There is a sense of calm, a deep quiet in the soul, that befalls me when I come face-to-face with an Israeli soldier. In that moment, I have to accept what is, who I am. A simple truth washes over me. We lost, they won. He is the descendant of victors, I am a son of defeat.
Somewhere on him will be an emblem of the state. Israel. A word I can pick up in the din of the busiest London cafe, on a street, in a club. If it has been said within earshot, I will hear it. If Hebrew is spoken in my vicinity, the same happens. My ears perk up and my attention is summoned.
Thinking of Israel, I often remember a line by William Faulkner: ‘There is a victory beyond defeat, which the victorious know nothing of.’ When I first read it, in London, it was a revelation. It lifted me, gave me pride and hope, and inspired in me a stoic resolve.
Here, in Jerusalem, it leaves me unmoved. It inspires nothing but want. I want to be the victor. I want to be the flash, the gleam, the passing star. That fleeting victory Faulkner speaks of disparagingly — I want it. I am not interested in the self-reflection of defeat; the long, long road to recovery. It is like bitterness in old age, nothing but a constant gnawing at my core.
And so, I fantasise. Especially in Jerusalem, I often find myself fantasising. Crude, over-the-top, Warner Brothers–style fantasy. I want to be the Hulk, Superman, Silver Surfer, Wonder Woman. I want to be Gal Gadot. I want to grab a tank by the barrel and swing it around, destroying every settler outpost in the land. I want to wreak havoc and bring forth great fires and spectacular violence. I fantasise and it feels good. A momentary pleasure, with a steep price.
I try to articulate the despair that follows, and I fail. My brain shuttles between Arabic and English, never staying at one end long enough to form a convincing thought, all the while knowing that the man over there, with his sense of purpose and his Tavor, can venture into politics and literature and art, can dictate science and create it, with his language. It is consistent, it is in order, it anchors his worldview, it shores it up by ancient passages and enlivens it with urban flavour. He can order a drink, philosophise, flirt, discuss last night’s match, as well as the Talmud, in Hebrew: a language brought back to life less than a century ago.
In this same time, Arabic has steadily shrunk. Now, in Arab cities such as Beirut, Amman, Dubai, even parts of Cairo, its vocabulary is restricted to tiny jars, often decorated and overtly designed, like some kind of homemade vegan speciality tea. It has been labelled, broken up, only to be used in kitchens and at wakes. Somehow, it is no longer sufficient, nor necessary. Arab intelligentsia think politics and philosophy, even business, in English or French, while discussions of food and small talk are in half-Arabic. No wonder political debate does not inform political action, when the political and cultural class conduct intellectual life in one language and corporal life in another. In these circles, not having a functioning command of Arabic is a sign of having ‘a good education’. Arabic is for the rabble, the unworthy, the uneducated. Glory be to those who falter mid-sentence. It is one thing to be bilingual, to be in command of more than one language, but it is something else to be unable to construct a thought in one. It is patchwork, not bilingualism.
Yahweh, the most human of the Abrahamic divinities — owing probably to his pre-monotheist origins — was distraught to learn that the Babylonians were building the Tower of Babel. ‘Then the Lord said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth.’
Itamar Ben-Avi, born in 1882, was the first child to grow up speaking Hebrew in more than a thousand years. He and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehudi — the father of modern Hebrew, the engineer of this enormous, unprecedented revival — had to construct his whole existence out of this ancient language. Emotions and sensations that had no place in liturgy had to be furnished with nouns and adjectives. Things that did not exist a thousand years ago were conceptual blanks until they were named. A functional syntax had to be unearthed from a world a thousand years old, to build one anew within and around the child Itamar.
To bring up Itamar as the first native Hebrew speaker in a millennium, Ben Yehuda made his wife promise not to expose the young boy to anything but Hebrew. This meant that Itamar could not have friends, could not sit with visitors at home, could not go outside or have a pet, since his father deemed birdsong, dog barks, and cat meows to be foreign tongues. Ben Yehuda would sit in his study, maniacally compiling a new Hebrew dictionary, leaving the house only occasionally to try and convince other families of doing the same. Parents, understandably, argued that speaking only Hebrew would greatly limit their children’s educational and professional prospects. But Ben Yehuda kept on, working feverishly to realise his dream of having all Jews speak one language. The isolated boy finally spoke, at the age of four, moved by the misery of his parents when his father had gone into a fit of rage upon hearing his wife absentmindedly singing a lullaby in Russian. Distressed, the boy shouted his first words, in Hebrew.
