Museum Under the Sky
By David Kattenburg
Nothing challenges humans more than nationalistic pride and its fruit, prejudice and racism. Imperialism, war, and all manner of human destruction inevitably sprout from such soil.
This thought came to my mind as I read the latest public ruminations of a certain Israeli acquaintance of mine, a Chicago expatriate — a rabbi, no less — currently residing in a West Bank settlement and author of a column in the Jerusalem Post.
Being on Rabbi Ben-Meir’s email list (willingly), I was informed thus: “This post relates to the contrast between the richness of Jewish history in the Land of Israel — because there IS a history — and between the empty Palestine Museum, because there is NO real “Palestinian” people, as a people with a national identity. Be well!”
The good rabbi’s post was referring to a museum that has apparently been established somewhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “Not so long ago,” Ben-Meir writes, “the Palestine Museum opened with some fanfare in what seems to be an impressive building. However – there are no exhibits. That may be temporary, but it’s certainly symbolic: an empty museum for a people without national authenticity or history to exhibit, that didn’t exist until the 20th century, when artificially created as a political and propaganda tool against Israel.”
Having just returned from Palestine, Rabbi Dovid’s words cut me to the quick. Of course there is a “real” Palestinian people with a national identity, I wrote to my friend in an email! (We Americans tend to consider just about anyone a friend, even those with ideas diametrically different from our own, provided we’ve walked around and had a drink together).
Denying Palestinian culture is more than just preposterous, I continued. It’s racist and hateful. I had traveled up and and down Palestine extensively, and had met Palestinians; learned about their culture and heritage. I had seen, heard and experienced it, including the tradition of greeting strangers with cold drinks on a hot day, served up in fluted glasses, on attractive metal trays (an experience I can describe in detail). There are many ways to uphold one’s own culture and heritage without demeaning someone else’s, I added, in a moralizing tone. That’s what peace-building is all about.
Rabbi Dovid wasn’t convinced. There are Arabs who live in the Land of Israel, he scoffed. They may have certain family or tribal customs, foods etc. But as there never was a ‘Palestine’ or Palestinian ‘nation’ other than the one Jews have founded, then there is no such thing as Palestinian ‘culture’.
A day trip from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala to nearby Battir in the company of a woman named Vivien Sansour shatters Rabbi Dovid’s proposition. Standing on the edge of little Battir, I feasted my eyes on one of the world’s most astonishing sights: an amphitheater of ancient stone terraces covered in a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, herbs and trees — including olive trees reputed to be over a thousand years old.
The engine of all this biodiversity? A very special microclimate, for sure. Also — getting to the nub of the matter — a source of pure spring water that Battir’s eight extended families have been cooperatively managing for generations. Battir’s diverse, cooperatively managed gardens earned it World Heritage status from UNESCO back in 2014. (the ‘C’ standing for “Culture”). “Endangered” status, no less. For years, Israel has been wanting to run its Separation Wall across Battir valley, a move that would destroy it. Battir’s UNESCO status has put Israel’s plans on hold — for the time being.
Vivien Sansour and I drove to Battir from Bethlehem sister city Beit Jala. It’s just a few miles, but takes time. Israel’s Wall surrounds Beit Jala on three sides, and the road leading to Battir is much more winding than the one Jewish settlers use to move back and forth between their tidy homes and Jerusalem; or from Jerusalem to occupied Hebron. So our trip to Battir took forty-five minutes. A beautiful drive.
Before leaving town, Vivien pulled over to the side of the street to pick up some Palestinian heirloom apricots from a street vendor — juicy, misshapen fruits with a back story. They had been grown on a nearby parcel of land squeezed between a handful of Jewish settlements. Growing rare varieties of fruit on fragmented land, with restricted water access, is a major challenge. Palestinian apricots are all the more prized. Because the traditional (as opposed to Israeli industrial) apricot season lasts only a couple of weeks, Palestinians have coined a term for the ephemeral; for the kind of phenomenon that can barely be counted on, because it’s so brief: fil mishmish. ‘In the time of the apricot season’. In English we’d say ‘When pigs fly’.
Language and tradition are filled with agricultural references like this, Vivien told me, as we drove to Battir, eating our apricots, carefully stowing their pits on the dashboard, because Vivien has a passion for seeds. These and many other heirloom seed varietiess collected from Palestinian elders are now part of a seed library Vivien and her colleagues have set up in little Battir, the first of its kind in Palestine. Supported by the Ramallah-based A.M. Qattan Foundation, the library officially launched this past June 4. Listen to a short version of the launch at the SoundCloud link on the top of this story. Here is a longer version: