Monday, July 10, 2006

Living in the Village
The following email from one of my readers has inspired me to rewrite and post an earlier essay I wrote about the village. Please Anonymous read the ending if nothing else.

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post
4/24/2006 01:41:00 PM
": I think everyone needs to learn how to live together. The problem is that Palestine refuses to understand this basic concept, they seem hungry for war and despair.This is my opinion and I know you will disagree, but you have that right!

Living in the Village

For fifty years my life was influenced by an inexplicable attachment to a man with whom I rarely lived happily. I traveled to occupied Palestine in the fall of 2005 to care for him. In 1994 he had left the US to return to the village on the West Bank where he was born and grew up. Thirty years of breathing toxic chemicals while employed as a research and works chemist in the US had destroyed his lungs. He was dying a slow and agonizing death by asphyxiation. He spoke only once of his dread of the concluding moments of his life, saying he hoped the final suffocation was over quickly. I was thankful he was unconscious when the end came.

He is buried now not 30 yards from my front door in the family cemetery. Another 30 yards behind his grave is the front porch of my father-in-law’s house where my memory sees him in 1982 holding court for dozens of villagers. They gathered from miles around to visit on his first trip home from Jordan in three years. Tired by his many years, the guests rejuvenated him. He entertained his audience for hours with stories that spanned his nine decades of life, from his military service with the Ottomans to modern life in Amman. His wit was such that even though his stories were translated to me from Arabic and spanned two cultures I laughed aloud. He left us a few years later and now Sami’s grave is located a few feet from his. In the evenings as I dress for bed, I see the framed portraits of our grandchildren glowing with their young beauty and I think of the future.

A dozen spring kids from an exotic breed of goats frolic and bleat in the nearby barnyard. Young children play on the only road. Of the 120 people in the village 75 are under the age of sixteen. The children seem friendly and unspoiled. The charming shyness of one five year old has motivated me to improve my Arabic so I can talk to her. She has large dark eyes and a mop of shining, black hair. In the mornings I’m sometimes awakened by a pair of mourning doves cooing at my window sill. A family of feral cats gathers occasionally at my door and begs for food. Sami fed them before his illness compelled him to leave the house in November for the warmer hotel in the city. An older cat remembers. He leaps up boldly on to the window sill and meows shrilly. They have lived for generations on human food disposed of in the dumpsters. Last week I recognized one of my beggars lying dead beside one of the dumpsters, run over by a passing car. I hesitate to feed them as they will depend on me and then I will leave. One kitten with a long snout and bushy tail resembles a small fox; I’m tempted to tame and adopt. When my sons and I arrived here from the city in February a week after Sami’s death the almond trees were in full bloom. The blooms are gone now and almonds encased in their fuzzy spring green cocoons hang from the trees. The wild cyclamens that covered the ground in front of the house are fading. The space is colored by red wild poppies intermingled by blooms of blue that resemble wild asters. Yellow flowers crowd most of the space and dance in the spring breeze, their exuberance matched by the brightness of their color. Interspersed throughout the plant life are ancient stones jutting two to three feet from the ground. The stone outcroppings are loaded with fossils created a million years ago when the area was under the sea. The family have used many of the stone fossils to build terraces for planting flowers around the old stone house that was built by Cidi (grandfather) sixty years ago. Not far up the incline from my house are the ruins of Saul, a town mentioned in the Old Testament.

A young neighbor, Naseer, spent an hour with me last evening, updating my computer and sharing the plans he has for turning the forest beyond the village into a public park. The trees in the forest were planted by my father-in-law, when he worked as a forester for the British Mandate, during the thirties and forties. A lovely stone fence borders the road leading up the mountain and into the village and the forest beyond. Sami supervised the building of it when he was in high school back in the forties. It’s now in danger of being removed to widen the road to make space for the hundreds of people who drive up this mountain on the weekends to picnic and enjoy the beauty of the place. I discussed with Naseer charging these visitors enough money to finance cutting a new road farther down the slope to save the fence. He agreed and said if people would pay, it would finance building the park and would provide jobs for some of the young people of the village. If the activities of the visitors were supervised they might behave better. They’ve been found cutting down trees and they litter the forest with trash.

