If you “keep your ear to the ground” long enough, you may just — occasionally — have revealed to you the very thing you were wondering about. For me, this post represents such a case. For the past few years I’ve been taking people up on top of Mt. Gerizim, both to visit the modern Samaritan village and to explore the impressive excavated remains to be seen nearby. These include, 0n the southern summit, two identifable phases of the ancient Samaritan temple complex that once stood on the spot, plus a large, octagonal Byzantine church that was later superimposed directly on top (see Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov.-Dec. 2010; also, here is an on-line gallery of mine with a few photos of the main archaeological features.)
Once you get up near Gerizim’s summit, the view to the west encompasses, beyond the neat, white houses of the village, a truly striking, lavish construction. One might easily mistake it for a Roman temple — and you’d be nearly right. All I was ever able to glean from the local Samaritans was that it belonged to a member of the Palestinian parliament who was “very rich”, which really went without saying. I never had occasion to dig any deeper, and so left it at that.
Thus a recent article by essayist Uri Avnery immediately caught my attention, since it profiles the man behind the house, the billionaire Palestinian businessman and philanthropist Munib al-Masri. I can think of no better title for this post than the one Avnery gave to his article, which is highlighted herein.
Avnery gives some good historical background on the region and then describes the house itself in some detail: an impossibly ostentatious villa which overlooks Nablus from on high and is said to be the most sumptuous private residence in the entire Middle East. Mostly, though, Avnery tells about the unusual personality behind the house, a story he tells from his personal acquaintance with the man, and with his family, over several decades. And the article is quite timely, since there is talk that al-Masri, although in his late seventies, could become the next Palestinian Prime Minister, presiding over a unity government embracing the various political factions; it is said that in the past he has been offered the post (and turned it down) on at least three occasions.
A couple of interesting aspects of al-Masri’s sprawling estate: He himself says that part of his goal was to prevent the encroachment of ever more Israeli settlement in the area, and thus save this tract of land for Palestinians. Also, it is noted that in the villa’s construction a large, well-preserved Byzantine monastery came to light; thus the modern structure, built directly above, was elevated on massive concrete piers, leaving the ancient remains intact and visible. To me, it all constitutes quite a fascinating story, the rest of which I will let you discover on your own…
Just a word about Uri Avnery: His full bio can be found on-line HERE. The short version: Born in Germany into a middle-class family but largely self-educated, he “made aliya” (emigrated) to British Mandate Palestine in 1933. During his long and colorful life, which spans the entire history of the State of Israel (and much more), he has been a writer, essayist, publisher, photographer, member of the Knesset, and a strong and pointed peace activist. Interestingly, he was once a member of the Irgun, the pre-state Zionist underground organization, however he came to differ strongly with their philosophy and violent tactics, and left. Politically, Avnery wound up on the Zionist-Israeli left — many would say, with some justification, the far left. His storehouse of information and experiences — history (Jewish and otherwise), literature, the Bible, insider connections with regional leaders (Israeli and otherwise), etc., etc. — is vast and impressive. And, he is an excellent writer, always with something interesting to say. In short, the man, in my opinion, has paid his dues and has more than earned a hearing as an authentic Jewish-Israeli voice.
Below, I reproduce the rather lengthy article in its entirety (only because it lacks a direct URL link to its own page). You can easily access the article on-line, though: Go to http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/, where Avnery’s current weekly article appears, and see the chronological archive of titles in the right side-bar.
There is a bit more information on Mr. al-Masri at Wikipedia, along with links to other profiles that have appeared in the media; a Google search turns up several others.
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The Duke of Nablus
THE NAME of Munib al-Masri has recently come up as a possible candidate for Prime Minister of a Palestinian national unity government. Not being a member of either Fatah or Hamas, he is acceptable to both.
Al-Masri himself denies any such ambition. He says that he is too old (77), and that a younger generation of Palestinians should take over.
He also says that he is quite content with his present situation.
And so would you be.
THE WEST BANK city of Nablus nestles in the valley between two tall mountains, Ebal and Gerizim. Mount Gerizim is the more famous one, because it is sacred to the Samaritan people, who believe that God commanded the Israelites to build his temple there. For them, Jerusalem is just an upstart.
