The Yellow Wind
By David Grossman, Haim Watzman
Picador Copyright © 1988 David Grossman and Koteret Rashit
All rights reserved.
A Man Is Like a Stalk of Wheat
On a day of turbid rain, at the end of March, I turn off the main road leading from my house in Jerusalem to Hebron, and enter the Deheisha refugee camp. Twelve thousand Palestinians live here in one of the highest population densities in the world; the houses are piled together, and the house of every extended family branches out in ugly cement growths, rooms and niches, rusty iron beams spread throughout as sinews, jutting like disconnected fingers.
In Deheisha, drinking water comes from wells. The only running water is the rainwater and sewage flowing down the paths between the houses. I soon give up picking my way between the puddles; there is something ridiculous — almost unfair — about preserving such refinement here, in the face of a few drops of filth.
Beside each house — a yard. They are small, fenced in with corrugated aluminum, and very clean. A large jara filled with springwater and covered with cloth stands in each yard. But every person here will tell you without hesitation that the water from the spring of his home village was sweeter. "In Ain Azrab" — she sighs (her name is Hadija, and she is very old) — "our water was so clear and healthy that a dying man once immersed himself, drank a few mouthfuls, and washed — and was healed on the spot." She cocks her head, drills me with an examining gaze, and mocks: "So, what do you think of that?"
I discover — with some bafflement, I admit — that she reminds me of my grandmother and her stories about Poland, from which she was expelled. About the river, about the fruit there. Time has marked both their faces with the same lines, of wisdom and irony, of great skepticism toward all people, both relatives and strangers.
"We had a field there. A vineyard. Now see what a flowering garden we have here," and she waves her brown, wrinkled hand over the tiny yard.
"But we made a garden," murmurs her daughter-in-law, a woman of wild, gypsy, unquiet beauty. "We made a garden in tin cans." She nods toward the top of the cinder-block fence, where several pickle cans bring forth red geraniums, in odd abundance, as if drawing their life from some far source of fruitfulness, of creation.
A strange life. Double and split. Everyone I spoke to in the camp is trained — almost from birth — to live this double life: they sit here, very much here, because deprivation imposes sobriety with cruel force, but they are also there. That is — among us. In the villages, in the cities. I ask a five-year-old boy where he is from, and he immediately answers, "Jaffa," which is today part of Tel Aviv. "Have you ever seen Jaffa?" "No, but my grandfather saw it." His father, apparently, was born here, but his grandfather came from Jaffa. "And is it beautiful, Jaffa?" "Yes. It has orchards and vineyards and the sea."
And farther down, where the path slopes, I meet a young girl sitting on a cement wall, reading an illustrated magazine. Where are you from? She is from Lod, not far from Ben-Gurion International Airport, forty years ago an Arab town. She is sixteen. She tells me, giggling, of the beauty of Lod. Of its houses, which were big as palaces. "And in every room a hand-painted carpet. And the land was wonderful, and the sky was always blue."
I remembered the wistful lines of Yehuda Halevy, "The taste of your sand — more pleasant to my mouth than honey," and Bialik, who sang to the land which "the spring eternally adorns," how wonderfully separation beautifies the beloved, and how strange it is, in the barrenness of the gray cement of Deheisha, to hear sentences so full of lyric beauty, words spoken in a language more exalted than the everyday, poetic but of established routine, like a prayer or an oath: "And the tomatoes there were red and big, and everything came to us from the earth, and the earth gave us and gave us more."
"Have you visited there, Lod?" "Of course not." "Aren't you curious to see it now?" "Only when we return."
This is how the others answer me also. The Palestinians, as is well known, are making use of the ancient Jewish strategy of exile and have removed themselves from history. They close their eyes against harsh reality, and stubbornly clamping down their eyelids, they fabricate their Promised Land. "Next year in Jerusalem," said the Jews in Latvia and in Cracow and in San'a, and the meaning was that they were not willing to compromise. Because they had no hope for any real change. He who has nothing to lose can demand everything; and until his Jerusalem becomes real, he will do nothing to bring it closer. And here also, again and again, that absolute demand: everything. Nablus and Hebron and Jaffa and Jerusalem. And in the meantime — nothing. In the meantime, abandoned physically and spiritually. In the meantime, a dream and a void.
