By Raouf Halaby
For centuries Easter in Palestine has been a special familial and communal celebration that commemorated the passion of the Christ, his crucifixion, and his triumphant resurrection.
Not unlike Christ’s times when Pharisees and Sadducees shrieked their hateful rhetoric, today’s Easter celebrations in Palestine are marred by Zionist hatred, apartheid, vengeance, brutality, corruption, militarism, a rabidly virulent racism, and a lethal virus called Israeli Occupation.
In the face of repeated Israeli assaults on Palestinians and their rich cultural heritage, familial, communal, and national traditions and customs have been the glue that has held the fabric of Palestinian society together; it is precisely these bonds that have maintained the fragile framework of cohesiveness; they have also been an important factor in preventing societal disintegration.
To face adversities and heinous apartheid policies imposed by their brutal occupiers, Palestinians exercise Sumood (stoic resilience), and they are determined to hold onto and pass their rich heritage to their children and grandchildren.
And even though I live in diaspora in my adopted country, I am still spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally attached to my native Palestine. I believe that it is fair to say that the day-to-day living of every Palestinian is punctuated with the daily struggles to forget, and to get on with life – on the one hand – and to remember and advocate on behalf of justice for Palestine and her oppressed children – on the other. Simply put, politics and the cry for justice are the Sisyphean burden inflicted on every Palestinian, no matter where she or he lives.
By recording childhood narratives of Easters in Palestine, I aim to present a testimonial to my rich heritage and record my experiences under Israeli Occupation.
Following the Julian calendar, Orthodox Easter is celebrated anywhere from 10 days to a fortnight after its counterparts in the West celebrate theirs. My family celebrated Easter in the Antiochian and Greek Orthodox traditions. Traditionally, Palm Sunday launches this Holy week. Dressed in their Sunday best, children, carrying their Shȃ’neené (palm fronds), accompany their parents to church.
For this special occasion grandfathers, fathers, or older siblings spend hours fashioning the Shȃ’neenés into works of art which include designs in a variety of cruciform expressions, often with white ribbons, white lilies, or motifs and images drawing on a rich tradition of Byzantine iconographic imagery.
In the old city, the faithful would line up and participate in processions, often listening to homilies and often participating in the singing of liturgy in a variety of denominational traditional expressions and melodic articulations. Arabic, Syriac, Coptic, the occasional Aramaic, Greek, Russian, Latin, Spanish, and French choral descants filled the air.
On Juma’a (Ar. for Friday) al Hazeené (Ar. for sorrowful/mournful/grief-stricken) people fasted and attended services throughout the day; some would wear sepulchral colored clothing as an expression of mourning; theaters would shut down, and festivities would be held to nil. All in all, this was a time for reflection, prayer, and a time when good deeds were undertaken to help the widows, orphans, the needy, the shut-ins and the sick.
An oft-repeated narrative from the treasure trove of memories from my childhood and adolescent years crops up during the Easter season. And now that I have been living in diaspora for the past 61 years, these nostalgic memories resurrect themselves in a fusion of pleasant yet unpleasant, joyful yet sorrowful, and pleasurable yet excruciatingly painful recollections and nostalgic reminiscences.
Easter, Christmas, Ramadan, and Eid Under Israeli Occupation
Since 1967, the year Israel completed its stealth of the rest of Palestine, the Israeli government has progressively curbed Easter and Christmas festivities for Palestinian Christians as well as Palestinian Muslims during the feasts of Ramadan and Eid.
While foreign tourists are allowed to freely roam the streets of Jerusalem and have free access to all the Holy Shrines, Palestinians are routinely denied access to hospitals, schools, universities, places of employment and public spaces. Having lived on their ancestral lands for centuries, and to attend special religious services in churches and mosques, today Palestinians are required to apply for permits months in advance, permits that are routinely denied.
Nobody tells you that the only democracy in the Middle East denies Palestinians access to their churches, mosques, streets, towns, villages, parks, mountains, valleys, the Mediterranean Sea, the Jordan River, their farms, vineyards and so much more.
And the reason? Foreign tourists spend dollars, Euros, and other currencies to help boost the Israeli economy. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are an undesirable impediment in Israel’s grand masterplan of having an ethnically pure country where Jews live and rule supreme.
