SPECIAL FOR CYRANO’S SHOWCASE
The Occupied Garden:
The Drive from Beit Sahour to Birzeit
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
Palestine, March, 2009
Driving from Beit Sahour to Birzeit yesterday, I was listening to a program on radio Falastin titled “Wala Budda LilQayd An Yankasir”. The term is a verse from a poem that roughly translates as “the chain is destined to be broken”. The program is a lifeline for the nearly 13,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails to hear from their families outside the prison walls. Since visitation rights are routinely denied or highly restricted, family members call in and have three minutes to say something on air. For those prisoners who have access to radio, it is a way to hear and connect with their loved ones. I listened for nearly one hour to impassioned messages and harrowing stories. All the voices I heard were of women. One woman started her message by saluting women prisoners on International Women’s Day and specifically mentioned one leading prisoner, a friend of hers with whom she shared a prison room the year before. She encouraged all prisoners to be steadfast. Then she directed her message to her husband, still in prison, saying, “I know you are strong and you can withstand what they do you”; and, “I believe in your spirit yearning for freedom and justice.” She stated that she was sorry that she was unable to visit at this time because the authorities had told her that it was a Jewish Holiday of some sort so visits were stopped for the week. Another woman started with questions that would get no answers perhaps until the next personal encounter: “How is your health?” “How is your spirit?” “How are they treating you?” “Are you eating well?”. She then put her five-year-old child on the phone who said, “I miss you Daddy”; and, “Don’t worry, Mommy puts on her seat belt and drives slowly.” Another women told her husband not to worry about the family– they were all doing fine–and to just take care of himself; then she passed the phone to her mother-in-law who said: “How are you my son Mahmoud? Insha’Allah [God Willing] your health is good. Insha’Allah your spirit is good. Insha’Allah you will be returned to us safe and sound. Your father’s funeral went well. Everyone in town came. He died 15 minutes before I arrived back home.” … [Here she breaks down crying and the announcer gently encourages her and says “Allah yirhamu,” and then she continues]. …”He died 15 minutes before I arrived home from visiting you. Everyone was there, everyone took care of him. I pray to God every day to bring you back to me. I had you and your father. I need you, my son. I miss you, my son….”
That call made me cry and I turned the radio off for a few minutes as I gathered my thoughts. But I turned it back on to hear a few more. They were young women, old women, and a daughter of 10 who spoke with more poise and articulation than most adults and recited a poem that she had written.
On the way back from my university course I was a bit more relaxed and enjoying the beautiful green countryside between Ramallah and Birzeit. The Palestinian villages are set unobtrusively on the sides of hills with green fields stretching before them. (A friend said to me it reminded him of the Irish countryside at this time of year). I try not to think of the settlements on top of the hills and the slow cancerous growth of these. But I notice I am running on a close to empty tank of gas and I need to find a gas station. All the gas stations along the main roads in the West bank are Israeli. (Colonial settlements dot the landscape and Palestinians have been herded into concentration camps called Areas A and B, while most of the West Bank is Area C–rapidly being Judaized). I enter the first gas station in front of the colony of Ofra and while the lights are on, no one is there. I consider what conversation might have ensued with an attendant at such a gas station. I move on and try the next gas station near the colony of Shaar Binyamin, but when I enter the gas station and find it also closed, it dawns on me that it is Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, and that is why they are closed. Then two fears ran through my mind that caused me to sweat: What if I run out of gas near a settlement on a Jewish religious holiday when those settlers think we should not be driving? And even worse, what if the soldiers in the towers or security people at the gates of these settlements see this Palestinian car making a turn in an empty gas station? With their well-known reputation for hair-trigger fingers they could simply shoot and ask questions later (as they have done before). I immediately detour through an Israeli checkpoint into Area A and barely sputter to a Palestinian gas station. Then I arrive home exhausted and a bit disturbed. But, it is good to get home to my family and two Jewish friends (Allison and Michael) who are visiting us. After a late dinner, we meet up with more friends: internationals attending a talk on boycotts, divestments, and sanctions at the Alternative Information Center.
Today, Sunday, we are uplifted by the garden, seeing the new flowers of the lemon trees while harvesting the remaining batch of lemons of the last growth; the small new fig leaves emerging; the beginning of the almonds; the vegetables that are starting to take off (beans, spinach, sunflower seedlings). If the weather predictions are correct, we have one more large rainfall this week and this would make this winter an average one (as opposed to the really dry winters of the last two years). So farmers (and small home gardeners like us) are encouraged. I only wish we could travel to Jerusalem today/Sunday (Palestinians like us are barred) to join the demonstration at 2 PM in front of the UNRWA school in Silwan in appreciation of Women’s Day and to show solidarity with the people of East Jerusalem (including Silwan) whose homes are being demolished in the continuing program of ethnic cleansing that is changing the character of the ancient city. (That school is also the school in which some students were injured when the floor caved in because Israel is digging tunnels underneath the remaining Palestinian areas in Jerusalem.)
Some good news: the Viva Palestina convoy (120 cars and vans, etc. from Europe) is near Al-Arish and we hope it will be allowed into Gaza. Other good news: Mauritania has closed the Israeli (apartheid) Embassy and hundreds of protesters have battled authorities using tear gas in Sweden at the Davis Cup tennis competition where Israeli athletes were scheduled to participate. And, today marked the end of the 5th Israeli apartheid week held this year in over 40 cities around the world, and I am sure next year it will be held in 100+ cities. The scenes everywhere are becoming reminiscent of the 1980s era of struggle against South African apartheid.
Muslim friends everywhere on our planet are celebrating Mawlad AnNabi (the birthday of prophet Muhammad, PBUH). May it come to us next year with us closer to peace and justice in Palestine and around the world.
Video of life in Palestine (2 parts)
An excellent series of articles appeared in the Lancet (British Medical Journal) on health in the occupied Palestinian territories (you may need to register free to access the site the first time):
You may want to read those and send them to medical professionals around the world and maybe send a thank you note to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, “a Bedouin in cyberspace, a villager at home,” taught at Duke and Yale Universities and now teaches at Bethlehem University. He is the author of the book, “Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle.” His website is http://qumsiyeh.org.