Abu Isma‘il promises me that if I come every day, he’ll teach me the language of the sheep. In time, I could become fluent. It’s an offer that’s hard to resist. Those throaty clucks and clicks and lengthy grunts and warbles—to my ears, it’s like some rustic dialect of Italian.
But I can’t go there every day, and anyway the corona virus has finally reached Nu‘ema, where we start the day with Samir. Today is the first time that I’ve seen the shepherds fully aware, and concerned, about it. A girls’ school in Nu‘ema has been shut down after three of the teachers were infected. Palestine has apparently received large reserves of the Russian vaccine, but Abu Isma‘il, like others, is skeptical about it.
Mid-morning, out on the hills, he tells us his story. They are Bedouins, originally from around Ein Gedi. In 1948 they were driven out and came north to the hill country, and from there, years later, after the 1967 war, they came down to al-‘Auja. Unlike his eight children (including Samir) and uncountable grandchildren, whose names he sometimes forgets, he grew up in tents. It was a good life, he says, hard but good. In classrooms teachers actually taught students face to face; today even the teacher is poking at his cellphone. “Now Um Rashid”—his daughter-in-law, out with the herd on the next hill—“also sits there on the ground and plays with her phone.” There she is, we can see her, immersed in messaging, surrounded by black goats.
Abu Isma‘il is jocular, mischievous, witty. The default sadness and insult are hidden somewhere below the surface. At moments they break through. About two weeks ago, soldiers came in a jeep and drove right into the herd. The sheep scattered in terror; one was pregnant and aborted. “That baby was a living being, and the soldiers killed it.” His words. It happens like that quite often. And in the last few days in Greater ‘Auja four houses and various other buildings, including sheep-pens and two mobile caravans, were destroyed by the army bulldozers (“giraffes,” as they are called in Arabic).
I say to him: it’s all about violence, ‘unf, and injustice, zulum. He rolls the zulum word on his tongue, repeats it, tastes its bitterness, almost as if it were something strange and new, when in fact it’s entirely familiar and routine. Then he smiles and says to Yigal and Sarah, “Da’ud”—that’s me—“likes to come here, he likes places like this where a person can breathe.”
If you want to learn how to follow Marcus Aurelius’s advice—“Simplify yourself”, haploson seaton—and thus to cultivate the elusive art of happiness, I recommend face-to-face lessons with Abu Isma‘il.
And if you want to see what the struggle looks like, and why we are here, I can offer today’s infinitesimal vignette. At Taybeh, at the top of the ridge, there is a rain-fed wadi with fertile black topsoil. The fields belong to the villagers, who have the Ottoman deeds of ownership, kushan, to prove it. There are also Bedouins living in tents on parts of the land. Since the rains have come, we are in the season of plowing and sowing seeds. Half a mile to the north lies the big Israeli settlement of Rimonim; they are not the only settlers in the area. On the night of December 1st, settlers came under cover of darkness and plowed over the Palestinian fields. They’re religious, those settlers, and very sure that God himself—obviously a false god– gave them some kind of super-kushan over all the land.
So it’s been touch and go. The settlers came back and plowed on another night and then, brazenly, in broad daylight. Last week Arik and several activists worked in the Taybeh fields beside the owners, sowing seeds, with settlers lurking close by. (The Palestinian owner of the big field was too frightened to do it himself, but he showed the activists what to do.)
There is an acute possibility that those fertile lands will be lost (that is, stolen). So every day counts. The owners have to maintain a visible presence on their lands. It can also be dangerous, by night or by day. We are talking about thugs and thieves.
Today, on our way home, Arik sends us to talk to one of the Taybeh farmers, Haj ‘Id. He says nothing much has happened in the last 24 hours or so. We can see a herd of settler cows on the hill, some ways off, not too far above the fertile wadi. OK—it seems we can leave. But no sooner are we in Sarah’s car than Haj ‘Id rushes after us to say that the cows are descending toward the fields. We’d better take a closer look. We drive north for half a mile or so, trying to get to a vantage point where we can take pictures. A police van follows us, stops us, a burly policeman asks if everything is OK and why we keep stopping and starting. He has observed us, parked at Haj ‘Id’s house, where, he says, we were obstructing the road. That is untrue. Grumbling a little, he drives on.
Sarah finds a dirt path that is more or less passable, so we turn east and bump over the rocks. No good. We have to do this on foot. We set off over the rocks in the direction of the cows. There are two settler teenagers, in black, their dangling tallit fringes visible even from afar. We take our pictures, send some to Arik, wait a bit. What more can we do? Then Yigal notices that the cows are now inside the plowed fields and heading down, deeper in. We consult with Arik who says: call the police.
I can transcribe only part of the conversation with the police—Yigal’s part, which I heard, and what he remembers. He reports that settlers are invading Palestinian fields at Taybeh. How does he know? “I know.” At first the police are not overtly hostile. They give us a “case number”, 3399, for use in subsequent calls. The second call introduces one Ran Shimon, presumably a police officer, who knows Arik well from many conversations, if you want to call them that. He also knows the scene. He’s not too eager to come out. Policeman Ran asks Yigal if the owner is with us, with deeds of ownership, the kushan or some legal form attesting to it, in his hands. No, he isn’t. In that case, says Policeman Ran, there is no reason for him to come to see how things stand, because there has been no criminal misdemeanor. “What do you mean?” says Yigal: “If I bring my herd of cows into your front yard, and you’re not home, or maybe you’re home but you don’t have your deed of title in your hands, that means there is no wrongdoing?” “I’m not saying if it is right or wrong,” says Policeman Ran, “just that there is no reason for me to intervene.” He needs to see the owner with the title deed while the cows and the herders are there on his land (as indeed they are now, trampling on the newly plowed fields). Otherwise, there is nothing he can do. Then Arik, calling from Jerusalem, persuades him that he does have to come, as the police have already taken a complaint regarding an invasion to this very plot, and then closed it, citing its failure to identify the invader. So Ran has known all along that this is Palestinian-owned land, and he agrees, in principle to come or send someone, but at the moment he is very busy. It may be an hour, maybe more, before the police arrive.
Meanwhile, the settler herders seem to have been spooked by us, and especially by our cameras, simple cameras that are of little use at such a a distance. We perch ourselves on the rocks and wait; we film some more. And in the end—for now– they drive the cows back uphill, away from the Palestinian fields.
That’s the name of the game. Not very heroic. You have to fight, literally, for every millimeter. You play the game with sheep or goats or cows, with cellphones, with cameras, with your bodies or, if you’re a settler, with clubs and guns. And we have to tell the story to you who are reading it now. It’s always scrambling uphill, responding to some new invasion, large or small, and you can never ask yourself if any particular millimeter is worth the struggle, because it always is, even if you lose a millimeter now or then or a square mile or two or an entire wadi newly sown. And sometimes you win after all. Often it feels crazy, fighting for yet another patch of jagged stone and thorn. But as Yigal says, for a Palestinian family in this arid desert that wadi is a gold mine; it’s what stands between them and destitution. And you can never know if your actions, any of them, will make a difference. Or if the work of today will last until tonight or tomorrow. There is only one thing you can truly know.
text: david shulman © 2020, photographs by David Shulman except as otherwise noted