّ سكانٌ أصليونَ ومزيفونَ ومتهربونَ من الضرائب، كحوليونَ وأغنياءُ جددٍ وعنصريون، كلُّهم يعبرون أمامي وأنا جالسٌ في الشمالِ أفكرُ بالجنوب، وأؤلفُ قصصاً مزيفةً كي أُغطي على غيابي، وكيفَ أنَّني لا أستطيعُ الحضور.
نعم، لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالطريقُ بين قصيدتي ودمشق مقطوعةٌ لأسباب ما بعد حداثية، منها أنَّ أصدقائي يصعدون إلى الله بتسارعٍ مُضطردٍ أعلى من سرعةِ مُعالجِ كمبيوتري، وبعضُها يخصُّ امرأةً قابلتها في الشمالِ فأنستني حليبَ أمي، وبعضها متعلقٌ بحوضِ السمكِ الذي لنْ يجدَ منْ يطعِمَهُ في غيابي.
لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالمسافةُ بين واقعي وذاكرتي تؤكِّدُ أنَّ أينشتاين على حقّ، وأنَّ الطاقةَ المنبثقةَ من اشتياقي تساوي حاصلَ ضربِ الكتلةِ في مربَّعِ سرعةِ الضوء.
لا أستطيعُ الحضور، لكنَّني قادرٌ على الغياب، نعم، أستطيعُ الغيابَ بمهارةٍ عالية، وقد أصبحتُ محترفاً في الآونة الأخيرة، وصارَ لي أجندةٌ أرتِّبُ فيها مواعيدَ غيابي، وصارَ لي ذكرياتٌ لم تقعْ بعد.
أستطيعُ الغياب، كما لو أنَّني لم أكنْ، كما لو أنَّني عَدَم، كما لو أنَّ الهواءَ لم يدخلْ رئتي من قبل ولم يكُ لي أعداء، كما لو أنَّني فقدانُ ذاكرةٍ مُرَكَّز، كما لو أنَّني غيبوبةٌ تنتقلُ بالعدوى.
لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فأنا الآنَ مشغولٌ بالحربِ الباردة التي أخوضها يومياً مع العزلة، بالقصفِ العشوائيِّ للعتْم، بالاكتئابِ الممنهجِ وغاراتِ الوحدةِ التي تستهدفُ المطبخ، بحواجزِ التفتيشِ التي تقفُ بيني وبين الصيف، بالبيروقراطية بسببِ فَصْلِ السلطاتِ التشريعيةِ والتنفيذية، بالروتينِ في دائرةِ الضريبة، لقد حدَّثْتَنِي طويلاً عن الحرب، دعني أحدِّثك قليلاً عن السلامِ الذي أنعمُ به هنا في الشمال، دعني أحدِّثك عن تدرجاتِ لونِ البشرة، عن معنى ألَّا يعرفَ الناسُ أنْ يلفظوا اسمك، عن الشَّعر الأسود، عن الديمقراطيةِ التي تقفُ دائماً في صالحِ الأغنياء، عن التأمين الصحِّي الذي لا يشمل الأسنان لأنَّها ليست جزءاً من الجسد، دعني أحدِّثكَ عن الخضار التي لا طعمَ لها، عن الورودِ التي لا رائحةَ لها، عن العنصريةِ المغلفةِ بابتسامة، دعني أخبركَ عن الوجباتِ السريعةِ والقطاراتِ السريعةِ والعلاقاتِ السريعة، عن الإيقاعِ البطيءِ والحزنِ البطيءِ والموتِ البطيء.
هل ستُصدقني إنْ قُلتُ لكَ إنَّ حذائي متعبٌ، وإنَّ في داخلي ذئباً لا أستطيعُ كبحَهُ بعد أن اشتمَّ رائحة الدم، هل تصدقني إنْ رأيتَ على جسدي آثارَ الرصاصاتِ التي أصابتْ أصدقائي هناكَ بينما أنا جالسٌ هنا خلفَ شاشةِ الكمبيوتر، أتؤمنُ بالمصادفة، إنَّ غيابي مصادفةٌ مخططٌ لها بعنايةٍ بالغة، خبط عشواء مدروسة، ولقد اكتشفتُ مصادفةً أنْ ليس مصادفةً أنْ تحدثَ المصادفة، إنما المصادفةُ ألَّا تحدث. المهم، هل ستصدقني إنْ حلفتُ لكَ بالموسيقى، أقسمُ بالموسيقى أنَّ تصريحَ الإقامةِ في أوروبا قد يباعد ما بيننا وبين الموتِ بالرصاص، لكنَّه يقاربُ ما بيننا وبين الانتحار.
حسناً، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، سأخبركَ لمَ لا أستطيعُ الحضور، حدثَ ذلك في إحدى أمسياتِ الصيف، حين صادفتُ في الطريق إلى البيت امرأةً حزينة، كانتْ تحملُ في يدها غابة، وفي حقيبتها زجاجةَ نبيذ، قبَّلتُها فأصبحتْ حاملاً في الشهر الحادي عشر…
ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، لقد أمسكتني دمشقُ مع امرأةٍ أُخرى في الفراش، حاولتُ أنْ أُصلحَ الموقف، وأنَّ ما جرى نزوةَ ليس إلا، وأنَّها لن تتكرر، أقسمتُ بكلِّ شيء، بالقمر، بالألعابِ النارية، بأصابعِ النساء، لكنَّ كلَّ شيءٍ كانَ قد انتهى، فهربتُ إلى الشمال…
ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حين كنتُ طفلاً، لم أكنْ أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصاد السوق، الآن وبعدَ أنْ أصبحتُ مواطناً في إحدى دول العالمِ الأول فإنَّني لا أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصادِ السوق…
ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حينَ كنتُ أهمُّ بالمجيء، اصطدمتْ حقيبتي بخبرٍ عاجلٍ فانكسرتْ لغتي إلى قطعٍ وتناهبها المارة، ولم يعدْ لديَّ لغة…
ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، أنا ميِّت، نعم، لقد توفيتُ منذ عدةِ سنوات…
How I became…
Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.
