By Pamela Olson
The next morning hundreds of villagers got up early and headed out to their land. It was late October and the olive harvest was in full swing. I tagged along to help out, hoping to earn my keep for once. My karmic balance sheet was getting embarrassingly overdrawn.
Jayyous is built on a hilltop, and the land below it undulates and gradually flattens out until it meets the coastal plains of central Israel and the Mediterranean Sea fifteen miles to the west. We caravanned down the hill in donkey carts and tractors and on foot, excited for a long, fun day in the groves.
But our procession was stopped short at the bottom of the hill by a twenty-foot-high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Two smoothly paved access roads flanked the fence. The land on either side of the roads was blasted bare. The whole two-hundred-foot-wide structure was bounded by trenches and six-foot pyramid-shaped piles of razor wire. This massive ribbon of metal, concrete, and emptiness snaked through the Biblical hills in jarring contrast to the ancient aesthetic. A bright red sign said in Hebrew, English, and Arabic: MORTAL DANGER — MILITARY ZONE. ANYONE WHO PASSES OR DAMAGES THE FENCE ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.
I was shocked to be confronted by such an aggressive-looking structure on a peaceful olive harvest morning. Everyone else gathered patiently around the locked gate and found places to sit in the warm, dusty morning. I swallowed my fear and followed suit. I noticed that one of the donkey carts had AGAINST TERRORISM scrawled in white paint across the back. I heard a boy point to the donkey cart and say something about simsim.
“Simsim?” I asked, and pointed toward the donkey cart. The boy hesitated, then nodded. “So simsim means ‘donkey’?” I envisioned myself learning Arabic one word at a time and slowly developing a native command, like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.
The boy looked at me blankly. One of his friends whispered something, and all the other boys burst into laughter. Seeing my bewildered look, Yusif whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “I think ‘Simsim’ is the nickname of the boy in the cart.” I looked at Simsim and winced apologetically. He smiled and shook his head.
I passed time with another group of kids by drawing on the back of an old envelope. They wrote a little English for me, and I wrote a little Arabic. I spelled my name “Bamila” since there’s no P in Arabic, and bam sounds unnervingly similar to bomb.
After nearly an hour of waiting, I caught Yusif’s eye. “Who owns the olive groves we’re going to?”
“People mostly own and work their own groves, which are passed down from generation to generation.”
“How much of Jayyous’s land is on the other side of that fence?”
“Most of it,” he said. “About 75 percent. More than ten square kilometers.”
“Yeah, you can see. The Fence goes right up next to the village. There are places where it’s just a few meters from people’s houses.”
“Where’s the border between the West Bank and Israel?”
“About four kilometers that way.”
I squinted through the Fence in confusion. “Why would Israel build a fence here instead of on the border?”
“They say they’re building it to stop suicide bombers. But hundreds of Palestinians cross the Green Line illegally every day to work in Israel. If a bomber wants to get through, he can. If he doesn’t, the next one will. If there’s a decrease in bombers, it’s not because of the Wall.” *
* This structure is referred to as Al Jedar (“the Wall”) by Palestinians in Arabic. In English they use “Fence” and “Wall” interchangeably. In rural areas it is a fence/roads/trench/razor wire/buffer zone structure like the one described here. In urban areas it is a twenty-five-foot-tall concrete wall embedded with sniper towers. Israelis call it the “Separation Barrier” or “Security Fence.”
“So why are they building it, and why this route?”
He sighed as if he had been through this many times. “Jayyous has some of the most fertile land in the West Bank. They’ve got something like fifteen thousand olive trees, fifty thousand fruit and citrus trees, mangos, avocados, almonds, apricots, more than a hundred greenhouses, and six good water wells. Also, Jayyous sits near Israel’s narrowest point. There’s only about twenty kilometers between the Green Line and the sea right here.”
My eyes narrowed. “So what, you’re saying Israel is trying to take Jayyous’s land?”
He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, look, once we get through the Fence, there’s nothing stopping us from marching directly to Tel Aviv. You tell me what sense that makes.”
I couldn’t think of any. “How much land was destroyed to build the Wall? The scar looks enormous.”
“Yeah, it was a lot. About twenty-five hundred olive trees were destroyed. And even when Israel offers compensation, no one takes it. It’s never anywhere near the value of what was lost, and it makes it look like a transaction instead of what it is. It would be an insult to accept that, and it’s considered treason if you do.”
“Has anyone tried to climb over the Wall or tear it down?”
“Electronic sensors can call an army Jeep to investigate any possible breach in minutes. And they’ve been known to shoot people on sight.”
