The Crucified Entity
In modern Palestinian nationalism, the poet, especially the poet in exile, once again becomes the natural scribe of national sentiment, pouring his (sometimes her) soul into sorrowful and impassioned laments for the murdered nation:
They spread the glad tidings
When they joined Him at the Last Supper,
And before He walked,
Dragging His cross along the path of thorns and rocks,
They surrounded Him,
Giving Him their vows,
But, their eyelids heavy, they slept,
Leaving Him behind.
He grieved all alone,
And reluctantly drank from the cup he shunned.
He felt the chill of death in His blood,
And sorrow's bitter taste in his mouth.
One betrayed Him,
One denied Him,
And the others fled.
In subsequent verses, Jesus metamorphoses into Abel, another murder victim, and then into "virtuous" Job with his festering wounds; all, however, personify Palestine, the suffering and crucified object of the poet's adoration. De64 Vol. 9, No. 36, Mar ch. 2011 Al-Mashriq
spite his choice of Christian symbolism, the author of these lines, Abd-al-Karim al-Sab'awi (1938-), is a Muslim, which seems surprising but which is explained by the degree to which Christian themes and images have permeated Palestinian culture and affected the popular discourse of the literary classes, whether Christian or Muslim. The fact that Jerusalem, the political heart of the Palestinian collective identity, contains sacred sites dear to both religious communities has assisted a certain blending of Christian and Muslim motifs. Another Palestinian poet, in this case a communist member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) as well as a former mayor of Nazareth (1977), Tawfiq Zayyad 1932-), also - in spite of dialectical materialism - readily employs Christian imagery in his romantic dream of national resurrection, significantly entitled The Crucified One:
My loved ones . . .
With flowers and sweets,
With all my love, I wait . . .
I, the earth, the moon,
The spring, the olives and the flowers wait . . .
Our thirsty groves await you,
Our alley and our vineyard,
And a thousand green verses
That can make the hard stones sprout leaves.
With flowers and sweets,
With all my love, I wait . . .
Watching for the wind
Blowing from the East,
Perchance it may bring us news
On its wings.
And perhaps one day, the river will cry,
"Arise and breathe again, crucified one,
Your long-gone people have returned."
Other examples abound, for poetry, especially lyrical poetry, has long adorned the Arab genius, constituting a special and eloquent voice in Arabic culture. Again and again Palestine is portrayed in figurative terms as a nation on the cross, cruelly slain yet mysteriously regenerative in death, the inspiration of all who contemplate its fate and drink from its bitter chalice. The poet Mu'in Bsisu (1930-) could hardly be more explicit.
Cast your lots, people,
Who'll get my robe
The vinegar cup in my right hand,
the thorn crown on my head,
and the murderer has walked away free
while your son has been led
To the cross.
But I shall not run
from the vinegar cup,
nor the crown of thorns.
I'll carve the nails of my cross from. my own bones and continue,
spilling drops of my blood onto this earth For if I should not rip apart
How would you be bom from my heart?
How would I be born from my heart?
Oh, my people!
Golgotha, according to still another poet, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-), was re-enacted in the Palestinian village of Deir Yasin, the site of a savage massacre of local residents by Irgun and Stern Gang terrorists in 1948 when Jews and Arabs were at war. The bodies of the Arab victims, "young maidens and bleeding pregnant women," cast into a well by their assassins, inspired the Christian author to examine their fate in light of a more famous murder: "was Jesus crucified there once more?" This particular slaughter of innocents soon assumed the proportions of a cosmic crime in Arab eyes, remaining to this day a festering sore on the Palestinian psyche. From the mouth of the well, Jabra avers, from this "second Golgotha" will flow the "black lava" of retribution, presumably the vengeance of God.