… كيف أصب.حتُ
سقطَ حُزنُها من الشرفةِ وانكسر، أصبحتْ تحتاجُ إلى حزنٍ جديد، حين رافقتُها إلى السوق، كانتْ أسعارُ الأحزان خياليةً فنصحتُهَا أنْ تشتريَ حُزناً مستعملاً، وجدنا حزناً في حالةٍ جيدة، غيرَ أنَّهُ واسعٌ قليلاً، كانَ كما أخبرَنَا البائعُ لشاعرٍ شابٍ انتحرَ في الصيفِ الماضي، أعجبَها الحزنُ وقرَّرنا أخذه، اختلفنا مع البائعِ على السعرِ، فقال إنَّه سيعطينا قلقاً يعودُ إلى الستينياتِ كهديةٍ مجانيةٍ إن اشترينا الحزن، وافقنا وكنتُ فرحاً بهذا القلقِ الذي لم يكنْ في الحسبان، أحسَّتْ بفرحتي فقالت هو لك، أخذتُ القلقَ في حقيبتي ومضينا، مساءً تذكرتُ القلق، أخرجتُهُ من الحقيبةِ وقلَّبتُهُ، لقد كانَ بجودةٍ عاليةٍ وبحالةٍ جيدةٍ رغم نصفِ قرنٍ من الاستعمال، لا بدَّ أنَّ البائعَ يجهلُ قيمتَهُ وإلَّا ما كان ليعطينَاهُ مقابلَ شراء حزنٍ رديءٍ لشاعرٍ شاب، أكثرُ ما أفرحني به هو أنَّهُ قلقٌ وجودي، مشغولٌ بحرفيةٍ عاليةٍ وفيه تفاصيلُ غايةٌ في الدقةِ والجمال، لا بدَّ أنَّهُ يعودُ لمثقفٍ موسوعيٍ أو سجينٍ سابق، بدأتُ باستعمالهِ فأصبحَ الأرقُ رفيقَ أيَّامي، وصِرتُ من مؤيدي مباحثاتِ السلام، توقفتُ عن زيارةِ الأقاربِ وازدادتْ كتبُ المذكراتِ في مكتبتي ولم أعدْ أُبدي رأياً إلا ما ندر، صارَ الإنسانُ عندي أغلى من الوطنِ وبدأتُ أشعرُ بمللٍ عام، أمَّا أكثر ما لفتَ انتباهي هو أنني أصبحتُ شاعراً.
Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. ‘They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot’ and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals. Genocide isn’t appropriate for my friends, as it’s an organised collective action and organised collective actions remind them of the Left that let them down.
Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers. Massacre is the only one to grant them asylum regardless of their backgrounds; their economic circumstances don’t bother Massacre, nor does Massacre care whether they are intellectuals or poets, Massacre looks at things from a neutral angle; Massacre has the same dead features as them, the same names as their widowed wives, passes like them through the countryside and the suburbs and appears suddenly like them in breaking news. Massacre resembles my friends, but always arrives before them in faraway villages and children’s schools.
Massacre is a dead metaphor that comes out of the television and eats my friends without a single pinch of salt.
Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham
المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يأكل أصدقائي، يأكلهم بلا ملحٍ، كانوا شعراءَ، وأصبحوا مراسلين مع حدود، كانوا متعبين وأصبحوا متعبين جداً، “يعبرون الجسر في الصبح خفافاً “، ويموتون خارج التغطية، إنني أراهم بالمناظير الليلية، وأتتبعُ حرارة أجسادهم في الظلام، ها هم يهربون منها إليها، مستسلمين لهذا المساج الهائل، المجزرة أمهم الحقيقية، أما الإبادة الجماعية فهي مجردُ قصيدةٍ كلاسيكيةٍ يكتبها جنرالاتٌ مثقفون أحيلوا إلى التقاعد، الإبادة الجماعية لا تليق بأصدقائي، فهي عملٌ جماعي منظم، والأعمال الجماعية المنظمة تذكرهم باليسار الذي خذلهم.
المجزرةُ تصحو باكراً، تحمّمُ أصدقائي بالماء البارد والدم، تغسلُ ملابسهم الداخلية وتعدُ لهم الخبز والشاي، ثم تعلمهم قليلاً من الصيد، المجزرة أحنُّ على أصدقائي من الإعلان العالمي لحقوق الانسان، فتحتْ لهم الباب حين غُلِّقتْ الأبواب، ونادتهم بأسمائهم حين كانت نشراتُ الأخبار تبحث عن عدد الضحايا، المجزرة هي الوحيدةُ التي منحتهم اللجوء بغض النظر عن خلفياتهم، لم يهمها وضعهم الاقتصادي، لم يهمها إنْ كانوا مثقفين أو شعراء، إنها تنظر إلى الأشياء من زاوية محايدة، لها نفس ملامحهم الميتة، وأسماءُ زوجاتهم الأرامل، تمرُّ مثلهم على الأرياف والضواحي، وتظهرُ فجأة مثلهم في الأخبار العاجلة، المجزرة تشبه أصدقائي، لكنها دائماً تسبقهم إلى القرى النائية ومدارس الأطفال.
المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يخرجُ من التلفزيون، ويأكل أصدقائي دون رشة ملح واحدة.
The World Refugee Crisis in Brief
The Melancholy Mathematics
Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us. But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!
There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.
This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.
Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru. But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .
Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.
Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.
Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.
Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.
These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.
Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.
But situation in Africa is as dire.
More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.
By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.
Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.
And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.
As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.
There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.
The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.
Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.
Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.
And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.
Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.
And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.
Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable.
قمنا بترجمة قصة حياة وفن إسماعيل شموط إلى اللغة العربية. يرجى إعفاء أي أخطاء نحوية ومفردات
المفتاح والعودة – فلسطين كمجاز
رأى الشاعر الفلسطيني محمود درويش فلسطين وطنًا ولكن أيضًا مجازًا – لفقدان عدن ، وأحزان الطرد والنفي ، من أجل القوة الباهتة للعالم العربي في علاقته مع الغرب (محمود درويش ، فلسطين كمجاز)
نشرت النجمة والأستاذة الفلسطينية الأسترالية نجمة خليل حبيب – ومدرسي للغة العربية في العديد من الفصول الدراسية في جامعة سيدني – ورقة بحثية في مجلة نيبولا عام 2008 تبحث في كيفية عودة “العودة” – موضوع متكرر في الأدب العربي المعاصر. – تم تناوله في الرواية العربية ، وكيف يصور من يعيش حلم “العودة” ومن عاد بالفعل إلى فلسطين بعد حرب 1967 أو بعد اتفاقيات أوسلو.
تكتب: “يتجلى مفهوم” العودة “في هذا الأدب بطرق مختلفة بما في ذلك العودة الروحية (كما يتجلى في الأحلام والتطلعات) ؛ العائد المادي الحرفي ؛ عودة الفرد (“العودة” على أساس لم شمل الأسرة) ؛ “العودة” نتيجة احتلال غزة والضفة الغربية بعد حرب 1967 ؛ و “العودة” نتيجة لعملية السلام بعد “اتفاقيات أوسلو“.
Al Mufta مفتاح
المفتاح ، المفتاح ، المفتاح هو رمز دائم للعودة. وهي موجودة في فن الشارع وفي اللافتات والملصقات في جميع أنحاء فلسطين وفي مخيمات اللاجئين. إنه رمز ، لذكرى ، يعود في يوم من الأيام – إلى المنازل الضائعة ، القرى ، الضواحي ، البلدات ، الأرواح وسبل العيش. كما يكتب نغمه ، “العودة” (العودة) متأصلة بعمق في الذاكرة الجماعية الفلسطينية. إنها متجذرة في ضميرهم كإيمان لا يمكن إنكاره ، لأن إنكاره سيعني اقتلاع العقدة التي يعتمد عليها التاريخ والهوية الفلسطينية الحديثة ”.
ولكن بالنسبة للكثيرين ، هو أكثر من ذلك. كتب نجمة: “سواء حدث النفي طوعًا أو في ظل ظروف قمعية ، فإن حلم العودة إلى الوطن يبقى على قيد الحياة في ذهن الشخص المنفي. يتوهج أو يتلاشى من شخص لآخر ومن ظرف إلى آخر ؛ ومع ذلك ، فإن مفهوم “العودة” لم يعد معناه الأساسي ، ولكنه أصبح ينظر إليه على أنه وسيلة للمقاومة وتحدي القمع “.
