The City of the Moon
November 9, 2002
By Israel Shamir
An arch is homage to the moon, as it is formed by two mirroring crescents.
Full moon produces the perfectly round barrel vault favored by Romans; the
pointed Muslim arches are formed by waxing seventh-day crescents. In Nablous,
there are arches for every day of the lunar month, even upturned arches
composed of waning moons. A diligent student of architecture could compose a
conclusive History of the Arch in this ancient Palestinian city.
In the Kasbah, an archway flows into archway, creating enfilades, and fading
in the dim shadows. Near the Salahie Mosque, underground passages form a
wind rose of the nautical charts. My gaze sinks in the black pupil of an
opening, and stumbles upon arches like shutter blades in the camera
aperture. Nablous is a molehill; generations of crafty dwarves could burrow
the long winding tunnels under the solid stone houses of the Old City,
connecting its bazaars, mosques and churches.
Hussein leads through the tunnels, finding his way in their clew.
Claustrophobic in any other place, in Nablous they protect and envelop like
mother’s embrace. They hide us from watchful eyes and night visors of the
snipers nesting on the Mount of Curse. We have to cross a square, a
well-proportionate Italianate square with a cozy child playground. We cling
to the walls of the squat colonial building. We are not afraid of narrow and
confined tunnels; it is the open spaces we dread.
Bullets shriek in the air, and hit unseen wall. A machinegun replies, and
soon, a night orchestra of volleys and flares shakes the mountain air. The
city is besieged for half a year, since April, and the Jews sporadically
shoot at its dwellers. The walls on the square are bejeweled with bright
colored portraits of the slain: a five-year-old boy, or a young girl next
to a mustachioed sturdy warrior. The golden dome of the Rock, the
Palestinian epitome of perfect harmony, shines behind their heads, crowning
the martyrs with glory. In Nablous one is never alone: eyes of the snipers
and eyes of the martyrs follow one everywhere.
Strange feeling of being a prey came to me. I remembered first time being
shot at, in the grey and yellow barren hills above Suez - Cairo highway.
Egyptian artillery opened fire on us, a company of young paratroops who just
had landed in the desert. The falling shells raised clouds of sand and dust,
the earth shook of impact very near us, just like it did at the last winter
war games, when the supporting artillery miscalculated and almost covered us
by its salvos. “What are you doing, silly artillerists, - thought I, - we
are here, you are shooting at us! This way, you will hit us!” And then I
realized it was no mistake. We weren’t at winter maneuvers, but at real
war, and the artillery aimed at us in order to kill.
We sneaked into a modern building and walked up to the second floor by the
broad staircase, to the Internet Café. It was full: many young boys and
girls dared the snipers’ fire and came to this place of refuge and escape.
Some of them were fighters; they used the relative lull in shooting, laid
down their AK guns on top of the monitor and chatted online with their pen
pals from California and Bahrain, Stockholm and Damascus.
I key in a message from Nablous into an Israeli forum and receive a speedy
reply from a David Silver in Tel Aviv. “I do not pity them. I have no sorrow
for them. I would drive ALL of THEM out to hell. With their children, girls,
maidens, women, grannies, with their simple-minded believe in their lies,
with their beastly cunning, with their patience and despair, their laughter,
their tears, their food, their pride and heroism, their revenge, their
working force. OUT! Their fathers, husbands and grandfathers are bloody
murderers, admirers of murderers, scoundrels, thieves, cowards and
pathological liars. After the expulsion, they can seek our friendship,
though I wouldn’t build on it”. So much for “inherent Jewish pity and sweet
obstinacy against violence”, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1945.