A few decades later, during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi engineer of Holocaust logistics, there was a moment when the judge, exasperated by the accused’s repetitive, clichéd answers — and the prosecutor’s love of showmanship — switched from Hebrew, the language in which the trial was conducted, to German, the language that was the mother tongue of most of the people involved in the trial. This might have been seen as a compromise, to have German spoken on the biggest stage of the time, at a trial followed by millions. Instead, it came across as kind, patient, even a little patronising — like an adult berating a child. Eichmann was repeatedly and patiently told to stop evading questions and resorting to ‘platitudes’, as Hannah Arendt described it in a piece that appeared in the New Yorker. I am not sure it was exactly that.
Eichmann was speaking German and being questioned in Hebrew. In his mind, which did not seem to be imaginative, the questions did not correspond to the reality of the time, when Hebrew existed only in liturgy, and German prevailed in industry, science, and the arts. What he was trying to convey, whether consciously or intuitively, was that the words for crime in Hebrew and German do not correspond, not for one who had had almost his entire life shaped by the Reich. German had not yet gone through the transformation of defeat, at least not in Eichmann’s mind, and so that dialogue was impossible. What was being called a crime in Hebrew meant duty in Nazi German. The judge was trying to indict Eichmann in his own language, a language shrinkwrapped around the state which he served. It did not work. But it did establish a hierarchy of language in a post–World War II world. Hebrew is the language of the now risen, grief stricken, wounded nation — but one rich in hope and righteousness. More so, this young tongue, fathered into the world by Ben-Yehuda, is now in a position to impose on German its definition of what constitutes a crime.
Whenever great misery is upon those of us who are in Palestine, I often find myself looking up random passages in the Old Testament. If I am in luck, I will find commentary more relevant than the red conveyor belt carrying Bibi’s declarations across the screen. This started during the 2008 Gaza War, when I felt, like others around me, all light diminish under a great cloud of helplessness. You demonstrate, you boycott and sign petitions; if you’re in London you go to a fundraising event in Bloomsbury, you call your friends in Gaza. It is like beating on a punchbag with your left hand, while your right holds a tall glass of gin and tonic. It is halfhearted, insincere. Meanwhile a live-action drama unfolds in Gaza, its protagonist a raging divinity. You read the Old Testament and realise that the Hebrew god is alive, dictating and committing deeds. Ours, the Christeo-Muslim one, is dormant, dead, his words the venerated but ineffectual works of a dead poet. And so Palestinians are left to face Yahweh alone, and by Yahweh I mean the collective mind of Zionists — what they agree on and what they hold dear, this collective consciousness that speaks and rules. I challenge anyone to walk through the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem and declare the death, or nonexistence, of God. A god is the collective beehive mind of a nation. You are judged by it because you are judged by what this nation believes in, what it has accumulated and articulated and decided is true, important, essential to its existence. Most importantly, what it has decided is other. You are judged and punished in its secular courts, put in its secular prisons, killed by its secular weapons. It does not matter that there is no god, that there are atheists, liberals, leftists, and scientists in this nation who do not believe in him. Whatever they do believe in does not contradict him. He contains many divergent and hostile forces, and he sublates them. And like men since time immemorial, what gods feel most compelled to do is go to war, expand their territory, become supreme.
What a god is, I nervously suggest, is a core set of values (whether secular or religious); an articulation of these values, and a people who believe in them. That consciousness is god. The nation is god, and that manifests in language. Or is language god, manifesting as a nation? I am not entirely sure. But language, god and people seem like a solid trinity to me. It is almighty, it is alive, and it can very well send you to hell.
