On Monday night, my comrade and I were in Ni’lin.
Ni’lin is a farming town with a soccer field in the center where young men hold matches each Friday. Ni’lin is also the place where five people have been killed by the Israeli army, including one ten year old boy. It was here that Tristan Andersen was hit in the head and by a high-velocity tear gas canister in 2009.
The town has been resisting the construction of the apartheid wall there since 2008. The wall is built inside the green line and separates the people of the town from roughly a third of their land. Now, many farmers that live here not only have to apply for permits to access their land, they also have to wait by a gate in the wall for soldiers to let them onto their land.
On Sunday night, we got word from one of our contacts in Ni’lin, “M,” that the farmers were going to harvest outside the wall and were asking for help. My friend and I were in Ramallah, so we decided to go and work alongside them.
We arrived in Ni’lin on Monday night and stayed in the village overnight. The next morning we went to the wall to line up with the farmers. The woman we were going to harvest with had finally gotten permission to go on her land for the first time in four years. M planned to work with her, but the soldiers were only letting certain people go out to pick.
When we went to the wall, we followed M’s instructions and waited about 40 meters from the gate. M talked to the soldiers, who let everyone inside accept for him. After a few minutes, M turned back and walked up the path to us. The soldiers watched us as he went. When he reached us he said in a low voice, “Turn around and walk. Go now.” We did what he said and didn’t turn around to look back. Later he told us that the soldiers were afraid of our camera. He said that they wouldn’t let him on the land because they said his permit was not valid.
Undaunted, M made a plan for us to go and harvest despite the fact that we had not been allowed to go through the gate. M arranged for a delivery truck to carry us through the checkpoint into Israel. My comrade and I got in the back seat. I took off my keffiyeh and put it in my backpack. M’s wife gave us sandwiches and water. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t be asked for our passports at the terminal checkpoint on the road: We were going over the wall.
We went down the road and through the checkpoint without incident. A few hundred feet after we passed the terminal checkpoint, our driver pulled over by the side of the road and wished us luck. We got out and started to go overland.
We had to climb down a steep hill into a valley. We couldn’t find a good path so we picked our way though the thorns and searched for steady footing as we moved down into the damp stream bed at the base of the ravine. We walked along for about a kilometer, staying out of sight of the settlement above.
The dampness from the first rains of the season had made parts of the stream bed shoot up with vibrant green. It’s not a color I see here often, except on the flag, and it made my eyes happy. The patterns of the leaves, the tender, insistent life… an unexpected joy.
We walked through until we met the son of the farmer. He led us through the valley and up the hillside to the grove.
We spent the day in happy labor in the trees. We pulled olives from the boughs and sifted out the leaves—“warak”—from the olives. We ate lunch in the shade and talked about our lives in pieced-together English and Arabic.
As the sun moved across the sky, we could see the soldiers patrolling along the road by the wall on the peak opposite us. At the top of our own hill, twenty five meters away, behind a tall fence, was the incongruous sight of middle-class homes with Spanish tile rooftops and swing sets—the edge of the settlement.
At the end of the day, we loaded up the donkeys and walked out: the farmers to their home through the gate, us back through the valley to the highway. When we climbed out, I tore my pants on some barbed wire that had long ago been planted among the burrs and boulders.
We came back onto the highway at the mouth of Modi’in Illit settlement. It was dusk and commuters on foot and on wheels were coming and going from the entrance. The sky was shocking pink and blown-over with cirrus clouds. The light reflected rose on the white fields of the flapping Israeli flags that adorned the entrance to the checkpoint.
We walked back and crossed through the checkpoint on foot along with the Palestinian laborers. The men scanned their IDs in machines as they passed the unmanned gate, but we ignored the scan machines. No one bothered us as we passed, though some kind of recorded message about passports was being blasted into the turnstile area. Like I’ve said before: no one cares if you want to go into the West Bank, only if you want to get out.
We walked back to Ni’lin and out hosts fed us mansaf soup, lamb and humus. So delicious. We were exhausted and ready to go home, but we were happy.
While we waited for transportation back to Ramallah, we sat in the garden with M’s wife. In a little while, her parents arrived. She and her mother motioned to me to come inside with the children and to leave my male friend outside with her father. By the time I came in, she had her head covering off and was taking something off the stove.
She is amazingly beautiful.
"Lahma!" she said, motioning to a big bowl of steaming ground and seasoned meat. "For the eid!"
Friday starts a huge religious holiday here to celebrate the sacrifice of Abraham. Everyone in Palestine is making ready for the holiday, which often includes the sacrifice of a goat or sheep. After much talking and gesturing, it was clear that the women and children were making foods for the feast. Before I knew what was going on, I was sitting on the floor next to the grandmother, pushing up her sleeves as she mixed flour and sugar and water in a bowl for one of the dishes—just like I would do for my own mother or grandmother.
I hate to get sappy here. When I tell you this, I am trying very hard not to romanticize. But suddenly I was seamlessly incorporated into an intimate domestic moment that was as familiar as it was unexpected. Two minutes before, I had been tired and a little impatient to go home, but when our contact hurried into the room and said that a car was ready and we had to go, I regretted ever letting my weariness show in my voice on the phone. I was tasting something that I couldn’t come by every day, and I wanted it to last.
But we needed to go, it was true. And if we didn’t take this generously-offered ride, it would be a ninety shekel taxi or a twelve-hour wait for a shared car service. We both needed to be back in Ramallah for the morning… though, in hindsight, perhaps staying would have been better.
As I got my shoes on, the two women looked at me and asked me to come back for the eid.
"Friday?" I asked.
"Is there… well… I…" I stammered for a few seconds because I didn’t know what to say. Then I stopped.
"You know what?" I said, like a sudden revelation. "I CAN!"
They smiled and laughed and said they were happy and it was all so fast it was like a magic spell. I had been invited to the eid and I would go. I will go.
Our driver on the way home was the son of the woman we had worked with that day. He drove us quickly through all the villages between Ni’lin and Ramallah, probably because, with his Palestinian license plate, he wasn’t allowed to go on the highway.
Every village was making preparations for the eid. All the minarets on the mosques were lit up with different-colored lights. Every town had strung strings of lights from building to building across the main road. The driver called out the towns to us as we passed through them: Bil’in, Kafr Ni’ma, Dayr Ibzi’, Ein Arik. People sat in store fronts and in open garages on plastic chairs and waved at our driver as we passed.
We picked up one of the driver’s friends on the way and gave him a lift from one town to another. Music was everywhere: in the cab, on the streets. The sky was clear, the air was crisp, the hills were steep.
A truck hauling something stopped and did a three point turn in front of us and the friend got out to go home. The cars tooted their horns and the truck completed the turn and continued on its way. The driver’s friend left the car and disappeared behind a decorative gate and down into a garden. Our car sped away into a night that thrummed with people. Light and dark, movement and noise, happiness and struggle.
And in the back of the car, with the stop and start of a driver who is hurrying, and the streak of lights from the shops and the cafes, and the switchbacks and ups and downs of the rugged landscape, I thought that for all the time I spend doubting if what I do here makes any difference, that none of my worry means anything at all. The people who live on this land everyday insist on living. The people who struggle in this land everyday insist on struggling. The Palestinians who take olives from their fields and make food for their feasts and give rides to their friends and smoke nargile in their doorways—this is the heart of resistance.
They will not go; they will live their lives.
This is where Palestine lives.