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Walls [Gone to Palestine: 8]

[‘Allar Village Wall. Image from Palestineremembered.com] [‘Allar Village Wall. Image from Palestineremembered.com]

We went to visit our friend who was participating in the summer program for foreigners at Aida camp in Bethlehem. We were surprised that it took only ten minutes from the center of Jerusalem to get to the checkpoint at Rachel’s Tomb. There we started to take pictures. We walked through the spotless new terminal and thought of our tax dollars. On the Bethlehem side, we took pictures of a huge sign that the Israeli Board of Tourism had put up on the wall.

It said “Go in Peace” in Hebrew, English and Arabic. The taxi drivers wanted to give us tours of the Church of Nativity and Shepherds’ Field, and would not take no for an answer. Finally they relented and told us how to get to Aida camp on foot. They told us to follow the wall around as best we could, and they were right. It was not far at all, though the blazing summer heat wilted us as we walked.

We reached the camp and soon found our friend who was at the community center. The director invited us in. In his cool, airy office, we drank coffee and talked about the center for a while. When we’d finally shrugged off the heat of our walk, Raji offered to give us a tour and show us how the wall has affected their community. The camp had been opened around 1950, the third in the Bethlehem area that took in refugees, both those who had fled in 1948 and those who had subsequently been expelled. When his family fled their village in the western part of the Hebron district, they had followed the rest of the family to Bethlehem. When they heard about the UN Camps opening up around Bethlehem, they went first to Daheisha, but all the tents there were taken. Then they went to al-‘Azza camp, but again were turned away. For months, they rented a cave in Beit Suhour, walking miles each morning to fetch water. The men worked in the fields nearby; the women sold vegetables in the market. 

When news arrived that a new camp was opening up, they made sure to not to miss their chance. They registered as soon as possible and relocated there soon after. Raji showed us photographs of the tents they’d lived in for years, then others of the primitive one room concrete houses the UN built in the 1950s, “Whole families—five, six, seven, eight people each—lived in these rooms. In the summer, these places were ovens.” Later, when we saw the ruins of these old structures on our tour, we could not believe how tightly packed they had all been, living without kitchens, bathrooms, electricity or water.

We walked around the camp where roughly four thousand people still lived. We asked people where they were from, and we heard a list of places whose traces had been erased: Ajjur, Beit Gibrin, Beit Nattif, Deir al-Dubban, Deir al-Hawa, Deir al-Sheikh, Jaba‘, Kirbet al-Tannur and so on. All these were within twenty miles from where we now stood. These were all people who had been born in the camp, whose parents had been born in the camp, some whose grandparents had been born in the camp. Yet they still insisted that they were from somewhere else. We asked them why they were still calling themselves “refugees.” We asked them why they called the place a “camp” when everyone now lived in multi-storied apartment buildings with electricity and running water, usually. We asked why they did not just move somewhere else if they had the chance. They were patient with us, they knew that we asked our questions because we wanted to understand.

Throughout the camp we saw many kinds of trees—almonds, figs, loquat, mulberry lemons, and olives. Many of the buildings had thick arbors of grapes. One woman we met insisted that we take a bunch of fat red grapes from her vine. We popped them into our mouths like candy as we walked. In more than one empty lot, we spotted patches of mint, chard, parsley and cucumbers and realized, that even though these people lost their land sixty years ago, they never stopped being farmers.

Every now and then, Raji would point to a building and tell us a story. “Do you see that window? In 2002, during the reinvasion, Israeli snipers took up positions on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel. All night long, they’d launch flares and shoot at anything that moved. There were weeks when no one went outside, and every morning we’d find the carcasses of dead cats and dogs in the alley. Shot dead by Israeli soldiers practicing with night vision goggles. One night, the man who lived here heard noises in the alley below and looked out his window. A sniper’s bullet struck him in the head. He died instantly.”

We looked up, the apartment looked empty.

