On a scale of 1-10, I'd say the stars in Palestine have ranged from a 4-7.5. They’re better than the stars in New Orleans, where the French Quarter is lit up all night, or the Seattle suburbs. Here we can see more than just Orion and Cassiopeia’s Chair and the Big Dipper. Every time I look at the stars (najma, in Arabic), I see the Seven Sisters. Sabae Akhuwat. I haven’t learned the word for constellation yet, but I try to converse, when I’m with someone new, about the “pictures in the stars,” and how Japanese children see a bunny (arnub) in the moon. Then in those long silences between sips of tea or puffs of argheelah I play hide-and-seek with the Sisters. It’s a good work-out for the rods and cones. If you stare at them long enough, you lose a few, then you have to glance away and back again to see them clearly enough to count them. A few times I thought I saw the 7th sister, who is notoriously flighty. I think I read somewhere that she’s impossible to see with the human eye. I can’t remember. Compared with the rest of the najma, The Sabae Akhuwat look like a smudge. Like God was texturing the sky and His trigger finger slipped and laid it on a little too thick right there. I did that a few times in New Orleans on construction crew. Those smudges would always stand out to me, even if no one else noticed them. Now when I drink tea and smoke argheelah, I see God's smudge in my periphery.
This weekend, I was only away from Al Aqaba for a day and a half. I left the village at 8am on Friday, and got into Ramallah at 10:15. I’d been counting on a ride to Bil’in from Mohib, whom I’d met at the demonstration the week before. I waited in al-Manara circle for twenty minutes, which is a little awkward for a lone ajnabia, called him a few times, then gave up. I didn’t want to spend 50 shekels on a cab ride, but it became inevitable. I called Nazme, who told me he was in Jericho, but that he would call his friend to pick me up. I said alright, though there were probably a dozen drivers at the station I could ask. But it was good to have a recommendation. And he’d said he’d call Adeeb. Adeeb, how many Adeebs could there be? One minute later, Adeeb zoomed around the circle, flashing his lights and shouting, “Nazme, Nazme!” Walla, we recognized each other. It was Adeeb Abu Rahma. He’d shouted at me the week before in Bil’in, when I was walking with his daughter after the Olive Festival. He said, “You know my daughter? You are welcome in my house!” Other than that, we’d never been formally introduced. I’d seen his picture on the net, and signed the petitions when he was in prison. Now he was my cab driver. Of course the man had a day job. I had that familiar feeling that some things were just meant to be.
Adeeb called Nazme and asked him how much he’d told me to pay. I perked up and said, “arb3in,” 40. But then I remembered I’d given Nazme 50 before and acquiesced to that request. I was pleased to find out that I could understand more Arabic than the week before, and we conversed pretty easily for the first 10 minutes. But I always hit a wall somewhere, maybe when I’ve exhausted the “I’m an English teacher, I have two brothers, I’m not married, but there is still time” bit. He called his wife and asked about me, then his eyes opened wide and he turned to me and said, “ghani!” sing! Then he handed the phone to me and told me to talk to Tutu, his youngest daughter. I fell in love with Tutu last December, when I found myself in their living room after Jawaher’s funeral. I was a little over-loaded, and I wanted to get going back to Jerusalem. On my way to pack my bags, one of the girls invited me in. They convinced me to sing, and I sang eight or nine songs for the girls, of whom seven were Adeeb’s daughters, the youngest being Batool, Tutu. I remember she was incredibly sharp for a three-year-old.
Adeeb and I rolled into Bil’in, and were met by a van with two foreigners in the back. I thought, why are these foreigners going the opposite way? The driver talked to Adeeb, and Adeeb said I should go to the school first. That was fine, I hopped in the van, we still had an hour and a half to kill before the demonstration. The driver introduced himself as an actor. He was putting on a show about Jerusalem, and he wanted to gather more audience members. I was interested; pictures of Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif are everywhere in the West Bank, in the schools, in offices, and in peoples’ homes. Most of the people in the Tubas region aren’t refugees, but their exclusion from Jerusalem is taken very solemnly. The kids learn about the cities in “Palestine ’48,” but Jerusalem isn’t included in that list, it’s still considered part of Palestine, even though it’s mumnuaa, forbidden.
