Ahlam Shibli, Fatoma (Unrecognised no. 17), ‘Arab al-Naim, Palestine, 1999–2000, chromogenic print, 60 x 91 cm. Courtesy of the artist, © Ahlam Shibli
Palestinian history, similar to what James Baldwin wrote of black history in America, “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Sumud is Arabic for steadfastness, a term that we, Palestinians, have reinvented. It comes at a price. To paraphrase social and behavioral sciences professor Dr. Moslih Kanaaneh at Birzeit University, such a price is heavy psychologically, mentally and physically. Heroism is attained in remaining steadfast as one pays the price for steadfastness. There is sumud in practicing sumud.
When I use the term, I know exactly what I mean at a gut level. But I find it difficult to describe fully in words. It is the kind of term that is best explained by pointing to a living example. Recently, I witnessed such a miracle of sumud bearing fruit. A practitioner of sumud for over three decades ago has told me I had something to do with his community’s practice of it. He invited me to visit and see the outcome. I did and I was overwhelmed by the experience. I am a physician and I fully appreciate what it feels like to overcome cancer, even if only in the rarest cases. For a treating physician, it is elating and humbling in equal measures.
Before the Nakba, Arab al-Naim was a small semi-sedentarized Bedouin community well-hidden from public view on the western slope of Jabal Abu-Qarad, Arabic for Tick Mountain, a relatively wild peak where I remember my father going in spring to fetch wild olive seedlings. If one stops to think about it, that testifies to the spot’s desolation: In nature, olive seeds pass through the digestive tract of birds before they can germinate. The top of Abu-Qarad mountain served as a wild bird sanctuary and hence a source of olive seedlings. A gully in its western slope provided protection from winter’s severe easterly winds while guaranteeing ample pasture for livestock. Thus, the gully provided a natural sanctuary for the Bedouin tribe of Arab al-Naim.
Like other Bedouins in the Galilee, Arab al-Naim was semi-settled with some members of each family moving with their livestock in summer to greener pastures in lower grounds. In 1948, as the Haganah passed the spot during their Nakba sweep of the region, they stopped and–it seems in retrospect almost as an afterthought–demolished all permanent structures in the small village. To make sure the place would be uninhabitable, they exploded hand grenades inside the homes’ rainwater collection cisterns rendering them unusable. The tribesmen and women reverted to the Bedouin’s default option of life in tents they wove from the hair of their goats, and then, with time, in make-do corrugated iron shacks. Their womenfolk trudged the several miles to and from Sakhnin, the closest undestroyed Palestinian village after the Nakba, to bring water in ceramic jars on their heads or in metal canisters on donkey back.
When Israeli military officials got around to registering those Palestinians who withstood the traumas of the Nakba and stayed put, they did so in the few sizable surviving population centers. For Bedouins in our central Galilee region, they set up an office at the Kammaneh mountain just north-east of Abu-Qarad. Kammaneh was the domain of the larger Bedouin tribe of Sawaid. The two tribes, Naim and Sawaid, were related through marriage, so no one objected to the convenient step of a single point of population registry. The officials didn’t speak Arabic and the Bedouins didn’t speak Hebrew resulting in the incidental minor error that everyone who showed up was registered as Sawaid.
No big deal, everyone thought at the time; the nascent state had other problems to worry about. Even now, with America having its back and copying its Palestine-tested border technologies, Israel still has other priorities. It sees Bedouin locales mainly as targets for erasure, witness al-Araqib in the Naqab, or the Negev desert. Recently the village was razed to the ground for the 156th time so as to make space for a Jewish National Fund forest. I wonder if the Guinness Book of Records has a category for the number of times a community is demolished by its own state.
As the medical officer in charge of maintaining the health of the half-million residents of Western and Central Galilee, Arabs and Jews alike, I became tangentially involved in all of that. The most easily quantifiable task that my staff at the Ministry of Health sub-district office performed was the immunization of children. We received lists of all newborn babies in our region from the Ministry of the Interior and we reported annually, among other statistics, how many of them we immunized against which diseases. Except that a number of Sawaid children were lost to follow-up. That lowered our performance rates in immunization statistics.
