Shameful episodes in stunning prose

We bought this book in Tel Aviv last week, just days after viewing the exhibit and film Alone on the Walls about the heroic but ultimately failed struggle of residents of Jerusalem's "Jewish Quarter" against the assault by overwhelming forces of the Arab Legion and other Arab armies. A few dozen young men with small arms and lots of ingenuity, aided by women, children and the elderly, managed to hold off the siege for 150 days, from December 1947 to final surrender in May 1948. It is a powerful, moving story, documented by a photojournalist who, in disguise, accompanied the Jordanian troops and was able to get close to the attackers and, after the defeat, to the defeated.

But the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, like all wars, was morally complicated. This famous book by a prolific and highly respected Israeli novelist probes actions of Israeli forces that cannot inspire pride, and that help explain the deep pain and anger of Palestinians today.

Khirbet KhizehKhirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Published (in Hebrew) in 1949, just months after the events it describes, this was the first novel to (as the author himself described it years later) "[lay] bare the original sin of the State of Israel": the forcible, violent expulsion, killing, and razing of the homes of Palestinian villagers whose ancestral lands happened to fall on the Israeli side of the 1948 partition — the expulsion that Palestinians remember as the Nakba or "Catastrophe." Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky) was a Sabra, born in Eretz Yisrael (in Rehovot) in 1916, 31 years before there was a state of Israel. He writes with an understanding of his Israeli character's psychology from the inside, which makes his portrait of a young Israeli soldier on a mission of what we would now call "ethnic cleansing" sharply, shudderingly convincing. The IDF detail assigned to erase the village of Khirbet Khizeh in the 1948 war is supposed to believe that they are acting in self-defense, that the villagers are all potential terrorists. But as the day of shooting at and sometimes killing fleeing men, mindlessly slaughtering farm animals, terrorizing women, children and old men too infirm to run, and blowing up houses continues, with no sign of an enemy weapon or hostile reaction anywhere, the soldier wonders what in his God's name he and his fellows are doing if not recreating the Jews' own history of exile.
"All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely exile. This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . ."
But the young soldier does not bring himself to resist an order, and he does not dare to appear soft or Arab-loving to his comrades, so ever more reluctantly he continues with his squad until the village and its lives are totally destroyed. But his shame continues to haunt him. The book was a best-seller in Israel when re-issued in 1964 and was for a time required reading in high schools. Its merit is not merely its denunciation of "the original sin" but also its exquisite description of landscape, people, sensations and the doubts of the young soldier. It reads brilliantly in this translation by ; it must be wonderful in Hebrew.

For another review, thoughtful and seemingly well-informed, see Jacqueline Rose's "rereading" from the Guardian.

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Jordan's desert vastness and ancient cities

Photo by G. Fox, 4 January 2013
As you see, it was quite a journey to the great desert canyon of Wadi Rum, where caravans have passed and Bedouins have trekked, warred and trafficked for ages, and where T. E. Lawrence based his operations during part of the guerrilla war against the Ottomans, 1917-18. And where much of the movie about him, "Lawrence of Arabia," was filmed more than 50 years ago. 

We had three priority destinations in Jordan. First, the mosaic map in Madaba; next and more important, the ancient city, or cemetery, or whatever it was, of Petra, and finally, this amazing canyon, Wadi Rum. 

The mosaic floor map in Madaba, 25 km southwest of Amman, was originally composed of over two million tesserae by Greek-speaking Christians between 1540 and 1570. The map disappeared under the rubble of the razed church in the Persian conquest of 1614, until the surviving central portion was "rediscovered in 1884, during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox church on the site of its ancient predecessor." (Wikipedia: Madaba Map). Check out another site, Sacred Destinations, for more images, especially of the central portion showing the major buildings of Jerusalem at that time. At the top you can read (in Greek letters) "HAGIAPOLISIEROUSA…", i.e., "Holy City Jerusa…," all run together as one word and missing the last tessarae, which must have been LEM. It's the oldest surviving map of the city, and its scale and depictions are amazingly accurate for 6th century cartography.

Al Khazneh or The Treasury at Petra
Not much more to see in Madaba, at least for us non-Arabic speakers, so we moved on quickly to Petra. This city in a desert canyon had been settled by 1550 BCE, was built up with elaborate temples and a controlled water supply by the Nabateans beginning around 312 BCE, was further developed by Greek and then Roman conquerors, some of whom left great tombs for themselves, and was not abandoned until a major earthquake destroyed many buildings and its water system in 363 CE ("Common Era," what Christians call "AD").   We trudged all over — the site is immense — and climbed to some impossible heights to stand on ancient altars, got rooked by some charming, thieving Bedouin children (we foolishly exchanged their euros for dinars, confused by their smiles into thinking the bills were of equivalent value). After a few hours we were too exhausted to face the trek back to the entrance, and took the "desert taxis" — a Bedouin-guided horse for Susana, a donkey for me. Here is my photo of "the Treasury," just to prove I was there — you'll find many better images on the 'net, if you haven't been there yet.

For me, though, the high point of our Jordan visit was not a city but a building-free desert canyon of shifting sands, great craggy rocks, changing colors and more Bedouins — especially our young adult hosts and guide. This will be for my next note. The intersection of geology and humanity made a deep impact on me, as it had on Col. Lawrence and on almost everyone else who has seen Wadi Rum. 

Thanks to Eva Borsody for pointing me to Guy Delisle's illustrated narrative, Chronicles of the Holy City.  This review by Rupert Christiansen will give you some idea — from the sample and description, it looks great. Delisles lived there for moret han a year and knows the city much better than we could, but his amazement and perplexity at the enormous contradictions were much like our own. I'll get to our Jerusalem experience in a future note — after Wadi Rum.


In the holy lands

Armored dove on the separation wall — a Banksy production
Susana and I returned home to Spain on Sunday, after our two-week exploration of Israel, the West Bank, and a little bit of Jordan. I'll be telling you more about our experiences over the next few days; it was too much for a single brief note on a blog, and too much to assimilate so quickly.

We met with Bedouins in Jordan, Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank, and with Israeli Jews, including some dear friends from the past and a few newer friends on both sides of the ugly separation wall. Meanwhile, here is a story we've been following and which illustrates the gross failure of the Netanyahu policies.

Israel removes Palestinian protest camp outside Jerusalem - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper

More on this in the next few days, and on our conversations with Jews and Arabs, and on the books we have been reading — David Grossman, Amos Oz, Agnon, Yizhar, a collection of stories by Palestinian women, and even T. E. Lawrence.  Shalom and Salaam alaikum.