وتلاحظ الكاتب والناشط الأمريكي الفلسطيني الناشط فواز تركي أن “حق العودة وحلمها هو الصخرة التي تأسست عليها أمتنا والتوازن الاجتماعي الذي يوحد الأمة في هذا العالم البائس”.
إنه الحلم ، الأمل الذي مكن عشرات الآلاف من اللاجئين في المخيمات في جميع أنحاء بلاد الشام من إدراك وضعهم على أنه مؤقت ومقاومة جاذبية الاستيعاب والتعميم في البلدان المضيفة لهم – إذا كان هذا ممكنًا بالفعل نظرًا لأن معظم المضيفين لديهم بثبات قاومت منح الفلسطينيين الحقوق والامتيازات التي يتمتع بها مواطنوهم. في حين أن كونهم جزءًا كبيرًا من الشتات في الغرب قبلوا الإدماج والتجنس ، فإن هؤلاء الفلسطينيين يتواصلون مع شعبهم وثقافتهم في فلسطين ، ولا يزالون يحتفلون بأعيادهم الوطنية.
فر ما بين سبعمائة وثمانمائة فلسطيني من منازلهم في إسرائيل الحالية أو تم طردهم خلال حرب عام 1948. بقي العديد في إسرائيل إما في منازلهم الأصلية أو حيث لجأوا. لقد أصبحوا مواطنين إسرائيليين ، ولكن حتى بالنسبة لهم ، تستمر الذكريات ويستمر الكثيرون في الإشارة إلى المدن والقرى والمحليات بالأسماء التي كانت لديهم قبل قيام دولة إسرائيل.
ومع ذلك ، فإن العودة وحق العودة هو وهم ، حلم يتدلى أمام أعينهم من قبل قادتهم مثل عرض منوم مغناطيسي. ووضع لاجئ الأمم المتحدة ، وهم قديم متعب دأبت عليه الأونروا لتبرير وجودها ورواتبها الجيدة ، وجامعة الدول العربية كورقة تين لنبضها. كان تعريف وتأسيس الأونروا مخطئًا منذ اليوم الأول ، وبينما خلق اللجوء إلى الأجيال ، ولّد أملًا زائفًا ، وأحلامًا غير قابلة للتحقيق ، وحاجزًا لجهود السلام اللاحقة هناك بالفعل اقتصاد كامل ، وعيش ، ونمط حياة مكرس ويعتمد على إدارة الصراع ومشكلة اللاجئين بدلاً من حلها. كان المنفى غير معقول وغير عادل ، لكن الماضي لن يتراجع أبدًا – وبالتأكيد قرارات الأمم المتحدة.
المفتاح ، إذن ، هو أمل بائس ، باب مغلق لا يمكن لأي كمية من المفاتيح فتحه ؛ والواقع هو أن يكون هناك حظر ، خارج السياسة ، خارج المجتمع ، خارج سوق العمل والإسكان. اللاجئون هم أقلية في فلسطين. لا توجد مفاتيح للمنازل والشقق الجديدة التي ترتفع في مدن الضفة الغربية وحولها في طفرة عقارية مستمرة منذ عدة سنوات ولا يمكن الوصول إليها وبأسعار معقولة إلا للطبقة المتوسطة المتنامية من موظفي السلطة الفلسطينية والمنظمات غير الحكومية الأجنبية والمهنيين الشباب.
ولكن بالنسبة للاجئين ، كل هذا مفارقة. إنهم محرومون من فلسطين القديمة من آبائهم وأجدادهم وأسلافهم. لكنهم أيضاً أغلقوا فلسطين الجديدة التي تناضل من أجل الولادة.
شعراء مثل درويش والروائيين استوعبوا وعكسوا النكبة والعودة في عملهم. ينعكس حلم العودة في كتاباتهم. كما هو الحال مع فناني الجرافيك – لا شيء بنفس القوة والحيوية مثل إسماعيل شموط ، المولود في ليديا ، فلسطين عام 1930. عندما وصل آخر مرة في رام الله ، “عاصمة” إدارية بحكم الأمر الواقع لهذا الجزء من حكومة الضفة الغربية من قبل السلطة الفلسطينية – المنطقة أ (لعباس ، نكتة الذكاء) من إدارة أوسلو ، قمنا بزيارة المركز الثقافي دار زهران ، وهو منزل عثماني تم ترميمه بشكل جميل جنوب وسط المدينة مباشرة (وساحته المركزية المليئة بالصور من المفتاح).
من خلال الصدفة المحظوظة ، كانت دار زهران تستضيف معرضًا صغيرًا للوحات بالتذكير بسلسلة مذهلة من اللوحات للفنان الفلسطيني الراحل إسماعيل شموط التي تحكي قصة النكبة والطيران والمنفى.
يتذكر إسماعيل شموط ويحتفل به لتصويره للحياة اليومية في القرى الفلسطينية قبل النكبة ، لتصويره المروع لهروب وطرد الكثير من سكان فلسطين العرب المنتدبين ، ولوحاته الرمزية للشتات التالي.
إن فلسطين هي مكان خالد ، يكاد يكون منامياً ، شبه بعيد عن الزمان والمكان بواقعه المعاصر. كان الحنين والفنانين والشعراء في عصر سابق يصفونه بأنه رعوي مع صوره للحياة اليومية في الريف ، ونقوشه من الشباب والكبار الشباب والرجال والنساء والأطفال والرضع. هناك أزواج من الشباب في الأزياء التقليدية ، والأمهات الشابات مع الأطفال في الأسلحة ، والمزارعين في الحقول ، ومجموعات عائلية من أجيال عديدة. هم في الصالات والمطابخ ، في الساحات والحدائق والحقول والبساتين وأسواق الشوارع كمشترين وبائعين. هناك موسيقيون ومغنون وراقصون في بيئات اجتماعية لا تعد ولا تحصى – في الحفلات والاحتفالات والزواج والمهرجانات والعروض والمواكب.
واحتفالًا بدائرة الحياة من المهد إلى اللحد وإيقاع الفصول ، هناك مشاهد من وقت الحصاد وجمع ثمار الحقول والبساتين. هناك الحبوب والخضروات والزيتون والبطيخ والمشمش والرمان والتين والعنب والبرتقال الذي اشتهرت فلسطين به منذ زمن طويل.
هذه المشاهد الخلوية لعالم مضى – ذهب لنا جميعًا ، وليس فقط لشعب بلاد شموط – تُقترن بصور بيانية للنكبة ، والمنفى ، والطرد والتشريد ، والغزو والاحتلال ، والاحتجاجات والمقاومة المستمرة . وعبر كل شيء ، هناك زخارف أمل وسلام – أزهار وطيور مغنية وحمامات – وأيضًا صراع ومقاومة – أعلام ولافتات وبنادق وصخور.
