:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Orphaned minarets, Baron Rothschild, Shamouti oranges, emotional sinews, swamps, snakebites, paved-over homes, the Nakba, wild za’atar, Mazkeret Batya, aliyah, cultural forensics, swallowed shoes,
familiar smells & Israel.
It was only toward the end of 2007, after several long stays in Israel, that I finally accepted Judd’s offer to take Deborah and me to see what’s left of the destroyed Palestinian village of Aqir. It wasn’t reluctance that made me wait so long; rather, it was anticipation. By the time Judd suggested this trip Deborah and I had been crisscrossing Israel for months, searching what little remains of Palestinian villages demolished during the war of 1948—“The War of Independence” to us Israelis, but “Nakba” to the Palestinians, “The Catastrophe.” Each of us could predict what the other might say at the sight of yet another ruin. But doing so with Judd would be different, I thought.
As we had already learned two years earlier, at the start of this work, none of these villages is listed in standard maps and many are far from paved roads. Most often we found ourselves walking through thorny fields and clambering over rocks only to find a caved-in house, a clump of untended fruit trees choked by weeds, a lone minaret left standing bereft of its mosque, or a pile of masonry, if that. For Deborah, an American landscape photographer, not Jewish and with no ties to Israel, tracking the Nakba was a forensic challenge. For me, her Israeli guide, the search was deeply personal. Inspired by newly published histories, guiding her meant uncovering the dark side of my own country’s creation.
Much of our search was guesswork, with only occasional telltale signs to guide us: chiseled stones, the remains of agricultural terracing, an abandoned tomb or the outer wall of a house where a fig tree now rises through a bombed roof. Often, we barely spoke. After so many months of facing this devastation there seemed to be little left to say.
None of this was said as we turned our back on Mazkeret Batya, heading away from the history Israel works to preserve as nostalgic tourism toward the history it does its best to negate.
“Look at that clump of cactus,” one of us might say. “There may be remnants of a house nearby…”
“See that strange pile of stones over there? Masonry from a collapsed house…”
“Look” and “see,” “here” and “there,” “behind…” or “next to…” Fingers pointing. Eyes shaded against the sun. Feet scratched by thorns during the long dry season, caked with mud and stung by nettles after the first rains. Guesses proven right giving rise to new exclamations as words failed.
But going to Aqir will be different, I thought. Of all my Israeli friends, Judd was the one who shared my dismay about the Nakba most clearly.
“You need to go there,” he said. “Palestinian Aqir was next to Jewish Ekron, my grandfather’s village. I have such a vivid image of Aqir. Even its special smell of weeds and cooking fires. There is one house still standing. You can include it in your archive.”
Judd was over seventy at the time of this trip, wiry, edgy and determined. Permanently tanned and slightly freckled from years of exposure to the merciless Israeli sun, with his grey eyes intent, his hair cut close and his lean body poised as if ready to leap forward at any minute, Judd projects a restiveness that I have come to know as a mark of his distrust of complacent assurances, personal or communal. A combat surgeon turned film director and professor, he was intent on showing us the one relic of Aqir he remembered. For him, as for me, it was an act of defiance, the proverbial “speaking truth to power” that cleanses the soul.
Like me, Judd is a child of the first aliyah—the early wave of Eastern European Zionists who embraced farming as “redeeming” lands they believed had been left fallow for centuries. We both shared roots in the early colonias that Baron Rothschild strung along the spine of Palestine in the late nineteenth century, bound by my family’s Metula in the north and his Ekron, later renamed Mazkeret Batya, in the south.
Nowadays Israelis tend to be sentimental about those early Jewish settlements. Old farmers’ homes now serve as country inns, quaint restaurants, gift shops and museums. But Judd, like me, would have heard about the hardships Jewish settlers faced in their struggle to farm this inhospitable land. Alien to the local language and culture, they drained swamps, cleared rocky lands and survived fevers and snakebites. Yet by the time Judd and I were born, in the late 1930s, houses were solid, the fields were well ploughed and trees had begun to bear fruit. Though the Second World War was decimating Europe and the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948 was soon to follow, Judd, like me, grew up in what were for us—Jewish children in British-mandate Palestine—good times.
Frozen in time and utterly devoid of people, the village square lay before us as if in a coma, its farmhouses resting heavily on the dark flat earth of the coastal lowlands.
Was any of this on Judd’s mind that fall day in 2007 as we neared the flourishing Jewish neighborhood built on Aqir’s lands? Is this why he suggested, rather unexpectedly, that we detour to see Mazkeret Batya first? Yes, it had been his family’s home, but also, for him, a mute reminder of a time when good neighborly relations between Arabs and Jews did exist.
