Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2004
Issue No. 709
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hamid Dabashi

For a Fistful of Dust: A Passage to Palestine

As the first death anniversary of Edward Said dawns, Hamid Dabashi*, a fellow professor at Columbia, recounts his last visit to Palestine, where he collected a fistful of Jerusalemite dust, reclaiming his late friend's birthplace

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Omar Khayyam

Click to view caption

"Landed in thy homeland. Its countenance valanced and yet still beautiful"

"Now I had about a full fist of earth from both the gravesites of the Prophet's companions buried in Jerusalem. I had a fistful of Palestinian soil in my pocket that I wanted to take to Lebanon, go to Brumana, and pour it on the last resting place of my fallen friend, Edward Said. This soil belongs to him; and he belongs to this soil."

Edward W Said, for years a cherished friend and for a lifetime a towering comrade, died in New York at 6:45 am on Thursday 25 September 2003. After a funeral service at Riverside Church on Monday 29 September 2003, he was cremated and his ashes taken to Lebanon by his widow, Mariam Said, and buried at the Quaker Friends cemetery in Brumana village in the Metn region of Mount Lebanon. Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on Friday 1 November 1935 before the colonial occupation of his homeland.

ON MONDAY 23 February 2004, I flew to Palestine and landed at Ben Gurion checkpoint. I went to Palestine as part of a collective to take an expanded version of our Palestinian film festival, "Dreams of a Nation" which we had initially organized in New York in January 2003, to four Palestinian cities -- Jerusalem, Ramallah Nazareth, and Gaza City. Our inaugural festival at Columbia University was a spectacular success. We had screened more than fifty feature, short, and documentary films, all made by Palestinian filmmakers in or out of their homeland. Edward Said had delivered the opening address of our festival at a packed auditorium in the Lerner Hall at Columbia University, to an audience that had come from all around the city, the state, the country -- some as far as from Canada. Soon after, the festival assumed a life of its own, and began to travel around the US, then to Europe and North Africa and other parts of the Arab world. Our small collective, however, thought it necessary we should take it to Palestine. A Palestinian cultural organization, Yabous, based in East Jerusalem, agreed to host our festival. I flew from Copenhagen, where I was invited by the Danish Cinematheque for a retrospective based on my book on Iranian cinema, via Zurich, and landed in Ben Gurion checkpoint.

My Palestinian friends could not pick me up from the checkpoint because I landed at 1:00 am in the morning and they were all locked up inside occupied Ramallah. (In Tulkaram, now almost entirely encircled by a formidable wall, the Israeli army locks up Palestinians at about 6 pm). But they had arranged for a Palestinian cab driver to come from East Jerusalem to pick me up and take me to my hotel. The Christmas Hotel, where I was going to stay, is located just off Salah al-Din Street in East Jerusalem, about an hour drive from Ben Gurion checkpoint.

It took me about two hours to clear through the Ben Gurion security. When I exited the final interrogation hall, a young Palestinian cab driver was waiting for me, holding a piece of paper with my name on it. I approached him. We had a quick eye contact and he smiled: "Professor Dabashi?" I nodded. "Ahlan wa sahlan," he said and I smiled -- "shokran habibi." We got into his cab and passed through yet another set of security stations patrolled by teenagers in military uniforms, with very long machine guns hanging from their necks. We finally entered a highway leading east towards Jerusalem. The highway was completely deserted. The surrounding landscape was wrapped in a black shawl, marked on its edges by dimly lit lampposts bending forward and turning their backs to the quiet darkness. On our way, when Ayman discovered that I am a Muslim, he showed me the spot where the highway had run through the mausoleum of one of the companions of our Prophet, Muhammad, bulldozed and flattened for the concrete asphalt. He also showed me an apartment building that was built on the site of Deir Yassin -- a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were massacred on Friday, 9 April 1948 by the commandos of the Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin, who later became the prime minister of Israel. We were mostly silent. It was dark -- the highway lampposts now looked lost in a haze, shot like an oddly shaped bamboo shoot, out of place, bored, boorish, lighting as if nothing other than their own solitary stands, frightful of their own shadows. But the air was crisp, the night was cool, and the sound of asphalt under the wheel of Ayman's car was reassuring. "Min wain anta?" I said I was Iranian.

We entered Jerusalem about 5:00 am, as the sun was rising on the Dome of the Rock, gracing the blue sky watching over the old city. I asked Ayman to stop for a few minutes. I exited his cab. I looked at Qobbbat al-Sakhrah. I had not prayed since I was eleven years old. The golden dome was marking the azurite cobalt of the expansive sky. Defiant. The entire universe was silent. There was a blueness in the sky over the golden dome. There was a humming sound in the air. I saw a few Hasidic Jews rushing to some unspecified destination. They seemed to be in a hurry.

I returned to the cab and Ayman drove me to the front door of the Christmas Hotel, off Salah al-Din Street. The door to the hotel was locked, but as soon as I stood at its threshold wondering what to do, a man appeared from inside the hotel, from the depth of its darkness, opened the door and welcomed me in. I checked in and asked for permission to sit at a computer in the lobby to check my email. I sent a few emails to my friends and family, assuring them that I had landed safely in Palestine and that all was well. "Landed in thy homeland," I wrote to Rasha Salti, a Palestinian friend in New York, "its countenance valanced and yet still beautiful."

I took my backpack up to the second floor to my room, a modest but impeccably clean cubicle. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I was too exited to rest. Insomniac. I came back down to the lobby, where the same man who had opened the door for me appeared again from the dark and asked if he could help me. I said I wondered if al- Harm al-Sharif was near the hotel. He said yes and pointed towards the direction on Salah Al-Din Street where I had to walk for a few blocks to get there.

The streets were still quiet. It was now almost 5 am. The shops were closed. I saw a few more Orthodox Jews rushing towards a determined destination. Then I saw two teenage Israeli soldiers with flashy sunglasses and two machineguns hanging from their necks. Their sunglasses were not necessary. The sun was not yet up. The street lamps were still lit. They looked tired. They paid no attention to me. They were busy talking to each other. I do not understand Hebrew.

At a street corner, I saw a bulletin board for public announcements. I noted a few prominent posters of our festival hanging on that board -- "Ahlam Ummah: Mahrajan al-Film al-Falastini." Annemarie Jacir, my principal partner in Dreams of a Nation project, had been hard at work for months getting the festival moving in collaboration with our host, Yabous. "Bravo 'aleyki, General Jacir!" That's what we call her in our collective. She runs a very tight ship. A couple of our posters were torn down from that bulletin board. I fixed them.

From Salah al-Din Street I reached a major thoroughfare encircling the main citadel on which stood al-Haram al-Sharif. The early morning traffic was now getting crowded. I crossed the main street and walked towards what I later learned was called Bab al-Zahra. I did not know exactly where I was going. But I was drawn through the gate and into the market.

