May 31, 2020 Sumarin family, Silwan. Texts and photographs: David Shulman

The Wadi Hilwe neighborhood, Silwan

Job—Ayyub in Arabic—the most tragic figure in the Hebrew Bible, lived and suffered in Silwan, in east Jerusalem, as the Silwanis proudly say. His well, Bir Ayyub, is just down the road from the Dung Gate that leads to the Haram al-Sharif and the Western Wall. Near the top of that hill, in the Wadi Hilwe neighborhood, stands the stone house of the Sumarin family. It  happens to be adjacent to the visitors’ center that the settler group El’ad has created in order to indoctrinate schoolchildren and tourists in their nationalist narrative about Silwan, which they call the City of David. They mean King David, the Psalmist. Settlers like to tell their visitors that he walked the streets of Wadi Hilwe, with their barbed-wire settler enclaves and guards carrying machine guns. I rather doubt that there was such a person, but occasionally, over the years, in the Silwan demonstrations, amidst the tear gas and the stun grenades, I’ve caught a glimpse of a heartsick poet hovering nearby, someone like Job.

Let me tell you, briefly, the story of the Sumarin house. There is urgency in this tale. If you want to read the full version, a link is here.  The grandfather, Haj Musa, built the stone house in the 1950’s on land belonging for endless generations to the Sumarin family. No one, not even the land-hungry settlers, disputes this. Haj Musa died in 1982. His three sons and first-degree heirs were, by then, living outside of Palestine-Israel. In 1989, behind the Sumarins’ backs, and through a perverse application of Israel’s law of absentee property, the state took possession of the Sumarin house and land and, two years later, gave it to the Jewish National Fund. (Some readers may remember the little blue and white boxes in which, as children, we donated coins to the JNF.)

After Haj Musa died, his nephew Muhammad, who had been living in the house for years with his wife and children, was recognized as a protected tenant because he had beencaring for his aged uncle.  But when Muhammad died in 2015, the Israeli authorities, backed up by the courts, refused to declare his wife, Amal, and her children and grandchildren, protected tenants. Facing eviction, they fought for their home with all the legal means at their disposal. There were ups and downs, but in September 2019 the Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled against them. On June 30, 2020, their appeal will be heard. If the appeal is rejected, they will be expelled.

In the mid-90’s, under the Rabin government, such brutal manipulation of the law of absentee property was declared illegal by the government’s own legal advisors and by the civil courts. This ruling should have saved the Sumarins, but it was not applied to cases already in progress (and was never intended to be applied to them). Since then, times have changed. If Israel annexes the West Bank settlements, as Netanyahu is hell-bent, literally, on doing, a vast number of Palestinian landowners, living in their homes, will be declared absentees overnight, their lands easy prey to the settlers and the governments. Annexation is not a technicality; it is a legal ruse to enable theft on a massive, almost unthinkable, scale, with the Sumarin case an emblematic precedent. We are talking about a third of the West Bank lands; maybe more.

I ask Amal to tell me the story once again. I want to hear it from her lips. She is an articulate, self-possessed woman, hurt and hardened by years of desperate struggle in the Israeli courts. She has worked for the last twenty years as a hired cleaning worker at the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. At the moment, because of the corona epidemic, she’s at home. I tell her we are colleagues at the same institution, I’m surprised we haven’t met before, and she laughs, a rich, deep laugh, savoring the thought. I say that when the university re-opens, we will meet there, she will be my guest for coffee, as I am her guest today. Another enormous smile. For a moment, no more, the agony of the house recedes. We sit on her porch—seven Israeli activists, some of us wearing our masks—in this summer afternoon as she speaks, waving her arms, rising from her chair now and then in passion, almost dancing, asking us over and over: “Tell me, where can I go?”

The tale has many dramatis personae; I won’t repeat all the names, the aunt, the nephew, the many grandchildren, the daughters-in-law, the older generation that has passed on, all who have lived or are still living in that house, where there is room for all. But there are other beloved personages who should be mentioned, like the loquat (iskidinia) tree they had in the plot of land that has been stolen by the settlers and the state, and the sheep whose milk they used to drink, and a variety of other living creatures who were full members of the family. One day, she says, the settlers came and built a wall—she points at it—and took that land, where the visitors’ center now stands. How could they do that? Can you just put up a fence wherever you feel like it and declare that you own everything on the other side of it? Can the police turn up and say, “This is yours, and this is not yours”—it’s strange, isn’t it, ishi gharib?

“Every morning when I wake up, I wonder if tomorrow I will wake in my home. I’ve been living here for over forty years, almost half a century. My children and grandchildren were all born in this house. Now I’m afraid. When my grandchildren go outside into the street, I am afraid the settlers will hurt them. We’ve seen it happen. And what will their life be like?

“The settlers are racist. They don’t understand. If you stifle a person’s breathing, close off his nostrils and his mouth, he will die. We are people like other people. The settlers and the government and the courts only make problems. They won’t let us live. But I want to live, ana biddi a‘ish, just that, no more. I don’t know if I have a tomorrow, or if tomorrow exists. You tell me:  where can I go? I have no other home. Where will my children go? And what about the law? The law should protect me, that is why we have laws. But the law of Israel pursues me and torments me.”

As she speaks, three of the grandchildren arrive—another Amal, full of spirit like her grandmother; and Khala; and Jud– soon joined by their father, ‘Ala. They take us up to the roof. Water tanks, pipes, laundry lines, grapevines, electric wires, treetops, thick foliage, glowing green. The Al-Aqsa mosque with its black dome rising over the Turkish walls of the Old City. In the other direction, downhill, the path to the tomb of Ayyub, the one who lost everything, his home, possessions, children, his own self, because of a foolish wager his god had hoped to win.  Ayyub– the man who knew no peace because, as he says, “they trespass, they steal the flocks, they take the orphan’s donkey and seize the widow’s bull, they banish the poor from the way….” [Job 24:2-4]

This is a moment when a message or phone call to the JNF could make a difference:


For those living outside of Israel :   1. 800.JNF.0099

42 East 69th Street
New York, NY 10021

Tel +1 800.JNF-0099

Mountcliff House
154 Brent Street

Tel 020 8732 6100

Every voice counts, and time has almost run out

David Shulman © 2020

Bir Ayyub (Well of Job), 1900.

2 thoughts on “May 31, 2020 Sumarin family, Silwan. Texts and photographs: David Shulman

  1. Your posts are a life line that lifts me out of the weight preoccupations that seem beset me in this pandemic situation. After all I am safe can go for a walk without the slightest fear when just on the outside of this bubble like enclosure there is so much need, suffering and grief and this step by step dispossession of these indigenous families is so acutely reprehensible and ugly done surreptitiously as if no one would notice or pay attention. This outrage also will not pass. I am so sorry to have been unable to attend your show and welcome the publication of your book .


  2. Pingback: Update: The Sumarin Family | Touching Photographs

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