June 22, 2018 Al-Auja, Khan al-Ahmar – text by David Shulman

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Mhammad and his flock last month. photograph: Margaret Olin

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Today the shepherds wanted to set out at dawn. In summer, here on the outskirts of Jericho, by 9 or 9:30 in the morning it’s already over 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit)—too hot even for goats. So we leave Jerusalem at first light, and by 6:30 we find Mhammad deep in the desert, close to the fenced-off date-palm grove of the settler Omer, who calls all the shots. Mhammad greets us happily; he’s in a good mood; so far things are quiet. “Soldiers? Have you seen any soldiers?” he asks. “Not yet,” we say.

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Al-Auja, 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

The goats are busy with their lean pickings. Dried-out thorns, a shred of corrugated cardboard, a few leaves—all this constitutes breakfast in the summer. They stand on their hind legs, stretching hopefully toward the higher branches of the tamarisks. It will be months before the rains come and something edible and green re-appears. Among the goats there is one ancient, supremely dignified buck with a long white-brown beard. Mhammad says he’s their leader and commander, mudir. Who would doubt it? The mudir moves slowly, regally, as befits the owner of this patch of creamy rock and sand.

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Al-Auja 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

After an hour, a little longer, the soldiers arrive, as they always do. I recognize the officer; he’s not a bad man. But he’s carrying the cursed piece of paper declaring this area a Closed Military Zone, with a map attached. According to the map, the shepherds have to stay clear of a huge stretch of land that reaches up to their houses, some three or four kilometers away. Meanwhile, Mhammad and his friend have made a fire and boiled tea, and they’re sitting in what, with a little imaginative effort, might be called “shade,” under the branches of a spindly shrub. They’re eating breakfast: fresh pita dipped in olive oil. They pay almost no attention to the soldiers who have come to disturb this feast. We photograph the illegal order and the map and we tell the soldiers to go away; the shepherds will have to move on. The officer clambers back into his jeep. It’s hot, he’s performed the daily ritual, now he waits on the hill to be sure the order is obeyed.

 

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photograph: David Shulman

These shepherds can’t be rushed, and we are certainly not going to urge them forward, or backward, toward home. Why should they hurry? It’s their land. Omer is a cruel intruder. The soldiers are soldiers. Time flows in desert rhythms. Mhammad carries no watch, and occasionally, rarely, he asks us to tell him the time. I think he lives mostly in the slow and beautiful flow of goat time: when the goats have eaten enough, they begin to saunter, or sand-swim, home. They don’t have to be told. From time to time Mhammad gently calls them to order: “Pzhee (high pitch, almost a whistle); khakhakhakha (deep in the throat); cluck-cluck-clack-cluck (flapping the tongue).” It’s a language I’d love to learn. Sometimes he throws a pebble at a sheep or goat who has strayed from the path. By now the soldiers are gone and the sun is high.

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photograph: David Shulman

“I’ve tired you out today,” he says to us, apologetic, concerned for our well-being; we deny it. I offer him really cold water, and he takes it, a long good gulp, standing on a rock near his tethered donkey. I feel like a lean dry thorn myself, with the incontrovertible happiness of being a thorn.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Khan al-Ahmar, we fear, is about to be demolished. The government has announced it, and the Supreme Court, to its eternal shame, has approved it. Since the early 50’s, the Jahalin Bedouin have been living here, after the army chased them off their lands near Tel Arad in the Negev. They’re deeply rooted now in the brown-red hills on both sides of the big road leading from Jerusalem eastward, downhill, to Jericho. That redness (limestone tinged with iron oxide) gives the site its name, the “Red Caravanserai”. Caravans once, not so long ago, would spend the night here on their way to the spice lands in the south. The Good Samaritan of the parable is said to have passed nearby; just down the road there are the remains of a Byzantine monastery that marked the site. On a day like today, rife with wickedness, it’s good to remember that Samaritan who did the right, the only human, thing.