One day, my health educator, Dr. Subhi Badarneh from Sakhnin, showed up in my office excited. He had discovered a new village. I asked jokingly if he had been trekking in Africa or the Amazon? He responded that he was serious. He had wanted to buy a calf for his family on the occasion of the Islamic holiday. Someone took him on the back of his tractor to Arab al-Naim. And he discovered that their children were not immunized and no one went to school. Lo and behold, theirs were the “lost Sawaid babies”! They didn’t even have a negotiable dirt road.
This all coincided with the time I had started writing memos to my superiors in the Ministry of Health pointing out the obvious: The Palestinian citizens of Israel (“minorities” was the accepted official term) had special health and development issues that needed to be addressed specifically. Their Infant mortality rate ran at twice that of their Jewish co-citizens. I was lectured about historical processes and the need for time to let natural development take its due course, etc., etc. The more I wrote the more disappointed I became. Finally, I reached my own conclusion and decided to take independent direct action through the establishment of a charitable organization broadly targeting the health and development of the Palestinian towns and villages in Israel proper. Three of my Palestinian colleagues and I registered a nongovernmental organization that we called “The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services.” In our larger communities we focused on environmental issues like sewage disposal. In the unrecognized villages like Arab al-Naim, we provided maternal and child health services through a mobile clinic. A sister NGO, the Association of Forty, initiated a preschool for Arab al-Naim’s children and we both raised a ruckus about the system’s moral and legal obligation to provide unrecognized villages with clean drinking water and other basic amenities.
The system’s lack of goodwill toward Arab al-Naim became obvious when the Jewish Agency started to build Ashhar, a new settlement on the peak of Tick Mountain, and tried to dislodge the Bedouins from their corrugated iron shacks down its slope. Government ministries withheld all on-site services while community activists struggled to stay put. One such young Bedouin with the telling first name of Nimer (Arabic for tiger) joined the Israeli army with the clear-eyed agenda of wanting to be able to say that no one belonged there more than he did. “Should I get killed, my siblings can use that argument,” I remember him adding at the time. Yusef, my current host who had discovered me at the farmer’s market, used a different and less dramatic tactic: His father, an elder of the tribe, would send him to talk sense to anyone who was contemplating leaving the community to a less harsh locale. “We stuck it out till we were officially recognized by the government. They kept stumbling over us till they finally decided to notice us. For several years, we negotiated with the Misgav Regional Council, to which all the new Jewish settlements around us belonged and in which we now were members. Six years ago, we reached an agreement and we could build on our own land. They took 70 percent of my property for communal infrastructure. We even accepted that and now you can see the result. You and your colleagues had much to do with that. You helped us hang on when the state leaned hard on us.”
I am flattered and am happy to accept some of the credit. But no one truly deserves praise and acknowledgment but the run-of-the-mill Palestinian salt-of-the-earth who dug their heels in, suffered daily and stuck it out. It takes courage, willpower, gumption, resilience and a million other nuances to practice sumud successfully and survive. Witnessing the rare showy positive outcome brings back fond memories from the past when I and my colleagues at the Galilee Society rubbed shoulders with its convinced practitioners. Here are two pieces from my autobiographical book, “A Doctor in Galilee,” published in 2008:
“May 15, 1985:
… On several occasions on initial scouting missions for [the mobile clinic project,] Dr. Anwar Awad and I had to leave our car in the fenced-off new Jewish settlements and trek across the countryside to meet the Bedouin natives to find out what they need and win their support for our plan. Our standard questionnaire included asking the Bedouin to identify the one health service they wanted most for their village if we could guarantee only one such request. One leader of a Sawaid tribe wistfully asked for an ambulance service to be provided to the neighboring Jewish settlement. ‘A woman in labor could walk there in less than an hour and be transported to the hospital,’ he explained. His vision of the future excluded any possibility of a paved access road to his own village.
