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The Fire This Time

Jerusalem (Palestine Online)- The recent fires in the Jerusalem mountains’ pine and cypress forests serve as a reminder and a warning: Such forests cover the Palestinian fellahin’s sacred agricultural handiwork, sanctified by their toil, sweat and meticulous daily tending.

For that, viewing footage of such pine forests at the peak of their green best in the Jerusalem or Galilee hills for pleasure or for propaganda, or picnicking in their shady playgrounds, seems pornographic if not criminal. Does it ever cross the minds of “Arab Jews” serving as Keren Kayemet’s inspectors (the Jewish National Fund) that it is their moral duty to denude all the criminal cover-up that the forest masks and invite back the children of those who constructed the stone terraces generation after generation for the figs, the grapevines, the cactus, the olives and the vegetable beds that sustained their existence in harmony with earth, rock and the hardy carob, pistachio and terebinth shrubs for centuries? Or have they been blinded by their “enlightened” Ashkenazi masters into refraining from any Mizrahi incendiary thoughts? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in exchange, former neighbors in Yemen and Iraq would welcome them back into the fold of their ancient cultures once all the extraneous power brokers returned to their senses and left well enough alone in Yemen and Iraq? And in Israel!

Looking at the photographs of the burnt Jerusalem forests, it is obvious that the steeper incline of their mountains when regularly farmed by the Palestinian fellahin had necessitated tighter steps with the ratio of the height of each wall to the width of the tidied ground behind it exceeding those I grew up scaling in Galilee. The tighter such steps were the more suitable they were for grape vines that were trained to hang down across the face of the hand-stacked stone walls. The intricacies of such handiwork are the secret expertise of our elders inherited down the generations through sheer practice of the required meticulous initial embroidery-like handiwork and its constant repair. Each stone is laid so as to reinforce the stability of its surrounding stones with its weight and with its occasional protrusion into the side of the mountain when inserted lengthwise like a nail while its blunt end serving as part of the vertical face of the wall. Smaller stones serve to support, balance and stabilize larger ones. Believe you me, with age and longing for my romantic rural childhood, recollecting such manual tasks under my late father’s tutelage, it seems no less intricate or rewarding than suturing up wounds of drunks at the Massachusetts General Hospital ER in the late 1960s. What was even more memorable was taking refuge behind hanging grapevines over those walls while playing hide-and-seek with agemates. I would be so exhausted from running and jumping that I would catch a short nap while wedging my thin shoulder blade against the side of a protruding stone. As a child, you felt one with the land that sustained you. And with the baby goat that I raised.

A more recent testimony to the efficacy of terrace farming comes from UNESCO in explaining its recognition of Battir as a world heritage site. The Palestinian village south of Jerusalem had survived intact with its traditional terraced farms and irrigation system from its ample local springs:

The strategic location of Battir and the availability of springs were two major factors that attracted people to settle in the area and adapt its steep landscape into arable land. The property is an outstanding example of traditional land-use, which is representative of many centuries of culture and human interaction with the environment. The agricultural practices that were used to create this living landscape reflect one of the oldest farming methods known to humankind and are an important source of livelihood for local communities.

Historically, primacy in terracing has been assigned to native farmers in Mexico, in Mesopotamia and in the far east. And the elementary skill is mentioned in the bible. Yet, Israeli researchers, no doubt hoping to substantiate the Jewish claim to the “art form”, concluded that in our region it belongs solely to Palestinian farmers under the Ottoman rule:

“The data was analyzed at the Geological Institute and the results were stunning: nearly all the tested samples showed that the terraces were constructed only over the last 400 years. There was no building by Judeans, Hellenists or Romans – not even Crusaders or (12th-13th century) Mamluks. Instead, the study says, credit for creating the landscape around Jerusalem must go to the Arab fellaheen (agricultural laborers) who lived here during Ottoman times.”