The family had three sons. All of them went to prison after their father died, even though none of them had ever been active in politics before. One has been held without charges since 2002. One was convicted for possessing a firearm. Another was convicted of aiding an action in Tel Aviv. The mother died not long after—the pain of losing her sons was too much. Some of the sisters got married, the younger ones have gone to live with their aunts. 

We walked by the mosque, and Raji pointed out the bullet holes on the walls of buildings. He introduced us to a woman whose mother had died only three weeks ago.

When Gaza began, they started coming through every Wednesday and Thursday night to arrest the teenagers. That night, with the troop carriers and the apache helicopters buzzing overheard there was so much noise and commotion that people couldn’t hear themselves think. Her family was huddled in the interior room to keep away from the windows, and they never heard the soldiers banging on their door demanding to be let in. When no one answered, the soldiers rigged explosives around the door frame. At the moment it went off, the mother of the family was carrying water from the kitchen. When the door exploded into the hallway, its metal shards hit her and threw her into the cement block wall. She was badly injured and bleeding internally. Had they been allowed to take her to the hospital, she might have survived.

And do you know why the soldiers wanted to get into the house? They wanted to use it to create an entrance into the camp. At some point after Jenin, they decided it was too dangerous to move about in the open streets. Now they pick a house on the edge and use it as their entrance to the camp. They blow holes through the walls it shares with the houses around it, making alleys from the inside of one house to the next and so on. And that’s how they move around the camps now. They invade by turning our houses inside out, using our walls against us.

We asked where they buried their dead since they were not from Bethlehem and were not allowed to use its graveyards. Was there a cemetery in the camp itself? Raji said,“You saw the graveyard on your way in? That’s where.” We went to where his parents and grandparents were buried. Standing there in that crowd of gravestones, Raji told us how that was the only open space left in the camp now that the wall had been built around it from the other sides.

The kids ride bikes here and throw rocks at the guard tower. If they’re really bored, they light tires on fire and whistle. If the soldiers are bored and in the mood to play, they come over in their jeeps. They wait for a rock to hit their jeep, then they let loose with rubber bullets. A lot have been seriously maimed. A few have gotten killed.

Raji wanted us to get a better view of the wall. We knocked on the door of a building and were let up to the roof. On the way, we passed a group of armed young men making tea on the third floor. They invited us to join them. From there, we could see how the wall separated the camp from a large, ancient olive grove.

Before the wall went up, that grove was our public park. The owners are the Armenian Church and they let us come and go as we wished. As children we flew kites there and ran through the trees. We hunted birds and set traps for rabbits there, and helped our grandmothers collect wild thyme there in the spring. When we got older, we’d go there to smoke cigarettes or to talk to girls away from the eyes of the camp. In the olive season, we helped with the harvest. They paid us in olive oil.

He walked around the wall, where lots of people had scrawled graffiti, and where some artists had created some amazing murals. Some were done by famous foreign artists. Most were images that gave the illusion that the wall could be broken through, lifted up, or turned into a window. He showed us the graffito Roger Waters had spray painted on his visit to the wall. If he had not pointed it out, we would have missed it.

When I was a teenager, I thought that “The Wall” was about my life. I must have listened to it hundreds of times while I sat in my room, trying to turn my feelings of loneliness into something profound. “Comfortably Numb” was my anthem. I bought that album the year my parents divorced, the year I stopped studying. That album marked the end of my childhood and the start of something I have lived with ever since. Now, reminded of all this by Water’s scrawl, the whole story seemed suddenly juvenile. Someone commented wryly on the fact that Pink Floyd’s drummer had died only a few days after one of their big concerts in Israel.

Raji then took us to a cafe that had been surrounded on all four sides by forty feet of concrete. For some reason, the army had not been able to bulldoze this building, even though almost all the residents had decided to leave rather than stay after their water and electricity had been cut off. However, the owner of the café would not leave, even after it had been surrounded on all sides by the wall, with only a small entrance left unwalled. By military order, he was allowed to open his shop only during daylight hours. Each morning he arrived right when the soldiers rolled back the barbed wire, unloading water bottles and gas canisters from his car. In solidarity, the taxi drivers and day laborers made a point of stopping at his café, even if only for a quick cup of tea. Last week, the army built an outpost on the roof, hung an Israeli flag over the café and effectively ended its long career. Now the soldiers did not bother moving the barbed wire anymore. Raji told us that as children they used to go over there even though the owner was never nice to the kids from the camp.

