The Dying Sea
November 28, 2012 | by Karim Kattan
On the road from Jericho to the beaches of the Dead Sea, there is an architectural curiosity, a yellowish abandoned building. My grandmother would tell me its story every time we passed it on our way for a day at the beach. One should bear in mind that “a day at the beach” at the Dead Sea is not “a day at the beach.” It is its evil twin. The day is spent walking on jagged rocks, falling into pits of gooey black mud, and trying to pretend that such an unearthly density of salt sticking to your body is not as painful as it actually is. The adults would further complicate my love-hate relationship with those beach days by tell us terrifying stories about the ghoul who lived in the cliffs and would eat us up if we strayed too far.
This might explain why my favorite moment was the glimpse we got of that yellowish building. I can’t remember when this place used to be a hotel, or what its name was, but I remember the description. It was prewar—pre-1948, or pre-1967, it doesn’t really matter which; we have had as many golden ages as we’ve had catastrophes. Suitably enough, the hotel was a gem of gold and velvet. The people there were rich, they spoke five languages, they were beautiful, and they knew how to waltz. Marguerite—or was it Emily?—would suddenly get up and tipsily sing an aria. A man would walk around the gardens, miraculously lush in this salty desert, and flirt with the world at large. People would rush in and out of the gates; around midnight, some would take the road back home, to Bethlehem, to Jaffa, even to Amman. Most would spend the night at the hotel or at their nearby winter houses in Jericho. The younger generation would drink and dance the rest of the night away in a haze.
As most of the things I say about Palestine, this is probably only half true. In fact, this is probably completely false. I developed, over the years, a special kind of hearing for stories about Palestine. I listen intently, I relish the storytelling, but I instantly forget. I only remember a feeling, a small detail—the way my grandfather would eat up his rice pudding on the terrace of a beautiful mansion that is now falling to pieces—and get all the facts wrong. Then I go about spreading my debatable versions of stories that don’t even matter to people who don’t really care.
There are as many dreams of Palestine as there are Palestinians. The Palestine I know, I know only through stories. Whenever I go back, I find myself jammed in between two separate worlds. The actual place—that dry and yellow patch of deadly land, for which I feel a profound distaste—and that dreamland, a landscape of ghostly buildings full of merry songs and cocktail parties, a crowd of ghosts hovering through the land, living the good life, their laughter echoing in the dark. As each new conflict and each new clash unravels in Palestine, the landscape becomes more ghostly, drifts further into its own mists, and the stories take on a new life. The real world is left even more a nightmare. The ghouls and the women are conflated, as are the soldiers and the men, and these monsters despondently waltz away their nights while bombs fly over the heads of the living.
A friend recently pointed out to me that had I come from any other place, I wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about my country. He seemed to imply that my obsession with nationhood was as obsolete as, say, using dial-up. I agreed. And yet, something brought me back endlessly. I was born in Jerusalem; I grew up in the West Bank, which I left six years ago. When asked about what Palestine is like, the stories that come to my mind appear quite random. And what’s more, these tales are only tangentially true—in fact, most of them are borderline delusional. This is what we are generally taken to be—a delusional people clinging to a past that never was, to a Barnum & Bailey dream of Jaffa oranges and olive trees. As a people, we were breastfed stories until they made us sick.
Sometimes I wonder why I cling to the story of a place I am practically sure is fiction. Going back to Palestine, I rediscover—with an ever-renewed surprise—what it is to be entirely still. After spending a couple of weeks there, I start seeing each small travel as a great journey. In the absence of the possibility of movement—every checkpoint making even the most everyday trip impossible—there is narrative. So we tell stories, we crack jokes, and we sing elegies. We revel in elegies of times and people past. We revel in elegies of the lost orchards by the sea, the toppled-down houses in the hills, the forsaken splendors of what once was. Only by living under curfew or in the cramped open-air prison that is Palestine can one experience that very particular form of not living, the numbness that is bestowed upon one when —despite all the clocks in the world—keeping track of time becomes impossible. When we sleepwalk around our houses, strangers to each other and to our stories, the two worlds merge and the gaudy yellow building turns into the place where the boundaries are blurred between a reality irremediably wedged in a crack in the wall of time and the never-ending dream of history.
Yes, sometimes these worlds collide. I am sure this is not a figment of my imagination. They do collide, the narrative and the reality, the nightmare and the dream, the quick and the dead. Sometimes, when the sun has just set behind the hills, you can hear music wafting around the shores of the sea and pandering to our dreams. And if you look closely enough, you see the beautiful people waltzing in the courtyards and around the settlements and into the sea. And sometimes you can hear Marguerite—or is it Emily?—sitting atop the cliff alongside the ghoul and singing a sad aria to the dying sea.
Karim Kattan is a graduate student in a field yet to be determined who lives in between a lot of places but really enjoys period dramas.