The Sound of Music

The main Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint to the Wall concerns a rather desolate area with few people walking. (Feroze Sidhwa)


It was the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga who (in 1920) introduced the concept of “historical sensation”. A historical sensation creates “the feeling of an immediate contact with the past, a sensation as deep as the purest enjoyment of the Arts you touch the essence of things, the experience of Truth through history.” As an example of such an historical sensation, Huizinga asks the reader to imagine the following. “You walk on the street, and a barrel organ [the well-know organ you find in the Dutch streets] is playing, and if you approach it, it suddenly happens that a breeze of recognition blows through your mind, as if for a moment you understand things which otherwise would be covered by the shrouds of life.” Such fleeting moments of recognition help to introduce you into History more than any statistics or generalizations could do.

I have to confess that I do not often have an historical sensation, and feel a pang of jealousy towards those who have. As a guide I used to lead people around in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where you have historical objects and buildings around every corner. However, you are usually busy not thinking about how the past felt, but rather telling the familiar stories associated with places or you’re otherwise burdened by such mundane considerations as the location of the toilet. In Bethlehem it is only when the Church of Nativity is silent and empty except for the friars that you can bring up the fullness of history in a rare moment of reflection.

I lately had an historical sensation in an area where you would expect it least; namely, while walking from the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint to the Wall. It concerns a rather desolate area with few people walking and perhaps some cars waiting in front of the checkpoint. It is nowadays so difficult to enter Jerusalem that you do not need to wait long in the queue. Even the soldiers are less stressed and unfriendly than elsewhere, just lazy and indifferent behind their table in the shadow of the hot sun. I’ve got used to walking along those two or three hundred meters between the checkpoint and the Wall. You see little boys who try to sell their chewing gum, always in vain. In the past you could take a taxi after passing the checkpoint from Jerusalem, but now the area is empty of taxis. It is really a bleached area, you feel that you are outside a living culture and indeed, out of life. Passing through it is like performing a rite de passage, treading a no man’s land on the way from Israeli to Palestinian land and vice versa. Just in front of the Wall there is now an enormous terminal station, undoubtedly built with American money, which gives the area a high-tech, sterile appearance. It vaguely recalls, for those who know it, Eretz, the entry to Gaza. When I am forced to pass it with my son of three, I try to take him on my shoulders, to give him a sense of self-confidence.

If there is here something that would remind of the past it is the 10 meter high Wall, which looks Medieval, as a friend told me lately. Indeed, the Wall is an ancient artifact violently inserted into the present. But it was not the Wall which opened me up to history but rather the sound of music coming out of a transistor radio. It was a Hebrew song. Over the last ten years I never heard Israeli music in this area. A lot of Arabic music, a lot of sounds from common Arab life (like taxis honking), but never Israeli music. And the music was very loud. It occurred to me that it may be easier to lift a gun than to put on your own country’s music loudly in an area which you know belongs to a different culture and people. The music said more than the man’s words could have said. It was saying: I am here, and it is normal that I am here.

How could the man working next to the radio decide that there was no problem in putting on loud Hebrew music?

It must have been the fact that the area was now devoid of common Arab life. The informal checkpoint market economy which used to flourish here over a year or so ago during certain times of the day (when laborers passed by) has gone. And, most importantly, there are no Arab taxis anymore. Taxi drivers are usually assertive, talk and shout among each other, fight for passengers. They create life. I still remember that again maybe a year or so ago, soldiers had their little tricks to get the taxis out of the area, by confiscating car keys, or by letting the drivers stand at the checkpoint for a few hours. Now the taxis have to wait in front of the gate of the Wall, and can’t enter the no man’s land.

While trying to imagine what brought the man to put on Hebrew music, I felt this sensation of not so much looking into the past, but watching a historic process. I suddenly realized that annexation and colonization consist of various stages: bringing in the military, taking away existing cultural and street life, bringing in new buildings, and then bringing in another culture. You see the grand historical strokes in front of your eyes. More so, you feel the process in your stomach. As the Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim (the great friend of Edward Said) said on a BBC interview yesterday, music is on the one hand a kind of mathematical achievement and on the other hand can open up all feelings.

A few days ago, in a dry statistical survey, Peace Now revealed that there is no construction halt in the settlements. To the contrary, in the settlements such as Har Gilo and Betar Illit besides Bethlehem and Beit Jala, literally hundreds of houses are being built. Apparently this is done in order to bolster the “Israeli” side of the Wall, and to transform the Wall into a permanent border. The international community is busy with the withdrawal from Gaza, so let’s go full steam ahead in the West Bank. The Peace Now statistics show the cold facts of annexation. It is the historical sensation of hearing a little fragment of out-of-place music which tells the narrative of annexation.

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