At the mouth of the market, there were three Israeli soldiers guarding the gate -- one white soldier in a position of obvious authority and two black soldiers beholden to him. I asked them, addressing no one in particular, just their constellation, if that gate led to the Dome of the Rock. No one answered me -- as the gaze of the two black soldiers gradually diverted from me and my question towards their white superior. The white officer did not look at me and did not move his upright and determined neck, holding his steadfast gaze away from my face and pierced beyond my back towards an unspecified direction. He had no sunglasses on -- but he looked as if he did. I waited for an answer, as did the two black soldiers, now circulating my gaze from one face to another -- examining them under the surface of my un-answered question. These soldiers were slightly older than the ones I had seen at the airport and then near the hotel. They were perhaps in their early twenties -- brandishing the same long machineguns from their necks. They looked tired -- ready to go home and sleep. There was no answer. I could not move away because I had asked a question, the question was in the air, and I felt obliged to wait for even a hint, a suggestion, of an answer so I could just leave. But no answer was coming my way. Nothing. The two black soldiers threw a nervous look at me, and I at them -- the three of us were now at the mercy of the white Israeli officer -- determined not to look at or answer me. We were like three mesmerized pigeons now under the spell of a cobra -- waiting for his move. He did not move. He would not move. This may have taken no more than a few seconds, but it lasted an eternity -- time had stood still, in a frozen frame: three frozen pigeons and one mighty cobra. The cobra finally moved, or did he, and his lips may have moved, or so I wished. I was not sure, but I took my chances, watched his lips, heard his voice -- said, "thank you," to no one in particular, just at the constellation of the two remaining pigeons and the cobra, and left.

The winding alley was fully covered with closed shops; very few shopkeepers were around, setting up their merchandise. The alleys were deserted, except for a few old men, walking aimlessly. I went down the winding alleys, until I saw a sign of the Dome of the Rock on an old arch. I followed it. I turned a few winding turns and then a sharp left and I headed down towards what I later found out was called Bab al-Usud, the Lions' Gate. At the bottom of the alley I saw a pack of Israeli soldiers, men and women (boys and girls, really), in riot gear, with long machineguns hanging from their neck. I did not look at them. They looked at me. I pretended I knew where I was going. I did not. I was nervous. Scared.

At the bottom of the hilly alley I saw an Israeli army station to my left, guarded by a teenage soldier with a very long machinegun hanging from his neck. Immediately to my right was the entrance to a graveyard. On a white board with blank ink this graveyard was identified for having the mausoleum of two of the Prophet's companions -- al-Sahabi al-Jalil Ibadah ibn al-Samit (d. 34 AH) and al- Sahabi al-Jalil Shidad ibn Aws (d. 58 AH). I had a pen in my pocket and a piece of paper. I took them out and wrote these names down. On the board they were written in nasta'liq. On my paper, I wrote them down in naskh. I entered the graveyard and began to whisper a Fatiha. A few steps into the graveyard I ran into an old Palestinian. " Sabah al- Kheyr," I said; " Sabah al-Kheyr," he replied and smiled and asked me if I were a Muslim. I said yes. " As-Salamu Aleikum ya Akhi," he said, " wa Aleikum Salam ya akhi," I said and he wondered where I was from. From Iran I said, I am from Iran. He asked if I were a Shi'i. I said yes. He wondered if this was my first trip to Jerusalem and if I wanted to visit the sacred site of the two companions of our Prophet. I said yes it was, and yes I wanted to.

The old Palestinian Muslim led the way and I followed him. I could see a church down the hill to my left and a tall wall to my right. Half way through the graveyard, my impromptu guide started climbing the rise from the narrow walkway up towards the wall. I followed him. At the foot of the wall we came across a modest gravesite. This was the grave of al-Sahabi al-Jalil Ibadah ibn al-Samit, as identified by a modest sign attached to an even more modest barrier constructed with metal around the grave. I touched the barrier and recited a Fatiha under my breath. The old Palestinian waited until I finished and then he walked away further towards the other side of the graveside where the mausoleum of al-Sahabi al-Jalil Shidad ibn Aws was located. We both stopped, and I said another Fatiha. The morning weather was cool, calm, and sedentary. The air smelled of freshly baked bread and dust and Za'atar and olive trees. The light of Jerusalem was gray and the colour of Jerusalem was light brown--and the soil of Palestine was ordinary.

The old Palestinian and I descended the rise and jumped from the last row of graves down on the narrow path. He asked me if I wanted to go to the al-Aqsa Mosque. I said yes. He asked me if it was true that we Shi'is did not care for the Sahabah of our Prophet. I said no. He asked me if I believed in the sanctity of the al-'Asharah al-Mubashsharah, the ten most noble companions of the prophet to whom Paradise was promised while they were still in this life. I said no, we Shi'is did not believe in their sanctity or infallibility because they included the first three caliphs, whom we believe usurped the right of our Amir al-Mu'minin Ali, who was the rightful heir to our Prophet. " Shu Ya'ni ?"-- He stopped abruptly and looked at me with a troubled hesitation creeping under his serene sense of hospitality to a fellow Muslim. He asked if I believed in the Khulafa' al-Rashidun, the four Rightly- Guided caliphs who succeeded our Prophet. I asked if he knew where I could buy good Palestinian za'atar. He smiled and said most definitely and that he would take me to the best shop in Jerusalem for za'atar. I said, " shokran jazilan, ya 'akhi !"

We exited the graveyard, turned left and walked towards the first entrance into al-Haram al-Sharif. A few Israeli soldiers were at the mouth of the long corridor leading to the gate. One of them asked me where I was going. I said to the al-Aqsa Mosque. He asked was I a Muslim. I said yes. He let me and the Palestinian go. The Palestinian and I turned left, passed the Israeli soldiers, and walked towards the end of the alley, where a huge blue gate was guarded by yet another pack of Israeli soldiers. In front of us was now another older Palestinian in a dark brown galabiyah, walking with a cane slowly towards the gate. My Palestinian guide and I slowed down and followed him. He was whispering something, as he passed through the first group of Israeli soldiers. I could not quite hear him. I thought he was uttering some prayers. But when we slowed down, I could hear him better. " Ya akhu ash- sharmuta! " I heard him say, and I am quite sure I also heard a " Ya hukkam al-'Arab! "

The three of us slowly approached the big blue gate and the next pack of Israeli soldiers, who let the two Palestinians through but stopped me. One of them, an older soldier in a blue anti-riot gear, asked me where I was going. Before I said anything, my Palestinian guide turned around and told him in Hebrew what I thought was something like I was going to the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli soldier disregarded the Palestinian and continued to look at and talk to me in English. The other two Palestinians entered through the gate and the gate closed -- leaving me and the Israeli soldiers behind. "Are you a Muslim?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "Let me see your passport," he said. I reached for my passport but suddenly realized that I had left it in the pocket of my coat back in my room at the Christmas Hotel. I said I did not have my passport with me but that he would not be able to tell from my passport that I am a Muslim because I traveled with a US passport.

