Monday, July 1, 2013

How Green Was Their Valley 1

The following superb, Ziomyth-shattering essay, by Australian academic Jeremy Salt*, The Painted Frog of Palestine, deserves the widest possible circulation. It first appeared on June 14 at I'll be serialising it in 3 parts. Here's the first:

"The good news from Palestine is that the 'painted frog' of the Huleh valley is not extinct after all. Recently it turned up again after not having been seen for the past half century. Behind the disappearance of the painted frog stands a much bigger story, the fate of the Huleh valley after the conquest of Palestine by the Zionists and behind that story is the reality behind one of the foundation myths of the Zionists, that of a barren, stagnant and empty land awaiting redemption in the hands of the Jewish people.

 "In the 19th century the Huleh wetlands were one of Palestine's prize natural assets. They were formed over millenia by 3 rivers flowing south into the Huleh valley from their headwaters in Syria, the Hasbani, the Banias and the Liddan. The valley stretched for a distance of about 25 kilometers in length and 6 in width. Its centrepiece was Lake Huleh and its adjoining wetlands, covering an area of about 60 square kilometers, expanding and contracting in tune with the seasons. The lake itself was more than 5 kilometers long and more than 4 wide at its broadest point. The river flow continued southwards into Lake Tiberius and then the Jordan River. The fertile land around the lake provided the surrounding villages and bedouin cultivators with a good living from cereal crops, maize, rice and honey. The lake and wetlands were a nesting and feeding spot for masses of migratory birds. The life beneath the water was just as rich as on the outside.

"Here are descriptions of the Huleh wetlands by the Rev. W.M. Thomson**, an American missionary who visited Palestine in the 1850s to follow in the footsteps of the master but still took detailed notes of everything he saw, the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the crops they cultivated, the glassware and soap they produced in their workshops as well as the flora, the fauna, the valleys, hills, plains and rivers:

'There lies the Huleh like a vast carpet with patterns of every shade and shape and size, thrown down in Nature's most bewitching negligence and laced all over with countless streams of liquid light... The plain is clothed with flocks and herds of black buffalo which bathe in the pools. The lake is alive with fowls, the trees with birds and the air with bees.' ('Unrivalled beauty of the Huleh', p 225)

'The soil of this plain is a water deposit like that of the Mississipi Valley about New Orleans and extremely fertile. The whole country around it depends mainly upon the harvests of the Huleh for wheat and barley. Large crops of Indian corn, rice and sesamun (simsum) are also grown by the Arabs of the Huleh, who are all of the Ghawareneh tribe. They are permanent residents although dwelling in tents. All the cultivation is done by them. They also make large quantities of butter from their herds of buffalo and gather honey and abundance from their bees, The Huleh is, in fact, a perpetual pasture field for cattle and flowery paradise for bees. At Mansura and Sheikh Hazeib I saw hundreds of cylindrical hives of basket work, pitched, inside and outside, with a composition of mud and cow dung. They are piled tier above tier, pyramid fashion, and roofed over with thatch or covered with a mat. The bees were very busy and the whole region rang as though a score of hives were swarming at once. Thus this plain still flows with milk and honey and well deserves the report which the Danite spies carried back to their brethren: 'A place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth.' ('Produce of the land of Huleh', p 253)

'This Huleh - plain, marsh, lake and surrounding mountains - is the finest hunting ground in Syria and mainly so because it is very rarely visited. Panthers and leopards, bears and wolves, jackals and hyenas and foxes and many other animals are found, great and small, while it is the very paradise of the wild boar and the fleet gazelle. As to waterfowl, it is scarcely an exaggeration to affirm that the lower end of the lake is absolutely covered with them in the winter and the spring.' ('Wild animals of the Huleh', p 260)

"Dr Thomson does not mention the painted frogs of Huleh but they must have been there in abundance, breeding in the protection of the rushes, hunted by the pelicans and storks that stopped at the at the lake on their flights from the north. He noted the presence of 'the lilies of the valley' growing amongst the rushes, which in places were so densely entangled with bamboo as to make approaches to the water impenetrable. The Huleh valley was one part of a rich environmental and agricultural mosaic stretching across Palestine. Of course part of it was barren. It still is but one would not say Australia is a barren land because of the Simpson desert or the United States because of the Mojave desert in California. It was not just the fertility of the Huleh valley that took Dr Thomson's attention. He was equally fulsome in his praise of the groves of citrus fruits, the extensive fields of wheat and barley grown along the seaboard right down to Gaza and the grapes and olives of the interior. His descriptions are corroborated in numerous other contemporary accounts, which stand as the most effective rebuttal of the central myth of the barren land.

To be continued...

[*Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and the author of one of the best accounts of  the history of Western intervention and meddling in the Middle East: The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Disorder in Arab Lands (2008); **The Land & the Book, 1879]

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