By Hatim Kanaaneh – Galilee
This sounds like a lovely title for a children’s book or even a fairytale. Indeed the tale told here is fantastic and hard for the sane mature to believe, fit only for the imagination of a child. It is about the surreal happenings in few days in the life of Andy, a real person who showed up at the Acre train station one evening with an assortment of video-recording equipment.
Andy hails from America. He belongs to the rare breed of self-assigned truth and justice seekers who dedicate themselves to the task of saving the human race at this late hour of its incessant march, lemmings like, to its demise. He has no plausible connection to Palestine or the Palestinians except that he, like Jimmy Carter, finds them awfully wronged and their suffering worthy of recognition. He wants to set the record straight. Together with another fighter for Palestine, Dr. Ahlam (Arabic for ‘dreams’) Muhtaseb, he sets out to document the wrongs done the Palestinians in 1948 through visits to their destroyed former homes and the recording of interviews with members of separated families in Galilee and the refugee camps in Lebanon.
I. Andy Visits the Living Ruins
Andy had a list of Palestinian localities in Galilee that he had to visit. He needed to take a good photo of Sha’ab. For that purpose I drove him to the outskirts of Ya’ad, the posh settlement established in the 1970s atop the hill overlooking Sha’ab that was once the thriving and proud village of Mia’ar. Ya’ad’s first residents were specialist engineers attracted from their original homes in South Africa to work in the nearby military industrial park, reputed to manufacture the electronic trigger mechanisms for Israel’s super-bombs including nuclear ones.
As we walked to our sought-after lookout, I stumbled across a derelict memorial structure overgrown by weeds and hardy local bushes surviving in the shade of the superimposed European pine forest. A marble slab had some writing on it and I stopped to read it. It was in Italian and Hebrew and sang the praises of some Italian Jewish hero, I presumed. I read the specifics: He is commemorated as an educator, a community organizer, and a fighter who lead the liberation of Torino “from a cruel and merciless occupier.” I looked around and felt as if someone hit me hard in the pit of the stomach. The monument is surrounded on all sides by the rubble of old Mia’ar, razed off the face of the earth not long after our hero finished liberating Torino from its usurpers. Rectangular rows of stone still outline the bases of destroyed homes. The profanity of the statement itched in stone in the midst of the ruins nauseated me; I bent over retching. When I recovered I called Andy over and he took pictures.
Next we visited the ruins of Ghabsiyeh, the destroyed village of Daud Bader, our guide for the day. He is a well-informed and hardened refugee whose family had been settled in the village of Sheikh Dannoun together with a humdrum collection of refugees from other coastal villages who didn’t cross the borders of the then forming state of Israel, borders still undetermined to this very day. Even families from Dannoun itself who returned to their own homes days or weeks after they were driven out of them lost all claims to their property and were forced to rent their former residences from the Custodian of Abandoned Property. I am familiar with this phenomenon from Sha’ab, the similarly aggregated village of ‘internal refugees’ where I have relatives among its original residents who stayed put. Also Dannoun was the home of my aunt’s family, but they all ran away to the other side.
Daud is a well educated man that dedicates his time to informing others about destroyed Palestinian towns and villages. Early on he had a run-in with the Shin Bet (Israel’s Stassi) and lost any chance of holding a job in the system such as teaching in Dannoun’s schools. Now he holds the position of Field Director of the Association for the Defense of Refugee Rights, an officially registered NGO that deals with issues of internally displaced Palestinians like himself, making up nearly a third of the Palestinian minority in Israel. He has an amazingly rich and detailed range of information with exact facts and figures about the geography, social life, land holdings, historical events and specific dates for every destroyed Palestinian locale. His audience ranges from curious locals and daring teachers with their inquisitive students to visiting pilgrims opting for alternative tours, to the adventurous Diaspora Palestinian interested in locating his not so distant roots, to the graduate student on a research assignment, to journalists with a sense of the obscure, to filmmakers documenting past events like Andy, the guest I was driving around the Galilee on this occasion.
In Ghabsiyeh Daud proceeded to beguile us with memories from his own past when his family ran away to neighboring areas then returned with other residents of the village to live undisturbed for some six months before they were forced to move out to Dannoun. On location he expounded details of the historical village mosque that once served the entire region, now sealed and encased by a high metal sheet barrier. For decades it stood neglected, used mostly to house cattle from the neighboring communal agricultural settlement. Then Daud and other agitators cleaned the place up, painted its walls and started to hold Friday prayers in it. The ever-alert Israel Lands Authority, having assumed ownership, very early on, of all refugee lands from the good Custodian, sprang to action and boarded up the place.
