Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground

Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground

by Ahdaf Soueif


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From the bestselling author of the Booker Prize finalist The Map of Love–an incisive collection of essays on Arab identity, art, and politics that seeks to locate the mezzaterra, or common ground, in an increasingly globalized world.
The twenty-five years’ worth of criticism and commentary collected here have earned Ahdaf Soueif a place among our most prominent Arab intellectuals. Clear-eyed and passionate, and syndicated throughout the world, they are the direct result of Soueif’s own circumstances of being “like hundreds of thousands of others: people with an Arab or a Muslim background doing daily double-takes when faced with their reflection in a western mirror.” Whether an account of visiting Palestine and entering the Noble Sanctuary for the first time, an interpretation of women who choose to wear the veil, or her post—September 11 reflections, Soueif’s intelligent, fearless, deeply informed essays embody the modern search for identity and community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400096633
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/11/2005
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 7.99(w) x 5.19(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo. She is the author of Aisha, Sandpiper, In the Eye of the Sun, and the bestselling novel The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. She also has translated from the Arabic the award-winning memoir I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti.

Read an Excerpt


Mystery surrounds rules of engagement

The rules of engagement used by the Israeli Defense Force and the border police have always been something of a mystery . . .

Since the intifada, Israeli security forces have frequently used live ammunition against demonstrators despite the absence of firearms on the Palestinian side, producing a steady stream of deaths.

Guardian, Tuesday October 3, 2000

Intifada 2000 dwarfs the original

The slings and stones may be familiar, but the past weeks of Palestinian-Israeli violence bear little resemblance to the intifada of 1987-93. They make it look almost gentlemanly . . .

Mr Najjar recalls the mass arrests and bones broken deliberately by Israeli security forces.

'This time,' he says, 'they aim to kill.'

Guardian, Friday October 27, 2000

Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey1

I have never, to my knowledge, seen an Israeli except on television. I have never spoken to one. I cannot say I have wanted to. My life, like the life of every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of Israel. I have longed to go to Palestine, but have not wished to go to Israel. And now I am going there.

I have not felt such anticipation or such fear since I was a child. For the past two months I have been following the news of the Intifada.2 I have compared the images on the BBC and CNN with those on al-Jazeera and other Arab channels. I have unspun stories, fumed at the American newspapers and been grateful for some of the reporting in some of the British press. I have started and ended my days reading appeals for help on the Internet. And again and again I have asked myself: 'What is it that I can do?' Now at last I can do something; I can go see for myself, and write. But going means going there.

Sunday 26 November 2000

My suitcase is open, almost packed, on the bed. I bought it yesterday--with wheels in case I have to drag it through barricades. The minicab is due in half an hour.

Monday 27 November 2000

It is the first day of Ramadan and we are on the road from Amman to the bridge and I am staring out at the desert and thinking--as I always do--how much I miss it when I'm in England: ten minutes of rolling sandy hills, then rock formations rising like huge chocolate gateaux followed by sand again; but this time rippling as though having a joke, then a bend in the road and a green valley opens up and suddenly a row of bedouin women walking elegantly along a ridge, then sand again and we are at the Jordanian terminal which seems almost empty. We unload and our driver makes enquiries. The West Bank, al-Daffa, is closed. He points to a large, low building and through the windows we see that it is crammed with people. 'But Jerusalem?' the woman with whom I've shared the taxi asks. Jerusalem, apparently, is open.

I know nothing of this woman except that the small daughter on the seat next to her is called 'Malak', Angel. An orthodox priest in black robes and his hair in a long grey braid comes out of the building and takes a taxi back to Amman. We go to another part of the terminal. Buses are waiting, loaded with people. Angel's mother decides to go VIP for the sake of the child. I walk along behind her. We hand over our passports and are ushered into a large room with sofas and Arabic newspapers. An official says that because I have a British passport I must go with the 'foreigners' on the bus.

'But she'll sit there for hours,' Angel's mother says.

The man shrugs.

'She's Egyptian', she says, 'and it's her first time here. Let her stay with us.'

He asks me in Arabic if I'm Egyptian. I am. Am I willing to pay the eighteen dinar VIP fee? I am. He disappears. An exhausted woman comes in. She says she sat in this room yesterday from two till eight then was told Jerusalem was closed and had to go back to Amman. But the man comes back and waves us out.

