Date: 2009

AUTHOR: John Berger


PUBLISHER: 2009 The Irish Times


A place weeping

A place weeping


Sat, Jan 10, 2009

Gaza, the largest prison in the world, is being transformed into an abattoir, writes

John Berger

A FEW DAYS after our return from what was thought of, until recently, as the future

state of Palestine, and which is now the world's largest prison (Gaza) and the world's

largest waiting room (Cisjordan), I had a dream. I was alone, standing, stripped to the

waist, in a sandstone desert. Eventually somebody else's hand scooped up some dusty

soil from the ground and threw it at my chest. It was a considerate rather than an

aggressive act. The soil or gravel changed, before it touched me, into torn pieces of

cloth, probably cotton, which wrapped themselves around my torso. Then these

tattered rags changed again and became words, phrases. Written not by me but by the


Remembering this dream, the invented word landswept came to my mind.

Repeatedly. Landswept describes a place or places where everything, both material

and immaterial, has been brushed aside, purloined, swept away, blown down,

irrigated off, everything except the touchable earth.

There's a small hill called Al Rabweh, on the western outskirts of Ramallah, at the

end of Tokyo street. Near the top of the hill the poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried. It's

not a cemetery. The street is named Tokyo because it leads to the city's cultural

centre, which is at the foot of the hill, and was built thanks to Japanese funding. It

was in this centre that Darwish read some of his poems for the last time - though no

one then supposed it would be the last. What does the word "last" mean in moments

of desolation?

We went to visit the grave. There's a headstone. The dug earth is still bare, and

mourners have left on it little sheaves of green wheat - as he suggested in one of his

poems. There are also red anemones, scraps of paper, photos. He wanted to be buried

in Galilee, where he was born and where his mother still lives, but the Israelis forbade


At the funeral tens of thousands of people assembled here, at Al Rabweh. His mother,

96 years old, addressed them. "He is the son of you all," she said.

In exactly what arena do we speak when we speak of loved ones who have just died

or been killed? Our words seem to us to resonate in a present moment more present

than those we normally live. Comparable with moments of making love, of facing

imminent danger, of taking an irrevocable decision, of dancing a tango. It's not in the

arena of the eternal that our words of mourning resonate, but it could be that they are

in some small gallery of that arena.

On the now deserted hill I tried to recall Darwish's voice. He had the calm voice of a


A box of stone

where the living and dead move in the dry clay

like bees captive in a honeycomb in a hive

and each time the siege tightens

they go on a flower hunger strike

and ask the sea to indicate the emergency exit.

Recalling his voice, I felt the need to sit down on the touchable earth, on the green

grass. I did so.

Al Rabweh means in Arabic: "the hill with green grass on it". His words have

returned to where they came from. And there is nothing else. A nothing shared by

five million people.

The next hill, 500 metres away, is a refuse dump. Crows are circling it. Some kids are


When I sat down in the grass by the edge of his newly dug grave, something

unexpected happened. To define it, I have to describe another event.

This was a few days ago. My son, Yves, was driving and we were on our way to the

local town of Cluses in the French Alps. It had been snowing. Hillsides, fields and

trees were white and the whiteness of the first snow often disorientates birds,

disturbing their sense of distance and direction.

Suddenly a bird struck the windscreen. Yves, watching it in the rear mirror, saw it fall

to the roadside. He braked and reversed. It was a small bird, a robin, stunned but still

alive, eyes blinking. I picked him up out of the snow, he was warm in my hand, very

warm, birds have a higher blood temperature than we do, and we drove on.

From time to time I examined him. Within half an hour he had died. I lifted him up to

put him on the back seat of the car. What surprised me was his weight. He weighed

less than when I had picked him up from the snow. I moved him from hand to hand to

check this. It was as if his energy when alive, his struggle to survive, had added to his

weight. He was now almost weightless.

After I sat on the grass on the hill of Al Rabweh something comparable happened.

Mahmoud's death had lost its weight. What had remained were his words.

Months have passed, each one filled with foreboding and silence. Now disasters are

flowing together into a delta that has no name, and will only be given one by

geographers, who will come later, much later. Nothing to do today but to try to walk

on the bitter waters of this nameless delta.

Gaza, the largest prison in the world, is being transformed into an abattoir. The word

Strip (from Gaza Strip) is being drenched with blood, as happened 65 years ago to the

word ghetto.

