A Homeland of all its citizens
Poet Salman Masalha has founded a new nation, one that resembles Israel but is based on universal humanism and embraces the future, not the past.
On September 11 this year, presumably unconnected to the date's other connotation, Dr. Salman Masalha stood on the balcony of Jerusalem's King David Hotel and announced the establishment of the State of Homeland. He titled himself visionary of the state - a Druze poet, an Arab by his own definition. Most of all, he was "in place," which is also the title of his new book of poetry. As opposed to Israel, where precise identities are so important, in Homeland they will have neither place nor validity.
That, after all, is the essence of Homeland, where all of us - Jews, Arabs and others - will be "Homelanders" with equal rights and standing. The visionary, by the way, rejects outright the idea of a binational state, which he does not understand at all. But he supports diversity. "If I lived in a country where there were only Arabs, I would go out of my mind," he admits. "I don't want a boring country." Homeland certainly will not be boring. In fact, it will be everything Israel is not. A country where everyone is in place.
Not for nothing did the visionary, who writes his poems in Hebrew and Arabic, choose an English name for his country. "So there would be no burdens to start arguing over immediately," he says. "We are Homelanders, a peace-seeking people. We will go with a name everyone can identify with."
The conditions for becoming a Homelander are very simple. Everyone within the borders of the new country on the day of its establishment will be a Homelander. No Law of Return. No rights from the past, only obligations to the future. "I don't want a past in this place," the visionary says, against the backdrop of Jerusalem's Old City walls. "There is so much past we can't see the future here. Judaism and Islam both emphasize the importance of 'remembering.' We, the people of Homeland, want to forget. Not that we want to delete our private memories, but to start a shared journey from what we have now." He quotes a line from one of his poems: "Oblivion is the beginning of memory."
The visionary at first hesitates to set clear borders for Homeland. Borders always invite controversy. But then he decides a lack of borders is the essence of what is bad about Zionism, and sets them on the spot. The Galilee to the north, Jordan to the east, the Mediterranean to the west, and the desert to the south. These boundaries are flexible but sustainable.
Joining Homeland will be simple, but will carry obligations that could be considered somewhat cruel in their harshness. Even temporary absence from Homeland on the day of its establishment will automatically revoke the right to be a Homelander. Thus, Azmi Bishara's rights would be revoked immediately if he happened to be in Syria the day the state were declared. "Perhaps it suits him there better," says the visionary, who in the way of visionaries, has unbending standards. "After all, he is so impressed by the enlightened Syrian regime."
But Bishara is only an example. The people of Homeland will be very open. "We will spread our beliefs in pleasant ways," the visionary pledges. But how do you say "pleasant ways" in Arabic? "There are no pleasant ways in Arabic," he responds.
The language of the land, Homlandic, will be a combination of Hebrew and Arabic. It will be created on its own, the way of all languages not born of a decision. In any case, the visionary already perceives the two languages leaking into each other. Homeland will not have a head of government but rather a head of the people, whose powers will be very limited - confined mainly to garbage collection, paving roads and building schools. In short, "the country will be like a big municipality. It must be separate from national ethos, which will remain in the realm of the individual. That's what we'll have in Homeland."
Homeland's parliament will not be called the "Knesset," which invokes Israel's parliament, but simply "The Homeland House of the People." Masalha can already imagine the great speeches that will inaugurate it, along the lines of "Homelanders, raise up your eyes." But he immediately backtracks a bit from this pathos, for fear the rest of the sentence will be something like "a people standing tall in its land," which might sneak in from another ethos.
Poetry, not prayers
Carried away on the waves of his vision, he might be willing to establish a new temple, which in Homeland will be called "The Meeting House." Its potential connotations do not deter him, since after all this is completely secular place. The whole essence of Homeland is secular. The high priest will be a fine DJ, and prayers will be replaced by the works of poets.
