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Reflections from Mythic Palestine April 29, 2010

Posted by dan snyder in art, Devotional Journal.
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There is no nation smaller than its poem
But weapons make words too big for the living
and the dead who inhabit the living
And letters make the sword on the dawn’s belt glitter
Til the desert becomes parched for songs or drowns in them
[poem exerpts from Mural by Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)]

book cover

I thought reading a poem by Mahmoud Darwish would be a wonderful way to prepare for living in Palestine-Israel for three weeks. His words portrayed hopelessness to me. So I arrived assuming I would bring hope to the people I would meet. This assumption was fueled by a myth. Perhaps I did bring hope. But I found a deeper hope that will linger with me for the rest of my life.

A Myth Described
Palestine-Israel is a mythic land. And so it is impossible to discuss the life of the land, the theology of the land or the people of the land without tripping over mystique and legend.
I was recently browsing through the 1905 edition of the reports of the International Sunday-school Convention for some research I’m doing on that movement. Scattered throughout the pages were photos of Palestine. The people in the photos looked like characters from a Cecil B. DeMille film complete with turbans and shepherds.

Old Palestine

Old Palestine

More interesting to me was the impetus behind the photos. The Sunday-school Convention had been held in Jerusalem in 1904 and these were pictures commemorating the occasion. When the Convention was held in Toronto or London, no one thought to put pictures of Canadians or early 20th century Britain in the report the following year. When it was held in London or Chicago, large and new church buildings showcased as venues for the nearly 2,000 participants. But in 1904 there was not a venue large enough in Jerusalem and a three-section tent needed to be shipped from France to house the Convention. Typically speakers from around the world would report at the conventions, but usually the host city would have special delegations. The only Middle Eastern delegation I could find was a Rev. Archibald Forder, thirteen year Missionary among the “Ishmaelites.”

Mosaic Wall in Holy Seplucher Church - Jerusalem

Mosaic Wall in Holy Seplucher Church - Jerusalem

These were some of the photos that inspired philanthropists from the U.S.A. and Great Britain the likes of John Rockefeller to begin claiming Palestine for the “Jews.” These Palestinians looked so “backward,” their land was so “barren,” and their religion so “non-biblical” that the notion of God’s people “returning” to make the land holy again spilled off the pages. It would take real imagination to believe that this land “was smaller than its poem.” The myth of the Holy Land is overpowering.

Mosaic Detail

Mosaic Detail

I experienced the power of the myth at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Walking through the entrance one eventually sees a mosaic depicting the death and burial of Jesus. It is well photographed as Christians travel from around the world to get a glimpse. The mosaic is on a wall the once divided the Church in two sections – one side for Catholics, one for Orthodox Christians. When I heard about the divide I assumed we would only visit one of the sides. But soon I realized that people are permitted to freely wander in the spaces on both sides of the wall. The original purpose of the wall is irrelevant now. But the wall will remain as a reminder of the rift in the unity of Christ’s church. It must remain because pilgrims from around the world come expecting to photograph the mosaic on the wall. There are hundreds of such pilgrim sites with this “holy permanence.” The mythic power of Palestine holds the land and its people hostage.

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