Brown is the colour of
By Chew Yi Wei
The horizon is distinct. It is that indelible point at which blue meets brown, where sky meets sand. I am standing at the lookout point of Masada, just one of King Herod's many grand cliff fortresses. King Herod. That megalomaniac, that madman, that genius, that builder, that tyrant. Many hundreds of years later, it was used by a Jewish separatist group called the Sicarri or the Zealots. History progresses through a trajectory of irony. Where Masada belonged to Herod once, it was later, in the first century, occupied by the Sicarri, who were enemies of the Roman state.
Our guide, N, tells us the story of Masada and the last tragic Roman siege in 73CE that saw the mass suicide of the Jewish Zealots led by Eleazer Ben Yair. As N continues, I imagine the huge ramp the Romans built in order to access the almost inaccessible fortress. It is a great game of time between the Jews and the Romans. As the latter ascends, the former must decide what to do to capitulate and live, or to keep their dignity and die. Eleazer says with a final, persuasive flourish that they must "prefer death over slavery". The idea is grand, the exit impressive, tragic. Under the direction of Eleazer, the men kill their wives and children, with the last survivor killing himself. When the Romans finally make it up, all they see is a mass of bodies strewn helter-skelter, all they hear is a writhing silence, with only two women and three children who survive to perpetuate the tale. The Romans are stunned, moved to respect. This is a scene where death is victory, where suicide is the zenith of nobility and heroism. Again, ironically, much like how the Romans themselves fall into their own swords. This is the account compiled by the historian, Flavius Josephus; this is the account that is told repeatedly to tourists when they visit the Holy Land.
After N finishes and leaves us to wander around the cliff top, I ponder on the mad bravery of the Sicarri, those rebels who hid daggers under their cloaks as a symbol of Jewish nationalism, defence, machismo and constant vigilance against the Romans. It sounds like a profound story that fits right in with the narrative of Israeli nation-building, a myth now collectively ossified in Jewish national and racial consciousness. The event at Masada is now taken to be synonymous with Jewish integrity and courage, with the race's temerity and tenacity never to give up, or give in, to the threats that beset and surround them. True or not, this story is typical of the founding stories, or myths, of young nations what more, a Jewish nation state that was once cartographically erased, its people scattered, massacred throughout the cruel tides of history. Stories like that are needed to erect a boundary between Jews and gentiles, to delineate boldly the lines of legacy and remembering of a race that was almost eliminated, forgotten, to create a history that would be able to find a place in the new geographical terra given to the nation in 1948.
As the other tourists mill around the mock-up structures demonstrating the way the Zealots lived during the first century, I make my way to the site where the Romans built the ramp. I look down and across, and all I see is rock, gravel, swathes of sand. The cliff is steep, precipitous, treacherous. I am moved by the endless expanse of brown, the danger and timelessness of the colour; the way it marks its characteristic hues of beige, ecru and russet on the landscape, the way it textures its coarseness, fineness and graininess on the terrain. As I walk, each footstep leaving a temporary imprint in the sand, I think about the countless footsteps made through the centuries, and the wind that blew them away, leaving only palimpsests on the surface, the vestiges of history on geography, the traces of antiquity on modernity. It is easy to lose oneself in the sprawl of earth and sky, of brown and blue here in this spot on the cliffs of Masada. Here is where historical tour de forces took place; here is where myths were made real. There is something invigorating about being in a spot where the Romans met the Jews, where one mighty power came into contact with another smaller but no less powerful community. The globally-minded Romans, with their insatiable quest to redraw maps, to shift territories against the nationally-minded Jews who fought tirelessly to retain their map lines, the stark boundaries of their identity.
The clash that took place on the brown topos, the blood from that glorious suicide spilled onto and into the ground, forming roots and routes that network, that connect to the rest of Jewish past, present and future is, for a Singaporean like me, substantially overwhelming. Just for this intense moment, the then and the now meet. I share the brown earth with the Romans and the Jews; I stand in the midst of that red canal of blood that wrote its own signature on the brown of sand, the tawniness of soil. The afternoon light sets awash a brilliance on the sand, offering it a golden, auburn shade.