An Italian espresso machine flashed green and red lights, working out its
steam. The war in the modern city has incongruous touch: computers are
connected to the world net, faxes throw out sheets of neatly printed news,
bakery opens between the shelling spells, a cousin arrives from Kentucky,
and young fighters prepare their home lessons for the tomorrow’s exam in
It was hard to comprehend that just across the valley there were boys of the
same age sent down here from small seacoast towns to reduce Nablous. But it
was the reality. Heavy boom shook the house and monitors blinked and went
off. It was a home-made mine, said a young fighter, no, it was 81 mm mortar,
said his friend. They rushed down the staircase and out, and we followed
them into the starry night. Israelis often send their reconnaissance forces
into the city in these hours. They enter the houses, round up men and take
them to their torture cellars. To extract information, they say, but there
is another purpose: a man tortured, like a girl raped, is a broken and
subdued creature. Over one hundred thousand Palestinians and uncounted
Lebanese were tortured by Israelis, probably the planetary record. The
fighters are on the streets to stop the torturers, or al least to make them
The forces are hugely disproportionate: the third or the second army in the
world supported by the only superpower against these young men and girls. If
Israelis really want, they break into the Old City anytime, night or day. In
bloody April 2002, over hundred men and women were slaughtered in Nablous. A
whole family of eight found its death when the tanks and armored bulldozers
crushed their home at the edge of the city on their heads. Another house was
bombed by F16, and the municipality with great difficulty extracted the dead
bodies of two old spinsters from below the rubble.
But the city is alive. As shelling and shooting stops, the citizens go out
from their homes into uncertainty of the markets, disregarding the curfew.
Sellers roll out their vegetable stalls, smell of spices perfumes the air,
old women from nearby villages sneak in and sell their olive oil and crushed
olives, for we are in the heart of the olive country. The mosques are full,
though they provide no safe refuge: Israelis do not mind to shoot at mosques
and churches. A small Catholic chapel was ruined in April; an Orthodox
church of St Demetrius miraculously was saved from a missile hit that
devastated the street in front of it. The oldest mosque of the city, the
Green al-Hadr Mosque, had its wall crushed by a tank in April, but it was
repaired since then.
The speediness of repairs is amazing. The moment Israeli tank leaves the
rubbles, municipality teams come in. They remove the bodies of dead and
wounded and start to fix the house. Still, Israelis destroy faster than
Naboulsies are able to repair. The chain tracks of Israeli tanks smashed the
ceramic flooring of bazaars, demolish the new water supply system. The signs
of fresh devastation melt into the old ruins laid low by the 1927
earthquake, and of even older one, of the second century BC, when the Jews
razed to the ground the predecessor of Nablous, ancient Shechem. (Its
four-thousand-years-old Cyclopean walls still stand at the edge of Balata
refugee camp just outside the city.)
But the city did not die. The Jewish rule in Palestine was bloody, cruel but
rather short-lived. The country was conquered by the Jewish invader in the
second half of the second century BC, its cities were ruined, and the native
population expelled, enslaved or turned into ‘second-grade native Jews’ as
in Galilee. High taxation, genocide and apartheid were rampant even then.
Sixty years later Pompey the Great landed on its shores and liberated the
Palestinians from the Jewish yoke.
After the Roman army subdued rebellious Jews, the retired Roman soldiers
married pretty local women and rebuilt the city they named Neapolis, or
Nablous. It still reminds of its Italian namesake, Neapolis or Naples, by
its relentless continuity of styles and fiery temper of citizens. Its houses
grow like trees, displaying the smooth transition of its historic periods.
The Roman foundation smoothly gives place to the Byzantine first floor,
transforms into an Abbasid structure, shifts to become a Crusader town house
and ends with the last repair done in May after the latest Israeli
bombardment, a perfect amalgam of time and space.
Such is the house of Hussein. The vault of the cellar was probably done by a
local mason in the days of Titus Flavius, while the roof was fixed up just
recently. We stand on the roof and see in front of us the huge dark shape of
the Mount of Curse with its Israeli military base. Yellow halo of
floodlights stands above its barbed wire perimeter, and engines of tanks
roar like dragons waiting for signal to fly down and devour the city. On the
street below, a group of fighters brandish their Tommy-guns. On the other
side of the valley, the Mount of Blessing rises up to the unseen church of
Holy Virgin and the site of Samarian temple. The flares dim the starlight
and we duck as a heavy machinegun begins to comb the city.