At sunset in the West Bank village of Jayyous, Shareef Khalid and I climbed to the roof of his home so he could point out his family lands on the far side of the wall, variously described as a “security” or “apartheid” barrier depending on whether you stood in Israel or the occupied West Bank.
Before I had arrived in Palestine, I had hopes of walking the land with this farmer. I didn’t know how impossible that would be. Jayyous lost 80 percent of its farmland to the wall. Shareef owned 43 acres now in a “seam zone,” a closed Israeli military area since 2003.
“See the quarry.” He pointed. “The lands to the north are my olive trees. They have produced five tons of olive oil in a year,” he said. His hand moved to the right. “Those are our citrus orchards and there are vegetables–tomatoes, onions, beans also. There are avocado trees, walnuts, pears, peaches, and mango trees. I have 100 fig trees. It is a paradise.” He paused. “I cannot go there any longer. The Israelis have denied me a permit.
“Only my wife can get papers to reach our land. She is 60 and has back trouble now. Still she goes to the farm. I tell her, ‘Remember everything you see, how the trees and vegetables grow, if there are problems. I want to know it all.’ “
Later that night, Shareef, his wife, Siham, and I sat in their kitchen. We ate bread with fig jam and peeled warm chestnuts from their shells. Siham listened curiously to her husband’s English while she peeled a clementine. All the foods were from family trees. Shareef told me his favorite story, one that he had saved for the quiet of the nighttime.
One day when he still had a permit, he was making the rounds of his land and he noticed a small wild thorn tree on a steep slope. It needed water, so he filled a plastic bottle and made small holes in the cap, setting it at an angle to drip around the base of the young tree. Then he was denied a permit and was unable to return to his farm for several months.
“I came home one day and my wife was singing. I had received a new permit. I went right to my land. Nothing had been plowed; trees had not been pruned; machinery was missing,” he said. “But I found my wild thorn tree alive. I kissed its branches and my lips became bloody.
“When my wife found me, she said, ‘It is a truly Palestinian tree. We can live without food or water but our roots go down deep into the earth.’ Now every year this tree blooms in the winter.”
Excerpted from High Desert Journal (Fall 2008), a twice-yearly chronicle of the arts and culture of the western United States; www.highdesert journal.com.