A chill went down my spine. I looked at the Fence, at the villagers gathered around it, and back at Yusif. It all sounded insane. There had to be more to this than he was telling me. I had called Dan, the Russian-Israeli I’d met in the Sinai, as soon as I’d known I’d be visiting Israel. We were due to meet at the end of the week. I hoped he’d help me understand things a little better.
“Are they going to let us through today?” I asked.
“What happens if they don’t?”
“As you see. We wait.”
Two hours later, around 10:30, when the day was getting good and hot, an armored Jeep turned on its engine and kicked up dust as it powered up to the army access road next to the Fence. It had been sitting two hundred yards from us the entire time, hidden by a rise in the land. Two young Israeli soldiers with flak jackets and helmets and M16 assault rifles got out and opened the gates. We passed single file as our documents were examined. Most of us seemed to get through.
The party that had been postponed at the gate resumed as we forgot all about the Fence and set about the day’s business. Rows of olive trees were evenly spaced on gently rolling hills, hemmed in beautifully by white stone retainer walls that curved in harmony with the natural topography. Their leaves were green on one side, silvery on the other, and the olives varied from bright green to dark purple. A fine chalky dust saturated the trees, muting the colors to sea foam green and deep lavender. When the wind rustled the leaves, the trees seemed to shimmer.
People began whacking at the trees with wooden sticks to knock the olives onto tarps spread out below. I watched until I thought I had an idea of what to do and set to work. After a while I noticed Yusif looking at me funny. “You’re not supposed to whack it quite so . . . randomly,” he said. “It takes some amount of finesse to be gentle to the trees and still get the olives.” I paid closer attention and soon developed a halfway-decent olive whack.
I noticed a guy around twenty years old wearing a T-shirt over his head to keep the sun off his face. Yusif said he was the mayor’s youngest son, Mohammad. He was the most energetic and charismatic of the cheerful harvesters. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we could only say “Marhaba!” (Hi!) whenever we ran into each other. But his enormous brown eyes exuded such intense and benevolent interest in everything and everyone around him, I started calling him “Mohammad the Charmer” in my mind. The fact that his lack of English skills was an exception drove home how many people in this tiny town spoke English as a second language. Jayyous was the same size as my home town, about 3,000 people. But in Stigler, Oklahoma, even the high school Spanish teacher didn’t really speak Spanish.
I got thirsty after a while and went looking for water. Along the way I ran into Azhar, the mayor’s dark-eyed youngest daughter, an ethereally beautiful and unnervingly self-possessed eleven-year-old whose name means “flower” in Arabic. She was peeling a clementine (kalamentina in Arabic). When she finished peeling it, she offered half to me.
“Shukran,” I thanked her. She smiled.
Azhar’s half of the clementine was halfway to her mouth when Sebastian wandered by also looking for water. Instead of eating her portion, she offered it to him. “Shukran,” he said.
I blinked in disbelief. Sebastian and I weren’t just strangers — we were foreigners who hadn’t even bothered to learn much of her language before visiting her country. She had every right in the world to be suspicious of us. Instead she was giving us her food without a second thought. I couldn’t help but think I’d been an ogre as a child compared to her. I wouldn’t give my little sister half of anything unless someone forced me to.
When I got tired of whacking, I climbed the trees and combed olives from their shaded inner branches using a hand-held plastic rake. The tallest trees didn’t stand much more than fifteen feet high, but within each compact canopy was a vast and unique treasury of olives and leaves and sunlight and space. Olive branches have long been symbols for power, beauty, prestige, peace, and plenty, and it was easy to see why. Olives can be used for oil, pickling, lotion, soap, even fuel. Some of these trees were older than the Renaissance, and combing their willowlike branches felt like a sacrament. Wild herbs and brambles flourished at their feet, and the leaves shimmering softly over acres and acres seemed too diffusely beautiful for this world.
At one point I noticed a lizard high in a tree looking at me curiously. I picked it up and held it in my hand, and it shifted to a slightly paler hue — a chameleon! I jumped out of the tree to show it to Azhar. I moved a black olive toward the frightened animal’s open mouth to see if it would flick its long tongue out or turn black or something. Before I could find out, Azhar stilled my arm. She clucked her tongue, shook her head, and said gently, “Haraam.”
Yusif had told me haraam meant something forbidden by the laws of Islam, or any basically sinful or indecent thing. Harassing a helpless creature apparently qualified in Azhar’s mind. I nodded, tossed the olive away, and let the chameleon go on a white stone wall.