Lost in the moment of revelry, I almost miss N calling for us to leave Masada. It is time for lunch, and we have to take the cable car down the cliff, as we did when we came up. I look out of its window and see a stream of other tourists walking up the long, ascending flight of steps that would get them to the top of the cliff. I am annoyed that we have to use the cable car instead of walking. As I watch the other tourists in envy, I think of what Rebecca Solnit says, so eloquently, about walking and the one who walks: "The walker toiling along a road toward some distant place is one of the most compelling and universal images of what it means to be human, depicting the individual as small and solitary in a large world, reliant on the strength of body and will." To walk is to feel the ground with your feet, to be in touch with the earth's tactility, to embark on a kind of spirituality that keeps our bodies in contact with the land, to enable the material to gravitate towards the mystical.
Iain Sinclair, known for being a notorious and assiduous walker, says of walking: "It's opening up your system to the world, making the skin porous, letting all the impressions pour through [ ]. And the burning of neural pathways is when you've established a set of pathways in the head. To go somewhere new is to feel the brain is being remapped, in an interesting way." Like Sinclair, I want very much to be able to sink my mind, or my neural pathways, into the immortal brown that covers the land, to be able to establish a connection with the topography of this peculiar oasis-cum-desert space in the Middle East. I want, by perambulating, to see the reason, or the lack of reason, behind the boundaries drawn up between Israel and Palestine in the brown immensity of their shared earth. But my longing is interrupted when the cable car descends and reaches the foot of Masada. Coming out from the cable car, I look up for the final time and all I see is a brown cliff, illuminated by the splendid midday sun.
It is Sunday today. We have filling breakfast at the Hotel Intercontinental, Bethlehem, Palestinian Territory. There are many Intercontinental hotels located around the world. We know this global brand's insignia, its reputation for comfort and class. Yet, the Hotel Intercontinental in Bethlehem seems a little out of place. It seems to be a fixture incongruously erected in the midst of urban rubble and mess, a pearl-coloured palatial structure grown suddenly out of a heap of brown ash and dust. The juxtaposition is unsettling, and there is a kind of guilt that inescapably agitates my experience. Here, right in front of me, is the irony of globalisation a place of luxury right in the middle of unrest and poverty. Contrasting worlds exist alongside streets; middle-class global tourism among troubled local urbanism. Just last night, the sounds of gunshots were heard not too far from where my room is located.
After breakfast, I saunter out of the hotel into the tour bus. It is around 8.30am and I feel, even more starkly, a rush of helplessness and a frisson of disquiet at the distance between my world and the Palestinians'. The children are playing with rocks on the road, as some motorcycles are riding by, sputtering diesel fumes into the morning air. N meets us at the entrance of the hotel. He is Palestinian Christian, and lives not too far away from the hotel. He is happy that he is able to go back home instead of staying with the group during this leg of the tour. "I get to see my kid," he says, his mood chipper. He lights up his cigarette, his first for the day. The nicotine rush hits him, a tobacco-infused moment that warms him up, revs up his energy on this winter morning. Due to the nature of his job, N cannot afford to be enervated. Other than three good meals a day, a cigarette is able to quicken his body, clarify his mind.
The tour bus departs the hotel and makes its way along the dirt-covered roads of Bethlehem. Baraka Bible Presbyterian Church is not too far away from the hotel. We are attending a service together with the Palestinian Christians. Christmas is coming, and because we are guests from Singapore, the members of the church are looking forward to having us worship with them this morning. On the way there, N tells us to look left. The site that he points us to is under construction, a brown heap of sand with orange excavators sinking their teeth into the ground. "That is where we used to play as children. Before, this place was filled with trees," N says wistfully. "One day, the Israelis decided to come in, and my playground was lost forever." What we are seeing is what we know, in common parlance, to be a settlement. Everybody on board the tour bus is poignantly silent after N's confession. No one claims to understand, nor does anyone dare to judge, not openly at least.
The pause is uncomfortable but necessary. Too often, tourism blots out the political discomforts of a place, celebrating only its publically legitimate and sanitised spaces. Tourism tells half-truths about a city, a country, and it doesn't bother hiding the fact that it does. I wonder to myself if N holds any grudge against the Israelis; after all, what he has been made to go through is both scarring and traumatising. A man displaced in his own land, a man having to deal with the daily reality of invasion. Susan Sontag says, without any hypocrisy and self-righteousness in Regarding the Pain of Others, that the proverbial, collective "we" are the ones who are not "them". "We" are not "them" who have to experience suffering and strife. "We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is, and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine." Like every one of us, N holds a regular job. He makes his living as a tour guide diligently, honestly. Yet, we live in different universes. We will never be able to contend with the mundanity of war, the terrible ennui of being a refugee in one's own country.
