Al Manara, the famous square in Ramallah with the circle of lions sculpted in the center, is bustling with chaotic traffic, shoppers, drenching heat, and street venders. I can see the sign for “Stars and Bucks,” the Arab Bank, banners for the World Cup. I think about that odd puff piece in the New York Times months ago describing the city as “the Paris of the Middle East.” I think not. Too much Middle East, not enough Paris. I am waiting for a woman picking me up from her village of Aboud and I don’t know what she looks like. I am on a bit of a mission. Her cousin in the United States is my friend; I have promised to visit his village, “the most beautiful village in Palestine.”
Suddenly this burst of energy emerges from the crowds, a trim, smiling woman of uncertain age, and after a quick search for a functional bathroom (we stop off at a friend’s) and a bag of za’atar covered flatbread, we are wending our way to the services (she calls them Fords because, well, they are Fords). She walks so fast and determinedly, regaling me with a steady stream of commentary, criticism, politics, I can only think: I have come to visit a Palestinian energizer bunny. The Ford only leaves when it is full, and as you can imagine, there are not a whole lot of folks heading towards Aboud.
We wait and chat, sweating from the heat. It is important to drink enough water to prevent heat stroke, but not too much because then we will just be in search of another bathroom. This is a delicate balance. The driver (bless him) finally turns on the air conditioning.
We head north(ish), this being the occupied West Bank, pass the now famous to anyone paying attention town of Nabi Saleh (see the New York Times article by Ben Ehrenreich and my previous blogs) where I joined internationals and villagers in 2012 on a Friday afternoon and watched the town’s youth chant the words of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, throw stones, and run like crazy, while Israeli youth (in full military gear) shot an amazing amount of tear gas and rubber bullets. The Friday ritual of resistance still continues. We pass Halamish, the nearby Jewish settlement that is busy stealing land and water from the folks in Nabi Saleh, who having been living there for centuries. But that’s another story.
Soon we arrive in the small village of Aboud, surrounded by settlements; the population is half Muslim and half Christian. This fact interests me. To my surprise, my new friend lives alone in a large U-shaped house with more rooms than she can fill, a large TV, and a pleasant kitchen. The windows are all closed and she has sprayed against mosquitos, so the smell of pesticide hangs heavy.
Her enduring-the-heat strategy involves strategically opening and closing different shades and windows, sitting on porches on opposite sides of the house, and, when all else fails, turning on the fan, which I do since I seem to be having a permanent hot flash. The walls are scattered with crosses and virgins and saints and various homages to her beloved mother and father and a cast of cousins.
She turns on the music and the Beatles blasts through the house, “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog?” She thinks that a salty yogurt drink will revive me and heads toward the kitchen to prepare her version of chicken and rice.
Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, I learn a lot. My friend loves Frank Sinatra. She loves to dance, and in a previous life she wore miniskirts and worked like a demon for five years at a suburban hospital in the United States after training as a nurse in Britain, against her father’s wishes. She and her extended family were all born in Aboud, she received her nursing diploma during the First Intifada, travelling on a Jordanian passport. She flew back home in the days when a Palestinian could fly into Tel Aviv airport, only to discover that everything had changed. She remembers telling a nasty Israeli official, “The pendulum will swing, and we will get it back.” After an emotional reunion with relatives in Jerusalem, her father took her back to the village. She only had a three-month visa (important reminder: to be in her own home). When she saw the large Israeli flag at the entry to her village, the reality of occupation hit her like a jolt of lightening. She stayed five months, her visa expired, and through sheer luck and a lot of chutzpah, she ended up living with a group of nurses from the UK and working long shifts at the US hospital in the days when nurses wore crisp uniforms and probably smiled and said “Yes, doctor” a lot. It sounds like she really enjoyed herself and her freedom.
Her first love married someone else; ultimately she returned home, the responsible daughter, to care for her aging parents, and now she is in a most unusual situation; an aging, lonely Palestinian woman without any children, her swarm of relatives mostly lost to the diaspora. She once had a job offer at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, but Netanyahu nixed that when he forbid employing staff from the West Bank. I feel her regret. “Being a single woman in the village is like being in prison.” When she talks of her long dead mother, her eyes fill with tears. Her stories are peppered with feisty bravado, she tosses around quirky expressions like, “Okay Charlie!” and has had her share of taking wild chances, standing up to soldiers at checkpoints. “They control everything, they control the oxygen you breathe.”
“Kids were throwing stones and the soldiers were beating a kid.
[I said] ?What are you doing? You are a kid with a gun. He is a kid with a stone. Be a gentleman. Put the gun away. And if I catch you throwing stones again, you will hear from me.'”
Once she was interviewed on the street by CNN and asked what she thought of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. “So what. I will be happy when they pull out of East Jerusalem, end the settlements, [let the refugees back]! Every night she prays for peace and listens to Voices of Peace, a radio station located “somewhere in the Mediterranean.” Obviously she prays a lot and whichever God is in charge of this place seems to be hard of hearing.
