Update #11 : Returning Home
It has been some time since I’ve had the space and composure to write coherently. For many weeks, the gap between my experiences and the ability to write about them was simply too far to span.
I returned to the U.S. on Saturday, and finally am finding the space to process the events of the past five months. I hope to write several more pieces in the coming weeks, and I’d like to continue sending them to this list, hoping that I am not overstaying my welcome in your inbox.
Perhaps you belong to a group of some kind which would like to host a Palestine-related speaker. In the next few months I will gladly speak to any interested audience in Washington and Oregon, where I’ll be based for the time being. In the fall, I’m considering a tour to different regions of the US and possibly Canada.
If you are interested in hosting a Palestine-related speaking engagement anywhere in the US, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This could include college, church or book groups, school classes, peace and justice organizations, a collection of friends in your living room, etc. I understand that these emails now reach a wide audience (far beyond what I could have imagined), and I want to make it clear that anyone reading this email is invited and should feel encouraged to host an event if interested.
As always, I recommend reading The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan and viewingOccupation 101 and Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, both available atfreedocumentaries.org.
I’m sitting on the 18 bus to Jerusalem, bored and exhausted. It’s only been a couple of days since Emily left the hospital and flew home; media for her and the flotilla has hungrily snatched every ounce of energy for too long now. Robin calls, he sounds wearily devastated. “I have some bad news”.
“Bad news” in Palestine is an infinite possibility. I have been the bearer of bad news too many times now, as has Robin. The past ten days have been nothing but bad news. Hoping that nobody has been harmed, I take a steadying breath. “Ok”.
“Bassim just called.”
God. Bassim. The Tamimis. An Nabi Saleh.
An Nabi Saleh is a tiny village situated on an idyllic hilltop northwest of Ramallah. Primarily composed of the extended Tamimi family, blue eyes and blonde hair give an eastern European appearance to many villagers. Bassim’s home is located on the top of a ridge at the village’s southern edge, at the end of the road, with olive groves extending south and west. Barren rolling ridgelines continue to the south, square multi-story concrete houses and the mosque’s minaret are visible to the north, and a rude scab of identical suburb-esqe settlement houses glares from the eastern wall of the valley; built on Nabi Saleh farmland.
I recall slight apprehension as we piled out of the mini-bus and trudged up the gravel road before my first demonstration, but now we walk the short distance eagerly. Entering Bassim’s home, we are warmly welcomed. His blonde blue-eyed children peer curiously from behind grownups and the modern patterned couches. We chat and sip tea, appreciating the modest but spacious addition to their home in which we are seated. Built a few years ago, the new half of the house boasts an open kitchen and large sitting area, perfect for the crowds of demonstrators who gather each Friday. Nariman cooks up a proper feast for hungry activists, and aromas of fuul and fried eggplant waft promisingly as we discuss the week’s news and play with Bassim’s youngest son. Salaam is a four-year-old whirl of energy who tugs ponytails, brandishes plastic squirt guns and hides soccer balls in the fridge for our amusement. As we lounge, Bassim sternly instructs us every few minutes, “You are welcome in your home”.
Like many ISMers, Nabi Saleh is (not so) secretly my favorite village. The weekly demonstration, brutally repressed, often stretches from midday prayers until dark. This provides ample bonding time with the shabab (boys and young men) who put up a spirited resistance, and the families whose houses we stumble into, choking from gas and possibly being chased by soldiers, only to be served sweet tea in a comfy chair. When I was shot in Nabi Saleh, the effect was somewhat like becoming a minor celebrity. Months later, I find myself being made to show the scar every few minutes for another inquiring vaguely familiar Tamimi. A neighbor recently joked that the gravel road leading to Bassim’s house is now named “Ellen Street”.
Bassim and his family are undeniable leaders of the resistance. His home is the beginning and end of each demonstration for internationals, Israeli activists and reporters. Since the very beginning, I have feared the inevitable repercussions for his family’s involvement. On the nights we slept in his children’s beds, suspecting possible military raids to the village, I alternated between lying stiffly awake straining to hear the crunch of gravel under army jeep tires, and tormented dreams of M-16s and doors being beaten down. I am painfully aware of just how much I love Bassim’s family and the entire community of An Nabi Saleh.
