The Crucified Entity
Alan Davies
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.
Before dawn
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. De­
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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
after crucifixion?
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,
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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.