My new friend cannot believe I am Jewish and she cannot believe she has an actual Jew in her home, eating her chicken and her chopped up cucumbers and tomato. “The first Jew in Aboud!” she exclaims happily. (I guess the Israeli Defense Forces don’t really count here.) Her voice gets a bit conspiratorial and she advises me not to mention this fact in the village. She is worried about her Muslim neighbors, “They are a bit fanatic.” She seems to be in the some-of-my-best-friends-are Muslims camp, but I also sense a deep distrust. So much for peace, love, and understanding, united against the common enemy (private thought). She talks of an upsetting night when a large truck and ten jeeps arrived at midnight and as she peered out the window, she saw her Muslim neighbor, blindfolded, handcuffed, dragged into the truck by Israeli soldiers.
She suggests that I tell people I’m Italian.
When the heat abates a bit, she takes me on a speed walking tour, stopping to schmooze with family and friends. She complains about the garbage thrown by ill behaved (read Muslim) teens and when I comment on how hot it must be for women in hijabs and long coats, she says, “They’re used to it. It’s their religion.” The town has wide streets, two Christian neighborhoods and one Muslim, and from what I can gather, three functional churches, a mosque, and ancient church ruins. We only tour the Christian sector. Some of the walls have lovely religious murals and others harken back to a simpler time when people were out harvesting their crops and looked much happier. We pass donkeys and their babies, elegant homes with lush gardens, abandoned properties, the site of my American friend’s former family home (his bedroom is now a driveway for an ancient yellow probably Dodge Dart). A young man gallops by, riding his horse bareback, tail flying freely.
She is very angry about the ongoing land and olive grove confiscations, the nearby Jewish settlements, and tells me the story of finding an IDF soldier asleep under a tree. Her friend walked up to the sleeping soldier and yelled, “We gave you the road. You have the beach in Tel Aviv in your bikini. Leave us alone.” The soldier had a gun and started threatening her friend who yelled, “Go ahead, shoot me. I will die defending my land and you will be a murderer.” These women are tough. We come to a premature end to the road, obstructed by a ten-foot tall pile of dirt and rocks, courtesy of the nearby settlers in their orange roofed houses. I ask my new friend if I can take her picture in front of this dirt wall and she says quickly, “No.” She is too upset for photo ops.
We stop at a series of stone patios, friends and relations drinking tea, eating watermelon, smoking cigarettes, hugging children.
I feel like I am in an old French movie or maybe visiting Uncle Morris and Aunt Bessie in Queens, ordinary schlumpy folks, full of opinions and quarrels and family loyalty, eat, eat, habibti. The women dye their hair black/brown and have thin pencil eyebrows.
One guy, an engineer with a couple of charming, engaging young daughters, lived in the Bay area for years but then felt he had to come back. He tells me warmly and honestly, he could not tolerate the diversity, the Mexicans, the Asians, the Blacks. “I am not racist but I want to be with my own people.” He didn’t like the rat race, enjoys the slower pace, wants more time with his wife and kids.
“Have some more watermelon?”
The next morning we see more of the churches, including the Church of the Virgin Mary “Abudia,” which dates back to the fourth century. In the hushed entry, the priest chanting melodiously in the sanctuary, my friend lights candles and prays. We watch Sunday school children play with a gigantic multicolored parachute and act out Jonah and the whale. (What do these landlocked kids know about oceans?) We pour through exquisite Aboudi embroidery. (I am trying to find something without God or Jesus and am thrilled to see “Home Sweet Home.”) The tour of the friends and relatives continues and it is close to heartbreaking. A sweet widow caring for her emaciated dying mother in a dark bare room, the faint smell of urine, three children; her son is apprenticed to a blacksmith.
Another woman’s brother built a palatial estate and visits in the summer. His elderly demented sister sits in the front door, half dressed, camping out on the first floor. She presses candy into our hands when she realizes we are not staying. Another friend tends to her ill brother with severe multiple sclerosis and an angry personality, her face is tight with sorrow. She wants me to send a package of her homemade za’atar to my friend in America and asks that I tell him to call and tell him “to come home.” Another white-haired woman on her way to church says to me, “You are better than my relatives. They never visit.” This is a tough place to be old or sick or alone. I feel that the villagers who escaped to the diaspora are both a source of pride and resentment. Despite all of its natural beauty, the village has an air of stagnation and suffocation that comes with small places, no secrets, and not much in the way of prospects for big happiness.
The visit is sweetened by a stop at my friend’s family home across from her place, where a relative (not sure who) lives with his (quietly depressed?) wife and three gorgeous, lively daughters. The children adore her and I can see that she loves and indulges them like a grandmother. “Very lovely,” she beams.
There is only so much tea a person can take and it is time to return to Ramallah. My friend explains that the Ford driver’s basic attitude (he will only leave when the vehicle is full) is “Why hurry? Aboud to Ramallah to Aboud. We are all in prison.” My friend gives me one more piece of advice: “Okay Charlie, my dear,” we should prepare for a lonely end of life. That is our fate.
I meet up with a thirty-something activist friend in Ramallah, and as we sip our mint lemonade and hide from the Ramadan fasting police, she talks about life choices; she is tired of being beaten and tasered; she is really worried about injury and death; she wants to stop smoking, to have babies, to live. How to do all of that in this very complicated place?