A van this time and when we get off, there it is--'Al-Jisr,' Umm Angel3 says--the bridge. A wooden construction, just like in the pictures, with wooden walls so you can't jump off and into the Jordan river. The Jordan river is a mere trickle of water. We walk across, two women and a flame-haired child and there, above our heads, are Israeli soldiers just as I've seen them on television for four decades: their eyes behind shades, their faces behind machine guns and above them two crossed Israeli flags; one fluttering in the breeze, the other caught in a spike of machinery and lying limp.

We stop at a kiosk and hand our passports in through a window to a young woman in army uniform. She waves us on. Another van and on to another terminal building. Had there been Jordanian soldiers and guns on the other side? I didn't see any, but maybe I just didn't notice.

We are sitting in a smallish, brightly lit room with vivid blue armchairs. Serious attempts at decor have been made: a cactus growing out of a half coconut shell tilts on an Arab-style carved wooden table, rubber plants and plastic flowers droop from dusty glass shelves, an empty drinks dispenser glows coldly in the corner. On the walls are three reproductions: two are Kandinsky-like, but the third is a large close-up of the two forefingers of God and Adam just failing to meet.

A polite young Israeli comes in and asks me in broken Arabic to fill out some forms. Then he comes back to escort us to the passport window.

I say: 'I don't want my passport stamped.'

He says: 'I know.'

Al-Quds, Jerusalem, 2.30 p.m.

I head out of the hotel and start walking. Every car I pass I imagine exploding into flames. How far away does one have to be not to be killed by an exploding car? But the sun is shining as I head down Salah el-Din Street--and I am at home. The street is lined with bakeries, haberdasheries, shoe shops, small grocers, hairdressers. Girls in school uniform and headscarves walk in groups, chatting, laughing. Boys loiter and watch them. The names on the shops and the doctors' signs are the familiar mix of Christian and Muslim Arab, French and Armenian. The French cultural centre has wide-open doors and an inviting garden; there is a smell of roasting coffee. It's like a smaller, cleaner, uncrowded Cairo. But two buildings look different from the others: they are modern, precise, their angles are sharp, they fly the Israeli flag, and they are the only ones where the gates are made of steel bars--and are closed.

But then appearing in front of me are the walls of the old city. Closer in I see the ancient gateway and beside it an Israeli army car and five soldiers armed with machine guns. I tie a scarf under my chin and walk past them, through Bab al-Zahra,4 and I am in a medieval Arab city: Orshalim al-Quds, Jerusalem the Sacred, a city made of rose-hued stone. The streets are paved with it; like cobbles, only larger, the stones are worn smooth and shine in the light. Down steps, round bends and another rosy alley stretches ahead. The houses seem to grow out of the street. Around many of their green iron doors are the decorations which mean that the resident has made the pilgrimage to Makkah. You see these in any Egyptian village, but here, instead of the representations of the pilgrim and his or her transport, you get delicate drawings of flowers and birds.

A small handwritten sign on the wall points to al-Aqsa. I walk down Mujahedin Street. A small boy, maybe four years old, skips along chanting, 'Ya Saddam, ya habeeb, come and blow up Tel Abeeb.' A few steps behind him his mother smiles at me. And now I am in front of the gateway to al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Inside the gateway, sitting at a wooden table are three armed soldiers. One stands up and blocks my path: 'Papers.' I don't like the look of the soldiers. I am one and they are three. My passport is British but it says born in Cairo. Egypt has just recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. But a couple of local men from the administration of the mosque are standing just inside the gateway. I hand over my passport. The soldier flicks through it.

'In England, you live?' He has a heavy, East European accent.


I've been told don't explain, don't justify, don't be defensive. Minimal response.

'What town?'


'Why are you going in?'

I decide: 'To pray.'

'You are Muslim?'


The Israelis have closed the Haram to all Palestinians except residents of Jerusalem. And Jerusalemite men under the age of forty-five are also not allowed to go in. The soldier goes through my handbag which I have emptied of everything except purse, tissues and comb. The other soldiers look into the bag, too. He motions me on with his head.

A few steps and I am in the vast enclosure of the Haram. Brown earth with shrubs, patches of grass, trees. The Haram wall to my left forms part of the wall of the old city itself, to my right it forms the backs of houses and churches. Stretching in front of me the path rises to meet a wide set of pale steps leading to a great stone terrace and out of that rises the golden Dome of the Rock. I sit on a low stone wall under the open sky surrounded by small Mameluke structures and sense utter peace.