As this conversation between the Israeli soldier and I was progressing, suddenly the huge blue door to al-Haram al-Sharif opened and a tall and husky Palestinian came out, turned to the Israeli solider and told him in English, "Let him in, he is a Muslim." The Israeli soldier muttered something in Hebrew, to which the Palestinian answered, again in English, "No, he is a Muslim, let him in." The Israeli soldier turned away and left, and the Palestinian let me enter the vestibule leading to the huge courtyard. He closed the door behind me and said, "Are you a Muslim?" "Yes," I said. "Let me hear you recite the Qur'an," he said, smiling. I panicked and mumbled. All I could remember was the opening verses of al-Baqarah. " Alif. Lam. Mim." I said, nervously, words barely audible even to myself, " Dhalika al-kitabu la rayba fihi hudan li-'l- muttaqin . " "That's too long," the Palestinian guard interrupted me. "Can you recite the Fatiha ?" "Yes," I said, " Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim," I said less nervously, " al-hamdu li-'lahi Rabb al-alamin, al-Rahman al-Rahim, Malik yaum al-din." He listened reverently, whispering the verses with and after me under his breath, just like a father looking over his son performing in public something rehearsed before, nervous that he may go wrong, that he may forget a memorized verse. But I made no mistake, until I finished the Fatiha chapter by heart, " ghayr al-maghdhubi 'alayhim wa al-dhaliyn," as with every trembling verse out of my mouth his wise and generous face opening up with an expansive embrace, a glitter in his eyes confirming his intuition. " Ahlan wa sahlan ya akhi ", he said as soon as I finished, "Welcome to Palestine! You are not only a Muslim, you are also an Iranian because you don't know how to pronounce qaf. It is qaf, habibi, not ghaf --so it is Mustaqim, not Mustaghim." I smiled back with embarrassment and tried to say Mustaqim as best as I knew how. Then I turned around and saw that my old Palestinian guide from the gravesite was watching over this whole proceeding approvingly, totally bemused and exonerated by my claim, though a shade Shi'i, to our faith.

The courtyard of al-Haram al-Sharif is vast, flat, and full of olive trees. Two other Palestinian guards of the sacred site, with special green uniforms, appeared and asked me where I was going. My Palestinian guide said that I was a Shi'i going to al- Aqsa Mosque. These ones did not ask me to recite the Qur'an and let us go. As I was talking to the guards I noticed that my Palestinian guide sat on the edge of a border defining the boundaries of the olive groves and wrote down his name, the name of his son and his cellular phone number for me to call him to go and buy za'atar. I thanked him for it, and I followed him towards the Dome of the Rock, which was now visible to our right on a raised platform overlooking our approach.

It was a Tuesday morning and the site around the Dome of the Dark was completely deserted. As we approached it I noticed that its doors were closed. " Cho beyt al-moqaddas darun por qobab," was the first thing that came to my mind, a famous line of Sa'di in his Bustan, describing the Sufis, "Just like the Dome of the Rock, their interiors fully sculpted," " Raha kardeh divar birun kharab," he had visited this site in the Seventh Islamic century (Thirteenth on the Gregorian calendar), "/While they have left their exterior to ruins." Apparently when Sa'di had visited this site, the exterior of the Dome of the Rock was in a state of disrepair. I approached the exterior wall of the Dome and gently kissed its checkered blue and yellow ceramic tiles. My Palestinian guide looked at me bewildered and said that what I did was not necessary. I thought it was. I circumambulated the Dome, where we believe our Prophet ascended to the Seventh Heaven, and then went down from the steps on the other side and walked towards the al-Aqsa Mosque. Behind me was now the central site of the Islamic cosmogonic imagination -- ahead of me the most famous mosque affiliated with it -- and I felt I was home.

My Palestinian guide explained to a guard sitting inside a cubicle at the door of the al-Aqsa mosque that I was a Muslim, that I was a Shi'i, and that I was an Iranian and wanted to enter the mosque. The guard smiled and welcomed me. My guide at this point said he had to return to the market to attend to his business. I thanked him and said goodbye. As he was leaving, I approached the mosque, took off my shoes, placed them inside a small cubicle at the entrance, very much like those I remembered from Qom and Mashhad of my childhood, and entered the mosque -- vast, spacious, welcoming, re- assuring, covered, wall to wall, by soothing layers of carpets, a sudden, almost surreal, silence exuding from its spatial confidence. I walked slowly towards a pillar at the left side of the mosque. There were not that many people inside. Both men and women, without any marked barrier or even distance between them, were either performing their ritual prayers or reading from the Qur'an. This was markedly different from Iranian mosques where men and women are not allowed in the same space. I went and sat at the foot of a pillar, picked up a copy of the Qur'an, and began reading from the first and the second chapter -- al-Fatiha and al- Baqarah -- trying to pronounce my qaf s properly. Then I just sat there and looked around. Nobody was paying any attention to me. I had long since forgotten that silence had a resonance, that peace had a presence, that there is a deliberate consciousness to motions, that absolute and definitive serenity could fill a space so voluminously. Whence so much peace? How many Palestinians had been murdered here, trying to prevent its desecration, destruction -- the eradication of the center site of a world religion? Wherefore this silence?

After a few minutes I got up and gently left the mosque, put on my shoes at the door, thanked the Palestinian guard in his cubicle and headed back towards the Bab al-Faysal exit of al-Haram al-Sharif. Exiting, I crossed yet another two or three layers of Israeli soldiers with machineguns hanging from their necks and headed back towards my hotel.

MY REPEATED TRAFFICS between Jerusalem and Ramallah, with trips to Bethlehem, Beyt Sahhur, Nazareth, Nablus, and of course the myriad of Israeli checkpoints in between kept me busy for the next few days, and I was not able to return back to al-Haram al-Sharif until Friday, 27 of February, when I had cleared my morning for that purpose. I had an early breakfast on that Friday in the backyard of Christmas Hotel and headed towards the Lions Gate at about 8:00 am. There was a much more heavily armed Israeli presence on that occasion in obvious anticipation of the Friday noon prayer. I passed through a few congregations of Israeli soldiers and entered al-Haram al-Sharif fairly easily. It was still too early for the noon prayer and not that many people were around. I went straight to the Dome of the Rock and found its doors open, with a Palestinian older gentleman sitting on a small stool at the main entrance. I greeted him, took off my shoes and entered the compound. Not more than a hundred people or so, men and women, were praying in various parts of the interior. I circumambulated around the rock and finally approached it from an angle where a group of pilgrims had gathered around a man who was giving a historical account of the significance of the rock. I stood by the rock and watched it closely as I listened to the man discussing the Qur'anic verse pertinent to the Prophet's nocturnal Mi'raj : "Glorified be He who carried His servant by night from the Masjid al-Haram to the Masjid al-Aqsa."

After a few minutes, I turned around and went to a corner and looked up towards the ceiling. There was a sustained serenity in the air of the building, a miasmatic permanence about its architectural confidence -- as if the rock that lay bare and exposed at the heart of it had a knowledge of itself. I noticed a group of women praying, reading the Qur'an, chatting silently, and I saw a few children, holding the hand of their fathers -- silent, quietly playful, one of them a bit bewildered. People looked neither rich nor poor, neither old nor young, neither black nor white -- men and women were almost indistinguishable in their long galabiyah or ' abayah. A streak of translucent light entered the arena from the main gate almost in a rush and its shades and shadows spread around. I could not hear anything. It was as if I were deaf.

