Writing the Palestinian Nakba: Azmi Bishara

~~Ever day, this week, I am posting writings from Palestine.  Today, it is an extract from Azmi Bishara’s Al-Hajez (The Checkpoint), which appeared in the Words Without Borders issue on Writing Palestine, which I co-edited with Tania Tamari Nasir.  The Bishara translation is mine.~~

Qalandia Checkpoint. Photo:  electronicintifada

Qalandia Checkpoint. Photo: electronicintifada

With the arrival of the first signs of spring at the end of the second month of the year, on the third day after the rains had stopped, the rababa1 appeared at the military checkpoint, and what is meant here is not the white cloud, the classical, linguistic meaning of the word, whose appearance did not catch anybody’s attention. Winter’s spring is more pristine and beautiful than spring itself. The wash of the world has dried, but it is still fresh, soft, fragrant, free of the dust that will induce allergies. The bedouin rababa appeared in the hand of a man from the city, who had turned it into a performance instrument in a public place teaming with throngs of people. The musician was begging for money, as they do in European city centers where young and old, panhandlers and non-panhandlers alike play their fiddles, guitars or saxophones, the instruments’ black cases at their feet and open to meager metal pieces thrown in. But the rababa is a naked, homeless instrument, and that is why, like beggars who do not have a rababa, the man used a standard tool for panhandling, a plastic plate.

With the rababa appeared an old, absent friend–the small chair, whose return, unlike winter or spring, is not seasonal. At the beginning of the reign of chairs and benches, the stool had dominated the scene: four wooden legs, a height not exceeding thirty centimeters, and a seat made of caned bamboo or rope. Toward the end of the era, the caned material had evolved into plastic rope, a harbinger of the plastic chairs to follow.

The stool became popular in gatherings and coffee shops, and on verandas. It was particularly suitable for the shishbesh game, in which the board was placed on a third chair between the two chairs. The stool is for sipping coffee, for smoking cigarettes, for conversation. It is not suitable for contemplation unless the personal and public tragedy is so great that brooding becomes a real possibility, even if the brooder, like a hermit, sits in emptiness, on top of a pole. Today, young people cannot understand how the sons of that generation could sit for long hours on a stool, without suffering backaches: the position is the same as that of the athletic squat, or the crouch, in pre-civilized times, to relieve oneself.

These little chairs disappeared and were replaced everywhere by plastic ones-among the wealthy, on the veranda only, if at all; among the poor, on the veranda and inside the house, and in their coffee shops everything was plastic, except the walls.

Between the stool and the rababa–both of them worn out and obsolete–sat a silent human being, insistent on staying. He played the rababa but did not sing, his gaze fixed on the ground, and at an angle from which he would see only the feet of the passersby, and perhaps their legs. His eyes did not meet anyone else’s. The kaffiyeh covered his head and chin, exposing the mouth and mustache to people’s gaze. His features were pleasant, his body skinny, folded in on itself and in no way suggestive of the proud, prominent posture of the rababa players in the bedouin television series that became popular with the domination of the desert on the mass media. In these series, bedouin songs were sung in bedouin dialect by blonde women who were not bedouins themselves, without a rababa.

At most, the rababa is fit for what is known in English as “sound effect”; it merely accompanies the singing but is not itself music, while the singing-by itself often a lament-tries to mitigate the rababa’s monotonous drone. The blame for the monotony should not be placed on the man seated between the rababa and the stool, the man who refused to sing, who was on strike like other people in this place who refused to even talk. It is rather the result of the fact that the rababa is made of one string only, pulled tightly over a leather sheath, which in turn has been pulled over a rudimentary wooden box. The musician carries this small instrument as though it were a misshapen cello, supported on the knee. It is played with a bow made of a horse’s tail, the source of all bows. The string is usually made from the intestines of cattle. (There is also no relationship between this source and the effect of the playing on the intestines of the listener.) One string is enough for half an octave. That is why the possibilities of the rababa are few and barely enough for one fourth of the dolorous oriental scale. The octopus, or the akhtabout in Arabic, is derived from octave, and the number of its feet exceeds the sounds of the rababa. But all this has nothing to do with the octopus engulfing the checkpoints and the laments of the rababa.

In these lands, people do not usually use a musical instrument to panhandle with. It is not customary for musicians to appear on the side of streets or in the public square (if there were any), nor in train stations that have not been operating since the establishment of the country of checkpoints, nor in the central bus station which has been overtaken by the barrier, nor even as a way of having some fun, or making people feel better. That is why the rababa player attracted the attention of the passersby; they gave him a surprised, amused look. If he had played a fiddle or guitar, he would have attracted the same degree of attention, but the sight of the rababa, and its sound, on the checkpoint, parallel to the lines of people trying to cross, mixed well with the scene, and only the sun of winter’s spring a background of joy to the sorrows of the rababa.-Like, you could say, a kind of “contrast.”

1Rababa: part of the lute (oud, in Arabic) family of musical instruments. Usually single- or double-stringed, it is played with a bow and has been popular throughout the Middle East. In the Arab world, the rababa is played primarily in bedouin societies.


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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