The Cucumber and the Cactus
(A Palestinian Christian Story)
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
Northeast Magazine, Hartford, November 07, 2002
For some photos that accompanied this article see Photographs
There is something uniquely spiritual, yet uniquely primeval, in people connected to a land. Even for those of us who work in a sophisticated and mobile culture, simply to get our hands into the earth, or to walk around our gardens, is a pleasure.
We biologists recognize this as an unbroken link to our pasts, the time when hunter/gatherers became farmers. A hundred thousand years of evolution are more powerful than a lifelong incubation in an industrialized society and in our rat race of work and more work.
For Palestinians, our connection to the land is part of our fabric. After all, for more than 90 percent of us, agriculture was our livelihood from time immemorial. Our culture is imbued with agrarian terminology and instinct, and 55 years of living as refugees has neither obliterated nor diminished this instinct.
How else to explain that most of us try to grow at least some herbs on our window sills, trying to re-create some element of our lost village life. What we grow is hardly important, a few herbs such as thyme, mint, basil and parsley, and such vegetables as tomatoes and squash.
My brother, who lives in the warmer climate of Dallas, does even more, and has a few trees - figs, apples and loquats - to remind him of home. My own attempts are usually feeble. Every year, I carefully guard my few basil plants, bringing them inside during the winter, using electricity to keep them bathed in artificial light and heat. I know, of course, that I could buy a bunch of basil leaves for $1.99 or a basil plant for $1.69 at Home Depot whenever I want to. But the product is of secondary importance. My heart and soul, like so many of my fellow Palestinians, refuse to surrender this part of who I am.
One friend recently brought back a picture of a plant growing inside a container at a refugee camp in Lebanon. If you look carefully, you can see the container is actually an empty cannon shell. Taking a piece of war, this Palestinian refugee turned it into a planter to connect him with his agrarian past.
Even when impossible to sustain the physical connection to the earth, a spiritual and linguistic one remains. Our conversations and proverbs are inundated with the language of agriculture. This is of course true for English, but it's so much more prevalent in Palestinian dialects of Arabic. It's hard not to be struck by the volume and intricate complexity of such terminology in Palestinian conversations. A friend telling me about what Israeli forces are doing to Palestinian civilians in the Occupied areas would describe in the course of a very short conversation:
· Palestinians not seeing the face of the sun (wijh El Shams)
· Israelis "plowing" (harathu) people
· Children being cut down like grass (hasaduhum)
· Palestinian leadership as rotten and not good seeds (ma fihum habba mniha)
· We must go to the roots (nirja la juthurna)
· Let us not make a hill out of a seed (min El Habaa Qobba, equivalent to making a "mountain from a molehill")
· And of course, when life gets too tough, we even exclaim, "Life is too complicated for a Fallah (villager) from ... (village name)."
There are hundreds of these expressions. But for Palestinians, actual and physical contact with earth 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 the 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 a piece of that life that resides in us, in the deepest recess of our minds.
• • •
Chapter One | Roots
It was a sweltering summer day in 1994 when I sat down with my maternal grandparents and videotaped them for the last time. We sat on a balcony facing a beautiful forested hill called Jabal Abu Ghneim in Palestine. Behind those beautiful hills, we could see Jerusalem.
My terminally ill grandmother was frail and able to get out of bed for only a few minutes at a time. After her treatment for cancer failed, it seemed her pain medicines had also become less effective. She died about a year later and shortly after, my grandfather followed.
I could tell that "Sitto," as I called my grandmother, tried so hard not to show her pain, especially in front of my grandfather, or "Sido." Perhaps she knew that his feeling at seeing her in this condition was equally painful. He tried mostly to comfort her by a reassuring glance, a touch of the hand, and repeated questions. (Can I get you a glass of water? Can I get you something?) In both Sido and Sitto's wrinkled, round and pained faces, you could read so much with so few words. Their thoughts and frequent silent glances at each other were transparent. I had to step outside on occasion to collect myself. I have yet to meet a husband and wife who were more in love than these two. My grandfather, 88 at the time, had lived all his life in the conflict zone in Palestine and was thus no stranger to pain. His life actually encapsulated the modern Palestinian narrative in its entirety and cast a shadow that went far beyond his direct descendants, eight children and more than 40 grandchildren. It certainly shaped my own life.