Once a tree was done, people would gather up the tarps and sit together, consolidating the fallen olives, twigs, and leaves into a pile and removing the twigs by hand. The prettiest green olives were put in buckets for pickling and the rest would be bagged up, sorted from the leaves, and turned into olive oil in Jayyous’s Italian olive press. It was nice to sit after standing for so long, and often we would get so deep into a conversation we’d have the pile clean as a whistle and still be picking at specks and talking away. Eventually someone would come over with an empty grain sack, and we’d scoop them in and break it up and move on.
Always there was the soft, heavy patter of olives landing on tarps all around, a rich olive rain. It was a pregnant sound that promised good things, not the least of which was this day, chatting and whacking and picking under a clear blue sky.
It was a welcome relief when lunch was called. Hot and hungry, we gathered around a tarp loaded down with bread and jam, hummus and pickled olives from past harvests, homemade falafel and crumbly white cheese, tomatoes and fresh yogurt and halaweh (a confection made from sesame paste). Some of the younger kids, packs of nieces and nephews and cousins, ran around shrieking and laughing and throwing olives at each other. It reminded me of the golden days in Stigler when my cousins and I used to climb trees and pick mulberries, gather eggs and shell peas, chase cows and play by the creek on my grandfather’s land.
As I was drinking my tea after the meal, I glanced up at Jayyous perched on its hilltop. Its white houses contrasted beautifully with the dark pine trees in the village, the shimmering olive groves surrounding it, and the powder blue sky. I remembered seeing similar scenes in Renaissance paintings when I was a kid and wondering if places like that still existed.
It struck me all of a sudden that this wasn’t merely an interesting conflict zone. In many ways, Jayyous was an enviable place to call home.
Jayyous. You can see a portion of the Fence along the bottom of the photograph.
After several more hours of picking and a last batch of olives loaded into sacks and hauled onto a waiting truck, we headed toward home. After the day’s gaiety, I wasn’t prepared for what awaited us. The Fence was closed and locked. No soldier was manning it. Once again we had no choice but to put down our supplies, gather around the gate, and wait. An old woman in a white headscarf glanced up at the most devastated of Jayyous’s once-productive hillsides. Her eyes followed the Fence and its clear-cut and bulldozed perimeter, a huge area that used to be home and now meant a threat of death to any Palestinian who dared approach. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the piles of razor wire surrounding the structure, which were designed to corral not goats or sheep but human beings.
“Haraam!” she exploded suddenly and shook her fist at it. “Haraam!” Another old woman patted her on the shoulder to calm her. She looked down feebly and shook her head.
An hour later it was time for the evening prayer. There was still no sign of anyone to let us back home. The men laid a tarp down on a rocky ledge. One man led the prayer while the others prayed in their jeans and dusty work shoes, silhouetted against a lovely setting sun. Another man went off by himself to pray next to a pile of razor wire. As I watched him pray solemnly, imprisoned and humiliated on his own land, I felt something I’d never felt before, as if I’d been kicked in the stomach by my best friend.
It was nearly dark when the soldiers finally arrived. As the once-merry villagers lined up somberly, making sure to behave while the young Israeli soldiers questioned them, checked their documents, and waved them uncaringly through, my shoulders bowed and my head ducked. A horrified weight of sorrow settled on my heart. I felt like I couldn’t bear to watch this awful scene, to quietly accept it. But there was nothing I could do.
After a few moments, it dawned on me that I was wrong. I leveled my head. I straightened my shoulders. If nothing else, I could at least try to face this situation with as much honesty and dignity as I could muster.
With that I realized something else. I had always assumed, watching scenes like this on the news, that the people who bore such things must either not quite care about life as much as I did, or they must have some kind of supernatural coping mechanism I couldn’t begin to imagine. Because if anything like this happened to me, I assumed I would utterly fall apart. Now I felt ridiculous for ever imagining such a thing. Here I was, and unendurable things were happening right in front of me to people who were no different from me at all. And they were bearing the situation with dignity, not because they didn’t care or because they were saints. They simply had no other options except being miserable, which wouldn’t help anything, or resisting. And this was a point in time when resistance was probably futile.
Instead of feeling destroyed, to my surprise, I felt energized by a clarity of purpose I’d never felt before. Suddenly the conflict in this part of the world was no longer a blank horror. It was merely an extremely difficult series of challenges whose basic units were human beings. Enough people of good will could surely find a way to resolve them, and maybe after I learned a great deal more I could find a way to help. Either way, if the people of Jayyous could go through this every day and still go home and joke around on the porch — and apparently I could, too, because what else was I going to do, sit around and mope? — I wondered what else I might be able to bear that I never imagined I could.
Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
By Pamela Olson
Seal Press, Berkeley, CA
March 2013 | Trade Paper | 320 pages
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