We climbed to the top floor of the school, where there was a puppet show stage set up, several Japanese people, and a few dozen kids. I sat down with the Italian from the van ride, and the actor and his wife started the show.
“Sorry the audience is so small,” the actor told the Japanese, who must’ve helped to organize the event, “the children are harvesting the olives with their families.”
The actor’s wife got the kids going with a few songs, then the actor introduced the show. Then he said something about “Jehud Israeli,” which means Jewish Israeli. He gave the kids instructions, then put his hands behind his back and growled, “Israel, Israel” after which the kids yelled “Filasteen! Filasteen!”
“Ana buhibbak Israel…”I love you, Israel.
“Ana buhibbak Filasteen!!” I love, you Palestine!!
I had whipped out my camera, this was fascinating. In our school in Al Aqaba, to my knowledge, the kids don’t learn about Israel. They learn about cities like Haifa, Askalan (Ashkelon), and Yaffa (Jaffa), but the curriculum doesn’t mention Israel at all. So the only education they receive about Israel is from living under Occupation. When I try to see what these kids have seen, I can understand why the Ministry of Education doesn’t include Israel in their textbooks. What are they supposed to say to the children of Al Aqaba? Are they supposed to make excuses for why the army is trying to destroy their village? I wonder, why is it considered racist or inciting to not recognize Israel if Israel doesn’t recognize Al Aqaba, and is actively destroying it?
The puppet show started. I couldn’t understand a lot of it, but I could tell it was funny. There were two characters, one named Darwish, and Ibrahim, the real-life helper, played by Ashraf. The two puppets lived in Khalil, Hebron, and wanted to sell their grapes in Jerusalem. They were happy, mischievous little puppets. They went to Bethlehem, to the door of Jerusalem, where Darwish was chased out by a mean, oafish Israeli soldier.
“What are you doing?!?” he growled
“something something….Jerusalem…something something”
“Jerusalem?! Forbidden! Go home!”
Then they started to fight, like puppets do, and Darwish was defeated. The soldier laughed.
“Filasteen, Filasteen!” the kids shouted.
“Ibrahim!!” he called to the helper. Ibrahim hopped up. The soldier expressed his dismay at these children. They argued for a minute and Ibrahim waved him off, “go! go, get out of here.”
In that one motion, Ibrahim took the soldier puppet’s authority. This adult was telling the children, “you can free yourself from this situation if you don’t let him have power over you.” This was a strong message in Bil’in, where most men had been some combination of beaten, arrested and imprisoned, but they kept marching every Friday because they would never forfeit their right to live on their own land, and they wouldn’t accept any authority that told them otherwise.
I was fascinated by this soldier puppet, because he made me uncomfortable. I wanted to tell the puppeteer, after I invited him to perform in Al Aqaba, to make the soldier a little less monstrous. It could send the wrong message. But what message were the kids getting? If they tried to get into Jerusalem, they would be rejected by an armed soldier. If they protested, he would shout. They weren’t being encouraged to “puppet fight,” if they ever got to the Bethlehem-Jerusalem crossing they might be angry at what they see, but in the end it was just a sad story. Darwish never made it to Jerusalem, except in a dream where he turned into a bird.
After the performance, we all danced dabke together. It was an easy step, not like the ones Mustafa and Omar had busted out in Al Aqaba the night before, but it was surprisingly tiring. I got some footage of the Japanese visitors dancing with the kids. I tried to converse with one of the guys about growing up in Osaka, but most of them spoke little English. I did learn that I’d met them briefly at the Taybeh Oktoberfest, where they were serving sushi. They were touring Palestine and bringing investment opportunities back to Japan.
All of us foreigners walked down the hill towards the demonstration, sharing stories. When we got to the place where the old fence used to be, we saw cars headed away from the demonstration. Haitham told us it was a short demo, for Yom Kippur, he joked. But we found out that we’d missed it entirely. Last week was the Daylight Savings (Winter Time) change, but the prayer times stayed the same, so now the post-Friday prayer demo was at noon, not at one. Ah well. We collected the handful of activists that were there, including the Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall, and headed back to the village to have tea with Waji. Farhat asked me to come eat makloubeh at his house, and I said yes, but after tea!