Another Bedouin leader was impressively astute in his response to the same question. ‘You are physicians and you write prescriptions for your patients that they take down to Musa, the pharmacist in Acre, and Musa fills your prescriptions by weighing the different chemicals exactly and mixing them in the right way. My prescription for the health of the whole Na’im tribe is simple, and needs no pharmacist to prepare it. It has one single component that is sufficient to cure all of our ills: water!’
I was dumbfounded. Where did this guy learn his public health? He understood its principles better than all of my Ministry of Health colleagues.”
Ahlam Shibli, Brothers (Unrecognised no.12 ), ‘Arab al-Naim, Palestine, 1999–2000, chromogenic print, 60 x 91 cm. Courtesy of the artist, © Ahlam Shibli
“April 30, 1989:
More recently, a group from within the unrecognized villages, led by Mohammad Abu-al-Haija from Ayn Hawd, has established an NGO to speak on their own behalf. It is called the Association of Forty and aims to bring about formal state recognition of the villages. They have started with a very convincing public relations campaign.
A while back Mohammad Abu-al-Haija brought a group of leftist political activists—including leaders of Jewish NGOs and several Knesset members—on a tour of unrecognized villages in our area. I waited for them in al-Naim at the single-room, corrugated-iron family home that we use as our clinic there one day a week, with the family of seven relocating temporarily to the shade of a carob tree. After the traditional round of black coffee, one resident made his pitch to the visitors about the degree of discrimination suffered by the community. ‘Aren’t we human beings?’ he asked. The politicians answered with their standard slogans and vacuous promises: ‘We are with you in your struggle.’ Some of them sounded unconvinced and others totally powerless—Toufik Touby, the grand old man of the Communist party, clearly speaking for the latter.
As they were leaving, a little old man who had kept silent throughout the whole tour, and walked behind us at a safe distance, saw me returning separately to my car and came over to greet me. Suddenly he raised his arms to the blue spring skies in a gesture of thanking God and hurried over to me. He dropped his walking stick by his side and gave me a warm hug declaring ‘Whoever heard of al-Naim before al-doctour Hatim came and visited us the first time?’ I recognized him as the wise old man who sometime earlier had prescribed clean water as the cure-all for his village’s health problems. I was happy to see him still alive, for he had looked quite ill at the time.
Since the first day I visited al-Naim I have had a deep feeling of failing the villagers by not being one of them, not experiencing their actual pain and deprivation. My learned ‘knowledge by description,’ as Bertrand Russell puts it, can never be as real as their ‘knowledge by acquaintance.’ Or, as the local saying goes, ‘counting lashes is not like suffering them!'”
In 1991 and 1992, while functioning as the Ministry of Health Subdistrict Physician in Galilee I doubled as director general of the Galilee Society. A sizable measles outbreak spread among Bedouin children and young adults in the Naqab region of southern Israel with several deaths. The Galilee Society’s mobile clinic joined the emergency immunization campaign and I didn’t keep quiet about what was going on or how things got the way they did. The minister of health at the time, Ehud Olmert, later Israel’s prime minister who was convicted in an unrelated case of bribery after leaving office, fired me. Three years later, when I relegated my lead position with the Galilee Society as its director to the younger generation, Arab al-Naim had no water, electricity or telephone lines and no government-operated schools, clinics or social services of any sort.
Fast forward to two months ago at Arrabeh’s Farmers Market where I shop weekly for fresh fruits and vegetables. While meandering among the stalls, someone tapped my shoulder.
“Aren’t you Dr. Hatim?”
“Guilty as charged,” I responded.
“I am from Arab al-Naim,” he introduced himself in a clearly Bedouin accent.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” I responded with the casual welcoming greeting.
“You should come and see the result of your hard work. Arab al-Naim has changed. You will not recognize it. We have paved streets, lights and permanent homes with running water. Just ask anyone on the street for Yusef Abu-Ali!”
