I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
The realization struck me, a lightening bolt that caused me to freeze as I brought a spoonful of rice to m mouth. I turned to a team member, eyes wide.
“According to both our government and Israel, we’re eating dinner with terrorists right now?” It was one of those surreal moments that tilts your world sideways; I knew I had been lied to by both governments, but it wasn’t until that moment that I fully understood the implications of it.
“I guess you’re right.” He responded.
“How does that make you feel?” I asked with a small smirk. He paused thoughtfully, considered in silence before answering.
“Meh,” and returned to his food as I laughed.
It was the last full day of the delegation (after which I spent an additional 20 days on my own) and we spent it in Susiyeh, a village in the south Hebron Hills located in Area C. As the mini-bus bumped over the rocky terrain that lead us into the heart of the village, I wondered whether or not I had the strength to listen to another tragic story. We’d spent 100 hours over the course of 10 days meeting with Palestinian families, activists and NGOs that supported Palestine. I was mentally exhausted and emotionally frayed, ready to isolate myself in an effort to process all that had occurred.
As the group exited the vehicle a swarm of children flitted among us, urging us to follow them into a small cinderblock dwelling painted with Palestinian flags. As we settled into the white plastic chairs a small boy, as beautiful and as energetic as a hummingbird, darted between us.
I had just enough time to marvel at the beauty of his blue-green eyes before he burst forth from the door to retrieve them. Moments later we were joined by Nasser Nawaja’a – resident of the villager and field researcher for B’tselem – who would a little under an hour telling us about the village.
Susiyeh is a small village located south of Hebron, and even its name is tangled in conflict. It refers, simultaneously, to not only the village and these Palestinians themselves but also to an archeological site containing a 5th century (CE) synagogue and the 8th century mosque that replaced it but also an illegal settlement about a mile away that was established in 1983.
When the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration declared the Palestinian Susiyeh an archeological site in 1986, the IDF forced the Bedouin off the land, causing hem to relocate the village a few hundred yards to the south east. Meanwhile the illegal settlement was established between the spring and early fall of 1983 – stealing 1,000 dunams (approx.. 445 acres) of land. Sixteen years later, the settlement expanded by installing temporary structures on an additional acre of stolen land. While the Israeli government issued injunctions against the high court to stop the demolition of these settlements, it also petitioned the court to demolish the Palestinian village. The Israeli state stated that it would be willing to give to the Palestinians the “government owned lands near Yatta” for residence and to assist in the rebuilding process, it simultaneously stated that there was never a Palestinian village there to begin with – just a few families that that stayed there during the grazing season. Attorneys for the villagers contended that the army was preventing Palestinians from building on their own private land, while allowing illegal settlers to steal their agricultural fields.
As the village gained international attention in the 90’s and 2000’s, many governments gave aid in hopes to protect it; Spain gave a school for the children, Germany the solar panels that are the only source of electricity, Ireland the water pumps, and a playground funded by Norway, Italy and Belgium. There are no streets, stores, mosques or permanent homes in Susiyeh, however. Building permits are denied because the state claims there is no sufficient proof of ownership of the land despite the Jabor family possessing documents dating back to the Ottoman era in 1881. Nasser’s family, who moved to Susiyeh in 1952 also possess documents.
In the summer of 2015, Civil Administration officer Moshe Meiri stated that the claims of ownership by both families were grounded on a valid Ottoman title, which had been known to officials since 1982. Review of the case established that the this title covered land in belonging to both families, and the villages – some 741 acres.
It is impossible for me to give you everything that was told in that hour, but you may visit B’Tselem for more information.
After Nasser finished his story, we all sat in stunned silence for a few moments. I was reminded of what Nabeel had said about the Israeli government – “They are not happy with all that they have, they must have it all. This is greed.” For the hundredth time I wondered how anyone could be so selfish as to inflict misery on another.
As my teammates began asking questions, the small boy zipped between us asking our names and writing them down in curling abjads. When finished, he began to take role call;
“Bub?” (Bob) “Estere?” (Esther) “Hun?” (Han) “Yan?” (John) “Mucks?” (Marcus) “Leylah?” (Leia) “Curl?” (Carole) “Yasmeen?” (Jasmine) Each of us raised our hand in turn, and were led out of the tent to walk on the one paved street which ran parallel to the village, leading to the archeological site that had started all of this misery.
“Laylah?” he asked, making sure he remembered my name.