Like his ancestors and most of his descendants, my grandfather was born in our small village of Beit Sahour. Beit means house, and Sahour is an allusion to staying up by night. Located in the hills halfway between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, the name refers to the shepherds who some two thousand years ago saw a star and walked up the hill to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
My grandparents' and my parents' homes are literally down the hill from the Church of the Nativity where tradition holds Jesus was born. On my way back from school in Bethlehem, I would often stop by and look at the candles in the grotto of the church. On tough days at work in the United States, I always yearn for those meditative moments.
At other times, a group of us would head to the nearby hills for adventure. We would eat wild roots, the fruits of the za'roor (a tree related to the apple family, but with fruit no bigger than an olive), and occasionally use slingshots to get a sparrow or a lark for meat. After these tiring trips, I could always count on a nice meal prepared by my grandmother, who somehow knew when I would be stopping by. These visits were more frequent in the season of loquats, figs, apricots, grapes and almonds that were so plentiful in the garden well-tended by my grandfather.
Sido also occasionally grew Beit Sahour's most famous agricultural product, "faqoos," a diminutive sweet cucumber that seemed to thrive in the rich red soils of the hills around Bethlehem. The townsfolk prospered on agriculture for more than 3,000 years growing - in addition to faqoos - wheat, olives, almonds, figs, grapes and assorted other fruits and vegetables.
Beit Sahour's inhabitants lived peacefully together but were not homogenous. The mosque and the church were and are right next to each other.
There was at least one black family I knew of in Beit Sahour, an Ethiopian Christian family. There were occasionally issues, of course, though not between Muslims and Christians. Rather they were between the majority Greek Orthodox and the Protestant denominations, who were in the minority. These disagreements were more visible to us because my mother's family was Lutheran and my father's Greek Orthodox. The nearby town of Bethlehem was even more diverse with Armenians, Sharkas, Coptics and other religions and nationalities intertwined. Any family disputes were easily dealt with by wise and elderly leaders whom only hotheaded teenagers like us dared to challenge.
Other occasional serious disputes occurred between the villagers and the nearby nomadic Bedouins, whose goats ravaged our crops. It was thus not unusual to have natoors (unarmed guards) posted at fields for protection. Yet, we were also dependent on the Bedouin for milk, cheese and meat products, and they were dependent on us for agricultural products.
Overall, a harmony of humans and nature persisted for millennia. Only in the past few decades did this village life change dramatically.
• • •
My grandfather did not have an easy childhood. He was 5 when his siblings and mother died in a cholera epidemic, and 9 when his father died in the First World War. At that point, he had to fend for himself in a rather hostile world, shining and mending shoes while going to school.
He said that in those early years during the war, food was so scarce that no domestic animal was safe, and scavenging in trash dumps was a full-time affair for many children like him. Perhaps what helped him survive was that he was bigger than average for his age. His will was strong, and adversity only made him a more determined and methodical human being.
After the death of his parents, he felt that other family members had abandoned him and so when old enough, he dropped his family name and assumed his father's first name as his last. Thus he became Issa Atallah Atallah. Issa is the Arabic name for Jesus, and Atallah refers to being given by/of God (Allah). However, my grandfather was never religious. In his writing and frequent talks, he occasionally referred to how religion is so easily used to oppress other people.
Issa finished not only high school but attended a prestigious college in Jerusalem and graduated to become one of the first teachers in our village. He was progressive in his thoughts and his teachings, instilling in his students a passion for reading and an intellectual curiosity about people, culture and society. He also developed an interest in language and in just a few years was writing textbooks on Arabic grammar, publishing articles and brochures on history, and collecting proverbs.
His collection of Palestinian proverbs with commentary and explanation is the largest ever published.
He rose to become principal and later superintendent of all schools administered by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), the U.N. body created to help Palestinian refugees expelled by Israeli forces between 1947 and 1949.
