Our Paradise on Earth

14/05/2010 — reham alhelsi

“Yamma, wake up, its morning and we have work to do”. It was the olive harvest season and for over a month the whole family together with the entire village had been spending the day in the olive fields. My father and my elder brothers had left earlier. I went to the storeroom, grabbed a plate of ground Zaatar, a bowl of olive oil, called for my sisters to come and went out to the Taboun. There, and like every day, my mother sat baking bread. I sat down on the ground near her, placed the plates between us. My sisters came, one carrying plates of olives, white cheese and some green onions, the other carried a tea pot with glasses. When my mother was done with baking, she gave us hot Taboun bread and we shared breakfast. After we were done, I wrapped the bread in a cloth while mother placed the Msakhan dish in the Taboun. We quickly washed the dashes and prepared ourselves to join the others in Nyata.

I always enjoyed the walk to Nyata. Everywhere around you, you could see trees; figs, apricots, almonds, apples, carobs, grapevines, but olive trees were the dominant ones. It was as the hills and valleys around us were one green carpet of olive trees. In Nyata, almost everyone was there; the men stood on long ladders picking the olives, the women and children sat on the ground separating the good olives from the bad ones and collecting them in sacks. Today was the last day of the harvest and I was anxiously waiting for the feast to begin. At midday, a number of women and girls went back home to get lunch, while the others continued packing the olives into the sacks. Other women started spreading clean sheets under the trees that were already harvested, collected some green onions while the men picked the last remaining trees. Most women probably did Msakhan like us. It was the traditional dish during the olive harvest. We often shared our lunch as a village rather than eat at home. It was a custom; the whole village would meet in the main square in the middle of the village, every family would prepare some dish, everything would be placed on sheets and we would eat together. We would all share the same meal.  After lunch, some of us girls gathered the plates and water jars and took them home to wash them. When we came back, we found the elderly sitting under the olive trees, leaning on the stems and smoking. A group of men and women were dancing traditional dances while others were singing. It was a mixture of singing, laughter and murmur. Some were talking about how successful this year’s harvest had been, others were discussing the winter cultivation and the work that was to be done. But when someone mentioned the news coming from other parts of Palestine, everyone was quiet. And while they discussed what is to be done to protect ourselves and the village from the Zionist colonists, I looked around me and wondered what next year’s olive harvest would look like.

At the end of the day, the men loaded the olive sacks on camels and walked them back home. We stayed behind to collect the sheets and the water jars. On the way home, we would stop every now and then to pluck a fruit or pick a flower from Nyata. Reaching the village, we saw many people on the roofs. It was dawn, so they were trying to finish the day’s work before heading to the village main square for the evening prayer. It was another of our traditions; every day the men gathered in the main square for the dawn, evening and night prayer. Friday and feast prayers were also performed in the main square under the sky. My father and brothers were spreading the olives we harvested that day on the roof next to this year’s harvest. They would remain there for some time until they wither. My father had once explained to me that it is necessary to leave the olives to dry of any water they contained before they were pressed in order to get clear olive oil. Some days later, when the olives were ready, we gathered them in sacks and transported them on camels to where our olive presser stood. It consisted of a large cylinder-shaped stone called Id-Dirdas and a high stone surrounded by a low sort of round opening called Il-Mikr. The women would boil water in large containers. Then, two women sitting opposite each other around Il-Mikr would press the olives with the “Dirdas” until the olives are crushed and oil seeps down into the Mikr. The women would pour the boiling water slowly over the oil, and after the oil rises they would collect it. Then they would rub the crushed olives in their hands and press them with the “Dirdas” again. This would be repeated 2 to 3 times. The other women would have to wait for their turn. Using this method, olive pressing lasts for 2 to 3 weeks and we would work every single day until all olives were pressed. The oil would be stored in large pottery jars and covered. The remainder of the crushed olives would be collected in baskets and used as cattle food.

In the evenings, and like the other girls and women of the village, I would sit down near the lamp with my embroidery work. We made beautiful Palestinian traditional dresses “Thob”, decorated with symbols and colours and made with specific stitch form typical for our region. We made headdresses, shawls, belts, handkerchiefs and cushions, all embroidered and decorated with the symbols and colours of our region. And while stitching, my thoughts would wander over the village houses, over Nyata and the valleys and hills surrounding us.

