West Bank Journal: Last Day in Palestine

| April 2004

WEST BANK, April 9 -- In Palestine I often think of those advent calendars, the ones with little windows that you open to reveal whole, small worlds. A doorway presents a blank face to the world, but open it and another reality is revealed. Take a hand, open and door, and be drawn ever deeper into hidden, secret worlds.

After the last day of the women's training, we go home with Arish to her village of Sarda, open the door in the blank cement wall that faces the street, and enter a walled garden, with mint and fava beans, fig trees and grape vines, sages and roses lining the paths. In front of the house is a wide porch, and on the sides and back are courtyards. Arish brings us inside, to sit and drink tea and admire a perfect model of the Al Aqsa Mosque made by her brother, the engineer. Arish is young, in her early twenties, not yet married, an artist and writer. She shows us her drawings of her nieces and her mother. She has a round, bronze face and half-moon eyes that crinkle up as she smiles.

Then the women beckon us out back, and we crowd onto a low bench in a small, cement-block outbuilding. In one corner is a sunken oven, heaped with coals and ashes from burning olive pumice, what's left after the oil is pressed. Arish's mother presides, patting out flat slabs of dough, and Arish removes the lid which has a long, vertical handle so they can lay them in the pit, replace the cover, and heap the ashes on. After just a few moments, the bread is done. Wide sheets of flat bread dripping with olive oil, with flat leaves of zata sandwiched in, and thin pasties of crisp, sweet bread basted with honey.

They fill our hands with it, and we eat as tea is poured. It's a warm, intimate women's space, heated by the oven, like a sauna or a sweat lodge, and we laugh and smile and eat. I have seen clay models of this oven in sculptures thousands of years old. Generations of women have patted the dough, baked the bread, gathered at these hearths to gossip and laugh -- a warm and womblike female space in a male world. I feel so safe, so welcomed, that I'm lulled into being happy, a feeling I just can't shake as the afternoon goes on. In spite of the harsh realities we've been discussing in the training, the techniques for self protection when facing tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, beatings, the ominous approach of the wall that will shatter the fabric of these villages, the overwhelming oppressive realities of the occupation, something strong and sweet as this honey bread survives. For a little while longer.

While I am training and visiting, back in the village of Biddu work has begun again, and the villagers and international and Israeli supporters have turned out to once again attempt to stop the bulldozers. They march out, are driven back with sound bombs and tear gas. Mohammed, one of our contacts and a village leader, is arrested. He's young and handsome and comes from a prominent village family, and I've grown deeply fond of him in part because he and his cousin Monsour have a wry, cynical humor and are a bit wild for Palestinians. I can see Mohammed, in another world, in Las Vegas in a silk shirt with a few too many buttons open and gold chains peeking out. While I am eating sweet bread, he is being beaten by soldiers in the hills near Biddu, batons striking his chest and arms and back and shoulders.

Our party in Sarda moves out from the hut of bread and troops next door, where a very old village house has been restored, with money donated from a Swedish organization, and made into a village center. 'This is my house,' Arish says with great pride. It is, indeed, her childhood home. We are shown over every inch of it, from the walled courtyard hung with old farm implements through the galleries and the meeting rooms for the women's club and the children's space to the offices of the mayor and the rooftop courtyards high above. The restoration is beautifully done and I can feel what life must have been like in an old, traditional house, when the courtyards were full of a vast, extended family and the women were gossiping on the roof. From the top courtyard, we could see over the old, inner heart of the village and out onto the fields beyond. Old stone houses have capers and wallflowers growing in the cracks of the walls, and on their roofs trellised grapevines jostle solar hot water heaters and satellite dishes. Arish shows me her old bedroom, a sweet, whitewashed room with a deep window and an arched ceiling. 'This is my house,' she says, again and again, laughing with a slight sense of incredulousness that this could once have been hers, that she slept in this room, that she had lived here.

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