The historic village we drove into that dreary afternoon hardly seemed to belong to Israel as we know it today. Preserved as a museum—“Zionism at Its Apex,” a YouTube video calls it—the village seemed cut off from Israel’s pulsing energy, from its construction sites and restless streams of traffic whizzing by on roads that always seemed to have just been built or were being widened and repaved. Frozen in time and utterly devoid of people, the village square lay before us as if in a coma, its farmhouses resting heavily on the dark flat earth of the coastal lowlands. Other than the delicate wisps of steam that curled upward from the damp soil, nothing seemed to move.
“Ekron was founded by the Hovevei Tzion movement in 1883,” Judd said, suddenly sounding like a tour guide. I had never heard him speak this way before. Now he was packing in facts, dates and numbers, none of which I remember. “Do you want to get out and look around?” he asked, a new urgency creeping into his voice. I could see that he wanted us to breathe his village air, let its smells waft around us and feel its muddy, spongy earth underfoot.
Here is yet another kind of knowing my own childhood shared with his, I thought as we stepped onto the waterlogged earth: mud! Once, I remembered, I lost a shoe when hunting for narcissus in the bassa swamp near our house. We both grew up on the same coastal plain. Judd’s dark mud was the muck I remembered in front of our house, deeply rutted by the junk man’s wagon or the creaking ice cart passing by.
Permanently tanned and slightly freckled from years of exposure to the merciless Israeli sun, with his grey eyes intent, his hair cut close and his lean body poised as if ready to leap forward at any minute, Judd projects a restiveness that I have come to know as a mark of his distrust of complacent assurances, personal or communal.
Back in Judd’s car, the lecture resumed. There were the Ottomans and the British; diseases and famine; locusts and the Arab Rebellion. Jews arrived, left and returned yet again; there were friendly relations with some Arabs, but also tension with others as Jewish immigration grew. It was a labyrinthine history of new beginnings that set in motion new displacements and more new beginnings. Everybody was from somewhere, and many did not stay put. “My father was born in…his parents immigrated to Palestine…he grew up in…he worked…he left …he studied…he returned…he married…” Yes, but what did this inventory feel like, I wondered, and why did I feel reluctant to ask?
Facts are the default line, not the way of the heart. My unspoken questions colluded with Judd’s non-answers. We talked, he and I, as if facts were all that was needed while Deborah, in the back seat of his car, was silent, an outsider to both the said and the unsaid. She was staring out the window—bored, I wondered, or just thoughtful? She is a stranger to this conversation, I thought, while Judd and I are joined by the emotional sinews and capillaries of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ struggles at the outer edges of their precarious footholds on this land.
There had to be profound anxiety not only about the new land into which those early settlers barely put roots but also about the Palestinian neighbors they did not understand, a language they did not know, smells they had never inhaled before and thoughts of loved ones lost or abandoned in the miasmas of pogroms, way before the Holocaust. There were also droughts, unemployment and hunger, tuberculosis and malaria. There are too many tombstones for solitary, nameless men and for young women who died in childbirth. Still, some of these settlers did get to know their Arab neighbors, teach themselves to speak Arabic and share acts of kindness. Our families knew that.
None of this was said as we turned our back on Mazkeret Batya, heading away from the history Israel works to preserve as nostalgic tourism toward the history it does its best to negate. Now, five decades after the Nakba, Judd’s tiny old Renault 4, with its shock absorbers long gone and its plush seats discolored and balding, was ferrying us toward the modern suburb that has since spread over Aqir’s lands.
It was disconcerting, this reentry into contemporary Israel. While Mazkeret Batya seemed embalmed and Aqir vanished altogether, now we found ourselves threading our way through a crisp Jewish suburb that bore no relation to either. The air had cleared with a new breeze rising from the west and signs of a well-lived life were everywhere—in the whitewashed, newly built houses, the lovingly tended gardens and the bright red-tiled roofs that peeked above lush canopies of trees. Even the ceaseless vibration of cars streaking on the nearby highway was reassuring. Israel was alive with the traffic coursing through its veins.
Judd drove slowly, looking to the right and left in search of a landmark, some telltale sign that would lead to the Arab house he was intent on showing us. It’s the only house remaining of Aqir, he believed. Deborah and I waited for the “Ah! There it is!” that wasn’t coming. We could hear a radio faintly through a half-open window whose curtains swelled gently in the late-afternoon breeze. In another house, a woman was shushing a baby. Two boys were bouncing a ball on the street’s cooling asphalt and we could smell onion frying somewhere nearby. In this pleasant neighborhood there wasn’t a trace of either the sepia memories of Mazkeret Batya or the tragedy of Aqir.