“‘Eeh. Shoo ‘esmak?” – Yes, what is your name? (I cannot tell you how incredibly helpful it is to learn even the most basic Arabic. Even if it’s just 3 or 4 things, people will meet you in the middle)
“‘esmee Ahmed!” he said clapping his hands together in excitement. “Mohammed. Isa” he said pointing to the other two boys that walked with us. “Arabii?”
I crunched my face together, “laa..shwe shwe” (no, but a little)
“Is ok!” And so in my practically non-existent, stumbling Arabic and his beginning English we bridged a gap, and became friends. He took me by the hand as we walked around the archeological site, showing me the ancient olive trees that it had swallowed up in the land grab. When I began to lag behind, he would run back to me and pull me along, “Laylah, run!”
And so we would run on the hilly terrain, as he brought me to caves and wells, and finally the school that had been built for them. I stood on a small incline and watched the three boys climb on the roof of the school, until Ahmed called me down to play with them.
“Do you want to go the short way back, or are you ok with walking longer?” Nasser asked the group. All of us wanted more time in the hills, and so we began a large circle back. We came upon a large tent perched on a hill, with a mass of goats and sheep grazing close to it. Amongst them was a baby goat, maybe only a few days old, stumbling around on wobbly legs. Those that know me in my personal life know that I am nothing if not an “animal person,” and they also know I have a personal rule called “The Law of Tiny.” This law is quite simple, if something is small then it must be cuddled by me. So of course I made my way towards the baby goat. To my great surprise the woman scooped up the baby, and plopped it in my waiting arms. This resulted in a lot of baby cooing and snuggling of this creature which amused not only my team members but the children as well.
After awhile we made our way back to the village, and were treated to our first home made meal in so many days. I was eternally grateful for the hot food, and ate in silence with the rest of Nasser’s family. I thanked the women after we had finished and began to help clean up with them until they swatted me away and made sure I understood that I wasn’t to work, I was to enjoy my time.
Myself and the two other youngest members of the team began playing games with the children – us teaching them how to thumb wrestle and them teaching us some hand game which I couldn’t comprehend and earned me getting pushed away in a joking manner. Somehow it all ended up in an enormous tickle pile. At some point, I realized that Nasser had stopped translating for us and his family, but it didn’t seem to make a difference – we all were able to communicate with each other…as if we spoke the same language.
At some point Mohammed brought in his laptop to play music, and Ahmed danced (incredibly) for us. It is easy for me to say that this was easily the best night of the entire trip for me, one that I will hold in my heart like a treasure.
As the night went on Ahmed came to sit next to me, curling into my side like a kitten, and he went through the pictures on my phone of my time in Jerusalem. He marveled at my photos of Al-Aqsa.
“You? Here?” he said excitedly as he pointed to the photo. As I nodded I realized that despite Jerusalem being only 37 miles to the north, this child would never be able to go there. He would never be able to see Al-Aqsa’s beautiful golden dome or hear the haunting Adhan. Yet I, a run of the mill tourist, could enter the compound with little effort – all I had to do was stand in line, pass through a metal detector and ensure that I was appropriately covered. Visiting meant nothing to me other than marveling at its beauty and being able to say that I had been there – this family would never be able to visit it’s second most important holy site…and my heart sank. Every child I met in the West Bank afterwards would grab my phone (this is a thing…if you visit, expect kids to want to see the pictures on your phone. It’s actually really fun, so don’t get bent about it), see this photo and get excited. Each time it happened my heart broke a little more.
All too soon it was time for sleep, but Ahmed and Mohammed assured us that they would wake us early in the morning before they went to school to say goodbye. I bedded down on a thick pallet on the cold concrete floor, crammed together for warmth with Jasmine, Carol and Esther. After a long day, I passed out in near exhaustion.
Several times throughout the night I woke up to the sound of wild dogs barking and a rooster crowing, but fell easily back to sleep. A particularly loud sheep began bleating as the sun just began to peek above the horizon, waking me just enough to hear Carol shush it. Strangely, it fell silent and I slept again. What felt like moments later, the sheep began to bleat again. “Be quiet.” Jasmine mock whispered at it, and yet again I fell asleep. A third time this animal woke me up, and in a fit of anger I yelled –
“SHUT UP BIBI!!!!” Which woke all up in a fit of giggles.
Just then the boys came into our room to tell us it was time for them to go. This would be the last time I would see them on this trip – though I hope to see them again in my life. We parted with tight hugs and cheek kisses that I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life.
So for you, the precious children of Susiyeh, I have one hope for you…
I hope you dance.