Dawn. Several children still asleep in their blankets, on the ground outside the house. Good desert smells. The older girls are beginning their chores: water has to be brought from the tanker; milk is being churned, or perhaps pasteurized, in what could be a repurposed washing-machine. There is a new baby, two months old, sleeping in her crib. Ghazal, maybe a year and a half old, holds a glass of tea in her hand while her eyes, obsidian black, study Yigal and me with unwavering interest. Then a smile. Nadia asks if we’ve been well. Yigal answers with the blessing: “‘aishin min shafek,” “We come alive when we see you.”
Ismail is busy elsewhere today. Two sisters-in-law are going out with their herds, with us beside them. Umm Rashid’s herd is much reduced after she sold off many of the sheep. I ask Nadia how the week has been. “The usual,” she says. “Always the settlers. But it’s been mostly quiet. I hear there are problems in Jerusalem.” She must have heard about yesterday’s mass march into the Old City, the Fascists screaming “Death to Arabs” and “We’ll burn down your village.” “Yes,” I say. “There have been attacks, also many demonstrations—of people like us, who resist the government, and counter-demonstrations by the settlers and the racists. In short: problems.” Mashakil, problems, is the all-purpose word, encompassing the range between verbal and non-verbal harassment, existential threats, and outright physical attack.
The other word that seems to creep into every sentence is mustawtin, “the settler.” Sometimes it means a specific person, whom they know; at other times it is a generic word, a category of ominous and dangerous humans. The mustawtin comes and scatters the herd. The mustawtin is driving us crazy. And so on. And in fact, as Nadia and Umm Rashid sit on the hilltop with the sheep below them, speaking of everyday things, the family, a mustawtin drives by in the “security vehicle” of the settlement, Mvoot Yericho. They know him only too well, and I remember him, too. Gavriel. A long and painful history is connected to this name. But today, with his wife in the car beside him, he greets the shepherdesses lightly, smiling. “Is that your wife?” they ask him. Yes, it’s her. No threats today. He drives away.
There’s not much straw or thorny shrub left for the sheep. Just two weeks ago the hills were still partly green. That’s all gone. The landscape is no less beautiful, even psychedelic, but it’s all browns, grays, and beiges. After a couple of hours, the sheep have finished off whatever was edible, and the shepherdesses head home. “Why so early?” we ask them. They explain that there is this invisible line in the sand, not far from their homes, a footpath leading deeper into the hills. But even the intrepid Umm Rashid hesitates to cross it. “If we step onto that path, there will be mashakil.”
That’s what living with terror is like. Ordinary. Quotidien. Almost nonchalant. Demoralizing. Always there, even when you’re asleep.
So it was a gentle morning, the sky overcast, the fierce summer sun hidden. The best part was when Mhammad, on the way home, suddenly turned around and jumped into my arms. Then another child. Best of all were Ghazal’s piercing, curious, approving eyes.
text 2023 © David Shulman; photographs 2023 © as credited