admin | May 16th, 2012 – 11:51 am
The glass orbs of Hebron now find themselves along the main avenue in Sambuca di Sicilia, the ancient Arab Zabut. They were mounted last weekend, transforming the avenue into a sort of pre-festival happening. And who mounted them? According to my “sources” in the Sicilian town between Sciacca and Selinunte, a list would be difficult to compile. “Everyone was there, creating an incredible atmosphere, both night and day, including the artisans who participated in the restoration of the Illumination as well as those who had never before been here.”
Hebron… Zabut… the Illumination… I suppose I should provide some background, otherwise it may be difficult to piece together for those who don’t know the previous installments of the story of this Italian Macondo.
And so we start at the beginning. In Sambuca di Sicilia, as in the rest of Italy, there is a patronal feast, the most important of the year. It is the Feast of the Blessed Mother of the Audience, which recalls the miracle that rescued the town from a plague that had spread throughout Sicily in 1575. On the third Sunday of May, Sambuca is completely transformed and devotedly carries out the ceremony as follows: The marble statue of the Blessed Mother, with Baby Jesus, is removed from her place in the apse of the Church of Mount Carmel and brought, via a lengthy ceremony, to the vara [a large, very ornate platform that is carried on the shoulders of dozens of men], which is processed throughout the entire town all through the night, concluding the next morning when the statue reenters the church. It is a festival that involves the whole town, believers and non-believers, and even brings many of its emigrants back to Sambuca.
It was indeed these emigrants who, 120 years ago, funded the Venetian Illumination, consisting of Murano glass blown orbs that adorned the arches along the course of the procession. The Sambucese communities of Chicago, Rockford, Kansas City, Brooklyn, Newark, and New Orleans provided funds, in a collection that renewed the bond between the immigrants in America and their birthplace. It is a story of emigration and suffering, like so many others in Italy that sent millions of its children around the world in search of work, fortune and dignity.
One hundred and twenty years later, the Venetian Illumination had become a mere shadow of its former self. There were no more glass blown orbs, save for a few specimens spared in a warehouse, and the arches were in the worst of conditions. So, why not restore them? Though much easier said than done, the undertaking began last Autumn. The first funds were collected via a lottery, and then by door-to-door which lasted for months. In the meantime, carpenters and electricians, master blacksmiths, students and workers passed the winter evenings in a (cold) workshop repairing the wooden frames, electrical cords and restoring the “tambours” and posts as well as the Triumphal Arch and the arches. Sandpaper, primers and paint were flavored with the evening meal, consisting of potatoes and sausage, pizza, sandwiches and desserts. All of this was the result of the good will of a steadily growing group, much to everyone’s amazement and delight. “We can do it after all,” was the message, without waiting for someone else, or for assistance, and without a miracle.
And the glass blown orbs? Not in Murano glass. A preliminary survey revealed that it was too expensive, and in Venice there wasn’t much interest in redoing work that was done 120 years ago in a very different context. Yet on the other end of the Mediterranean, in a place almost always forsaken by God and by men, in Hebron, the tradition of glass blowing continues. In fact, some say that it was the Venetians, captains of the Mediterranean at that time, who brought the art of glass blowing to Palestine. In Hebron, Al Khalil to the Palestinians, the story is told somewhat differently: Perhaps it was the Romans who brought the art. Nevertheless, the city in the southern part of the West Bank boasts centuries and centuries of tradition and export throughout the Ottoman Empire to which it belonged, including Istanbul. A Fall visit to Fares Natsche, the most prominent glassmaker in Hebron, presents another possibility. Hundreds of glass orbs by Spring? Why not?
Glass was one of the most important items in this the most commercial city of the West Bank, and the Natsche family has done this for hundreds of years, as attested by photos in a collection by Eric Matson preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In one of these photos, Fares Natsche recognized his grandfather, a young child, as he worked the glass in front of a furnace not so different from the one used by his artisans today. But the closing of the city, even more than the second Intifada, has all but destroyed the flourishing trade. Since 1994, when the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein carried out a detestable massacre in the Mosque of Ibrahim (the Tomb of the Patriarchs), the city has slowly become a solitary enclave, to which one travels only for love and passion. Through the checkpoints, past the Wall, and by the terminal that leads from Beit Jalla to Hebron, then through the Israeli colonies adjacent to the Gush Etzion block and to the colonies at the heart of Hebron, which have rendered the ancient city a ghost town, full of closed storefronts, security turnstiles and military patrols… all of this renders the trip to Hebron quite a challenge, not only physically, but emotionally as well.
The deal for the orbs was finalized within a few weeks, and the number of glass orbs grew until it reached a total of 1,000, one thousand glass orbs blown one by one by an unparalleled glassmaker sporting a mustache not unlike that of an Hidalgo. Picture an iron pipe through which to blow, a furnace like those of centuries past, the obligatory cigarette, and a 200-year-old iron mold, used to give the orbs their form and a sort of netting design. Then the white, red and green glass orbs were stacked, packaged, and shipped to Sicily, a task that—despite being a difficult, insurmountable and unbearable situation—was no less than a small miracle, not only of organization, but also of everyday good will, a rarity in a land that still calls itself the Holy Land.
One thousand orbs purchased by a small Sicilian community, where the economic crisis continues to sting, as well as high unemployment, to decorate a very devout, Catholic religious festival in order to bring together, through a common mission, a community that risked dissolution; one thousand orbs realized one by one by a team of Palestinian glassmakers, Muslims, in one of the most traditional, conservative and devout cities of Palestine; orbs to decorate the Feast of the Blessed Mother, Mariam, the mother of Jesus, to whom the Quran dedicates the 19th surah, the surah of Mariam; one thousand orbs sent by an Israeli shipper, a Jew, who personally oversaw the loading, transport and shipment of the orbs. If it were up to them, the protagonists of this story, peace would have already arrived in this increasingly desolate place. And I am certain that the funding, the trade, and the economy are only one part of this story; the good will, the everyday good will, or, if you like, the banality of good, did the rest.
Listening to the story about the collection of the funds with which to purchase the orbs and about the procession of the Blessed Mother, Fares Natsche and his son, Ramzi, were amazed and yet oddly comforted. They are like us, when we collect funding for a Mosque or for charities. So little was needed, deep down, to erect this unusual bridge, made of fragile glass orbs, between Hebron and Sambuca, perhaps because there is a shared sense of homeland and of suffering?
Last Sunday, a great special report about the glass orbs by Lucilla Alcamisi aired on Mediterraneo. And for those who wish to witness the Feast of the Blessed Mother and see the illuminated glass orbs, the date is May 20th, all day and all night. All are welcome, ahlan wa sahlan.
Kindly translated from Italian into English by Carlo Mattia Scalisi.
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