Abu Isma‘il says: “How long can a person live? Sixty used to be old. [Abu Isma‘il is 62.] Let’s say that today people live till seventy or eighty. It’s not very long. Why would anyone waste his little lease on life by stealing from others, by inflicting pain? By giving in to greed? Filastin, this land, used to be paradise, jannah. Allah created it as the jannah. Even now—just look around—it would be paradise, fruitful, peaceful, gracious, if only the settlers and the soldiers…..”
You can finish the sentence for yourselves. For the last three days, he’s come out to graze his herd all alone, with our activists to protect him. Without our presence, he might not venture out at all. And he has good reason to be afraid. There’s the arch-settler Omer, whom we know too well; who can be counted on to harass, to expel, to threaten, to drive his ATV right through the flock, to send the soldiers to do his bidding and force the shepherds off the land. And there’s the settlement of Mvo’ot Yericho, very close to Dyuk, where Abu Isma‘il lives. He has survived a long history of settler terror coming from Mvo’ot. Recently another, newly arrived settler has set up camp between Dyuk and the pasture land, and this so far nameless settler has been driving the shepherds crazy. Violence, threats of more violence, insult, more insult—the usual fare. Who would waste his life by inflicting pain?
* * *
We arrive, Yigal, Joseph, and I, before dawn. At first: pitch darkness in the desert. The days are shorter now. A cool wind. Abu Isma‘il overslept, he is on his way; we wait on a hilltop. Slowly, as if reluctant, not at all certain that daytime is what is called for, light begins to filter in. First we see the hills across the Jordan River to the east. Peering into the half-light to the south, we sight sheep and goats in the distance: infinitesimal ink-spots on grey.
We walk toward them through the desert, which has never been gentler, more alive. Then, just before we reach them, in the measured rhythm of Allah’s creation of paradise, the sun breaks through, and the ink-spots are now white, reddish, black, and Abu Isma‘il is walking beside them, next to the donkey.
The light also reveals Omer’s ominous farm with its hundreds of date-palms. But today’s grazing is peaceful. It’s the tail end of the hot season, and there’s really nothing left for the sheep and goats to eat on the hills south of the road that the army has arbitrarily fixed as a boundary. Palestinians are not supposed to cross this road and graze to the north, on pain of punishment. Not surprisingly, only the land north of the road still has a little gesh—wild grains and straw—that the sheep can eat. So Abu Isma‘il crosses the road, not without apprehension, with us beside him, and sure enough the sheep mow down all the last remnants of edible gesh. Within a couple of hours, they leave an empty, flat land behind them.
Several of the ewes are pregnant; another one gave birth two days ago and is back in the field today. It’s the birthing season, right before the rains. Let’s hope the settlers don’t find an opportunity to make the ewes miscarry, as settlers have done many times before, including occasions I remember well at Mvo’ot Yericho. They’ve also dug a deep ditch in a wide arc around the settlement, for the sole purpose of preventing the shepherds from grazing on these fertile lands. And guess whose lands they are. One of these days we are going to bring a tractor and fill in the ditch ourselves.
For the last three months or so, the shepherds have had to supplement whatever little fodder the herd can find on the hills with barley bought in Jericho at 400 or 500 shekels a sack—an astronomical sum for these people who survive, as the Arabic proverb says, only min qillat al-mot, because death is scarce. So they pray that the rains come soon. Abu Isma‘il confidently predicted two weeks ago that it would rain on October 20th. The date came and went. Once the rains start, green grasses will begin to appear, and there will be food. God willing, he says, Inshallah, soon it will rain.
Things are hard, but we laugh a lot when we’re with Abu Isma‘il. He’s a kind of bon vivant, living on almost nothing, and the pater familias of ten sons and daughters and some thirty grandchildren. (Whenever I ask him just how many there are, he loses count around 25 or 26). His daughter-in-law, the fearless Umm Rashid, is out picking olives. And his son Isma‘il is busy with other matters. So Abu Isma‘il is alone—one donkey, one watchdog, and about thirty sheep and goats. And us. The graceful gazelles of the Jordan Valley also put in an appearance.
When it’s time to leave, he asks us to keep watch for him as he heads home over the arid hills. The road home is not without danger. So we wait, and sure enough, the settlers, or maybe the soldiers, send up one of their raucous drones to take our pictures, and no doubt to photograph Abu Isma‘il too on his way, and maybe to terrify the sheep. Also today there is an impromptu army blockade on the road, just where the big red signs warn Israelis that they are about to enter Area A, forbidden by law to Israeli citizens. But the signs are wrong, as we know from long ago. Area A begins much farther south. Anyway, the soldiers are stopping all Palestinian vehicles to check them. The usual thing. After a while we see Abu Isma‘il and the sheep at a distance, still in the hills; they’ll bypass the soldiers and cross over to Dyuk somewhere beyond the blockade. He’s not afraid now, he tells us on the phone. Everything is just fine. May Allah be with you. He waves goodbye just before he disappears into the wadi.
Now, at home, I still hear the strange and lovely sound the sheep make – crunch munch swish- when chewing. And I remember
what Amiel said to me almost two years ago that has been a light in the darkness. It was after a hard day in south Hebron, with people hurt and arrested. You can read the story here. Whenever I have doubts about what we are doing, when the bad despair strikes, I hear Amiel saying to me, “You know the sound the sheep make when they’re eating those thorns and grains? When I hear that, even if it’s only from one single sheep, that’s enough for me.”
David Shulman © 2021. photogaphs Margaret Olin © 2021, unless credited otherwise.