* * *
It's all bolitics, the Palestinians say. Even those who can pronounce the "p" in "politics" will say "bolitics," as a sign of defiance, in which there is a sort of self-mocking; "bolitics," which means that whole game being played over our heads, kept out of our hands, crushing us for decades under all the occupations, sucking out of us life and the power to act, turning us into dust, it's all bolitics, the Turks and the British, and the son-of-a-whore Hussein who killed and slaughtered us without mercy, and now all of a sudden he makes himself out to be the protector of the Palestinians, and these Israelis, who are willing to bring down a government because of two terrorists they killed in a bus, and with the considered cruelty of an impeccably meticulous jurist they change our laws, one thousand two hundred new laws they issued, and deprive us of our land and of our tradition and of our honor, and construct for us here some kind of great enlightened prison, when all they really want is for us to escape from it, and then they won't let us return to it ever — and in their proud cunning, which we are completely unable to understand, they bind their strings to us, and we dance for them like marionettes.
"It's all bolitics," laughs the ironic woman, who reminds me slightly of my grandmother, and slightly of the cunning, old, loud Italian from Catch-22, the one who explains to proud American Nately why America will lose the war in the end, and poor Italy will not win, but survive. "The strongest weapon the Arabs in the occupied territories can deploy against us," a wise man once said, "is not to change." And it is true — when you walk through the Deheisha camp you feel as if that conception has internalized itself unconsciously here, seeped its way into the hearts of the people and become power, defiance: we will not change, we will not try to improve our lives. We will remain before you like a curse cast in cement.
She suddenly remembers: "There, in the village, in Ain Azrab, we baked bread over a straw fire. Not here. Because here we don't have livestock, and none of their leavings." She falls silent and hugs herself. Her forehead wrinkles repeatedly in a spasm of wonder. The brown, wrinkled fingers go, unconsciously, through the motions of kneading.
Everything happens elsewhere. Not now. In another place. In a splendid past or a longed-for future. The thing most present here is absence. Somehow one senses that people here have turned themselves voluntarily into doubles of the real people who once were, in another place. Into people who hold in their hands only one real asset: the ability to wait.
And I, as a Jew, can understand that well.
"When a person is exiled from his land," a Jewish-American author once said to the Palestinian writer from Ramallah, Raj'a Shehade, "he begins to think of it in symbols, like a person who needs pornography. And we, the Jews, have also become expert pornographers, and our longings for this land are woven of endless symbols." The author was speaking of the Jews of hundreds of years ago, but on the day I went to Deheisha the Knesset was storming in fierce debate over the symbolism of the name "Judea and Samaria," and Knesset member Geula Cohen demanded that this remain the only legal designation, and that the terms "West Bank" and "territories" in all their permutations not be used. "Judea and Samaria" really sounds more significant and symbolical, and there are many among us for whom the phrase activates a pleasant historical reflex, a sort of satisfying shiver reaching into the depths of the past, there spreading ripples of longing for other sleeping phrases as well — the Bashan, the Gilad, the Horan, all parts of the ancient Greater Israel and today parts of Syria and Jordan.
About half a million Palestinian refugees live today in the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank there are about 400,000. (We are speaking here only of refugees, and not of the entire Arab population under Israeli rule.) In Jordan there are about 850,000. In Lebanon, some 250,000. Syria also has about 250,000. A total of about two and a quarter million refugees. Even if the problem of the refugees living under Israeli rule is solved, the bitterness of their more than a million brothers in the Arab countries, living in no less appalling conditions, will remain. This is why the feeling of despair is so deep among all those who know this problem well. This is why the refugees allow themselves to become addicted to their dreams.