Not long after, the bus pulls up outside a little building. We have now reached Baraka Bible Presbyterian Church. The actual building itself is located down the slope. It is a simple structure whose sanctuary houses just enough wooden pews for the small congregation. We find ourselves having to squeeze as we are a big group from Singapore, a place tremendously different from Palestine. The morning air is cool and crisp; a slight winter breeze is blowing through the open shutters. We exchange polite smiles. Our lives are as distant as the languages we speak. They sing in Arabic, and we in English, the tune of the hymns being the only thing that unites us. The preacher prays for peace in Jerusalem, in Palestine, for peace on earth and goodwill to men, as the scriptures say.
As eyes are closed and heads are bowed in prayer, I cannot help but pry open my eyes to look out of the window. It is once again a sight and a site all too familiar to the Palestinians. That huge, mowed-over patch of brown, the random scattering of tree trunks, their burnt sierra evidence of the lines of occupation on the besieged landscape, proof that they were once the sentinels that inhabited the territory. Another settlement under construction, another eviction of peoples, another deracination of memories. I feel a melancholy germinating at the hapless irony, the mind-numbing tragedy of the prayer, and the place. Perhaps this wild contradiction brings out the need for prayer. I feel lost, a solitary walker consumed by the colossal cry of that prayer, a signpost of hope alongside the overt mockery of reality, a flag of brown despair.
I leave the service feeling both illuminated and disturbed. What I have just gained is a theoretical understanding of quotidian displacement. What I have just experienced is the ease at which prayer can be uttered, and the difficulty at which trials are lived out, daily. We board the bus and head to a nearby Turkish restaurant for lunch. The bus speeds along, the settlement I just saw still building itself up in that abandoned, occupied brown.
Since coming to this part of the world, the broken land of many boundaries that is called Israel/Palestine, I have been moved by its geography: the engulfing brown, the continuous stretch of desert into desert, of undulating sand dunes, of sun-dried mountains and their hard-edged ranges, of tel upon tel upon tel. Brown, the colour of the Israeli/Palestinian horizon, the colour at the rim of that land surrounded by Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. This is an area covered in brown, at its core and at its periphery. This is also a region whose brown land demarcates the fault lines and fissures between Israel and Palestine, both on the map and on the ground. Two countries, one land. This is a brown that has absorbed, through the centuries, the blood of soldiers and civilians, the bombs of friends and foes. This is the brown receptacle of memories, desperately retained and forcibly lost. Brown is the colour of where the Palestinians and Israelis are, and where they are not. Brown is the colour of displacement, of division. Brown is the colour of separation. Brown is the colour of war.
Amidst the pessimism, I recall what N said on the first day of the trip. "The two state solution is not a solution. Israelis and Palestinians have to learn to share the land, to live together. It is our land." N's words enable me to see the untamed possibility of unity, of a shared terra. That he is a Palestinian makes his convictions so much more admirable, and so much more heart-breaking. What he says resonates with Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet who intones in his poem, 'If I Were Another': "I am only / my steps, and you are both my compass and my chasm [ ] My identity is this expanse!" There is an acknowledgement of sharing the road, the map, the land with another, be he a guide, a lost and tired wanderer, a brother or an enemy. For identity in this territory is a shared geographical and psychic experience.
Travel, in the words of Francis Bacon, is supposed to improve a man's standing in this world: "Let [a man's] travel appear rather in his discourse, than in his apparel, or gesture: and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, then forwards to tell stories." I cannot pretend to have gained even a facile understanding of the complexities of the region, of the intricacies and tensions of Palestinian-Israeli relations. All I have learnt, the only story I can tell, if it were to please Bacon, would be that Israelis and Palestinians have an ineradicable and intimate relationship with the land their pasts, presents and futures tied invariably to it.
Jack Kerouac, whose life was as beautifully wind-blown as his words, says, in the ethos of Beat philosophy: "This is why life is holy: because it is not a lonely accident. Therefore, again, we must love and be reverent of one another, till the day when we are all angels looking back." There is an unyielding idealism that embodies his words; it is almost like a prayer, a relentless hoping that can be showered on the endless fighting between Israel and Palestine. History is a kind of looking back, but to look back as angels would be a higher, better thing. Kerouac seems to believe such retrospection to be within the realisation of man.
In the spirit of Darwish and Kerouac, brown then is the colour of the land. The brown that blankets this land also blurs and buries its fractures. This is the brown that dazzles in the bright, scattered light of the sun. This is the brown that is mutual history and geography. This is the brown of connections, the brown of sharing. This is the brown of a hoped-for future. This is the brown of home. The brown of peace.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014