His hands were rough and worn from years of working the soil. His face was weathered and forever kissed by the warm desert sun that blanketed the hills of South Hebron. He reminded me of my grandfather, who, too, carried his story in the palm of his hands. Amidst his silence was a sense of deep passion and steadfastness for his land and his people. He, like my grandfather, was a farmer, a shepherd, and a steward of the earth.
His name is Suleiman and he comes from the village of Umm al-Kheir, a small agricultural community just outside the Palestinian city of Hebron, one of the most disputed cities in the West Bank. In this village, which he calls home, there is a tiny cluster of tents, tin shacks and natural caves that shelter six extended families (100 residents) from a Bedouin hamula (clan). Originally, these families come from a city that borders the Negev Desert, only 20 miles from where they find themselves today. Shortly after 1948 – a day of independence for one people and a catastrophe for another – they were forced to leave their homes in the Negev and wander into uncharted territory. They settled just east of Yatta, a Palestinian city nestled in the West Bank, just 40 miles south of Jerusalem. Upon their arrival, they bought land under the Jordanian regime and began to build their homes and graze their sheep along the terraced hillsides. To this day, this farmer and the families that accompany him continue to carry the documents and maps that were given to their ancestors when they purchased the land 66 years ago – documents that carry little value today.
In November of last year, Suleiman held a different piece of paper, one he added to a growing stack of similar documents and one that denies his entire livelihood. It was a suit for 100,000 shekels (US$28,650) for the damage and aggravation apparently caused by a taboun oven, an earthen oven traditionally used by Palestinian agricultural communities to bake bread. In addition to this suit was a demolition order written in a language that was not his own nor one he could understand. It declared this oven, his home, his land and his presence “illegal.” At first glance, this may seem like a petty case that can be solved by the villagers of Umm al-Kheir deconstructing their oven. It’s not, though. This was not the first time Suleiman had received such a paper, nor was it the first time his home or the homes of his community have been threatened with demolition and suit. Furthermore, it’s an oven – the only oven of its kind in a village that has no access to water or electricity and is too poor to afford gas for their homes and this oven. It is their daily bread, their livelihood just as much as the caves they dwell in and the sheep they herd, but because it is recognized neither by the Israeli settlement adjacent to them – a settlement illegal under international law – nor by the Israeli state, it has to go.
Uncertainty and tension is what grips you when you walk into this village and look into the eyes of Suleiman and the women and children who stand in front of this taboun oven. Everyday brings its tensions and everyday another piece of paper. I think of my grandfather when I look into Suleiman’s eyes and wonder what it would feel like to have our ancestral land stripped away from us, our homes demolished, and our identity forgotten. The hillsides and the deeply rooted trees that cover them are the benchmarks for our stories – the bearers of our identity. Like many others facing demolitions in South Hebron, Suleiman carries years of trauma and heartbreak in his eyes as he witnesses his ancestral history being uprooted and demolished again and again. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast and resilient, allowing the scars on his hands and the creases on his face to tell his story. Like the gnarled olive tree, deeply rooted in the soil, he stands strong.
by Trena Montgomery