That morning I had woken up excited. I was going to Old Jerusalem for the first time since I was three, when my mother was caught on Allenby Bridge using a fake name. This is my earliest memory: shouting at the top of my lungs at the officer who took my shoes. Now that I am a British citizen, I can go in with my attire intact. It was the first thing I did with my burgundy passport, soon to turn dumb blue.
It was also my birthday. I almost jumped out of the makeshift bed a friend had provided for me, eager to start the day, my poetic sensibilities stirred by this coincidence. I wanted to get out on the street as soon as possible, so I got into the shower. The water was strong and hot. Tempting. Congruous with the day. After a few minutes, I looked around for soap. There was none. Instead, I saw seven or eight bottles of beauty products lined up against the wall. I tried to figure out which one was a shampoo or a body gel, but not a single word on these mass-consumer products was in anything but Hebrew.
I have no problem with conditioners, but I didn’t want one all over my face, and so I was stuck in the shower, under satisfying water pressure and amidst increasingly opaque steam. I went through the bottles again, desperately looking for some sort of clue. One cannot fail at a morning shower and expect to have a normal day. Should I smell each bottle? Do I try and decipher Hebrew script? The chemical I ended up using had a colouring function that I saw once I stepped out of the shower. I walked straight back in and tried to remove it with another product, to mixed results. I barely have any hair, fortunately, but it did look a little strange. I did not want to look strange in Jerusalem.
About half an hour later, I am out in Sheikh Jarrah wearing a cap, which I rarely do. A tacky one I found lying in my friend’s swarming shoe compartment. It makes me self-conscious.
As I walk towards the old city, I pass by a house that has been taken. It is barb-wired and ugly, insolent under the sovereignty of its new owners. It is a sight that fills me with dread. I go into a shop and buy a pack of cigarettes. I do not feel like smoking, but I am itching to exchange a few words in Arabic, to reorient myself before I continue on my way to the old city.
The closer I am to the old city, the more nervous I get. My heart swells momentarily when I enter a new neighbourhood, then collapses like a punctured lung when I see evidence of its appropriation. I finally stop at Bab el Amoud. It is busy and tense. There are three army points overlooking every inch of the yard and amphitheatre-like staircase. I had planned on sitting here, but it is too menacing. Few Palestinians are here. It seems like Israeli soldiers are everywhere. Their presence is heavy, overbearing. You know these machine guns are here for you. I continue on into the old city, where I walk around aimlessly. It is bustling, and from the smiles on the faces of tourists and their children you would think we’re at Disneyland. The settlers, however, do not smile; nor do they ever look you in the eye. They seem to be elsewhere. Enough of their consciousness is here just to make sure they set foot in the right place, do not lose their way, do not walk head on into a wall, but their minds are absent, engaged in some serious, urgent conversation.
A god is all over me as I walk through Jerusalem, and it makes me muddle-headed, unanchored, lost. I look over my shoulder constantly; I am nervous and uncomfortable. I see my people walking around, confident and proud, and I cannot relate. I admire them, their pride moves me, but I do not understand it.
I am close to Al-Aqsa mosque, where I assume there will only be only Palestinians, and I decide to go in to catch my breath. I turn into the alley that leads to one of the two gates that are left. It is manned by two soldiers up front and a few others lounging in the back. ‘Muslims only,’ one of them declares.
I answer that I am Muslim. He does not believe me. I am often told I look foreign when I’m in Arab capitals, which is absurd — like Arab capitals — so I am not surprised. It was only in Nablus that they knew my stock the moment I set foot in the old city. Some old men sitting near a wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, immediately called out to me that I must be an Abdel-Hadi. My grin almost tore my face. That is my mother’s family.
But I am in Jerusalem now and this armed youth is telling me that I am not a Muslim. I tell him that I am. Whether one is a believer or not is of course irrelevant. Lineage is what matters. He does not believe me. I point out the name in my passport, which he now has. Ma’an Mahmoud Mufaddi Abu Taleb. How much more Muslim can I be, I ask. He refuses to let me in. I insist, so he tells me to recite Al-Fatiha.