I eventually left the Dome of the Rock, picked up my shoes from the small cubicle by the door, sat down and put them on before I descended the plateau on which the Dome is located. There was a small market inside al-Haram al-Sharif where they were selling various religious items, but the shopkeepers were also selling pirated copies of movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. I bought a small key chain with a replica of the Dome of the Rock on it. It was much cheaper than the DVD's of Terminator II and Mission Impossible.

I wondered around in the space between the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for a while. It was a beautiful and sunny day in late February. The light was grayish, the walls around me luminous. I gradually exited al-Haram al-Sharif through Bab al- Faysal and turned right towards Bab al-Usud, crossed the Israeli army station to my left and entered the cemetery. I whispered a Fatiha as I went straight to the mausoleums of the two companions of the prophet. First I climbed the rise towards the site of al-Sahabi al-Jalil Ibadah ibn al-Samit. I stood in front of the grave, held on to the metal barrier, and recited another Fatiha. Then I took out from my pocket a small plastic Ziploc bag that I had brought with me from New York, bent over the grave and started digging a small hole with my fingers, extracting the soil and placing it inside the bag. About half a fistful of dust into the bag, I got up and approached the grave of al-Sahabi al-Jalil Shidad ibn Aws. Again, I whispered a Fatiha, bent over, made a small hole with my fingers, picked up the soil and added it into the bag. Now I had about a full fist of earth from both the gravesites of the Prophet's companions buried in Jerusalem.

I got up, placed the plastic bag and the soil inside it into my pocket and headed back down the slope over, away from the wall, and towards the last row of graves. As I was jumping down from the small rise onto the narrow path I saw a small pack of Israeli soldiers, all except their commanding officers teenagers, boys and girls, in full riot gear and heavily armed with machineguns hanging from their necks -- some in greenish and others in bluish uniform. Their commanding officer looked at me, smiled, and said " assalam 'aleikom." I said " wa 'aleykom assalam," lowered my head and dusted my jeans. When I raised my head, my eyes caught the eyes of a very pretty Israeli girl in military uniform in the company of her fellow soldiers, with a machinegun hanging from her neck. Her eyes were green. Her hair was light brown. She was medium height, a bit husky, holding her helmet in one hand, and with the other caressing her machinegun. She looked at me for a few seconds and I dropped my eyes and fell behind their march. From behind they looked quite playful, giggling even.

I slowly followed the Israeli soldiers out of the cemetery. At the gate of the cemetery I saw the same group of soldiers sitting at a corner and chatting with each other. Except for their uniforms, riot gear, helmets, and machineguns (still hanging from their neck, even while they were sitting), they looked like a group of high school kids out on a field trip. I got a glimpse of the same pretty young girl chatting with a fellow soldier as I turned left and headed back to the winding market. It was Friday and all the shops were closed. I exited the compound from Bab al-Zahra and went back to Salah Al-Din Street to do some shopping before the Friday noon prayer. Some of the shops in the main square in front of the old city were open. I bought a few red and blue scarves, a gold bracelet, and a kilo of za'atar. The Palestinians do not have their own money. They have to use Israeli money -- even in Jerusalem and Ramallah. I did not have Israeli money. I had to exchange US money for Israeli money at a Palestinian currency exchange outlet on Salah al-Din Street, right in front of Bab al-Zahra gate to al-Haram al- Sharif.

By about 11:00 am I had deposited my za'atar and other purchases in my room at the Christmas Hotel and headed back towards al-Haram al-Sharif because I wanted to attend the Friday noon prayer. I kept the Palestinian soil I had collected from the gravesite of the Prophet's companions in the Ziploc bag in my pocket. Within the two hours or so that I had left the area to do my shopping, it seemed like the entirety of the Israeli army had moved into the surrounding streets of al-Haram al-Sharif. I run into literally hundreds of teenage soldiers in an uncanny combination of military readiness and juvenile playfulness. They looked like being excited by a kind of picnic outing, relentlessly talking and laughing with each other, while sporting an assortment of machineguns hanging from their necks, all in riot gear. There was an influx of ostensibly Palestinian crowd moving through the alleys of the market towards al- Haram al-Sharif. I walked in their midst. No Israeli soldier stopped me or asked me any question and I avoided all eye contacts until I reached the very last right turn into the alley that led to the Bab al-Faysal vestibule. The flow of the crowed carried me with it all the way to the main compound, which was completely covered with worshipers ready for the Friday prayers. The crowd was ostensibly young -- though many middle-aged and older men were also among them. There was running water at a corner by an olive tree, where I joined a group of young men and did the ritual ablutions. I could not quite remember how to do it. So I followed other people around me. They were doing it slightly differently than the way I remembered it from my childhood when my mother used to take us to the Eighth Shi'i Imam shrine in Mashhad, in the Khurasan province of Iran. I followed the crowd of Palestinians ready for Friday prayers towards the al-Aqsa mosque. I could not get any closer than a few steps down from the Dome of the Rock and could not see the end of the prayer rows extended into the mosque itself. I was now standing between the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque -- two of the most sacrosanct sites in the sacred geography of Islam.

I began my prayers with others -- remembering when my mother first taught me how to recite the Qur'an in the Goharshah Mosque in Imam Reza Mausoleum in Mashhad. I must have been seven or eight years old. I remembered my parents, and I remembered my children, and I remembered everyone else near and dear to me, on this hallowed ground -- the sacrosanct site of the faith that claims my conscience, where we believe our prophet ascended the heavens. I had not prayed since I was eleven years old. I was now fifty-two, and I had a fistful of Palestinian soil in my pocket that I wanted to take to Lebanon, go to Brumana, and pour it on the last resting place of my fallen friend, Edward Said. This soil belongs to him; and he belongs to this soil; and he will not rest in peace until he was under this soil. "I testify that God is one," I said in the company of my Palestinian brothers, "and I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of God," and then I added in my mind, " wa ashhadu anna Alian wali Allah."