Actually, he was famous for how grouchy he was. He had a foul mouth too. We’d go there and hang out, and he’d get mad at us and chase us away swearing at us, saying unbelievably nasty things. But we always came back because it was fun to hear what words he’d invent. Now that I think of it, he must have liked it as much as we did since it gave him opportunities to use language he could not possibly use in his own home. That man educated an entire generation of camp children how to cuss properly.

In the evening we met Raji’s wife, Buthayna, who had cooked us a large North African stew. She had been a student in Tunis during the 1980s, but came back here to live when she married her cousin. We asked her about life in Tunis, but she wanted to talk about Aida Camp instead. With almost no preamble, she engaged us in a political conversation,

For years, we’ve focused our talk on the wall, but the truth is, it had been planned for decades and now we’re penned in and that’s a fact. Lots of people from this camp, and lots of internationals came to put their bodies on the line, but they built the wall anyway. It went up, and there it is: a concrete slab that separates you from the world you used to live in.

Did they have to build the wall right here? Of course not. They wanted the olive grove. They wanted to take away our horizon. And of course, they wanted to make sure we knew they’re the ones in control. You’ve seen the watch towers that look down into our alleys and bedrooms? There are five of them. And if that’s not enough, they can always put their snipers back on the roof of the hotel, and then no one can move here without them looking at us through the scopes on their rifles. Of course we should protest the wall—but what are you going to do? But it arrives pre-fab—already made—and it doesn’t matter what you think of it. It doesn’t care if you accept it or not. It’s a wall.

We took a break and moved into their family room. We sat on cushions on the ground because, as Buthayna explained from the kitchen, “When we elected Hamas, none of us knew we’d soon have to choose between keeping our furniture or buying groceries!” She made us coffee and everyone offered each other cigarettes. She continued,

What we never resisted were the checkpoints. When they started back in 1994, we could have said no. We could have refused and driven by and ignored them. But instead, as individuals we each thought it would be faster to show our papers and go on our way. At first the checkpoints were nothing more than jeeps parked on the side of the road. Then they built concrete barriers, bunkers, watchtowers and fortresses. Never did we descend on one to walk through it en masse. Instead of bombing the checkpoints in our neighborhood, we sent bombers to Tel Aviv instead.

My point is this: unlike the wall, the checkpoints don’t work unless Palestinians cooperate. The checkpoint takes a mass of people and turns it into a line of bodies, controllable simply because they are processed one by one. Instead of resisting the occupation collectively, we now worry about our individual schedules. How many hours will it take to get through here or there? Is it really worth it going out today? Notice how different that is from asking about how to resist occupation.

It was hard to leave the camp, mostly because we feared—as did they—that when we left we could do little to represent their stories effectively. We would hold some public meetings, and some of our friends would come and see our slide shows. Perhaps a couple would sign up for a solidarity tour. But beyond that, we were afraid that by leaving now might cut our connection to Raji and his family and community. It was depressing to contemplate this, even though we wished our hearts were big enough that we could think about them at all times. The sad truth was that we would soon be caught up again in the details of our lives, our children, our neighbors, our work. And  for most of us, it would be these details, not any wall, that would separate us. And they would go back to their homes—as temporary as they were permanent—and wait for the next thing they had to accept or resist.

I think it was this sense of desperation for connection that made me ask Buthayna the name of her village before we left. I even promised her that I would visit it before I went home and that I would send her pictures of the place. She smiled and insisted that it was not necessary. She knew what Allar was like from the stories of her parents, who had visited the place in the 1970s. She looked me in the eyes and said: “You don’t need to go. It was more important that you came to visit us here. Allar is now here, where we are.”

