The two sisters from Acre

July 27, 2004 12:00 AM

During the first intifada, whenever a Palestinian child was arrested by Israeli soldiers, any woman in the street would run and try to snatch him away from the soldiers' hands, screaming "my son, my son!" even if she was not actually the boy's mother. Once, it happened by coincidence that four women tried to snatch the same boy away, each one of them screaming that the boy was her son. The Israeli soldier, as angry as amazed, yelled at the women: "What are these crazy Arabs, one boy has a hundred mothers?!!!"  One of the women answered without blinking: "Well, khawaja (foreigner), praise be to God, our boy has a hundred mothers, but your boy has a hundred fathers!"

An old man from Saffuriya, a Palestinian village in Galilee, went back to his village, after the expulsion of 1948, to find a Romanian Jew occupying his house, so the Palestinian asked the new comer: "Where are you from, sir?" and the new comer said: "I am Isaac, I am from here, from Saffuriya, and you?"... The Palestinian, wearing his headdress and a peasant's gown said, again without a blink: "I am Abu Ahmad ... from Romania!"

I heard both stories, from Abu Salam, the late Emile Habibi, Author of "The Pessoptimist," which is, in my judgment, the greatest Palestinian novel of the twentieth century. I met him 15 years ago in Budapest. I was 12 years old, but still I was struck by his flood of stories, sharp, funny and bitter. I read his novels a couple of years later, and kept rereading them until today. Habibi was able, like no other, to express the passions of the Palestinians who stayed in their lands after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Two threads of feelings emerge in his writings, one of fear and anxiety that sometimes borders on despair and another of extreme stability and continuity. You never get the feeling when you read Emile Habibi that you are reading minority literature. He lets you believe that in any honest census, even the birds and the trees would count as Arabs. Habibi was an Orthodox Christian by birth and an orthodox Marxist by choice, but his literature is inseparable from his Arab Islamic heritage. Unlike his controversial political stances, his literature is clear cut: Israel, is just like any other invasion, it will come and go, leaving its traces on some gravestones, some buildings  and maybe a couple of dishes, but that's about it.

This week, I met a seven-year- old Palestinian girl from Acre. She goes to a singing school in Ramallah, she was skillfully singing melodies from thirteenth century Andalusia - the words of which were written by Lisan Al-Din ibn al-Khatib, the great vizier of the house of Bani Nasr, the kings of Granada and the builders of the famous palace of Al-Hambra. The girl then started singing a classical Egyptian song from the Turkish school, composed by a late nineteenth-early twentieth century musician, followed by a more recent song by Sheikh Imam, the greatest underground musician of the 1970s. Imam's songs were forbidden in Egypt, but now they are more famous than the ministers and prime ministers who forbid them, and a seven- year-old Palestinian from Acre knows them by heart. Finally, she sang a couple of folk songs from the Levant, common in Palestine, Lebanon Syria and Jordan. Her sister, who played the violin marvelously, played a piece of hers she had called Yafa. The complexity and skill of the piece were breathtaking.

As I was listening to the two sisters, I remembered Habibi; like him, in their innocent production of beauty, they seemed to be bitterly mocking the state of Israel. Given geographical and historical conditions, it seems unlikely that Israel would ever be able to isolate the Palestinians living within its borders from their broader Arab and Islamic cultural space. As communication becomes easier by the day, the sense of identity and belonging will grow stronger and stronger. It will be impossible to really convince this girl that Ariel Sharon belongs here more than she does. It is true that half of Israel's Jewish population comes from eastern countries and the Middle East, but the identity Israel chose for itself is foreign and will remain foreign. The girls were able to belong, 100 percent, to the Arab world, more so than the nuclear weapons that were meant to keep them away from it.

This is not to say that our enemies do not have a culture of their own, or that ours is superior to theirs - the point is that, due to various historical reasons, our enemies were deprived of the opportunity of developing a distinct culture linked to geography. Their history for two millennia is one of Diaspora, a mixture of people belonging to different cultures and places, but not a continuous interrelated set of ideas and metaphors.

Our son has a hundred mothers, but you can easily trace his ancestry. With them it is the other way around. Even if it is argued that they belong somewhere, then it is not Acre, and even if it is Acre, they definitely do not belong there more than those two girls, and through those two girls, Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib of Granada, Mohammad Uthman of Egypt and Fairuz of Lebanon belong to Acre just as much.

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