وتشمل هذه اللوحات الشهيرة شموط لطيران الفلسطينيين وطردهم ، والطريق الطويل الصعب للطائرة على درب الدموع ، والشمس المعادية تنبض. عرضه للحرارة والجوع والعطش والإرهاق يتذكر قصيدة WH Auden المروعة “درع أخيل”، مع صورها المتناقضة والمضطربة للفرح والاحتفال والدمار القاتم ، أحادي اللون تقريبًا … “سهل بدون ميزة ، عارية وبنية ، لا شفرة من العشب ، وليس علامة على الجوار ؛ لا شيء يأكله ولا مكان للجلوس فيه ، لكن المجتمعين على فراشه وقفت على جمهور مفهومة ، مليون عين ، ملايين الأحذية في الطابور ، دون تعبير ، في انتظار إشارة “.
تظهر هذه الصور ، النزيهة والخطيرة ، في لوحات أكبر تصور العقود التي تلت ذلك ، سواء المباشرة – المخيمات والتناثر – والمعاصر – الاحتلال ، الانتفاضتان ، المقاومة المستمرة ، وعملية السلام المتعثرة بشكل دائم . تظهر في الخلفية رموز وأيقونات فلسطين في الماضي والحاضر – خاصة القدس والقدس الذهبية ، والأماكن المقدسة الثمينة جدًا للعديد من الأديان – المساجد والكنائس والأديرة والمدارس ، بما في ذلك الحرم الشريف وكنيسة القيامة.
هناك صور لمخيمات اللاجئين ، ومدن الخيام المزدحمة التي استقر فيها المنفيون لأول مرة ، وحقول النفط الخليجية التي يعمل فيها المغتربون ، والمهن التي دخل إليها المغتربون في جميع أنحاء العالم ، من العمال إلى عمال المختبرات. يوجد أطفال المدارس في مكاتبهم وعمال المكاتب على أجهزة الكمبيوتر ، والحشود ، دائمًا ما تكون حشود من الأشخاص الذين لا حصر لهم ، مجهولي الهوية ، تقريبًا مجهولي الهوية. هناك مسيرات ومظاهرات واشتباكات مع جنود مجهولي الهوية مجهولي الهوية. هناك شباب يرمون الحجارة ويواجهون سيارات مدرعة وجنود يحملون أسلحة. وهناك أحداث سياسية مثل اللقاء الذي عقد في كامب ديفيد بين ياسر عرفات واسحق رابين والذي سهله الرئيس كلينتون ، مما أثار الآمال والتوقعات لم تتحقق.
دى اللوحات هي قوية ومؤثرة بشكل خاص. امرأة مسنة وابنتها تعانقان شجرة الزيتون مع اقتراب جرافة. يسعى صبيان صغيران لعرقلة ;طريقه الذي لا هوادة فيه – وهو مشهد غير معتاد على الإطلاق ، مثل الصورة التي قمت بإقرانها بالعروض
“كيف نجد أشجار الزيتون عندما تختفي جميع أشجار الزيتون؟”
إسماعيل شموط – سيرة
وُلد إسماعيل شموط في بلدة اللدة في 2 مارس 1930. وكان والده عبد القادر شموط تاجرًا لبيع الفواكه والخضروات. كانت والدته عائشة الحاج ياسين. كان لديه سبعة أشقاء: إبراهيم ، كوثر ، جميل ، ميسر ، انعام ، جمال ، توفيق. كانت زوجته الفنان تمام عارف الأكحل ، المولود في يافا عام 1935. أولاده هم يزيد ، بشار ، وبلال.
في عام 1936 بدأ المدرسة الابتدائية ، ورصدت موهبته الفنية في سن مبكرة. تولى مدرسه داود زلاطيمو توليه المسؤولية. خدم زلاطيمو مدرسًا للفنون في ليدا من عام 1930 حتى عام 1948 ، وزينت رسوماته للأحداث التاريخية والطبيعة جدران المدرسة. تم تعليم شموط من قبل زلاطيمو لرسم بالقلم الرصاص والحبر ، والطلاء بالألوان المائية ، والنحت في الحجر الجيري.
بعد إقناع والده الديني والمحافظ بأن “الفن يمكن أن يكون مهنة مربحة” ، بدأ بتزيين فساتين الزفاف بالورود والطيور ثم افتتح متجرا خاصا به ، وهو في الواقع أول استوديو له. وهناك رسم أول زيوته التي تصور المناظر الطبيعية والبورتريه قبل النكبة عام 1948.
بعد ثلاثة أيام من سقوط اللدة و الرملة على يد القوات الصهيونية ، في 13 يوليو 1948 ، اضطر شموط وعائلته (إلى جانب سكان المدينتين) إلى المغادرة والذهاب سيرا على الأقدام إلى رام الله ولم يُسمح لهم بحمل المياه . توفى شقيقه الشاب توفيق من العطش قبل وصولهما إلى قرية نيلين ، بالقرب من رام الله. وثق شموط مسيرة الموت والإرهاق والعطش في العديد من اللوحات المنفذة في الخمسينيات. استمرت العائلة في التحرك حتى استقرت في الخيام التي شكلت في نهاية المطاف مخيم خان يونس للاجئين.
باع شموط المعجنات لمدة عام ، ثم تطوع لتدريس الرسم في مدارس اللاجئين ، التي أقيمت في خيام. هذا سمح له باستئناف مهنته الفنية وعرض لوحاته في غرفة في مدرسة خان يونس الحكومية في عام 1950. وفي نفس العام التحق بأكاديمية الفنون الجميلة في القاهرة وعاش من أرباحه ، ورسم ملصقات الأفلام.
أقام شموط معرضه الأول في عام 1953 ، حيث جمع ما يكفي من اللوحات لمعرض كبير “لكن لم يكن لديه ما يكفي من الشجاعة” لعقده في القاهرة. لذلك عرض في نادي الموظفين في مدينة غزة بالاشتراك مع شقيقه جميل. في ذلك المعرض ، قدم شموط ستين لوحة بما في ذلك لوحاته الشهيرة الآن إلى أين؟ وفم من الماء. اعتبر هذا المعرض أول معرض فني معاصر في تاريخ فلسطين من قبل فنان فلسطيني على الأرض الفلسطينية ، وفقًا لحجمه وعدد الأعمال المعروضة وطريقة افتتاحه والحضور الجماعي.
في عام 1954 ، أقام معرضًا في القاهرة تحت عنوان “اللاجئ الفلسطيني” بالاشتراك مع طالب فني في أكاديمية الفنون الجميلة ، تمام الأكحل ، والفنان الفلسطيني نهاد سباسي. كان هذا المعرض تحت رعاية جمال عبد الناصر ، في ذلك الوقت رئيس وزراء مصر ، وحضره قادة فلسطينيون. شجعته أرباحه من هذا المعرض على السفر إلى إيطاليا حيث سرعان ما حصل على منحة للدراسة في أكاديميا بيلي أرتي في روما ، وظل هناك لمدة عامين (1954-1956).
بعد تخرجه ، انتقل للعيش والعمل في بيروت مع شقيقه جميل في وكالة الأمم المتحدة لإغاثة وتشغيل اللاجئين الفلسطينيين (الأونروا). أنشأ الأخوان مكتبًا للفن التجاري وتصميم الكتب ؛ وقد تضمن الأخير كتيبًا للجيش اللبناني بعنوان “التربية المدنية الإنسانية”.
في عام 1959 ، تزوج من زميلته الفنانة تمام الأخال ، وبعد ذلك عملوا معًا عن قرب ، من الناحية الفنية والمهنية. قاموا بتدريب معلمي الفنون في بيروت والقدس والضفة الغربية وقطاع غزة وعقدوا معارض مشتركة في تلك المناطق.
