Arab Walls in Palestine
Reflecting Change but Not Falling Down
Anton Shammas
Some years ago I visited a certain house in my village to console the bereaved. The man whom I was to console had just lost his wife; he was in his seventies and was considered in the village to be one of the pillars of "rural culture." I had never before set foot in his house, and this visit was something of a journey back in time for me. After the words of consolation and the sipping of bitter coffee, and during the prolonged silence which ineluctably falls on these occasions, my gaze wandered over the walls, classical Arab walls, untouched by the hand of progress. Walls dazzling in their bluish-white lime-wash.
About three meters from the floor, about a meter below the ceiling, hung various pictures mostly wedding photographs of the children and grandchildren, alongside pictures of saints and decorated, embroidered rugs. Very few Arab houses have been preserved in this state, and fewer still keep their pictures hanging so high. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that exposure to another culture has lowered the picture level of the Arab wall by at least a meter, to eye level. Is it possible that Arab eyes have lost their visual confidence and no longer know what may be called "beautiful"? Is beautiful the bare wall, whose white lime-wash was usually tinted with laundress's blue and frequently hung with a multitude of pictures close to the ceiling; or is beautiful the wall which has obeyed the command of the majority culture, and which is hung with cheap reproductions (often of a weeping child) or tapestries depicting imaginary gardens in imaginary places or ornamental wallpaper, a distant and pathetic echo of the walls of the Alhambra?
One way or the other, the Arab wall, the mirror in which I see reflected the changes in Arab culture since the early 1950s, is not what it used to be, and the people who face it and look at it are no longer the same people. On the walls of the Arab house in 'Israel we can observe the impact of the majority culture upon that of the minority, because this house stands as one of the many monuments to the "overwhelming" of the culture of the third world by Europe-and by European kitsch in particular.
Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, Milan Kundera quoted Hermann Broch on the modern novel. Broch believed that the modern novel tried to stem the tide of kitsch but in the end was overwhelmed by it. Kundera said, "The term kitsch, which originated in Germany in the middle of the last century, describes the desire to please the greatest number of people at any cost. To please, one must say what everyone wants to hear, to cater to widely held views. Kitsch translates the foolishness of widely held views into the language of beauty and sentiment." In his speech, Kundera also noted that "Israel, the newly found homeland, appears to me to be the true heart of Europe, a strange heart which lies far from the body." This state of affairs worried its founding fathers in the very earliest days of Zionism. In his Judenstaat Theodor Herzl stated that "we shall form part of Europe's fortified wall against Asia, and fulfill the role of cultural vanguard facing the barbarians."
Before collapsing under the onslaught of terrible kitsch, the Arab wall in our parts underwent several phases, which I shall divide schematically into three: the wall of the father, the wall of the son, and the wall of the grandson.
The wall of the father is a creation in which the functional and the aesthetic coexist in a delicate balance. The wall divides and separates, defines and supports, while at the same time its white limewash, tinted with laundress's blue, inspires the space called "home" with an atmosphere of tranquility that characterizes not only the walls but all the components of classical Arab construction: the arch is functional (it supports the ceiling) as well as aesthetic; the keystone, the topmost stone that binds the other arch stones together, symbolizes the balance that binds and consolidates all the elements of structure into one entity, from which the removal of a single part may jeopardize the whole.
In the traditional Arab house there are rarely any pictures on the walls, but rather objects that are also functional-aesthetic, and insofar as there are pictures, they are usually hung well above eye level, close to the ceiling. A possible explanation is that since the seating in the father's house is generally close to the floor-on mattresses, stools, padded shelves-the angle of vision tends to reach higher, in the direction of the ceiling. Or it may be an expression of respect: the higher the object hangs, the further out of reach, the greater its honor. For honor, generally, implies a certain awe, and Arab culture regarded the imitation of reality with awe.
The transmission of reality via the artistic vision entails for the villager an element of defiance against the supreme power. Having overcome this awe and hung a single picture on the wall, he feels threatened by the remaining blankness and hurriedly piles any number of other things on the wall- of course, above eye level. But then the son married and built his own house. The neighbors who came to call after the wedding and on other festive occasions brought various things which they felt were suitable to hang on his walls, which the son accepted whether he cared for them or not. For surely it would be unthinkable to offend the giver of a gift, no matter how horrid it is in your own eyes, and refrain from hanging it prominently in your house. This was the beginning of the onslaught of kitsch upon Arab culture in 'Israel', and the villager wished to please the greatest number of people, as Kundera put it.
