New Internationalist

Cacti, pomegranate and fig trees

It's funny that a person can live in a place for years, and yet fail to notice the richness of their surroundings. It took pottery lessons in a quaint mountain village for me to realize that history was literally under my feet.

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When I was a young girl living in Nigeria, my father pulled an old atlas off the bookshelf, and turned to the page which bore the map of Palestine. As my siblings and I leaned over the page, he explained the troubled history of the country of his birth, the country which, in 1948, became known as Israel.

To me as a child, Palestine was not much more than lines on a page in the atlas, and a couple of summer vacations. It was not until I was a teenager that I began to understand the meaning that this land holds for millions of Palestinians.

I am a first generation American-born Palestinian living in Israel. I am not a refugee. Living in Israel, I have gained an appreciation of what was, and anger towards what is.

My pottery lessons were in a small Israeli artists’ village called Ein Hod. I felt a sense of belonging in this quiet, picturesque village. I understood why after I read its history. For over 400 years, it was Palestinian.

In 1948, its population of approximately 800 was forced from their homes by Jews. Although most of the residents settled in the West Bank or other Arab countries, one brave man refused to leave. He moved to his land a couple kilometers up the mountain and started a new village called ‘Ayn Hawd.

Some of the Arab houses still stand in the original Arab ‘Ayn Hawd (pre-1948). The laughter of children, the voices of women sharing stories, and the sound of the adthan (the call to prayer) from the mosque (now a restaurant/bar) would fill my ears as I would walk between the houses. But coming out of my reverie, I would realize that I was just hearing whispers from the past. The voices have long been silenced.

The restaurant/bar in Eid Hod; it used to be a mosque (above). And the new 'Ayn Hawd (below).

And thus began my journey towards discovering my roots, and my undying fascination with the demolished Palestinian villages in Israel.

But this story is not about me. It is about the Palestinians who lived in the villages and became refugees upon Israel’s creation. Israelis consider that day in May the day of their independence. But for Palestinians, 15 May is a day of Nakba, a day of Catastrophe.

Between 1947 and 1949, 750,000 – 900,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from 550 villages. Thousands ended up living in refugee camps outside Israel under extremely harsh conditions. Approximately 427,000 became internally displaced persons – Palestinians living in Israel but not in their villages of origin. The Palestinian population worldwide currently stands at approximately 11 million.

Tulkarm refugee camp.

Cacti, pomegranate and fig trees are tell-tale signs of the past existence of Palestinian villages. Israel’s attempt to hide the demolished villages by creating forests there has been futile. It is impossible to hide their presence – signs of the Nakba are everywhere.

Just 10 minutes from Ein Hod, the shrine of a local sage called Sheik Shahada and the cemetery of ‘Ayn Ghazal still stand, as do some buildings, including the mosque of Ijzim. Both villages are now populated by Jews, and bear different names.

Last year I met Abu Hosam. Originally from al-Lajjun, his family was expelled from their homes when he was only seven. Although they settled in a nearby city, 63 years later, his memories of al-Lajjun are still vivid.

Holding a map of the village dated 1948, he took me on an emotional tour of the now forested land. The remains of a few buildings stand amongst the tall trees. The most heart-wrenching moment was when he said with a choked voice, ‘Welcome to my house.’ My eyes were wet as I looked at the dry thistle that he pointed at. The dry ground bore no signs that a house was once there.

Al-Lajjun, 1948 (above) and now.

Not far from al-Lajjun was Qaqun. As old as the Crusaders, this Palestinian village, which was surrounded by fertile agricultural land, was also destroyed in 1948. The village land is now filled with Jewish communities. The soil still produces crops but for different land owners. Nevertheless, towering above it all as a stubborn reminder are the ruins of an ancient fortress, surrounded by cacti.

Fortress at Qaqun.

Sixty-three years after Israel’s creation, the Nakba is continuing. In Silwan, in the Bedouin villages in south Israel, in Jaffa, and even in the West Bank people continue to be evicted from their homes.

Thousands of acres of land have been confiscated by Israel to build Jew-only roads, military zones, the Wall and Jewish settlements. And millions of refugees have not been permitted to return to their homes.

Cactus.

I watched with emotion on Nakba Day as Palestinians jumped over the fences between Israel and Syria, and for the first time stepped on their homeland, making their dream a reality – if only for a moment. The refugees of 1948 made it clear: they want to begin their own journey, just as I did. Don’t they have that right?

All photos by the author.

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