The olive harvest was only one part of the yearly harvest and cultivation work we did. All year around we would cultivate the land and harvest the fields. We cultivated grains and legumes such as wheat, barley, lintels, peas, beans, chickpeas, maize, kersanneh, qalos, jilbaneh, baqa, sharshara, and we cultivated vegetables such tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, cabbage, onions, garlic, faccus, peas, beans, cauliflowers, potatoes, okra, eggplants, carrots, beets and lettuce. By October we would have been done, this month being the time for rest. In November we would start cultivating the land again. We didn’t have any machinery and all land work was done by hand. As with olives, the men transport the harvest on camels to the Jrouns (singular Journ) which are vast areas, usually cleaned before use from any rocks and grass, where the crop would be left to dry before the grinding begins. The crop would be spread around the “Journ” to form a circle.  Depending on the number of cows every villager had, these would be tied to each other and made to walk over the dry crop and grind it, so 3, 4 cows would be working in one Journ and another 3, 4 in the next. This work lasts up to 3 days. Then, early in the morning, when there is fresh breeze, the villagers use pitchforks to separate the grains from the hay. Then using large sieves, the women double check to make sure the grain is clean of hay and small stones before it is packed in sacks and sent home. The hay is also gathered and stored in the barn for later use as cattle food in winter. At home, the women would grind the crops using a stone grinder: this consisted of 2 big circular stones, both with an opening in the middle and the upper stone has a second opening at the side. The opening in the lower stone is smaller than that of the upper stone. An iron stick would be placed in the opening, and another one in the side of the upper stone to move the stone. The crop would be placed in the opening between both stones, and using the side stick, the stone would move in a circular way and grind the crop. The grains were stored at home. Every house had storage places called “Khawabi” (singular Khabyeh) i.e. hiding place. These were built by the women out of clay and would extend from the ground to the roof. One Khabyeh would fit for 5-6 quntar, 1 quntar equals: 100 kg. Everything was stored in the house. My mother made several Khawabi and stored everything separately; we had a Khabyeh for rice, one for beans, one for lentils, maize and so on. At the bottom of each Khabyeh there was a sort of small opening with a plug that was closed (called rozanah). If we needed rice we would open the rozanah and the rice would come pouring.

Our main house was somewhat large. We had another house nearby and a cattle barn. The three structures embraced a yard large enough for a group of horse riders to roam in it. Every family in the village had at least 2 or 3 houses surrounded by a couple of olive and carob trees, a Taboun for cooking and baking and 2 to 3 water wells. The land gave us everything and we didn’t need to buy anything. And what the land couldn’t give us, we got from our cattle or we produced at home. The land gave us fruits, vegetables and grains. We had cows, sheep, goats, camels and horses. If we needed meat, we would slaughter a goat, a sheep or a cow, depending on the occasion and the amount of meat needed for cooking and from milk we produced yoghourt, cheese, butter and margarine. We used to prepare summer provisions in winter and winter provisions in summer. The land was so generous to us that we had enough provisions to last months and months and even a surplus to sell. The women of the village would go as far as Bethlehem and Beit Jala to sell dairy products. They would walk to the Deir Aban train station and from there take the train to Bethlehem, Beit Jala or Jerusalem. My mother said: everywhere we went people praised our yoghourt and cheese, and on market day they would be waiting in line for us to arrive with our products. The men on the other hand would drive to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and sell their truck-loads of grain there. And other than the two trips, one in spring and one in autumn, to Jerusalem or Ar-Ramleh to buy winter or summer clothes for the whole family, we didn’t need to buy anything at all. We had everything.