The son's house was, in reality, the house of the orphans of 1948, of all those who were abandoned by the generation of fathers who had been exiled and were exposed to that new and fearsome being, the State of 'Israel, a state which defined itself, politically and culturally, as a "Jewish State." This sudden exposure knocked the ground-both figuratively and literally from under the son's cultural confidence and left him naked and helpless to face new challenges.
Given the reality of this cultural and political threat, in an atmosphere of military government and land expropriations, one can hardly expect a man to devote much attention to the inner decoration of his walls, his house, and himself.
Metaphorically speaking, the Jewish-'Israeli' reality not only expropriated the son's walls, with the help of his neighbors, but forced him to hang on them things he never thought to hang on them-a poster of Ben-Gurion hung in my father's cobbler shop-much as it forced him to carry a permit of passage from place to place. The grandson's house, the most confused of them all, was built in the shadow of the 1967 War. The military government had only recently come to an end, and the direct contact between the 'Israeli' Arabs and the Arabs beyond the "green line"-in the West Bank-had just begun.
The shock of the encounter between the one-lunged Arab, who had been living under the restrictions of the military government, and his "national oxygen" led to a profound upheaval in his conceptual world. For the military government had previously served to delegitimize the Arab in 'Israel-he was, in effect, only transiently a citizen, and as such his every attempt to set foot outside the boundaries imposed on the national minority was an illegal act. Thus, for example, when Arab lands were expropriated the Arab local councils were given no development authority, so that an Arab who tried to build a house in 'Israel inevitably engaged in illegal construction. Once the "green line" was erased, however, and the state itself began to engage in illegal construction in the occupied territories, the bent spine of the 'Israeli' Arab acquired some added vertebrae; he began to feel at last that his belonging to the Palestinian nation legitimized him where he lived, even if this legitimacy amounted to a crime in the eyes of the government. By now the house of the Arab in 'Israel' has become a festival of kitsch. The wall has become the locus for what may be called a crime against the laws of Arab aesthetics.
In his 1927 essay "The Vogue of Arabesques," Vladimir Jabotinsky stated, "The arabesque was invented because the Koran forbade the depiction of real things-not only the image of man, but even a cat or a table. Therefore they contented themselves with painting by allusion, in which one cannot recognize either the cat or the table. This means that the arabesque is not at all a special, independent artistic conception, but only a retarded art form." Fifty years later, in The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski discussed the Alhambra palace in Spain, one of the masterpieces of Arabic architecture, in connection with the achievements of Arab mathematicians in the field of two-dimensional symmetry. In the Alhambra palace, says Bronowski, tranquility overcomes the adventurous impulse, and one discerns the weariness of an empire which has reached its summit and devotes itself now to a sensuous observation of the world. The ornamentation in that palace (to wit, those arabesques described as "a retarded art form") is in fact the summation of all the possible symmetries in two-dimensional space, the product of a thousand years of mathematics, a magnificent finality ... the perfect finish.
Today the Arab house is torn between these two opposite views of the arabesque. The 'Israeli' Arab, the grandson of the late 1960s, is no exception. For, having been denied permission to build his own house in 'Israel, he turns to his grandfather's house and "remodels" it, so as to conform with the "aesthetic demands" of his day. The tranquility of the whitewashed walls, the sensuousness of the supporting vault, the weary harmony among the diverse components of the structure-all these are now set aside, to be replaced by new elements. The arch, which had borne the weight of the house, is hidden by a new wall that divides the old space into many small ones. The walls are, at best, covered with wallpaper that dimly recalls the walls of the Alhambra, thus legitimizing the kitsch and creating a false sense of being at peace with the past.
The future looks in through the window-a false window in the form of a landscape wall-paper, opening from the desolate living room upon a view of faraway worlds, usually a fairytale forest in Switzerland. And between the mountains of Switzerland, on the one hand, and the pseudo-arabesques, on the other, the 'Israeli Arab must contend with the complicated reality of the Jewish State, with the complexity of living between two languages, both of which are written from right to left, a vestige of the good old Semitic days, but one of which, Hebrew, flows from left to right, as a language must to be the language of "Europe's torn heart" in the agonized carcass of the Levant.