They sing from their hearts ~ waving flags and donning hats, keffiyehs and scarves with green, white, black and red ~ colours of Palestine. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, young people and small children ~ all gathering to sing a haunting melody about the beauty of their county ~ about pride and longing ~ about freedom …
My homeland, my homeland
Glory and beauty, sublimity and splendor are in your hills
Life and deliverance, pleasure and hope in your love
Will I see you? Safely comforted and victoriously honored
Will I see you in your eminence, reaching to the stars?
My homeland, my homeland
… The youth will not tire, ’till your independence or they die
We will drink from death, and will not be to our enemies like slaves
We do not want an eternal humiliation, nor a miserable life
But we will bring back our storied glory
My homeland, my homeland …
(Excerpted from Mawtini, based on the poem by Ibrahim Tuqan, circa 1934)
For a moment, I forget I am in Hebron ~ Hebron, a microcosm of this inhumane military occupation ~ Hebron, with its division into H1, under full Palestinian control with about 170,000 Palestinian inhabitants ~ and H2, only 20% of the whole, but the heart of the historic old city with its venerated tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs ~ under full Israeli control with 18 checkpoints and over 120 physical obstacles ~ home to some 40,000 Palestinians and 850 ideological, fanatic Jewish settlers who live in five illegal settlements, protected by more than 1,500 heavily armed soldiers.
It is the H2 area of Hebron that has now become the eye of the current storm. A large percentage of the recent alleged stabbings, resultant shootings, extrajudicial killings, arrests, detentions and raids have taken place here. Palestinians living in certain neighborhoods have had to “register” in order to have access to their own homes and are afraid to leave even to buy food. Internationals have been harassed, attacked, detained and even barred from entering the area. Streets in H2 are eerily empty except for soldiers with automatic weapons and armed illegal settlers.
I had arrived in H1 that morning in a shared taxi from Bethlehem, entering by one of only two entrances to Hebron which remained open. All others are blocked with dirt mounds or cement blocks, a form of collective punishment for the ongoing wave of violence. My friend and colleague, Jan, and I had come to this evening’s “cultural event” with friends ~ a local Palestinian family ~ three generations ~ with whom we had shared a special Palestinian meal. In the course of our late afternoon repast, we talked about some of the most recent incidents in the H2 area and the tightening noose of the occupation.
The haunting melody calls me back to the present moment. I reflect. It seems that in singing, the ugliness of the occupation and the resulting despair and hopeless are momentarily displaced. Spirits are lifted on the wings of love and longing ~ longing to live in their land with freedom. And then ~ as quickly as it began ~ it is over. As we file out of the auditorium into the dark, damp night, I am moved to tears. I cannot imagine that in our home countries, people would make the trip across the city, through the traffic, and hassle with parking, to gather at 6pm for ten minutes on a cold, rainy night just to sing our national anthem. For us, singing about our country might be the prelude to an event, but here it is the event ~ For ten precious minutes despair was lifted and hopes raised ~ For ten precious minutes people sang their longings ~ For ten precious minutes they were able to step outside the reality of their lives in this place ~ For ten precious minutes ~ time out of time ~ the caged bird sang of freedom ~ My homeland, my homeland ~ It reflected a longing from deep within their hearts. And it was beautiful to hear.