“It will be a pleasure,” I said.
Then I forgot about it until the next Saturday when he caught up with me at the same fruit stand. Again, he encouraged me to visit and I promised to do it. Again, I forgot about it. Short memory issues and limited disc space for the long shopping list my wife orders, etc., etc. Then, for the third Saturday in a row, we met at the same stall and I decided to fulfill my promise that same evening.
“A good time to visit! The sunset from our roof is beautiful.”
I asked the fruit vendor for the man’s name again and left. At home I told my wife of the plan and called Dr. Subhi, the retired health educator who had discovered the village and solved the riddle of the lost Sawaid children. Both were excited about the prospect of visiting Arab al-Naim.
On the way there, Subhi added two nuggets from his experience of advocating for the Bedouin village: He was personally involved in negotiating the installing of a single water point from the new Jewish settlement, Ashhar, across its barbed-wire fence for Arab al-Naim as potable water source so that their women didn’t need to trudge the few miles to Sakhnin back and forth lugging water jars on their heads. As to who would pick up the tab, Subhi gave the name of one community leader who would distribute the charges among his fellow villagers. Still, two problems arose: The Misgav Regional Council official he dealt with, who is Jewish, objected to the village’s name that would appear on maps and road signs containing the word “Arab.” Of course, the official had to be excused. He didn’t have the Arabic language facility to realize that, colloquially, the noun Arab here meant “Bedouin tribe.” Good thing Dr. Subhi didn’t delve deeper into linguistic subtleties, for the plural of “Arab” in this context would be “Urban” which would cause further misunderstandings and stronger objections. And, even though the local officials could see the necessity of potable water for survival, they hadn’t been able to convince the officials at the Jewish Agency of the same. So, the whole plan was trashed for the next few years and members of Arab al-Naim continued to walk to Sakhnin and ask for the personal favor of being allowed to drink. “Those cruel neighbors in Sakhnin!” I could imagine the condemnation by the uninitiated.
A disturbing memory flared up in my head: In 1968, the first time I met Edward Said at a debate at Harvard, I remember him standing aghast as a Zionist propagandist (was it Alan Dershowitz?!) showed a slide of a fresh refugee camp in Jericho with the comment of “What culture is that which doesn’t even plant a tree for a refugee brother to shade under?!” No mention whatsoever of how those Palestinians became refugees!
It is tempting to denude the actors in the ongoing sordid cat-and-mouse game between the state of Israel and the weakest segments of the Palestinian native population such as Arab al-Naim and al-Araqib and to consider them in the abstract in the absence of any mitigating evil intentions or benignity. Equally, we can abstract the attitudes and acts of the tightly knit settler colonial system of the state of Israel and of its various supporting and constituent supra-national agencies such as the Jewish Agency, the Israel Land Authority, the water utility Mekorot, … etc., into a neutral set of bodies unencumbered by the trappings of my conspiracy theories. In such an abstracted set of circumstances, even if absurdly unreal, it becomes easy to understand what has happened. In the Zionist movement’s attempt to modernize the space the West had granted it, it had to get rid of thorny native plants even if some of them were quite fragrant or colorful. Israel covets their space and the resources they survive on. But they refuse to disappear. That is all there is to the conflict. And, when thus abstracted, the conflict yields itself to Benny Morris’ spotless racist logic where he blames David Ben-Gurion for leaving Palestinians in what became Israel in a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit for Haaretz.
“If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country–the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River,” Morris said, “It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion–rather than a partial one–he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.”
Adding, “If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.”
“The noncompletion of the transfer was a mistake,” the fathers of the country should have completed their ethnic cleansing, Morris concludes logically.
