On the drive down to al-‘Auja, talk centers on ‘Ein Rashshash.
Things are hard there. Daily attacks by the settlers on the shepherds, the herds, and on us. Arik was called in for questioning—this was the settlers’ doing, of course—and after interrogation the police ordered him to stay away from Rashshash for two weeks. He refused to sign, so they arrested him, kept him for hours in the holding cell at the Benyamin police station, then transferred him to the freezing inferno of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. In chains, of course. During intake there, they did a routine EKG and told him he was about to have a heart attack. So he was taken, still chained, to the hospital, a vast improvement over the Russian Compound, and there were tests through the night, which were fine, and then back to the holding cell at the police station where the ordeal began, and in the morning he was brought before a judge who threw out the two-week exile but ordered Arik to stay 20 meters away from the young settler thug who has been attacking him. Also 100 meters away from the illegal settlement. That’s not a problem, we never go near it anyway, but what happens—a Talmudic question– if the settler thug comes riding his horse at Arik, with the aim of trampling him, and thus Arik finds himself less than 20 meters away from his attacker? Will they jail him again for breaking the condition of his release?
At al-‘Auja, in the central Jordan Valley, today happens to be quiet. We go out with Abu Mahmud and Ahmad around 8 and stay with them and the sheep and goats until 1:30. Mhammad is with another herd over the next hill. Omer and his settlers don’t show up, and for all these blessed hours there is no sign of army or police. The shepherds jump at the slightest noise from the direction of the settlement and try to stay out of sight. Still, compared to the situation here three years back—when they had virtually no access to their grazing grounds—today is better. They can again roam these hills, except when they are chased off. It’s safer for them when we are with them.
So for the six hours or so we are out grazing, nothing much happens, and that nothing is a lot. Fullness too deep to record. Simplicity simplified to the simplest: sky, sun, green desert grass, rocks, friendship. At first it is cold and cloudy, then slowly the sun breaks through and by mid-morning we are baked in wintry gold. Tea appears, and rough bread, and tiny chocolates wrapped in paper. There has been rain: food in plenty for the sheep. Shepherds like to talk about their herds. “The sheep that stay near us understand our whistles and calls, but you see those sheep high on the ridge? They are wild, you can’t control them.” How many sheep do you have, I ask Abu Mahmud. Two hundred, he says. And do you know at any given moment where each of them is? Yes. Of course. He looks at me with the shepherd’s eyes, baffled by the innocence of the city person.
Have you ever really listened to the sheep bells? There is a high note and a low note. The sheep who carry them seem to improvise, like Thelonius Monk. Don’t think for a moment there is any lack of rhythm, syncopation, thematic variation. Maybe it’s more like Bach, sung for the glory of god. And there is time, a great open unhurried spaciousness of time. My sleep-starved body opens up. The world not as dark as it was at 3 am when I awoke.
“Simplify yourself” is what Marcus Aurelius says. Or, as Gregory Hays translates, “Uncomplicate yourself.” I keep trying, but I’m no good at it. Really, though, on a day like today, you shouldn’t have to try.
There are six clans at al-‘Auja, scattered through the valley. Today, as often before, we are with the Ka‘abne. We sit with Abu Mahmud and Ahmad and Bassam, three brothers, and their formidable mother. We have to wait for the car to come back for us, so we sit together, at times in silence, letting time roll through us, savoring this sun-soaked winter day after rain. “Today was good, mnih, qwais.” Every few minutes they say it again, as if that straightforward ease and goodness was the hardest thing to find in their world. Just imagine, a day without being attacked and driven away. It is good, very good, mnih. Then one of the brothers says—the contrast very sharp in Arabic— “no violence today, no nothing, but there is still something. Fi ihtilal. There is Occupation. I grew up in it. It was there when I was born. You can’t go here, you can’t go there, you can’t visit your brothers in South Hebron, you need a permit for this, for that, you can’t build a house, you can’t own your own land, you can’t get to a hospital because of the roadblocks, you can’t live your life, you can’t live. They tell us we have to go away. They say we will make you go away. Don’t even imagine you can stay here. We will show you. We will drive you as far as the North Pole. Along the way, we will beat you and maybe we will kill you. If we arrest you, you will find no justice. We will shoot the sheep and the goats and we will tear down your houses. You will never know rest.”
That’s the short version of what he said in bitter Arabic, and I nod at every sentence. This on a good day. Then I say, “It is true. All of it is zulm, wickedness, oppression. But a day will come, we don’t know when, when the Occupation will end. Until that day, we are with you. Like today.”
“Look,” says the mother and grandmother, resplendent in her black heavy robe, “look at Mahmud.” (He is sitting on a white plastic chair beside her.) “He is two years old. I remember when his father, Mhammad, was two years old. Now he is a man with the herds, and Mahmud is his son, and there are two older daughters. When Mhammad was only as old as Mahmud, the Occupation was heavy on our heads. We too thought it would end. Now there is this boy, and he will grow up like his father under Occupation.”
Note: One peaceful day counts for something, but two days later a large group of soldiers turned up at al-‘Auja, no doubt summoned by the arch-settler Omer, and that was the end of grazing that day. The arrival of soldiers terrifies the shepherds, with good reason. They fled with their flocks. And at Rashshash a settler used pepper spray against one of our activists, blinding him for some time. I know what it feels like.
text: David Shulman © 2020; photographs margaret olin © 2020, except where otherwise noted.