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Monday, 3 August 2009

Searching for rural bliss in Palestine........

July 18, 2009 by jordanpilgrim

…. which would be a rather hopeless search if by bliss you mean that idle idyll which we townies sometimes yearn for till the hard economic facts of country life dispel the dream. And you do not have much harsher economic facts in farming than in Palestine, with its walls and barriers and water controls. But what I was looking for was hope in the land itself: that it could for the future provide a worthwhile living for its people, sustaining them both materially and in their struggle to keep the spirit of their nation alive.

So I started in a city – Nablus

I’d been a few times before and sometimes wondered how to encourage the citizens to grow more of their own food. Now I am seeing gardens everywhere, in nooks, in corners, in the courtyards of the grand old houses with their carefully designed doorways and arched passages and shaded cool spaces. I’m wondering what the women would have wanted to see by way of planting as they contemplate the scene from their upper-floor windows.

I go back to the city later in the week and discover a youth club where they are crying out for someone to teach gardening. Social and Therapeutic Horticulture better still. But there is only one of me, I plead, making my escape; and I don’t think you can afford to pay me. Then they told me about Ali in Jenin, who has against all the odds set up a gardening business: with the special angle that it is all about roof gardens. I’m tempted to tear up my schedule and go to track him down. But the youth club has a set of students doing media studies: maybe one of them could do it, as an assignment, a story to trace and an article to write.

Half an acre of hope

Wild pigs are a headache for Murad – more than a nuisance, a pest he must defend against with stout fencing and thorny branches. The night before I arrive they breached his defences and rampaged across his land, destroying his experiment of growing three layers of crops from the same patch of ground: tall maize, mid-height beans, and melons, squashes or cucumbers along the ground. The pigs neatly picked the almonds off the tree. Shoot them ? Not allowed guns. Round them up and herd them into a truck and sell them for meat ? But who eats pork around here ? “An enemy hath done this”, as it says in the Bible. It’s not hard to share his suspicions.

From Murad’s brother’s house where I am staying, at the southern edge of the village, it’s but a stone’s throw to a row of red-roofed, detached and quite swanky houses: Ariel, one of the largest of the illegal settlements. If you look at a map of the West Bank you will see it as a dagger-shape salient well inside the “Green Line”, almost cutting in half the northern part of what was supposed to be the territory of a Palestinian state. Marda, the village of Murad and his extended family, nestles against a steep slope. The Ariel houses squat on the crest. Just a few hundred metres of rock, thorn and olive in between. But there is also a brash new road up to the settlement, and a chain-mesh and razor-wire fence, and street lights. These alien structures dominate Marda’s life – or would if the villagers let them. They turn their backs on the hill, go about their daily work as best they can, ignore the night-time sounds of partying.

Murad tells me that as a boy growing up here in the 1970s he and his brother used to go up the hill after school. It was their job to look after the family’s herd of goats. Beyond the hill crest there is another, and between the two a piece of fairly flat land where he and other boys from the village would play football while keeping an eye on their herds. In 1979 they began building the settlement, taking away the football field, the care-free after-school activity, the pastoral complement to village agriculture.

With his half acre Murad is practising permaculture, aiming to grow as much as possible for himself and his family and his neighbours; but always thinking long-term, trying to build up the fertility of the soil and its ability to hold water. He has left space for a cistern, to catch water from his polytunnel and from the neighbouring hillside and from village springs and from the training centre which he hopes to build. Every scrap of vegetable matter has a use, either for compost or strewn over the soil as a mulch. He has planted a wind-brake on the west side, on a bed raised between stones gathered off the land itself and a row of tyres: cactus and acacias and olives and citrus trees.

We come down to the site in the evening as it’s too hot to work during the day. In his polytunnel we plant cucumbers, to be joined soon by lettuces and onions. As it grows dark we walk back by another way. Donkeys pass us laden with straw, led by women up narrow paths behind a mosque to a quarter of old tower-shaped houses. Murad’s mother lives in one such house, along with daughters and son-in-law and a dozen of Murad’s nieces and nephews. We sit on a roof-top, enjoying the cool and the view and the chat of the day and the children at play.

My thoughts are running around like this: if we are to survive we have to feed ourselves from the one planet which we have; and that will not be possible unless we learn these permaculture ways of cherishing our soils and the water which feeds them. And if Palestine is to survive it has to re-connect its people with its lands, and the two or three generations which have been alienated from it will need the example of people like Murad, his expertise, his self-confidence (trained in America in the ethos and techniques of permaculture), his new knowledge added to old knowledge, above all his persistence and patience. With his family holding a respected place in the village any success from his methods will inspire his neighbours. If he did not exist we would have to invent him.

Next morning we start at 5 a.m. and finish work by 8.30 – a rhythm which makes perfect sense in these conditions. Breakfast ? Melon, naturally.

From Shepherds’ Fields to Tortoise Gardens

Beit Sahour, merging with Bethlehem but self-consciously distinct from it, has attracted pilgrims for centuries on the strength of its being the place where shepherds heard news of the birth of Christ in a nearby stable. It is a long, uphill walk to the crib.