As we approached Arab al-Naim on its paved access road that winds around the new division being added to Ashhar, the Jewish-only settlement on top of Tick Mountain, a magic vista opened before us. New multi-floor stone mansions decorated the side of the mountain around the garden that I last saw a few decades ago. The old pit with its compacted collection of corrugated iron shacks is still there. But from the main road that ends there, a dozen or so paved streets issued in three directions with sidewalks, parking spaces on both sides and utility stands. If you overlooked the pit and focused at the western horizon you could feast your eyes on the Carmel Mountain with the pole-like University of Haifa tower and the twin towers of the Dan Carmel Hotel. The fire-red horizon with the setting sun outlined the Haifa Bay and the sweep of the Mediterranean coast north to the Lebanese border. That was the scene that awaited us after we located the new home of our host (“Just ask anyone,” he had instructed me. “It is one large family.”) and climbed the stairs to the roof where we met the rest of the family over coffee and summer fruits.
The panoramic view and modern facilities of the household were worthy of professionals like the accountant and the construction supervisor that our host’s two boys were. A daughter turned out to have been a former student of my wife who had joined the womenfolk upon arrival and before we all regrouped at the roof for the finale. Didi inquired about another student that she had at Sakhnin High School: Yes, he was now a teacher and the family will mention her to him.
As we took our leave a car passed by with a sing-song announcement of cotton candy. Subhi was displeased: The likes of this salesman should be prevented from entering our towns and villages. Not only that cotton candy ruins the kids’ teeth, but also the salesmen spike the candy with addictive drugs. In our conversation on the ride back, sweets vendors led to drug dealers, illegal firearms, crime on our streets and the laxity of the Police in controlling any of that in our Palestinian communities in Israel. “As long as we shoot at each other and not at the Jewish neighbors, the police will leave well enough alone,” he summed up our situation. And I mentioned James Baldwin, Mosleh Kanaaneh and Edward Said again.
Ahlam Shibli, Abu ‘Ali (Unrecognised no. 18), ‘Arab al-Naim, Palestine, 1999–2000, chromogenic print, 60 x 91 cm. Courtesy of the artist, © Ahlam Shibli
Two months later, on the Jewish New Year, I visited Nimer at his mansion at the center of Arab al-Naim village. Toufiq, my childhood friend and fellow gardener in retirement, came along. The panoramic view from the living room of our host made Toufiq shake his head in envy while I kept my composure. After black coffee and fruits, we delved into an excited conversation about the village’s hard-earned progress and about our host’s role in it.
“You see the village now,” he announced proudly. “I had that picture in my head for seventeen years before the process of clearing the rocks and opening the streets began.”
Nimer repeatedly pranced to the kitchen and back and I noticed a slight limp in his gait. I refrained from querying him if it was acquired during his army service. Toufiq was more direct. He wanted to know how many Young men from the local al-Naim tribe of about a thousand people have volunteered to serve in the IDF?
“Yes, there are few young men who volunteer their service in the armed forces. It can provide one with higher education after serving,” even if none of our boys has taken advantage of the opportunity, he should have added.
“The army service was my only real education. Now I speak their language and know their ways. They can no longer pull the wool over my eyes.”
Nimer’s Arabic was sprinkled with many Hebrew words. With his dark brown skin, his hands constantly flying up and down in my direction with lively gestures and with his darting alert black eyes, he could have been another Yemenite, Iraqi or Moroccan Jewish immigrant. And he was assertive in his statements, almost to the point of chutzpah. He criticized the whole lot of local Arab leaders: parliament members, mayors and the like.
“They don’t persist, they don’t utilize the potential of their educated new generations, their lawyers, doctors, engineers, town planners, professors and what have you. They only know how to complain.”
But he spoke in generalities and refused to name names. I guess his constant attempt to reach out to influential officials, ministers and heads of government departments had damaged the image he had formed of fellow Arab leaders who are estranged from the system and get regularly blamed for it. That, apparently, is how an Arab pays for gaining favor within the system. To go by the names he dropped in his Hebrew-rich conversation, he has known every significant politician in Israel on a first name basis. All along, I sensed a level of discomfort in the man’s rapid-fire Hebrew-sprinkled talk. He smoked non-stop and I, the public health expert preacher, refrained from lecturing him on the matter. Did I subconsciously wish him ill? Did he actually limp or was that an expression of my own evil wish of imagining him injured during his military service?