Heba, an eighteen year old sister of the five year old charmer, cleaned house for Sami while he was ill. She came by this afternoon with another sister to return laundry she had taken to her house yesterday to wash. Her stocky build and firm square jaw speak of her dependability and I wasn’t surprised when she told me she enjoys housecleaning. I’m glad to see the dangling silver earrings I gave her add to her charm. Playful, they have softened her sturdy face. She refuses to take any pay, seems insulted at the suggestion, so I’ve been generous with gifts. She’s a storehouse of useful information for me. I showed her today where I was having a problem with a leak in the bathroom. She told me immediately who I must call for help. Her English is rudimentary. I’m helping her with new English words while she teaches me a few new Arabic ones each day. I’m learning slowly. Though I enjoy learning new words, I’ve decided I don’t have a talent for languages. Maybe time and persistence will give me an adequate vocabulary. I hope.
I’m certainly practicing the simplicity of my Quaker brethren. I came with only the 140 pounds of luggage allowed by the airlines, much of which was used for gifts. I’ve discovered the advantages of living simply. My one concession to extravagance has always been my wardrobe as I enjoy beautiful clothes. Now I have a few changes of everyday sports clothes, two dress-up outfits for weddings and funerals, a denim jacket and a dressier coat, three pairs of shoes, pajamas and underclothes and nothing more. I’ve found a sparser wardrobe is easier to care for and I don’t waste time deciding what to wear for the day. In the past my protein has mostly been chicken and fish. Fish is hard to find and chickens are scarce since the Avian flu scare announced from Israel last week. I’ve ceased eating eggs. The goats raised on the farm supply me with goat cheese. That and some veggie burgers I found at the supermarket in the nearby town are my sources of protein. A vegetable peddler comes to the village daily in his truck so I have a steady supply of fresh vegetables and fruits. I buy yogurt and milk from the grocer in a nearby town as I find the flavor of the goat yogurt and milk too strong for my taste. Tomorrow I’ll go into the city where I can buy whole wheat bread from a grocer. I like pita but not as my only source of bread. Though mayonnaise is available I’ve found yogurt makes a good substitute and is healthier. I’ll buy mustard and catsup tomorrow and perhaps some ground beef. I find that I anticipate eagerly my weekly shopping excursions. I’m learning first the Arabic words for different foods and fee? (Do you have?) was the first question I learned to ask.
I’m tempted to retire to this house in the village. My sons and I own it now. My money is adequate to live on here and would provide me with a trip back to the states at least once per year. Though I would miss my grandson, the granddaughters live so far away I rarely see them anyway. Before they returned to the states, both sons spoke of traveling here in the summers with their families for vacations, but I doubt if it will happen often. The quiet peace of this place encourages me to write, sketch, and catch up with all the things I planned to do in a hectic, hurried life that interfered with my best intentions. The village is very safe and I’m treated like a star as they’ve never had anyone of my background living among them before. Before he died, Sami said it’s unimaginable to them that an estranged wife would travel all the way from the US to care for an old sick man. That surprised me as I find them to be more generous and hospitable than westerners.
I plan while in the city tomorrow to buy a microphone for my computer so I can make international calls through it at a much cheaper rate than by phone. I miss my friends but the world is truly a global village. With the Internet, I’m still in touch with everyone. Once I have the microphone, I can speak for free with anyone in the US who is willing to download the web page and buy a microphone. I’ll have the whole world available to me from my little house in the village where I am familiar with the cycle of life in dramatic and intimate ways.
This Shangri La, this heaven exists in the midst of hell. I listen daily to stories of the cruelty meted out by the Israelis to the inhabitants of this land they continue to occupy and steal. Neighbors of mine, the village muktar, and his wife had a quarrel with their teenage son last week concerning his study habits. He left the house angry and threw rocks at a nearby settlement, a settlement built on land stolen from his village neighbors. The settlers arrested him, and then went to the family home to threaten further arrests and the destruction of their home if another family member throws a rock. They forbade the parents to see their son for three months. If the Israelis follow their usual policy the boy will be tortured and remain incarcerated for three years.
Muhammad, the keeper of the goats at the family farm, must walk from his village and cross the valley near the settlement to arrive here. The settlers often stop him and force him to sit in the hot sun for hours before letting him continue. This is done only because he is Palestinian.
My late brother-in-law, who grew up here and inhabited the village at various periods of his life, is buried now in the family plot. He died five years ago from bone cancer. When the physicians at the American hospital where he went for treatment x-rayed him they discovered every bone in his body had been broken. They hurried into his room to ask what had happened to him. What happened? In the sixties he led a strike against an Israeli employer. He was arrested, thrown into an Israeli prison and tortured to the point of near death. A brave and compassionate Israeli attorney, a woman, came to his rescue, represented him in court, and obtained his release.
I visited my sister-in-law, Jamilah, this past weekend. She told me stories of the incarceration of other Palestinians. Sickening stories! Israeli soldiers take a cup, four or five of them spit into it, then force the prisoner to drink it; sometimes they urinate in the cup or on the prisoner. She spoke of a villager who in 2001 was painting a fence near the settlement. The settlers kidnapped him, cut out his eyes while he lived, murdered him, then threw his body under his house where his twelve year old daughter discovered him the next morning. Jamilah struggled to describe the composure of the young widow, the mother of five, as she received her visitors at the funeral. She became overcome and said she wished she had not remembered because now she would have trouble sleeping.

I, an American accustomed to freedom and security, explained to Naseer I was reluctant to spend money on renovation of my village house because the Israelis might take it from me and my money would be wasted. His reply was an incredulous, "But why?" The villagers do not hesitate to remodel their homes. Tomorrow night I’m invited to the wedding celebration of a neighbor. I’m urged daily to come for tea by others. When I go for a walk a woman asks me to come in for candy to welcome the birth of a new baby. The mournful wail of the call to prayer interrupts the village quiet five times a day. The majority of the people continue to celebrate their weddings, pray to their God, educate their children, care for their neighbors, and have their babies while they practice passive nonresistance. The American newspapers continue to emphasize only the suicide bombers.


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