Will the visionary himself be willing to serve as Homeland's national bard? Humility overtakes him momentarily, but he immediately gets his bearings and says that if urged he will consider it, and perhaps accept the movement's decree. He then refers to the epilogue of his poem: "Serving many gods is the wonder in the poet's soul. There is fire and there is water, earth and also air. But more than all of these, there is the poem."
This, for example, he says, referring to the sound of church bells carried on the wind from the Old City, will be utterly prohibited: "No church bells, no muezzin, no blowing of the shofar." In Homeland there will be complete separation of religion and state. Religion will be a totally private matter, and all public ritual will be forbidden. In keeping with the nature of the state, political parties with a religious basis will be completely prohibited. Even better would be no parties at all. The only party, whose name has not yet been decided, will be based on the platform of universal humanism. "A dictatorship of the liberals," as the visionary defines Homeland's regime, a tone of leaderly threat immediately creeping into his voice. "We are against Western democracy," he states. "It doesn't suit the East." A dictatorship of liberals is in this case the principle that under no circumstances may be compromised.
Homeland will have an army, which the visionary says is realistic. "We are not a pacifistic people. We will stand up for our right to be a free people in our land. Someone must protect our wonderful creation." To the comment that this is exactly what the Jews claim about Israel, he responds that what exists now is not a wonderful creation, since "it treats me like an enemy. Whoever treats me like an enemy - there is no reason not to treat him the same way."
But he pledges Homeland's army will have a different use. "We will not go to war; we will only protect the space in which we live. In any case we will be such an enlightened creation that everyone will simply want to join us. In the end we will conquer the whole world without firing a single shot," he says. "We will join the family of nations and in the future we will be willing to accept any person who believes in the values of universal humanism." When asked whether, at this important juncture, the visionary has not just established Israel as "a state of all its citizens," he answers in the affirmative, but adds one codicil: "A state of all its proper citizens," with a strong emphasis on "proper." "We, the people of Homeland, will be a light unto the nations," he says.
Hebrew for the Semites
Masalha is an expert in using fundamental Jewish legends in surprising ways. At the poetry festival in Metula five years ago, he took part in a session where poets were asked to read the works of other poets. Masalha went up to the dais, and without introduction, his tone serious, recited the anthem of the pre-state underground movement, the Lehi. "Unknown soldiers were we, without uniform - all drafted for life, from the rank only death will release." After the first shock, the words took on new significance, became provocative, subversive. It was as if Masalha had uprooted the familiar, gloomy belligerent legend and co-opted it for his own needs. He declared to one and all that he knew it very well, but would do with it as he pleased, with a certain amount of ridicule.
"I know what this says to people. I like pulling a 'switch' on them," he says. "I very much like this subversiveness."
Beyond his declared fondness for subversiveness, there is in this act a great love for the Hebrew language and a great demonstration of fluency. As opposed to other components of Israeliness to which Masalha feels aversion, the Hebrew language is his. Israel, according to Masalha, is the Jews. Hebrew, on the other hand, belongs to the Semitic region of which he is an inseparable part, and he feels it is his no less than the Jews'. "This is the place for Hebrew and therefore for parts of my heritage too, like the Bible, Christianity and Islam," he says. "Everything that belongs to this place, everything that was and will be, is part of me."
The decisiveness with which he speaks the language sounds almost like a kind of territorial struggle. "Language is also territory," he says. "Writing in literary Arabic is writing in an acquired language, one different than the daily language. Therefore, Arab writers wherever they may be are pan-Arabists - always living in another layer of the language, a layer to which everyone aspires and returns. In that regard I belong to them. It is Hebrew that delimits and strengthens the bond to this small place. In this sense, Hebrew serves as an anti-Zionist tool. Zionism wanted to disconnect the Palestinians from this place, but the language connects them to it. Ownership of the language is also ownership of the place. The homeland is the language, and Hebrew and Arabic are part of my homeland. Despite all the exiles in which one can live here: exile as an Arab, exile as a human being. I live in exile, but that's all right. In Jerusalem, all are in exile as they pass by history. In fact, all of Israel-Palestine is a small wayside inn."
