I went to the West Bank when I was 18. It was during the second intifadah when the tensions in the world and the pulling apart of my own family along political lines drew me to want to see for myself what the truth of the situation was. I ended up working with the International Solidarity Movement in the Occupied Territories, supporting Palestinian led non-violent direct action, documenting human rights violations and doing accompaniment work.
Here is a piece of writing from that time read aloud at an Ashland open mic with my friend Nick Kruger backing me up on guitar. I share this story because it is my experience, because it is part of my own healing to creatively express what I saw and because it is part of my prayer that all beings be free from suffering and that all beings find peace.
Read the full transcripts below:
Photo Credit: Eloise Bollack.
‘You must be poor,’ they said pinching my stickley arms, poking my sides to feel my ribs. ‘No husband and already 18,’ they clucked, fingering my naked ears, my bare hands. ‘Yes a very poor family and you must be the youngest daughter. No gold, not even a stitch of wealth on your skinny frame!’
We sat on the carpet outside the cave, brushing the dirt from shorn lamb’s wool, two matriarchs and a young woman who had just married into the family working especially hard. Most of the children worked and went to school in town during the week. The old men were out in the field shepherding the sheep and goats. These women with their beautiful kohl round eyes, looked out at me with pity from the moon of their headscarves. ‘Because your family does not love you, you must marry a man only if he gives you gold, only if he is willing to take care of you.’ ‘Yes,’ I said sincerely, sadly smiling to think of the high school boyfriend who had given me a pastrami sandwich for my birthday. Gold indeed.
The caves were so much more homey and beautiful than I thought they would be. Worn carpets brightening the floors, lounging pillows, fires crackling, cooking smells. Bright copper teapots pouring sweet, milky tea into bright copper cups. The big family sharing meals ornamented with raucous, impassioned conversations and intense debates. I tried to follow, sewing together understanding between my minuscule Arabic with their grandiose hand gestures. Most nights they talked about how the micro-buses had raised the fare to get to town by two shekels, fifty cents. They were outraged and enjoyed the outrage; no one wanted to let it go.
I love them all instantly. Their life of rising at dawn, working through the day, coming together warmly in the sunsetting evening. Rocked to sleep early in the night, before being swallowed up by the all-consuming dark.
It was Ramadan on that first night we stayed with them. The patriarch, Haj Khalil, came home from attending his flocks in the field; the women were fastidiously preparing the platters and water vessels for the breaking of the days long fast. They’d gone another day out without eating, drinking or smoking. ‘What will they do first?’ I wondered. After the prayerful blessing and the giving of gratitude, the woman raised cups of water to their lips and in the silence Haj lit a fat spliff off the central cooking fire.
He takes me with him to shepherd, because of my scrappy Arabic and white, innocent face. Their nomadic settlement, where they’ve been spending half the year for generations is now surrounded on three sides by particularly fanatic Israeli settlements. Settlers have come at night, sprinkled poison on the ground murdering livestock, stolen and destroyed property, driven by yelling threats and throwing bottles. One morning, explosives had been found at the entrance to one on the caves. That’s when they called us. We were a loose network of international observers with a mission to support Palestinian-led non-violent direct action. Mostly with our bodies and our presence. At that time, during the second intifada, the media and Israeli government wouldn’t blink over another Palestinian tragedy, but anything involving an international is first-page news and even the most fanatic of settlers understood this.
The West Bank is pocked with Israeli settlements connected by settler-only roads that it is illegal for Palestinian people to cross on foot, let alone drive on. Haj Khalil likes to take his flock up to pastor on a hill across the road. Because it is better grazing for the animals or for the small, dangerous act of defiance, I do not know. For my part, I like our little game- explicitly for the defiance.