Judd’s dark mud was the muck I remembered in front of our house, deeply rutted by the junk man’s wagon or the creaking ice cart passing by.
And yet for all that, and perhaps because of that, all three of us were keenly aware that the streets on which we traveled were paved over homes leveled to allow all this to become a reality. About this, too, we said nothing. Our quest was simply to locate and photograph a building, though this seemingly simple task rested on the miasma of the unvoiced.
We were quiet as Judd navigated his car through the winding, tree-shaded streets of this new Jewish neighborhood, where all the houses were of the same age and all the streets looked alike as they twisted and doubled back on themselves.
“Damn!” Judd said, straining toward the windshield, hoping for better visibility. “All the landmarks are gone. Even the smell is different.”
“I’m sure this Arab house is here somewhere,” he added a few minutes later, sounding strained. “We’ve been meandering here for at least fifteen minutes.”
“So let’s be patient,” I said, pretending to greater patience than I had. “How about combing the neighborhood more systematically?”
“But one can’t be systematic here!” he snapped. “These cursed streets wind and twist like a pile of spaghetti! Some town planning!”
It’s just a storage lean-to, I thought, and yet I sensed, perhaps because Judd singled out this house, something ineffably different about its walls, where a barely perceptible unevenness seemed to swell the plaster.
We all fell quiet, letting his anger hang in the air. It was so different when we first set out from Tel Aviv, I thought, as Judd told us about his childhood in Ekron and Aqir.
“My grandfather,” he told us two hours earlier, “used to take me along when he went to the Aqir to buy watermelons and sheep’s cheese or to sell those new Shamouti oranges that Jewish farmers began cultivating.”
“So what was it like in Aqir?” I asked.
“I remember people being friendly,” Judd said, his fingers relaxing on the steering wheel, his voice losing its impatient edge. “My grandfather and the village men would greet each other formally, and it sounded like poetry. ‘Al-salamu alyakum’ he’d say, and ‘Wa-alaykum al-salam,’ people would reply. They would invite him to sit on a low rush stool, offer him sweet tea in a small glass, talk about crops and the weather, and joke with him in Arabic. Sometimes I heard him exclaim with pleasure about a wedding to come, or shake his head sadly about somebody’s passing.”
“I’d stand near him,” Judd said, “fascinated by the sounds of their conversation. I was beginning to pick up some Arabic. When there were some boys kicking a ball in in the dusty street, I’d join them. They’d giggle at my using the formal greeting of al-salamu aleykum. I still had to learn Arabic. All I could do was wave my arms and shout ‘Kan…kan’ in Hebrew to have the ball passed on to me, or “Hon…hon” in Arabic—‘here…here.’ But even without Arabic I felt the warmth when a nice old man patted my head and called me in Arabic ibni, my son.”
In a few years, I thought, that affectionate ibni would turn to anger, grief and resentment, if that old man lived long enough to survive the expulsion from Aqir.
She is a stranger to this conversation, I thought, while Judd and I are joined by the emotional sinews and capillaries of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ struggles at the outer edges of their precarious footholds on this land.
“But what I most remember,” Judd continued, “are the pungent smells of the village: the smell of dung fire, of burning thorns and wood, of wild za’atar and ripe figs. The scents lingered long after they left.”
Left! I thought. That’s how we all refer to the Nakba. Not expulsion or ethnic cleansing.
Now, two hours later, a heavy silence settled in the car as Deborah and I watched Judd search for a house that may have been just an illusion. Judd clutched the steering wheel tightly, as if to make the building step forward by his sheer determination. There had been such warmth in his voice when he described Aqir. For him Aqir was still the place where an Arab man might pat a Jewish child and call him ibni.
“The smells in particular stay with me,” Judd said, his voice clogged, crashing against our silence. “It’s the smell of Palestine’s cooking fires lodged in the clay bricks of their homes.”
We all fell silent again. I was losing hope of ever finding that house while Judd was grimly determined, sure that it is “somewhere here, very near.” When we saw three teenage boys idly tracing graceful figure eights with their bicycles—one hand on the handlebars and even no hands at all—Judd paused to ask them if they knew of an Arab house nearby. “No, we never heard of such a house, not here,” said one and the others nodded.
Deborah started saying something about patience but fell silent. I suggested giving up. Judd shook his head, jaw clenched. Sitting next to him I could see his freckled hands tighten on the steering wheel. The blue veins on top of his hands protruded. “Blood pressure,” I wondered, “or just that tight clenching on the wheel?”