Nineteen forty-eight was no ordinary year. In the trenchant phrase of yet another major Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish (1942-), it was the "Palestinian year without end." Perhaps more than his rivals, Darwish approximates in Palestinian nationalism the stature of Adam Mickiewicz in Polish nationalism as the supreme bard of national identity and tragic exile. He is also the author of the later “Palestinian Declaration of Independence” read from the al-Aqsa Mosque in November 1989 under an Israeli curfew. The years 1948-49 was the time of the great catastrophe, the disaster known in Palestinian historiography as al-Nakba, when between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Palestinians became refugees, driven from their homes in either a deliberate expulsion or as a consequence of simple panic and fear. Controversy still rages around the true reasons for their flight and the issue of responsibility. Whatever the real cause or causes of the sudden Arab departure, al-Nakba, like all defining events in history, has acquired mythic contours, and in historical myths exactly what happened and why it happened is largely beside the point; not facts per se. but the manner in which facts are perceived and interpreted is what matters. The mass exodus, declares Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate current leader (president) of the Palestinian Authority, will remain forever etched on the Palestinian memory as a black and criminal day never to be forgotten." Truly, the great catastrophe, together with such village catastrophes as Deir Yasin, involved the cosmos itself, since it mirrored on an epic scale the classic human drama of good and evil, with evil ascendant. A paradisal Palestine, a veritable "land of musk and amber," a land of "peony and narcissus," a land of olive and almond trees and orange groves, was despoiled and ravaged and transformed into a wasteland, with its children cast into oblivion. Since the latter, according to Darwish and other Palestinian annotators, were attached to the soil of their country in a mystical and even a biological fashion, their expulsion was truly a crime nonpareil. Lover was torn from lover in the most heartless of violations.
This is the wedding without an end,
In a boundless courtyard,
On an endless night.
This is the Palestinian wedding:
Never will lover reach lover
Except as martyr or fugitive.
In a similar vein, Jabra also draws a contrast between the green and verdant country that once was and the frost and dust of the desert that now is, remembering the former nostalgically as the New Testament setting where angels once visited shepherds with songs of peace on earth and good will among human beings: the nativity of Christ. Not only the people but the land itself, the poet implies, was crucified.
The crucifiers, who of course were Jewish, or to be more precise Zionist Jews, were and are regarded as alien Europeans who, because of their own rootless existence, utterly failed to understand the profound attachment to the Palestinian earth, its stones and orchards and blossoms, so intensely felt by the indigenous Palestinians. Olive trees in particular seem to have become sacred vessels in Palestinian literature of this sacramental union. Therefore, with some Arab complicity (the wealthy landowners who sold their estates and evicted their tenant farmers), the Zionists assaulted both the people and the land, razing Palestinian villages and crushing "the flowers on the hills," creating not only fugitives and martyrs but also thorny deserts with "valleys writhing in hunger." Although the Zionist intruders imported Western technology, changing the face of Palestine with their trucks and automobiles and "hybrid green and blue signs," the land nevertheless remained unequivocally Arab to the Arab lyricists, singing with "Arab affection" to the Arab soul. Zionist rootlessness and Palestinian rootedness, Zionist superficiality and Palestinian depth, Zionist Gesellschaft and Palestinian Gemeinschaft: these contrasts inform the Palestinian writers of both poetry and prose. To remove the Palestinians from hearth and home - the geographical space that constitutes their alter ego - is to damage their inner spiritual being, causing all so uprooted to languish in the metaphorical desert of the world, dreaming of paradise lost, their vanished Eden. "Oh Palestine!" cries the poet Abu Salmas, "Nothing more beautiful, more precious, more pure!" "Lost paradise!" cries the poet Mahmud al-Hut, "... Torn asunder your people, Wandering under every star."
Paradise lost: a cosmic theme if there ever was one, and surely as powerful a literary and political motif as can be found in the vast corpus of irredentist literature in the many languages of the world. Paradise, of course, the land of Palestine was not, whether under British or Ottoman rule or in earlier centuries, but the romantic mind always endows the past, especially the ante bellum past, with the Utopian virtues of a golden age. The greater the misery of the present, the more splendid the vanished glory of former times and the more poignant the dream of return. When this dream is intermingled with religious components in a theologically constructed universe, its cosmic dimensions loom large: God, the biblical God of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism, is a God of justice and all wrongs must be set right. If the cosmic order ordained by God has been shattered by a monumental human crime, as al-Nakba certainly seems to the displaced and violated Palestinians, the cosmic order must be restored - paradise must be regained - so that the universe can recover its moral equilibrium. In this manner, Palestinian nationalism, whether Christian or Muslim, is invested with transcendence, causing the struggle with Jewish nationalism (the state of Israel) to assume a white and black character: a Manichaean dualism As their situation worsened, especially in the refugee camps spawned by their forced exodus, the exiles consoled themselves by dwelling on the righteousness of their cause and the loveliness of their former abode: the perfect garden that once was Palestine. In such terms the eminent Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh speaks of his mother's lost orange groves - the "sweetest on earth" - in an idyllic and "magical dreamland." How agonizing was the contrast between its lost ineffable delights and the dismal nature of exilic existence!
