Rachel’s Reflection

Rachel and Sammy are two American volunteers living in Jaffa, and they came and spent two nights at the guest house. This is what Rachel had to say about her visit:

Sam and I found ourselves in the West Bank during a break in our volunteering and study schedules, where we had an invitation set up by Sam’s godmother who is active in the village of al-Aqaba. We were personally met at the entrance to the village by Hajj Sami, mayor of al-Aqaba and Morgan, an American English teacher living there. Paralyzed by three bullets lodged in his back and legs during the Six-Day War, Hajj Sami was confined to a wheel chair, buzzing alongside us as he took us on an evening walk around the small village (population 300). With my Arabic feeling rather rusty, Hajj Sami and I spoke in Hebrew, which he learned from a “nice and beautiful nurse” during the year he spent in the military hospital in Israel recovering from his wounds. He showed us the office, the new kindergarten, the playground, the rosebushes, the new walls they had built, the chicken coops and pen for the sheep. And then he showed us the roads—those they had rebuilt and those that had been demolished.

Al-Aqaba village is known for its history of contention with the Israeli government over building permits. When the residents of Aqaba build something without a building permit such as roads, walls, or houses, the Israeli government comes and demolishes them. The thing is, the Israeli government refuses to issue any building permits. The new kindergarten building was built without a permit but the Israeli bulldozers spared it, satisfying themselves with a few extra roads instead. This means the regular visit of bulldozers to tear up whatever they have just raised money to build or rebuild, it means the displacement of families in temporary shelters who cannot build houses, it means difficulties confining animals. We walked out on the road heading towards Jordan, staring to the south at the Israeli military camp off in the distance and to the north, to the refugee camp nestled at the foot of the Israeli-Jordanian border. We walk to the end of the road, where the dozers finished. Hajj Sami looks at me and asks, “Why do they do this?” But he already knows. He knows that the Israeli government wants full control of the Jordan Valley. He knows that they do not want Palestinians rooted within Israeli borders. He knows that we are Jewish and that it is not our fault. After returning to Hajj Sami’s house and stuffing our faces with falafel, pita, hummus, labneh, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, finished off with multiple cups of steaming tea, we passed out in the teacher’s guesthouse alongside Morgan.

We spent the next day in Aqaba speaking a garbled mix of English, Hebrew, and Arabic, trying to communicate in any language we could with the villagers. The following morning we met up with Hajj Sami in the office and without realizing it, joined in on a Majlis of the local agricultural council, composed of men from the surrounding villages who came to assist with the olive harvest. A local TV crew filmed as Hajj Sami and other prominent members gave speeches about the importance of the land for the people. They then went outside for a photo op in front of the mountains. They laid out tarps under the olive trees and we joined the ranks, pulling the olives from the branches. Before long we had some fans among the young Palestinian men of Tubas and Tayasir, another neighboring village, who were pleased to hear that we weren’t married.

We took a break from olive picking in the hot sun to visit the kindergarten where the children recited (read: shouted) songs and poems for us as we pushed them forth and back on a large swing. By noon we were famished and joined Hajj Sami and Morgan for lunch at Hajj Sami’s house, where we ate from a huge platter of maglubeh, overflowing with meat, rice, and vegetables. We soon passed out for an afternoon nap, waking up to join Morgan for her early evening English class she teaches for adults from the area, a small class of men coming from work, dressed in a mix of jeans and suits, students and lawyers and engineers, learning the difference between say and tell. This was followed by our second walk around the village, stopping again at the ruined roads, the scrap houses, and staring up at the sky, where we could actually see stars, and round 2 for the day of gorging ourselves on delicious food before passing out.

 Though we only spent one day and two nights in Aqaba with Hajj Sami and Morgan, I felt sorry to leave in the morning. I was just beginning to engage in new ways, with new people, in an entirely new place and I felt as though I was just skimming the surface of a place that had so much more to teach me. I have rarely experienced such hospitality and felt so welcome from the minute I entered Aqaba. I know that I will need to go back soon, to visit Hajj Sami and Morgan and to keep trying to understand everything, to put the pieces in place.

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