It was getting dark when Judd suddenly jerked forward, slammed the brakes and pointed to a small, nondescript stucco building tucked in a yard at the end of a short alley. “There it is!” he exclaimed, to my utter disbelief. There was nothing identifiably Arab about it. Just an ordinary Jewish structure, it seemed. This street was no different from others; the building we were staring at was not different either. I still didn’t quite believe that Judd was right as we scrambled out, stiff after sitting so long in his cramped car.
“This is it,” Judd said and led us toward what turned out to be an unused lean-to attached to a new Jewish home.
One could feel the presence of the women who had cooked there, women who, if they were lucky, ended up in a refugee camp near Ramallah.
It was just an ordinary one-room structure that could easily pass for a typical addition to any Israeli house of 1970s vintage. Except for a ladder leaning against a stained white wall and an empty light socket dangling from the ceiling, the place was empty, clearly not in use.
It’s just a storage lean-to, I thought, and yet I sensed, perhaps because Judd singled out this house, something ineffably different about its walls, where a barely perceptible unevenness seemed to swell the plaster. Was I imagining things?
Judd was already motioning for Deborah and me to come close to a small patch of wall where the plaster had come loose, an ordinary gash that on my own I would not have noticed. But he insisted that we look closely as the crumbling plaster revealed not the usual cinderblocks but alternating layers of sticks and pebbly mud. “Arab era,” an archaeologist might say.
We stood there, shaken. The skies had cleared but it was getting dark and a chilly wind was rising. Soon we wouldn’t be able to see much, and any moment somebody might come to ask what we were doing there, trespassing on private property.
Is that all, I wondered? So much trouble for an empty lean-to? But a few feet away stood another smaller building, this one freestanding. Judd was already ducking under a low door-less opening that led into it. In the gathering darkness it was hard at first to identify the few objects still lying on the packed mud floor of this one-room building: a rusty old hoe, obviously not used for decades, and a dented metal jug that would not have been owned by a Jewish family. Arab era too, I thought.
Judd was examining the hoe in the semi-darkness when I noticed a large shadowy bulge at the far corner of the wall.
“Look!” I exclaimed, pointing in that direction. “It’s a taboon, an adobe baking oven! See? It’s built into the corner, rounded, like a kiva oven in the American Southwest.”
“My grandfather and the village men would greet each other formally, and it sounded like poetry. They would invite him to sit on a low rush stool, offer him sweet tea in a small glass, talk about crops and the weather, and joke with him in Arabic.
We stood there stunned, speechless. The outside of the taboon still had dark smoke marks on it. One could feel the presence of the women who had cooked there, women who, if they were lucky, ended up in a refugee camp near Ramallah. I sensed them there—perhaps an older woman, thickened with age, her legs swollen after years of childbearing and housework, bending to take out the loaves, or a younger one, still lithe, a child holding onto her dress as she moved about the room. I imagined them in their long black everyday dresses—their embroidery perhaps frayed but still beautiful—talking to one another in subdued voices.
I thought of my grandmother as we bent to exit through the small door opposite the taboon. My grandmother would have known women like the ones who baked bread in this oven. In her days in Metulla she might have met women from Lebanon’s neighboring Marjayoun. I remember her buying apricots and figs from such women before the war, patting a child on the head: “Ibnek? Your son? How old?” I can see these women in their world as vividly as Judd can still see his grandfather talking with a man wearing a kaffiyeh scarf—the man who laid his hand on Judd’s young head and called him ibni. Our worlds could have overlapped. One of these women might have called me, too, “binti, my daughter.”
By the time we walked out of that freestanding kitchen, bending single-file through its low doorway, what little remained of twilight was fast giving way to darkness. In the lingering blue-grey light I saw Judd approach the outer wall and press the palms of his hands against it. Leaning forward, he brought his face close to the smooth adobe skin of the wall and breathed its scent deeply.
“Yes, this is the smell I remember,” he said.
Though we were losing the light, Deborah did take a photograph of this moment. In it Judd is awash in blue shadows. He is leaning toward the exposed wooden slats that survived for decades, palms flat against the wall. He is inhaling—taking into his being—the life that continues to cling to that Arab house. It is a moment of ineffable longing, where the pain of all that was lost keeps alive the possibility of restitution.
Linda Dittmar grew up in Israel from 1939 to 1960, where she attended school and served in the military. She has a PhD in English from Stanford University and is Professor Emerita of English from UMass Boston, where she taught literature and film studies for forty years. Twice winner of Fulbright grants to India, the second as Distinguished Chair, she also taught at Tel Aviv University and the University of Paris. Her academic writing includes the books From Hanoi to Hollywood and Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Five excerpts from her memoir-in-progress have been published, most recently in Jewish Currents and Consequence magazine. Linda won the Chancellor Award for Excellence in teaching and is a longtime member of Radical Teacher’s editorial board.
Lead image: Eddie Stigson