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photograph: David Shulman

We see the Bedouin tents of Khan al-Ahmar each time we drive from Jerusalem to Jericho and each time we return to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. But in the last decades, the settler-suburbs of Maaleh Adumim and Kfar Adumim have spread over the high ridges nearby. These people—or at least some of them, let’s not generalize — don’t want to see an Arab face. It spoils the view. So on the one hand, settlers have been driving the government’s campaign to expel the Jahalin. A ruthless racism rules this policy. On the other hand, there are weighty geopolitical considerations. Khan al-Ahmar is the portal, both tangible and symbolic, to area E1, the vast swathe of land east of Jerusalem that Israel wants to annex, thereby cutting the West Bank in two. If the army expels the 172 souls of Khan al-Ahmar, the other 1200 or 1300 Jahalin Bedouins who live close by will be easy prey.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Even if the school were not there, we would be facing a war crime; it has no other name. But the school magnifies the crime many times over. Today is the first time I’ve visited it. It’s an eco-friendly school, lovingly made from mud or clay and old tires. On the outside walls there are paintings of the Dome of the Rock and, surprise, a white sailboat floating down the non-existent or invisible rivers of Jerusalem to some place, we must assume, of freedom—some place the bulldozers are barred from entering. An inscription in Arabic says: “We will remain here as long as the za’atar and the olives remain.” At the entrance there is a sign declaring this school to be under the supervision of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. This is the Jahalin’s first-ever school. The courtyard is swept clean. Activists from the Combatants for Peace and other organizations are milling around; they have come to protest the crime-to-be. So there are speeches and embraces and kisses and many smiles, along with that unrelenting ache.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Police and soldiers were here several times this week, probably to prepare the ground for the demolitions. They’re a lot like the heartless thieves in the parable. The government has announced that it will resettle the Jahalin in Abu Dis, next to the municipal dump that is now a high hill known simply as “Jabel,” The Hill. No one can live on or near the Jabel. The stench is overpowering, and disease rampant. To dump these human beings on the dump is one of those acts that tell all.

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photograph: David Shulman

But for me, there is something more. To tear down a school is possibly worse even than breaking a home into pieces and burying the pieces in the sand. How many homes have we rebuilt after the army took them down? We’re almost used to it. But a school? Where children first learn to read, where they dream their dreams and play in the courtyard and sing the multiplication table and recite the poetry of the desert and say their prayers? I’m a teacher. I have spent most of my life in classrooms, teaching this and that, languages, thoughts, memories, poems. The mud-and-tires school of Khan al-Ahmar is like any of the others, only more so, like the university I have loved, like the school in Iowa where I learned to read and first fell in love—an almost holy place. It’s not a word I use.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

text David Shulman © 2018  thanks to David Shulman and Amir Bitan for allowing me to use their photographs.

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photograph: David Shulman

 

Uneasy Reprieves: March 24, Umm al-Amad; March 26 Al-Auja

20180324-BC5A1011lvlcrvMarch 24, Umm al-Amad

It’s cold. It’s raining. Aziza serves us hot tea.

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20180324-BC5A1022lvlcrp2She shows us the baby goats, some only a few weeks, or days, old.

20180324-BC5A1023-editAnd then it is time to take the flock to graze . . .

20180324-BC5A1038crvlvlunder the huge settlement, Otniel. Ahmad, her son, is with us.

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Walla, Ahmad’s sister, who has been seen here before, is everywhere

20180324-BC5A1039lvlcrv20180324-BC5A1079crvSo is contentment.

20180324-BC5A1047crpcrv2Eventually, we see that, up on the hill, four soldiers have apparently been assigned to keep an eye on us.20180324-BC5A1082crv

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20180324-BC5A1087lvlcrv.jpgAfter they leave, we almost forget them. Ahmad, who is studying at the Polytechnic in Hebron, talks about his exam in electricity tomorrow. He studies Hebrew there, too, and takes the opportunity to discuss with Li those pesky Hebrew nouns that are masculine but have feminine plural forms.