As the prayer was nearing its end, I suddenly heard shouts of Allahu Akbar, interspersed with sounds of explosions and bullets, from various corners of the compound. They were haphazard and nervous. I eventually noticed a commotion from behind me. I turned around and I saw crowds of worshipers in disarray. From behind them, down from behind the Dome of the Rock, I could now see rows of Israeli troops storming into al-Haram al-Sharif in riot battle formations, coming, it seemed, from Bab al-Magharibah. They started hurtling canisters at us without breaking their ranks. Columns of white smoke began to separate their advancing rows from our confusing formations. Suddenly I heard explosive sounds that I had no idea what they were and where they were coming from. My eyes began to burn and I became frightened. A young Palestinian noticing my fear and bewilderment smiled widely: " la takhaf habibi," he said, " qanabil sawtiyah," sound grenades, he said. I had no clue what he meant. I did not see any sign of people throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers around me. In fact I saw no pebbles or stones on the compound anywhere -- except behind me to the left of al-Aqsa Mosque (when facing it with our back towards the Dome of the Rock) where some sort of construction, excavation, or restoration (I could not tell) was in progress. I had already seen a stone-throwing occasion on Wednesday 25 February, early in the afternoon, when the Israeli army was robbing the Arab Bank in downtown Ramallah. This was an entirely different situation. There was something calm and even relaxed about both sides, as if they were two sides of a game they were playing. There was no physical contact between us and the Israeli soldiers, but a shuddering rush of people at the front row facing the army. Suddenly from my back, towards the mosque, I heard an abrupt burst of firing what I presumed (hoped) was rubber bullets -- " na'am ya akhi--al- rasas al-matati." I thought there were soldiers coming at us from that direction too. But I think I was hearing the echoes of rubber bullets being fired from the front. At one point, the crowd around me became quite jittery and nervous and I was knocked over and lost my control. There were a few seconds of panic when I did not know what was exactly happening over my head. But I got up and walked towards Bab al-Rahma Cemetery and Musalla Marwan, to the left side of the Dome of the Rock when facing al-Aqsa Mosque. The space there was a bit wider and safer, I thought.

After catching my breath and re-assessing where I was in relation to the rest of the compound I moved back towards al-Aqsa and the Dome and noticed that the crowed was getting more relaxed and even conversant, as the rows of Israeli soldiers began to retreat and move out of the compound. The remarkable thing about this whole affair was that there was a festive spirit about the crowd, at least those around me. The older people were far more angry and agitated. The younger Palestinians had a cheerful and jovial disposition -- their ya akhu al- sharmuta! thrown at the Israeli direction with an almost choral choreography in diction and disposition. I looked up towards the heavens. There was a certainty about the cloudless sky, a grayish indifference, and I could hear a faint humming of a distant traffic encircling the sacred citadel. I reached for my plastic bag in my pocket, full of soil from the mausoleums of the Prophet's companions. I did not take the bag out of my pocket. I just felt the earth in between my fingers. The crowd eventually began to thin out as the Israelis started pulling out and leave al-Haram al-Sharif. I followed the crowd and entered the winding streets around the compound, and headed back to my hotel. It was getting late. I had to go back to my hotel, where Hany Abu Assa'ad was sending his producer to pick me up and take me to Nablus, where he was getting ready to shoot his next film.

I HAD NO OTHER OCCASION to visit al- Haram al-Sharif during that trip and spent most of my time between Nablus, Nazareth, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. I left Palestine via Ben Gurion checkpoint on Monday 1 March in order to be back in New York for the memorial service that Columbia University had organized for Edward Said. Before I had left for Palestine, Mariam Said and Akeel Bilgrami had asked me to write a short memorial essay to be included in a small volume they were putting together to commemorate the occasion. I wrote a short piece, called it "Siding with Said," and emailed it to Akeel Bilgrami before I flew to Palestine. I was anxious to attend this memorial.

Exiting the Ben Gurion checkpoint is far more difficult than entering it. Ihsan, a Palestinian cab driver friend of Ayman, drove me and Fayçal Hasaïri, a producer with Orbit satellite television and radio network who had come to Palestine to do a documentary on our Dreams of a Nation film festival, from the Christmas Hotel to Ben Gurion. At the very first checkpoint entering the airport, the Israeli soldiers stopped us and asked us to pull over. They checked our passports and looked at our bags. They asked me to pick up my green backpack and go and sit on a bench at the side of their station. I did so. They asked Ihsan to open his trunk and front hood and the four doors of his car and go and sit next to me. Fayçal they asked to go inside their station with all his camera equipments. While Ihsan and I sat on that bench and waited and watched, two Israeli soldiers brought a couple of German Shepherd dogs and all sorts of equipment and began checking Ihsan's cab inside out.

After a thorough examination that took about an hour, we were let go. Ihsan stopped his car at the entrance to the departure area. We said goodbye, and he left. Fayçal and I also said goodbye as soon as we entered the departure lounge because he needed to find a cart to carry his equipment and I was anxious to catch my flight. Fayçal's flight to Rome was later than mine to New York via Zurich.

Numerous and interminable serpentine lines await bewildered travelers as soon as they enter the departure lounge. After waiting for almost two hours to get my small backpack, passport and ticket checked, the Israeli teenager in charge of security was visibly troubled when I submitted to his inspection my belongings. I do not know whether it was the word "Iran" in front of "Place of Birth" in my passport or the whitish beard I was sporting, or my Arabic first name, or un-decidable last name, or signs and stamps that showed I had visited Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco that did it, but he left me standing in front of the huge electronic security belt and disappeared into a crowd of other security teenagers to ask what level of security he had to assign to me. The security hazard that people like me posed to the world at large was properly color-coded, I soon realized. The only problem was that the teenager could not decide if I were of a yellow or a red status. After consultation with his companions, he decided that I was security hazard level yellow, meaning I was assigned only two teenage ninjas and a German Shepherd to make sure I was not going to cause any trouble.

The two teenagers, followed by their diligent German Shepherd, grabbed my green backpack (it is actually my daughter Pardis', which I picked up when she threw it away and bought a new one), sent it through the belt of electronic checking for explosives, weapons of mass destruction and such, picked it from the other side, and asked me to join them at a counter, where they placed my backpack very carefully, unzipped all its pockets and took every single item of my belongings, half of which was my collection of various sized packs of za'atar that I had collected from different Palestinian cities, and the other consisted mainly of my clothing items and such, a copy of John Steinbeck's East of Eden that I was reading, and the bag of my toothbrush, toothpaste and the collection of my medicine, including the precious Lipitor 20MG that I take for my cholesterol after my open heart surgery.

The teenagers spread all my belongings widely and generously on the counter for the whole airport to see and their suspicious German Shepherd to sniff and investigate. One of the teenagers produced a metal detector, with some sort of sanitary earmuff attached on the top of it and applied the contraption to all my belongings, randomly reaching for one of my colorful underwear shorts. A considerate third teenager, not initially assigned to me, asked me where I was going, and as soon as I said New York, she realized that given the color-coded level of my security danger to the world I was about to lose my flight. She grabbed hold of my passport and ticket while her comrades were sniffing at my underwear and squeezing my toothpaste and rushed to get me checked in.

I stood there watching as one of the teenagers, also a girl, reached for the small pocket of my backpack and took out the Ziploc plastic bag in which I had deposited the earth of Palestine. She offered it to the German Shepherd who sniffed at it suspiciously and looked a bit baffled and undetermined. She opened the built-in zipper and reached for the earth I had collected with her gloved fingers and asked me what it was. I said it was the soil from the mausoleums of the two companions of the prophet of Islam. She zipped the bag back and took it away and disappeared behind a closed door, while her comrade reached for my white iPod and asked me what it was. iPod, I said. What's in it he asked. Umm Kulthum, I said, and lots of Bach cantatas if he cared to listen, plenty of Abd al-Basit I said, then the songs of Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Abd al-Halim Hafiz, Ella Fitzgerald I had in there with Kiri Takanawa, Billie Holiday and a few Shahram Nazeri, plus lots of Muddy Waters, Fairuz, Mozart's piano concertos and a complete Don Giovani, Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, with Samuel Ramey in the lead role and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leporello; and that I had Jessie Norman in there singing Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder, and a few John Lee Hooker's songs, John Coltrane was in there, I said, and Howlin' Wolf, Nosrat Ali Khan and Cecilia Bartoli, Esma'il Kho'i reciting his poetry, Marziyeh and Banan singing "Bu-ye Ju-ye Mulian Ayad Hami," Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and ...

