Little town on the West Bank of occupied Palestine in IP

This is the third part of a feature on harvesting olives in Palestine. Click here to read the First part: Olives and Rabbis and Click here to read the second part “Tour of Oppression”. 
 9 Nov 2009 4:54 AM By Pamela Olson
Little town on the West Bank
By the time the Rabbis for Human Rights volunteers left and I was the last person remaining, it was only two o’clock. I asked Abed if I could have a quick tour of his village of Sawya [a West Bank town south of Nablus] before I headed back to Ramallah. He said sure, and we caught a ride up the hill to the village’s main street and went on a walk around town. It was a typical Palestinian hilltop village with old stone houses (and newer cinderblock additions), narrow winding roads, and spectacular views everywhere.
Across the valley to the east we could see half a dozen picturesque hilltops, nearly all with settlements or settler outposts on top of them. The main settlement was called Eli.
“All of these mountains belong to Sawya,” he said. “You see that hilltop there, the one with the new outpost on it? It belonged to my cousin, who passed away several years ago. It takes an hour and a half to walk there from here. For me, making the trip once is difficult. But my cousin, even when he was 65 years old, used to make the trip twice a day to work on his land and eat his meals in the fresh air.”
I shook my head. “It’s hard to imagine what this land must mean to you.”
“It means everything to us,” he said passionately. “We have memories in every corner of this land.” He pointed to the north. “Rehelim settlement is there. A while ago we were given special permission to visit part of our land near that settlement that we hadn’t seen in twenty years. I was especially excited to see a spring that we used to go to with the purest water you can imagine. We had such good memories in all of this land, but especially there. And when we got there… I couldn’t believe it. It had been turned into a pond of sewage.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “It is a paradox. The settlers talk about ‘redeeming’ the land. How is it ‘redeeming’ the land when they treat it this way? What is even the purpose of taking land if you treat it this way?”
He pointed to the gently-sloping northern face of one of the hills. “And you see this area here? It has the best figs. Many fig and olive trees. But you can see, the Israelis built a ring road around the outpost on top of the hill, for ‘security.’ They do this for all the settlements and many outposts. The guards can use these roads to get anywhere in seconds. And then they build another, bigger ring road to protect the first road. If you cross any of these roads, if you even get near them, they will often come and question you, and maybe they arrest or shoot you. Many people will not go near this area anymore.”
Abed shook his head. “Our village is more than 500 years old. Their settlement is twenty years old. Ours hasn’t grown past our one hill in 500 years, but Eli took over all those hills in just twenty years.”
By now the sun was going down, and I had a choice to make: I could try to find a service taxi back to Ramallah or stay the night in Sawya and harvest olives for real the next day. Abed guessed what I was thinking. “If you want, I can try to find you a taxi,” he said. “Or you can stay with my sister.”
I didn’t have any plans in Ramallah the next day, and it had been a while since I harvested in a new village, so I accepted the invitation. We stopped to have tea and grapes on another relative’s porch on the highest point in Sawya to watch the sunset. The shadows of the blushing hills got longer and longer, and the villages and settlements all around began to glow as they turned their lights on for the night.
We walked back to his porch under a crescent moon and sat with his brother Ibrahim, a tall man with a thin face and friendly English. His wife was a lovely woman with a shy smile and eyes that looked like my grandmother’s when she was a young woman. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, but when her hijab slipped slightly, I saw streaks of premature white in her hair. Ibrahim’s adorable sons, aged 2, 6, and 8, ran around the whole time playing and laughing. The youngest, Yazid, looked exactly like his mother.
After we had chatted pleasantly for a while, I asked if Ibrahim had any other children. There was a strange silence. Then Abed said, “His oldest son, my nephew, was killed a few years ago. A settler ran over him with his car.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, aghast. “I have three nephews, and if anyone hurt them…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Abed said grimly. “And this is not my opinion. The settler admitted in court that he deliberately ran over the boy. He said it was revenge for his own son having been injured some time earlier by Palestinians who threw stones at his car.”
I paused for a moment, speechless. “Was the settler punished?” I asked, with a sinking feeling that I already knew the answer.
“He was given a one-year sentence, and his driver’s license was suspended for three years.”
“That’s it?” My outrage was unnaturally muted because I had heard so many stories like this before-a necessary kind of psychological scar tissue to keep the ulcers away. But even if the physiological manifestations of anger are attenuated, something deeper is injured whenever I hear a story like that.
“He only served six months in the end,” Abed said with the same hollow numbness.
“You know, this is our life,” said Ibrahim. “You can see us, we smile and joke and laugh and do what we can. But many of us are like an old tree. On the outside you see that it’s a tree, but on the inside, it’s black and hollow. Many Palestinians are totally destroyed as human beings.”
Talk gradually turned back to pleasanter things, because one can’t dwell on the worst of life all the time. The dark abyss is only touched on now and then and otherwise ignored in public and grieved in private. You can manage to forget it for hours at a time. But it’s always there.
The good is always there, too. The sun and the fields and children who are still alive.
We had fareeka (wheat soup) with baked chicken for dinner that night at Ibrahim’s house and watched movies in English on MBC2. Ibrahim had a relatively nice house because he had managed to get a permit to work in Tel Aviv. He spoke fluent Hebrew. Like Abed, he didn’t demonize Israelis. He just wished they would protect everyone equally under the law.
Sawya’s Olives
The next morning we got up early and headed to the groves. It was a delightful day. Ibrahim’s three adorable sons were there as well as Abed’s sister’s son and daughter. The son was a blue-eyed, cheerful pre-teen, the daughter a dark-eyed and clever young woman who followed me around and chatted with me all day. Abed told me proudly that they were both first in their class at school. Their father had died a few years earlier, and their mother was a teacher.
We talked and harvested and picnicked all day. Abed spent an hour asking the kids questions about history and geography, and they enthusiastically competed with each other to answer them. After a while he pawned the job off on me, despite my limited Arabic. The first question I asked was, “What’s the biggest country in the world?”
The eight-year-old said, “Algeria!”
Abed said, “No, not in the Arab world, in the whole world.”
“United States!” his blue-eyed cousin said.
“China!” the dark-eyed niece said.
“No, not the largest population. The largest area.”
“Um… Um… Europe!” That was the six-year-old.
I laughed. “No. Give up? Ru…”
“Russia!” they all said in delighted unison.
I took some pictures of them, and they insisted on taking some pictures of me.
The funniest moment of the day came when I was trying to take a picture of Abed and his three nephews, but I couldn’t get them all to smile at the same time. Finally Abed said in English, “Say cheese!”
Yazid, usually a quiet child, yelled, “TEEEEEEZ!”
Everyone burst out laughing. (Teez is a bad word in Arabic. It’s an impolite way to say ‘buttocks.’) He didn’t understand why everyone was laughing. He was just happy to be the center of attention.
In a little over twenty-four hours, a new village had been colored in on my map with faces and friends, views and porches, children and stories. When it was time for me to leave, they made me promise to come back as soon as I could.
As I was walking toward the road to find a service taxi, the children gathered to smile and wave good-bye to me, an American, with boundless innocent, friendly good will. It struck me as something so fragile and unlikely in such a dire and unfair situation, I instinctively grabbed for my camera to try to capture it and remember the feeling it gave me, the feeling Palestine so often gives me that meanness and ugliness aren’t the natural state of man after all. But it was something too pure to capture in any way.


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