Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine. “Sheikh Jarrah, 2010.” A Poem by Almog Behar

By Almog Behar

Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Morgenstern.

Almog Behar Is a Mizrahi (Jew of Arab descent) writer, literary critic and activist involved in the solidarity movement against the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem.   Behar is also actively engaged in a small but vibrant community of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli writers—who write in both Hebrew and Arabic—and has participated in the organization of bilingual poetry readings and the compilation of Israeli and Palestinian bilingual poetry collections.  Behar’s own fiction and poetry (he has published two works of fiction and two collections of poems) explore the connections between Hebrew and Arabic, insist on the importance of Arabic culture in contemporary Israel and highlight the historic and tradition-based connections between Judaism and Islam and Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East.  

In the October installation of Artist’s Talk: Israel/Palestine we discussed the extensive involvement of artists and poets in the struggle to save Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods in Palestinian East Jerusalem.   Behar’s poem, “Sheikh Jarrah 2010,” is a poetic record of his involvement in the struggle for East Jerusalem, chronicling the weekly protests and the interactions between Palestinian and Israeli activists, the local Palestinian community, the Orthodox settlers, the police, and the Israeli army.   

You can read Chana M.'s interview with Behar over here.

“There is no sanctity in an occupied city!”  
                   Protest slogan.  Sheikh Jarrah.            

With drums we ascended Derekh Shekhem road.  Yet all the way
I worried that the noise was disturbing the neighbors’ rest,
I was reminded that I’m not happy when drums pass on my own street.
And I worried that the beat was too cheerful to express the sadness
of those who were thrown to the streets, the anger of those from the streets.

I am a Jew of beards, of glasses of tea, of a messiah
who will no longer come, of many commandments that for generations I have been promising
my heart I’ll fulfill but I don’t succeed, of the remembrance of the sanctity of Arabic words
in the Hebrew tongue.  And for a moment, from opposite sides of the barbed-wired fence
that has sprung from the doorstep of the Ghawi family who were thrown to the streets, we met,
members of two faiths—different, but sisters.
He has a beard too and memories and his face is cut by the fence into scores of
pieces, and he hurls heavy accusations at me like a brother,
that I have become exilic, he rages, riddled with self-hatred, a lover
of Arabs, a traitor, an informer on his own people in poems, more dangerous
than the anti-Semites, a Capo, and he reminds me with fierce descriptions
of the incinerators of Auschwitz and of the outstretched hand of God who promises
to return his people to his land or his land to his people.  
For a moment I thought we might return to being members of the same faith,
two Jews tired of accusations.  And I took his hand
and suggested that we go to the grave of Shimon
the Righteous One, and cry greatly over the righteous man and the wounds we have inflicted
on his old heart, until perhaps the righteous man will cry over us and the depth of the fracture
that is threatening to break us and the land of Israel, between Germany and Palestine.

I just got to Sheikh Jarrah and already I’m looking for Jews.  As if
I arrived in a faraway country and am looking for nine friends for a quorum,
or a corner with kosher food and Sabbath and holiday meals.  I’m the distance of
a ten-minute walk from my house, my synagogue, the time of Sabbath’s entrance
nears and I whisper to my God that it should be right in his eyes, the cry
of our slogans, as if I am fixing the Sabbath before him
repairing her in all her aspects, and as if I am praying the evening prayers
of Shabbat before him with all of the right intentions.  

And I sought to pass the police barricade,
to go down and pray at the grave of the righteous man with the rest of the worshippers
who arrived bathed and festive.  We will sing before the righteous man
with great joy and greet the Sabbath queen.  And I’ll ask him to permit me   
to pray among the criminals, and to justify the actions of the protesters
who desecrate the Sabbath in order to sanctify the name of the heavens in Jerusalem.  