We celebrated feasts and weddings together, mourned together and worked together. The elders, being the heads of the village, would consult with all residents over everything. Guests and strangers were always welcome and treated as honour guests. We were generous to all guests, and would not let them leave before we slaughtered a goat or a sheep in their honour and fed them. During weddings all villages in the area would come and celebrate with us. The heads of other villages would also come and bring a sheep or a goat as presents for the happy couple. The weddings took place in the large main square in the middle of the village. Men and women, old and young, would dance and sing for seven days and nights. On the 6th day cattle would be slaughtered and cooked to feed the wedding guests and the bride would have her hands and feet decorated with Henna. The next and final day, which would be the official wedding day, the villagers and their guests would take the bride from her house to the house of the bridegroom in a march of dancing, singing, laughter and happiness. In our area you would find Muslims, Christians and Jews, all living together, all Palestinians. The Israelis claim we hate the Jews, but this is not true: The Jews, even if a minority in Palestine, are our brothers. Some families lived in the villages surrounding us. We would visit, buy from each other and no disputes ever took place. In Palestine, there was never a difference between a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew, we are all brothers, all Palestinians.

I grew up in the heart of the land, surrounded by fields, valleys, hilltops and springs. Standing in our village, a small one true, but ruler over vast areas of land: fields that extended from one hilltop to another and from one valley to another, looking to the east you would see the olive fields a sea of dark green against the blue sky; looking to the west you would see the sun caress the Mediterranean as it said good morning and good night. Standing in our village, built on the highest hilltop in the whole area, all surrounding villages knelt to us and looked up to us with envy, for our lands were the most fertile and the most generous of all lands. Standing in our village, in our small village with its beautiful dark-stoned homes, its carob and olive trees, fields and springs, we would name every Khirbeh, every valley, every spring, every cave, every path, every tree and every stone. Standing in our village, the smallest of them all, but the richest with its lands, you could see the ancient low stone walls and the cactus ridges mark where our lands begin and where they end. We loved our land like our children and gave every part a name; Wadi It-Teen, Wadi Il-Kharoub, Abatjoul, Thahir Jrash, Il-Khallah, Il-Harayek, Ij-Sura. Wherever your eyes would wonder, to the east, west, south or north, you would see trees heavy with ripe apples, peaches, apricots, figs and carob, you would see grapevines rich with their yield, you would see olive trees kissing the earth and reaching to the sun, you would see wheat fields dancing with the breeze, you would see the calves, baby sheep and goats jumping happily while the birds and bees fill the air with their music, and if you listen carefully you would hear the springs talking to you, and the leaves talking to you and the earth talking to you and they would tell you: this is paradise.

All the olive, fruit and crop fields on the surrounding hills and valleys belong to our village. We call these areas Khirab (singular Khirbeh), and each has a name and a particular use: Khirbet Il-Asad, Khirbet Is-S’iri, Khirbet Il-M’allaq, Khirbet Im Il-‘Imdan, Khirbet Al-Baten, Khirbet Id-Dilbah and then there is Nyata: the largest and most beautiful of all the Khirab. These Khirab contain ruins, writings on the walls of caves and remains of ancient times. The cattle would graze the grass in the Khirab and often families would spend the evenings in Nyata, laughing and talking, and sometimes they would sleep there under the sky. We had more olive fields and carob trees than any other village in the whole region. We would harvest the carobs like we do with the olives and eat the sweet fruits in winter. The rocky hills were our Masateeh, where fruits would be laid out to dry under the sun. They spread everywhere and each had its name: Mistah It-Teen, Mistah Il-Mishmish, Mistah Il-Louz. Wherever your eyes would wander, you would see green; a paradise on earth. Apple, apricot, almond, fig and oak trees and grapevines decorate these hills. In one of our valleys there is a cave called Im-Ittwameen (mother of the twins) and many foreigners would come and visit it. They were always friendly and shared our celebrations. The whole village would welcome them and the men would dance Dabkeh and the women would dance Palestinian traditional dances and sing Palestinian songs. The cave is extremely large and deep, with a long path inside, sort of covered stony valley, and had an abyss so deep that if you throw a stone you wouldn’t hear it hit the ground. Inside the cave there is a pond as well, with water so clear, the elders said it had healing powers. In another valley there is a water spring: Ein Id-Dilbah in Khirbet Id-Dilbah. Whenever the wells in the village were empty or had little water, we would go to Ein ld-Dilbah and collect water from there.

In this paradise I was born and grew up. We worked hard the whole year, nevertheless we were content and very happy. We were wealthy; we had our families and friends around us and we had lands, cattle and property. We had a home we loved. This home is called Jrash.

