The Kindness of Strangers
Image © Jenny Kassman
‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice.
The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.
I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon.
Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.
The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.
It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.
This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.
The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd.
They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.
Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.
So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence.
What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study.
Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.
About Sarah Bower
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam
and the Historical Novels Review
(which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.
‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’
I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’