Shalom, Peace, Salaam

I spent the summer of 1993 in Rome, Italy, immersing myself in the study of art, with site trips to Florence, Sienna, Venice, Milan, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples, to name but a few of the rich artistic and cultural crucibles that date back to Etruscan/Greco-Roman epochs. The focal point of my scholarly research focused on architecture, mosaic art, sculpture, landscape architecture, tapestries, fresco, tempera, and oil paintings. Casa Kolbe, a remodeled sector of a 15th century Franciscan friary (located in the vale that serves as the demarcation line between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills), was the epitome of ospitalia Italiana. This ambiente perfetto in the lap of history and right in the heart of ancient Rome afforded me the quotidian opportunity to view the Fora Imperiale, Teatro Marcello, Foro di Traiano, Monumente Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, and the first century AD Bocca Della Verita (Mouth of Truth) medallion-shaped portrait-face at the entrance to the Basilica Santa Maria en Cosmedin. The most distinctive features of this 5’9”-diameter relief sculpture are the gawking eyes and the gaping mouth which was the ancient’s version of the lie detector. If, upon inserting one’s hand into the cavernous mouth one were to tell a lie, justice would be swiftly administered in the form of a severed hand.

In addition to frequent visits to feast my eyes on Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bernini, Raphael, Carracci, and Bramante masterpieces, my two favorite pilgrimage sites were the Pantheon and St. Peter’s Basilica. Granted special Vatican permission to visit the Vatican Mosaic Institute and the Vatican Gardens and armed with a 35mm camera and a dozen 36-exposure Kodak Chrome film, I spent an exhaustive day viewing artisans meticulously and painstakingly craft mosaic masterpieces of enduring aesthetic value and roamed, at leisure, the fifty-acre capacious Giardini Vaticani. I spent the better half of the afternoon walking through scores of beautifully manicured, geometrically-shaped flower beds in myriad colors and enjoyed viewing the Grotto, the mosaics, sculptures, fountains, arbors and the full-bloomed white and red fragrant rose arcades that formed intersecting labyrinths of embryonic, cloistered ambulatory spaces. After taking several rolls of film from every vantage point, I sat on a bench in a sequestered sea of floral designs. In the shadow of Michelangelo’s dome and in this, self-contained, solitary setting induced by the circumscribing natural solitude that compels one to revert to contemplative musings, I committed myself to writing copious journal vignettes about a plethora of fresh experiences.

As a follow-up to his Holiness Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel and in response to the invitation he extended to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit the Vatican for a late afternoon Pro Pace Precandi (Prayer for Peace), on Sunday, June 8, 2014, his Holiness officiated the prayer ceremony in the same idyllic setting of the Giardini Vaticani.

A month after my 1993 Italian sojourn I was in a somewhat similar (though infinitely less private and less idyllic) setting on the White House lawn. As one of some 3,000 hopeful attendees of the 1993 signing of the Clinton et al scheme for a Peace Agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, I, like millions around the world, was ecstatic about the prospect of a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, a conflict that had by then caused five major destructive wars since Israel’s creation in 1948 — the direct result of which was the recurring dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral homes. Within a year it became obvious that just as Clinton lied about l’affaire de la fermeture a glissiere, he was peddling the same goods to Arafat. And soon after Rabin’s assassination put the final nail in the coffin of the fledgling peace process, the September 1993 ceremony was exposed for its farcical precision-like theatrical exercise that was fully spiked with vacuous speeches and every platitude in every politician’s playbook.

On that September 13, 1993, the same Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas shook hands as they had recently done at the Vatican on June 8, 2014. Inasmuch as I would like to believe that the “prayer for peace” ceremony might bear some fruit, reality tells me that just as the 1993 ceremony and the too-little too-late wimpy Obama/Kerry efforts are, at best, illusionary and cosmetic, these prayers for peace are not likely to be answered. While God listens, man corks his ears. His Holiness the See, Obama, Kerry and Abbas are living in a wishful, illusionary and surreal world, a world in which peace and justice are negated and nullified by facts on the ground in the form of yet more illegal settlements and the calculating, Machiavellian world in which Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC navigate and concoct their schemes. Shimon Peres, the 535 Congressional lackeys, and the Christian Zionists are the supporting characters in this sordidly shameful, bigoted, and hypocritical theater of the absurd.

