High Irony on Highland Street

Halfway around the world from the bloodshed in Jerusalem is a demonstration.


It was a brief, almost inconspicuous moment in the history of Memphis-- the protest rally of Palestinian natives held last Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the corner of Highland and Poplar.

Except for some Arab dress here and there, a red-white-black-and-green Palestinian national flag or two, and-- most notably-- a banner declaiming that “Israelis Kill Children,” this well-behaved group of men, women, and children attracted less attention than a group of high schoolers haling down cars for a fundraising car wash might have.

At peak, about ten minutes after the rally started, the demonstration numbered perhaps 40. Two of those were moustachioed, polite men in Western clothes named Hayel Mausour and Maher Taha, both residents of Memphis for the last twenty years.

Masour owns a couple of gas stations, Taha a camera store. Both are doing quite well in Memphis, thank you, and neither is contemplating a return to Palestine (you will never, but never, hear one of these exiles referring to his homeland as anything else, even if his part of it is now formally joined to Israel).

Why are they demonstrating here on this warmish Friday afternoon in fall when there are other things, most of them more recreational, to do?

To even meditate on such a question is not to understand the Palestinian mind, which burns more or less constantly for a national redemption which has not-- and may never-- come. On the other side of the world, in that sliver of desert territory which begat the major religions of the Western world, the near kin of Masour and Taha and these other demonstrators are in a virtual state of war with the Israeli Army.

Rocks against tanks, they say. They are asked about the shocking televised scene of an Israeli soldier being dropped out of a West Bank window to undergo, whether living or dead, a prolonged stomping by an enraged mob. Another Israeli soldier was reportedly stabbed to death, yet another burned.

”These were mourners who were at the funeral of a Palestinian in Ramallah who had been beaten, burned, and killed by Jewish settlers,” Mausour explains. “We do not justify their violence, but we understand it.”

It all started, says Taha, when Israeli General Ariel Sharon showed up with an armed entourage at the holy site in Jerusalem called Temple Mount by the Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims and revered as one of the holiest of their holy places. “Never before had Israelis come to the place. The Wailing Wall, which is nearby, yes, but not there.”

Was not Temple Mount so-called by the Jews because it is believed to be the site of their ancient ruined temple? Would this fact not entitle a Jew, even the alleged provocateur Sharon, to visit there?

”That is the past! Thousands of years ago, if at all. The past should be forgotten!” says Taha.

Perhaps it is difficult for the Israelis to forget the past, since so much of it, even very recently, involves persecution and destruction. “We do not condone what Hitler did. But we do not want it done to us!” He claims that the Palestinian people, the native Muslim Arabs who lived in Palestine under the Turks and the British had suffered some 500,000 casualties since 1948, when Israel was established and the land was partitioned between Jew and Arab and the first of several wars began.

If the past is past, why cannot these transplanted Palestinians themselves forget, the two men are asked.

”Let me tell you a story,” says Hayel Masour, and he gives a lengthy account of an Arab traveler on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, finding a winding bridge over a chasm leading to a rocky promontol where, he was told, there was a university of sorts being conducted by Palestinian refugees.

The story makes several points. It speaks of perseverance, fortitude, and the Palestinian hunger to excel and be educated, to prove itself against obstacles.

”We have learned that the best soldier is an educated soldier!” says a third man, Heshan Habib.

The three men join in a refrain concerning how a people has been thrown out of its homeland, cast into every reach of the world (“We are everywhere!” says Habib), and perseveres through every turn of fate, educating itself and becoming accomplished in its transplant realms as it dreams of its lost beginnings.

It is a story told by Arabs. It could as easily be told by Jews.

After some 40 minutes or so, the Palestinian rally begins to break up, and the people retire quietly to their cars and move on.

Only a few minutes later, a man dressed in a grim reaper costume materializes on the center strip of Poplar, waving his cardboard sceptre at cars and shilling for special Halloween offers in the commercial establishments of Poplar Plaza.

From the beginning, he attracts more attention from passing motorists than had the Palestinians who preceded him on the corner. He is still there as the day grows late, waving. Whether smiling or not is hard to say.

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