While many Palestinians remained within the borders of the Jewish state, suddenly aliens in a radically transformed milieu, many others fled to Gaza and the West Bank, where they later came under Israeli military rule (1967), and others to the surrounding Arab countries, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where their welcome was less than warm. Exile, however, is a psychological as well as a physical state of being, and the trauma of 1948-49 affected all Palestinians, those left behind as well as those scat¬tered abroad. Thus Palestinian nationalism, at first only a local variant of pan-Arabism, developed a separate identity, distinguishing the Palestinian nation from the 'Arab nation,' that is to say, the Arab world as such. The fact that many of the refugees were rural in origin served to nurture this sense of distinctiveness; wrenched from their farms and villages, families which cherished the close communion between the tiller and the soil grew passionate in their nostalgia. Patriotism in its classical sense, the love of the patria, the love of one's native hearth and home, flourished in the camps, along with many less exalted feelings, namely resentment, alienation, despair, anger and zealotry, the final fruit of which was terrorism. Because of these dispiriting frames of mind, patriotism readily turned into nationalism, producing a new generation of nationalist movements dedicated to refuting the famous judgment once pronounced by Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel that there were no Palestinians. Her words only served to inflame the feelings of the dispossessed. To the Palestinians themselves, Palestine was always a nation but a nation asleep prior to the 1948-49 war; history and the Zionists rudely awakened it. If it did not 'exist' before 1948, it certainly did exist in Arab minds after the Arab defeat, although its existence, unlike the existence of the new proclaimed Jewish state, took the form of an unrealized ideal: a nation in search of a state. In this sense, it was not dissimilar to the submerged Poland of the nineteenth century, although Poland unlike Palestine had formerly been a nation-state.
The crucified Palestinian entity, sometimes personified as a beautiful woman, is not a creature of poetry alone; she appears also in visual art, for example, the spectacular large painting entitled 'The Conquered Land." Suffering, however, as in other religiously infused nationalisms, represents more than simple victimization; it contains the seeds of resurrection, the manifestation of a new creation, a higher and better Palestinian, the resistance hero who will slay his crucifiers. This new Palestinian born of revolution thus becomes the "quasi-religious icon" of the great struggle to liberate his country from Zionist oppression.
In this case, a powerful dichotomy between the poles of sacrificial suffering and glorious resistance, immortalized by the martyred poet Abd al-Rahim Mahmud (1913-1948), remains the basic paradigm of national defiance, the supreme Palestinian narrative.
The slain motherland called for our struggle
and my heart leapt with joy.
I raced the winds, but did not boast.
Isn't it my simple duty to redeem my country?
I carried my soul in my hands asking
any who feared death: do you hesitate
before the enemy?
Would you sit still when your country begs for your
Would you back away from facing the enemy? . . .
The motherland needs mighty defenders
who meet aggression
but never complain,
true lions on the battlefield.
People of my country, our days of sacrifice have arrived;
they shine, radiant, across the hills of this holy
Redeemed by our young men too proud
to endure oppression,
what can we do but fight bravely
when the fire's kindled?
March on, to the field! Pour fire
on the heads of the enemy everywhere....
Don't give up even if the world should face you
with weapons from every direction
unite, unite everywhere!
If Palestine should be lost while you still live,
I'll say: our people have
abandoned the path.
Hence emerged the cult of the warrior-martyr, and along with it the female image of the mother of the martyr, another icon in Palestinian nationalism. Not only is the nation conceived as a beautiful woman but also as a woman in excruciating pain. What could be more emblematic of the national plight?
The day Yasser was shot his mother turned
to stone; draped with the flag, his makeshift shroud,
she held her ground at the deserted town
square. Each chilly dawn she clutched a torch
of modest flowers -jasmine, daisies, and roses
from her garden - while bewildered soldiers
driving by, returning from their night shift, 69 Vol. 9, No. 36, Mar ch. 2011 Al-Mashriq
at the mist-clad apparition vaguely
reminiscent of a statue somewhere.
As in Irish nationalism (one recalls the Manchester martyrs), funeral processions for the martyred Palestinian dead have turned into regular occasions for nationalistic effusion, both cries of solidarity with the latest sacrificial victim and paeans to the infinite glory of martyrdom itself. "In the spirit and in the blood we sacrifice our life for you, oh martyr." A religious halo encircles the head of the political martyr, once again fusing Christian and Muslim themes and symbols. Islam, in its Shi'ite form, has long contained a religiously sanctioned sacrificial strain because of the peculiar deaths of Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, in 661, and the latter's son Husain in 680. Since, however, the great majority of Palestinian Muslims belong to the Sunni rather than the Shi'ite branch of Islam, it is doubtful if this tradition has played more than a minor role in Gaza and the West Bank. Instead, the image of the holy warrior (mujahid) seems to inform their poetic declamations. Nevertheless the motif of the righteous man wrongly slain seeks to have embedded itself in Muslim as well as Christian thought.