He thought I had uttered enough. He took my iPod and went in the direction that his colleague had disappeared with my bag full of Palestinian soil. I stood there with all my za'atar collection and clothing items spread all over the counter -- one teenager running away with my passport and ticket, another with my iPod, and a third with my fist full of Palestinian earth. I stood there aimlessly, not knowing what to do. I picked up my copy of East of Eden and started reading randomly from a page. It was where Cathy Ames had just drugged her husband Adam Trask on their wedding night and was about to sleep with her brother-in-law Charles. I have always thought that the sappy obsequiousness of Adam Trask was a kind of penance he was paying for all those native Americans he had joined in murdering -- a premonition of the guilty conscience of a nation that had all but repressed Custer at Wounded Knee. I closed the book and looked around. I missed Jerusalem.

I sat on the edge of the counter and awaited my fate. I looked around me. The place had an uncanny similarity to an airport, but the garrison was a fully fortified barrack, with its battalion of security forces treating all the transient inmates with equal banality. It was not just coloured Muslims like me that they treated like hazardous chemicals. It was everyone. "One," as in our quintessential humanity, melted in this fearful furnace into a nullity beyond human recognition. What they call "Israel" is no mere military state. A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their "soul." What the Israelis are doing to Palestinians has a mirror reflection on their own soul -- sullied, vacated, exiled, now occupied by a military machinery no longer plugged to any electrical outlet. It is not just the Palestinian land that they have occupied; their own soul is an occupied territory, occupied by a mechanical force geared on self-destruction. They are on automatic piloting. This is they. No one is controlling anything. Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds.

I sat there frightened -- frightened not by any specific danger, not by the massive machinery of death and destruction that surrounded me in that checkpoint and beyond that checkpoint into every nook and cranny of the occupied Palestine I visited, not by any specific machinegun hanging from a thin neck, frightened by the miasmatic mutation of human soul into a subterranean mixture of vile and violence that preempts a human being from the simplicity of a human touch, of a human look, of a human voice. Where did humanity end in this colonial settlement and machinery begin? Is this the reason why Israel as a collectivity is so indifferent to what the rest of the world thinks of it? Is Ariel Sharon accidental or integral to these people? They were not subjecting just me to this sub-human behaviour. They were indiscriminate to names, passports, identities, nationalities. All humans to them were not just potential but actual bombs, with different timing devices set to trigger their explosion at varied, but certain, intervals. How can a people live with such fear without becoming fear incarnate? Not a single sound of laughter, not a single sight of a leisurely walk, no one crying for a departing loved one, no one joyous at the arrival of a friend, no human rush to catch a flight, no two strangers exchanging flirtatious glances. Before I had left New York I had just watched Orson Welles' adaptation of Kafka's "Trial" (1962) -- and I felt I was in the midst of that nightmarish labyrinth of deceased shadows and sinuous insanity. I lifted my right hand and touched my left elbow, while looking at myself doing so. I was dead cold.

I was now almost sure that I will miss my flight to Zurich. The teenager who had taken my iPod came back empty handed and asked me to step into a cubicle at the corner of that counter. I left my belongings and my backpack on the counter and followed him there and he asked me to take off my belt and lower my pants. I did. The boy reached for my groins. I looked at my shoes. They needed some serious cleaning. They looked miserable. I had bought them almost a year ago in Carmel, California, in March 2003, when President Bush attacked Iraq and I interrupted my Spring break at Big Sur to look for Amy Goodman and Radio Pacifica to follow the news. The boy -- he looked like my son Kaveh, though a bit younger and yet his skin thicker than his young age warranted -- bent my belt and kept it close to his eyes. His eyes looked tired. They were not green like that pretty Israeli girl soldier I had seen at al-Haram al-Sharif. His eyes had no colour. They were just tired. His bony cheeks and drawn face showed he had been at work for a long time. His white shirt was sticking out of his gray pants. His belt was shiny black. His shoes did not need any shining. He gave me back my belt and asked me to take off my shoes. I bent, while trying to hold on to my pants, and untied my shoes and gave them to him. He started examining them. I was about to put my belt back when the teenage girl who had taken my bag full of Palestinian earth stuck her neck from behind a curtain and peeped inside the cubicle and told me to follow her. I followed her, while holding my pants with one hand and with the other holding on to my belt, my shoes left behind for further examination with the tired teenager inside the cubicle. The floor of the airport was chilly, and now I had nasty nausea and a pounding headache.

I went and sat on the edge of the counter with my belt in my hand, while trying to hold my pants from falling down, looking at the scattered bags of za'atar, my shirts, tooth brush, and toothpaste. I had forgotten to take my vitamin E, and I think that the knafeh I had at Nazareth was too fattening for me. The teenager was now thumbing through Steinbeck's East of Eden, examining very closely the page where Cathy Ames sets her parent's house on fire. What troublemaker was that Cathy Ames -- mayhem and destruction following her wherever she went. The teenager with tired eyes and bony cheeks came out of the cubicle and brought me back my shoes and encouraged me to put them back on. I thanked him, bent and put my shoes on. It took me a few minutes to do so. When I got up my head began to spin and I had a black out. This usually happens to me when I have sat down for a while and then I get up. It took me a minute to get back my sight and stability. I now noticed that all my belongings, za'atar and all, had been put back inside my bag. "Where is my soil from al-Sahabi al-Jalil Ibadah ibn al-Samit and al-Sahabi al-Jalil Shidad ibn Aws," I asked. "It is in your bag," she said; "and my iPod?" I continued, "It is in your bag." I had no way of knowing, but she looked like a trustworthy ninja. I was putting my belt back when the third, quite considerate, teenager walked fast towards me with my passport and boarding pass. "Please follow me," she said. I thanked the other two teenagers, collected my green backpack, looked at the German Shepherd, attending his comrades faithfully, and followed the conscientious teenager. There were three or four more security points still ahead of me. But she saw me through all of them, while I was trying to button up my pants and put my belt back where it belonged. At the very last checkpoint, the teenager gave me my passport and boarding pass, and said something like "Have a safe trip!" (or that's what I thought or hoped, she said). I said thank you and rushed to get through the last checkpoint. A family of seven people -- a young couple and their five children, all boys and all with yarmulke on their heads -- was in front of me. The mother was pregnant, the father was murmuring something under his breath, the children were each eating a Mac Donald's hamburger. I presume Mac Donald's makes kosher hamburger. I was quite nauseous.

