November 9, 2002
An arch is homage to the moon, as it is formed by two mirroring crescents. Full moon produces the perfectly round barrel vault favored by Romans; the pointed Muslim arches are formed by waxing seventh-day crescents. In Nablous, there are arches for every day of the lunar month, even upturned arches composed of waning moons. A diligent student of architecture could compose a conclusive History of the Arch in this ancient Palestinian city.
In the Kasbah, an archway flows into archway, creating enfilades, and fading in the dim shadows. Near the Salahie Mosque, underground passages form a wind rose of the nautical charts. My gaze sinks in the black pupil of an opening, and stumbles upon arches like shutter blades in the camera aperture. Nablous is a molehill; generations of crafty dwarves could burrow the long winding tunnels under the solid stone houses of the Old City, connecting its bazaars, mosques and churches. TOP
Hussein leads through the tunnels, finding his way in their clew. Claustrophobic in any other place, in Nablous they protect and envelop like mother’s embrace. They hide us from watchful eyes and night visors of the snipers nesting on the Mount of Curse. We have to cross a square, a well-proportionate Italianate square with a cozy child playground. We cling to the walls of the squat colonial building. We are not afraid of narrow and confined tunnels; it is the open spaces we dread.
Bullets shriek in the air, and hit unseen wall. A machinegun replies, and soon, a night orchestra of volleys and flares shakes the mountain air. The city is besieged for half a year, since April, and the Jews sporadically shoot at its dwellers. The walls on the square are bejeweled with bright colored portraits of the slain: a five-year-old boy, or a young girl next to a mustachioed sturdy warrior. The golden dome of the Rock, the Palestinian epitome of perfect harmony, shines behind their heads, crowning the martyrs with glory. In Nablous one is never alone: eyes of the snipers and eyes of the martyrs follow one everywhere.
Strange feeling of being a prey came to me. I remembered first time being shot at, in the grey and yellow barren hills above Suez – Cairo highway. Egyptian artillery opened fire on us, a company of young paratroops who just had landed in the desert. The falling shells raised clouds of sand and dust, the earth shook of impact very near us, just like it did at the last winter war games, when the supporting artillery miscalculated and almost covered us by its salvos. “What are you doing, silly artillerists, – thought I, – we are here, you are shooting at us! This way, you will hit us!” And then I realized it was no mistake. We weren’t at winter maneuvers, but at real war, and the artillery aimed at us in order to kill. TOP
We sneaked into a modern building and walked up to the second floor by the broad staircase, to the Internet Café. It was full: many young boys and girls dared the snipers’ fire and came to this place of refuge and escape. Some of them were fighters; they used the relative lull in shooting, laid down their AK guns on top of the monitor and chatted online with their pen pals from California and Bahrain, Stockholm and Damascus.
I key in a message from Nablous into an Israeli forum and receive a speedy reply from a David Silver in Tel Aviv. “I do not pity them. I have no sorrow for them. I would drive ALL of THEM out to hell. With their children, girls, maidens, women, grannies, with their simple-minded believe in their lies, with their beastly cunning, with their patience and despair, their laughter, their tears, their food, their pride and heroism, their revenge, their working force. OUT! Their fathers, husbands and grandfathers are bloody murderers, admirers of murderers, scoundrels, thieves, cowards and pathological liars. After the expulsion, they can seek our friendship, though I wouldn’t build on it”. So much for “inherent Jewish pity and sweet obstinacy against violence”, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1945.
