Shepherds and Blacksmiths
The place where I’m volunteering just produced a report on Husan village, which is slated to be quarantined by the Israeli apartheid wall in the coming months and years. My supervisor asked me to go out to the village and take photographs for the report, so this entry is about my experience wandering around the Palestinian village of Husan.
The report mentioned Roman terraces and irrigation systems amidst the farmlands of Hunan – so this was the first thing that I wanted to see. I thought this would be just one or two stones; it turned out to be two huge valleys lined with olive trees, as well as even more fertile ground bursting with fruits and vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, mangoes, apples, pears, almonds, and other fruits. When I went to have a closer look at this lush farmland, I hear the shouts of children.
I descended a staircase built into the rock of the hillside that looked like it was built in Roman times and found a group of ten children in a swimming pool, built into the face of the hillside, with Hahwia Spring flowing into it. When you’re living in a country that averages 15 cm of rainfall a year (and I didn’t have running water in my home for 23 days), it’s pretty spectacular to see a freshwater spring flowing into a pool.
These children were commanding a flock of twenty or so sheep, washing them with soap and water. There was a film crew on the ledge of the pool with a cameraman and a broadcaster.
“Where are you guys from?” I asked the cameraman.
“And what brings you here?”
“We’re doing a documentary on how people can live with peace and cooperation.”
“How’s that going?” I replied.
“Not so well. All we have so far is sheep.”
If these Danes didn’t find what they were looking for by speaking with the shepherd who brought his sheep to the spring amidst the Roman architecture, then I don’t think he’ll ever find what he was looking for.
Husan village lies about 15 kilometers from the city of Bethlehem, of Biblical notoriety. And these are people who fully utilize the Roman architecture, which was probably also there at the time of Jesus’ birth. So these people have maintained an agrarian lifestyle for thousands of years on this same land. What’s more peaceful than that?
So I rambled on from the valleys and hillsides into the village, stopping intermittently underneath olive trees to rehydrate myself and take cover from the oppressive heat. Judging by the number of people staring or calling out to me, I knew I was an anomaly in this quiet village. I greeted most people, save for the teenagers who eagerly called out from doorways and rooftops, “What’s your name?”
Then, as I walked into the center of town, a man sitting in an empty building with no front, like a concrete box, waved me over. He was in a circle of other men, sitting and drinking coffee; there were just two men and 5 boys when I arrived, but by the end of our conversation, there were twelve men from the village sitting in a circle together, chatting.
The two men there initially were Ismael and Ahmad. Ahmad’s sister died the day before, in Jordan, of old age; so this gathering in the village center was a means for men to console the grieving. Ahmad didn’t speak English, but Ismael spoke fluently.
He asked me what I was doing in the village, and I told him I was taking pictures of the village for a local news agency. Then, when we were inquiring about families, marriage, and our ages, we diverged into a discussion of traditions. He said that most men of my age (25) are married in the village. And women marry much earlier than that, perhaps 16 or 18. He said that it is permitted for a man to hold several wives, the reason for this being an unequal proportion of men to women. But women can’t have several husbands because then there could be dispute as to who the father of her children are. So in societies where there are more women than men, say, in a place where there is war, there is a much greater proportion of single women. Ismael’s example: in Iraq, 80% of women aren’t married; in Palestine, just 1%.
But men in the village don’t really take more than one wife; only the wealthiest men have two. Ismael himself isn’t married. He studied English in the university for a year with the dream of going abroad. When his Visa was denied for America, he gave up on his academic as well as his traveling aspirations.
“What is your story about?” He asked me.
“The Israelis and the wall that they’re building in your village,” I replied.
“There is no wall here,” he said. Which is true: there is only a major highway that cuts along the edge of the village, dividing two homes from the rest of the village. There is 20-foot high fence next to the highway; but no wall yet.
“They want to build one,” I told him, as he conferred with the other men in the circle.
“Well, then they will.”
“I have friends in al Wallajeh, today, trying to stop the wall.”
“Ah yes. In al Wallajeh, they do have the wall. But we cannot stop them. They will do as they like.”
“Well, that’s why I’m writing the story. Maybe if I tell people in America, then we can do something.”
“Yes. Americans can stop the wall. But we can’t,” he said, resolutely.
This is the map of where the Israeli wall is, and where the Israelis plan to build it. As I told Ismael and as you can see in the top right of the map, the Israelis are currently building in al Wallajeh village. They have bulldozed homes there to clear the way for the wall and they enclosed 2/3 of al Wallajeh village into Israeli territory. There is little reason to doubt that the Israelis will continue into Husan village in the same way.
Then, as more men joined the circle, I found it rude to speak in English while they all were left out of the conversation. Ismael told me of the conversation that they were having: one man has been planning a wedding in the village center for his daughter, the following day. And they were debating whether it was right to have a wedding ceremony right after the death of the sister of a friend. After a bit, I went off to take more pictures.
I walked down the main street, ignoring the calls of teenagers to “Come! Come!” There was a bank, the Palestinian Investment Bank, and a window shop with some young men working. Then there was a small dark shop, with no lights on and a faded Arabic sign adorning the entrance; more like a garage than a shop. Then the blue flame of a welder’s torch burst from the darkness. I had to check this out.
Salim, the blacksmith, is from Turkey. He invited me in to sit and drink coffee with him. He allowed me to take his photo, though his hands were stained black by iron and his face was sweaty and dirty.
Salim studied philosophy in Morocco, then met his wife in Istanbul; she passed away last year. He is 57 years old. He has brothers in Toronto, Ohio, and Sydney, and a son getting his doctorate in computer science in Ohio. Salim dreams of going to Sydney, or to the US, but is waiting for his Visa to be granted. Until then, he will live along in Beit Jala, the town next to Bethlehem, and work here in Husan village. He had a man offer him $120,000 for his house in Beit Jala, and said he would happily sell it and find work in the states if he has that opportunity. But he also said that he would just like to go for three or four months, just to see his family. He told me this as if I were the man who would be approving or denying his visa application.
I gave the blacksmith my address and phone number, in case he or his children ever wanted to contact me. During the course of our conversation (in English), he was profusely apologizing for not speaking English well. He asked if I knew any Turkish, German, or French. I told him no, but that I just knew a bit of Kazakh, which is much like Turkish. I counted to ten in Kazakh (the numbers in particular are basically the same between the two languages), and, beaming, Salim said, “Ah, how wonderful! You are like Ahmad John Kennedy, Jr.!”
With a smile, we enjoyed a moment of silence. I bid him farewell and caught the bus across the street heading to Bethlehem.