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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gellhorn on Meron

Two related excerpts from Martha Gellhorn's 1961 Atlantic article:
HIGH on a mountaintop [in Lebanon], with a down-sweeping view of orange groves and the satin blue of the Mediterranean, is a small Muslim camp named Mia Mia. Here one whole Palestinian village, amongst others, had landed; they came from a mountaintop in Galilee, a place called Meron. Their headman, or village leader, the Muktar, plied us with Coca-Cola and Turkish coffee in his exile's parlor. He is a beautiful man, perhaps sixty-five years old, lean, with exquisite manners. He wore the handsome white Arab headdress, held in place by the usual black double-corded crown; he was dressed in a well-preserved cream silk jacket, a white silk shirt, pressed gray flannel trousers, polished Italianate black shoes.

Whilst we sucked Coca-Cola through straws and studied his son's pitifully bad but lovingly executed paintings—a portrait of Nasser; Christ and the Virgin—the Muktar talked. Seventeen people of his village were massacred, which was why they fled, but an old blind woman of 104 was left behind and the Jews poured kerosene over her and burned her alive. How did they know, if they had all fled? Well, then the Jews went away and some villagers crept back and found her, and besides, the United Nations Truce Commission also found her.

My guide looked embarrassed. The Truce Commission was a shaky point. It was a strain to believe that the UN military observers, occupied with armies and frontiers, would have had time to investigate each atrocity story in the country. I wondered where the families of the massacred and the cremated were; everyone knows everyone else in a village, surely the surviving relatives were the best witnesses.

"I could tell you many such stories," said the Muktar.

"I am sure of it," said I. "But please tell me about Meron."

So I heard of Meron, their beautiful stone houses, their lovely, groves, their spacious and happy life in Eden; all lost now. I could readily imagine this aristocrat living in a palace on a mountaintop and decided that I would later go and see his home; but for the moment I accepted a rose from him, and we set off to pay calls in the camp.

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The driver of my car, on the journey in Israel, was an Israeli Jew, born there, who speaks Arabic as his second mother tongue and looks so like Nasser that it is a joke. I said I wanted to visit the village of Meron, on a mountaintop in Galilee. He said that at Meron there was an ancient, temple of the Jews, the grave of a famous rabbi, a synagogue, a Yeshiva (the Orthodox Jewish equivalent of a Catholic seminary), but nothing else to his knowledge. Let us go and find out, I said. So we drove north through this country,' which is a monument to the obstinate, tireless will of man. In 1949, the new immigrants, like ants on the hillsides, were planting trees: their first job. It looked as if they were planting blades of grass and seemed a pitiful act of faith. Now the trees have grown.

There are countless changes in Israel, but the Arab villages along the road to Nazareth have not changed. The old adobe or field-stone houses cling to and grow from each other. They are charming, picturesque, primitive, and wretched; but not to Arab peasants. This is the way it always was; this is the way they like it and want to keep it.

We drove up the mountain. Between the synagogue and the heroic ruins of the two-thousand-year-old temple, we did indeed find Meron, the home of the aristocrat who had offered me a rose on a mountaintop in Lebanon. There were not more than twelve houses in the village. The Muktar's palace is a long narrow stone shed, with an ugly narrow porch along the front. Instead of beams, bits of rusted railway track hold up the porch. The other small houses were built of the honey-colored, rough field stone, with traditional graceful doors and windows. Inside, the houses were like stables unfit for decent animals. The rich fields and groves the Meron refugees had described were the steep slopes of the mountain behind, where the villagers cultivated tobacco and some fruit and fig trees. In their day, the village had no electric light or water; the women carried water on their heads from 'the wadi at the foot of the mountain. The view is a dream of beauty. Hardship for hardship, Meron is no better than their refugee camp, Mia Mia, perhaps not as good; but memory is magical, and Meron was home.

Beside these pretty stone hovels tower the remains of a great temple. The blocks of granite in the fragmented, wall are as massive as those' in the wall of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The broken pillars are enormous, unadorned, and suddenly Samson is real and pulled down real, pillars as heavy as these. Here, two thousand years ago, the Jews were praying in a new temple, for two thousand years is not all that much in the history of the Jews or of this land. And here, with weeds around their low walls, stand the abandoned houses of the descendants of warrior strangers, the Arabs who came to this country and conquered it when the temple was some six hundred years old, doubtless already a ruin. Were the villagers of Meron happy when they lived on this mountain; did they think it Eden then? And why did they run away? The war never touched this place.