I know Al-Fatiha. It might have gathered a little rust in some damp corner of my mind, but I can definitely remember enough of it to demonstrate my Muslamic credentials. The problem is that I cannot bring myself to recite it to him like a five-year-old in preschool, and once I have made that decision, it rises like electrified barbwire around my menaced sense of dignity. I tell him I have forgotten it. ‘Then you are not Muslim,’ he says. I object, halfheartedly. He is not interested. I try to reason with him but he doesn’t hear me. It is as if I’ve become nothing. My words scatter over beautiful ancient stone blocks before they reach him. I am not sure what to do, so I just stand there.
A few minutes later, he turns and speaks to his colleague, in Arabic. ‘You speak Arabic?’ I ask him, in Arabic. ‘You speak Arabic?’ he asks back. I am now emboldened. ‘Dude, my name is Ma’n Abu Taleb. It is the name of the uncle of the prophet, don’t you know that?’ I say. ‘You’re Muslim and you colour your hair like that?’ he berates me, as if offended on behalf of my faith. I had removed the cap midway through the conversation because I thought it made me look American.
First he was bored, now he is suspicious. He tells me to recite Al-Fatiha again, and I argue with him, excitedly now, until his superior — white Israeli — comes out. He asks what is going on as he studies me, asking, ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Then recite Al- Fatiha,’ he retorts. I say I cannot, that I have forgotten it. They look at each other, then the senior officer takes me aside.
He asks me the same question, and I stick to my answer. We speak in English and it feels like we’re meeting at a middle ground, which is of course untrue: he is the one with the gun. He offers me a solution. He says that only Muslims are allowed to enter on this specific day, and so he needs to make sure I am one. To enter I will have to say the Shahada, the phrase that converts must pronounce to become Muslim.
I mumble it like a miserable teenager. He lets me in.
I am in Al-Aqsa for the first time as an adult. I can see it, I can enter it. It is upon me — this majestic and terrible deposit of our defeat. I take a picture, and think of calling my mother. The sight of Al-Aqsa reigns my thoughts in for a few minutes, until I can no longer ignore what had just happened. I have been brought back to my religion, at the gates of Al-Aqsa, by an armed Israeli. I am not sure what to make of this. Should I feel sick? The atheist in me says: ‘They are just words.’ The rest of me says: ‘Words are all we have.’ But what else can one do, if one is to see the shrine of Al-Aqsa — ostensibly run by the Jordanians? One must abide by the god that is law, not the one that is its subject.
This birthday is a bad one. I am troubled, all over the place. I walk briskly to hide the fact that I am without purpose. I am shuttling between pride and self-loathing quicker than a verse on Yeezus. I hate this city. It is hostile, tense. Hebron in the making, Nablus ten years from now. Vile and obnoxious with its flags, towering with an unfolding history determined to erase us.
Everyone has a breaking point, and I am amazed that Jerusalemites haven’t reached it yet. How can they withstand all this intimidation and harassment, all the laws and taxes and writs explicitly drawn up to make them leave? How can you start a family here knowing that everything is designed to be against you and your children? What faith do you have? What courage? My phone rings and I reach for it, almost gasping. It is Asma, a fellow Palestinian I have corresponded with but have never met. We are supposed to meet in a coffee shop outside the old city, and I am happy to leave. I walk about fifteen minutes to meet her. As far as I know, Asma could be anyone. But she is beautiful, articulate, with a sparkle in her eye. She is angry, yet positive. She rages with a smile. Ten minutes later I am smitten. She has lived here for twelve years, she says. She loves Jerusalem, she says. I do not believe her, but I listen.
We finish our coffees and she insists on going back into the old city. I tell her that I’ve seen it, and she shoots me a look. I walk alongside her until we get to Bab El Amoud, then I stay half a step behind, as she leads with her head, like a swan paddling through the muck. She tells me stories of eccentrics, heroics, and betrayals. She does not give a damn. She is confident, stubborn, reticent, guiding me through this hellhole with a deliberate gait, as if each step that takes us deeper into the old city mattered, and is to be counted and remembered. She wants to show me the Moroccan gate, the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Christian quarter. We walk quickly, and I feel like Jerusalem will no longer be here tomorrow morning. I wonder if her haste is fuelled by a similar concern. We turn a corner where two soldiers sit; they call after us and demand to see our IDs.