So we don’t notice them again until they are close.

20180324-BC5A1092crvlvlThe soldiers tried to make conversation.

20180324-BC5A1115crv.jpgBut when they try to talk to Elisheva, she starts to sing. Soon others are singing, and after they exhaust their two-song repertoire of protest songs, they fall into a sullen silence.

20180324-BC5A1101.JPGTo Ahmad: “I have your picture; I know where you live. Today you come with these people and you are safe but tomorrow what will you accomplish?”

20180324-BC5A1134crvAhmad says he does not want the children speaking to people who have guns.

20180324-BC5A1129crv.jpg“Perhaps it would be better,” I cannot resist suggesting, “if the gun were not actually pointing at the child.” He ignores me.

In answer to Ahmad he says, with no trace of irony, “What kind of values are you teaching this child?

20180324-BC5A1123crv.jpgTomorrow, you will be alone.”

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20180326-BC5A1145-editWe are on the other side of Al-Auja from Mevo’ot Yericho where we were Friday. On Saturday in South Hebron, it was cold and wet. Two days later, in the Jordan Valley, it is dry and hot. Today, when our presence seems sufficient to keep settlers from showing up to harass shepherds and scare away the sheep, and no police have come by to investigate . . .

20180326-BC5A1158crv.jpgthe four of us finally have time to ask the important question:

20180326-BC5A1154crvWhat can these sheep possibly be finding to eat? This rocky mountainside is nothing like the lush meadow grass we saw Saturday in South Hebron.

20180326-BC5A1169lvlcrvPerhaps they are being nourished as I am, simply on texture and light.

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20180326-BC5A1192crvlvlThe sheep return home,

20180326-BC5A1191crvKettles are placed on fires, and we make the rounds of compounds, sipping tea and tasting cheeses, fresh vegetables and eggs.

20180326_114353-Arik-Auja-rot.jpgThe talk is mostly discouraging and only occasionally hopeful, all of it anxious. Everyone knows that today is just a reprieve. Many of the families are tired of constant harassment by settlers and indifference, or worse, from the police.

20180326-BC5A1206rotrawAt one stop it is a woman who gives us tea. She impresses us with her seriousness about our shared mission and goals. As we leave, she thanks us one by one and looks especially closely at the two oldest among us.

20180326-BC5A1200crv“I fear for your children,” she says. In her experience, when a family member opposes the occupation, the whole family has to pay for it. I wonder if she has that in mind or whether this is her usual way of speculating on the future. It is moving but also surprising. Looking at me, she adds, “I am a mother, too.”

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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March 23: Along the Road to Bet She’an

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Gavriel is the one running, the one with the flowing hair. He looks like he might be at home in a coffee shop with a guitar on his knee, passing a joint. I remember Gavriels like him from my adolescence, non-violent activists who sang of peace. As we shall see, I believe even this Gavriel may see himself as a messenger of peace.

Apologies: The remainder of this post is temporarily removed. I hope to republish it soon.

 

September 29, 2017, Erev Yom Kippur Al-Auja – David Shulman

Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.

20170728-IMG_9607crpDotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho. 20170721-IMG_9770lvlcrv2crp2darkerThe Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21st this year, some fifteen masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicized, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.

20170721-IMG_9867crvlvl.jpgA little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.20170728-IMG_9722lvlbalcrp2crvsatTa’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.20170721-IMG_9833stplvlcrv.jpgAnd indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.20170728-IMG_9774crpThen the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.

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Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.20170728-IMG_9659crpStrange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic now.

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Al-Auja, September, 2017. photograph: David Shulman

On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”20170728-IMG_9761lvlcrvcrp3balAnother one of those atomic nows.20170721-IMG_9818crvlvlbal

I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”20170721-IMG_9846crplvlcrvbalArik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.20170728-IMG_9685lvlsatHe asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.

text David Shulman © 2017;  photographs (if not otherwise noted) Margaret Olin  © 2017 20170721-IMG_9882lvlcrv2