Mount Gerizim, 881 meters above sea level, towers 330 meters above the center of Nablus. It is mentioned many times in the Bible. There Jotham, the son of the judge Gideon, made his famous speech comparing politicians to the bramble, a good-for-nothing plant that bears no fruit, has no scent and provides no shade, which agreed to be the king of the trees after all the other trees declined the honor. Perhaps Munib al-Masri agrees with this lesson, which seems strangely relevant in many countries today.
If you walk along the main street of Nablus and raise your eyes to heaven, you see on the top of the mountain an imposing building with a dome. This is the home of al-Masri.
Well, “home” may be slight understatement. Actually, it is the most imposing private residence in Palestine and Israel, if not – as has been claimed – from Morocco to the border of India.
The al-Masri villa is an exact reproduction of Villa Capra, also known as La Rotonda, a unique architectural masterpiece some 60 km from Venice. When you stand in front of the building, you can’t believe your eyes. Actually, you don’t even know where the front is – because it has four “fronts”, all with identical entrances, pillars and steps. When you enter through any one of them, you come to a wide circular foyer, from which all the rooms branch out. In the center stands an ancient Greek statue of Hercules. Over this three-floor-high central space towers the dome.
The marble for the floor and all the other building materials were brought from abroad. An Italian expert has joked that the Palestinian palace looks more like the original, and the Italian palazzo like a convincing copy.
That would have been more than enough. But it isn’t.
All the rooms of the palace are crammed with works of art, collected by al-Masri over some 40 years. They are enough to fill an impressive museum. Paintings from renaissance masters to the moderns, fireplaces from Versailles, classic tables and chairs from Spain, Tapestries from Flanders, chandeliers from Italy, and much, much more. Room after room.
Well, that should be more than enough. But it isn’t.
When excavation work for the foundation started, three small ancient pottery sherds were discovered. The work was stopped and archeological diggings began. The results were staggering: a complete 4th century Byzantine monastery was uncovered. It stands there now with all its rooms, chapels and stables, surrounded by stout pillars on which the entire modern structure rests. One building on top of another.
Enough? Not nearly. The palace is surrounded by a huge estate, greenhouses, olive plantations, a pool and whatnot. But enough of that.
I MET al-Masri, a slim, tall gentleman, some twenty years ago, on one of my visits to Yasser Arafat in Tunis. Al-Masri belonged to the inner circle of the leader, and returned to Palestine with him.
Before that, he had served as a Jordanian cabinet minister and had been accused of helping Arafat and other Fatah leaders escape from Jordan during the bloody “Black September” of 1970.
Side by side with the masterpieces of art, the walls of the palace are covered with hundreds of photos of the owner with his American wife, his sons and daughters, and in the company of world figures. Among them, Yasser Arafat stands out. Al-Masri admires him.
Since that casual meeting in Tunis, I have followed his rare utterances. Every word he has said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have come from me, and vice versa. Our ideas about the solution are very close.
Remarkably, he has remained a man of peace even after tragedy hit his family: on Naqba day, a few months ago, his grandson, who was studying at the American University in Beirut, joined the protesters who came south to the border fence. Israeli troops opened fire, the grandson was hit by a bullet – a prohibited dumdum bullet, he says – which injured his spinal cord, liver and kidneys. The young man is now being treated in the US.
Since finishing the palazzo, al-Masri occupies himself with his many philanthrophies, especially supporting the universities of Nablus, East Jerusalem and Beirut, and his wide-flung businesses. But he remains a passionately political person.
He named the palace “Palestine House” and maintains that his main purpose in building it there was saving the area for the Palestinian people. By building on top of the mountain, he prevented the establishment of an Israeli settlement there. Nablus is already surrounded by a cluster of settlements – some of them belonging to the most extreme neo-fascist tendencies. In one of them resides the rabbi whose book advocates the killing of non-Jewish children in certain circumstances. From these settlements come the Jewish pogromists who regularly set fire to surrounding mosques. Talk about a villa in the jungle! [Ehud Barak's cynical metaphor for the State of Israel in the context of the Arab-Muslim Middle East /tp]
THE AL-MASRI family is one of the most distinguished in the country. Though the name means “the Egyptian”, the family comes originally from the Hejaz, in what is today Saudi Arabia. For centuries, the family has lived in Hebron and Jerusalem and then, for the last two centuries, in Nablus. (Nablus is the Arabic version of Neapolis, the town founded by the Emperor Vespasian some 1940 years ago, after he destroyed the nearby Jewish town of Sichem or Shechem.)