US Foreign Policy, Evangelicals, and the Holocaust
Wrapped up in their self-centered defense of “Our way of life” and living the good life (with a 45% citizenry trying to Make America Great [HATE] Again), most Americans are incapable of comprehending the misery their government has visited on Palestine and her destitute people, including the miseries visited on Asian, African, and Latin America masses who are brutalized by their leaders and exploited for their natural resources to sustain the West’s Way of Life.
Wrapped up in their distorted belief that modern-day Jews are God’s Chosen (a view held by Zionist Evangelical Christians, especially of the Hagee, Huckabee, et. al. stripe), and peddling the notion that “The world owes us for the transgressions of the Holocaust,” I don’t expect the vast majority of Israelis and their Zionist abettors around the world to comprehend what successive Israeli governments have done to pulverize Palestine and her people into occupation, subjugation, and anonymity.
Israel’s commission of crimes against Palestine and generations of her children is akin to a nasty and deliberately infused perpetual lethal virus with a known antidote/vaccine. Justice, the only corrective cure for the Palestinian/Israel imbroglio, is under lock and key in the Israeli Parliament, and their servile and successive Compliant US Administrations/Congresses and their European lackeys.
Lest I be accused of being a Holocaust denier and for the record, what dastardly crimes Christian Germany perpetrated on Europe’s Jews are unforgivable. Likewise, what happened to the Armenians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians, Iraqis, Syrians, Algerians, Congolese, Yemenis, Ugandans, South Africans, Latinos, Rwandans, Native Americans and Palestinians, to name but a very few, is equally abhorrent.
While the Holocaust Industry (a phrase coined by “self-hating” Jew Norman Finklestein, the son of Holocaust survivors), assures that Hollywood, the television industry, documentaries, educational institutions, literary works, the media in all its forms, and myriad other venues keep hammering the reprehensible policies of Nazi Germany into the mental body collective. Yet one hears precious little about the aforementioned genocidal atrocities committed by Israel, the United States, and its European allies.
And for this reason, my quibble with Jewish Zionists is this: How can you, who’ve suffered so much, inflict such misery on a Palestinian population innocent of Europe’s barbarism? How can you cry wolf when your leaders are perpetrating Nazi brutalities on women, children, and the aged? How can you, who’ve received tens of billions of dollars in reparations, steal everything from Palestinians – their homes and possessions, their lands, their resources, their olive and fruit trees, their orange and citrus groves, and, above all, their identity, dignity and self-respect.
To the Zionist Jews, I hope that during this Passover season you will look in the proverbial mirror of human accountability and stop your denial of the tragedy called Palestinian dispossession and diaspora, a tragedy you created in 1948, and a tragedy that has become an endemically virulent virus chiseling away at was once a peaceful and beautiful country that for eons has been violated by covetous invaders.
Since the year 2000, over 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in wholesale slaughters in Gaza and the West Bank. This includes women, children, and innocent civilians whose only crime was to have been Palestinian. Will Israelis and their supporters around the world stop during this Passover celebration, even for a brief moment, to say a prayer of atonement for their continued crimes? Will the Israelis and their supporters around the world demand that the siege of Gaza and the West Bank be lifted during this, the season of a plague named Corona? Or, will they let them suffer and die a slow and excruciating death?
Palestine’s population in the West Bank and Gaza is over 5 million people. As previously stated, since the year 2000, over 10,000 Palestinians have been brutally murdered by Israel’s army and settlers, funded exclusively with hard-earned US tax dollars. To extrapolate, that means that between the years 2000 and 2020, 660,00 American citizens would have been murdered.
Would We Allow Such a Genocide?
Only Recently Phillip Weiss (yet another “self-hating Jew”), editor of the remarkable Mondoweiss digital blog, exhibited his moral fortitude in a report under the title “During the Coronavirus crisis, Israel confiscates tents designed for clinic in Northern West Bank”:
B’Tselem 26 Mar — This morning, Thursday, March 26, 2020, at around 7:30 am, officials from Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank arrived with a military jeep escort, a bulldozer and two flatbed trucks with cranes at the Palestinian community of Khirbet Ibziq in the northern Jordan Valley. They confiscated poles and sheeting that were meant to form eight tents, two for a field clinic, and four for emergency housing for residents evacuated from their homes, and two as makeshift mosques.
