Saturday, December 3 2011 Maghair al-‘Abid and Daqaiqeh- By David Shulman

Let me introduce you to Shehade Mahamra Salama in his dusty blue winter coat, with his white beard, joyful eyes, face burned wine-red by the sun. He lives in the tiny encampment of Maghair al-‘Abid on one of the eastern ridges overlooking the desert. There are four or five families here, some twenty caves. The lands they own are scattered in a wide arc over the parched hills—some of them, unfortunately, like the plot they’re plowing today, in the shadow of Chavat Maon, perhaps the most notorious and merciless of the Israeli outposts in south Hebron.

It wasn’t so easy to find Shehade, a lone Palestinian man in the vast open spaces of the desert. Ezra dropped us off near Mufagara and we walked, six of us, along the rough goat-paths, skirting Chavat Maon, up and down the hills, scanning the horizon all the time for some sign of him or of the tractor that we knew was supposed to materialize for the plowing. A man cuts an almost imperceptible figure in a wilderness. But we found him, and the tractor drove up over the rocks from the even tinier encampment at Swaiy, and now they’re furrowing the resistant dry earth in the wadi and sowing the seeds. They own this land, no question about that, the courts have confirmed it, but there’s always the likelihood that the settlers will turn up. Repeatedly—four times, to be precise—the Chavat Maon settlers actually stole this field entirely, and each time the court eventually returned it to Shehade’s family. He’s nothing if not persistent. Once when the wheat had grown tall, the settlers came out and burned it; but it rained that night, and somehow the burnt wheat sprouted anew, and eventually the Palestinians were able to harvest a new crop. Put this down to the occasional miracles God allows in his otherwise sorrow-stricken world.

Though he laughs easily and often, Shehade has the usual tales of trauma to report, like the time a settler shot an old woman at Maghair al-‘Abid in her legs, and soldiers appeared but of course refused to arrest the settler and also offered no help to the woman, whose family lifted her, bleeding profusely, on to a horse and managed to get her to hospital. Anyone who knows these hills knows what kind of a ride that must have been. There are many more stories like that one, of attack and humiliation and out-and-out theft and sadistic torment, too many even for me to record and remember. Strangely, this man seems empty of bitterness. He is the south Hebron embodiment of the bon vivant, if one can use such a phrase for a man who lives so close to the ground, with so little, an unimaginably harsh life on the edge and with the settlers continually at his throat. He went to Hebron, the big city, last year, for the first time, to visit the graves of the Patriarchs, and he was moved. He says to me: “We [Palestinians and Jews] are brothers, we know this, and if anyone doubts it he has only to go to the grave of our common father Ibrahim in Hebron. I see those graves and I know: God exists.”

After the wadi has been plowed, they drive the tractor and plow uphill, hoping to gain another small patch for the mixed barley and wheat they are sowing. First they set the thickets of thorn alight, and pungent orange flames dance over the hilltop for half an hour—this must help the plowing, though I don’t understand it, in fact I find it hard to believe that anything at all could grow on this hill of ten thousand stones. But the tractor, hovering at a dizzy angle, often resting on a single wheel, always on the verge of turning over, does manage to carve out a few furrows. It is almost midday, the sun washing over us, the voices of the plowers and sowers echoing thin and clear in the emptiness like breaking crystal, and you can see in the distance the cream-colored desert and two tents just beneath the village of Tuba and across the Jordan River an ethereal, ghostly blue line that is the mountains of Moab. Opposite Tuba, barely visible, a Palestinian flag is flying in the wind, and not far away from it two camels and a white donkey are winding their way to somewhere.

For the record, let me say: life holds nothing like the satisfaction one feels when another field is plowed and sown by its rightful owners in the south Hebron hills. Each one is another infinitesimal victory over both resistant nature and the dependable, recurrent cruelty of human beings. Now we need to pray that the rains will come while the seeds are still potent and fertile, and that the settlers don’t spoil it all.

It’s a kind of game we play, week after week, with the settlers and the soldiers, a harsh game with high stakes and the near certainty that we will lose. Today we won a round. There are moments when I like the odds. On the long walk down to Twaneh we notice a patch of decimated olive trees— settlers’ doing, no doubt. The trees lie helter-skelter on the earth, branches amputated, roots exposed.

We rejoin the Ta’ayush group at Susya; they have been through a small demonstration, a response to the recent demolitions there.  Many police and soldiers arrived to play their accustomed roles; they arrested one Palestinian who tried, with doomed gallantry, to pin a Palestinian flag to one of the Border Police jeeps.  Ezra, I am told, delivered another of his “Dharma talks,” as Ada calls them, to the police officer:

Ezra: “You’re torturing these people!”