“Ahh, Waji my brother, you know?” I didn’t know. These families are so huge.
We all gathered outside of Waji’s house: Waji, five Israelis, a German, two Italians, one Japanese and me. Farhat and Rani joined us later. I knew that a lot of the men in Bil’in spoke Hebrew, but it was still strange to hear. The Israeli activists would switch from Hebrew to Arabic to English and Waji would switch with them. Right then I wished I could implant Arabic and Hebrew in my brain, like Neo learned Jujitsu. I used to want to learn both. I still do, but I don’t think I could devote myself to Hebrew like I could to Arabic. Last week I was sitting with my friend’s family in Bil’in and as his brother was talking about how I only knew a few sentences in Hebrew, his mother said, “Ebri mish hilou,” Hebrew is not beautiful.
I felt what she was saying. When I visited Jerusalem during my semester in Jordan three years ago, I heard two of my friends speaking Hebrew and it sounded beautiful. It seemed so gentle, with all the shhh’s. “Hebrew is a beautiful language,” I would say during a discussion/debate, and it would diffuse tension…and it was honest. But after the trip last Christmas, with the checkpoints and the demonstrations, it didn’t sound beautiful anymore. It sounded aggressive and authoritative and mocking. And that’s the only Hebrew she had ever known. So I felt what she said. And it was disorienting, eating lunch with all the activists and hearing the language tossed around so casually. The activists were all from the Tel Aviv area. I said I wanted to go again, I’d only been once.
“Tel Aviv’s not that interesting.”
“I mean, all around. I want to go to Haifa, and Ashkelon.”
“I grew up near Ashkelon. But on a kibbutz, unfortunately.”
“Mine was called __________, five kilometers from Gaza.”
“Because we were so close, we only got the grad rockets, you know them. But we could hear everything that fell on the other side.”
I wanted to dig deeper, and learn more about their background, but I’d promised Farhat I’d go with him, so I got some e-mail addresses from the Europeans and said I hoped I’d see the anarchists at the next demo.
Farhat took me to the Committee office so I could edit the weekly report for Kefah. This week the march had been in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners who were going on hunger strike. I don’t know much about the prison conditions, but I know they’re routinely deprived of visitation, new clothes, exercise, and as my formerly-imprisoned student mentioned the other day, meat and sweets. Meat? No meat? No, no meat or fish. I’ve been on a steady diet of pita bread, pasta and corn flakes, but that punishment is self-inflicted. When the village women feed me meat it’s like Christmas. I need to go to the butcher. I have a deep fryer, good gracious.
The report went pretty easily this time. The demonstrators showed up, did some marching and chanting, and they got hit with a barrage of tear gas. I liked that word, barrage. Kefah is in Level 4 in the AMIDEAST English program, so I still feel impressive, but once he graduates Level 8 I’ll probably be out of a job. I’d missed the whole demo, so I asked him jokingly, “any stones this week?” and he said, “yes, I throw stones” with his hands to his face, laughing.
“We all throw stones!!” I couldn’t help but laugh with him. The boys weren’t even at the demo today, it was the men who partook. I read the end of the report and it said “then some participants threw stones over the wall.”
“Hey, you put it in this week!”
“Yes, it was gas first, then stones, so I told him (the Arabic writer) to put it in.”
Last week I’d mentioned stones in the English report for the first time. Now it was in the Arabic report. Awesome.
I took some photos of Farhat and Lulu for his Facebook picture, then we headed to their house for makloubeh. Farhat went to the store while I played with the girls, and he brought back pineapple juice and pineapple flavored non-alcoholic malt beverage because he thought ajanab liked things that resembled beer. I said I liked juice. But Lulu cried over the pineapple juice so Farhat went and got more.