The force also confiscated a tin shack in place for more than two years, as well as a power generator and sacks of sand and cement. Four pallets of cinder blocks intended for the tent floors were taken away and four others demolished.
As the whole world battles an unprecedented and paralyzing healthcare crisis, Israel’s military is devoting time and resources to harassing the most vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank that Israel has attempted to drive out of the area for decades. Shutting down a first-aid community initiative during a health crisis is an especially cruel example of the regular abuse inflicted on these communities, and it goes against basic human and humanitarian principles during an emergency.
Unlike Israel’s policies, this pandemic does not discriminate based on nationality, ethnicity or religion. It is high time the government and military acknowledged that now, of all times, Israel is responsible for the health and wellbeing of the five million Palestinians who live under its control in the Occupied Territories.
While last week there was a great outpouring of genuine concern for the COVID-19 stricken Bronx Zoo tiger, there has not been a single report by any major news outlets on the Corona outbreak in Gaza (and the West Bank), an enclave with the highest population density in the world, a hermetically sealed open-air prison that has been under lockdown for the past 13 years. Gaza is some 18 miles in length and 12 miles in width. Gaza’s 2 million population has only 62 respirators, and 2300 hospital beds to fight this plague. And even though the strip is a COVID-19 petri dish, Israel has refused to allow medical supplies from coming in.
What Germany was to the death camps, Israel is to a Gaza death camp in the making.
Pray, tell, where is the Moral Outrage?
Tata Maria’s Stories
Sitting on the large raised concrete patio in my grandfather’s house, Tata Maria, my paternal grandmother’s sister, would tell us about the Easter celebrations in Palestine.
Maria and her husband owned a small souvenir shop in one of the narrow, cobbled pedestrian-only streets inside Jerusalem’s Old City. She’d often mention that the cobbles of these streets were a witness to the many feet that traversed them on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulture, Golgotha, The Mosque of Omar, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Via de La Rosa, The Room of the Last Supper (Upper Room) and the many Jerusalem landmarks.
She noted that of all the pilgrims who descended on Palestine’s Jerusalem Easter celebration, the Russian pilgrims, dressed in conservative drably somber dark attire, appeared to be the most devout. The Europeans, especially the French, were the loudest, the Brits cold and distant, the Italians felt at home with their kindred Mediterranean compadres, the Germans standoffish, and the Americans infinitely less reverent and more concerned about the price of olive wood trinkets and having their pictures taken with camels and donkeys. Tata Maria spoke Arabic, Russian, Greek, and enough Hebrew, German, English, and French to carry on meaningful conversations.
A good looker in her younger days and in the presence of her husband, once a wealthy American tourist, taken by her charm and eye-catching Palestinian and Greek striking beauty, flirted with her and offered to take her to America.
While we delighted in hearing this story, she derived more fun in narrating it, each time mimicking the Yankee’s accent who insisted on taking her photograph with his old Kodak Wirgin folding camera. A 50% Zenobia and a 50% Aphrodite, I worshipped this loving, kind, and gentle woman whose story-telling powers mesmerized me and took me and my twin brother to the four corners of the world and beyond.
In their store, Tata and her husband sold Mistka Arabieh (Gum Arabic), Yemeni incense and coffee, cardamom, hand-embroidered silk or brocade notions, pillow-cases, and kerchiefs, hand-carved olive wood camels, jewelry boxes, crucifixes, olive wood, silver, and mother of pearl rosaries, and Christmas crèches, carved ivory and mother of pearl icons, crucifixes, picture frames, old coins, and so much more.
A widow by the time Palestine fell in 1948, the small souvenir shop and a new, racist, and brutal European colonizer appeared out of the ashes of Europe’s death camps, camps where the grotesque orgy of hate and killing that went unabated, a kind of bizarrely surreal “Goya-esque” cauldron of extermination that included 6 million Jews and the oft-forgotten 5.5 million others: Poles, Hungarians, Dutch, Romanians, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically disabled.
I wonder what events and stories the ancient cobblestones anchored for centuries in the narrow pedestrian-only streets of Jerusalem’s Old City could tell us about the past and present agonies and wailings in the land of the prophets, a land whose capital city is Al Quds (the Holy City) for Palestinians, and Yerushalayem (city of Peace) for Israelis, a fought-over city that has yet to discover the ever-elusive peace.