تابع شموط والآخر عن كثب إنشاء منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية في المؤتمر الوطني الفلسطيني الأول في القدس في عام 1964. في عام 1965 ، أنشأ قسم الثقافة الفنية في قسم الإعلام والتوجيه الوطني لمنظمة التحرير الفلسطينية (المعروف لاحقًا باسم دائرة الإعلام والثقافة) ) ووجه أنشطته حتى عام 1984. عندما أغلقت مكاتب منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية في القدس ، عاد الزوجان إلى بيروت في عام 1966 واستأنفوا العمل مع منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية هناك ، بالإضافة إلى عملهم الشخصي كفنانين. أكمل شموط عددًا لا يحصى من الملصقات والمشاريع الأدبية والسياسية والتقليدية ، ونظمت صحيفة
الأخال عشرات المعارض السياسية والشخصية في مدن حول العالم ، بما في ذلك غزة والقاهرة والقدس ورام الله ونابلس وعمان وواشنطن (بالإضافة إلى اثني عشر مدن أمريكية أخرى) ، طرابلس ، دمشق ، الكويت ، لندن ، بلغراد ، صوفيا ، بكين وفيينا ، بالإضافة إلى الجداريات المسماة “المسار في عمان وأنقرة واسطنبول والدوحة والشارقة ودبي والقاهرة ودمشق وحلب وبيروت . ومن بين أبرز إنجازاته قاعة تسمى دار الكرامة في بيروت حيث تم عرض معارض موسمية لفنانين شباب من مخيمات اللاجئين الفلسطينيين ، وكذلك معارض تضامن عربية ودولية أخرى
في عام 1969 ، أسس شموط وغيره من الفنانين الفلسطينيين أول اتحاد عام للفنانين الفلسطينيين. ظل أمينًا عامًا لها حتى عام 1984. وشارك أيضًا في تأسيس الاتحاد العام للفنانين العرب في عام 1971 وكان أول أمين عام لها ، وهو المنصب الذي شغله حتى عام 1984.
بعد الغزو الإسرائيلي للبنان في عام 1982 ، ورحيل المقاومة الفلسطينية وقادتها ، وإغلاق مكاتب منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية ، اضطر شموط (الذي كان يعاني من مرض في القلب وتفاقم) إلى الانتقال مع أسرته إلى الكويت في عام 1983 ، حيث عاشوا خلال احتلال الكويت عام 1991 وحرب الخليج الثانية. بعد تحرير الكويت ، أُجبرت الأسرة مرة أخرى على الانتقال عام 1992 ، هذه المرة إلى ألمانيا. في عام 1994 ، استقر أخيرًا شموط والأخل في عمان ، الأردن.
يعتبر شموط عمومًا رائدًا في الفن الفلسطيني المعاصر. كان فنانًا ملتزمًا كان أسلوبه واقعيًا مع بعض العناصر الرمزية. سيطرت القضية الفلسطينية على فنه ، وقد تم توزيع بعضها على نطاق واسع في المخيمات والمنازل وتضامنًا مع حملات فلسطين في الدول العربية وخارجها. يمكن اعتبار بعض أعماله أيقونة للشعب الفلسطيني.
لم يتوقف شموط عن تصوير الخروج الفلسطيني من فلسطين في لوحات تحمل ألقابًا ومعانيًا موجودة كثيرًا في أذهان الناس وفي تجربته الخاصة ؛ مثال على ذلك هو اللوحة التي تحمل عنوان أين؟ (1953). كانت لوحاته مستوحاة من حياة المخيم (مثل Memories and Fire ، 1956 ؛ We Shall Return ، 1954 ؛ و Bride and Groom at the Border ، 1962) ودعت إلى التفكير في معنى الأمة في الانتظار.
منحته منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية الدرع الثوري للفنون والآداب ، وميدالية القدس للثقافة والفنون والآداب ، وجائزة فلسطين للفنون. منحه منتدى الفكر العربي الجائزة الإبداعية للرسم العربي. يتم منح جائزة سنوية باسمه عن اللوحة الفلسطينية الممتازة. تم الحصول على أعماله من قبل العديد من المتاحف العربية والدولية.
أجبرته حالة قلبه على الخضوع لثلاث عمليات حرجة ، أجريت الثالثة في لايبزيغ ، ألمانيا ؛ توفي في 3 يوليو 2006 ودفن في عمان.
بالإضافة إلى لوحاته ، كتب قصصًا عن الرسم والحرف الفلسطينية وأنتج عددًا من الأفلام التي تأثرت بخبراته الفنية. تشمل هذه الأفلام فيلمًا بعنوان الذكريات والنا (1973) ) ، وفاز بجائزة الأفلام الوثائقية القصيرة في مهرجان لايبزيغ ؛ نداء عاجل (1973) ؛ وعلى الطريق إلى فلسطين (1974). أنتجت نورة الشريف فيلمًا قصيرًا يدعى إسماعيل ، وتناول جزءًا من حياته خلال فترة ولايته الأولى كلاجئ في مخيم خان يونس. يتوفر موقع ويب مخصص لعمله على الموقع
The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.
The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously.
The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War.
Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert.
Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements.
It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017.
Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle.
Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth
As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.
In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Urunga area where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River. Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf
Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there.
On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’.
The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.
“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”
Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. We visited it in May 2016. It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”
It’s a crash course for the ravers – it’s a drive-in Saturday! David Bowie
Apparently, it’s party time in Dubai as the potentially impecunious emirate lowers its COVID19 guard and stands down its morality mukhabarat to lure champagne Charlies and Charlottes from plague infested England and its new-found Israeli tourists to raucous hootenannies in the casbah. Pandemic restrictions be damned! We’ll vaccinate the lot – well, most of them. The occidental groovers and grifters will get their shots before the lowly South and South East Asians who constitute the majority of the Emirates’ expatriate workforce.
Business is business, and why not? In our democracies, it is our right to hire a DJ, bring in the booze and throw a party, inviting all our friends and neighbours. We’re even willing to defy lockdowns and social distancing and risk hefty fines to assert our right, nay, need to be crowdy and rowdy.
Young folk in less liberated and licentious lands should be so lucky. As the story we publish below by Israeli-Arab writer and Haaretz editor Rajaa Natour illustrates, identity politics, cancel culture, and the right to take offence are not the exclusive preserve of the so-called “woke” leftists of the west and their particularistic adversaries on the right. When nationalism, secularism, religiosity, and identity collide the door is wide open for intolerance, misogyny and ignorance.
When travelling through the Middle East and studying Arabic, there are two words that you learn quicksmart: mamnu’ and muharam, ممنوع و محرم. They both mean forbidden, prohibited, “don’t do it!”. The first is the voice of secular authority enforced by police, soldiers and officials; and the second is a religious edict determined by spiritual leaders and enforced by social custom and quite often, self-appointed vigilantes. Islam as a faith observes no separation between the divine and the secular in human affairs, and in Muslim societies, the dividing line is sometimes slim to nonexistent, the one reinforcing the other – with unfortunate consequences for perceived transgressors, as Palestinian musician Sama Abdelhadi found out when she organised a dance party in a remote location, and incurred the wrath of the straighteners, the patriarchy, and, so these would declare, the Almighty.
