Four months in quarantine; the virus now raging again in Israel-Palestine; and I’m back where I belong. The hardest part of the lock-down was not seeing our grandchildren face to face; second hardest, not coming to be with the shepherds.
At first they would call me almost every day: “Da’ud, where are you? When are you coming? We need you, all of you. The settlers are driving us crazy. Omer drives his tractor through the herd. The soldiers chase us off the land. They arrested two of us yesterday….” Heart sinking, conscience stirring, I would try to explain: we’re not allowed to go farther than a hundred meters from the house. And we’re old. And so on. I am embarrassed to speak of danger to people who live each day on the brink.
Isma‘il greets us at dawn; recognizes me from a distance, as if there were no gap and only yesterday I was with him. “There’s no corona in al-‘Auja,” he says, “but in Hebron the situation is terrible. The hospitals are full.” What about Omer and the soldiers? It changes, he says, from day to day. Occasionally there are peaceful mornings, early, before it gets too hot. It all depends on Omer’s mood. He’s gives the soldiers their orders, and they do what he says. Then I remember that last week there was a soldier who started out by attacking Guy and then relented, listened to what Guy had to say, and in the end this soldier miraculously turned into a human being and said he was sorry. All things in life are singular, some things more singular than others.
This morning there are herds scattered over the hills. I speak to Mhammad, I tell him we can reach him within two or three minutes if he needs us. The soldiers tend to come between 7:00 and 7:30. Isma‘il has positioned his herd near the road where he can see them coming (and maybe escape). Arik, in Jerusalem, holds every one of these shepherds—maybe every one of the sheep and goats as well—in his mind, and he calls several times to make sure we are in touch with everyone and know what to do. Each person is singular—and then there is Arik.
By 8:00 it is too hot for the sheep, and we can take leave. Nothing happened today except for a peaceful grazing, which counts as something, not nothing. Sarah says that when she comes here, she’s like a white cloud: a certain peacefulness descends on al-‘Auja. But not every time. Anyway, it worked today. It’s the continuity of our presence that makes a difference. I’m a little drunk on the light and the dusty sun-fried fragrance and the Arabic and the friendship. It’s almost enough. What would be enough? Amiel gave me a definitive answer some months back, before corona. We had a particularly hard day in South Hebron. We were photographing a new illegal outpost and making our protest, and the Border Police came and made some violent arrests. People were hurt. (You can read about it here…). The next morning I met Amiel by chance on the bus. I said to him, You know, yesterday was really tough, and sometimes I can’t help asking myself if it is worth it— the price we pay for these mostly futile gestures. Amiel said, “There are also successes. But for me, when I am with the shepherds and the flocks, when I hear that grinding, chewing noise a sheep makes when eating the thorns and grasses she loves, even if it’s only one single sheep, that’s enough for me.”
It all comes down to a single sheep.
We stop to visit Samir and Nawal, to congratulate them; there is a new baby, Yihya, number seven, born two months ago. Samir is the one the settler from Mvo’ot Yericho tried to kill by running him down with his car. He’s not home this morning. Sarah has brought a gift for the baby, who is asleep on a mat surrounded by his sisters. I watch him for a few minutes before tea arrives. Flies flitter around his cheeks, forehead, lips. At times Hanin, his eldest sister, brushes them away. In his sleep his lips move softly as if sucking milk, as babies do in their dream. By now it’s hot outside, soon the temperature will reach the 40’s, but Yihya is covered with a light blanket; he’s chubby, with lots of hair. Although I’m not much of a praying man any more, I say aloud to Nawal, May Allah give you, all of you, good health, may He guard you and nourish you and grant you happiness. But staring still at Yihya, I can almost see him someday out on the hills with the sheep, maybe with his brothers, almost certainly with the brutal settlers and the soldiers, too, and words fail. Then, in silence: “I’m not sure You exist, but I’m sure You know the blessings better than I do.”
Postscript: No one should think that one quiet morning is a harbinger of a greater or more lasting quiet. The day after I was in Auja, the arch-settler Omer threatened Mhammad, who was grazing on his own land “near the palm trees,” and told him that if he ever came there again he, Omer, would send the army to drive him away for good. Notice who gives the army orders, and who obeys them. We will, of course, accompany Mhammad back to the palm trees whenever he wants to go there.
text David Shulman © 2020; photographs Margaret Olin © 2020 (all the photographs taken between 2014 and 2019 in Auja or Umm al-Amad)