Day and night bombs, shells, phosphorous and GBU39 radioactive arms, machine

gun rounds are being fired by the Israeli Defence Forces from air, sea and land

against a civilian population of 1.5 million.

The estimated number of mutilated and dead increases with each news report from

international journalists, all of whom are forbidden by Israel to enter the Strip.

Yet the crucial figure is that for a single Israeli casualty there are 100 Palestinian

casualties. One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives. The implications of

this assumption are constantly reiterated by Israeli spokesmen in order to make them

acceptable and normal.

The massacre will soon be followed by pestilence; most lodgings have neither water

nor electricity, the hospitals lack doctors, medicines and generators. The massacre

follows a blockade and siege.

More and more voices across the world are raised in protest. But the governments of

the rich with their world media and their proud possession of nuclear weapons,

reassure Israel that a blind eye will be cast on what its defence forces are perpetrating.

"A place weeping enters our sleep," wrote the Kurdish poet Bejan Matur, "a place

weeping enters our sleep and never leaves."

Nothing but landswept earth.

I am back, four months ago, in Ramallah, in an abandoned underground parking-lot,

which has been taken over as a working-space by a small group of Palestinian visual

artists, among whom there's a sculptress named Randa Mdah. I'm looking at an

installation conceived and made by her entitled Puppet Theatre. It consists of a large

bas-relief measuring three metres by two, which stands upright like a wall. In front of

it on the floor there are three fully sculptured figures.

The bas-relief of shoulders, faces, hands, is made on an armature of wire, of

polyester, fibreglass and clay. Its surfaces are coloured - darkish greens, browns, reds.

The depth of its relief is about the same as in one of Ghiberti's bronze doors for the

Baptistry in Firenze, and the foreshortening and distorted perspectives have been

treated with almost the same mastery. (I would never have guessed that the artist is so

young. She's 29.) The wall of the bas-relief is like "the hedge" that an audience in a

theatre resembles when it's seen from the stage.

On the floor of the stage in front are the life-size figures, two women and one man.

They are made of the same materials, but with more faded colours. One is within

touching distance of the audience, another is two metres away and the third twice as

far away again. They are wearing their everyday clothes, the ones they chose to put

on this morning.

Their bodies are attached to cords hanging from three horizontal sticks, which in turn

hang from the ceiling. They are the puppets; their sticks are the control bars for the

absent or invisible puppeteers.

The multitude of figures on the bas-relief are all looking at what they see in front of

their eyes and wringing their hands. Their hands are like flocks of poultry. They are

powerless. They are wringing them because they cannot intervene. They are basrelief,

they are not three-dimensional, and so they cannot enter or intervene in the

solid real world. They represent silence.

The three solid, palpitating figures attached to the invisible puppeteers' cords are

being hurled to the ground, head first, feet in the air. Again and again until their heads

split. Their hands, torsos, faces are convulsed in agony. One that doesn't reach its end.

You see it in their feet. Again and again.

I could walk between the impotent spectators of the bas-relief and the sprawling

victims on the ground. But I don't. There is a power in this work such as I have seen

in no other. It has claimed the ground on which it is standing. It has made the killing

field between the aghast spectators and the agonising victims sacred. It has changed

the floor of a parking lot into something landswept.

This work prophesied the Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud Darwish's grave on the hill of Al Rabweh has now, following decisions

made by the Palestinian Authority, been fenced off, and a glass pyramid has been

constructed over it. It's no longer possible to squat beside him. His words, however,

are audible to our ears and we can repeat them and go on doing so.

I have work to do on the geography of volcanoes

From desolation to ruin

from the time of Lott to Hiroshima

As if I'd never yet lived

with a lust I've still to know

Perhaps Now has gone further away

and yesterday come closer

So I take Now's hand to walk along the hem of history

and avoid cyclic time

with its chaos of mountain goats

How can my tomorrow be saved?

By the velocity of electronic time

or by my desert caravan slowness?

I have work til my end

as if I won't see tomorrow

and I have work for today who isn't here

So I listen

softly softly

To the ant beat of my heart . . .

John Berger is a novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, dramatist and critic. His novel

G won the Booker Prize in 1972 and was also awarded the James Tait Black

Memorial Prize. His latest book, From A to X, made the Booker longlist for 2008.

Both quotations above are from Mahmoud Darwish's poem Mural. Translation by

Rema Hammami and John Berger

© 2009 The Irish Times