Masalha left his birthplace, the Galilee village of Maghar, more than 30 years ago. He came to study in Jerusalem and stayed. He does not often go back to the village of his birth. He is not comfortable there. Not a great deal is left there of the landscape of his youth, which has become a concoction of concrete and asphalt. "It's no coincidence," he says. "There is a wicked policy to demolish the whole human and cultural fabric in these places." Restoration will come, of course, in Homeland.
Israeliness from abroad
Paradoxically, he found the Maghar of his childhood in a small village in Andalusia, Spain: the scenery, the paths, the houses ensconced in their memories. This was not the only time Masalha's Israeliness was defined, or even imposed on him, when he was abroad. Once it happened in Egypt when he went to a shop in downtown Cairo to buy a coat. In fluent Arabic he explained to the shopkeeper what he was looking for. "With a zipper or without?" the shopkeeper shot back in colloquial Hebrew. Masalha was shocked. "It didn't make me feel bad; I was just very surprised," he says. "Of course she thought I was Jewish, because for them 'Israeli' means 'Jewish.' That doesn't confuse me, but certainly makes me curious. Every identity is defined from the outside. For a person whose identity is clear to himself, that identity can take on any form."
But he heard the purest expression of identity from a Palestinian minister, of all people. In one of his trips abroad, after an embarrassing trek through security and a close examination of a passport heavy with hints indicating its bearer was not Jewish, Masalha met the man in the departure hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Masalha had long believed he was the only single-citizenship Israeli left, since all the others had already obtained an additional passport. On the spur of the moment, he approached the Palestinian minister and asked him to get him a Palestinian passport. "That's impossible," the man responded. You're an Israeli."
"I don't know if I'm Israeli," Masalha says. "If Israel does not accept me as Israeli then I am not. Israeli means Jewish, and Israeliness itself does not include me within it, in terms of public discourse. I am an Israeli in one sense - in the freedom of thought no Arab intellectual has in his own country. Jordanian, Syrian or Egyptian Arab intellectuals can express themselves freely only abroad. I can express myself here. That has created a complex relationship to the state that on the one hand segregates me but on the other hand gives me that freedom. But all in all, there is no definition for Israeliness. There is no such animal. You brought a Jewish suitcase from the Diaspora, not an Israeli one. What exactly connects Shas, [Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor] Lieberman and the National Religious Party other than the attempt to achieve a common creation within the Jewish tribe? Mohammed Barakeh, Jamal Zahalka and Salman Masalha were never included in this attempt."
Then he hedges his comments: There was one attempt to expand the boundaries of the tribe, he says. That happened when Yitzhak Rabin depended on an Arab bloc for a parliamentary majority. "He broke through the boundaries of the Jewish tribe, in favor of Israeliness," Masalha says. "That is why he was murdered. Rabin was murdered for family honor."
But all of this will in any case be solved in Homeland, where we will all create the new human being. Sound familiar? "It does indeed, Masalha concedes. "We are all brainwashed. In the end, instead of Homeland," he says, in a reference to Theodor Herzl's Altneuland, "we will create Alt-homeland."
Salman Masalha, bilingual author and poet, writes in Hebrew and Arabic. He was born on November 4, 1953 in the Galilee village of Maghar. In 1972 he moved to Jerusalem, a city in which he takes special pride because a mental illness is named after it. He studied at Hebrew University, focusing on classical Arabic poetry. His doctorate dealt with the mythological aspects of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. His articles, poems and translations appear in newspapers, magazines and anthologies in Arabic and Hebrew, and have also been translated into other languages. He is a member of the editorial board of the Arabic periodical Masharaf, in which he publishes translations of Hebrew poetry. He has published seven poetry books, some of which have been translated into a number of languages. His last book "Mother Tongue" (in Arabic) was published this year. His book "From Here," which was published in Hebrew in 2004, won this year's President's Prize.