A crash course for the ravers
A video clip of a dance party hosted by a celebrated female DJ at a what is reputed to be a holy site quickly goes viral on social media, infuriating many Palestinians who claim that the party-goers are debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the shrine, of Word gets out in real-time and the party is gate-crashed by a posse of young Palestinian men who violently expel the revelers. Arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, the DJ is at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating COVID19 regulations, and is remanded in custody for 15 days.
Natour writes: “When a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures. And so the second act begins as the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi … But (the) arguments are fatuous. There is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa and the defiled location – its desecration and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent is to turn an imaginary violation into something real, and a tool in the service of political-religious interests.
The Nebi Musa shrine, by the way, is named for the Prophet Moses – old Moshe is holy to all three Peoples of the Book – and he is reputed to be buried there. The biblical record – which was later borrowed by Christianity and by Islam is clear that Moses did not enter the Promised Land, but rather, expired on a high place overlooking Canaan on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea – the town adjacent to the archaeological icon of Petra is called Wadi Musa, ‘the valley of Moses’.
Palestinian political leaders (male) cooperate with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation of secularism in principle and particularly secular culture. The Palestinian Authority has even suggested a commission of inquiry – a roundabout way of kicking the can up the road. But what bothers the public, it would seem, is not the cultural gap between techno music and Palestinian culture, but rather, it neglects the Palestinian narrative and is therefore not legitimate.
Then Israeli Arab politicians (male) get involved, presenting the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism, turning the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one. Palestinian secularism is framed as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism that must be silenced.
Then another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins.
Natour concludes: “The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more”.
Sama Abdulhadi (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)
The Left’s Palestinian paradox
It is one of the great paradoxes confronting the Palestinians’ western, predominantly left-wing sympathizers. Whether these are advocating one-state or two-state solutions, they declaim that their preferred model, whatever or whenever this comes into being, will be democratic, pluralistic and if not entirely secular, then at least, tolerant, egalitarian and non-discriminatory, respecting human rights and social justice. This, alas, is wishful thinking.
Residents of the Israeli occupied territories and of Gaza are divided on the character and complexion of their hypothetical Palestinian nation state. A majority are long accustomed to authoritarian leaders, the traditional zaim (boss or strongman), and cleave to their Islamic faith, family and clan loyalties, and their conservative social structures and strictures. This is reflected in the ideological schisms between the secularist and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement and its more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries. And it would appear that among Palestine’s opportunistic, unelected, often corrupt and predominantly male political elite, nationalism has donned Islamic garb.
It was not always thus. Once upon a not too distant time, the national movement was predominantly secular. Western-style intellectuals and leftist groups played a preeminent role (as it was with most Arab nationalists back in the day, with Christians playing an influential part). Political discourse was premised on the idea that the conflict with Israel and Zionism revolved about territory, human and political rights and “the return” of refugees to their former homes and lands. The goal of the national struggle was to replace the “Zionist regime” with a democratic, secular state where Jews, Christians and Muslims could coexist in peace, or failing this, with the militarily powerful State of Israel unprepared to dissolve itself, a Palestinian State within the borders of the former Jordanian West Bank and onetime Egyptian ruled Gaza.
But the ascendancy of Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their I found on the Palestinian “street” transformed the debate, and the vision of a democratic and secular Palestine is challenged by calls to expel all Jews (the settlers, hundreds of thousands of them, and the IDF) and to establish a state based, ideally, on Shariah Law. And this appeals to an increasingly dispirited, disenfranchised, impoverished, conservative and religious Palestinian street.
Whilst the national movement increasingly abandons its former left-wing, democratic and secular ideals, there is nevertheless sustained broad support for the Palestinian cause among the western left – a broad constituency of mainstream socialists and social democrats, and also the acolytes, partisans and naïfs of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Many on the left now tolerate developments in the West Bank and Gaza that are at odds with the liberal, enlightened world-view they ostensibly champion, including free elections, freedom of speech and association, religious freedom, human rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights.
There has been muted criticism of the actions and rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and what could be interpreted as tacit support for their corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian rule. The rationale is that if it wasn’t for the occupation, things would be democratically and economically hunky-dory; and there is a tendency to blame only Israel when violence erupts whilst ignoring the dynamics at play in Palestinian domestic politics and the internecine conflicts that dominate them (again, if it wasn’t for the occupation etc.)
The arrest of Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi after she played a set at the Nabi Musa complex wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity
Again and again the voices rose, decisive, mechanical, brutal, leaving no room or time for bewilderment: “Get out! Everybody, out, now.” Amid the shrieks, one young voice, angry and bellicose, stood out: “Get out or I’ll blow up the world.” The organizers countered the threats with a limp, apologetic response and stopped the party on the spot.
The shouters weren’t Trumpists invading Capitol Hillin Washington. They were ten young Palestinians from Jerusalemwho violently broke up a party that tookplace on December 26 in the Nabi Musa complex.
The complex features a mosque and other buildings too and is located in the Judean Desert, south of Jericho and east of Jerusalem. These hotheads went there after one of the revelers posted young Palestinian men and women dancing, drinking and smoking on Instagram.
Nabi Musa shrine, the West Bank Dec 2020. Ammar Awad Reuters
In the first act, a video clip was disseminated on social media, quickly going viral and infuriating many Palestinians, who claimed that the party-goers were debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the locale. Obviously, when a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures.
This is where the second act begins, in which the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi, a popular 29-year-old Palestinian DJ who was mixing the music. She was arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating Palestinian Health Ministry regulations. She was then remanded in custody for 15 days.
Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.
Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.
Abdulhadi has lived in a number of cities around the world and has performed at highly-acclaimed clubs in Europe, at festivals, and on the largest and most popular online techno music broadcasting platform of them all, Boiler Room. According to Abdulhadi, the party at Nebi Musa was part of a project designed to promote local tourism through techno music.
Nothing helped Abdulhadi, not being a Palestinian woman committed to her people’s struggle against the occupation, not her cultural contribution to the global techno scene, nor even her argument, backed by documents, that she had the approval of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. The latter retreated after the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs condemned the party, supported by widespread public pressure, and ultimately denied that it had approved the event.
The story didn’t end there. It was kept alive, mainly by male Palestinian leaders, who also capitulated and cooperated in turn with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation, which was primarily a castigation of secularism in principle, particularly secular culture as embodied in techno music.
One interesting argument used against Abdulhadi was that her techno music is not part of Palestinian heritage. But what bothered the public was not the cultural gap between this music and Palestinian culture, but the gap in narratives: this music doesn’t tell the familiar Palestinian narrative, therefore it is not legitimate.
Many Palestinian public figures condemned and denounced her actions. Among these were the Ministry of Tourism spokesman, Jarees Qumsiyeh, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Qanua, Jericho Governor Jihad Abu al-Asal, and others. Yet others did not make do with mere condemnation. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh promised to punish those responsible and immediately established a commission of inquiry. Many people were angry, condemning the event and demanding retribution, but their arguments focused on religious aspects.
