Among the many rituals I practised as a teenager to ward off both the disturbances of adolescence and the violations of living in occupied territory, I developed an enduring obsession with paganism. Having no taste at the time for its local variants—djinns, ifrits and ghouls felt rather outmoded—I hunted for other beliefs, ones that came from lands unlike my own. Palestine was in the full force of its Second Intifada, the uprising that took place in the early 2000s. Many of us felt helpless and desperately needed to order the chaotic landscape of the West Bank into an enchanted and luxurious forest.
I dived into manuals of magic and neo-pagan handbooks, leafed through countless,dog-eared pages of pseudo-scientific works, and lumbered through footnotes upon footnotes of mystical theories. They were all poetic and nonsensical but it did not matter: I was spellbound. They hinted at ways of acting on the world that I had never thought possible. Lines in the ground traced powerful symbols to follow; energies abounded in hoards to harness; witches were abroad to ride with.One old book had a tantalising effect on me. It contained instructions on ways to summon the genies of places. I started cherry-picking from those books whose aesthetics spoke best to me. I kept my own syncretic book of shadows. I wrote messages in runes, and invented prayers to nature that were half Wiccan and half Greek Orthodox; I tried my hand at Thelemic mysticism and Sufi practices. I gradually developed my own personal spirituality.
My uncle loved Cremisan and its Salesian monastery, located on the border with Jerusalem. He would take us on long walks in the hills and into the woods. It was a necessary escape, a literal breath of fresh air, as Cremisan remains one of the last green areas near Bethlehem.
As a child, I could not go there by myself. So when we walked among the hills with him, I would sneak away for a few minutes every time. That was enough to try out my makeshift magical skills. It never worked: no gnome came prancing out of the rocks to dispense much-needed advice; no sylph dived from the blue sky to whisper the mysteries of the heavens; no dryad ever walked out of the forest to show me the path to the hidden splendours of the earth. The valley would bask in quiet radiance nonetheless. Far removed from the world, Cremisan was a garden blessed and protected by magic. It taught me the fullness of the meaning of place.
The green valley was the perfect playground for magic. I would be hard-pressed to find a better place to call uponthe faeries of nature: its lands and forests, haloed in mystery and grandeur,stretched all the way to the edge of my world. The Cremisan gatekeeper sometimes seemed a man, at other times a woman, while his ancient, prophetic face was fixed atop the body of a child. The golden light played tricks on the thick forest of evergreens and the olive terraces.Intermittent deer would sometimes come to rest in the occasional glade.The first time I read The Lord of theRings, I imagined Lothlórien, the golden forest realm, protected from the forces of evil by Galadriel’s magic powers, to be basically Cremisan with maybe a fewearly English spires added in for local colour.
Once, in spring, we stumbled upon a vast carpet of flowers. I was a child still, and full of awe at the fragrant continent of poppies, anemones, hollyhocks, and tulips sprawling before me. I had never seen anything like it. I realise today that it must have been but a small island of flowers, a few square metres wide at best, with only a few accidentally-colourful shrubs here and there, butit endures in my anxious mind as a place of repose, where flowers of different seasons coexist in discreet splendour: a place I often go back to in my mind.
I never managed to find this land of wonders again. My childhood imagination, starved of colour, must have made it all up. A few years later, as I was looking for it, fearing the continent of flowers would disappear forever not only from the physical world but also from my mind, I buried a white candle and a piece of paper on which I had scribbled a few intimate words under a pine tree. It all felt very fancy at the time and, ever since that moment, Cremisan seemed untouchable to me. The valley was enclosed within an invisible geodesic dome—a sanctuary immune to change.
It is difficult for people my age to remember what Palestine looked like without the separation wall. It is a marginal but powerful effect of the occupation that it brutally reshapes our concept of space and unhinges our feeling of belonging. The occupation lays waste to crops and landscapes; it drills into hills and wadis to build settlements; it pumps ground water at a frenetic pace. The wall itself is as much an ecological catastrophe as it is a human one. The landscape will never be the same.
The first order tracing a part of the separation wall in the Cremisan Valley was issued in 2006. Orders followed orders and appeal files piled upon appeal files and endless court sessions. The wall slithered around Cremisan countless times, trying to settle on the most adequate route and military jeeps started patrolling the path that led into the woods. In 2006, I was seventeen. Ever since then, I have anxiously waited for the valley, its convents and monasteries, to vanish into thin air.
The struggle involves all the communities around Cremisan. The separation wall is an economic, social, and ecological devastation. Beyond its imaginary effect on the people of the surrounding villages, it destroys possibilities of space and community.
As an act of protest against the construction of the wall, the priests of Beit Jala held outdoor masses every Friday over the past few years. Like clockwork, believers and activists gathered near the altar built for the occasion on one of the terraces of the green valley at five in the afternoon. As the sun started to set, they chanted the Pater Noster in Arabic. At those specific moments, the magical protection of Lothlórien felt right at their fingertips, raining over the Israeli settlement of Gilo, which bites into the terraces on the other side of the valley.
Cremisan crystallises the conflict between a worldview wherein nature is at the centre of life—as loving friend, respectable foe or destructive force, it does not matter—and one of Cartesian control and disregard for it. Those who build walls tend to fancy themselves taskmasters and conquerors of nature. For Cremisan is only an extreme example of the disappearing places of the world; in the context of rampant neoliberalism and heightening contempt for the ongoing ecological catastrophe, the struggle of the green valley is universal.
In 2008, in Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape,Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh imagined that, in the hills near Ramallah where his ancestor Abu Ameen once resided, there now hovers an “ephemeral figure like a wild fowl or a pale god of the hills.”Shehadeh created a genius of the place because there are none left to protect us. Perhaps Abu Ameen has indeed become a winged god looking over the vanishing hills of the landscape he so loved.
There are no genii loci to summon in Cremisan. If they ever existed, surely they decided to find better, more peaceful havens elsewhere. Much like Raja Shehadeh does, perhaps it is time for us to create our own genii for eachvanishing place.
Soon, perhaps,Cremisan will have this space for meditation built by Elias and Yousef Anastas,inspired both by a medieval tower and a Palestinian countryside shelter, the ubiquitous mantour, facing up to all the signs of hypermodern defiance towards nature. The stone tower points to what used to exist and to what needs to be preserved.It is not a refusal of progress; nor does it fetishise imaginary authenticity or indulge indelusional nativism.
Palestinians know better than most that to preserve is not to enclose objects in hermetic capsules, choking the life out of them, rather it is to reactivate spaces that are in danger of desolation, to hand them back to life; a ritual, as it were, to summon the protective genies of place once again. While We Wait’s gestation is in the V&A, where it was commissioned, but its life beginsin the occasional glade under the big Cremisan sky.Some will play football near it; others will hold interfaith prayers in the tower;perhaps a deer will come to rest in its shade. In bountiful Cremisan, the tower can and will serve many a purpose.
Cremisan will be destroyed. There is little doubt left about it. Yet, somewhere in its radiance, a candle and a piece of paper where I once wrote a secret will lie buried in the fertile soil. And there, in this delicate stone shelter, we will wait and we will testify that all the vanishing isles of the world did indeed once exist.