Later the women come out of prayers. They look at me with open curiosity: 'Salamu aleikum!'

I return the greeting.

'From where is the sister?'

'From Egypt.'

They want to know if I have somewhere to stay, otherwise any one of them will take me home. They all live in the old city, the Dome of the Rock is their local mosque; they nip down every day to pray.

Two minutes takes me round a corner, up some stairs and into Umm Yasir's home. Her two young daughters-in-law are both students. They whisper and laugh together over their books.

'She got married three days ago,' Umm Yasir says, pointing to one of the girls. 'Just over a cup of coffee. Who can have a proper wedding now when people are being killed every day?'

'Does the situation affect you here, in the old city?'

'Look!' Umm Yasir says, taking me to her door, pointing at the shuttered house across the lane: 'The settlers took it over. They put chairs out here in the lane and pick quarrels with the young people coming and going.'

But how did they take it over?

'Since Ariel Sharon bought two houses here he's made it easy for them.'

But how? Who would sell to Sharon?

'Awwad Abu Sneina. Everybody knew he was a spy. He vanished from the neighbourhood and next thing we knew the Israeli flag went up on the house and Sharon had bought it. But when Abu Sneina died there wasn't a burial ground that would take him. One day my son was playing football and the ball hit one of them [the settlers], they grabbed him and said they'd call the police. We said go ahead, call the police. But they called some other settlers instead. Two hundred of them came from Atarot Cohunim and beat us with everything they had--even their walkie-talkies. The people praying in the mosque heard the noise and came to our help and it was a battle. The police said we were the aggressors. At the Hadasa hospital they would not treat us under the insurance. They made us pay 450 shekels. Affect us? They do what they like to us.'

She talks of tear gas pumped into houses, of rubber bullets which the Palestinian children peel to extract the steel marble within, which they brace into their slingshots and aim back at the soldiers. She talks of the threat to her mosque, of an ambulance bringing a seventy-eight-year-old neighbour back from hospital, how soldiers searched it and stripped it down to the radiator: 'They've grown afraid of the air itself.' I feel dizzy with the detail piling up in my head. It is getting close to sunset and I leave before I can be made to stay and eat.

Through Bab el-Silsila I see several young Jewish men in black clothes hurrying along and into the tunnel which--I assume--leads to the Wailing Wall. Further along a mild-looking man wearing a yarmulke and leading two children steps out of a building. From within I hear the sound of children chanting in Hebrew.

The sun has set and it is time to break my fast. In Bab el-Amoud a man at a stall fills me a pitta bread with falafel, salad and tahina. He finds a chair for me and places a glass of water on the ground at my side. I sit inside the ancient gateway and eat--within sight of the army car and the soldiers and beyond them a beautiful, Indian-looking building standing alone. Two young men lean against a wall discussing what the Arab states can reasonably be expected to do. If only Egypt and Jordan would open the borders, they say, so we're not mice in a trap like this.

Back at the hotel I phone a journalist contact. I ask a few questions then my enthusiasm for this city bursts forth--and is met with silence.

'What? You don't agree?'

'Well, yes,' she says. 'It's just that I think everything would be so much easier if it wasn't there.'

I go out to the grocery next door. I want to buy some yoghurt and dates for my pre-dawn meal. The TV set on the wall is tuned into a Palestinian channel showing the news. Every pot of yoghurt I pick up is labelled in Hebrew only. 'Don't you have any Palestinian yoghurt?' I ask and the owner points me to another refrigerator.

The news comes through of five workers killed by settlers. A sixth man had managed to get away. The ambulances had raced to the scene but been stopped by the army. Everybody in the shop has stopped in mid-motion and is watching the set. The tears roll down my face as someone's wife wails on the screen, but everybody else is impassive. When the item is over they go back to what they were doing.

1The Guardian, 18 and 19 December 2000 published this in a shorter form. The full article appears here.

2The word Intifada derives from the root nfd, to make a sudden, violent movement. It carries connotations of 'involuntary', as when in shock or when hit by a sudden realisation. It also carries connotations of shaking something off: dust, lethargy.

3Umm is mother. A traditional form of referring to someone is through the name of their child, so Umm Angel is Angel's mother. Angel's father would be Abu Angel.

4Bab is door or gate. Bab el-Zahra is al-Zahra Gate. Interestingly the Arabic and English names of the gates of Jerusalem are different. So what in Arabic is Bab al-Khalil in English is the New Gate.

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