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Sari Nusseibeh – Jerusalem: childhood truths

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 22.08.2006:

By Dr. Sari Nusseibeh

Sometimes when I am asked how my family – a Muslim family named after “Nusseibeh,” a female warrior-companion of the Prophet from Medina – ever came to hold the keys to one of Christianity’s holiest sites in Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, I smile indulgently. Then, I begin by saying: “Well, there are a few traditions in the family concerning this, but let me begin with this tale…”

The story I then spin out is an innocent mixture of fact and fiction, a mosaic of the subjective and the objective, which has been imprinted in my sub-conscious ever since my early childhood. For me, this is the essence of the identity of Jerusalem – a beautiful mosaic of tales spun out from a misty past, rooted in events, whether real or presumed, and constituting the fibre of the hearts and souls of its inhabitants.

One such tale of which I am particularly fond, encapsulating as it does the magical relation between Man and the City, is that of the Caliph Umar’s entry into Jerusalem in 638 A.D. It is a tale that seeped deeply into my consciousness during my childhood, resounding year after year in my ears and mind, but cumulatively gathering with it and impressing upon me a particular moral; one which, because of its association with Islam’s origin in the City, is fundamental to my self-identity as a Muslim Jerusalemite.

The almighty Caliph of Islam, I have been led to believe, being totally overawed by the prospect of entering this sanctified City, would only deign to arrive at its gates unarmed. Leaving his fierce and victorious warriors behind, accompanied only by his aide and one beast of burden, he approaches the City peacefully and by foot, to be cordially received by its Christian guardian, Bishop Sephronious. On his journey towards the City, the story goes (and I take this also to be a fundamental part of the tale), the Caliph and his man-servant exchange places to ride their single camel.

Much of history is made of what happens next. To me, the mystery of Jerusalem is already engraved in the above tale. Laid out before me, I immediately see the moral contours of a cosmic design, mapping out and balancing the relation between the Man and the City, between Earth and Heaven. At one end of the design stands the Conqueror and First leader of Men. But his size is diminutive. His submission is total. His humility and self-denial are complete. At the other end stands the Golden but “conquered” City. Its size is majestic. Its form is imperial. Its heavenly walls totally impregnable, impervious but to the pious, who enter it submissively and with humility. It is not another stone-habitation to be submitted and conquered by force. It is the penultimate earthly stepping stone in the journey of the humble and pious towards their Creator.

I look at this drawing in awe and wonder. Not here do I find the signs of pomp and glory of earthly warriors. Nor here in the drawing do I see the details of blood, battle and plunder. There is a peaceful absence of human force and violence. There is only the City’s divine supremacy, illuminating the path to God.

A Jewel Box of Moral Tales

I take a look back to re-evaluate or understand the approach of the Caliph and his man-servant. It takes but a second for me to realize the other significant message, the other universal value in this childhood tale: the equality and brotherhood between men. Regardless of their respective earthly stations, Caliph and man-servant are equal before God. And, as equals, they naturally come to share their earthly utilities.

This is certainly no Roman Emperor riding golden chariots surrounded and protected by soldiers and servants, nor a Cleopatra or Pharaoh carried regally on the shoulders of beautiful Nubians belonging to a sub-race, in celebration of Man’s mighty conquests: it is, rather, a humble servant of God, piously seeking to be received by Him. Jerusalem – the stones and the inhabitants – is a jewel box of such moral tales. The mosaic intercrosses time and space, stone and soul, reality and dreams. It’s impossible not to hear the throbs of your heart, not to pierce through present sounds and smells to the point of contact with the images and sounds of the past, as you tread through the ancient cobbled streets of History.

You may see soldiers and guns parading through the streets of the present. You may see anguish or pain or suffering. You may sense bigotry, or bias or misplaced self-righteousness. But somehow, you manage to gaze right through these and other images of human contortions, from this period or from other grim periods of Jerusalem’s history, to see Jerusalem as its real, heavenly self, as a city of unity and piety. And as you gaze at this eternal Jerusalem with the eyes of faith, you manage somehow to imbibe differences and imbalances, distilling into your own identity other peoples’ pains, tales and histories. For, what is a Jerusalemite if not a complete human being, a human being stripped of earthly prejudices, of racism and bigotry, a human being sufficiently purified to be received by God?

I would like to believe, in spite of the contortions of the present, that Jerusalem can still outshine human differences and reign supreme; and that Jews, Christians and Muslims can still make Jerusalem fulfil its destiny of bringing peace unto the nations. I believe the secret to this dream lies in a childhood tale. It is the tale of Umar: that men who would venture to step into the earthly Jerusalem, in fulfilment of the beckoning of God, should behave towards each other as equals, and be prepared to share their earthly means of entry to the divine world.

Professor Sari Nusseibeh is the President of Al-Quds University. This article was first published in the UNESCO Courrier in October 2001 in the context of a photographic exhibition presented by Al-Quds University students.

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