His wife Emilia came from a respected family in Nazareth, and devoted her life to her large family of four sons and four daughters. Issa and Emilia had a unique partnership. His books were all dedicated to her as "my life's partner" (Shareekat Hayati). They shared all in life, good and bad, and he always said that he could not have made it without her. This included the bad economic depressions of the early 1930s, the brutal British oppression and Palestinian uprising in the late 1930s, the terrorism started by the Jewish colonialists in the early 1940s and the later Nakba (catastrophe) of expulsion of about two thirds of the Palestinians to make way for establishment of the nascent state of Israel.
I remember him taking me in 1963, when I was 6, to one of the U.N. schools in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. I felt so proud that my grandfather was helping such unfortunate people who had been forced from their villages and towns. However, I was ignorant of who did this to them and why. I do not recall my grandfather or my parents discussing Palestinian politics or history. Perhaps people in the West Bank (then under Jordanian control) were still in denial or perhaps they wanted to shield us from the pain.
Later I would find out that some relatives, even before I was born, had confrontations with the ruling Jordanian royal family. One of my uncles on my paternal side was jailed by the Jordanian government for advocating Palestinian nationalism. My mother delivered my older brother in 1956 during the riots in Bethlehem against Jordanian rule.
Yet, my grandfather Issa was a pacifist, believing in the might and power of only the pen. He never owned a gun and his love and respect extended to all people, and was usually reciprocated.
When I visited with him for that last time in 1994, he was more willing to explain to me what happened as Palestine succumbed to Zionism. He talked about how Zionists slowly took over Palestine in his lifetime, using means ranging from rules and regulations to deceit, outright expulsion and land confiscation. But he made a point to also explain how Christians, Jews and Muslims had lived peacefully in Palestine for centuries. His best friend in high school in Jerusalem was Jewish. Zionism then came about with a racist and apartheid ideology and practice, which caused tremendous suffering to the natives of all religions.
He also had no kind words for governments ranging from Britain to the Arab world, kings, prime ministers and presidents. Yet, he was certain that ultimately all are passing phenomena of corruption, dispossession and destruction. His faith was based on knowing that our people had lived through the oppressive rule of Romans, Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Ottomans and the British. Both sides of my family trace back to the ancient Nabateans.
During the 3rd century B.C., the Nabateans built their first four cities in Al-Naqab (today known as the Negev Desert) along the path of the trade route that crossed the desert to what is today Gaza: Avdat, Shivta, Halutza and Nitzana. Their tribes of Saba were the ones who first settled in what later became Beer Saba' (in Arabic, or Beersheva in Hebrew; Beer means well in both languages). Their capital Petra (now in southern Jordan) is a marvel of human construction and engineering.
Thus, Issa would cite the resilience of their lives and a persistence that transcends the power of empires. His faith was also based on his progressive ideals that younger generations learn and grow and will build a better life for all inhabitants of the Holy Land, present and dispossessed. His main and repeated advice to everyone was to break the chains on one's own mind to capture the great potential for progress and coexistence. His words still shape my life.
• • •
Chapter Two | The 1967 War
I was 10 years old, and I remember groups of panicked people passing through our village and heading toward the Jordan River. It was June 5, 1967, the start of the war. My kind mother gave them food, and gave fleeing Jordanian soldiers my father's used clothes. I remember heated discussions among the adults about the wisdom of leaving; those who had left their homes in 1948, during the conflict when Israel became a state, were never allowed back.
For three or four days, while the war raged in other parts of the country, we slept in our beds fully dressed, ready to leave at once if necessary.
During these six days, Israel took the remaining 22 percent of Palestine - the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. I remember Israeli tanks rolling down the hills toward our village, my father hiding us in a cave while an Israeli tank passed, until neighbors motioned us that the coast was clear. I remember Israeli jets streaking overhead. These few days are the dominant memory of my early childhood, the lines of refugees, the jets, the helicopters. But most of all, I remember the fear, not only in us, the children, but on the faces of the adults.