I changed the subject to the history of Arab al-Naim. He shifted to his Bedouin colloquial Arabic dialect with no Hebrew admixture: Parts of al-Naim tribe, which claims descent from a companion of the prophet, are known to reside in most countries of the Arab world. A large such clan lived for centuries in the Golan Heights. During the Ottoman rule, a splinter of that clan migrated across the district of greater Syria to settle finally in northern Palestine. Over two centuries ago, two brothers and their nuclear families reached the spot where we now sat and bought some hundred and fifty dunams of land from its local owners. A more romantic and less historical version blames it all on a fisherman from the ancient Palestinian coastal village of al-Zieb. The fisherman’s name was Naim. One stormy day, he rescued a man clinging to a board out in the wild sea. He nursed the dying man back to health and took him in as a member of his family. The rescued man married his rescuer’s daughter, took his first name as his own last name, and moved inland to buy and settle in the fertile area on the side of Tick Mountain, thus establishing the thousand-member strong village.
Fatima has the busy and caring demeanor of a mother hen. Didi and I took advantage of our prerogative as distant relatives to pay her a visit in the company of her parents. She welcomed us into the living room of her relatively new home among ancient olive trees in the recently expanded residential zone of our neighborhood. Her welcoming chatter and clucking alerted her four teenage children who came down from their rooms, shook hands with us, kissed their grandparents and proceeded to compete in extending the standard welcoming offers of soft drinks, fresh fruits, roasted nuts and coffee. Except for the oldest girl who retreated to her room to continue studying. She had successfully graduated from the American University in Jenin, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, commonly known in our parlance, we, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as the West Bank but officially designated by Israel as Judea and Samaria. In two weeks, she takes the state nursing examination and then she will qualify to join the extensive Palestinian cadre of health professionals who have become indispensable in manning the Israeli health care system. Unplanned and unrecruited, such cadres are tolerated or even welcomed after the fact. The two other sisters have graduated from high school and are revving to go to college, one to train as a medical lab technician and the other still undecided. The brother is still a tenth grader. Will he go into taxi-driving like both of his grandfathers?
Which brings up the painful subject of Fatima’s marriage and divorce: Her father’s best friend had been a colleague of his from a different clan in Arrabeh. The two taxi drivers stretched their friendship to the breaking point. They had agreed on an exchange marriage: Fatima and her brother cross-matched with the friend’s marriageable boy and girl. After several years the arranged marriage of the opposite pair soured, ending in divorce. Fatima and her husband got along fine but were forced by tradition and the parents to put an end to their marriage as well. “What starts conditional dissolves peacefully,” the accepted dictum goes. Fatima ended as a single parent with four children and a high school education. That was what she had already fallen back on to support her family: With no training, and before her divorce, she had already started a daycare center in Arrabeh.
“I have been pre-schooling for 29 years,” Fatima now tells me. “In 1994, the Association of Forty recruited me to open a preschool for them in Arab al-Naim. The rest is history.”
In the 1980s, when Mohammad Abu-Elhaija started agitating for Ayn Hawd, his village of internally displaced Palestinians, to receive basic amenities and services, from electricity and drinking water to schools and health clinics, he found out that they were not alone. He and his fellow activists first counted a total of forty such villages. They called the NGO they registered to promote their cause of regaining legitimacy for their communities the Association of Forty. All such communities, retroactively derecognized by being designated as agricultural or forestry zones in the 1965 Zoning and Planning Law, were Palestinian and many had existed before the state of Israel or even the British Mandate, the first gross international collusion against Palestine and the Palestinians. In the 1990s, when the late Yitzhak Rabin narrowly won Israel’s premiership and with peace talks in the air, he relied in part on the support of the Arab members of the parliament (MKs) from the outside and not, God forbid, as coalition partners. Against that he made some specific concessions including the formal recognition of a dozen or so Unrecognized Villages. The Association of Forty and the Galilee Society had raised the issue of these villages, now, with those in the Negev, numbering in the hundreds, in national and international public forums including the much-publicized International Water Tribunal in Amsterdam. In the second round of such government gestures, Arab al-Naim was included. The eventual permission for its residents to build their homes on their privately-owned land took another dozen years and the signing away of 40 to 70 percent of each plot for infrastructure and public spaces, depending on size and location.
