Sunday, October 17, 2004

Paradise in Unlikely Places

I woke up at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am, on MY VACATION DAY, when I really should have been shopping or getting my hair done, or going to the beach. What do I do? I'm not like other mothers, so I go to Palestinian villages on my vacation time. La di da. I actually miraculously woke up before my alarm clock rang and Hubby was generous enough to drive me to the meeting point in Jerusalem. The biggest decision I had to make today was what to wear to go olive picking. I opted for jeans and a long top since anything sleeveless is not modest in a traditional Arab village. I wouldn't be walking around sleeveless in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and not in these neighborhoods either. I put on makeup sparingly. Who wants to look like zsa zsa gabor in a dusty village picking olives? No matter.

I got to our meeting point and see a camera crew there, from German tv. I get into their minibus and notice I'm the only one wearing sandals. Everyone else is in sensible hiking boots or sneakers. As a rule, I generally don't wear closed shoes until it begins to pour in Jerusalem, which isn't until another month basically. I love my toe-exposed freedom. I chatted with a Dutch woman sitting next to me, telling her how therapeutic olive picking is. She told me she was going to nap. I guess she didn't want to hear about anyone needing therapy, and we shouldn't be thinking how good it feels to pick olives because we are on a serious MISSION! Our bus was packed with people sitting in the middle aisle in stools.

This was a Rabbis for Human Rights trip for a chance at Tikkun Olam - repairing the world - because the villages we were going to go to all had problems of one kind or another. Many were harassed by people living in nearby Jewish settlements - their olive groves were too close to settlement fences - and they were too frightened to go near them to harvest. Without the harvest, there would be a terrible lack of money. With roads closed to Palestinians and travel not an option for these people to work, they don't have many options to eke out a bare living. I had to help them out. We split into 3 villages and the one I went to was called Yasouf - right next to the settlement of Kfar Tapuach, where Rabbi Kahane's followers live. I mentioned I knew a family there (from a 12-step program) to another woman I spoke to telling her how convenient to know someone in case there were disturbances. So as we passed the gated entrance to the Jewish community, she says loudly so the whole bus can hear "SAY HI TO YOUR FRIENDS!!" Clearly, no one on that bus has any friends in any settlement. Oh dear. But never mind.

We disembarked in the middle of this quiet village and walked passed a beautiful paradise of sorts - a Garden-of-Eden-like oasis with a fresh cold-water spring in the middle. Beautiful flora and vegetation were growing there. It was stunning. "Is the water safe to drink"? I asked someone from the village. "It's alot healthier than what you have there," he said, dissing my mineral water. We tried to get ahold of families that were already in the fields waiting for us. We were in close proximity to the settlement fence but I sensed quiet for today even though there were harassments yesterday. In the distance I hear yelps and whoops coming from a Jewish shepherd who had 5 German shepherds with him and a herd of goats. He sounded and looked like Wild Bill Hickok or whatever Cowboy ruled the West in the late 1800s. "He's crazy, don't go near him." "He's a settler. All settlers are crazy." said the British journalist in the know. I wanted him to see exceptions to the rule. I told him where I live. "You're a settler then." Crazy, but not bad crazy. The head of another peace movement told me it's illegal to live where I live. I'm used to the same shit over and over again. I gave him my old shpiel.

We eventually got to the place where the family was waiting for us. We picked olives for 1/2 hour, together with this young family, and they decided it was time for us to eat. It's Ramadan, you don't have to feed us because you're not eating. Anyways, out came the pita, the chumous, the eggplant dips, and Coke. Things always go better with Coke. We saw the army and the police and a settlement security car on the road we had just come off of. They were watching everyone picking olives. Everyone was nervous of each other. The little boy who was 4 years old was pointing an olive twig at the police and pretended to shoot. That felt creepy. But when we were all finished, they thanked us profusely and invited us to break the Ramadan fast with them. The wife kissed me 4 times, even the "police-shooting" little boy blew me kisses.

We went on to find another family to pick olives with. We had just missed a visit from the army who had just told this group they had 15 minutes to finish up and leave. The army had given the villagers 3 days to harvest in what usually takes 3 weeks. This is why they needed all the help they can get to do their harvesting. A traditional way of life they had been doing each October - November for hundreds of years. I felt transported back to another era while I was picking olives and dammit it still felt therapeutic. Even as the olives rained down on my head from the people picking above me. Though at times, there was too much political discussion during the harvest. Occupation this and that. Arafat this and Arafat that. Sharon this and Sharon that. Fuck them all. Let's just sit down and talk and share.

My aching arm sore that morning, lost it's ache. They said there also had been an altercation with the Jewish shepherd we had seen earlier and one of the Rabbis, with the Shepherd yelling "Why are you helping them, they will cut out your intestines!!!" When we were done helping this family, my intestines still intact, we went to the last family in the grove, helping them for 15 minutes or so before soldiers came to visit us. I moved towards the elderly couple, like I'm a big fat shield. The soldiers were gruff and young. "We told you to move out 2 hours ago and you're still here. Move out now." We told them we wanted to stay until their mule came back to transport the rest of the olives. They allowed only 2 people to stay behind with the olives. The elderly Palestinian couple moved with us.

Meanwhile the army is videotaping us. Why? We were all wondering why. I figured it was to make us uncomfortable. Why else? It's not like we were doing anything wrong and picking olives in the nude or something. The Brit journalist turned around and didn't want to be photographed. I felt like going up the camera and introducing myself - Hi. My name is Leah and I'm happy to be here today helping Palestinians harvest their olives. If we would all help each other all the time, there wouldn't be any need for you guys to be in uniform and you'd be off in college somewhere like other normal kids your age everywhere else in the civilized world." Lovely speech but I never made it. I did mention to some of the Internationals - which is what we call the non-Israeli volunteers - that I had no problem being filmed because I'm only helping the State of Israel by doing this, not hurting it. I'm not burning flags, tires, yelling slogans. I'm just picking olives in this stifling fucking heat. I could have drunk the town out of water today, that's how thirsty I was. I was glad I wasn't observing Ramadan, trying to be discreet while drinking my own water. I felt sorry and sad for these soldiers who are so young and have to act so tough and make these life and death decisions, oftentimes at the risk of their own lives. On the way back, we stopped off at the well and took a tour of the Oasis. I thought if only the people in the fenced in settlement could have a look at how beautiful this place is, but they're too frightened to ever do so. Not now. Maybe one day they will saunter down and the people living side by side in this neck of the woods will trust each other again.

My bladder was bursting by this time and I was thrilled to be heading back. The "why don't you go in back of one of the olive trees" didn't do it for me. We met in the modern community center back in the village with the German camera crew in tow filming everyone in that room. I run into the bathroom. A TOILET!! But no paper. "Can anyone help me out with some tissue paper here" I asked - not caring that the film crew was filming, not caring if the entire country of Germany knew that I need to go - badly.

Getting off the bus in Jerusalem, I encountered someone I previously worked with in high-tech, a young Orthodox woman.
"Is that your bus from work?" she asked.
"No, I went on a trip on my day off."
"Really? Where?"
"Olive picking in Samaria"
"Oh, where can you do that?"
and by this time I knew she was completely puzzled. I explained about the fence and the 3 days Palestinians had to pick their olives and by this time the smile on her face vanished. But I didn't care. At least I was "out" about where I was and what I was doing. Let it just sink in.

1 comment:

Scarlett said...

Leah,
You are an inspiration and a marvel. Perhaps if I was still living in Israel, my reaction too would have been "why help them?" - but through your writing I really understand that you are indeed helping Israel by helping Palestinians harvest their olives. Kol HaKavod to you!