It was difficult to reach the village. We found the name on an old map, and we found a description in a picture book on the oral history of depopulated villages. But, even if you could find the coordinates on contemporary road maps, where the places names had all been changed, it was still a hard place to reach.

It was located in the middle of US Independence Park, one of the forests planted by the Jewish National Fund on the slopes to the West of Jerusalem. I remembered how many trees had been planted in our names, redeeming the Holy Land, making it green again. I remember how many trees we paid for on birthdays, holidays, bar mitzvahs.

The village was fifteen miles from the camp due west. Because of the mountains, we drove up from the West, by way of Beit Shemesh. Turning East through Mahseya, the road climbed straight up the mountains. We passed a group of cyclists who were using the incline for training. We turned off at every picnic spot to wander around, looking for prickly pears or crumbling stone walls, the tell-tale signs of villages that used to exist. Each time, the cyclists would pass us. When we got back in our car, we’d soon pass them again on the road. At the summit, we found an observation post and pulled off. It looked promising. We had a 360° view, Tel Aviv to the northwest, Jerusalem to the northeast, the hills around Beit Jala and Bethlehem to the east, Hebron’s hills somewhere to the south. We looked toward the north and saw some stone terraces on the next mountain, but nothing else. We looked at all the signs in Hebrew that probably explained the significance of the various things we were seeing, but we couldn’t understand what they said. Soon, the cyclists came and stretched out to take naps on the picnic tables and on the ground itself. We decided to walk down the hill to get away from them.

Within feet of stepping off the parking lot, we had stumbled onto the ruins of Allar. Under the summit, there was a terrace made of cut and rough stones. We found a cellar archway immediately. Our car was parked on what had once been a large farmhouse. We followed the terrace as it wrapped around the hill and soon found ourselves within a grove of old fruit trees—there were pomegranates, almonds, mulberries and even a cluster of trees we knew to be plums by the piles of freshly rotting fruit at their feet. We climbed down to the next terrace and walked back around the hill the other way—at the far end. We found the remains of another farm house, the entrance to the cellar almost entirely hidden by an tree growing next to it. The parched grass gave off a buckwheat smell as we stepped through it.

We continued walking, and discovered countless other foundations, standing walls, and the tell-tale arched stones of cellar entrances. We began to recognize how many old foundations were framed by cypresses, now grown thick and tall, their desiccated berries falling everywhere. Each terrace had at least a couple cisterns and we had to avoid falling into them. We dropped pebbles down into the limestone caverns to hear how deep they were. As we descended, we stopped finding ruins, and the fruit trees were replaced by olive groves, their thick, gnarled trunks almost mineral or animal. We lost count of how many terraces we climbed down, and only stopped after passing a thicket of prickly pear and walking into a stand of imported Scotch pines, now ravaged by local beetles. Looking up from the bottom of the knoll, we could now clearly make out the dozens of rows of stone terraces that had been so invisible from the summit. It seemed as if the mountain itself had been painstakingly constructed from volutes of limestone wall, each holding up a single terrace, each terrace holding up homes that had once been there. It took the better part of an hour to climb back up to the car, and by the time we got there, the cyclists were gone.

Even though the only reason we had gone there was because of the errand I had invented for myself, somehow I could not bear to send the pictures to Buthayna. The more I recalled her reaction to my idea of the visit, the more I realized that she did not want me to go to her village, or, that if I did go, she would not want to see the pictures I would take of the place. In the end, we sent them a card enclosing only the photo of ourselves with her husband. He was not even looking at the camera.  

[Earlier installments of this series can be found herehereherehereherehere and here.]

1 comment for "Walls [Gone to Palestine: 8]"

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I find this piece very moving. Thank you for the description of Allar. This is how Palestine was, beautiful, and it is a shame what has been done to it and its people. Thank you for writing this down.

Hilary Shadroui wrote on September 12, 2011 at 09:10 AM

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