Then the Zionists came.

The first clashes started in Haifa and Yafa. News used to reach us about Zionist gangs who were attacking Palestinian villages along the Palestinian coast and the north, leaving death and destruction behind them. Palestine was under English occupation at the time and the English supported the Zionists. They wanted to give them our homes, our lands and our homeland Palestine. With every passing day, Zionist terror increased and spread in all of Palestine. Everyone was outraged and ready to defend the land. But guns and ammunition were very expensive, so most families could only afford to buy one gun. While the English trained these Zionist terror gangs and gave them weapons, they forbade us from buying or owning any. They used to search Palestinian houses for guns and arrest anyone possessing one, so we had to hide them. And when the English left Palestine in May 1948, they gave their weaponry to the Zionist terror gangs. Every day we heard about increased Zionist attacks on villages and town, about people being killed, kidnapped and found tortured and brutally murdered. We heard about Zionists blowing up cafes, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, schools and houses.

And then, one night they started attacking the villages in our area: sometimes attacking one village at a time, sometimes attacking a couple. They also built tunnels around the villages: Whenever someone would leave their village, the Zionists would shoot them. They used machine guns which would fire some 20 bullets at a time. We called them “Mitr Il-Louz”. They had mortars and used to bombard the villages day and night. Our men fought bravely and managed to win a number of battles with the Zionist terror gangs despite being not so well-equipped like the Zionists. But we had only our guns and these are useful when fighting a direct war, face to face with the enemy, not fighting someone bombarding you from the next village and killing many in one hit. And that is what they did. They would occupy one village and from there bombard the next, then occupy it and bombard the next and so on. And when they occupied a village, the first thing they did was to expel all its inhabitants. During this time, they occupied Deir Yasin and committed a horrific massacre there. Everyone was frightened, especially after we heard what they did to the women and children. The Zionists had no mercy and anyone not wanting to leave would be killed. Other villages in the area occupied and ethnically cleansed include Beit Thoul, Beit Naqqouba, Saris, Qalounia, Al-Qastal, Ntaf, Beit Mahseer, Asho’, Il-Jourah, Khirbet Ismallah, Deir Rafat, Deir Amre, Sar’a, Staf, Souba, ‘Artouf, ‘Asleen, ‘Qour, Ein Karim, Kisla, Il-Malhah.

Zionists attacking Deir Aban

Jrash was one of the 40 villages west of Jerusalem that were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba. It was among the last villages to be occupied. Our front was the final front. It was called the Deir Aban front, because Deir Aban was the largest of the remaining still steadfast villages and the centre for the leaders of the resistance. The villages of the area were in a strategic position, overlooking the main train station line between Haifa and Jerusalem and the Zionists wanted the control over this road. The Deir Aban defence front was expended from Deir Alhawa in the east till Beit Ij-Jmmal in the south west and men from the surrounding areas came to assist us resist the Zionists. Our men built trenches and fortifications around the village, fought heroically to defend our lands and protect us from the Zionist terrorists. Jrash, lying on the highest hilltop in the area, with only one unpaved path leading to it, was hard to reach. The Haganah terrorists had already occupied ‘Artuf and Sar’a, two villages on hills opposite us, and bombarded Jrash from these villages. They besieged Jrash for over six months, during which they used to hide in the olive and almond trees surrounding the village and shoot at everything that moved; people going from one house to another, anyone going to the water spring, or anyone trying to reach Nyata to get something to feed their family. We used to sneak to the fields and harvest them in stages, always sneaking, moving quickly and trying to hide behind rocks and trees, afraid they might see us. These were our fields and we wanted to harvest them for they were our sustenance. The Zionists often bombarded the houses at night, knowing well that the men were outside guarding the village and only the women, children and elderly slept in the houses. This was our life during that time; the Zionists would shoot at everything that moved, every now and then they would bombard the village and we knew every minute we might die. But we remained steadfast in Jrash despite the siege, the snipers and the bombardment.