The ongoing dialectic of suffering and resistance with its necessary synthesis in the celebration of martyrdom found its most glorious hour during the Intifada or popular uprising in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that began in 1987. In this highly publicized conflict, the Palestinian 'David,' meaning the Arab youths who cast stones at Israeli tanks, fought the Israeli 'Goliath,' thereby managing to invert the ancient biblical paradigm. The "children of the stone" with their shrouded faces soon turned into new iconic figures to be extolled in verse and legend.
Hail the stone!
Hail the stone!
Hail the stone!
Elemental and of the earth, therefore actual fragments of the beloved land, the very stones themselves, flung by the weak against the strong, were elevated into marks of defiance, causing the "glass house" of Israel to be shattered. If death ensued, death ensued, but, as in all nationalisms, the "pure and immaculate" blood of the murdered hero or heroine only serves to fertilize the sacred soil of the nation. The old holy martyr al-Qassam indubitably kindled the flames of Palestinianism when he fell in battle. Did not Jeanne d'Arc, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Patrick Pearse also accomplish in death what they could not accomplish in life?
The Intifada did not succeed and could not have succeeded in ending the Israeli occupation of the conquered territories, despite a wave of international sympathy for the battered Palestinians (a great propaganda victory). However, it did succeed in exposing once again the impotence as well as the arrogance of power, that is to say, the notion, always popular in bellicose circles, that sheer force is the best way to solve disagreeable problems and that if a small amount of force fails to achieve the desired result, more force should be employed.
Strength, moreover, as in the case of the biblical Goliath, is never without its Achilles' heel, and thus vulnerable in one way or another to those who dare to stand against it. No only young men but also women, children and the elderly, the weakest of the weak, picked up stones in the course of the uprising, stirring Palestinian pride to the utmost degree. It was during the Intifada that the proud new Palestinian was fully and finally cast in a heroic mould. The spectacle of children battling uniformed men armed to the teeth created an intolerable situation for the Israeli military, as the stone-throwers probably realized. A long-standing symbol of "unity, strength and morality" in the Jewish state, the army was ill-equipped to deal with this unprecedented mode of resistance and many of its soldiers suffered acute personal distress.
If the Intifada gave birth to a new type of Palestinian, it also gave birth to a new phase in the quest for Palestinian independence. In the war of leaflets that accompanied the insurgency, a fault line appeared between nationalists who wished to recover the entire land of Palestine (as traditionally defined) and nationalists who were willing to settle for a Palestinian state adjacent to the Jewish state. Dar-al Islam, the doctrine that Palestinian soil was also Muslim soil - was not Palestine the sacred land of Muhammed's heavenly ascension? - required the abolition of Israel and the establishment of Islamic rule over the entire region.
In this spirit, Hamas, an offspring of the older Muslim Brotherhood, sought and still seeks to raise the "banner of Allah over every grain of soil." No less devoted to the blood of the martyrs than Hamas, the PLO still envisaged the reins of power in both Muslim and Christian hands rather than Muslim hands alone.
Should that day ever arrive, the towers of the churches as well as the minarets of the mosques will be decorated with Palestinian flags in a glorious display of national solidarity. The "Zionist machine of occupation" will be crushed and the "usurping Zionists" pushed back from the realms wrongly seized by their forces. Pragmatism rather than fanaticism typified most of their demands, even when the souls of the slain patriots that "hover in the skies" - one is reminded of Maude Gonne's dancing spirits of the slain Irish - over the crucified homeland joined the fray, promising laurel wreaths of victory to the children of the revolution. Nationalism after all is nationalism, and cannot be gainsaid.
A. M. Elmessiri, "The Palestinian Wedding: Major Themes of Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry," Journal of Palestine Studies (Vol. 10/no. 3/ Spring 1981).
Mu'in Bsisu, "The Vinegar Cup," (trans.), cited in Anthology of Modem Palestinian Literature, Salma Khadra Jayyusi (editor). New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Baruch Kimmerling & Joel S. Migdal, Palestinians: Tlic Making of a People, New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Sari Nusseibeth, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.