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Reading Douglas Adams in Yanoun

By Israel Shamir


[Many lines in this essay were taken from Douglas Adams’ books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.]


Given a choice, I would rather turn into a tree than into a god; into a fig tree in Yanoun, a tiny village on the eastern slopes of Samarian hills. It was the only place on earth where such a thought could come to my mind one perfectly peaceful August afternoon, when a light breeze found its way into the valley. I sat under a tree, for the August sun is hot and as furious as tropical rain, and you have to take shelter – in the shade of a fig tree. I had nowhere to hurry to, nothing had to be done. This was a place of peace and tranquillity, suitable for a Buddha – or for a tree.

The terraced valley opens into another big valley with a flat opening at its bottom, and that dry river feeds the even bigger Wadi Akraba carrying rare rain water to Jordan River . While Tel Aviv is hot, humid, sticky, noisy and boisterous, calm Yanoun enjoys the cool air of the mountains. Terrain makes us what we are. Walk in the thick groves along Jordan River , and discover the night-prowling tiger in your soul. Emerge in the open valley and sense the peaceful soul of sheep. The Yanoun mountains are for tree-like contemplation, for growing into the hillside and gazing. “When you can’t take being a god any more”, mused Douglas Adams, whose book I had for a companion, – “you lay on the ground and after a while a tree grows out of your head. You rejoin the earth, seep into its bowels, flow through its vital arteries, and eventually emerge as a pure torrent of water”.

Probably Douglas Adams knew of our country, otherwise how could he feel its ways so well? A small spring bubbles up a few yards below, in a covered cave, and provides the few households of the tiny village with sweet and cool water. Maybe it was a god, or a prophet. A young girl rocks a goatskin full of curdling milk tied up by a string to a bow of a fig tree. Her mother and grandmother sit next to her in the shadow, gazing into the far valleys. Below, a flock of sheep grazes on the opening, and the kids of Yanoun play football with Tarek, a young American volunteer.

Further down, there is a manor built in the 19th century by Mustafa Beg, a Bosnian nobleman, who fled the Balkans and reached the shores of Palestine . The Bosnians settled in two villages, in Caesarea Maritima, on the dune-covered ruins of the ancient capital of Palestine , and in Yanoun, in the deep hinterland of the country. It was the impeccable choice of a gifted people. In Caesarea , they built a gentle mosque on the seashore, which was turned into a bar by the Israeli conquerors in 1948. In Yanoun, they built the manor. Its red roof tiles remind one of the builders’ European origin, for in warm Palestine there is no need for tiled roofs. The rooms are still full of old furniture. Mustafa Beg (a title of respect) was a prominent and wealthy man of his day, and he recognized an opportunity when it came his way. The Ottoman Empire made a go of privatization of the common lands, and the land of the villages was up for grabs to whoever had money or good connections in Istanbul . Mustafa Beg had his opportunity when Ottoman tax officials came to collect their dues, and the people of neighbouring Akraba did what they and their ancestors had always done in such occasions: they made themselves scarce.

They took their light belongings and went up into mountains, hoping that the tax collectors will go away as quickly as they had come. But the new ideas of economic liberalism were already infiltrating from Europe , among them the idea of privatisation.

The collectors offered Mustafa the prospect of paying the due taxes in exchange for the lands of Akraba, and he agreed. In return, the lands – hundreds and thousands of acres with olive trees – were registered on his name. The peasants came back, and Mustafa had to give back much of the land, but he still kept enough to make it a very, very profitable deal. Until now many peasants of Yanoun give half of their olive harvest to the descendents of Mustafa Beg living in Nablus . Others share their crops with the next largest land-owner, Nimr. But there are free farmers, too. I stayed at Hassan’s hospitable house, built on his own land. Hassan is over eighty, a strong and stately old man in grey galabiye and abaya, a sort of full-length dress with a mantle on top. His galabiye is girdled up by a broad leather belt, and a sharp short knife hangs on it. His hands are of good shape and feel as hard as if they were chiselled from local stone when he shakes my hand. Last year Hajj Hassan made the pilgrimage to Mecca , but he is first and foremost a peasant.