But these arguments are fatuous, as there is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa (i.e. Moses) and this location. Thus, the defiled location, the desecration that occurred and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent was to turn this imaginary violation into something real, making it a tool in the service of political-religious interests.
And then came the third act, involving among others the Knesset member Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List. It was the most dangerous of the three acts in terms of politics and culture. Odeh and others presented the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism. They turned the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one. Moreover, they presented Palestinian secularism in all its aspects as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism, thus making it imperative to silence it. Regrettably, this discourse has taken wing on social media.
And then yet another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins. The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more.
Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:
“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.
As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.
This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.
But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.
In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.
Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses
Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.
On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner.
In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.
Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.
Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.
The year ahead?
Our year in review
And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.
The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the firstthe schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.
Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.
February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.
The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”. With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.
The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.
In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.
Flashman in the Great Game
Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun,Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.
Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal
Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under – even if it was actually filmed in Spain.
In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.
And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish saw Palestine as a homeland but also as a metaphor – for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and and of exile, for the diminishing power of the Arab world in its relationship with the west (Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine as Metaphor)
Palestinian Australian author and academic Nejmeh Khalil-Habib – and my Arabic teacher for many semesters at the University of Sydney – published a paper in Nebula magazine in 2008 examining how the “Return” – al ‘awda العودة – a recurring theme in contemporary Arabic literature – has been dealt with in Arabic fiction, and how it depicted those who live the dream of “Return” and those who actually returned to Palestine after the 1967 war or after the Oslo Accords.
She writes: “The concept of “Return” throughout this literature manifests itself in various ways including the spiritual return (as manifested in dreams and aspirations); the literal, physical return; an individual’s return (a “Return” on the basis of family reunions); the “Return” as a result of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after the war of 1967; and the “Return” as a result of the peace process after the “Oslo Accords.”
Al Muftah, المفتاح, the key is an enduring symbol of al ‘awda. It is present in street art and in signs and posters throughout Palestine and in the refugee camps. It is a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to lost homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods. As Nejmeh writes,“The Return” (Al-Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory. It is rooted in their conscience like a faith that could not be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynchpin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends”.
But for many, it is something more than that. Nejmeh writes: “Whether exile happens voluntarily or under oppressive circumstances, the dream of returning home stays alive in the mind of the exiled person. It flares or fades from person to person and from one circumstance to another; however, the concept of “return” ceases to be about its basic meaning, but comes to be seen as a means of resistance and challenging oppression”.
She notes American-Palestinian author and activist Fawaz Turky assertion that “the right and dream of Return is the rock upon which our nation was established and the social balance that unites the nation in this wretched world”.
It is the dream, the hope that enabled tens of thousands of revues in camps throughout the Levant to perceive their situation as temporary and to resist the allure of assimilation and mainstreaming in their host countries – if this was indeed possible given that most hosts have steadfastly resisted granting Palestinians rights and privileges enjoyed by their own citizens. Whilst being much of the diaspora in the West has accepted inclusion and naturalization, these Palestinians connect with their people and their culture in Palestine, and still celebrate their national holidays.
Between seven and eight hundred Palestinians fled their homes in present day Israel or were expelled during the 1948 war. Many remained in Israel either in their original homes or where they sought refuge. They became Israeli citizens, but even for these, the memories endure and many continue to refer to the towns and villages and localities by the names they had prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.
And yet, al ‘awda, and the Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status, a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pulsanimity. UNWRA’s definition and establishment was at fault from day one, and whilst creating generational refugeedom, it engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts There is indeed a whole economy, a living, a lifestyle devoted to and dependent on managing the conflict and the refugee problem rather than solving it. The exile was unreasonable and unjust, but the past will never be undone – and most certainly never by UN resolutions.
The key, therefore, is a forlorn hope, a closed door that no amount of keys can unlock; and the reality is that of a lock-out, out of politics, out of society, out of the jobs and housing market. The refugees are a minority in Palestine. There are no keys for the new houses and apartments that are going up in and around the cities of the West Bank in a property boom that has been going on for several years now and accessible and affordable only for a growing middle class of employees of the PA and foreign NGOs and young professionals.
But for refugees, all this is paradox. They are locked out of the old Palestine of their parents and grandparent and forebears. But they are also locked out the new Palestine that is struggling to be born.
Poets like Darwish and novelists have internalized and reflected al Nakba and al ‘awda in their work. The dream of al ‘awda is reflected in their writing. As it is also do with to graphic artists – none as powerfully and poignantly as ismail Shammout, born in Lydia, Palestine in 1930. When last In Ramallah, de facto administrative “capital” of that part of the West Bank government by the Palestinian Authority – Area A (for Abbas, joke the wits) of ththe Oslo dispensation, we visited the cultural centre Dar Zahran, a beautifully restored Ottoman house just south of the city centre (and its central square festooned with images af al Muftah).
By fortunate serendipity, Dar Zahran was hosting a small exhibition of paintings by recall an amazing series of paintings by the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout that told the story of al Nakba and of flight and exile.
I have republished below a concise biography of Shammout by the Palijounrneys blog.
Ismail Shammout is remembered and celebrated for his depictions of everyday life in Palestinian villages before the Nakba, for his harrowing portrayal of flight and expulsion of much of Mandate Palestine’s Arab population, and his allegorical tableaux of the ensuing diaspora.
His Palestine is a timeless, almost dreamlike place quite out of time and place with its contemporary reality. Nostalgists and artists and poets of an earlier era would have described it as pastorale with its images of everyday life in the countryside, and its vignettes of young folk and old, men and women, children and babies. There are young couples in traditional costumes, young mothers with babes in arms, farmers in fields, and family groups of many generations. They are in lounges and kitchens, in yards and gardens, fields and orchards, and street markets as buyers and sellers. There are musicians and singers and dancers in myriad social settings – at parties and celebrations, marriages and festivals, parades and and processions.
And, celebrating the circle of life from cradle to grave and the rhythm of the seasons, there are scenes of harvest time and the gathering of the fruits of the fields and the orchards. There are grains and vegetable, olives, and water melons, apricots and pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the oranges for which Palestine was long famous.
Such bucolic scenes of a gone world – gone for us all, and not just for Shammout’s country folk- are juxtaposed with graphic images of al Nakba, and of exile, of expulsions and dispossession, of conquest and occupation, and of ongoing protest and resistance. And through, it all, are motifs of hope and of peace – flowers, songbirds and doves – and also, of conflict and resistance – flags and banners, rifles and rocks.
These include Shammout’s famous paintings of the Palestinians’ flight and expulsion, and the long hard road of flight on a trail of tears, the hostile sun beating down. His rendering of the heat, hunger, thirst and exhaustion recall of WH Auden’s harrowing poem The Shield of Achilles, with its contrasting and jarring snapshot images of joy and celebration and of bleak, almost monochrome desolation … “a plain without a feature, bare and brown, no blade of grass, not sign of neighbourhood; nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, but congregated on on its blankness stood an intelligible multitude, a million eyes, a millions boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign”.