We sit on one the side of the road and Haj teaches me how to whistle to the goats, alternating between a shrill high-pitched call and a low static, phlegmy sound in the back of my throat. He quizzes me on my principles, a good time for me to flex my language building skills. ‘George Bush?’ he questions with a raised salt-and-pepper eyebrow. ‘Mish quays’ I reply, not good. Arafat?’ ‘Quays, quays,’ I exclaim emphatically, very good. ‘Abbas?’ he presses swishing the air with his heavey walking stick. ‘So so,’ I show with my head and hands and eyes. He smiles, a black toothless smile and pounds his walking stick in the scrubby earth. ‘Come fatatan’, come girl, come child.
We look both ways to make sure no one is coming and then like cartoon characters, call all the goats to come quickly with us to the other side. Shuffling over in a high traffic stampede dust cloud of high pitched phlegmy hacking sounds until we land, settling down on the other side like we’ve been there all along. ‘IDF?’ Haj calls out exuberant. ‘Mish quays!’ ‘Family?’ he roars, his white robes fluttering around his wiry, ancient frame and nimble stride up the hill. ‘Quays! Quays!’
The family has four brothers, all grandfathers now that make the larger family band. Their wives trade off who makes us dinner, sharing the responsibilities and resources. One evening Nabiha, the new wife of a grandson cooks for us. Delicious fluffy bread, warm dishes sizzling in yellow sauces, stewed meat so tender it melts in our mouths. All of these delicacies are cooked over goat shit fires that burn throughout the day with a hearty, nostalgic smell. Her husband works in town all week, leaving her here with her new mother-in-law’s. They have only been married a few months and already the mothers are clucking their tongues at her empty belly.
We are silently feasting, lost in the revelry of tastes, when I look up to see Nabiha covering her face with her head scarf, nervously looking over at her mother-in-law. ‘So delicious! So good! Wow. Thank you! Thank you!’ My praise breaks the spell and my two male companions, Chris and Evan join in, ‘wow, yes, so good. I was transported to heaven and forgot my words!’ Her shoulders come down from her ears and she drops the bunched fist of her headscarf revealing eyes shiny with tears. ‘Alhumduallah,’ she says quietly exhaling and looking down with a short flicker of a smile. The mother-in-law rearranges her girth sternly from where she is mending children’s clothing, waiting until we are done with our supper before she will sit down for hers.
Over the weekend their children came home. Sons and grandsons pored across the dusty to rain. There were enough for stuff for soccer teams. They organize themselves into small tournaments and the mothers and grandmothers took to the sidelines as proud as prize hens, cheering like hell.
In the desert there is so much time and not so much work to be done. Nothing like the village in Nepal where women worked from before I woke up until after I went to bed. Nothing like the Pueblos of southern Mexico where women spent hours a day on laundry alone. Washing their children’s one alternating outfit in buckets of river water with ruddy hands. Here, their children were mostly working or at the school in town, leaving only a few baby grandchildren around. They were free from the immense toil of farming and, although there were still endless tasks, there was also some precious leisure time. One of the sons played his instrument at sundown, strumming to the setting sun and singing while his young wife joined his voice with her soft song. Haj Kahlil lounged in the dirt and studied the Quran. Me and my companions meandered around, marveling at the landscapes of dirt and stone.
Evan, a carpenter and a mason was a specially enchanted by the rock walls terraced into the hills. Ancient rocks fitted together into stacking ridges that could’ve been thousands of years old or made in the last generation. Evan guest thousands. Olive trees are wicked little things. Stout, elegant little creatures they reach a certain height and then grow from below, bubbling up at the roots with gnarled nobbles and a wider reach. Like grandmother and grandfather gnomes ballet dancing in reaches that took centuries. We knew the olive trees all around us dated back to the Roman empire if not before. The same trees we now breathed had been breathed by the people in the days when Jesus walked the earth.
Nabiha, the young wife took me to a lazy meadow of almond trees. We sat in the precious shade cracking the thick, tear drop husks open against the rocks, the almond fruit inside as creamy and delicious as pure marzipan. Embarrassing as it is, I never put it together that nuts grew on trees. My city kids side having never thought past the supermarket aisles on that one.