If this were England, Munib al-Masri would be a lord, if not the Duke of Nablus.
My first contact with the family came a few days after the 1967 war. At the time, few people believed that Israel could hold on to the newly occupied territories for more than a few weeks. The general preference was to return the West Bank to the Jordanian king. In the Knesset, I tried to convince the government to enable the Palestinians, instead, to set up a state of their own.
For that purpose, I made the rounds of the local Palestinian leaders, mostly the heads of the great families. One of them was Hikmet al-Masri, Munib’s uncle. I put to all of them in confidence the same question: if you had the choice of returning to Jordan or establishing a Palestinian state, which would you prefer? Their unanimous answer: Palestine, of course.
During a Knesset session, I advertised this fact, which was furiously denied by the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan. In the ensuing debate, this time with the Prime Minister, Levy Eshkol, I said that Dayan was consciously lying. Eshkol defended his minister heatedly, but being the person he was, the next day he sent me one of his chief advisors to ask what evidence I had. The protocol of this conversation, made by the advisor, stated: “There is no difference between deputy Avnery’s information and my own. However, he agrees with me that no Palestinian state without East Jerusalem is possible. Since the Government of Israel has decided to annex East Jerusalem, deputy Avnery’s proposal is impossible to realize.”
When I recounted this to Munib al-Masri last week, he shook his head sadly.
HOW IS it, he asked me, that the Israelis know nothing about the Palestinians, while the Palestinians know so much about the Israelis?
The fact cannot be denied. Israeli schoolchildren learn practically nothing about the people with whom our existence is intertwined. Nothing about Islam, nothing about the Koran, nothing about the glories of Arab history.
Many years ago, in a Knesset debate on education, I put forward the idea that every pupil in Israel learn not only the history of his people – the Jewish or the Arab, respectively – but also the history of the country from ancient days to the present, Canaanites, Israelites, Samaritans, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, Palestinians, British, Israelis, as a way to see what unites us. For some reason, this amused the Minister of Education so much that from then on he called me “the Mameluke”.
As it is, when a young Israeli joins the army at 18, he “knows” only that Islam is a barbaric, anti-Semitic religion, and that the Arabs want to kill him for no reason at all.
Perhaps that is natural. An oppressed people has a great incentive to know about the occupier, but the occupier has no incentive to study the occupied beyond the realm of military intelligence. The more so since an occupier tends to regard the occupied as an inferior race, in order to justify the occupation to the world and to himself.
Every conflict engenders mistrust, prejudice, stereotypes, hatred, demonization. When it goes on for generations, like this one, all these are multiplied. To make peace, they have to be overcome. That’s why people like Munib al-Masri are so important. I wish that every Israeli could meet Palestinians like him.
I also hope he becomes Palestinian Prime Minister, presiding over a cabinet of national reconciliation between the Palestinian factions, ultimately leading to the reconciliation between our two peoples.
UPDATE / AUGUST 2012
Following Mitt Romney’s recent visit to Israel, and the ignorant, racist remarks he made before a Jewish audience there (really, the man should be arrested for pandering), Mr. al-Masri responded with an op-ed piece published in the New York Times/ International Herald Tribune on 03 AUG. (See the complete article on-line HERE.) Al-Masri wrote, in part:
Mr. Romney believes that Israel’s impressive economic growth is because of the country’s strong culture and that the Palestinian economy lags because — implicitly — our culture is inferior.
As one of the most successful businessmen and industrialists in Palestine today (there are many of us), I can tell Mr. Romney without doubt or hesitation that our economy has two arms and one foot tied behind us not by culture but by occupation.
It’s hard to succeed, Mr. Romney, when roadblocks, checkpoints and draconian restrictions on the movement of goods and people suffocate our business environment. It is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of our Palestinian culture that we have managed to do so well despite such onerous constraints.
Another similar response, by Palestinian businessman Zahi Khouri, ran as an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on 09 August; it can be found on-line HERE.
UPDATE / NOVEMBER 2012
David Frost interview with Munib al-Masri (47 minutes). Very interesting.