A Skeleton Key to Stories and Ideas, Legend and Myth
by Krista Tippett, host
When we were in Israel and the West Bank this past spring, the momentum was building for what is now unfolding on the floor of the United Nations — a new approach to Palestinian sovereignty that, depending on whom you listen to, might change everything or might change nothing. Still, while the new energies of the emerging Middle East herald new beginnings with uncertain outcomes, they are bringing a definitive end to the recent status quo.
But “recent” is a relative term, as I palpably experienced in Jerusalem and as Sari Nusseibeh embodies in his person. “Recent” in American minds might be a matter of months, perhaps years. Here it is a matter of centuries. Seeking to understand that profoundly different sense of time and history is the only way we will be able to see the complexity of what is now unfolding — to apply caution where it is needed, hope where it is warranted, and a sense of how we can best care. Sari Nusseibeh’s voice is a gift towards that end.
For starters, he has an utterly fascinating personal story, which contains layers of Arab history now shaping history in the making. The original “Nusaybah" was a female companion — and fellow fighter — of the prophet Mohammad. And sometime after the Muslim entry into Jerusalem in the seventh century, one of Nusaybah’s relatives was appointed the official keeper of the keys to the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, an elaborate ritual of opening and closing the church’s ancient wooden doors with an oversized skeleton key continues, and Sari Nusseibeh’s family remains part of that ritual.
Fast forward 13 centuries, give or take, and his mother’s family lost everything when the state of Israel was created, out of war, in 1948. His father, nevertheless, had an illustrious career as a statesman — as governor of Jerusalem, Jordanian ambassador to London, and Jordanian minister of defense. For, in one of those chapters it is easy to lose sight of the “recent” history of the Middle East — before the watershed year of 1967, when the current and ever-contested borders of Israel and Jerusalem were drawn — the West Bank was a territory administered by Jordan, not Israel.
In the sweep of his memory and experience, then, Sari Nusseibeh provides helpful, necessary context for thinking about the Arab world as it’s evolving in real time today. His perspective concretely addresses current events. But it is the combination of this lived perspective and his philosophical mind that makes his wisdom uniquely illuminating and useful. He sees through current events, through political cycles of turmoil and progress, to the “human evolution” that is necessary for real change to happen. He argues forcefully that this is underway, albeit painfully slowly, and cannot be measured merely in terms of politics and peace processes, either successful or failed.
Sari Nusseibeh’s stories and ideas leave me with so much to think about. And from his unusual vantage point, he adds yet a new layer of complexity to my thinking about the contradictions, perils, and promise of events in this land: the layer of myth and legend and their force in human life. Naming this piece of the picture actually helps bring some of the rest into a more manageable focus. This part of the world, he knows in his bones, brings a special intensity to the human inclination to shape reality as much on the basis of what is imagined as what is real. We must take this seriously as a way human beings make sense and find their ways toward truth. He speaks to the evolutionary possibility in all of our lives, and all of our societies, when he says this of the “legends and myths” that are part of rock-solid reality in his land:
"You have to somehow grow into them, grow out of them, know how to deal with them, live peaceably at them — while at the same time accepting other myths that may conflict with them. But I think it’s happening."
About the embedded photo: A keyholder to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre locks the front door before ceremonially passing the key through a lower portal to a Greek Orthodox priest on the inside. (photo: Trent Gilliss)