An Excerpt From Keith Whitelam’s Forthcoming “Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past”
From Chapter 2, A Land Built of Bones
The history of Palestine has been forged in the shadow of empire: the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian from the ancient past to the Ottoman, British and American of the modern world. The so-called great men, monarchies, and imperial powers have followed on from one another in the region, attracting most attention like the froth of the waves breaking on the shoreline. Yet underlying this surface movement, as Braudel termed it, was a substratum that moved slowly to the rhythms of time absorbing and dissipating the effect of the waves.
It is this story, an essential part of Palestine’s past, that was ignored by western visitors and scholars in favour of the events and characters described in the Bible. So these centuries that are associated with the biblical stories have become Israel’s past and have been denied to Palestine and the Palestinians. As Carlo Levi said of Gagliano in his evocative and moving Christ Stopped at Eboli:
No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding. The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ…
The lives of the inhabitants of the tombs of Afula, Dothan and Silwan are part of the rich tapestry of Palestine’s history as it moves to the rhythms of the land, beguiled by its attractions, and reaping its rewards in return for loving care. For those close to the land, it was ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ in that time worn phrase coined by the biblical writers. Their hopes are summed up in the words of the psalmist, ‘May there be an abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon.’ Or more recently, Raja Shehadeh when walking in the hills near Ramallah describes the abundance of wild flowers—‘most were in miniature, blue iris only a few centimetres high, pink flax also very close to the ground and the slightly taller Maltese Cross and pyramid orchids, a colourful but thin carpet covering the vibrant land’, and the terraced gardens with olive trees and flowers’— while pondering the lives of its former inhabitants:
As I walked up I looked at the unterraced hill to my left. What would it take to clear this and terrace it, I wondered. What a feat it must have been to look at the wild hill and plan the subdivisions. How did they know when to build the terrace wall in a straight line, when in a curve and when to be satisfied with a round enclave where only a single tree could be planted? They must have been very careful to follow the natural contours, memorizing the whole slope before deciding how to subdivide it…. Where once there was a steep hill there was now a series of gradually descending terraces. In this way my ancestors reclaimed the wild, possessed and domesticated it, making it their own.
We need to see the inhabitants of the graves of Afula, Dothan and Silwan as ourselves, or fail to understand how their hopes, aspirations and fears unite us in a common humanity. The rhythms of time are ignored in the search for that which separates, defines, and makes exclusive. Palestine is, to adapt the words of Levi, a land built on bones, where the dead are passed into the living.
- “Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past”, by Keith Whitelam (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- The Politics of Israel’s Past: The Bible, Archaeology and Nation-Building (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)