He was born some 50 miles away as crow flies, in Beit Jibrin at the foothills of Halil, once a prosperous vine-growing community, spread around the gentle hills of Biblical Shefela. In 1948, the Jews attacked it and expelled the peasants, seized their spacious homes and fields, and created a commune for-Jews-only, – a kibbutz. The extant houses of Beit Jibrin still impress the visitor with their gracious forms, perfect location (good feng shui, the Chinese would say) and integration with fruit trees and vines.

Hassan became a refugee like all the peasants of Beit Jibrin, like peasants of hundreds of villages from Galilee and Shefela and Negeb. That was the Nakba, the Palestinian holocaust, when this great culture with its deep 147 traditions was shattered. The refugees were herded into refugee camps, dreaming of returning home. Hassan had landed in Deheishe Camp, some 20 km from his lost home in Beit Jibrin. On a clear day, he could even see the roofs of Beit Jibrin. His friends tried to steal across the new border and return home, but they were invariably shot by Jews. Hassan was a young man, ready to start all over again: he went to far-away Yanoun and bought a parcel of land from the family of Mustafa Beg the Boshnaq. Our Lord and Lady of Palestine blessed Hassan. He married, and had a few sons and daughters, and then he took a second wife, and had had some more, until he was surrounded by twelve strong sons and pretty daughters. His spacious three-storied house with smaller outbuildings can compete with the manor of the Beg. There are many olive trees he planted on the slopes, and there is a vine with heavy yellow grapes in front of his house. A few yards up the slope I found the clear-cut rectangular of an old vine press, with perfectly round cavity for the grape juice. Until the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in ninth century, the bare feet of local peasants squashed yellow sweetish grapes in this place. Now this land is not considered suitable for wine cultivation, as opposed to the lands to the south of Jerusalem , but who knows? The green thumb of Hassan can work wonders!

The local peasants plant olives, and this morning the second wife of Hassan, a tall and dignified woman in her sixties, brought me this thick greenish juice of olive together with a big and round country bread, hubz baladi, she had baked half an hour ago. Hard white goat cheese, salty thyme, a bunch of grapes and a glass of sweetish tea with maramie (sage) leaves completed the meal.

The voice of Adnan, a son of Hassan, broke my meditation. Adnan, an electric engineer, is employed by the local authorities to make regular rounds and check the electric installations. He also attends to the generator that provides the village with four hours of power from seven to eleven at night. Like many other villages in the mountains, Yanoun is not connected to the grid. Adnan is dressed like a city man, in a bright silk shirt and neat lacquered shoes. A Nablus university graduate, he married a girl from Nablus , and brought her here into the village.

In the evenings we chatted: Adnan, his city wife and me. Life was better in the village, they told me, but oh boy do they miss an odd evening out in the city. It was an impossible wish. In normal days Nablus is just half an hour away, but now it takes a whole day to get anywhere from Yanoun. The direct road Akraba – Nablus is cut off by the Jews who do not permit Palestinian cars to use it. Instead, Adnan and his wife have to drive a rough dirt track climbing mountains and crossing valleys, to wait for hours at checkpoints, to suffer the rudeness and obstinacy of the road-block soldiers, to walk for miles from one block to another, or to drive even rougher roads in their own thirty-years- old VW Beetle. It was faster in the days of Mustafa Beg, riding a donkey; but nowadays the hills around Yanoun are full of watchful eyes and gun barrels.

