Saturday, February 5, 2011

Walls - Eretz Israel/Arde Falastin (Land of Israel/Land of Palestine)

Ok, let's talk about the difficult stuff.  Somehow, as I thought about writing, I envisioned this post coming towards the end, after a lush and leisurely remembrance of the beauty and wonder of Israel.  But that is not to be. Reading those student journals that questioned the very existence of Israel, and thinking through my appalled response make me realize that I need to at least try to set down some frameworks within which to think through (specifically and in these terms) the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.  Even as I resolutely write the phrase, I falter because (to put it as nakedly as possible) I don't want the bad to outweigh the good.  I don't want all the lushness and beauty and wonder of Israel to be hollowed out by the human rights abuses of Israel.  And immediately, I know that the challenge is one of discernment, of careful but honest separations, of subtle distinction.  It's not black and white. There is no root of the problem. (No matter how badly I want to blame the British.)  There is an immediate wrong (the oppression of Palestinians) and an immediate right (lessening violence). Everything that follows from that, everything that is not immediate, needs to be kept complicated to be understood. Someone who does this thoroughly and brilliantly is Sandy Tolan in The Lemon Tree (Bloomsbury, 2006). The Israeli protest of Israeli action needs to be hard to categorize should one start to criticize Israel as a whole for human rights abuses. Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives must be acknowledged before the battle lines are drawn yet again.  There are incredible thinkers like David Shulman and Sari Nusseibeh who write amazing book reviews about amazing books and devastating books.  At the same time, subtlety and complexity, despite being sustained by many organizations, seem to be ill-equipped to take on the 709+km concrete stretch of wall that has become the simultaneous allegory and reality of the Palestinians' oppression. Another naqba. Another asbolute. 

Wow.  That's a lot of links.  What is it I want to do here? Keep learning, clearly.  As my research starts to take final shape within the rubric of "Orientalism and Moral Education in Late Medieval French Visual Culture," there's a pressing necessity to keep thinking through modern articulations of the moral quandries of the Middle East. The necessity would be there without the research - we should all know these things - the research needs to be accountable to the present, too. But I also want to show you, briefly now as the hour gets later and later and I'm thinking more than writing, three walls that delimit boundaries made permeable by history.  The first is the image above taken from the bus as we were leaving Bethlehem (the PDF map of the Separation Barrier - available for download in the right-hand column- can situate you). We had all brought our passports to come to Bethlehem for the afternoon and were ready to show them as we approached the checkpoint to leave.  The bus was unusually quiet, for me from the choking sadness of the city: closed in, economically doomed, hunted.  I'll be writing about the Church of the Nativity and its insane Crusader columns another day, but that site, too, was sad, tired - that's a strange term, but it was there: this fatigue, this exhaustion. The wall is quickly visible as you leave the city, and stretches bleakly, seemingly in both directions, in its relentless concrete gray. And then as the bus slowed down in the traffic accumulating near the checkpoint, the graffiti appeared and the students stirred and got up and walked over to see, and started talking and you could feel this tremulous ripple of excitement and curiosity go through us.  I took my first picture ever of seasonal graffiti - we were there in the afterglow of Armenian Christmas which had just begun on the 6th of January.  Its palimpsest quality, and wondering if there would be an Easter message coming in a few weeks, made the wall's surface (not existence, no) more negotiable.  The Berlin Wall resonated within students' comments "And that one came down, remember?" said one student.  There is protest graffiti on both sides of the wall.  This one marked its protest in cyclical time and made me see the wall as impossible for too many Christmases.

Suleiman the Magnificent gave Jerusalem new walls in the 1530s.  He lined them with ramparts that you can walk from the Jaffa Gate to St. Stephen's gate (from roughly 7 p.m. to 3 p.m. if Jerusalem were a clockface).  There are Arabic inscriptions atop many of the gates, the Jaffa Gate being absolutely grand, the Damascus gate (where we lingered on rooftops as we took our ramparts walk), too.  Were these walls defensive? Yes.  Jaffa Gate turns at a right angle, making it impossible to storm directly even if you did break in; and there are towers all around.  But the walls also create a kind of frame, an image, of Jerusalem - as a place that can be bounded, that could be defined. If you will it so.

As spectacular as the ramparts are, it's the Western Wall (of Herod's Temple Mount) that actually makes Suleiman's Jerusalem Walls campaign memorable to me.  Because it was Suleiman, the Muslim Ottoman ruler, who cleared a small area at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and reserved it for Jewish worship. It was much smaller than today, pressed in by buildings all around to create really just a narrow passageway before the wall, and it had restrictions to its use.  But it was there.  And now that small cleared area has grown into the Western Wall Plaza, and to the right you can walk down to the end of the Western Wall, and to the left, Israeli archaeology (and all the controversies therein) has uncovered the full reach of Herod's wall.  This wall was devastated by history, and permeated by a moment of Islamic good will to Jewish worship.  It is a witness if there ever was one.  When we walked by on our way into the Western Wall tunnel, it framed the initiation ceremony of a latest group of IDF soldiers.

Ultra-Orthodox, and some Orthodox, Jews don't serve in the military in Israel, and I fervently wanted to know this man's mind as he looked on at the ceremony below.  We could speak until the early morning and beyond about what exactly it is that the Israeli Defense Forces are defending.

But instead, I'll end with a Crusader wall from Caesarea.  They loved Herod's demolished port in the 12th century: there were columns, sarcophagi and statuary strewn all about.  And so, scrappy pragmatists that the Crusaders sometimes were, they reinforced their defense walls with the ruined columns of the Roman Empire.  Beautiful, marbled columns silently, invisibly embedded into much poorer stone construction until time and the sea took their toll and revealed the reason for the wall's staying power: it was an illusion, propped up from the past.

A trick of history that just has to keep playing itself out on today's walls.

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