My hand is already reaching for my wallet when I hear Asma object. I freeze. I do not know what to do or say, so I stand there like a dumb elephant. They speak in English, then Asma switches to Hebrew. She is combative, sarcastic, angry. I have no idea what they’re saying but it is clear that Asma is on the offensive. He struggles to answer her, he begins sentences and fails to finish them, his voice dropping like an arrow that has lost its momentum. Meanwhile, her diction mimics a machine gun, consistent, energetic, firm. He raises his voice and Asma backs down a little, then, like someone changing gears on a long, uphill stretch of road, she switches to Arabic. She gives him hell. He speaks Arabic, too, but now he mumbles, he fails to answer, so he raises his voice again. I am deaf and dumb during this entire exchange and he says something to me, but Asma orders his attention back to her. Palestinians are gathering around us and the soldiers become nervous. The one who asked for our IDs is embarrassed, raises his voice again. Asma tells those who have gathered around us that everything is under control. She has clearly done this before. She pushes and pushes, then pulls back at the last moment, then pushes again. Finally, having been made to look like a fool in three languages over the course of a few minutes, the soldier slides his finger into his machine gun, switches to Hebrew. We show him our IDs.
We smoke a cigarette, dragging in anger and puffing with glee. I do not understand how anyone can live here, let alone be in love with the place. On the way to another one of Asma’s preferred smoking spots I see a security firm employee intentionally shoulder a Palestinian kid. I think about it all the way to the overlook, where we sit down and smoke again.
In my three visits to the motherland, I have always forced myself to go to Jerusalem. I did it with dread — to say that I went, to tell my mother, to check a box – even though I avoided the old city. It is as if I had to prove to myself that I could go. I never stayed longer than a few hours, eager to get back to Ramallah or Haifa, to drink and party and indulge in an obscene, but necessary, simulacrum of normality.
Now I am bored in Haifa, uninterested in Ramallah. I make it back to Jerusalem a week later, and I book a hotel room for two nights. I walk hurriedly to the old city and ask someone for a lighter. I order a sandwich, I sit in a cafe and order a cup of tea. Somehow I am at ease. I walk past soldiers, a momentous event just a few days ago, and now it feels like nothing. I look at them, decked out from head to toe with futuristic fighting gear. Cyborgs speaking an ancient tongue; cyborgs speaking in tongues. I imagine they don’t care one bit about international opinion. That is all negligible to them — only what is said in Hebrew matters.
Later, I run into Asma. She speaks to me in her northern accent that takes me by surprise once again. We decide to go smoke a cigarette, or thirteen. I’ve never smoked as much as I have done here. The cigarettes seem like punctuation in a short book with a terrible ending. Therefore, the more the better. She wants to return to Bab el Amoud, the tensest place in the city.
We find a spot on the stairs and light up. People pass by, people say hello, and slowly we multiply. We are two, four, five, ten. Each new arrival comes with news. One tells us about his court hearing yesterday, one is fresh out of jail. He is embraced and kissed. The laughter is constant, without irony. She has a husband in administrative detention, which has just been renewed. He managed to delay the execution of a court order to demolish his house by a few more months. He’s lived in it for the past fifteen years and he owns it. It is a losing battle — the house will be demolished. But he will fight. He offers me a cigarette. The news cascades over us but never drowns us; the tone in which it is delivered is matter-of-fact, stoic, sandwiched between jokes and anecdotes.
‘Look at that bastard,’ one of us says. ‘They’ve been here for half an hour,’ answers another. It’s the Israeli secret service, not bothering with stealth. Two of them stand by the soldiers, watching us from the other side of Bab el Amoud. One has a notebook open. He looks at us, writes in it, look at us again. He probably knows the name of every single person I’m with. Maybe one day he will know mine. I would like that. We look at him and talk amongst ourselves. This goes on for some time. It will go on forever. We will do what we can, we will bide our time. We will stay here and we will speak Arabic. From us there is laughter, from them there is grim attention. I love Jerusalem.