There were serious controversies about the project. Some thought the shameful past is better forgotten than commemorated. The “never again” contingent were into documentation and preserving the memory in order to warn future generations not to revert to the old ways. But this really wasn’t necessary. The kind of people who lived fifty years ago and followed those ways were gone, never to return. And the Middle East had moved on from that deadly nonsense that had brought it to the brink of disaster.

There were also lengthy arguments about where the museum should be established. Jerusalem was out of the question. It had returned to being an out of the way dreary provincial town with a terrible heritage. Tel Aviv was a strong contender. But it ended up in Jericho, an ancient town that had become a symbol of peace and tranquility renowned for its oxygen-saturated air and the calm it engendered in visitors.

Then there was the controversy over the structure. Many disliked it with a passion. Those on the other side argued that the ugly dark and dank cavernous structure with twisting labyrinths that seemed to lead one further away from the light and into the depth of Hades was entirely apt for the representation of the Middle East in the early twenty first century.

It was this controversy over this structure that delayed the opening for years. Whenever I heard it being described, I felt I could not make myself visit. Who wants to be in a place that is dark, humid and treacherous and that is said to leave you feeling disturbed and angry. But at the end so many people were talking about it that I felt I had to go and make up my own mind. Ruth and Ahmad also felt the same way so we all decided to pay it a visit.

I was waiting for my friends to join me and it was getting late. They should have been here by now. Ahmad was coming by train from Istanbul and Ruth from Damascus. Normally the trip from Istanbul on the fast train should not take longer than three hours and from Damascus one hour. Something should have happened to delay them. They would not mind, I thought, if I went ahead of them. I decided to go in alone.

The first exhibit was light hearted. It was called Fashions In Headdress Before “The Fact.” The introductory note made it clear that these vanished objects, some elegant, some outlandish, had not been prohibited after “The Fact.” Men and women just stopped wanting to wear them and the new generations that came afterwards simply were ignorant that such gear was ever worn. Hence the point of the exhibit. It started from the nineteenth century and had explanations about every sort of headdress worn by the people of the region. I had heard and seen pictures of the fez and found it a wonderful colorful object indeed. Its history, once universal for Ottoman subjects of certain class, then banned by Arab nationalist and replaced by the Western hat, seemed to me a ludicrous transition. There were also the various coverings of varying sizes and shapes for the different parts of the head and hair, all with special meanings and often distinguishing features that marked the religious and political affiliation of various groups. By the end I was convinced those people, our beloved ancestors, had simply suffered from an inexplicable obsession with hair.

 The next exhibit was Of Time And Space. Large maps were flashed on the walls and special spectacles were provided. They began with the first recorded history of the region and showed the various civilizations and conquerors that came to dominate the area. The way it was designed gave the impression of turning page after page of history: without a break, the various civilizations that dominated the region came into play. It was impossible after this to deny the wealth of history and to expel any notion of the exclusivity of any single period. At the end of this show there was footage of people from fifty years ago passionately making the case with absolute conviction and shocking ignorance for the domination of one or another of those wonderful traditions over all the others. It was difficult to believe that this was authentic footage and not just a fake.

After leaving this exhibition room matters began to get more complicated. I tried going one way and found it blocked, I tried another and there was an usher who demanded all sorts of papers from me. I was told I needed to apply for a permit to proceed. When I objected, on legal grounds since I already hold a valid ticket, I was told that my objection was refused and that I could appeal. This infuriated me and I demanded to see the manager. I was taken to the room of the head usher who repeated to me what he must have told countless numbers of visitors who must have had similar objections. He said that mine was the exact same reaction the curator had intended that visitors should have. He wanted them to feel infuriated to the extent that they would experience what it was like before “The Fact.” Personally I could have done without these quirks.

But when I finally made it beyond the obstacles I got to a hall lined by caverns that seemed to have been produced by some sort of corrosion of the rocks from which this structure was carved. Darkish in color they were of unequal sizes and were covered with mildew. Between each of these socket like openings were stalagmite – like pillars that looked like they were made of chalk. I was taken aback when I realized I had to enter those mysterious alcoves. I was beginning to feel claustrophobic which I was later told was supposed to illustrate the nature of that period represented here. It was also beginning to feel unpleasantly cold. This was when I realized that the contrast between the atmosphere inside this museum and the dry and warm weather of Jericho must have been a factor in the decision to install this museum here.

I barely managed to pass through these caverns when the world seemed to open up as I entered the Exhibition of Keys. There were all sorts of cabinets with various sorts of keys. Taking pride of place were keys for the now defunct religious courts. There were lengthy explanations of amazing things about how religion had managed to invade most aspects of the life of those who lived before “The Fact.” Some court records of the kind of cases heard at such tribunals were on display. It was announced that more can be viewed in the Archives where all these have been deposited after the religious courts were closed and their keys brought here to be put on display. There were also keys of homes from various parts of the Middle East with long explanations of how and why these keys have survived and their significance. At the end every visitor was given “The Key to the Levantine Life of Freedom from Borders, Nationalism and the Perversions of History on One’s Life.”

This was not all but already I was beginning to feel exhausted. Yet I was told that I could not go back before going through all the exhibits. I was told I had no choice in the matter. I was trapped. I told the usher who blocked my way that I had friends waiting for me outside.

“Let them wait,” he said. “You are required to proceed to the exhibit of How The World Was Brought To The Brink of Disaster and then The Multi Media Exhibit of ‘The Fact.’

I found myself telling this youngster that I already know enough about these and did not want to find out more. I said that I lived in their wake for many years. I didn’t need to be reminded or have to re-live them but this made no impression on him.

“Everyone has to see this,” he insisted, “There can be no escape.”

 Earphones were slipped on my head and I heard the words: “Everyone was expecting it to happen. The contradictions had become so glaring and the insanity of the situation unbearable that when it did it simply became known as “The Fact.” And whereas everyone knew and had long expected it, no one resisted it. So self evident was it that the appellation “The Fact” was deemed appropriate.”

There was a dramatic silence. Then the announcer asked in a deeper voice: “Or was it just too awful to call by any other name?”

At this point the announcer stopped and I found myself in the midst of a room full of people bombarded by sensory stimuli that forced the viewer to re-live the events of fifty years ago. Along with the multitudes in the room my entire being shivered and many in the room screamed.

I cannot tell you how glad I felt when I finally emerged that I lived after “The Fact” and was spared all the agony I saw exhibited, the despair and senseless suffering that those who lived before “The Fact” had to endure. This, I suppose, was the desired effect the exhibit intended on the visitor.

When I emerged, rather shattered, Ahmad and Ruth were waiting for me at the museum café.

“Have you been waiting for long?” I asked.

“A few hours,” Ruth said.

“But we had a marvelous time,” Ahmad added, “overhearing all the arguments the visitors had with the ushers over what was being done to them inside. What on earth goes on behind these walls?”
“I cannot begin to explain. You have to visit yourself. But not now. I cannot wait to leave and be as far away from all this as possible. Let’s drive to Ramallah and enjoy the liberated hills in spring and walk and walk under a sky that portends of nothing.”