Fortunately, my gate was very close to the very last security check. As I finally entered the plane, everybody was giving me dirty looks for having kept them waiting. I wish I knew how to say I am sorry in Hebrew. But half of the passengers I thought looked like they were from Brooklyn.

In about an hour we were all safely flying over the Mediterranean and I panicked. Where was the Ziploc plastic bag full of soil I had collected from the mausoleums of the two revered sahabah ? I got up and gently took my daughter's green backpack down from the overhead compartment. People around me were looking at me suspiciously. I sat down and opened the main part of the backpack. It was a mess. I found a bag of za'atar stuck in the middle of chapter twenty of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, right were the treacherous Cathy Ames was busy poisoning the goodhearted Miss Faye to inherit her whorehouse. What a troublemaker was that Cathy Ames? To me Miss Faye is the model of gentility and unsurpassed moral rectitude -- and yet with what methodic cruelty did Cathy Ames poison and kill her. I have no patience for those who are trying "to understand" Cathy Ames. There is nothing to understand. She is just plain demonic. That's all. What a mess -- and no sign of my bag full of soils from Palestine. I reached for the smaller side bag of the backpack and unzipped it, and there, tucked away gently among my bags full of za'atar from Jerusalem and Ramallah, Nazareth and Nablus, was the bag of Palestinian soil. I opened it gently and smelled it. It smelled of moist soil and of aromatic za'atar. I closed it, put it back where it was, closed my eyes, and tried to rest. The other passengers around me were talking relentlessly, almost all at the same time, to my tired ears and nauseous headache in an indecipherable combination of Brooklyn English and relentless Hebrew. I reached for my iPod and turned it on. There was no sign of any of my recordings. I turned the knob up and down. Nothing. My iPod was completely cleaned of all its musical memories. I turned it off and put it back into my bag, closed my eyes and tried to fade out all the surrounding sounds. "We are now cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet," said our captain in Brooklyn English.

I ARRIVED IN NEW YORK in time for Edward Said's memorial at Columbia University on 3 March 2004. A huge crowed had gathered and many of Edward's friends were there. Nadine Gordimer was there, as was Danny Glover, Vanessa Redgrave, Salman Rushdie, and Daniel Barenboim. But all through the service, presided over by our University Chaplin, Jewelnel Davis, all I could think of, especially when I saw Edward's face on a huge screen where they were showing a documentary on him, was a bit of an unfinished business I had with the soil I had collected from Palestine, now safely tucked away in the smallest pocket of my green backpack.

On Tuesday, 20 July 2004, I flew from New York to Beirut. I had joined a small group of young Lebanese and Palestinians who were active in Palestinian refugee camps in a variety of ways but particularly in establishing youth cultural centers. They had invited me to explore with them the possibilities of taking a portion of our Palestinian film project, Dreams of a Nation, to the camps. This was more of a reconnaissance mission, for us to find out what our needs were and what sort of equipment and infrastructure would be required. Locarno Film Festival had invited me to be a member of their Jury in August, and they had generously agreed to finance my trip to Lebanon and Syria to visit Palestinian refugee camps for this purpose. I left Newark Liberty International airport early in the evening of Tuesday and landed in Beirut the following Wednesday, after a short stop in Paris, at about 1:30 pm local time. I traveled with my usual green backpack, in one of its smallest pockets I had brought with me the plastic bag that contained the soil of Palestine. Before I left New York I had sought from Mariam Said, and she had graciously granted me, permission to put this soil on Edward's grave.

A Palestinian friend, Rasha Salti, picked me up from the airport and for about two weeks we traveled around Lebanon and Syria, visiting camps, showing films, and making a preliminary assessment of what we needed to do. While in Lebanon and in between our trips to camps around Beirut -- Sabra and Shatila, Mar Elias and Burj al- Barajnah -- on Sunday, 25 July 2004, at about 3:30 pm, Rasha Salti and I hired a cab in front of Mayflower Hotel in downtown Beirut and drove to Brumana village. In the right pocket of my jacket I carried with me the Ziploc plastic bag that contained the soil I had brought with me from Palestine.

The cab navigated its way around Ras Beirut in the early afternoon light that was about to lose its midday alacrity and ease into a gentler version of itself. There is something suspended in the bared soul of Beirut that has survived the end of the Lebanese civil war. The day I arrived in Beirut, the Israeli fighter jets had flown over the city and broken the sound barrier. "It is like raping the sky," Rasha told me that day. In my naked eyes, entirely empty of the miasmatic memories the native Beirutis have of their own history, Beirut is a mille- feuille pastry of enduring miseries interlaced with creamy layers of sweet hopes. A bite into Beirut, and you don't know whether to laugh with their joy or to cry from their pain. Beirut remains pathologically sectarian, but something in the heart of that sectarianism wishes to flower and fruit into religious tolerance. From private parties to the staff of a modest hotel, one sees conversant a cross-section of Lebanese society -- Sunnis, Shi'is, Christians, and blessed atheists, sharing the same food, defying the same fate, remembering the same fears, nourishing the same hopes, the making of the same destiny, and yet speaking of sectarian identities as if they were talking about some other people in some distant planet.

As a city, Beirut is a bizarre combination of postmodern banality and a deep sense of irascible tragedy written all over its face. The archaic memories of the civil war -- rundown buildings, bullet holes zigzagging on the dilapidated facades of abandoned buildings, portraits and statues of iconic sheikhs and charlatans, Palestinian refugee camps replete with unconscionable poverty, Lebanese yuppie intellectuals organizing art festivals in French -- compete with Prime Minister Hariri's downtown Beirut, made up in vain and vanity to divert lucrative business and Saudi attention from the Gulf States. Secular Beirutis detest being asked to what religious denomination they belong. They believe their secular and progressive politics are beyond the religion of their birth and breeding -- and by and large they are. There is a universality of learning about their prominent public intellectuals, people like Fawwaz Traboulsi or Elias Khoury, that defies all sectarianism and articulates a vision of the Arab and the Muslim world, and beyond them of world at large, extraordinarily expansive and embracing in its cultivated cosmopolitanism. And yet constitutional to the discursive disposition of the Lebanese is an almost instinctive identitarian politics far beyond the pales and forts of their own reason. The Druze did this, the Maronite did that, the Greek Orthodox are this way, the Shi'is, the Sunnis, the Armenians. But if you were to bear with this for a few minutes until they are let all loose in an Armenian restaurant, then the best in them (which is their food) overcomes their worst (which is their sectarian politics). Beirut always reminds me of Shah's Tehran -- rampant poverty ravaging the soul of the city on one side and obscenely rich shopping quarters, marked and monitored by a phantasmagoric construction of a huge mosque -- paid for by Prime Minister Hariri himself -- pretending to hint at Aya Sofia, on the other -- while claiming the tallest minaret in the world! (Hariri and the late Shah of Iran seem to share not just their short height but their phallic propensity for architectural over-compensation). I believe when this mosque is completed, the pompous absurdity of Hassan II mosque in Casablanca will have found its match. Beirut is full of exceptionally beautiful mosques, churches, and a synagogue. This monstrosity, as the rest of Hariri's Saudi money, will dwarf them in size and cast an unseemly shadow over their exquisite soul.