On the 18 bus, Robin’s voice is far away. After all the “bad news” of the past days, what could possibly be piled on top?
“Bassim called a few minutes ago. He said Israeli soldiers came to his house this afternoon with a demolition order.”
Bassim’s land is in “Area C” of the West Bank; the some 60% of Palestinian land under full Israeli control. According to the Israeli human rights group Peace Now, 94% of Palestinian building permit requests for Area C are denied. Between the years 2000 and 2004, only 2-3 permits were issued per year to Area C landowners. Palestinians owning land in Area C are forced to build without a permit, living in daily fear of a demolition order. The demolition orders issued to ten homes in An Nabi Saleh are almost certainly a direct retaliation for the village’s weekly well-attended demonstration.
My last demonstration in An Nabi Saleh is a somber one. News of the demolition order hangs heavily in the threatened living room. It also happens to be the thirty-third anniversary of Fakhri Bargouthi’s imprisonment. After midday prayers we gather in the main square for a series of speeches in honor of Bargouthi and the village’s four other political prisoners serving life sentences. Bassim’s cousin has been in Israeli prison since 1993 (seventeen years). As the speeches in Arabic wind on, I reflect on the pain this village has endured in the ongoing loss of these men. Every village has its brothers, sons and fathers serving life sentences for resistance to the military occupation which aims to entirely suffocate what remains of Palestine. More than 6,300 Palestinians are currently in Israeli prisons. For such a tiny village to lose five men for life is a staggering burden to bear. The sacrifices Palestinians have made to continue the resistance are a solemn consideration.
Hours after the ceremony ends, we stagger back to Bassim’s house exhausted. The afternoon, like usual, featured a peaceful march towards the settlement-seized spring, only to result in extreme military violence. Tear gas canisters whizzed past us as we watched soldiers fire directly at the heads of teenage shabab guilty of shouting and throwing the occasional stone. Firing tear gas directly at the heads of demonstrators is potentially lethal and extremely illegal; it’s what claimed Emily’s eye. Soldiers seem to have few qualms about this practice however, and I myself have had too many close calls. After hours of running from soldiers, breathing in gas and frantically dashing into random houses only to be warmly welcomed and served tea and coffee, the demonstration ends and we walk back up the dirt road to be greeted by Salaam, face and hands smeared with sticky black juice from the massive tut tree outside his home. In plastic lawn chairs in Bassim’s garden, we savor a giant platter of watermelon as the stars re-emerge. A full moon watches us through thin layers of rain-less clouds.
When, too soon, it is time for goodbyes, I can scarcely bring myself to consider the gravity of leaving Palestine. When I return, Salaam will no longer run shrieking when I chase him growling and stomping my feet. Ursula will be married. The village will have seen endless Fridays, and known endless military violence. And what about Bassim’s house? I pause in the doorway, inhaling deeply. A familiar voice enters my mind, gently reminding me “you are welcome in your home”. This beautiful structure has been home, for myself and so many others.
Three weeks later, I am unpacking and readjusting to the freedoms of a country at the other end of the occupation. Inevitably, I consider the future and the possibility of brighter days for the people I hold so dear. Amidst the empty chatter of “peace talks” and one-or-two-state-solutions, I shelter in my mind an image of what a free Palestine would look like. What will it be? What does it mean?
It means Nasser Gawi moving from the Sheikh Jarrah sidewalk back into his home; the house he spends each day watching settlers enter. It means Palestinians freely accessing the Dome of the Rock, the holy site of which most can only dream. It means Fakhri Bargouthi and Bassim’s cousin returning to a village which has aged decades in their absence. It means walking up Ellen Street to find Bassim’s house like it should be, with chickens in the yard and smothering embraces whether you have been gone a week or a lifetime. A free Palestine means returning home.
For more more information:
Home demolitions in Area C:
Peace Now report
Footage of Friday's demonstration in An Nabi Saleh: Children respond to a raid of the village