Daud pointed out to us some of the village distinctive remains: the surviving palm tree next to the balcony of the effendi’s home, now razed to the ground like all the other Ghabsiyeh homes. The four concrete steps to the entrance to the home of another prominent Ghabsiyan still maintain their upright position abutting a passageway, the village’s agricultural road leading west to its extensive land holdings in the coastal plane. Andy, our documentarian guest, next hoisted his field equipment to the cemetery to capture the neglect and abandonment on film.
On the way out we halted again to hear a rich stream of Daud’s memories about another village landmark, es-sidri, the imposing ancient native tree that stands in a clearing by the village’s paved road entrance. It features the combined status of a banquet hall and a shrine. In the days before 1948 it was the sight for zaffet el-a’rees, the showy and jubilant procession for every wedding in Ghabsiyeh. The groom would be brought on horseback to sit on a chair in the shade of es-sidri. An impromptu horse race would be held for the occasion in the open fields to the west. Guests, friends and next of kin would surround and regale him with song and dabkeh dancing till the sun tilted to dip in the shining sea. The happy groom could almost hold it in his henna-adorned right hand, the sea is so close! Then the men, guests and locals alike, would form a line, their torsos pressed together shoulder-to-shoulder, and proceed to move in unison in a swaying sideways movement to the staccato rhythm of folksingers toward the groom’s home, repeating their sing-songy refrain of “Ya halali ya mali,” a near mystic pronouncement the best translation for which would be “You are rightfully mine and all I own.” The to-and-fro movement of the well-dressed village men reminded the observer of the wavy motion of a breeze-swept green field of el-Ghabsiyeh wheat. The groom would follow mounted on his horse and accompanied by the singing and ululating women celebrants. A throng of young men with few village elders would have preceded the groom’s party to bring the bride from her home, also on horseback and edged on by song and street dancing, to the couples new abode to await the groom’s happy arrival and the conjugal union –ed-dakhli- preceded by the traditional dinner-for-two known as “ luqmit es-sa’adi – the bite of happiness,” and the receiving of modest monitory gifts acknowledged with the standard calling out of the name of each well wisher at the top of the professional village crier’s voice: “May God compensate so and so for his donation to the groom of x number of liras, for the love of his father and of the prophet and of all who bless him.”
The sidri was the sight for all happy Ghabsiyeh communal occasions. In many village cemeteries in Galilee the same kind of tree provides permanent shade without the need to be tended in any way. And its fruit, though small and flat tasting (Daud insisted we taste it), provides a healthy source of energy for children playing in its shade. Over time this tree acquired a mystique bordering on holiness and became the object of veneration. Indeed, there was a sheet of green satin shimmering in the midday sun as we arrived, a decorative present made by some Ghabsiyeh refugee in distress asking for God’s favors or thanking him for them.
Kabri sat on a rich treasure, its springs the major release valve for the building pressure accumulated in the vast water table under the seaward slant of the Western Galilee mountains. It bottled water long before Israel was established and put its name to the brand. Ahmad Basha ‘Aljazzar’, Acre’s notorious ‘butcher’ of men not cattle, and the Romans before him, brought the cleansing elixir to the coastal metropolis of Acre in specially constructed aqueducts. A length of remains of the multi-arched archeological gem has survived the destructive hand of history and its looting generals as well as the repeated tremors of earthquakes over the centuries. It stretches parallel to the road between al-Mazra’a, another focal collection of Palestinian refugees, and the neighboring Kibbutz of Lohame Hageteot, the sight of the museum honoring Jewish heroes who rebelled against and were executed by their savage oppressors in European Ghettos. The aqueduct provides a bold visual reminder connecting and juxtaposing the two realities, the Jewish historical and the Arab current ones, another evocative yet depressing reminder of whose reality takes precedence around this place. My visceral response was not as acute.
Andy, the documenter par-excellence, and Daud, our well practiced guide-cum-witness, stopped at one of Kabri’s springs, now fully metal-encased and mechanized. Not far from it, in the midst of a lush park that advertized itself with signs all around proclaiming its mind and body-relaxing magic (it did neither to me!), was an old water-operated wheat mill, the flow of its driving force of a stream now another historical relic, tapped dry at source. A Parks Authority sign explained the mechanics of the contraption; not a word about the miller or his wheat-consuming customers. Andy and his project partner, Dr. Ahlam Muhtaseb, hope to connect between the mill here and the miller in his refugee camp a few miles away in South Lebanon.
A convoy of local tourists on their beach buggies, mostly Ashkenazi couples, drove by, the passenger seat spouses clicking their cameras. They and their ilk can’t afford to contemplate, even in the abstract, the logical conclusion to Ahlam and Andy’s tender undertaking: permitting the miller to tend to his mill at el-Kabri.