And one night I dreamt: We’ll come to Sheikh Jarrah for a protest,
regiment by regiment of the expelled, and with us will march the Yemenites expelled
from the Kineret village, the Jewish Hebron refugees of 1929,
the Arabs of Ba’ka, Talbieh, Katamon, Meah Sha’arim, Lifta
and Ein Karem expelled during the Nakba, the Jewish quarter refugees
expelled in '48 by Jordan, and in '67 their homes were nationalized
by the government of Israel to be sold for great profit leaving them refugees,
the Palestinians expelled from the villages surrounding Latrun in '67,
the Mizrahim expelled from the Yemin Moshe neighborhood after years in
the eye of the target, to make room for painters and artists, the residents
of unknown Bedouin villages in the Negev, the mortgage defaulters
expelled from their homes by eviction crews, the Jaffa and Musrara residents
forced to vacate their homes to make way for the rich, and the people of Silwan,  
a demolition order threatening their homes.  

And one night the Jerusalem mayor dreamt:  Sheikh Jarrah
will be concrete, a giant parking lot, and whoever saw a date here,
and whoever saw an olive, and whoever saw a grove will see a massive lot of cars,
till the ends of the horizon, like a shopping center in a peaceful American town.  
All the parking problems of Jerusalem will be solved in Sheikh Jarrah, maybe
the world’s parking problems will be solved in Israel, all of Palestine
covered in concrete, because the solution is in concrete that will finally subdue
the fight over the holiness of the land, which will disappear.

And we stand, hundreds of protestors, facing the barricades at the neighborhood’s entrance.
We are advancing and retreating, dodging the police, returning
to their arms, moving in circles, nearly reaching the officers
and turning to run.  They strike us like angry fathers
yearning to discipline, like school children craving revenge.  
We don’t know whether to ask them to spare the old,
the pregnant women, and the children, or to stand and receive their blows with love,
whether to turn and run again, in order to return.  

And we stand, hundreds of protestors, facing the barricades at the neighborhood’s entrance.
The policemen, who have just returned from a course, watch us with eyes
weary of the extra shift we’ve forced on them, of their meager salaries,
of the cries of protestors and commanders.  They worry
the protest will run into the Sabbath again this week.  
And their commander orders them to clear us off the road, if they don’t clear the road
he’ll cancel their day off, and with every blow we hate them
and forget their commander, the mayor, the courthouse.  
In my heart I wanted to cross to their side, take their commander’s
megaphone and achingly ask the protesters to disperse, to cry out:
This week we won’t declare the protest illegal, no,
We’re just asking that you disband in exchange for our salaries
this-or-that amount of shekels for every hour of protest, because we promised our wives
we would be at Shabbat dinner, this week go protest at the mayor’s house, the prime minister’s house, the house of the millionaire who buys them houses, protest
in your parents’, your neighbors’ living rooms, just leave us be, this week, please.

On the way to the protest the muezzin sings from the mosque tower in Maqam Saba.
And I sing quietly to my God in the same note: May our eyes behold
your return to Zion, mercifully, mercifully.   

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly,
student of Ezra the Scribe, teacher of Antigonus of Socho,
and he used to say: On three things the world stands,
on the Torah, on divine service, and on acts of loving-kindness.
And we are not his students nor his student’s students,
And the fear of the heavens is no longer upon us as it was upon them,
And we do not seek to act with loving-kindness save
toward ourselves, and the world does not stand.  
We forget that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, forget
that there is but one law for us and for the stranger
who lives with us, forget that the Hanoun family are not strangers
to this land, that the Al-Kurd family are not strangers
to this land, that the Ghawi family are not strangers
to this land, and we continue to forget.  
By the courtyard of the expelled Hanoun and Al-Kurd families a border patrol soldier
calls my name.  What are you doing here? He asks me the same question
I would ask him.  Only a year ago we were reading Aristotle, Maimonides,
Al-Ghazali, Zhuangzi together, and now he’s guarding
the houses of the evicted from the protestors.  This guy was my teacher, he says, embarrassed,
to a soldier who joins the conversation, and complains: they all hate us,
they’re angrier at us than at pilots who drop bombs,
they curse us out, and in the end we have to separate between
fighting children here like babysitters, what do you have to say about that?
And I said nothing, in my mind I was still trying to connect
Maimonides and Al-Ghazali to the Sheikh Jarrah expulsion. 

Published Feb 9, 2011   Copyright 2011 Almog Behar

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.