Every place here—from the checkpoints, to the classrooms, to the streets—is a mixture of two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, everything matters here, and matters deeply for the entire population is in a state of double occupation. Every action has a large semantic sphere because every action is carried out with an intensity which characterizes all modes of resistance.
On the other hand, there is an ease here which is hard to grasp though one sees it everywhere, from the warm welcome of the Nablus shopkeepers, to the Yasmin Hotel’s staff, to the administrators and students at al-Najah University, a beautiful campus overlooking rolling hills and gorges. It is the ease of those who know the land, who know its secret blessings and curses, who know, above all, that underneath the checkpoints and the bureaucracy, underneath the daily grind of life is a strange simmer of tenderness (this word comes up a lot here!) and resilience.
And all this, against the background of a landscape whose beauty is so pure it breaks the heart, whose curvature seems so indifferent to the battles roiling close by it makes one wonder what all the fuss is about when you look out of the bus window taking you from Jerusalem north to Nablus—just before you hit the first military checkpoint, of course!.
And the last 36 hours, we have managed to cover the three main landscapes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: We started in Jerusalem, headed north entering the West Bank to Nablus, and then into the 1948 realm as we arrived in the town of Nazareth. Nazareth was something of a revelation for me, a card-carrying secularist. But here we were, in the center of the town: The bells of the main church were tolling, and there was a choir singing in the open air, all this in preparation for Palm Sunday. But the most stunning things about Nazareth is its elevated location where it receives the wind from the Mediterranean, tinged as it is with a hint of humidity. But it is the wind, soothing and sonorous which remains and lulls you along through the trek up and down this ancient town of cobblestone alleys and roads, weathered but beautiful facades, and a population which, again, mixes the life force with a deep sense of sorrow, even anger.
But these three landscapes, despite their variations, form a continuous whole, a seamless mesh of wild beauty, hovering at the edge of something far darker, but not quite, not quite. And it is the landscape which is the source of both the intensity and the ease of Palestinian everyday life. Despite ist disfiguration by the Israeli settlements whose uniformity is in such contrast to the cyclical beauty of their surroundings, the landscape is utterly magical, completely mesmerizing. There are places in the world where even the most godless can get down on her knees and pray, or at least talk to a god; these hills and gorges are such places where you can literally converse with the unknown, curse fate and your station in life. And when you are finished, you can stand up and feel the strength of something unspeakable, something which pushes you on.
Nothing that I have experienced so far compares to my first encounter with the students of al-Najah University, in Nablus—nothing in terms of the intensity with which they were present for a 90-minute seminar on translation, from Arabic to English. If everything matters and matters deeply, then what better place than the university for this attitude toward life and toward politics? Language matters, words matter, but above all else, being articulate matters. And although these 70 students or so were not as skilled with English as they are with the Arabic text (six lines from Darwish published elsewhere on this blog), they understand something which many of my students in American universities have to be forced into, kicking and screaming: that education matters, is of consequence; that knowledge is both means and and end in itself; and that to learn is to establish a conversation with the unknown or the half-known, which they did so skillfully and with such cooperative discipline as they minds wandered around Darwish’s text, asking it questions, imagining its situation, appreciating the genius (a world I rarely use) of Darwish. All this, I propose, because they live in the shadow of two overwhelming forces—the double occupation on the one hand, and the comfort of the landscape—two hands cupping the chin of its people.