The International Writers Magazine: Palestine
Despite Ahmad’s polished shoes and crisp clean creases, much more official than our collective ragtag assortment of jeans and jumpers, I can’t help but feel uneasy as he shakes my hand before I climb aboard the bus, more or less agreeing to . . . no one has told us what we are doing. From the front seats, cheerful and seemingly unaware, Ahmad looks back and tells us, “The road is rough, so we must rent a hire car.”
Khirbet Tana: A Village Without a Map
Nizar can accurately be described as a guide to, a translator for, and an overseer of foreigners, and he tells us that he can’t continue any further. Then, Nizar leaves in the taxi we were sharing.
We’ve each paid about 150 shekels (roughly 40 USD) for the day’s journey, which feels steep, us being unpaid volunteers, helping people with nice clothes and all-terrain vehicles. We’ve already had to navigate border control, brave the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) checkpoints throughout the West Bank, and sign the same liability agreements in case we’re shot. We are willing participants who want to be involved. So, the driver of this big-wheeled passenger van could have cut us some slack on the fare, but it seems that business is business as usual.
Ahmad informs us that Betty, nearing the end of her contract and, thus, at ease moving around in the culture, has decided she needs tea for the trip. He remains patient with the request as if there is no business more pressing than chai. From the back, we, a collection of less experienced volunteers, tssk and groan in disapproval, sure that our work is of an immediate, more pertinent nature. Betty soon returns with a hawker in tow, and the man gives each one of us a little paper cup of tea, whether we ordered it or not, refusing payment of any sort.
Outside Beit Foureek (pop. 7000), the road turns to a dirt track, stones jarring the long-exhausted suspension, the passengers suffering from it: It’s clear that holding scalding cups of tea might not be the brightest idea. We find out that our destination is an even smaller village, Khirbet Tana (pop. “35 families”), nine kilometers down this wobbly stretch of highway. Beside us, dusty hills are dotted with patches of grass and brush, the random shepherd tending to a flock, olive trees climbing over everything. We finally learn what we are doing.
Ahmad points out a small building to the right of the road: the village mosque. This building, unimpressive and plain, not all that different than your run-of-the-mill country chapel, isn’t found in any guidebook. It has no name or international fame, a messiah hasn’t been born there, and it isn’t lavished with fine carpets or intricate tiles. At 300 years old, it is a babe amongst others in the area, a spruce in an old growth forest. We don’t even bother to take the two-minute detour to visit it, but he tells us it’s the only surviving structure from the original village.
In 2005, long after 1948 or ’67, when wars were still officially happening, troops came to Kerbit Tana and destroyed all of the homes. The Israeli government declared the land a military training site for the IDF, but the village farmers did not accept this fate. With the help of different Italian and Israeli NGOs, the community has been rebuilding itself. Now, cinderblock habitats push up from the remnants of stone buildings. Farmers work their land and crops and animals throughout the year. Mostly, though, it is clear that no military training is going on here.
We continue, to everyone’s relief, on foot along the main thoroughfare, one of Khirbet Tana’s two streets, dirt paths created by a fork in the road, one going up and the other down. We go down as Ahmad names different sites, pointing into the distance. We pass maybe three or four tent-like dwellings constructed of burlap sacks sewn together.
||Intermingled with these makeshift homes are little cordoned off gardens, pens for goats, and coops for chickens, all with dustbowl floors, mish-mashed fencing. The new school, one of the buildings financed by the non-profit groups, is basically four concrete walls with scraps of tin splayed across the top.
|The home of the family we are visiting is a glorified lean-to, a scavenged collection of panels pinned against scruffy shafts of desert driftwood, but our hosts are happy to see us. They bring out well-worn chairs and fashion them into a sort of powwow circle, using blankets as cushions and insisting that every chair be padded properly. Then, a young man, sternly sitting on a stone within the circle, hands interlaced and fingers twiddling in and out of each other, tells us why we’ve come all this way:
Thursday morning, three jeeps arrived, and soldiers took our tractors. The tractors are needed to transport a large water tank to and from the nearby well, to carry heavy sacks of feed for the goats. The soldiers took the water tank and food, too. The family cried and sang for them to stop. Official papers were given to the family, citing that the High Court of Israel had made a final decision that the land would be taken. The soldiers vowed that the buildings in the area would be destroyed again. The family, and each family that lost a tractor, must appear in a nearby Israeli settlement, Maghora, next Sunday in an attempt to reclaim their property.
After the man finishes his story, the family serves cups of sweetened tea and a large platter—half a meter wide—of pita bread; blocks of fresh cheese, made just the day before; and bowls of olive oil, expensive this year due to little rain. Conversation reverts back to things less hopeless. The men talk animals and weather, all praise given to Allah. The mother takes the women to see her oven, an arrangement of trash bags stretched over a stack of stones, and she demonstrates its features like any preening housewife would show off a refurbished kitchen.
All said and done, we have little to offer in the way of hope, and I’m left only to accept that nice people suffer in pursuit of such a simple existence. We shake hands and exchange shookrans with the family, though I’m not sure why they are thanking us. When I ask, Ahmad tells me it’s important for them to know that people, people they’ve never seen before or will again, “an international presence”, care enough to listen. He says they want us to tell their story, that there is a Kherbit Tana somewhere in the world, even if, technically, it’s been erased from the map.
||On our way out of the village, we visit the spring, only a small hole in a concrete roof to allow people access. The roof is to protect the village’s dwindling water source from the nearby settlers of Maghora.
Despite indoor plumbing and pools, the settlers often come to swim in the village’s only drinking water. Not dissuaded by the new concrete block of a suggestion, they now have begun lowering themselves into the enclosure. For the people in Kherbit Tana, this water means more than a tractor ever could; for the settlers, it’s insult to add to injury.
We sit on the well’s roof for some time, taken with the winter warmth. Beneath the spring, a beautiful tree, long and dusty-green leaves soaking up the sun, rustles in a whisper of a breeze. Ahmad reclines along the rim of where the roof is opened and tells us about coming to Kherbit Tana to camp as a child. It’s a memory that seems to distract him into distant dreams, and we eventually all settle in silence as it seems nothing more that can be done today.
A month later, Israeli soldiers razed twenty-eight houses in Khirbet Tana. The farmers we’d met lost their land and moved to Beit Foureek in hopes of finding a different means of livelihood. This, I’ve learned, is just business as usual.
© Jonathon Engels September 2012
jonathonengels (at) gmail.com
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Jonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently volunteering in the mountains near Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.
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