In October 1948, the Haganah terrorist gangs intensified their attacks on the remaining steadfast villages. And during the “red fire week”, from 14-18.10.948, the Zionists mortar attacks were continuous day and night. Nevertheless, the villages remained steadfast and the men fought bravely till the last bullet. They were besieged by the Zionists from all sides and waited in vain for help from Arab armies. On the night of 18/19.10, the 6th Battalion of the Har’el Brigade of the Haganah, headed by Yigal Allon, raided Jrash as part of the Operation HaHar. The target of this operation was to extend the Jerusalem corridor and ethnically cleanse all villages lying on the road between the coast and Jerusalem. The order was that no Palestinian should remain in that area, all must be expelled. On the night of 21.10.1948 bombardment was non-stop and it seemed as if the sky was raining bullets. The bullets were practically flying over our heads. The Haganah terrorists were everywhere. They were shooting at every single house and forcing its inhabitants out of it. Some villagers sought refuge in the fields and the caves, to hide there until the bombardment had stopped. But this is not what the Zionists wanted: they wanted us out of Jrash, they wanted to expel us, every single one us. So they followed us, shooting at us, while the mortars were hitting our homes. And when they had chased us out of Jrash, they were still not satisfied with expelling us from our village, so they sent their gangs to follow and shoot at us in case we turned back, and they continued following us till we reached the outskirts of Bethlehem. At least 7 residents of Jrash were killed by the Zionists in addition to those killed when they tried to return back to the village and the ones killed by snipers during the siege. Many families were separated, all scattered across the hills and valleys. Some got lost and some women had to give birth in the wilderness or the road sides. And shortly after, a “ceasefire” was announced. The UN and the Arabs told us we will be returning to our homes soon, everyday they came and told us: you will return soon and till today we wait to return. Jrash and the rest of the villages were destroyed after we were expelled. In the same week the Zionists occupied Jrash and expelled its people, they also ethnically cleansed Beit I’tab, Beit Im-Ilmees, ‘Illar Is-Sifla (Khirbet It-Tanour), Khirbet Il-‘Amour, Deir Ish-Sheikh, Ras Abu ‘Ammar, ‘Illar, Il-Qabou, Al-Walajeh, Al-Bureij, Deir Aban, Deir Il-Hawa and Is-Sifla.

We had nowhere to go and so for days we just wandered in the hills and valleys, with the Zionists gangs appearing every now and then and shooting at us to make sure we don’t turn back. We had no water, nothing to eat, nothing at all until we reached Jouret lsh-Sham’a near Bethlehem and decided to stay there. It was winter, so we inhabited the caves under the earth. That winter was one of the coldest winters I ever witnessed and not only did it rain continuously, it snowed as well and we had only the blankets to keep ourselves warm. We slept on the hard stone and wrapped ourselves with the blankets that were soaked with water. Some weeks before the Zionists occupied Jrash and expelled us from it, we had managed to sneak out a truck-full of wheat sacks to Al-Khader. It was these wheat sacks that saved us and refugees from other villagers from starving to death in these caves while the Zionists were plundering our homes, stealing our property and destroying our fields. In summer we moved out of the caves and lived under the grapevines and olive trees. We gathered the grapevine stems and made a sort of shed, beneath which we sat and slept. We were in a humiliating state, a state we will never forget, nor ever forgive those who caused it and those who stood watching as we were expelled from our villages. After one year in Jouret Ish-Sham’a, we moved to the area where Dheisheh refugee camp stands today. The UN gave us tents and started distributing food rations: everyone received 9 kilos of flour for a whole month. If you finish the 9 kilo before the month was over, it was your problem. When it was windy and rainy, the tents would fly away and we would end up sitting on the ground under the rain. Then the UNRWA built rooms for us, one room for each family. We were 11 people and lived in a 2,5 m x 2,5m room. We used to sit near each other like matches in a box. It was long before we were able to build a small kitchen and a second room. And in 1967, when the Zionists occupied the refugee camp, the first thing they did was to beat some of the camp residents almost to death as a warning to the rest of us. Some packed and left to Jordan out of fear of what the Zionists might do to their families. We had decided that when we pack and move, it would be only to return to Jrash.