After the makloubeh, the family was heading out to the park in the next village over, and invited me, but I wanted to explore my options, so I called Haitham. He was at a wedding in Ramallah. I called Khamis. He was with Tutu, “come over, close to my house!” I bade farewell to Farhat and Lulu and made my way across town. A boy on a bicycle escorted me to Helme’s house, next door to Khamis. His family was gathered round, drinking tea while Helme smoked argheelah. Tutu was so much taller. I think she’s four now. I think she kind of remembered me. We all settled in, and I used the new Arabic I’d learned, and Umm Khamis made me sing Ana Ayesh, and Tutu made me sing it again, and I made a mental note to learn another Arabic song, because it had gotten embarrassing a while ago. Then everyone else left, after inviting me to stay in Umm Khamis’ house again, and for the first time I felt imposing, because I would be in Alham and her sisters’ room again and they hadn’t been asked. But not having a plan was part of my plan, so I swallowed my pride and accepted, and followed Tutu and her sister Filasteen into Helme and Douaa’s house. We sat down in the TV room and the girls immediately heaped on me the couple’s two wedding albums. Again, I realized how beautiful this woman was when I saw pictures of her with her hair down. For the two-day wedding she wore three dresses, one ruffly like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, only deep blue, one pink and more oriental-looking, and one white. She looked gorgeous. Tutu and Filasteen were also in coordinating blue and white ruffly dresses. It was a huge affair. Honestly, I would love a wedding like this, but I don’t come from a large family like Douaa and Helme do. Essentially, it’s the whole village plus relatives from out of town. There were two pictures Douaa pointed to, of Helme and four other men: “Helme’s friends from prison.” They looked like average joe’s, five guys who’d grown up together or knew each other from university. Imagine someone at an American wedding going, “Ok, now the prisoners all together! Say cheese!” I could tell the way Douaa said it, that it wasn’t supposed to be normal, but there it was, in the wedding album.
We went over to Umm Khamis’ house, where Mustafa showed us his new snakes, the biggest being two meters long. It was pretty lethargic, so I let him put it around my neck and take a picture. The next one he brought out was scary though, it was wriggling every which way. After that exhibition, everyone departed, leaving me alone with the girls and Lazid, Mustafa’s son. I gave Tutu the camera and she started interviewing Lazid. I picked out a few words, army, wall, and realized she was actually playing reporter, and she knew how to do it. When Adeeb was in prison for a year, his girls were interviewed for a YouTube video about how much they missed their dad and how he was arrested for protecting their land, and someone commented on the video, “please, please don’t use kids for political messages” or something. I couldn’t entirely disagree, although I was thrilled to see Tutu in a movie because she’s too cute not to be in one. The interview was too scripted. They could’ve said they missed their dad, and that would’ve been enough. But now here she was, with another four-year-old, asking her own questions. I needed to translate this exchange.
Then we heard the evening prayer and Filasteen tried to get Tutu to come home. Maybe it was their curfew. Tutu put up a huge fuss, so I walked them home. Everyone had migrated to Adeeb’s house, apparently. Helme and Douaa, Khamis and Aseel, and Adeeb’s four other daughters, Ala, Wala, and Yasmine, minus Rajaa, who was in medical school, were there. Adeeb invited me to stay at his house, so I dashed back to Umm Khamis and told one of her daughters I would be with the little ones tonight. I felt impolite for declining their offer, but I think someone in the family would’ve been stuck looking after me, and I knew Tutu and Fufu were much more eager for that job. So I went back to Adeeb’s and they were all eating dinner. Adeeb conjured a chair and handed me a chunk of khubs, which is bread, but dense, and puffy. If that makes any sense. There were at least a dozen things to dip the khubs in, and I was instructed to try all of them. Not a problem. The first topic of conversation was my marital status. No, no husband, no boyfriend, it is difficult in Palestine, there is time, it’s ok…..did I want to find a husband in Palestine? Haha, maybe. In all of ten seconds, Adeeb was on the phone with a co-worker, telling him this ajnabia wanted to marry a Palestinian. I kept saying, no, no, khalas, stop, Helme, help me out here….and everyone was chuckling. The daughter whose English was the best relayed to him, “maybe she will marry a Palestinian, but she wants to choose.” A few more throat-slicing pantomimes, and he had hung up, I think a little defeated. There was an awkward silence. His daughter then translated, “There is a man who works at his taxi station. He says he wants to marry a foreigner. My father says he’s sorry if he annoys you.” I turned to Adeeb and said, “Maybe a Palestinian, but not any Palestinian, sa?”