For a few days after the guns fell silent, no one knew what to expect. The Israeli authorities took their time before giving us any instructions. They were busy securing a long new border that kept out the more than 300,000 Palestinians who'd fled during those six days. A few managed to get back, but many, like my cousins Samir and Makram, we would not see for more than 20 years. We waited while food and supplies trickled in, followed by some semblance of order imposed by village elders. Schools were closed, and my cousins and I spent even more time at my grandparents'.
I was already spending more time with them than at my own house; their house was big, their garden plentiful, and their love endless.
Two weeks after the war ended and on a day I will never forget, my grandfather received an extraordinary visitor: his best friend from high school, a Jew, who had been separated from him for 19 years. In the years between 1948 and 1967, no one could travel in either direction between the parts of Palestine that became Israel and the parts that came under Jordanian and Egyptian rule. I recall watching, not really understanding, as the two old men cried on each other's shoulders. It was the first time I saw my grandfather cry.
Later that evening my grandfather tried to explain why people could not visit each other across borders. Sido talked about how, against the wishes of its native people, including his Jewish friend, Palestine was divided. He talked about how Palestinian Christians, Jews and Muslims were forced to move and leave their homes.
Looking back now, I understand that Israel did not want Palestinians streaming back into its newly declared territory, and that Jordan was technically in a state of war with Israel. I understood that even Jerusalem was divided, that no East Jerusalemites could go to the West and vice versa. For the first time, people were excluded from parts of Palestine because of who they were. When the Israelis made the land whole, they made it an area where Palestinians are the unwanted "other."
The years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and my own village were not kind to our people. While they exchanged Jordanian rule for Israeli rule, there were stark differences. Immediately after 1967, Israel started to confiscate Palestinian land in the areas acquired and to build Jewish-only colonies/settlements there. Palestinians were mostly employed in agriculture, and as their best land was being taken, many were forced to find other jobs. Thousands were forced to work in building the Jewish settlements and the roads that now cover 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.
Unlike Jordan, which recognized us as Jordanian citizens (unequal but at least allowing economic progress), Israel imposed on us a most brutal occupation intended to force us off our lands. Arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances, random killing, home demolitions and economic deprivation were and are still common.
Immediately after the 1967 war, any non-Jew outside of the areas occupied in 1967 lost his residency rights. This included two of my cousins. If they had property, their property was now "absentee property" and turned over to the Jewish National Fund, which, according to its website, administers the land for, "the owners of the land of Israel, Jewish people everywhere."
• • •
Chapter Three | The Refugees
Before the Israeli occupation, my father was the only one in my family who was concerned with the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. After the war, in the presence of the Israeli military occupation, it became an issue for all of us. However, I personally was unaware of the human consequences surrounding the refugees of 1967 beyond those fleeting few days during the war.
My parents were teachers who gave us a good life and tried to insulate their six children from "unpleasant" experiences.
This sheltered life came to a halt, however, one day in 1976 when I was 19, and an undergraduate biology student at Jordan University.
As a class project, I was studying the bats of Jordan. On one of my field trips, I walked from the provincial Jordanian town of Jerash, with its ancient Roman ruins, to the Dibbine forest, where a friend said bats are common.
After a two-hour walk in the sun on a hot day in July, I came upon a group of children playing in a small wadi (dry valley). My first thought was that it was too hot to play outside. My second thought was to ask if they knew of any bat caves in the area. Village children usually do. To my pleasant surprise, two older children said yes and agreed to take me to this cave, and four younger kids decided to join.
After a 20-minute walk, and at the top of a hill, they pointed to a cave with a very small entrance. Crawling inside with a flashlight was difficult, but I was pleased to find a large room deep inside with a bat species that I later identified as new to the known fauna of Jordan. This was very satisfying to me. Dirty, hungry and thirsty, I asked the children if they knew where I could buy a drink.
With typical Arab hospitality, one of the two older children said there was no way he would allow me to do that and insisted that I come to his home. He pointed to the "town" below. I had not even noticed earlier, but now, with the sun and our location at the right angle, the town glittered. It was the Jerash Palestinian refugee camp, its hundreds of tin-sheet roofs reflecting the sun's rays.
