In Memoriam: Neville Symington
It’s a tiny dot deep in the desert, hidden in a wild sweep of hills and rock and narrow goat-tracks, brown-beige-gold. It’s the end of the world. A rough road takes you there. There’s a bigger village, Isfay, on the ridge above it; they have a health clinic and a wind turbine. Magha’ir al-‘Abid, “Caves of the Slaves,” has a few dozen souls, most of whom live in caves. Each of the caves has a carved stone façade, and inside they’re well appointed, clean, warm on this sunny mid-winter day. Outside you hear wind rippling over sand and the gentle bleating of goats and sheep.
This hamlet in the vast desert is almost invisible, but not invisible enough. The army’s drones surely see it, and the devoted bureaucrats of the Civil Administration know it well, too well. Two weeks ago they demolished three new houses there. We came today to clear the ruins, and we’ll probably be back to rebuild.
The video [see it here] doesn’t require commentary. Only a person whose heart has turned to ice can fail to see, and feel in her body, the brutality visited on this village. Make no mistake. The Civil Administration knows what it’s doing. The houses the soldiers destroyed were built without permits, like all Palestinian building in Area C, since Palestinians can’t get permits. Watch the soldiers. Maybe some of them tell themselves they are upholding the law. I suppose they have to tell themselves something. Not one of them, as far as I know, has ever refused to carry out the crimes they are ordered to commit. It’s winter now, nights are very cold, and last week there were heavy rains. It seems to me, from long experience, that the army takes any opportunity to knock down Palestinian houses, but winter adds a special tang to this delight.
Shehada Salama Mkhamra directs us as we clear the rubble. He is confident, jovial, articulate.
“God gives strength to good people, he enlarges their spirit, whoever they are. Muslims, Jews, international volunteers, it makes no difference, all of you are our guests today. You have come to do good. There will always be good people, and God turns away from the bad ones. That is what He tells us. We don’t think of Arabs and Jews, and neither does He, we think of those who do good and those who seek to cause pain.
“We are a quiet place, no problems, we never hurt anyone, we thought no one could even find us out here, but look at the cruel thing the soldiers did. It takes many months and lots of money to build a house like the ones they wrecked. The families, many children and women, are living in tents on the hill.
“We will first clear away the ruins, and we will build again, close to the sheep-pens, so the sheep and the goats don’t have to walk too far. That you have come here as our friends gives us strength.”
For some hours we clear the rocks and metal, and the huge piles of debris begin to shrink. Last week Ta‘ayush removed the rocks and cement blocks from a tiled bathroom, now roofless, forlorn. From the terrace above, goats, apparently curious, stare down at us as we work. I wonder if they remember the bulldozers and the soldiers. It may make little sense to them. First someone comes to knock down the houses, then others come to clear and rebuild. Why does this happen? Unlike goats, human beings are strange. It’s warm in the sun. Tea appears, as always, on schedule. Arabic, English, Hebrew, Italian, and Malayalam mingle today amidst the ruins.
‘Id is sixteen years old. No longer in school. He studied for some years in Twaneh, a long ways off, over the hills. He boasts of his strength, exhibiting his muscles. He’s cheerful and a good teacher. So Gabi and I learn the occult art of preparing fodder, in its several stages. There are heavy plastic sacks stacked in piles in the cave. First we drag some of them outside, and ‘Id slowly unties the knots, and together we pour tibn, straw, some yellow, some green, onto a black tarpaulin, making a small mountain in the middle. Then there is barley, sha‘ir, to be added, and a little water, and the real work begins. You have to dig your arms deep into the mountain and move the mixture upwards, rubbing the grains against your palms and exposing them to the air and light. It should be a bit moist, the way the sheep like it. You go through the whole mass several times, turning it inside out, rubbing and mixing, and then you pack it into other deep plastic sacks, adding hay, khali, and something else, katani, toward the end, and then ‘Id stores the sacks, seventeen of them, in that forlorn roofless tiled bathroom, which might as well serve as a storeroom for this very moment. The barley has to be bought outside, maybe, he says, in Tel Aviv, but the tibn is grown by the villagers on the hills.
It’s heavy, intoxicating work; I have at last found my métier. How come it took me seven decades to reach this moment? I ask ‘Id, What if it rains?— there were heavy storms here last week—and he looks up at the sky, almost cloudless, the sun rapidly sinking to the horizon, and says, Don’t worry, it’s just for a few hours, I’ll move them again in the evening. He is pleased with us, he says we’re fast learners, quite smart, we could be useful here in Magha’ir al-‘Abid. The sheep, he says, will get a nutritious meal, and it will be delicious, laziz.
I forgot to tell you that this village, like many others we know well, is situated inside a fake firing zone declared decades ago by the army. In 1999 the soldiers forcibly evacuated all these villages, using the firing zone as an excuse. The Palestinians and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to the courts, which eventually found in their favor. The villagers returned. The firing zone has not, it seems, been used by the army for many years (if ever). Still, harassment continues. Army helicopters sometimes land in the middle of the herds. Not long ago there were massive army raids on the villages, for no reason. House demolitions, the bread and butter of the Civil Administration in the South Hebron hills, are regular events. Evil, blatant, unforgiveable, is never banal, despite what Hannah Arendt said, but it is all too often routine. Friendship is never routine.
That’s why we’re here today. Not just to clear the ruins. Jean Améry: “The experience of persecution [is], at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness.”
text and photographs (if not otherwise identified): David Shulman © 2019