“Ahhh,” he said, grabbing more bread, “Mahmoud Abbas?”
“La, too old.”
Everything was put away, and the girls got me ready for bed. They laid two mattresses down in the sitting room, which was mine for the night. Then we had a mini-slumber party and I tried to teach Fufu the moves for “Oops, I Did It Again.” She got it all until Britney goes “I played with your heart” and her knees go open-closed-open-closed. It looked a little slutty, and I abandoned that project. Then the girls went to bed, and I settled in and checked the clock. It was 8:30. Damn.
The mosquitoes were crazy. I didn’t sleep much.
By 7:30 everyone was moving around. Fufu opened the door and said, “if you want to pick olives, we’re leaving soon” except in Arabic but I understood. Bless these children and their clarity of utterance.
We ate breakfast, more khubs with things for dipping. I laid waste the yoghurt, it was so good. Then I chatted with Alaa a little while. She went to Birzeit University, and she was a first year, studying accounting. I told her my brother was also a first year. She said I should bring him here. I said yes, and maybe they could get married (hopping on the pestering train). She laughed and said, no, she already had one. She showed me her mobile with a picture of her and her boyfriend. “Very handsome,” I said. She smiled. She was gorgeous, like Douaa.
I went with Tutu, Fufu, their brother Ahmad and their mother to the olive trees. It was the first year they were allowed access to their trees without going through the security fence. Before, they had to take identification with them to pass through the fence. Now that it was removed, they could tend to all of their trees, except those inside the settlement buffer zones. From this viewpoint I could see how suffocating the settlements were. There were three just around Bil’in. I asked Tutu “what is that?” and she said, “ahh, musta…mustautinin.” Settlers.
I picked olives for three hours. It was hot. It was fun. It was a community affair. Kind of like a day in the States where everyone goes out to barbecue. Or tailgate. Well, there was music, and food. At least the kids were climbing trees….
At noon, I started to head back. I was escorted back to the village by Mohammad, a teenager who was with his family. He had to work in Ramallah, so I used his internet and chatted with his sister while he got ready. She was in 8th grade. I told her I could get her a pen pal if she wanted. I don’t think she really understood, though. Mohammad and I headed out. We had some trouble parting ways in Ramallah. He wanted to get coffee, and I think he was enjoying the prestige of escorting a foreigner around, but he’d been a little too cheeky for someone eight years my junior, so I told him I needed to go pee before getting on the taxi and hugged him goodbye. Rather, let him hug me goodbye after he asked. Sometimes I forget that’s a big deal here.
I did some video editing in the taxi, to save myself some time later, but I was so drowsy that I passed out. Hopefully I didn’t sort. I do that on airplanes. I woke up in Nablus.
The trip is getting easier now. I start out in bustling Ramallah, hopping into an already-loaded taxi to Nablus, then I get to the Nablus East station, which takes you North, where fewer people want to go, then I arrive in Tubas and get into a Service that slowly fills with people from Toghbi and Tayasir, and I’m the only one continuing on to Al Aqaba.
I can’t put into words how it felt walking back into the village at sundown. I felt blessed for having a place like this to come back to. While Ramallah and Nablus were still restless and bustling, I had my little perch on this hill in the Jordan Valley. No one expected anything from me this evening, I could shower, clean the apartment, upload my videos, do some writing, plan tomorrow’s classes….and I had a full bag of candy bars.
Life is good in Al Aqaba. No sounds except the dogs barking in the distance, and the crickets chirping. I can’t see any constellations tonight, the moon is almost full. But I’m still thinking of Douaa, Alaa, Walaa, Yasmine, Filasteen and Batool, the seven Abu Rahma sisters, minus Rajaa, the flighty one.