Raj'a Shehade, writer and lawyer, admits that he, too, was a pornographer of views in his youth. Of the view of Jaffa and the coastal plain, about which he has heard stories and legends. When he hikes today over the hills next to Ramallah, it happens that he forgets himself for a minute and he can enjoy the contact with the earth, smell the thyme, gaze upon an olive tree — and then he understands that he is looking at an olive tree, and before his eyes the tree transmutes, and becomes a symbol, the symbol of struggle, of loss, "and at that very same moment the tree is stolen from me," says Shehade, "and in its place is a void, filling up with pain and anger."
The void. The absence, which for decades has been filling with hatred.
A.N., whom I met another time, in Nablus, told me: "Of course I hate you. Maybe at the beginning I didn't hate and only feared. Afterwards, I began to hate." A.N., thirty years old, is a resident of the Balata refugee camp. He spent ten years of his life in jail (the Ashkelon and Nafha prisons) after being found guilty of belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. ("I didn't actually take part in operations. They only taught me to shoot.") "Before I went to jail, I didn't even know I was a Palestinian. There they taught me who I am. Now I have opinions. Don't believe the ones who tell you that the Palestinians don't really hate you. Understand: the average Palestinian is not the fascist and hating type, but you and the life under your occupation push him into hatred. Look at me, for example. You took ten years of my life from me. You exiled my father in '68. He hadn't done anything. He wasn't even a PLO supporter. Maybe even the opposite. But you wanted to kick out anyone who had an opinion about anything. So that we would be here completely without leaders. Even without leaders who were a little bit for you. And my mother — for six years you did not allow her to go to visit him. And I — after prison, you don't let me build a house, or leave here to visit Jordan, nothing. And you constantly repeat: See what progress we have brought you. You forget that in twenty years everything has progressed. The whole world strides forward. True, you helped us a little, but you aren't willing to give us the most important thing. True, we progressed a little, but look how much you progressed during that time. We remained way behind, and if you check it out, maybe you'll see that we are even worse off in a relative sense than we were in '67." (The standard of living may be measured by personal consumption per capita and GNP per capita. I checked the facts with Dr. Meron Benvenisti, author of The West Bank Data Project. In his study, private consumption per capita in the West Bank is estimated at about 30 percent of that of Israel; GNP per capita in the West Bank is four times smaller than in Israel.)
"Then," the young man from Balata continued, restrained in his expression but transmitting cold, tightlipped anger, "then you say under the Jordanians it was bad for you. Maybe so. But the Jordanians took only our national identity from us, and you took everything. National identity, and the identity of every one of us who fears you and depends on you for his livelihood, you took everything. You made us into living dead. And me, what remains for me? Only the hatred of you and thoughts of siyassah [politics]. That's another evil you brought upon us, that you made every man here, even the most ordinary fellah, into a politician."
* * *
I drink tea with three women in Deheisha. One hears the most penetrating things from the women. The men are more afraid of imprisonment and intimidation. It is the women who march at the head of the demonstrations, it is the women who shout, who scream out the bitterness in their hearts before the television cameras. Brown women, with sharp features, women bearing suffering. Hadijah is seventy-five years old, her mind sharp and her narrow body healthy. "Allah yikhalik," I say to her, may God be with you, and she laughs to herself, a thin chuckle of bare gums, and says: "What is it to him?" and explains to me that a man is like a stalk of wheat: when he turns yellow, he bends.
She has lived in this house, a standard refugee house, for forty years. The United Nations Welfare and Relief Agency (UNWRA) built it, and the UN symbol can still be found on the walls and doors. At the head of each refugee camp in the West Bank and Gaza Strip stands an UNWRA-appointed director. He serves as middleman between the agency and the residents. He is himself a former refugee and lives in the camp. He has the authority to distribute food and welfare payments, to grant the right to live in the camp, and to recommend students for university admissions.
