The worst thing was looking into his eyes. That was anyway about all I could see of him, since his face was masked with a filthy cloth, lest he be photographed and identified. Not that there was any likelihood the police would bother him in any way.
He wasn’t alone. There were four of them, masked, two of them dressed in black.
I knew I had to confront them, there was no other way. All four of them were over fifty years younger than me; and I am still nursing my injured knee. I walked toward them over the rocks, downhill.
“What are you doing here?
They hurl the question back at me. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m with the shepherds. Palestinians.”
“Get out of here.” Then a string of bitter curses and growls and other horrible sounds that I won’t try to reproduce.
I was expecting them to hit me, four against one.
Everything was wrong. We try not to be alone in the field. But I’d left Meryl to guard Nadia and the other shepherds while I was looking for a way to extricate Henry and his jeep from these same four settler thugs. They were close to the car, maybe ready to throw rocks, or worse, but fortunately they wandered off, and then they saw me.
The eyes. I have seen essence of hatred before, but only in the eyes of settlers. I remember it—actually, how can one ever forget it?—from the first time I was physically assaulted, on a rainy winter day in Twaneh. And several times after that. Today the poison pouring from his eyes was the worst. I can’t say I was not afraid.
Still screaming curses, they watch me as I walk slowly back uphill to Nadia’s herd. Henry succeeds in driving the jeep out of the settlers’ range. We rendezvous after some time amidst the four herds grazing on the abundant grass the rains have watered this year. More rain falls in the course of the morning. Vast purple clouds pass over our heads. I think the evil four might reappear, unable to resist the impulse to attack and hurt. They must have resisted it, this time.
I ask Nadia how the festival, ‘Id al-Fitr, had been for her and the family. Not so good, she said. She was in a lot of pain. Where is the pain? She tells me something I hadn’t known. Many years ago, when she was a young child, settlers attacked her and wounded her badly in the right eye. She lost most of her sight in that eye, and it still hurts, especially when the weather is hot and dry. The eye doctors wanted, maybe still want, to operate, but she’s afraid of the operation, and it costs far too much for a family of shepherds to pay.
Maybe it’s the wind and the rain, but Ahmad, maybe nine years old, tells me I have to get a haircut, and also to grow my mustache on both sides down to my chin. He explains to me that this will be a big improvement in my overall demeanor. I plan to obey Ahmad’s urgent command.
When at last the sheep are full—huddled in a mass against the cold, or trying to sleep off their feast—the shepherds begin the slow journey home. I’m glad I have eyes to see this wonder. For the moment, no poison remains, only the golden desert, the ragged hills, the sheep and goats stumbling, or straggling, along the path, the shepherds behind them. We watch over them until they disappear, herd after herd, into the hills. We need to see them safely home. We take up our position beside the main road they have to cross, the point of greatest danger. Umm Rashid calls to tell me they are safe, and we, too, can go home.
text: David Shulman © 2022; photographs © 2022, as credited.