The older child, who was perhaps 13, asked a younger one, apparently his brother, to alert his family that a guest was coming. I never saw a child run down a hill this fast before. I was exhausted, and walked slowly with the other children. On the way, we talked not about bats but about them and their lives. When I asked where they were from, their answers were of towns I never heard of, and to this day I feel guilty that I did not know or remember the towns they mentioned. These were Palestinian villages that their parents and grandparents had left in 1948. They talked of the bayyarat (citrus farms) the 'haquras (vegetable gardens), the large stone houses and so many other things that seemed so distant to their present reality. None of them had ever seen these places, but their descriptions were so vivid and real that you knew they were told these things in great detail repeatedly so that they committed them to their thoughts.
The "home" I visited that day was a two-room shack no bigger than 300 square feet. The walls were constructed from bricks with a peeling white covering, and the ceiling was a simple tin sheet. The room I entered was clean but crowded and served as living room and bedroom. A small, sorry-looking coffee table sat in the middle with fruits and snacks, a juice container, a teapot and cups.
My young energetic hosts were apologetic that they did not do more, while I was very worried to have caused them such trouble. We talked more about things such as their school, which was UNRWA-administered, their lives, their dreams and their aspirations.
For a while, I was in their universe and in their world, and I started feeling that I had been so sheltered, and that my life was so shallow. The joy of having succeeded in my mission of getting the bat specimens I needed was replaced with emptiness and confusion.
I asked why they thought they were in this place and not in Palestine. They simply answered, "The Jews wanted our land." The last question that I asked about their lives was the result of my own bewilderment and simplicity of thought: Do you think you will go back to those places in Palestine? An energetic and simplistic affirmative nod of the head accompanied by "inshallah" (God willing) was the answer.
Walking back at sunset, many thoughts crossed my mind, some, perhaps, a bit too much for a 19-year-old college student. As the years went by and the struggle continued between being involved and watching out for my own career and life, this experience slowly made its way into my conscience and forced me to think more about politics, injustice and human rights.
My color Kodachrome slides of the cave, the refugee camp and these children seem like black and white photos much older than they really are. I published the paper on new records of bats from Jordan in 1981 (my first scientific paper) to include the data those children helped me get. Meanwhile, many troubling regrets and questions remained unanswered.
Did I impose on them and disrupt their lives? (But they seemed anxious to tell me their stories.) Should I have offered them money (I had little to spare as a struggling undergraduate student) and would such an offer have been considered an insult? Why didn't I at least write their names or the names of the villages they came from? What do they remember of their experience with me? What happened to them? What will their future be like after these various "peace" moves?
After 25 years, my regrets are mixed with pride and hope, but most of all with gratitude. The challenges of my own life over the past 25 years all seem so mundane compared to that of the refugees.
• • •
Chapter Four |Resistance
Since the '67 War, Palestinian resistance, like any resistance movement by any colonized people, has taken many forms. Most of it has been nonviolent, such as my entire village's refusal to pay taxes and burning military ID cards in 1988, and some of it has been violent. I, like all human rights advocates and most of the world, find these acts of violence again civilians, Israeli or Palestinian, to be abhorrent. But words are not sufficient to end violence. The violence is a terrible symptom of the underlying and ignored diseases of oppression and dispossession, in the same way that the violence that killed both black and white civilians under apartheid South Africa was a symptom.
Historically, this has been the tragic but consistent response to colonial systems. I recall with horror the stories about Native Americans' scalping of English settlers in colonial America, "necklacing" in South Africa (when tires were placed around the necks of living people and set ablaze to burn them alive), and terror bombings of civilian areas in Algeria and in Palestine, first by the Jews in their fight against the British and then by the Palestinians in their fight against the Israelis.
But colonial overlords never needed such acts to label an entire native population as savage and barbarian. Dehumanizing natives as less "civilized" than their European oppressors has always been an important strategy to make it easy to kill and dispossess them of their land.