I am walking down hill, to another permaculture project, this one peopled mainly by internationals. It is in a wadi overlooked by large new villas and it is called Bustan Qaraaqa (بستابو قراقع), Tortoise Gardens, after the many such beasts which emerge in spring. (They have the habit of hibernating during the cold months, and equally wisely disappearing into holes and crannies during these long hot dry spells.) I am noticing the way the wadi sides have been terraced, as is normal in these hills, and the ledges planted with olives. But also a series of crescent-shaped ridges in the bottom, not more than a metre high; and I see vines and shady apricot trees and a tube of sacking to shade a building at the head of the wadi.

This Bethlehem region, just south of Jerusalem, has lost its pastoral surroundings in recent years. It is ringed by illegal Israeli settlements and choked by walls and fences. Eighteen percent of its farm land was confiscated for the wall.

I do a series of working, walking and talking tours with my hosts. What I see is the fruit of not much more than a year of their occupying the site. The crescent-shaped ridges are “swales”, their purpose being to dam the rain-water which comes in downpours on just a few days in the year, relying not only on this moulding of the land but also on building up a succession of drought-hardy, deep-rooted vegetation on the banks of each “swale”; and all the litter from these trees and shrubs goes towards building up a richer soil which itself will hold more water. The building at the head of the wadi is a cistern placed so as to catch all the run-off from the road above; and the road itself catches most of the rain from the steep valley sides. The composting toilet runs on sawdust not water, and everything else that rots goes into compost bins. Every tree and shrub, it seems, has a plastic bottle guiding water to the roots. The terrace next to the house has lines of vegetables, sunflowers and shrubs held within gently-curving banks so none of the water we give them in the evening escapes.

The architects of this transformation are renting on a five-year lease, but doing everything as if they and their descendants will be here forever. They are a collective who live simply and as nearly without money as possible: guests pay a small contribution (about 15 dollars a night) towards the rent. They too work to a rhythm set by the demands of nature rather than 9 to 5. In the filtered light of a hessian awning Julian, with a little help from me and other volunteers, toils away in the afternoon improvising and adapting re-used materials to make a solar oven. (“It will never fly ! No, but it will bake cakes. Let’s just hope it does not look from the air too much like a rocket-launcher.)

Autumn and spring will be the busiest times. Much of the work will be to try and diversify what they see as a monoculture of olive and wheat: ploughing between the olives to sow the wheat makes a hard pan of soil crust just below the surface, not conducive to water conservation. They have a huge nursery of tree seedlings, grown from seeds collected from all over the world, aiming to re-populate the hills and valleys of Palestine with the natural vegetation known in ancient times but eliminated later. Some of this wealth they will use on their own land, planting up steep slopes where the terracing has collapsed; some they will sell; some they will donate to community groups or others, so long as they know the people concerned will look after the young trees.

They too, like Murad, aim to show by example. They do not have his advantage of being already part of the community. Their ways may be as alien to the local people as are those of the surrounding settlers. But they are continually refreshed by new people, new ideas coming from overseas. And unlike the settlers they are determined to be genuine neighbours – to share what they know and their faith that this knowledge is the way of the future.

Tent of nations

High above Bethlehem, some 600 feet above the Tortoise Gardens, is Dahar’s vineyard – named after the grandfather who bought the land in the early years of the twentieth century. It too is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. From time to time the settlers or the State, with infinite resources, require the family to prove that they own the land – and they have to go to whatever expense is required of them, as in such matters, with the courts subservient to settler interests, Palestinian landowners are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. They now also face the threat of a high-voltage power line. If this were in Britain it would be enough to provoke howls of protest: in such a landscape its intrusion would be ghastly. More sinister still is that if it goes through they will insist on 150 metres width along it as a security corridor – with the side effect of slicing through a swathe of Dahar’s vineyard.

To combat these threats Daoud, present-day head of the family, has instituted the Tent of Nations – a camp for people from all over the world to come and work together on the land. And not just to learn to work with each other but also to support Daoud in his efforts to involve young people from the locality. For despite the city’s proximity to the hills of the West Bank, children in the refugee camps around Bethlehem (there are three) and their parents have had no access to land since their grandfathers were driven off in 1948. So now Daoud and the people from Bustan Qaraaqa are getting together to swap seeds and seedlings, and organise joint events and above all to teach the new generations: what the land gives, how to care for it, how varied and wonderful the many species of plant life are.

We inspect caves where older members of the family used to live (cool in summer, warm in winter) and make a detour to the row of olives where one of the trees was “bought” by Ewa and me in 2004. We break off sprigs of the wild mountain thyme with its heady fragrance. Bees buzz. We admire the view westward across ridge after ridge to the coastal plain and the blue Mediterranean. Rural bliss, I’m thinking. But Daoud cuts in with a description of how the jets in the recent war came screaming above this very hillside, turning to go back and strafe Gaza. Again.
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