The house consists of two small rooms and does not have running water. The electricity is usually out. Today it is raining outside, and the house is almost completely dark. Hadijah and her elderly sister sit on a straw mat and examine the medicines the camp doctor has prescribed for the sister. She suffers from asthma. The teachers and doctors who work in the refugee camps come, in general, from outside, from the nearby cities. The simplest jobs, cleaning and sanitation and construction, are filled by the camp residents. In the house in which I now sit live five people. In the room in which we drink our tea there is one cabinet, a suitcase on top. Half open. As if waiting to move on. A few wooden chairs made by an untrained hand, a few shelves holding vegetables. The young woman, tense, offers oranges and a paring knife. Another item of furniture found in every house here is the dowry chest of the woman of the house, made from the soft trunk of the Judas tree. Here she keeps her dowry, the bedsheets, the wedding dress, and perhaps some childish luxury, a toy, a pretty handkerchief — after all, she was no more than a girl when she was married.
"And if someone were to offer you today a dunam [one-quarter acre, the standard measure of land in countries once under Turkish rule] of land in a nice place, with light, in the open air?"
Yes, yes — she laughs — of course, but only on my own land. There.
She also declaims this, like the politicians, like those purveyors of her fate over all these years. She, at least, has the right to do so. I try to remember how many times Palestinian leaders missed opportunities to gain themselves a homeland: there was the partition proposal of '36 and the second proposal of '47, and maybe there were other chances. They — in their blindness — rejected them all. We drink silently. The men are at work. On the wall, two nails. They serve as a wardrobe. On one hangs the black 'igal (headband) of a kaffiyeh.
Whoever has served in the army in the "territories" knows how such rooms look from the inside during the night. Whoever has taken part in searches, in imposing curfews, in capturing a suspect at night, remembers. The violent entry into rooms like this one, where several people sleep, crowded, in unaired stench, three or four together under scratchy wool blankets, wearing their work clothes still in their sleep, as if ready at any moment to get up and go wherever they are told. They wake in confusion, squinting from the flashlight, children wail, sometimes a couple is making love, soldiers surround the house, some of them — shoes full of mud after tramping through the paths of the camp — walking over the sleep-warm blankets, some pounding on the tin roof above.
The old woman follows, it seems, my gaze to the bare cement walls, the heating lamp, the wool blankets rolled up on the floor. Suddenly she boils over: "Do we look like gypsies, do we? Miserable, are we? Ha? We are people of culture!" Her sister, the sick woman, nods rapidly, her sharp chin stabbing her sunken chest: "Yes, yes, people of culture!" They fall silent, wheezing. The young woman, of the wild, exotic presence, wants to say something and is silent. Her hand literally clamps her mouth closed. Within the arabesque filigree of manners and considered delicacy, of conversation and the protection of hospitality, the wires suddenly go taut. I am confused. The young woman tries to make amends. Change the subject. Is her mother-in-law willing to tell this Israeli here about, for instance, her childhood in Ain Azrab? No. Is she willing to recall the days when she worked the land? No, no. Salt on a wound. Would you be willing, ya mama, to sing the songs the fellahin, the winegrowers, the shepherds sang then? No. She only tightens her cracked lips stubbornly, her balding head shaking, but again, out of the conquering power of absence, her left foot begins to tap to a far-off rhythm, and her body moves silently forward and back, and as she traps my cautious gaze, she slaps her thigh with a trembling hand, and her nose reddens with rage: "Culture! You people don't know that we have culture! You can't understand this culture. It's not a culture of television!" Suddenly she is completely emptied of her anger: once again her face takes on an expression of defeat, of knowing all, the ancient signs written on the faces of the old: "The world is hard, hard ..." She nods her head in bitter sorrow, her eyes close themselves off from the small, dark room: "You can't understand. You can't understand anything. Ask, maybe, your grandmother to tell you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Yellow Wind by David Grossman, Haim Watzman. Copyright © 1988 David Grossman and Koteret Rashit. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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