Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 36, 89
Death, a Flag, and Resurrection
By Brother Patrick White
"Jesus! Jesus!" Bassam, the university gatekeeper cried, as he hurried toward us. Excitedly he pointed to the sky as we walked toward the university main gate. "Look, look!" he insisted again in Arabic. "Jesus!"
Our minds had been intent on the game of tennis we were about to play as we strode toward the university tennis courts. Now my mind raced with questions. Was this an apparition? Had Bassam become a victim of hallucination? Was he trying to tell us that something special had happened on the great feast of El-Fitr, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan? Perhaps miracles still take place in the Holy Land?
We turned and scanned the sky in the direction in which Bassam was pointing. We searched the deep blue and then gazed blankly back at the gatekeeper. Clearly he was frustrated. Our limited Arabic, his broken English, made communication difficult. He gestured to us to walk away from the tall walls of the university building until we had an unimpeded view of the sky beyond. "Jesus!" he cried again, gesticulating with renewed hope.
The, "Ah!" we sighed simultaneously in wonder.
"How on earth did they get up there?" my tennis partner exclaimed. Bassam beamed with satisfaction.
The Palestinian flag held firmly in the hand of the child Jesus on the top of the university clock tower fluttered in the spring breeze. This was a small flag, well proportioned in relation to the size of the statue and now placed on the highest point in Bethlehem. As we stared up at the flag we heard the menacing rattle of an approaching Israeli helicopter. It swung low over the university buildings. We wondered whether the flag had been seen. If it had, the military governor would be on the telephone or troops would be sent round immediately.
Display of the Palestinian flag is outlawed and even its possession is illegal according to the military orders of the occupying Israeli army. How many times had we seen the red, white, black and green Palestinian flag on the tops of trees, buildings, telegraph wires and electric cables, painted on walls, inscribed in students' notebooks and drawn into their pictures in art classes?
Back in 1976, when Bethlehem University was in its infancy, Brother Joe, the president, had dealings with flags and military governors. As an American and new to the situation of military occupation on the West Bank, he had much to learn. One day as he worked in his office the telephone rang. The sharp authoritative voice of the Israeli governor stated flatly:
"We don't like flags."
"Oh!" replied Brother Joe in complete confusion.
"There's a flag on your roof and you have three minutes to get it down," snapped the governor.
Students had forced open the doors onto the roof. The president of the university had to climb up and get the flag down. Instinctively, he folded the flag and treated it with respect. Later in the day, another flag went up which Brother Joe again took down. Finally a third and larger flag, which to the delight of Palestinians could be seen from Jerusalem, was placed high on the dais with the statue of the boy Jesus. Not having the agility of a steeple-jack or the mountaineer's head for heights, Brother Joe wisely refrained from scaling the bell tower. The army arrived and a confrontation began, ending with the removal of the flag from the tower.
Now, 16 years later, the flag was back, held even higher in the Christ child's hand. The Palestinian flag quite obviously is a symbol of a people's resistance to oppression and to the intent of the Israeli military and political administration to crush and drive the Palestinians out of their rightful heritage and patrimony.
A few days after the end of Ramadan and the episode of the flag in the hand of the boy Jesus, news reached the university campus that Palestinian Resident Yasser Arafat was missing in his aircraft in the Libyan desert. Palestinian students on campus were silent and subdued, anxiously listening to their radios. In the town there were disturbances, shooting, and tear gas. The soldiers were out in force.
Once the news came over the radio that Arafat was safe, there was general rejoicing. Palestinian flags appeared on buildings and there were spontaneous celebrations in the streets. Chocolates, a Palestinian sign for rejoicing and congratulations, were distributed by members of the student senate to staff and students. At the time I was teaching about the metaphysical poets in my poetry class and we were analyzing George Herbert's poem, Easter Wings. The students could not help but see the theme of death and resurrection, so beautifully presented in the poem, taking place in the events of the day.
The event was not without shared anxiety in the classroom. One of the students reported that he was passing the Lutheran church in Bethlehem with a graduate whom we all knew well. The Israeli troops and border police forced them at gunpoint against the walls of the church and ordered them to climb on the roof of the church to take down a Palestinian flag.
The two Palestinian young men had protested that they had nothing to do with placing the flag on the tower. The soldiers let the student from my class go, since he argued that he had lessons, but the graduate was forced up onto the slippery slate roof. He arrived two hours later at the university. He was visibly shaken, explaining that the flag was on one of the towers and there was a strong wind. He shouted to the soldiers that it was dangerous and he could not reach the flag. They replied that they had all the time in the world.
Walking the apex of the high church roof in the blustery winds, his life clearly endangered, he fortunately found a length of rope to negotiate the tower on which the flag was fastened. Shattered and weak with fear, he gave the Israeli soldiers the flag. They poured petrol on it and burned it in the street.
My handbook describing literary terms distinguishes symbol from signs. Symbol, it explains, is more complex. A symbol sums up a large number of ideas and attitudes. For the Palestinians, their flag is asking for them to be free. Free to move, to think, to carry a Palestinian passport. Free to express and communicate their identity, their culture and history. Free to live on the land they have cherished and owned for centuries, to raise their families and follow their way of life.
Then there is the obvious irony. Jews have suffered so much and now have their flag, the flag of Israel. And yet through their military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza they inflict the same oppression from which they suffered, a form of genocide, on the Palestinians.
Our eyes kept returning to the flag on the university clock tower.
Staff members from the French and Belgian consulates, Palestinians and Beit Sahour, an Englishman and an American played tennis that afternoon of the feast. As we served and volleyed, lobbed and smashed, our eyes kept returning to the flag on the university clock tower.
The flag is down now, but I glance involuntarily at the statue that held the flag whenever I step outside. The sentiments and feelings it symbolized have not changed.
A few days before the Latin Easter, the student who saw his companion forced to risk his life on the Lutheran church gave me a poem he had written addressed to the young man who had to scale the roof. Now, as I sit at my desk, lines from the poem echo in my mind:
"I think of nobody, except
My friend who is facing the wind. . .
Do not be sad, my friend
For we shall tell the others." ❑
Brother Patrick White teaches at Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution in the West Bank.