Be that as it may, such handiwork of the Palestinian farmers in their pre-Nakba subsistence farming labor has survived the assault of Israeli forestation and outlived the destructive effects of recent fires. The Israeli media named several Jewish-only communities evacuated as the fires raged this mid-August: “Thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes in Beit Meir, Shoeva, Shoresh, Ksalon, Ramat Raziel and Givat Ye’arim.” I wonder if residents of those settlements are even aware of the above study. When the fires are not raging, you folks are the ones who enjoy all those national parks shaded by the foreign pine forests. Are you aware that within recent memory your own residential locales had Palestinian names and were inhabited by humans, some of whom with features not really different from your own and who were before their expulsion actually part of the best educated nation in the Middle East? They lived right where you live now but without all those fire-hazardous pines. In fact, those pine forests were planted to hide all the terracing that they and their forefathers perfected and to cover the rubble of their homes in villages like Ein Naquba, Suba, Dair el-Hawa, Dair Amer, Beit Mahsir, Saris, Kasla, ‘Aqqur, Khirbet Al Amur and Qariet Al Anab right where you live now. And the list goes for many pages if one were to look at the maps of Palestine across recent history, such as those made by the Palestinian scholar and architect Salman Abu Sitta in so many of his Palestine atlases at different eras of the nation’s existence.

Several years back I accompanied two old Palestinian refugees on a visit to their demolished and pine-forested Palestinian village, the once prominent Galilee village of Lubya, now the site of the South Africa Forest and playground for picnicking Israeli schoolchildren. Here is a quote from what I wrote about that episode in my book, “Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee” (Just World Books, USA, 2015):

Ignoring the pleas of their younger companions, the two [old men] cleared the heavy cover of pine needles with their bare hands to expose the foundation of Yunis’s former home, its outline clearly marked with cut black volcanic stones buried in the ground in an expansive rectangular space that now surrounded three dozen pines and a famished single fig tree. An unruly cactus hedge abutted the southern perimeter of the destroyed compound. Crouching on his haunches by the fig, Yunis started to sing fraqeyat—separation songs that decried his fate and recounted the glories of the old days. I got ready expecting to be called on for [my medical] help. But he wiped his eyes dry with the edge of his white headdress then reminded himself of how sweet the figs in his yard once were. And the almonds and the pomegranates. And the carobs! Carobs needed no tending whatsoever and gave marvelous fruit. Why did they replace the native carobs, the oaks, the terebinths and the pistachios of his childhood wilderness with these fruitless pines, he wondered aloud? Carobs would have been kinder to the foundations of his home than pines, he figured.

Someone suggested visiting the two modern Jewish communities that had been established on the outskirts of razed and forested Lubya. Once he loved to visit his olive orchard there, he remarked sighing from the depth of his being. Both he and Lateef once nurtured their families from the produce of that land. Now he had no desire to step in that altered space. Houses built on it were offered free to woo flighty Russian immigrants, he was told. Why wasn’t he permitted to pitch a tent in Lubya to while away his remaining short years, he wondered whimsically to his companions at the mention of the travesty?

When they arrived at a flat rocky outcropping that formed a clearing in the forest, Yunis recognized it as the spot where he had played marbles as a child. He reached out, picked some sage leaves from the shrubs at its edge, handed a few to Lateef and chewed the rest slowly and deliberately as if savoring its bitterness to the end:

“This was where we parted, you remember?” Yunis said confirming the distinct memory by bouncing it off of his former employee and fellow fighter. “When they brought the planes we were finished.”

Yunis ticked off the names of half a dozen friends and relatives he saw mowed down defending Lubya that scorching July day in 1948. Lateef added few more names to the unwritten record of shaheeds.

Not long ago the camouflage forest caught fire and threatened to damage the well-hidden Palestinian cemetery in its center. The residents of Lavi and Givat Avni, the two Jewish-only settlements built on the former agricultural fields of Lubya, better take notice. Who guarantees that the dead don’t take revenge?!

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