Easter Family and Communal Ritual in Palestine
Just as Eid and Ramadan are sacred religious occasions for Palestinian Muslims, a time when special delicacies such as Barazek, Ka’ak, Ma’moul, Burma, Ka’ak bi Asawer, Baklawa, and Ghraibé are baked, gifted, and consumed, Palestinian Christians take pride in making these same scrumptious delicacies.
Since my family lived in occupied West Jerusalem, like most Palestinians, the making and baking of these delicacies was both a familial and a communal ritualistic event that unfolded on the evening of Juma’a al Hazeené.
Somewhere in my hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala linger the images, sounds, and smells of our Palestinian family Easter preparations. The setting is either our kitchen or my grandmother’s kitchen just across and up the street. Vials of orange blossom water, rose water, olive oil, and water lined the countertop; bowls of flour, coarse and fine semolina, butter, yeast, and ground dates sat within easy reach; smaller vials of walnuts, pistachios, toasted sesame seed, ground cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg, including mahlab (an aromatic spice), and mistka (gum Arabic) crowded the rest of the countertop.
The gathering would begin when mother and an aunt would mix all the dough ingredients in a large tub, all the while pulling, stretching, and kneading the dough; a bit of flour would be sprinkled to keep the dough from sticking to the bowl; and large portions of the by now springy dough would be drawn in aerial circular motions from the top, only to be supplanted back to the bottom where the olive oil and butter awaited the plunging propulsion of hands into the off white semolina dough.
The process is a tediously grinding one. Once the dough is ready, as many as five people, mostly females, sit in a circle, dip into the tub of the by now elastic dough, and, depending on whether a Ka’aak bi Ma’Moul or a Ka’aak bi Ajwe is the desired goal, they work through the entire tub until its contents disappear.
Ka’aak bi Ma’Moul are shaped (by hand) into a hollow 3.5 inch equilateral triangle with a flat base and a pointed pyramidal apex. Prior to sealing the pliable dough, a concoction of pistachios, walnuts, rosewater, cinnamon and other spices are stuffed; rose water provides an added rich flavor. When making the Ka’aak bi Ajwe, the reader is urged to think of 3.5 inch miniature tire-tubed shaped dough, the interior of which is stuffed with ground dates. Each of the above is placed on a large tray and allowed to harden.
Once the dough has sufficiently hardened, the team begins to use half-inch wide corrugated, pincer-like utensils to pinch the dough’s surface in a combination of hatching and cross-hatching patterns. My mother bequeathed her heirloom utensil to my sister, and, upon moving into a retirement home, my sister gifted these same utensils to a sister-in-law.
True or not, I am told that the triangular Ma’Moul shape represents the Holy Trinity, and the circular one represents eternity.
Once the yeast has done it work, these delicious cookies are baked, sprinkled with powdered sugar, shared with relatives and neighbors, and consumed with a stout cup of Turkish coffee.
I so wish that my sons, nieces and nephews had a visual record of the Easter family Kaak and Ma’Mool sessions enacted in the Upper Baq’aa, West Jerusalem neighborhood Halaby home, a place that nurtured me, helped shape my personality, and inculcated in me a deep sense of justice and worthy moral values I’ve attempted to instill in my boys.
Because of Strong Familial and Communal Bonds Palestinian Society Survives
Since 1948 Israel has systematically connived and plotted to fragment and destroy Palestinian culture and to deny its existence.
Strong family bonds and traditions such as the baking of Easter and Eid cookies, communal sessions of three generations of women embroidering the Palestinian Thowbs (gowns) or wedding dresses, the singing of a mawwal to the beat of a durbakké, the recitation of poetry, the planting and harvesting of vegetables and fruits, the respect for elders, the story-telling sessions, the large feasts, and the tradition of generosity and sacrifice for family members and community are encoded in the DNA of every Palestinian.
And it is precisely the extension of these resilient and durable family bonds and traditions, instilled in the collective Palestinian consciousness, that will prevent Israel and her Zionist allies from killing Palestinians with the deadly virus called Israeli Occupation.
The determined Palestinian Sumud will never allow Israel and her apologists to relegate Palestinians to the crematorium of history.
(A version of this article first appeared in Counterpunch)
– Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.