Officer: “I hope you heard that ‘click’  just now, it was my heart breaking.”

That’s the point, that business of the frozen heart. I promised myself when I left this morning that if I were to write something about today’s adventures, it would have no trace of sentimental moralizing or bitter complaint; that the words would be sparse and sharp as thorns. But I can’t keep the promise. The sun is fast declining, the hills drowning in purple light, but still we stop to pay a visit to Daqaiqeh, buried far in the desert, an untidy cluster of corrugated shacks and a few tents and newly built outhouses and a schoolhouse, recently rebuilt after the earlier one was demolished by the army. Chickens, sheep, a donkey, a few camels. No electricity, no running water, no phones, no cell-phone connectivity, no food grown from this ground, no money, no hope. Waves of brown-beige hills, limpid desert air. Red and black and golden shirts and dresses on a laundry line, swaying in the wind. Fiercely handsome Bedouin children, including a teenage boy who has hurt his hand. Under duress, he shows it to me for a split second, enough for me to see that it is infected. I take out pads and a bandage and the disinfectant I carry for just such moments, but no matter how much I coax him to let me clean the wound, he refuses. He’s scared. I leave the disinfectant and the pads with his family, and Ezra explains to them what they have to do, when we’re gone.

There are 74 demolition orders hanging over the shanties at Daqaiqeh—that is, over all the buildings there. Four hundred and fifty people live here, but they may soon be gone. Daqaiqeh is very close to the Green Line, and the army, or the government, or whoever makes these gratuitous decisions, wants them out of there. You have to understand just what this means. These people have land only here. Daqaiqeh, poor as it might seem, poor as it really is, is their only home. They have buried their dead in its cemetery for the last two centuries or so (the graves are the only structure in the village not yet threatened with demolition). The government intends to drive them north to Humaideh, where they are meant to manage somehow or other, though they have nothing in common with the Humaideh Bedouins, and no land. If this happens, if the Supreme Court doesn’t stop it (as it most probably won’t), it is the end of the Ka’abneh Bedouin way of life in this village—that is, for these people, the end of the world.

And what a world it is. You may not believe me, but Daqaiqeh with its hills and sheep and camels is more beautiful, in my eyes, than Paris or St. Petersburg. It’s love at first sight. For years I have been looking for such a place. Amiel says we can ask them if they have an opening in the elementary school for an itinerant Sanskrit teacher.

At the last moment I remember that I have a big chocolate bar in my knapsack, and I hunt for it and find it and present it to a ragamuffin boy whose eyes widen with astonishment. I tell him he’s supposed to share it with his friends (twenty or so are circling around him, watching this transaction). A foolish thought. With some effort he squeezes the whole bar into his pocket.

Finally, we leave. Sitting in the van, Amitai says: “We’re smiling, but our heart has been slightly broken.”  Note the devastating adverb “slightly.” Of course, it’s nothing new, we’ve seen such things over and over, they’re the daily fare of the Occupation, but today I can’t help it, I’m in an altered state, heart-wracked, so I ask Sam, sitting beside me, how he understands human cruelty. I explain the question. Whoever has taken the decision to drive them out no doubt thinks it’s a good and necessary thing, even a patriotic gesture, and he won’t be present when the houses are razed and the bulldozers grind Daqaiqeh into nothingness, someone else will do the dirty work, but let’s imagine he does turn up:  I want to know how this person can, faced with his victims, inflict such pain. I truly don’t get it. I know, people do it all the time, and worse, much worse.  I, too, have plenty of rage and hatred in me, I have caused hurt in my life and will no doubt do so many times again, but I know for sure that I could never, under any conceivable circumstances, in any possible world, help destroy these people’s lives as the army is planning to do, nor could I stand by and watch. I have only myself to examine, and I don’t get it.

A discussion flowers in the bus. Would I feel the same way about evacuating settlers from their (stolen) lands? Good question. Maybe. But it’s different. They have no business being there in the first place. Maybe what we’re talking about is numbness, a common enough condition, contagious, too. I’m reading The Plague tomorrow with my honor students, and it’s as if Daqaiqeh were in the book as the book is now alive in me, and I hear Camus saying that “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself” and that “all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories” and that these might even be enough to “win the match.” By “plague” he meant something other than microbes: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” That such  a pestilence is raging in Israel I have no doubt.  I guess that counts as knowledge. No antidote exists. And will the memories of a day like today, the little we did and all that we failed to do, along with the memory of Daqaiqeh, ever be enough?