Soon after Abbas and Peres’ June 8, 2014, synchronized arrival and Pontifical welcome in the lobby of his Holiness’s Vatican residence unfolded, Abbas and Peres hugged each other like long-lost famiglia. A short ride in the pontifical van transported the aged host and his equally ancient guests to the Vatican Gardens whereupon the entourage was led to a rectangular lush green space around whose perimeter were rows of seats for the invited guests, most of whom were members of the clergy representing the three Abrahamic faiths. In between three sets of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers (in Hebrew, Italian, English and Arabic) proffered by three representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths, respectively, a Jewish string quartet, a Christian harpist, and a Palestinian violinist performed three profoundly heartrending compositions befitting this august historic occasion. The nine compositions’ sepulchral elicitations were charged with elegiac and funereal overtones that seemed to echo the painful wailing of generations of the suffering and oppressed. In this perfectly peaceful and serene setting one could hear the earnest pleas for peace and harmony enunciated in fitting solemnity and a deep yearning fully affirmed and amplified by brilliant virtuosos whose talents and hands gave the world Edward Munch Scream-like cries on behalf of the weak, the widows, the orphans, the suffering, the dispossessed and the outcasts.

The well-conceived and smoothly choreographed ceremony accomplished the following: Pope Francis invited the Patriarch of Constantinople and leader of Orthodox Christianity Primus inter Pares (1st among equals), His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, to serve as co-master of ceremonies, and it was thus as much a celebration of the reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and perhaps a subtle message to Turkey’s Erdogan about his moving Turkey away from secularism and a nod in favor of the oppressed Palestinian Orthodox Christians; the Jewish rabbis’ statements/selections from the Torah made repeated references to justice, peace and to Jerusalem as the historic seat of Judaism; acknowledging Islam’s affinities with Judaism and Christianity, Abbas stated that Jerusalem is the place were Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice and ascended to heaven, and that Jerusalem is also the site of two of Islam’s holiest shrines and the location of the Prophet’s ascendance into heaven, thus laying equal claim to Jerusalem; a member of the Pax Roman Curia and chairman of the Pontifical Council on Peace and Justice, African (Ghana) Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson’s emphasis on the “oppressed,” the maltreatment of “immigrants,” a “return to Jesus’ teachings” and “the demand for an accounting of every sin” was no doubt a direct reference to the treatment of immigrants in Europe, the exploitative wars that are currently waged in North and Central Africa, and especially Israel’s racist treatment of and xenophobic sentiments towards African immigrants and their mass incarceration and deportation; perhaps as a way to give voice to Palestinian Catholic and Melkite Christians and to acknowledge their plight and suffering at the hands of the Israelis, a Palestinian Christian woman and Jerusalem’s Palestinian Catholic Bishop, William Shomali, were included in the list of Christian supplicants; his Pontifical Holiness’ plea to “tear down the wall of enmity” was no doubt an outright criticism of Israel’s Apartheid Wall of Separation, a monstrous 25 ft. high concrete Wall of Separation he just recently saw for himself and a wall at which he prayed; one of the Palestinian Muslim imams lifted his prayer “for justice” and made a supplicant’s plea to the Almighty to touch the heart of the “unjust aggressors … and to [strengthen] the weak and dispossessed … your humanity … in your land, O Lord.”

Abbas’ introduction by the Vatican Radio announcer as the President of the State of Palestine (as compared to official US and Israeli government and media references to him as President of the Palestinian Authority) was no doubt a comment directed at Washington and its Israeli masters. How ironic it is that Abbas is a defanged President of an authority that has miniscule to nil authority over the destiny of Palestine and her people. In fact, Abbas is, at best, the corrupt Trustee of the two largest open air prisons in the world (West Bank and Gaza), bowing to the wishes of his Israeli masters and their American Congressional house servants and their field hands Obama/Kerry/Clintons. Perhaps because a total of 13 prayers (including the two presidents’ and their two Holinesses’ prayers) I felt that the prayers for peace, no doubt entreated in earnest and genuine supplication, were occasionally protracted, pedantic, redundant, and resorted to clichés.