Native Palestinians resisted by different means, most of which were futile. Those who resisted the occupation or the land confiscation faced what Israeli authorities called their iron-fist policy. A farmer we knew was shot when he tried to tend to his crops on land Israeli authorities confiscated. A relative of mine had his home demolished because his 12-year-old son threw stones at an Israeli patrol. Ironically, he was the mason who cut the stones to build so many houses of others (including my parents' house). My brother-in-law was jailed several times with no charge under rules that allow the military to detain people for up to six months without trial or charges. They thus put him in jail for six months (with torture), released him, brought him in again for another six months and so on. He and I believe their reasoning was that he was politically outspoken about the Palestinian suffering under occupation, and thus they attempted to silence his voice. Whatever their reason, his torture resulted in permanent kidney problems, and he was never charged or convicted of any crime.
My own experience of Israeli occupation took the form that many Palestinian youth faced and still face today: random beatings, humiliations, strip searches and basic racism.
After I finished my bachelor's degree in Jordan, I came back to teach at public schools in the Bethlehem and Jericho areas. One day in 1978, I was teaching biology to my 11th graders at the boys' school (schools were segregated and I taught at both boys' and girls' schools). Halfway through the class period, two tear-gas canisters came flying in from outside. The students panicked and rushed to the exit. Israeli soldiers who were manning the exits with clubs were hitting the students as they tried to get out.
When I came out, one young Israeli soldier, no older than my students, swung his club at me. I protested instinctively in English that I was the teacher. This caused this young man to pause briefly, and then ask me in Arabic and gruffly to "move on."
Instead, I tried to talk to him, asking why they had thrown the gas canisters into the classroom and why they were beating the students. He lost his temper, grabbed me by the collar and violently dragged me to the yard where a truck was parked with some arrested students sitting inside. We were all trucked to the nearby military building. The soldiers took all our ID cards and threw us into a small cell. We heard nothing from them for more than seven hours. But we were lucky. They simply returned the IDs and asked us to walk home, some of us a bit bruised, all of us shaken. My only guess was that the soldiers were bored and simply wanted some action.
My uncle Yacoub (Jacob) Qumsiyeh, who died of liver failure in early 2001, was superintendent of the Lutheran schools in the West Bank. I remember him coming home one day in 1994, saying that he'd managed to get through the Israeli checkpoint. This was also exceptional, he explained, because a soldier asked where he was going and my uncle defiantly responded: Al-Quds (the Arabic name of Jerusalem). I felt so depressed to hear such pride in such little triumphs when all around them, Palestinians were seeing their lands confiscated, their homes demolished and their livelihoods slowly suffocated all while supposedly in a "peace process." But in retrospect, such small acts of defiance seem so important to maintaining the dignity and sanity of a people under relentless attack.
Since I had always planned to get higher education, I worked to get admitted to graduate studies in the United States, and thus escaped the rapidly deteriorating situation. In my years at home, I did witness Israeli brutality, including against my own father and other relatives. This included harassment at checkpoints, requesting them to do menial tasks (moving things from one side of the street to the other), verbal and physical insults and so on. But again, I never felt that my family suffered as much as other families. The most affected Palestinians were those who were refugees from 1947-1949 and those still living on agriculture in rural areas in the newly occupied areas after 1967. Israel simply wanted Palestinian lands and wanted to make life as miserable as possible for those Palestinians remaining so that they would leave.
In their incursion into Beit Sahour in April and May, Israeli forces caused millions of dollars in damage and terrorized our people. My cousin Marwan was tied onto an Israeli military Jeep and used as a human shield for hours.
This past summer, the military governor of the Bethlehem area paid a surprise visit to Beit Sahour. He presented the mayor with the "new plan of Beit Sahour" - a map that shows even more land to be confiscated and demolished to expand Jewish settlements and their roads.
This time, the land to be confiscated included the Greek Orthodox housing project. The land was donated by the Greek Orthodox Church and residents. Christians who belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church had pooled their resources between 1993 and 2000 and built apartment buildings, each housing eight families. Today, however, the future of the project is unclear, nor is it clear what will become of these families if the Israeli bulldozers come in as they have in so many other places, such as Rafah, Khan Younis and Jenin.
