Tales from the compass

Clocks: a universal sundial, with a compass. Engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Clocks: a universal sundial, with a compass. Engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

North was not always the “default” or “top” cardinal direction on the compass. At various times, south and east were, too, depending on who was doing the orientating. (And there’s another clue in the word “orient” – when you orientate yourself, the implication is that you are setting yourself according to the east, or via the rising sun. When you disorientate, you lose the east, as Salman Rushdie wrote in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.”)

In Arabic, the word “shimaal” means left, but it also means north – which if you are facing east, makes sense. Similarly, the country Yemen takes its name from “yameen,” which is Arabic for “right.” Yemen is in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula – which of course, when facing east, is on the right.

Linguistically, the words “east” and “west” are conceptually linked to the pattern of days – not only in Indo-European languages, but also Semitic languages. “East” comes from an Indo-European root that gave us the Latin “aurora” (dawn). “West” comes from an Indo-European root that gave us the Latin “vesper” (evening). Similarly, “orient” comes from the Latin for “to rise,” while “occident” (an archaic term for the West) comes from the Latin “to cut down,” which describes the movement of the setting sun.

The same is true in Arabic and Hebrew. The word “east” in Arabic is “sharq,” coming from a root word that means “to rise”; in Hebrew, it is “mizrach,” which also comes from a root word that gives us the verb “to rise” (it also gives us the Hebrew word for sunrise, which is “zricha.”) West, in Arabic, is “gharb,” which comes from a root from which the verbs “to leave” or “go down” also derive. And, indeed, the sun does leave us at the end of the day. This is where we get the word “Maghreb” from, too – for North Africa of course lies to the west of the Arabian peninsula. (The same root has also produced the word “ghurba,” which means “exile” – thus inextricably linking the concept with the West. Disorientation, indeed.)

In Hebrew, “west” is “ma’arav,” whose root has also given us “erev” – evening – and, yes, a verb related to the setting of the sun/time of day (accounts vary as to whether it is the verb “to mix,” which would refer to the mixing of day and night, or “to enter,” based on early man’s idea that the sun entered a tent to “sleep” every night).

So next time you are giving directions, especially on the east-west axis, remember that you are not only referring to a physical place, but also a place in time, and the movement of the sun. And remember, too, that each reference to east and west is also a subtle reminder of the passage of time.

Jerusalem: Against the dying of the light


“Do not go gentle into that good night.”

I am sitting in an archway in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, taking a break from guiding a friend who is visiting from the UK. He is smoking a cigarette, and I am photographing the street sign across from us. We are on Misgav Ladakh Street, and as with all street signs in the Old City, the name is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. On this sign, however, the Arabic has been completely covered by two identical stickers featuring a slogan in Hebrew, which translates roughly as “The lives of our soldiers come before the lives of enemies.” On a doorway across from the sign, next to us, the same stickers have been used to spell out – also in Hebrew – “The Lord is King.”

The phrase about soldiers’ lives became popular during the summer, when the country shrouded itself in brute nationalism during Israel’s latest attempt to cripple the Gaza Strip. This message, and many others like it, appeared on posters, banners and bumper stickers throughout the country. What surfaced on social media was even less palatable. The stickers, and their obscuring of the Arabic lettering on the street sign, are a most violent revision by the simplest means. They are a perfect distillation of how oppression against Palestinians works in this country: cover, conceal, remove, rub out. Build a house, knock down a house, plant a tree, place a wall, place a sticker.

Aside from the most recent cycle of ruination in Gaza, nowhere is this methodology currently more evident than in Jerusalem. The city – particularly the East – is under a series of slow-burning sieges that are gradually reaching the end of their fuse: official government settlement plans; unofficial settler takeovers of Palestinian property; the entire ethos of Elad, Ateret Cohanim, the Temple Mount movement and their ilk; street-level thuggery perpetrated by fascist groups such as Lehava; house demolitions; racist vandalism; night-time round-ups and arrests, including of children.

Two attacks on or near the Jerusalem light rail, which left four dead, and the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick – a leading figure in the Temple Mount movement – by, respectively, Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudi, Ibrahim al-Akri and (suspected) Muataz Hejazi resulted in the killing of all three men by Israeli security forces, sparking demonstrations in East Jerusalem. The city’s totemic position as the final resting place of Jewish history is cloaking it in an ever-thickening smog, under which the streets are seething: the soundscape of the city is now pockmarked with helicopters and gunfire; Israeli security forces are amassed at every corner; and a tautness hangs in the air, clinging to one as if walking through cobwebs. Jerusalem is gradually being blinded by its own unreachable significance, and it has the capacity to blind the rest of the country, too. ———————————————————–

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Jerusalem has grown on me like a second skin. There is something about the city that opens and closes me; I am not always consciously aware of it, but it is in the soles of my feet when I walk, in my mouth when I speak, and behind my eyes when I think. When something snags at this new layer to draw my attention to it once more, I find myself able to focus on little else. My heart is torn and mended each time I am there, and often when I am observing from afar. All the conflict and contradictions Jerusalem contains provide the epitome of an earlier musing I had about living in this land: that being here is like walking on broken glass in a cave of wonders.

So it is on this afternoon under an archway in the Jewish Quarter that I gaze on a crude, obstructive slogan and feel a dark cloud settle over the extraordinary light of this city. As I am busy digesting this familiar crushing sensation, a small group of people appears next to the street sign. My friend and I hear the tour guide translate the Hebrew slogan into English, explain how racist it is, and then finish with the words: “As a Jew, I find this deeply offensive.” Then he peels off both stickers and the Arabic is visible again; a most profound reparation by the simplest means. A crack of light, and my heart hurts less.

Later, my friend and I are making our way back down from the roofs of the Christian Quarter, after bathing in the cross-weave of multiple calls to prayer from the minarets that encircle us. The sun has set, but there is still enough light to be able to see a sticker on an electricity box that we walk past on St Mark’s Lane. It reads, in Hebrew and Arabic (addressed to a man): “Don’t even think about going with a Jewish woman!” It is a slogan of the above-mentioned fascist anti-miscegenation group Lehava, which actively works to prevent and disrupt intermarriage between Arabs and Jews – specifically Arab men and Jewish women.

We have already seen this sticker countless times during our day in Jerusalem; on this occasion, however, someone has already tried to tear it off. I think about the tour guide from earlier, and take courage once again from how the smallest act of decency from an enlightened individual can pierce the fog. Jerusalem seems to be paralysed under endless black skies, but there may just be enough humanity and history in the city to make its heart beat again. The light here is ancient, and it will not go gently into the night.



Quotations taken from “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas