Another fine LRB diary piece by Palfest participant Jeremy Harding. A visit to the al-Khalidi library leads Jeremy to consider “the war for control of East Jerusalem that Israel has been waging, slowly but surely, by non-military means.” More pieces by Jeremy are here , here, here, and here.
Haifa al-Khalidi says that she’s not a librarian. Fine. But the al-Khalidi collection on 116 Bab al-Silsilah Street in the old city of Jerusalem doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a library so maybe Haifa simply means she’s not a scholar, even if she’s now acquainted with a thousand rare manuscripts and many more works in print that are housed here. One of the first she shows us is a beautifully decorated Arabic translation of a work on poisons and remedies by a 12th-century Indian physician. (Later I learn it contains a tale about metabolic resistance and how it’s possible, carefully and slowly, to administer a poison to a subject whose antibodies enable him to survive, even though someone else who touches him will die. Actually, that ‘he’ in the story is a her, tanked up to become a poison pie and set before a king.)
After the defeat of the Arabs in June 1967, many Palestinians who’d been driven east over the Jordan River by the fighting tried desperately to return to their homes by slipping back across. The bridges, including the Allenby Bridge, had been damaged, but the patched-up remains were serviceable. The Allenby Bridge crossing was closely guarded, however, and used by the soldiers on Israel’s newest frontier to put people out, rather than allow them in. Palestinian refugees trying to get home from Jordan, as well as groups of fedayeen, preferred to ford the shallow river at dead of night, although 50 IDF ambush parties were stationed along the west bank, instructed to fire on shadows in the water. By September, more than a hundred people had been shot dead trying to return and a thousand had been deported back to Jordan.
On the Jordanian side of the river journalists were counting up to 80,000 refugees in tents, with more being driven in from the west bank as Israeli soldiers fired over their heads to hurry them along. To avoid what was clearly an international scandal in the making, the Israeli government decided to stage a televised return of several thousand Palestinians. There was disagreement among the ministries about how to select the fortunate few. A Foreign Ministry official argued that the key point was demographic: children and women of childbearing age should be kept to a minimum; but in the prevailing view, the older refugees of 1948 were far more undesirable.
The web, writes Palfest participant Jeremy Harding, is one of the few places where Palestinians, losing ground by the day to the realities of occupation and settlement, can make their aspirations plain. Jeremy’s first diary piece on Palestine is here.
A good way to grasp what’s happening to East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is from the air. Google Earth can do that for you, but there’s a history of contention: in 2006, users created tags for Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948-49; the following year Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades were said to be checking potential Israeli military targets against Google Earth pictures; last year there was a controversy over the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam, when a user called Thameen Darby posted a note claiming it was formerly a Palestinian locality ‘evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war’. Kiryat Yam, its residents protested as they reached for the nearest lawyer, was built in the 1930s.
Jeremy Harding, one of the Palfest writers, hints at the crucial role culture will play in the liberation of Palestine. Read on to see the great Suheir Hammad.
Last week, the Palestine Festival of Literature organised a discussion about travel and writing at the Dar Annadwa cultural centre in Bethlehem. One of Palfest’s star guests, touring the West Bank and East Jersualem, was Michael Palin, whose early glories, before his reinvention as a traveller, were much on people’s minds. He spoke well about growing up in Sheffield and cultivating a passion for Hemingway, but the audience was delighted when someone suggested that living under Israeli occupation was a bit like being in the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. As the panellists stood up and tidied their books, a young Palestinian in the seat in front of me said she couldn’t believe we were all with Palin in Bethlehem – Bethlehem! – and no one had thought to ask about Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But with two other writers on the stage, there’d been a lot of ground to cover.