Israel has already confiscated large swaths of land in the northern part of Beit Sahour for the growing Jewish settlement/colony of Har Homa. In the past 35 years, the hills around Jerusalem have been transformed, covered with high-rise buildings with lucrative tax incentives for Jews from all over the world to come and live on our lands.
I flip through our photo album and I see pictures of my parents, who seem pale and weak with age, both seeming older than their real age. I am stopped by that determined, yet compassionate look on their faces. The suffering of older generations of my family was always accompanied by persistent resistance. They joined demonstrations and civil disobedience personified in the tax revolt of 1988 in Beit Sahour during the first uprising against the occupation (Intifada). From their house, they see the growth of the settlement called Har Homa on the lands of Jabal Abu Ghneim, and it's creeping toward them.
In my phone calls to them every weekend (now more frequently as my father has been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia), they always lament that the old days are gone. We used to go for picnics to Jabal Abu Ghneim, shopped in Jerusalem, bathed in the Dead Sea, picked flowers in the mountains, etc. The buildings that replaced the trees on Jabal Abu Ghneim stand mostly empty, but they partially block our view of Jerusalem. More tellingly, the bypass roads, for use by Jewish settlers only, now cut off access to the Holy City to all Palestinians living in the West Bank, except those living in East Jerusalem itself.
Flipping through the pictures, I come to the photograph of Hiam Al-Sayed in our own house in Connecticut. This is the little Palestinian girl who visited us in Connecticut to get a prosthetic eye. Her eye was shot out by an Israeli sniper while she walked with her mother in Gaza City to visit a friend. She captured our hearts. It's times like this that I realize how lucky my family has been. It is true that the home of a relative was demolished. It is true that many of my relatives have been exiled. But these families in Gaza and in the refugee camps in the West Bank and throughout the Middle East are suffering so much more.
Yet this does not lessen my own pain, knowing that as an American citizen, my taxes are funding this Israeli oppression. In many ways, through my taxes, I am helping to kill Palestinians (and Israelis) and to keep this unjust war going. That is a heavy burden.
• • •
Chapter Five | The Cactus
Between 1947 and 1949, more than 450 villages and towns were destroyed and their trees demolished. In 1967, the inhabitants of more villages, such as the biblical town of Emmaus, were moved. Emmaus, which was halfway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea, was destroyed after the 1967 war and today is the site of a national park.
Israel uprooted tens of thousands of olive trees, over 100,000 in the West Bank alone in the past 10 years. Yet there are still some olive trees left, proud and stubborn, some old enough to have existed at the time Jesus walked this land.
This is traditionally the time of the olive harvest, but this year, the Israeli government has forbidden the Palestinians from harvesting what remains of their olives.
But the story of the cactus is the most interesting. In Palestine, village fields used to be demarcated by cactus plants. When these were bulldozed, starting in 1947, an interesting thing happened: The hardy cactuses grew back. It is simply impossible to thoroughly remove all the roots. Thus, in Israel, in many places long abandoned, cactus grows in rows in the same places it was planted hundreds of years ago by the hands of the natives. Tough on the outside, tender inside, and with beautiful yellow or pink flowers, the cactus has become a metaphor for Palestinians and is in many of our national songs and poems.
We cling to the hope and the certainty that, just as happened in South Africa, we shall someday live together in this small place called the Land of Canaan/the Holy Land. Jews, Christians, Muslims and others all did live together for hundreds of years before Britain and the great powers adopted Zionism. Then the rains that filter through the soil in which my grandfather and his Jewish friend are both buried will also nourish new fields of faqoos, sweet cucumbers, and thriving cactus.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics and director of cytogenetic services at Yale University School of Medicine, is founder and president of the Holy Land Conservation Foundation and ex-president of the Middle East Genetics Association. He won the Raymond Jallow Activism Award from the national Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1998. He is co-founder and national treasurer of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and has written extensively about the Middle East.
For some photos that accompanied this article see Photographs