“It wasn’t all that easy for us all,” Fatima explains. “You remember how bad the road was? But people stood together despite all the internal bickering. I remember once when trying to negotiate a gully after the rain I ended up with my front wheels hanging in the air over a rocky edge. Enough women gathered and carried the car over to safety. It was a small car but quite reliable. Only once or twice someone from Arab al-Naim had to drive me home.”
Then, self-consciously, Fatima addresses her father: “You remember, Dad. The man was very decent. And never accepted any pay.”
Not surprisingly, that turned out to be my new contact, Yousef Abu-Ali.
“Now there are some women drivers in Arab al-Naim and perhaps half a dozen women attend the teachers’ college in Sakhnin.”
The official representative of Arab al-Naim to the Jewish dominated regional council works closely with Nimer who heads the local committee. Fatima thinks Nimer is clever and quite reliable even though she doesn’t approve of his joining the IDF.
“His boys also served in the Israeli military. I know them all as little snotty boys and they still act shy when we meet. One of them wanted to shake my hand and I told him to put away his gun first. You know, the father had a building license early on. But, out of solidarity with others, he stayed in his corrugated-iron shack till other homes were ready.”
Every little achievement had its own story of struggle. “The official government recognition of the village was one thing. But getting hooked to the electric grid was another. It took the sad case of a chronically ill child who was released home from the hospital attached to a machine. After his initial failed efforts, the father went public with news reporters splashing his appeal on public media across the country with his bitter complaint that his child was dying with electricity stopping at the border of Jewish Ashhar next door. Water, telephone, schools, etc., had their own horror stories as well.”
“Barbed wire fencing crisscrossing all of the Galilee mountains has put an end to our traditional livelihood of goat herding,” my host later explained. “In the war Israel waged against goat herding, the outdoors was put off limits by declaring it forest zones. I hear experts are now regretting that decision. With no goats to clear the grass, forest fires became inevitable. They want to allow goats back. Mark my word: They will issue permits only to Jewish settlers. It will backfire in their faces in some other mysterious way. God is not in the habit of throwing stones at his enemies. He finds other ways”
A sad but inspiring story as well as that of Fatima’s near dismissal: After nearly two decades of functioning as the preschool teacher with an illiterate local girl as her assistant, the preschool was now official and came under the control of the Misgav Regional Council. Fatima had no formal training and had to be replaced. Except that the mothers in Arab al-Naim kept their children home until a compromise was reached: Fatima shifted gears down to the rank of assistant to the formally-trained new teacher. The mothers let their children return. But Dov Yarimya, the late ex-military commander turned peace activist, stopped visiting the kindergarten to play his accordion and teach the little Bedouins peace songs.
Some relatives came to visit while I interviewed Fatima. I didn’t feel at liberty to raise the question that begged to be asked: How can a single mother support four growing children, put them through 12 grades of schooling, buy a plot of land and build a modern home for them on her meager preschool assistant’s salary?!
As we left, Fatima insisted on picking a couple of grape bunches for us from the vine canopy at the entrance to her home.
Delicious! Sweet sumud for a change.
Photographs courtesy of Ahlam Shibli.
PS: This post has benefited by the editorial help of Philip Weiss and Allison Deger at Mondoweiss who also secured permission from the visual artist, Ahlam Shibli, for using some of her beautiful and realistic photos.