A Brief Conversation in Gawawis, July 8, 2023: Text and Photographs, Margaret Olin

If someone is going to warn you to stay away from your own land, is it better to hear it spoken fluently in your native language? So it appeared in Gawawis last Saturday, at least for a moment.*

We found our way past old stone walls that marked off one family’s land from another’s. Eventually, Jibrin’s usual route came into view. He and his sheep take that route from his home in the valley to the hill in the distance, and from there, as far as they dare to go up the hill. The settler outpost barely visible at the top sits on land that belonged to Jibrin’s family. His aunt and her family lived there before they were driven away.

Near the top we found Jibrin waiting for us

His sheep were there, too. Once there were eighty-two sheep, now only these are left, about twenty.

A soldier also waited.

Actually two.

When he was ready to make his move, Jabrin motioned to us to follow. It is best to have a non-Palestinian nearby when you converse with soldiers.

With a Czech-Israeli doctor named Pavla and me behind him, Jabrin ascended to meet the soldiers.

Two conversations went on at once. One soldier approached me, recognizing a fellow American. He asked me where I was from. He seemed to know all the places in Chicago that I had ever lived, and even admitted that his family once lived, like mine, on the south side. But he would only let on that he was from “Illinois.” Why did he need to keep his origins a secret?

Meanwhile, Jabrin and the other soldier appeared to have a great rapport. They bantered together in Arabic; they smiled; they laughed. Even with my rudimentary knowledge I thought I could tell that the soldier’s Arabic was fluent, even native. Apparently I was right, for I heard Jibrin ask him whether he was an Arab.

“I’m a Jew,” he answered.

Don’t go any further up the hill, the soldier told Jibrin. By all means stay away from the settlement over there. He pointed to Mitzpe Yair, an unauthorized outpost where Said goes every week with his family to work his land, sometimes to be expelled by soldiers, sometimes to be attacked by settlers, and once in a while actually to dig up the soil or build a stone border.* Generally it is gone before the following week’s visit. Since my last visit, Said has been pursuing a new project. He is seeking to have his land surveyed, in preparation for his next court case. Unsurprisingly, the survey is postponed from week to week. The soldier told Jibrin: “If you go there, there will be trouble (mushkila).”

In parting, Jabrin said, “I just want peace.” Of course we are all familiar with that phrase. We hear some version of it nearly every week from someone. Some of us regard it as hackneyed. But all of us also know that for Jabrin, who has been working with us for years, it is perfectly true.

The soldier answered Jabrin. “Don’t lie to me.”

text and photographs Margaret Olin © 2023

I am grateful for Pavla’s help with translation in the field.

  1. We’ve written some about Gawawis, for example, here and here. ↩︎
  2. Of our many posts about Said, the most recent are here and here. ↩︎

4 thoughts on “A Brief Conversation in Gawawis, July 8, 2023: Text and Photographs, Margaret Olin

  1. the ancient law will leave its markers and the land will never be cleared of its indigenous dwellers by the new arrivals who feign to hopscotch into a deeper claim over the land: such sick making pretence!

  2. What an interesting encounter with a soldier from Illinois who speaks fluent
    Arabic. That’s a conundrum. And even to have engaged in a relatively pleasant conversation with a Palestinian‘S supporter! Lots of questions left unanswered.

    • Lots of conundrums here. I revised the post just now, hoping to make it a little clearer that the Arabic-speaking soldier was not the same soldier as the one who hailed from my home state. Each soldier gravitated toward his language-mate. But indeed, the encounter showed, in frustrating clarity, a glimpse of a shared existence on this land that could be so utterly different.

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