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For once it was easy to find Abu Isma‘il in the pre-dawn pallor of the desert: his was the only herd in sight. Umm Rashid is still struggling with severe back pain. Abu Isma‘il had a bad encounter with soldiers earlier in the week, and for two or three days he didn’t go out with the sheep. Anyway, he lives with constant fear. But yesterday, when I spoke to him on the phone and told him that Rita and I were coming, he lightened up: “I’ll be out there by 5. Can you come at 5?” I bargained him down to 6, which still meant getting up at 4. As always, it was worth it.
The soldiers who harassed him, led by a female first sergeant, tried to drive him off the grazing lands, as soldiers do. They claimed, falsely, that the land he was on belonged to his nemesis, the arch-settler Omer, with his huge illegal “farm.” Fortunately, two of our activists were with him and stood their ground. Firmly they informed the clueless soldiers, who were, believe it or not, just following orders, that the land they were standing on belongs not to Omer but to the Waqf, the Muslim Endowment Board, and that they, the soldiers, had no right under the sun to chase Abu Isma´il away. It worked. The soldiers went away.
Today we had plenty of time to chat. I could see that the constant grind—settlers, soldiers, police, criminal government, human malice—was wearing him down. Also, it’s hot, really hot, within minutes of sunrise; and there is hardly anything edible left on the hills for the sheep and goats. During the summer months the shepherds have to buy food for them in Jericho, at huge expense. A little green grass was still visible on the higher ridge—he showed us—but he can’t go there. Guess why.
In the old days the shepherds of ‘Auja used to move into the hill country near Al-Aqaba, farther north, higher up than the Jordan Valley, during the dry summer months. I know some who still do that, but Abu Isma‘il doesn’t have the energy. “Al-Aqaba,” I said, “I know the village well, and I knew its mayor, Haj Sami Sadeq.” Actually, everyone in Palestine knew him—he was one of those rare people who are capable only of doing good. He turned Al-‘Aqaba into a model village, despite the dozens of demolition orders that the Civil Administration had issued with the clear aim of destroying the place and emptying it of its people. With some crucial help from abroad, including the wonderful Rebuilding Alliance, Haj Sami prevented that from happening. He created a famous kindergarten and school, Al-Haq, a miracle.
The army liked to run training exercises in Al-‘Aqaba, heedless of its inhabitants, and Haj Sami, 16 years old, was shot during one of them; for the rest of his life he was a paraplegic, vigorous and positive beyond belief. What could the army or the army bureaucrats do to a man like that? He dwarfed them by his sheer goodness and courage. Two years ago he died. As it happens, Abu Isma‘il was his close friend. “I loved that man, may Allah have mercy on him,” he said to me, and then for a few moments he wept.
There were also some moments when we laughed. Isma‘il is Abu Isma‘il’s firstborn son who gave his father the name everyone uses (Abu Isma‘il’s given name is Muhammad). Isma‘il is also a shepherd, we often see him, but on Fridays he usually has work elsewhere. “You see,” Abu Isma‘il said, “if the father is a shepherd, the son will be a shepherd. What about your first-born son?” “You mean Tari,” I say; “sometimes we call him Tareq,” in Arabic. “And what does he do? Is he a teacher like you?” “He is,” I say. “So really you are Abu Tareq, I can call you that, right?” You should have seen the twinkle in his eye. “Definitely,” I say, proud of the new title, as I am proud of our son. Then somehow I managed to say in good Arabic the following counterfactual sentence: “But if I had been born here in Dyuk, your village, I’d have become a shepherd too.”
So we had a quiet morning in Al-‘Auja, but make no mistake. Settler violence, backed up by the army, in line with government policy, is raging throughout the central West Bank and the northern Jordan Valley. Whole communities are being expelled from their homes; a second Nakba is taking place as we watch. A stretch of some 40,000 acres of good land north of Taybe are now sanitized—for Jews only. I will be writing to you from around there in the next few days.
text: david shulman © 2023; photographs: as credited. Thanks to Rita Mendes-Flohr for permission to use her photographs from Al-`Auja.