Two churches, two cemeteries, a boarded mosque, a nuns former residence, the two story elegant home of the Greek Catholic priest, and a shrine dedicated to the prophet Elijah (el-Khader, the Green, to Arabs) is all that remains of el-Bassah’s old days of glory. Before the Nakbah el-Bassah was a thriving little town of near three thousand people; it boasted a high school, a hotel, a café, and even a bar; it was that modern. Its location atop a hillock looking out at the Mediterranean sea less than five miles away is truly magnificent.
Another thriving community has now replaced el-Bassa, that of Shlomi, a name derived from ‘shalom’, Hebrew for peace. But the peace of the sacred remnants of old el-Bassa in the midst of shoulder-high dry weeds and wild thistles and bushes is disturbed by the noise emanating from factories around them. It is Shlomi’s industrial zone. And by a more wicked noise.
Andy hoisted his gear and disappeared in the brush. I worried about him, what with his jetlag, exhausting schedule and limited food intake. Eventually he emerged, camera and tripod on shoulder, ready to move to the next location. But I had spotted two items worthy of his documenting attention: Daud and I had climbed over the missing stairs of a church and pried its door open to access its haunting vast interior with its high vaulted, cracked ceiling. It is totally empty except for a wooden altar with few dust covered icons, including a couple of St George slaying the Dragon. A dusty leather-bound half-gnawed copy of the New Testament lay on the corner of the altar. Daud informed us that the Wakims, a fightsy Bassan internal refugee family, still baptize their children here.
Emerging from the church I directed Andy’s attention to another recordable scene, the source of that wicked noise: At the far end of the collection of dilapidated holy sites a Caterpillar was loading rubble onto trucks. The adjacent area of destroyed el-Bassa was being cleared for the construction of a new bus station. Andy recorded the scene, a beast munching at the boney remnants of a once beautiful body, another eerie reminder of the underpinnings of Israel’s modern development: American cash and equipment deployed to replace Palestine in every possible way: people, homes, culture, and memory.
Would the mosque and churches succumb too? Cemeteries are regularly desecrated and pillaged in the name of Israel’s progress and cultural superiority. In Jerusalem the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of the law of the land, has just ruled that an ancient cemetery just outside the old city walls, dating back to the days of the Khalif Omar, can be cleansed of the bones of Moslems to make room for the greater good embodied in the Gehry designed Museum of Tolerance. And what a great example of tolerance it is!
On the way out, using a short cut to the sea coast, we stopped at one of el-Bassa’s derelict cemeteries. Most of the graves are in the form of family mausoleums. Daud found a broken headstone with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Between the two of us we could make out most of the remaining two thirds of a memorial poem whose letters when added give the date of burial. Daud made sure the slab was turned to lay face down among other unmarked stones to protect it from archeology buffs.
At the edge of the cemetery, just where I parked my car on the street, Daud pointed out another curiosity: a well preserved several feet-wide piece of Byzantine mosaic overgrown and hidden by weeds, edges lost in the surrounding rubble. He figured it must be Byzantine because of the neglect. Had it been Jewish the road cutting through it would have been redirected.
Our visit to Ez-Zeeb was curtailed by nightfall. We hurried to the hill at the northern edge of the national park that the Palestinian fishing village has become, its ruins shared to the south by Club Med and to the north by an anarchist declaring his squatter’s rights in bold signs of ‘No entry’ and ‘The independent State of Achzeevland.’ Andy had just enough light to record the picturesque scene before we rushed to the gate of the park to search for a sign that my wife remembered seeing. Using my car lights to decipher and photograph it, Andy reported its contents: There was a lengthy and detailed account of the place’s history over the centuries. Except that when it came to the over-thirteen centuries of Arab life and culture in the place, it was covered in one brief sentence: “Then it declined into a fishing village.”
Andy’s second night at our home was a little better for him; his jetlag had abated some and he was exhausted. Perhaps also he was satisfied with having witnessed in person the evidence of the trampling of Palestinian rights that he had heard so often from ‘opinionated informants.’ For my part I slept little despite seeking comfort in Melatonin. The evoked memories had coalesced into a nightmarish wakeful dream. I stayed up and wrote.
Dream on Ahlam!
II. Andy Meets the Present Absentees
On our way back from the Palestinian Neverland of Western Galilee guided by one of its true sons, an actual ‘present absentee’ in the flesh, I called a phone number provided to us by Ms. Dreams. On the other end was a surprised young man who immediately figured out the source of my mix-up: The phone number was his but the name I asked for was that of his old uncle, so it had to be from some confused relative and such exist in refugee camps in Lebanon. I introduced myself and asked if we could meet within the hour.
“Drive up the main road of Deir el-Asad and ask anyone you meet. You and your guest are welcome. Consider it your home.” I reminded Didi of the old couple we met sightseeing on the outskirts of a village in Andaluc