The sun was much gentler as we began to exit the city limits of Beirut towards the mountains. Though exceptionally clean for a major metropolis, Beirut is not a healthy city. It looks like it is going to explode any minute. But the life that it does manage to sustain in the midst of that lurking danger and in the minutiae of its small and modest (not expensive and vulgar) restaurants are the very definitions of poise and grace. The road out of Beirut to Brumana passes through some of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city, and Rasha knows Beirut better than her own kitchen in her apartment in East Village in New York. We first passed by Suq al-Ahad, a Sunday market where, Rasha said, the most recent waves of migrant labourers from Syria and Sri Lanka go shopping. Migrant labourers abound in Lebanon. Shatila, for example, is no longer limited to Palestinian refugees. The migrant poor from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and as far as Bangladesh, have moved to Shatila and share the fate of the homeless Palestinians (minus their having been massacred by the Phalangists on behalf of the Israelis, of course). From Suq al- Ahad, we crossed Jisr el-Basha (over the Beirut river), and then we took the road that separates an old industrial zone called Sin el-Fil ("The Tooth of the Elephant," because they had apparently found the remains of a pre-historic mammoth from antiquity there), and al-Naba'a. For native Beirutis, Naba'a is reminiscent of yet another industrial zone before the civil war, where poor working class used to congregate, a mixture of the Lebanese and Palestinian laborers in particular. Here is where the Leftists did most of their organizing and here is where there were systematic massacres of poor people at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. Immediately after Naba'a, the mille-feuille began to change colour and taste and we reached Horsh Tabet, an extremely posh residential area where the Lebanese political and economic elite own villas.

At the Mkalles roundabout we turned towards Mansourieh, a new industrial zone which is now home to a new Hotel Management School, and then drove up to the valley where Tall az-Za'atar, the site of a major massacre of the Palestinians, was once located. But right before you can completely remember or barely forget the memory of Tall az- Za'atar, immediately next to it is Beit Mery, yet another luxurious residential and summer home area. The weather by now had noticeably changed -- much cooler, fresher, and far less polluted. This is a primarily Christian neighborhood, Rasha said, recently flooded by the Saudis and the Khalijis.

Immediately after Beit Mary we reached Roumieh, home to one of the biggest jails in the country, where kids and adult felons are incarcerated. Soon after Roumieh is Brumana, a summer resort area about an hour from downtown Beirut. The physical expansion of Beirut has gradually reached all the way up there, so that people live in Brumana or Roumieh all year around and commute to Beirut. Just before we entered Brumana, a very expensive Mercedes with a Saudi plate was speeding and taking over a row of cars coming from the opposite direction and by the skin of our teeth our driver managed to prevent an accident, right in front of the Quaker Friend's School where Edward, Rasha said, gave its 1998 convocation speech.

I had already called Sami Cortas, Mariam Said's brother, from Beirut. He had graciously offered to pick me up from Beirut but I did not wish to impose more than I already had and said that we will take a cab. We called Sami when we entered Brumana area and arranged to pick him up from near Grand Hills Hotel, just off the main road, and he guided us towards the Quakers Friends Burial Ground ( Madafin Jam'iyyat Ashab al-Quakers ), a modest, almost inconspicuous, burial ground, just off the main winding road in Brumana. The gate to the cemetery was locked, and Sami Cortas had the key. He opened the gate, and Rasha and I followed him down a stairway into a small, enclosed, beautifully kept, garden. The garden is full of pine trees, native to the Metn Mountain. In between the pine trees, there was an assortment of various vines, shrubs and flowers. There were graves scattered all around the garden, in no particular order that was immediately evident to a pilgrim's eyes. We followed Sami Cortas for a few steps until he stopped at a grave immediately located to the left of the stairs as we entered the garden. He motioned with his right hand towards the grave and said, "here it is." The gravesite is simple, elegant, gracefully minimalist. It is marked by two black granite stones--one horizontal and one vertical, with the birth and death dates of Edward Wadie Said carved on it in both Arabic and English. The first thing that I noted about the grave was that it faced east. It was properly oriented. To the left of the grave, when facing it, there is an extraordinarily beautiful and old olive tree, looking almost like an oversized bonsai, which is sitting in a bed of dense orange and yellow flowers in full bloom in July when we visited it. Sami Cortas told us that Mariam Said had planted this singular symbol of Palestine on Edward's gravesite. The grave is immediately distinguishable from others because of its vertical and horizontal black granite, separating it from others, which are mostly in alabaster white and laid horizontally. "With so many dissonances in my life," I remembered the concluding sentence of Edward's autobiography, "I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place." To the left of the olive tree and fencing the stairs from which we had descended into the cemetery is an expansive and generous fig tree that carried unripe fruit in thick bunches when we were there; and at the foot of the stairs on the other side was a lush vine. I turned around and looked behind me, from the angle of Edward's grave, and there was an expansive panorama of Mount Lebanon -- calm, reassuring, permanent.

It must have been five or six o'clock in the afternoon by now, and the three of us stood there on top of Edward's grave, under the shade of a constellation of memories and emotions too precious to disentangle. All I remember now from that moment is Sami's gentle hand motion and his soft voice, "here it is." And here it was. I took the Ziploc plastic bag from my pocket, opened it, took some of it out and gave it to Sami. My hand was shivering. His was stable. We thought it best to put the soil in the flowerbed under the olive tree over the grave. Sami poured the soil on the flowerbed. I gave another pinch to Rasha and she did the same. The rest I emptied into my hand and poured it in between the flowers and the olive tree, and then shook the plastic back over it so that all of it landed on earth. I put the plastic bag back into my pocket and looked at Edward's grave. I asked him to forgive this piece of my Muslim antiquity. I know he would have laughed at me. "Professor Dabbashi" (he always put a couple of extra B's in the middle of my last name), "you are a postmodern muthaqqaf." And as soon as I protested, he would say, "don't worry, I invented their vocabulary." His gravestone was so clean. It exuded confidence, a life well-lived. "There is, here, a present not embraced by the past," I remembered Mahmoud Darwish:

"A silken thread pours letters of the page of night from the mulberry tree.

Only the butterflies cast light upon our boldness

In plunging into the pit of strange words.

Was that condemned man my father?

Perhaps I can handle my life here.

Perhaps I can now give birth to myself

And choose different letters for my name."

I bent forward and kissed the tip of his gravestone, and then I sat down and whispered my prayers. I missed him. I thought something was amiss in the wandering walkabout of my universe, like having lost a cane, a compass, a guiding star, the Milky Way. "For me, sleep is death," I remembered his invective in Out of Place. I got up and followed my friends out of the garden. "Do you want to take any pictures," asked Rasha. "No," I said, and we ascended the stairs.

* The writer is professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University and director of graduate studies at the university's Center for Comparative Literature and Society.

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