For years now the grandfatherly Shimon Peres has been hailed as a man of peace and an Israeli statesman, and he’s been showered with international praise and lauded with accolades and a vision for two states, “side by side, living in peace.” If anything, and with Peres’ acquiescence and tacit approval, the Israelis have been gobbling up Palestine in ever larger chunks. And for years now the Israelis have been playing the good cop (Peres/labor) bad cop (Sharon/Netanyahu/likudnics) charade to full advantage. In his personal remarks Peres affirmed that Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people, he stated: “I experienced war and I tasted peace. All my life I shall never stop to act for peace.” Really? Pray, tell, in what ways has he worked for peace? Instead of just tasting Pace, he should have aggressively embraced and pursued the arduous task of Pacificazione.

I proffer the following: the ceremony concluded with the symbolic planting of an olive tree, a symbol of peace and, ironically, the Palestinian national tree, and a staple upon which the lives of millions of Palestinians depend. Soon after his Holiness left occupied Jerusalem for Rome, over 1,500 olive trees were uprooted by the Israelis in the Bethlehem vicinity, a short distance from the graffiti-inscribed Wall of Separation at which his Holiness prayed. Has Shimon Peres, the Man of Peace, condemned this senseless crime against God, nature and man? Has he condemned the ongoing weekly uprooting of tens of thousands of olive and fruit trees, the poisoning of wells, and the burning of crops on a massive scale in occupied Palestine? Has he condemned the arrest and torture of Palestinian children, some as young as five years old? Has he condemned the open, matter-of-fact Israeli Knesset and Netanyahu’s public cabinet discussions/debates on “the transfer of Palestinians” (a euphemism for ethnic cleansing) and the “Annexation of the West Bank”? Has he condemned the weekly defacing of mosques and churches and the spraying of graffiti on the Church of the Dormition which declared that “Jesus is a monkey”? Has he condemned the daily shootings and arrests of Palestinian civilians of all ages and their incarceration for years without charges? Has he condemned the malicious demolition of Palestinian homes to make room for more Jewish settlements? Has he condemned the deliberate destruction of Palestinian social institutions and infrastructure? Has he condemned the Jews-only highways, the Wall of Separation, the rabid racism, and the apartheid policies in the only democracy in the Middle East? Has he condemned the infamous check points, intimidation, humiliating strip searches, and the Bantustans his government has been creating since 1967?

Idealism, faith, and a belief in the goodness of humanity lead me, Im yirtzeh ha Shem, A Dio piacendo, God willing, Insha’Allah, to believe that these prayers have a chance of being answered and that peace will finally be delivered to Jerusalem, the city pf peace, as acknowledged by the three Abrahamic faiths. However, experience, realism, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and perhaps a cynical realization acquired after witnessing years of broken promises and dashed hopes tell me that this is another Sisyphean waiting-for-Godot-style dress rehearsal, a kind of wishful palliative in a last ditch face-saving effort to grant Palestinians a measly morsel of what is rightfully theirs. Yes, God listens, yet man corks his ears, and he gridlocks his tiny brain.

If his Holiness Pope Francis were to invite the Clintons, Bush the Inferior, Obama, Kerry, Peres, Netanyahu and Abbas to visit the Bocca della Verita, I wonder which of these characters’ hands will go unscathed?

And finally, the most telling and most moving experience of the entire ceremony were the nimble fingers of the Palestinian violinist whose beloved instrument articulated a hundred years of perpetual Palestinian suffering and agony at the hands of foreign occupiers, a moving dirge that shrieked millions of cries and melodies of the deep, despondent anguish and excruciating painful screams of Palestinian men and women of all ages, and especially the enduring pain of the innocent youth robbed of their juvenescence, their dignities, their identities, their hopes and their futures, the birthright of every child on the face of this earth. And each time this remarkable virtuoso played a new melody, I felt as though the Palestinian flora and fauna were signaling their distress in a dejectedly morose cacophony of abysmally hopeless gloominess. And it was as though this maestro’s tragic notes, these metaphorical rocks, emanating from the collective pathos, that wilderness, that tragedy called Palestinian Diaspora, filtered through the artist’s nimble fingers to release the pent up agonies of a hundred years of suffering, much like the young stone-throwing Palestinian children’s rocks ejected at a monstrously brutal occupier. These melodies are a rebuke pitched at an apathetic world to remind its citizens of the despair of the dispossessed people of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, the Congo, Nigeria, and other locales where the exploitative greedy Droners leave a scorched humanity to fend for themselves in an on-going and profound yearning to journey to their promised lands.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. He can be reached at:

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.