“Do not sit under this tree,” called out Adnan. “They do not like it.” A full moon had risen on the still blue sky just above the hill on the other side of the valley. The moon was speared by a narrow watchtower, and perennially lit fog-lamps surrounded it, reflecting on the razor wire. That looked like a small penitentiary, but its dwellers were jailers as well as prisoners. ‘They’ were a gang of Jewish settlers, who came to redeem the land of Israel . Instead of buying the land, as Hassan did, they grabbed it. The peasants of Yanoun would not worry about the land grab overmuch, for the land was not theirs either. But the settlers were like a tensely wound coil, ready to unwind. Though their small enclosure was on top of the opposite hill across the wadi, they did not allow the peasants to move on the slopes as far as the settlers’ guns could reach.

A violent lot, full of fear and loathing, they acted out Wild West fantasies. If I took a walk, they turned a Walk into a military operation with Biblical name, say, the Walk of Jehu (Kings II, 10) duly coordinated with the Central Command. They considered everybody else – a source of danger. They imprisoned themselves on the hilltop, and tried to imprison the peasants as well. Adnan, this urbane engineer, carried their bullet buried in his hip. The settlers had tried to steal the village flock of sheep, and he stopped them, though he was with a small kid, while they were five armed men. Still, he fought them bare-handed until they shot him, and in the ensuing commotion the kid drove their flock back to the village.

Israelis do not mind our denunciation of settlers. Nice old peace-loving Uri Avnery likes to offer us an alternative: the bad settler versus the good Israeli, and people always in desperate search for a good Jew grasp this cash. But actually, who cares? A ‘bad settler’ is the one who bothers Hassan in Yanoun, while a ‘good Israeli’ is the one who expelled Hassan from Beit Jibrin in 1948. A bad settler would be lost in two days without armed support of good Israelis, while this support wouldn’t last without moral support of even better Jews abroad.

Indeed, Israelis aren’t better than the settlers. They are of two kinds. Some are typical Vogons, thoroughly vile and ugly. For those of you who do not remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Vogons were “one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy, not actually evil, but bad-tempered, officious and callous” who love to destroy, to shove people around and shout “resistance is useless”. In the book, they demolish the Earth; in real life they demolish pretty villages and beautiful trees without as much as saying “by your leave”. They even use the same pretext as Adams ’ Vogons: they were preparing ground for a bypass connecting two Jewish settlements over the natives’ land.

Only after encountering the second kind of Israelis, does one begin to appreciate the Vogons, who look the part and act the part. The second kind looks deceptively human. They wear a friendly open smile, a blond forelock, suntan, nonchalance; and they like to show off their tortured souls and demand empathy from their victims. They are perfectly able to demolish a pretty village and uproot a fruitful tree while insisting (in words of Adams ):

“You are not dealing with any dumb two-bit triggerpumping morons with low hairlines, little piggy eyes and no conversation; we are a couple of intelligent caring guys that you’d probably quite like if you met us socially! I don’t go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterward in seedy bars. I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonise about it afterward for hours to my girlfriend!”

Both kinds are foreign to the land they were born, but they are about to inherit it by ruining the native. Incidentally, they ruin the land, as well. Our planet Earth was created to find the meaning of life, says Adams , and this was the mission of Man he was about to fulfil. But something went wrong, as it often does, and the natives of Earth, bearers of the mission, were exterminated by foreign invaders: stupid and useless PR consultants, real estate agents, wheelers-dealers and TV-assistants, who were kicked out of their planet for they were too stupid and useless. So much for the mission. Years will go by, but the meaning of life won’t be found, to the utter delight of psychoanalysts.

A similar thing happened in Palestine . This country was uniquely crafted to help Man to find his way to God. Every detail of its landscape may lead to illumination. Its people, the native Palestinians, are essential because of their tending of the land and their love of it, their piety and tradition, their wonderful open hearts, shining eyes and hospitality. But something went wrong, and a lot of useless real estate agents and currency speculators were dumped on its holy ground. Will we find our way to God now, with this land being devoured?

They ruin the land so much that even turning into a spring is not an option anymore. Emerge as a pure torrent of water, and as likely as not you will get a load of chemical waste dumped into you.

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