An Italian espresso machine flashed green and red lights, working out its steam. The war in the modern city has incongruous touch: computers are connected to the world net, faxes throw out sheets of neatly printed news, bakery opens between the shelling spells, a cousin arrives from Kentucky, and young fighters prepare their home lessons for the tomorrow’s exam in local university. TOP
It was hard to comprehend that just across the valley there were boys of the same age sent down here from small seacoast towns to reduce Nablous. But it was the reality. Heavy boom shook the house and monitors blinked and went off. It was a home-made mine, said a young fighter, no, it was 81 mm mortar, said his friend. They rushed down the staircase and out, and we followed them into the starry night. Israelis often send their reconnaissance forces into the city in these hours. They enter the houses, round up men and take them to their torture cellars. To extract information, they say, but there is another purpose: a man tortured, like a girl raped, is a broken and subdued creature. Over one hundred thousand Palestinians and uncounted Lebanese were tortured by Israelis, probably the planetary record. The fighters are on the streets to stop the torturers, or al least to make them pay.
The forces are hugely disproportionate: the third or the second army in the world supported by the only superpower against these young men and girls. If Israelis really want, they break into the Old City anytime, night or day. In bloody April 2002, over hundred men and women were slaughtered in Nablous. A whole family of eight found its death when the tanks and armored bulldozers crushed their home at the edge of the city on their heads. Another house was bombed by F16, and the municipality with great difficulty extracted the dead bodies of two old spinsters from below the rubble. TOP
But the city is alive. As shelling and shooting stops, the citizens go out from their homes into uncertainty of the markets, disregarding the curfew. Sellers roll out their vegetable stalls, smell of spices perfumes the air, old women from nearby villages sneak in and sell their olive oil and crushed olives, for we are in the heart of the olive country. The mosques are full, though they provide no safe refuge: Israelis do not mind to shoot at mosques and churches. A small Catholic chapel was ruined in April; an Orthodox church of St Demetrius miraculously was saved from a missile hit that devastated the street in front of it. The oldest mosque of the city, the Green al-Hadr Mosque, had its wall crushed by a tank in April, but it was repaired since then.
The speediness of repairs is amazing. The moment Israeli tank leaves the rubbles, municipality teams come in. They remove the bodies of dead and wounded and start to fix the house. Still, Israelis destroy faster than Naboulsies are able to repair. The chain tracks of Israeli tanks smashed the ceramic flooring of bazaars, demolish the new water supply system. The signs of fresh devastation melt into the old ruins laid low by the 1927 earthquake, and of even older one, of the second century BC, when the Jews razed to the ground the predecessor of Nablous, ancient Shechem. (Its four-thousand-years-old Cyclopean walls still stand at the edge of Balata refugee camp just outside the city.)
But the city did not die. The Jewish rule in Palestine was bloody, cruel but rather short-lived. The country was conquered by the Jewish invader in the second half of the second century BC, its cities were ruined, and the native population expelled, enslaved or turned into ‘second-grade native Jews’ as in Galilee. High taxation, genocide and apartheid were rampant even then. Sixty years later Pompey the Great landed on its shores and liberated the Palestinians from the Jewish yoke. TOP
After the Roman army subdued rebellious Jews, the retired Roman soldiers married pretty local women and rebuilt the city they named Neapolis, or Nablous. It still reminds of its Italian namesake, Neapolis or Naples, by its relentless continuity of styles and fiery temper of citizens. Its houses grow like trees, displaying the smooth transition of its historic periods. The Roman foundation smoothly gives place to the Byzantine first floor, transforms into an Abbasid structure, shifts to become a Crusader town house and ends with the last repair done in May after the latest Israeli bombardment, a perfect amalgam of time and space.
Such is the house of Hussein. The vault of the cellar was probably done by a local mason in the days of Titus Flavius, while the roof was fixed up just recently. We stand on the roof and see in front of us the huge dark shape of the Mount of Curse with its Israeli military base. Yellow halo of floodlights stands above its barbed wire perimeter, and engines of tanks roar like dragons waiting for signal to fly down and devour the city. On the street below, a group of fighters brandish their Tommy-guns. On the other side of the valley, the Mount of Blessing rises up to the unseen church of Holy Virgin and the site of Samarian temple. The flares dim the starlight and we duck as a heavy machinegun begins to comb the city.