Sad But Familiar Voices

Tony Sig

In a previous post, I cited some examples of Christian life in the Middle East I found strange and hard to reconcile to my own experience. Two were to do especially with violence, one toward and one by Christians. At a certain point in my reading From the Holy Mountain, I was beginning to despair of ever really feeling at home with them, and thus (not that this is a bad thing) the book was relativizing my inherited beliefs. Luckily for my mental health, later in the memoir I race across a few stories that shot the narrative through with glorious light.

One such story is that of the Christian town of Kafr Bir’im near Nazareth. Dalrymple comes to the village of Safad and is welcomed by the married Marionite priest to have Turkish coffee while he tells him the story of what happened to Kafr Bir’im. Not long after everyone is getting situated, an old man comes in with a piece of paper with all sorts of dates and information relating to the story written on it, lest someone tell the story wrongly. (Enter sarcastic comment against the normal comparison of ‘modern history’ to ‘popular history’ here…)

On October 29th 1948, Haganah soldiers arrived in the village, who were received by the old men and priest with a white flag. The villagers gave them food and allowed them to occupy some houses for a little while. After 15 days, though, the villagers were told they must leave. They had to be five kilometers away from the village or they’ll be shot and killed. So it was in the cold of December they were forcefully evicted without shelter or aid from the village to live in caves or squat under trees, all without justification despite longstanding ‘friendly’ relations with Jews to this point. Several babies died from the exposure.

A twist in the story comes with the information that all 1,050 people of the town were given Israeli citizenship. When the Minister for Minorities arrived and saw them living under trees he ordered the Christians be given the homes of the nearby village Jish, which had been abandoned by fleeing Muslims. After 15 days, the minister said, they would be allowed back to their homes in Kafr Bir’im. There were even allowed a few men back into Bir’im to guard the houses and crops. But after six months, even these were ordered out of the village.

At this point, the village brought their concerns before the Israeli High Court.

The (Maronite!) priest here told Dalrymple:

“The people of Bir’im have never resorted to violence. We have always fought by law and by Christian principles.”

This story came as a surprise in this the last  fifth of the book. It was as an oasis in a desert. I noticed immediately the casual matter-of-factness with which the Father indirectly said that ‘Christian principles’ would not allow his village to offer reaction with guns and violent retaliation. Sadly, the story continues all the way to an ironic post-apocalyptic end.

The people of Bir’im won the case. The court declared the evictions unjust and ordered them back to their village. Yet the very next day the Israeli army declared the area a military zone and they were once again forbidden from coming home. In the afternoon, by an aerial bombing, they destroyed Kafr Bir’im, the buildings with all their possessions, as the people watched from afar, as if at some bizarre fireworks show, on a hill subsequently named the ‘Crying Hill.’

Their fields were given to a new Jewish settlement and the town made into a National Park. The history of the town, and the fact that their real citizens were still alive and nearby, is erased from the public memory. Instead, signs draw attention to the ruins of a second temple synagogue near the center of town, yet the homes built by the people of Bir’im, are imagined as ancient ruins by the Israeli school children who come for field trips; a well dug by one who told the story was labeled instead as one built by a leader of the Jewish revolt circa 66AD.

Now, the villagers – at long last! – can visit their homes, but only if they pay the entrance fee and compete with tourists for a view. Fr. Suleiman laments:

“They say that once you let one Arab back, you admit that the others have rights too. That is why, despite everything, they dare not give us back what is ours. Israel says it is a democracy, and it is true. But it seems that for us Palestinians there is no justice.”

There are many more interesting details, and I strongly recommend you read this engrossing book for them and all the other stories.


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