“Solomon’s Stone”: Theater of the Absurd in Occupied Jerusalem

Ramzi Maqdisi’s black-comedy short, “Solomon’s Stone,” could be considered a parable of present-day Jerusalem and the nationalistic politics fueling the violent dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians, occupier and occupied. (The source material is the poem “The Blue Light” by the late Hussein Barghouti, which was adapted for the screen by Maqdisi, who also serves as lead actor and director; the producer is Iyas Juabeh, and the production company is Quds Art & Quds Arts Films.)

Our protagonist Hussein receives notification of a mail package awaiting his pickup. Upon arriving at the post office, he learns that he must pay $20,000 to retrieve the mysterious parcel. Transfixed by what it might contain, Hussein sells the home he shares with his mother (despite her protestations) to cover the fee. The much coveted package turns out to be a big heavy crate, from which he extracts a simple rectangular block of beige stone, reminiscent of the cut stone on display in all of Jerusalem’s ancient monuments, which appear throughout the film. Despite the fact that he appears to have been the unsuspecting victim of a cruel hoax, Hussein is convinced that there is a story behind the stone. He chips off a small piece from the block and takes it to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to have it analyzed by an archeologist. Another $500 later, Hussein learns that the stone block is no rare or ancient artifact and overnight, he becomes the butt of the city’s jokes, the buffoon who sold his home for a rock. Even the Israelis mock him.

But Hussein is undefeated: short of finding the story “behind the stone,” he invents it. He pores over dozens of books and comes up with a riveting tale going back millennia: the stone was special to the Jebusites and came down to the Jewish kings, David and Solomon, after whom it was named. The stone block was also part of the foundation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and was unknowingly used by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to construct the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. In the 20th century, it was the object of archaeological hunts by the British, the Jordanians, and the Zionists. Lost in the desert for 40 years, the stone was found by a nomad in the Sinai and brought to us!

Hussein and his side-kick brand it the “Holy Stone” and put it on display as a tourist attraction at a fee. This leads to sidesplitting humor. “Feel the energy,” Hussein’s comrade implores the gullible tourists, who snap photos and light candles. “Everyone has touched it,” he adds, including Moses and Jesus. “No flash,” he cautions. Instead “close your eyes” and “meditate.” When a woman approaches the stone and rubs it: “Ask God to give this girl a child, please. Yeah. Feel the energy.”

Of course, this is occupied East Jerusalem and nothing goes without Israel’s notice. Heavily armed Israeli police descend on the tourist destination in the middle of the night, round up Hussein, and accuse him of stealing “the heritage of the State of Israel.” Hussein pleads that the Israeli authorities have told him the stone was worthless, but his interrogator further accuses him of being a “thief.” Hussein offers the authorities the stone in exchange for getting back his home—or else, he will spill the beans that the stone is a worthless artifact. The Israelis finally relent, and Hussein regains his home.

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(Ramzi Maqdisi, left, and Kamel Basha)

This short film – all of 25 minutes – is packed with symbolism. The post office, in the city’s mainly Arab half, is staffed by Arabs, but a banner of Israeli flags hangs across the front desk. When Hussein enters a café and asks for Arabic coffee, the Israeli barista looks completely puzzled. A moment later, drinking something other than Arabic coffee, Hussein is sitting in front of a window with another Israeli flag in the background. Visiting the office of a professor at Hebrew University, Hussein sits next to a map of Ancient Israel, also called Greater Israel by ultra-nationalist Zionists. Everywhere are signs of Arab East Jerusalem’s increasing Judaization, Israel’s effort to stamp a Jewish-Israeli identity over the entire city and erase its Arab-Islamic and Christian heritages.

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(Hussam Jwiles, left, and Ramzi Maqdisi)

The Israeli authorities’ display of force over a block of stone is an apt summation of the politicization of archaeology in the city, such that every stone must be branded as the heritage of Israel no matter its origins and history– never mind that the whole story is a fabrication. This of course reinforces the idea that Jerusalem is a uniquely Jewish city and that everything else – the diversity of the city’s history as reflected in Hussein’s mythological narration – is incidental to its Jewish character.

The symbolism of Hussein recovering his home cannot escape anyone familiar with the politics of Palestinian housing in the city. Israeli laws make it nearly impossible for Palestinian Jerusalemites to build or expand their living quarters, forcing many to build without a permit. Israel responds to this by demolishing Palestinian homes, on the grounds that it is enforcing zoning laws – a claim that is belied by the discriminatory allocation of housing permits among Israeli and Palestinian families, to say nothing of illegal Israeli settlers taking over Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem.

That Hussein is able to wrest his home from an Israeli state otherwise busy destroying Palestinian homes is the coup de grâce in this skillfully crafted film. As he walks by the new Israeli exhibit featuring “King Solomon’s Stone” along the walls of the Old City, it is Hussein who has the last laugh. In the surreal world of Israeli occupation — where archaeology is a matter of state policy in the service of nationalism, where the state seeks to make one-third of the population invisible, and where building on your land or on top of your home invites the state’s bulldozers but building on stolen Palestinian land is blessed by the same state – the sheer perseverance of the Palestinians is breathtaking. Overwhelmed by the police power of the Israeli state, a Palestinian can do no more than laugh at the absurdity that surrounds him. In this scenario, the joke’s on Israel.

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(Quds Art and Quds Art Films)

SOLOMON’S STONE Official Trailer #1 (2015) حجر سليمان from QUDS ART Films on Vimeo.

Review by Khelil Bouarrouj.

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