Spring Yard Work
By Mazin B. Qumsiyeh 5/13/01
Saturday was a beautiful spring day in New England and it was time to do some yard work. Working in the yard provides one of those rare moments when humans feel at ease with themselves. Intentionally not wearing gloves while getting ourselves dirty is a therapeutic gesture that brings our bare hands and souls in touch with the plants, soil, rocks, and water. There is something uniquely spiritual and yet uniquely primeval in our love of getting our hands into the earth. Biologists tell us that it is a connection to the part of us humans that we never lost: the hunter-gatherer later become farmer. A hundred thousand years of evolution is reasoned to be more powerful than a lifelong incubation in these technological schools and in our rat-race of work and more work.
For a Palestinian, this connection to earth is even more ingrained and is part of the fabric of what makes us who we are. The whole culturehas been imbued with an agrarian terminology and instinct. 53 years of living as refugees has not obliterated nor diminished this instinct. How else could one explain that most if not all Palestinians try to grow at least some herbs on their window sills. Many go to elaborate length to recreate some element of their lost village life in their urban environment. What they grow is usually the same, a few herbs such as
thyme, mint, basil, and parsley, and such vegetable as tomatoes and squash. My brother in a warmer climate is able to do even more and have a few trees to remind him of home (Figs, Apples, Loquots). He is really going all out. These attempts such as my own are usually very feeble and ineffective. For the time and money you spend, you could certainly buy lots of produce in your local supermarket. How else would I justify my careful guarding of a few basil plants, bringing them inside during the winter, spending electricity to keep them bathed in artificial light and heat. How else indeed when I could simply buy a bunch of basil leaves for $1.99 or a basil plant for $1.69 in HomeDepot whenever I want to. No matter how feeble or elaborate, there is logic to this madness.
You see, the product is really of secondary importance. The effort and the psychological impact of this effort provide a powerful and compelling argument for their continuation even through generations away from the land. They give us nothing short than a "reason d'etre" (a reason for being). Even if our rational minds put this activity into question, our hearts and our souls refuse to surrender this part of us, a part of who we are. When life gets too tough, we even exclaim "life is too complicated for a fallah (villager) from .. (village name)."
One friend recently brought back a picture of a plant growing inside a container at a refugee camp in Lebanon. The only thing that is strange is that if you look carefully, the container is actually an empty cannon shell. Taking a piece of war, this Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon turned it into a planter to grow something nice that connects
him with his agrarian past.
Even when impossible to sustain the physical connection to the earth, a spriritual and linguistic one remains. Our conversations and proverbs are so enundated with the language of agriculture. This is ofcourse true for English but is so much more prevelant in Palestinian dialects of Arabic. As an example, we use the same expression in Arabic as in English for more firmly placing ideas: cultivating (zara3 in Arabic) an idea. There is though an amazing qualitative and quantitative difference. One is struck by the sheer volume and intricate complexity of such terminology in Palestinian conversations. A family member in Palestine telling me about what Israel forces are doing to Palestinian civilians in the Occupied areas would describe in the course of a very short conversation:
Israelis"plowing" (7arathu) people
Children being cut down like grass (hasaduhum)
Palestinians not seeing the face of the Sun (ma shafu wijh El Shams)
Palestinian leadership as not good seeds (ma fihum habba mniha)
We must go to the roots (nirja3 la juthurna)
Those who cultivate thorns do not eat grapes
From Onions you do not squeeze honey (min ElBasel ma betla3 3asal)
Let us not make a hill out of a seed (min El Habaa Qobba, equivalent to
making a "mountain from a molehill")
There are hundreds of these expressions among the thousands of proverbs in our culture (my grandfather published a book of proverbs totaling over 7 thousand). For Palestinians, actual and physical contact with earth is important and cannot be replaced by language. One Palestinian friend developed a hobby of collecting samples of soil and sand from his frequent travels all over the world. His favorite sample is labeled with the name of the village from which his grandparents were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948. He was able to collect this sample when he visited the village ruins for first time in 1997. Each of us yearns for a simple life that was taken away from us but more importantly each of us has had a piece of taht life that
resides in us, in the deepest recess of our mind. That cannot be taken away.