Syrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.
As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:
Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”
An edited version of this article was published in The National.
We entered Palestine from Jordan, across the Allenby Bridge and over the trickle which is what’s left of the diverted, overused, and drought-struck river. The Dead Sea glittered in the hollow to our left. Jericho, the world’s oldest city, shimmered through heat haze to our right. The site where Jesus was baptised was a stone’s throw away. Palestine is most definitely part of bilad ash-Sham, in the same cultural zone as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it is also most definitely like nowhere else on the planet. Suddenly the superlatives were coming thick and fast.
Palestine feels as large as a continent – but one that’s been crushed and folded to fit into the narrow strip of fertile land between the river and the sea. The Jordan Valley depression is the lowest point on earth, part of the Rift Valley which stretches from east Africa, and it’s as hot as the Gulf. But only a few miles up from the yellowed, cratered desert into the green hills before Jerusalem, and the weather is very different. As we left our performance in Ramallah a couple of nights later, gusts of fog blew in on an icy wind. If a Palestinian in the West Bank manages to find an unoccupied hilltop – which isn’t at all easy – he can look all the way to the forbidden Mediterranean, and perhaps he’ll pick out the fields of his ancestral village.
There’s no pretty way to describe what I saw in Hebron, no tidy conceit to wrap it in.
I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.
Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on ‘the role of writing in changing political realities.’ The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.
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.)
A great piece by best-selling crime writer and Palfest participant Henning Mankell, originally published in the Swedish paper Aftonbladet. Mankell was tremendously moved by what he saw in Palestine, and we hope he is able to transmit this passion to his millions of readers. Mankell is informed enough to realise that the two-state solution is no solution. He concludes, “The fall of this disgraceful Apartheid system is the only thing conceivable, because it must be.”
About a week ago, I visited Israel and Palestine. I was part of a delegation of authors with representatives from different parts of the world.
We came to participate in the Palestinian Literary Festival. The opening ceremony was supposed to take place at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem.
We had just gathered when heavily armed Israeli military and policemen walked in and announced that they were going to stop the ceremony.
When we asked why, they answered: You are a security risk.
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.
I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.
By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.
Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”
Surely Omar was pleased that, since the peace agreement, he could visit his family in Bethlehem? Not really: “Jordan allows every Israeli to come here. They get visas automatically when they come in. But we have to apply at the Israeli embassy, where they treat us badly, and 95% of applications are refused. I tried to go in for my uncle’s funeral, but they wouldn’t let me. This is the balanced peace we have with our neighbours.”
The Jordanian side of the crossing takes less than ten minutes. Omar collects our passports to flash at an officer while we drink water in the shade. Then back onto the bus, without Omar, and over the bridge.
“I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19
Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.
He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”
I’m still recovering from a tumultuous week in Palestine where, between 23 and 28 May, 16 writers from around the world took part in the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest). It was started last year by Ahdaf Soueif as a way of bringing poets, journalists, publishers and novelists to the occupied territories to celebrate, in Edward Said’s words, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. There’s nothing else quite like it: due to the restrictions on movement, it is we, the visitors, who bring the mountain to Muhammad, travelling around in a bus visiting towns in the West Bank to do readings with Palestinian writers, stage music and poetry events, conduct workshops with students and visit refugee camps. This year’s group included Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Claire Messud, Jamal Mahjoub, Abdulrazak Gurnah and the dazzling poet/performer Suheir Hammad.
Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.