These images, the fair and the foul, reappear within larger paintings that depict the decades that followed, both the immediate – the camps and the scattering – and the contemporary – the occupation, the two Intifadat, ongoing resistance, and the perpetually stuttering peace process. In the background are the symbols and icons of Palestine past and present – particularly of al Quds, Jerusalem the golden, with the holy places that are so precious to many faiths – its mosques and churches, its monasteries and madrasas, including the Haram al Sharif and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
There are images of refugee camps, the crowded tent-cities where the exiles first settled, of Gulf oil fields where expatriates laboured, and of the professions that expatriates entered into all over the world, from labourers to lab workers. There are school children at their desks and office-workers at computers, and crowds, always crowds of numberless, nameless, almost faceless people. There are marches and demonstrations, and clashes with anonymous, faceless soldiers. There are youths throwing stones and facing off against armoured cars and troops bearing weapons. And there are political events like the meeting at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin facilitated by President Clinton which fired up hopes and expectations rest were never realized.
One painting is a particularly potent and poignant. An elderly woman and her daughter hug their olive tree as a bulldozer approaches. Two young boys endeavour to block its relentless path – a scene that is not at all unusual, as the picture I have paired it with shows. “How shall we find olive branches when all the olive trees are gone?’
Ismail Shammout was born in the town of Lydda on 2 March 1930. His father, Abd al-Qadir Shammout, was a fruit and vegetable merchant. His mother was Aisha al-Hajj Yasin. He had seven siblings: Ibrahim, Kawthar, Jamil, Muyassar, Inam, Jamal, and Tawfiq. His wife was the artist Tamam Arif al-Akhal, who was born in Jaffa in 1935. His children are Yazid, Bashar, and Bilal.
In 1936 he started elementary school, and his artistic talent was spotted at an early age. His teacher, Dawud Zalatimu, took him in charge. Zalatimu served as an art teacher in Lydda from 1930 until 1948, and his drawings of historic events and nature decorated the school walls. Shammut was taught by Zalatimu to draw with pencil and ink, to paint with watercolors, and to sculpt in limestone.
After convincing his religious and conservative father that “art could be a profitable profession,” he started by decorating wedding dresses with flowers and birds and then opened his own shop, which was in fact his first studio. There he painted his first oils depicting natural scenery and portraiture before the Nakba of 1948.
Three days after the fall of Lydda and Ramla to the Zionist forces, on 13 July 1948, Shammout and his family (along with the inhabitants of the two towns) were forced to leave and go on foot to Ramallah and were not allowed to carry water. His young brother Tawfiq died of thirst before they arrived at the village of Nilin, near Ramallah. Shammout documented that march of death, exhaustion, and thirst in several paintings executed in the 1950s. The family continued to move until it settled in the tents that eventually formed the Khan Yunis refugee camp.
Shammout sold pastry for one year and then volunteered to teach drawing at the refugee schools, which were set up in tents. This allowed him to resume his artistic career and to exhibit his paintings in a room in the Khan Yunis government school in 1950. That same year he joined the Fine Art Academy in Cairo and lived off his earnings, drawing movie posters.
Shammout held his first exhibition in 1953, having accumulated enough paintings for a large exhibition “but did not have enough courage” to hold it in Cairo. So he exhibited at the Employees Club in Gaza city jointly with his brother Jamil. At that exhibition Shammout presented some sixty paintings including his now famous Where to? and A Mouthful of Water. That exhibition was regarded as the first contemporary art exhibition in Palestine’s history by a Palestinian artist on Palestinian soil, as judged by its size, the number of works exhibited, the way it was opened, and the mass attendance.
In 1954 he held an exhibition in Cairo called The Palestinian Refugee jointly with an art student at the Fine Arts Academy, Tamam al-Akhal, and the Palestinian artist Nuhad Sabasi. This exhibition was under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at that time Egypt’s prime minister, and was attended by Palestinian leaders. His earnings from that exhibition encouraged him to travel to Italy where he soon received a scholarship to study at Rome’s Academia di Belle Arti, and he remained there for two years (1954–56).
Following his graduation he moved to live and work in Beirut with his brother Jamil at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The brothers set up an office for commercial art and book design; the latter included a pamphlet for the Lebanese army entitled “Human Civic Education.”
In 1959 he married fellow artist Tamam al-Akhal and thereafter they worked closely together, artistically and professionally. They trained art teachers in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip and held joint exhibitions in those localities.
Shammout and al-Akhal followed closely the creation of the PLO at the First Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem in 1964. In 1965 he set up the Artistic Culture Section of the PLO Department of Information and National Guidance (later known as Department of Information and Culture) and directed its activities until 1984. When the offices of the PLO in Jerusalem closed, the couple returned to Beirut in 1966 and resumed work with the PLO there, in addition to their personal work as artists. Shammout completed an innumerable number of posters and literary, political, and traditional projects and with al-Akhal organized tens of political and personal exhibitions in cities around the world, including Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Amman, Washington (plus twelve other US cities), Tripoli, Damascus, Kuwait, London, Belgrade, Sofia, Beijing, and Vienna, in addition to murals called The Path in Amman, Ankara, Istanbul, Doha, Sharjah, Dubai, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut. Among his most notable achievements is the hall called Dar al-Karama in Beirut where seasonal exhibitions by young artists from Palestinian refugee camps were displayed, as were other Arab and international solidarity exhibitions.
In 1969, Shammout and other Palestinian artists founded the first General Union of Palestinian Artists; he remained its secretary-general until 1984. He also participated in founding the General Union of Arab Artists in 1971 and was its first secretary-general, a position he held until 1984.
Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the departure of the Palestinian resistance and its leaders, and the closing of the PLO offices, Shammout (who had a heart condition that had worsened) was forced to move with his family to Kuwait in 1983, where they lived through the occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and the second Gulf War. After the liberation of Kuwait, the family was again forced to move in 1992, this time to Germany. In 1994, Shammout and al-Akhal finally settled in Amman, Jordan.
Shammout is generally regarded as a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art. He was a committed artist whose style was realistic with some symbolistic elements. The Palestinian cause dominated his art, some of which was widely distributed in camps and houses and in solidarity with Palestine campaigns in the Arab countries and beyond. Some of his works can be regarded as iconic for the Palestinian people.
Shammout never ceased to depict the Palestinian exodus from Palestine in paintings that carried titles and meanings very much present in people’s minds and in his own experience; an example is the painting he titled Where to? (1953). His paintings were inspired by camp life (such as Memories and Fire, 1956; We Shall Return, 1954; and Bride and Groom at the Border, 1962) and called for reflection on the meaning of a nation in waiting.
The PLO awarded him the Revolutionary Shield for Arts and Literature, the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature, and The Palestine Prize for the Arts. The Arab Thought Forum awarded him The Creative Prize for Arab Painting. An annual prize in his name is awarded for excellent Palestinian painting. His works have been acquired by several Arab and international museums.
His heart condition forced him to undergo three critical operations, the third of which was performed in Leipzig, Germany; he died on 3 July 2006 and was buried in Amman.
In addition to his paintings, he wrote histories of Palestinian painting and crafts and produced a number of films, which were influenced by his artistic experiences. These include a film called Memories and Fire (1973), which won the Short Documentary Film Prize at the Leipzig Festival; Urgent Appeal (1973); and On the Road to Palestine (1974). Noura al-Sharif produced a short film called Isma‘il, which dealt with a part of his life during his first period as a refugee in the Khan Yunis camp. A website devoted to his work is available at http://www.ismail-shammout.com