Grapes of Aboud
On Friday, October 22, 2004, I went on an olive-harvesting field trip with the Palestine Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC). The fields we visited were near a half-Muslim half-Christian village called Aboud (rhymes with "food") about 15 kilometers northwest of Ramallah. The purpose of the trip was to teach Palestinian city kids about volunteer work, social service, and working on the land.
A 62-year-old British agricultural expert named Jeffrey, who was doing a two-week consultation with PARC, joined us.
During the long, pretty day of climbing trees, picking olives, and picnicking, I met a 13-year-old boy named Samer who studied voice and karate. He didn't know much English, but what he knew was colloquial and perfect. He would often stand by while Jeffrey and I talked, absorbing.
Osama, a Palestinian communist friend who works for PARC, took me and Jeffrey on a tour of the area to see some of the works that PARC had done. He showed us a couple of agricultural access roads PARC had built. These roads become crucial links between towns when Israel shuts down the main roads.
We visited a woman's small organic farm. Her well had been capped by Israelis in order to secure more water for a nearby settlement. She broke the cap and is using her water "illegally" until Israel catches her again.
She uses composting and companion planting instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and PARC has helped her reclaim some of her rockiest land. PARC is especially friendly toward organic farmers. They promote chemical-free farming in nation-wide lectures and workshops. Osama also showed us terraces and containment walls he'd helped build.
Osama is a hero of mine. He knows people from every village in the West Bank, and he works tirelessly to help the land and support the farmers. People like Osama, who work their days and nights and weekends and young lives away to hold their country together under the impossible situation of expansionist military occupation, are the salt of the earth. His only reward is the hope that his endless hours of work will someday contribute toward a free and sustainable Palestine.
Sustainability is his professed ideal, and I asked him how he planned to make the Palestinian economy sustainable.
He laughed and said, "How can we talk about sustainable development in Palestine? We can't even keep up with emergency development."
I asked Jeffrey how things had changed since he'd been in Palestine ten years before. He said it was incredibly depressing to see the changes here, especially due to the Wall. He'd been helping farmers in Jenin recently, and sometimes they were treading ankle-deep in the untreated sewage that was dumped from a nearby settlement onto Palestinian land. Settlers literally taking a shit on their neighbors.
He said, "You can't quite wrap your head around it, can you? I mean, for a people who have suffered so much, you wouldn't think... But I guess only people who have suffered so much can do such a thing. Like the abused child becomes an abuser, and all that."
We visited a Christian home nearby that was built in 1928. The date was etched under an ornate cross carved into the keystone of an archway. The family made us coffee and offered us plump sweet purple grapes. I'd been fasting for Ramadan in solidarity with some of my Muslim friends. But the grapes looked so juicy I decided to eat them in solidarity with the Christians instead.
After the woman of the house made tea and poured us each a glass, she poured herself a glass as well and sat right down along with the men and the visitors, her pretty hair showing for all the world to see. It is nice (and highly ironic for this Bible Belt girl) that Arab Christians have such a liberalizing influence in the Middle East. Seeing a village woman hanging out on equal footing with male visitors right out in the open like that was refreshing like a spring breeze.
Jeffrey asked how many Christians were in Palestine, and he guessed 15%.
The father of the house shook his head. "Maybe 3%."
Jeffrey was surprised. "Well, then it's gone down, hasn't it?"
Osama later explained that Christian Palestinians have been given strong incentives to leave, like having American visas made available when occupation policies become particularly intolerable. Many homes in historically Christian towns and villages like Bethlehem have been bombed, and many stand empty. A lot of them are used, if at all, only as summer homes by absentee Christians, many of whom have moved to America.
The Christian element is a rather embarrassing factor in what American and Israeli propagandists like to style a "Jews vs. Muslims" conflict. Plenty of Christians have been killed and driven out by the occupation, too, and the holy city of Bethlehem is being strangled, cut off from its sister city Jerusalem, and turned into an impoverished ghetto by the Wall. I remain amazed that the world's Christians are not more outraged about what is being done to Bethlehem.
[Note: In April 2012, Bob Simon of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes did a 15-minute piece on the plight of Christians in the Holy Land. Well worth a watch.]Jeffrey asked me where I was from, and I said, "A small Christian village in Oklahoma."
He looked startled. "As opposed to...?"
I laughed. "As opposed to all the Muslim villages in Oklahoma. I'm just kidding."
After chatting a while with the Christians, we tried to catch a ride back to the fields, but Israeli teenagers with guns and armored cars were blocking the road -- a flying checkpoint -- so we had to go on foot. The soldiers questioned us as we walked past.
Later four armoured Jeeps surrounded a box on the road and shot at it, to see if it would explode, I guess. But it was just an empty box. Soldiers came to our field, too, and asked the usual stupid questions. Jeffrey and I had a laugh at how they'd come up to us while we were obviously picking olives or eating lunch and demand, "What are you doing?"
I should mention that we took the students to this area in particular because it was one of the safest around, by which I mean the least subject to harassment and violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers.
* * *
A few days later I enjoyed another delicious 5:15pm Ramadan breakfast with the family of a friend of Osama's who were from a small village near Nablus.
Osama's friend said that before all the closures, Nablus was more beautiful than Ramallah, with places to sit and meet and drink coffee and smoke nargila, and a beautiful Old City. He said it used to take ten minutes to get from his village to Nablus and cost two shekels, about 44 cents. People could get to the bigger secondary schools and Al Najah University easily, daily.
Now to get to Nablus, you must go through another village first, then through several checkpoints, and it may take four hours and cost between twelve and fifteen dollars. He said, "Do you know what twelve or fifteen dollars a day means in these times? It means people can't go to school. Especially women and girls."
"Why women and girls?"
"It is dangerous, and sometimes they have to walk five kilometers through open land, and sometimes they are held until after dark. Not easy for the girls, not safe. And it is expensive."
In other words, among many other things, Israel's occupation is disproportionately denying education to women and girls.
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