When she finished telling her story, my great aunt was quiet for a few minutes. Everyone in the room was quiet as well. I felt I wanted to cry, to shout out, but I had no voice, the words stuck in my throat. “We were expelled from Jrash one by one. Your great grandfather held to the house and kissed the stones of the house stone for stone, he cried and said he will never leave. We had to drag him away from the house lest he gets killed by one of the Zionists who were shooting at us. Today, nothing is left of Jrash, the beautiful houses have disappeared. I don’t even know what happened to the stones with which we built the houses, they were beautiful dark stones. They destroyed the trees and the fields. And as we roamed the hills and the valleys we met many other refugees who were expelled from the other villages in the area. Later, the Zionists blow up all the houses and Khirab of Jrash, destroyed the fields and the water wells, destroyed everything that stood as witness to what once was.” When I showed her a picture of some hilltops, she shouted: “This is Jrash! This is Nyata! This is Thahr Jrash!” It was a recent picture of Jrash, of what had remained, but she recognized it immediately. She even recognized the scattered stones visible in the picture and named the owners of the houses that once stood there. “This picture breaks my heart” she said, with tears in her eyes “where did you get it ya Sitti?” I told her I found it in the internet. I didn’t know what to think, was it wrong showing her the picture? She was happy as a child, naming every hill, every valley, every Khirbeh visible again and again, looking at everyone in the room, her nephews and nieces, her grandchildren and repeating the names over and over. At the same time, her voice was shivering and her eyes were teary. “If I was there, I would kiss these stones, stone for stone, and put them in my heart. This was a paradise, so green, so colourful and so alive. Look at it now, a few trees scattered here and there, the fields are dead, the land is dry….. They have killed the land.”

The Zionists claim we never existed. They claim they turned the desert into paradise. They claim we left on our own free will. What person leaves paradise freely to become a refugee? What person leaves his home and lands freely to live in a tent? What person leaves his fields and cattle freely to stand in a line waiting for a meagre food ration? They come from everyway and steal our land and deprive us from our homes. We went through hell when we were expelled, and while we roamed the hills and valley, hungry, thirsty and freezing and being hunted down by Zionists terrorists, the world was celebrating the “birth” of a terrorist entity. Today, 62 years later, we are still refugees, we still suffer and the world still celebrates the terrorist entity. We were 300 people when the Zionists expelled us from Jrash. Today there are thousands of us, scattered all over the world, but the majority is in Palestine. We still keep the keys and we teach our children and grandchildren about their homes, their lands and that it is their right, their duty to return to these homes and these lands. We carry Jrash in our minds and in our hearts. When the Zionists destroyed Jrash, demolished all its houses and its fields, they wanted to erase it, wanted to erase us, but we are still here, and we still carry Jrash with us wherever we go, for we are the Jrashis and even the Zionists who wanted to erase Jrash are forced to write the name Jrashi in our IDs.

The more they keep us away from our homes, the more attached we become to these homes and the nearer is our return. They think that when they destroy every home, uproot every tree, burn every field and completely deface our villages that they will be forgotten, that we will forget the homes, the trees, the fields and the springs. They think that when they expel us and turn our homes into rabble that we will forget every stone, every street and every alley. They think that when they delete the name Jrash from their records that we will forget our songs, our dances and our traditions and our celebrations. They think that when they erase Jrash from their maps that it will not exist anymore, that it will be gone, lost forever. But Jrash is there and will always be there. And despite whatever “new name” they give our Jrash it will always be Jrash; ancient, picturesque, Palestinian and ours. And it will always be our small village, our beautiful village, our paradise on earth. And Jrash, defying the destruction, obliteration and oblivion, awaits the return of her children, awaits their return to their homes, awaits their embrace them and to hold them again to her bosom, awaits for them to heal the land. And when they return, the flowers will blossom again, the birds will sing again, the trees with dance with the wind again and land will awaken and flourish again for its people have come back. Jrash will open her arms and welcome us back, will embrace us as we rebuild our homes, as we replant the olives, the carobs, the apples and the figs, as we work the land and heal her wounds. And Jrash will be alive again, reigning over the hilltops of Palestine, touching the sky, reaching out to the Mediterranean, kissing Jerusalem, Ir-Ramleh, Yafa, Haifa, Bethlehem and Jenin and embracing Palestine from the River to the Sea.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian

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