Today, we are in al-Khalil (Hebron). The weather is simply stunning–clear sky, a determined wind, and cool weather which takes your breath away so light is its touch.
And nothing else is as beautiful as the climate here–well, perhaps the landscape which welcomed us with its renegade wind as we drove into the city from Ramallah, through yet another checkpoint (show your passport three times!), down Bethlehem. Everything else here may be brutal and often ugly, but these two things are eternal. The climate, and the landscape.
Al-Khalil University is a large complex atop a hill where I teach a class in writing. I can do pretty much whatever I want, so I have chosen to make the dozen students I have for an hour write. I explain–it’s always about narrative. They write, slowly at first, then with more determination. I ask for a paragraph only, but as my students in al-Najah University earlier in the week, I am struck by how learning matters and matters deeply for these students. Then, we read each other’s work, comment, make suggestions, and recommendations for developing the first paragraph into a fully fleshed out essay. Some will continue, no doubt, with the work, but as I leave them in their classroom, I am seized by a deep desire to stay on, to work with them some more. An hour is nothing, really, and they know it and I know it too. My U.S. students have weeks and weeks of instruction and editorial conferences as they give shape to their ideas. They have luxuries which the al-Khalil students could not even dream of. This is always the remorse of the one who leaves too soon, who knows she should stay on but who has to go. But here, in al-Khalil University my remorse pales in comparison to their needs, to their visions, to their sense that something has gone horribly wrong in their life.
And something has, for sure. After a vigorous walk to the Old City to get to the Ibrahimi Mosque, reality shows itself in a turnstile we cannot go through. A young Israeli soldier from an elevated position behind barbed wires tells us that only Jews can be allowed into the Ibrahimi mosque today. As M. tries to negotiate our passage, we see the Jewish settlers coming out of the mosque fully protected by the armed soldiers. It is to no avail; we cannot visit the mosque today. Instead, we make our way to the headquarters of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee where we are met by Walid Abul-Halawa.
What we hear from this gentle, courageous and intelligent man is sheer heartache. It is all on the website of the Comittee: hebronrc.org. Walid does not mince his words, chooses them carefully, interjects humor in accounts of the confrontations between the 400 or so settlers and the local villagers. He tells us, for instance, of the arrest of the donkey. Apparently, when the Palestinians could not bring building materials through a narrow street, they decided to use the services of a strong donkeys and horses, who were arrested and handcuffed as soon as they arrived on the scene! But his humor cannot mitigate the sense of outrage that his account arouses: the Usama School closure, the demolition of centuries-old buildings to widen the streets so that the cars of the settlers can pass through, to closing off the main thoroughfare of Shuhada Street to Palestinians, to throwing human waste and trash on the Palestinian streets.
Al-Khalil is the extreme point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because the settlers live among the local population. Walid is clear in the distinction he makes between Jews who came to al-Khalil from Spain during the Ottoman period, and these newcomers. His battle is with the latter, of course, whose only job in the world, he says, is to make life impossible for the Palestinians.
In no other place in the West Bank does this situation exist; most settlements are on elevated positions, separated from the local population. But in al-Khalil, things are very ugly. And yet the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee doggedly rebuilds the homes from which Palestinians have been driven out, rehabilitates them, makes them live again, makes them an integral part of the landscape of Palestine. And because the work of the Committee speaks for itself, Walid speaks calmly, and generously, and from a sense of vision which, in the end, is more practical than all the rhetoric of the politicians and pundits.
We’re on our way back to Jerusalem for the final evening of Palestine Festival of Literature, in East Jerusalem.