“You know from the stories, families from Beit Jibrin village would travel to Haifa or Jaffa for holidays…” he reminisced looking out of the window at the Levantine landscape cut into pieces, “I drove down this road with my father in ’89.”
“During the Intifada, sah?”
“Sah. But also before the Intifada… in the 70s and 80s, our family visited Beit Jibrin at least twice a year. I remember there was a pear tree across from the kibbutz. My job was to climb to the top of the tree and pick the pears, oh the tastiest pears…”
Driving southwest of al-Quds, we took an exit off Route 38, and entered the lands of Beit Jibrin, now an Israeli national park called “Beit Guvrin-Maresha”. Our surroundings became surreal, coupled by Mahmoud’s narration that took us back in time.
“My grandfather was the sheikh of Beit Jibrin. He died shortly after al-Nakba. He was the biggest landowner in the village”. I remembered once hearing stories of the sheikh over coffee with Mahmoud’s cousin, Yusra. She told me that their grandfather was an important leader, and when the family was displaced, he worked with representatives from UNWRA to establish services for refugees in the camp.
The national park was vacant: not a single hiker nor soldier to distract us. We passed the kibbutz, turned onto a small dirt road, and found a grassy area to leave the car. We then stumbled up a rocky hill, circumvented by a path lined by carob trees, thorny shrubs, and clusters of dried sage. The path led to an empty mansion positioned amidst green pastures, silently watching us. Mahmoud walked ahead, approaching its broad body, head bowed. The voice of Yusra whispered, our family owns one-quarter of Beit Jibrin because of our grandfather, the sheikh. His house is still standing, it is massive, with many steps. I followed Mahmoud into the mansion, roaming through its rooms, broken yet intact.
“I remember we once brought my great-aunt here, to see the house. Once inside, she stood here…” Mahmoud moved dust away from the floor with his foot, where I stood motionless. “She did this, across the tiles. When she saw colors beneath the dust she had a heart attack”.
We entered the former salon of the mansion, and Mahmoud reached down to grab a stone - a piece of the house. He paused, and began carving the wall; he inscribed the word “Return”, as a signature. We moved to the balcony, where Mahmoud took photographs of the vast landscape outstretched before us. Pointing to blocks of yellow, brown, and emerald land, he continued,
“There was a kind of competition between my grandfather, and Mohammed Nasser. My grandfather managed, before al-Nakba, to buy this piece of land from Mohammed Nasser. It was the most fertile land in Beit Jibrin, for harvesting vegetables, we call it ‘Imm el- hayat’. After al-Nakba, and after my father asked for my mother’s hand in marriage, they put a term in the contract. Part of the dowry included registering 50 dunums of this land for each member of the family. So, my mother, my aunt Suhaila, my cousin Yusra, each own 50 dunums here…”
Leaving the mansion behind, we hiked down the curving, unkept paths of the village. Snippets of memory were woven into the landscape as we roamed. The voice of Yusra floated beside me, when I was a child, Baba took us every Friday to Beit Jibrin. And Beit Jibrin is so green… so green I could not close my eyes. It is so beautiful, wallah, and so big. We passed another empty house also belonging to the family. Through its windows I saw a crooked tree bursting through the floor of the living room. Mahmoud added,
“A lot of these newer houses were built after the revolution, between 1936-1939.” On the path, a thorny bush grabbed my long, red skirt in numerous places, pulling me back. Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. I thought to myself, who violently emptied these houses? Armed Jewish men trained by the British, men related to me? Look at these open fields, the trees longing to be trimmed, and the houses, waiting for their loved ones to return, wash away the dust, and set tables for dinner. Why are these families cramped in camps 30 kilometers away? Is return merely physical? What is my role in this absurd reality?
Continuing together down the steep path, I inquired,
“How many extended families lived in Beit Jibrin?” There were seven, and Mahmoud named all of them, names I cannot remember. We re-traced our steps through the hills, and he went on,
“You know, my grandfather owned over 5,300 dunums in Beit Jibrin and surrounding areas, alone. And he tried to force a widow to marry him… this woman owned 38 dunums, so he could buy her 38 dunums. First, she refused, then after al-Nakba, she agreed to sell the land. As such, there was no need to marry him. There were many informal contracts like this between people after al-Nakba, not officially registering the land. I still have the papers of the contract. And the papers from the Ottoman and from the British. It was unusual to buy a land occupied. My grandfather was thought crazy, but he believed that he will return.”
We found ourselves in the car once again, our hair full of heat, our mouths dry. Rolling the windows open, we slowly drove out of the National Park. I watched the fields blend together under the sun, and heard Yusra’s voice again: according to my mother, there was another Beit Jibrin underground, the capital of all surrounding villages it was called, or the Jerusalem of villages. There was a souq under there, and there are caves…
I sit today on a balcony in Palestine, with a steaming cup of Arabic coffee, writing this story. It is raining. I pause to look up the history of “Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park” on Israeli websites, and I am handed porous descriptions of “a settlement during Roman and Byzantine times… on the ruins of the settlement, a small town was built here during the Crusader period” full stop. The Palestinian village of Beit Jibrin, the generous sheikh, competitive Mohammed Nasser, the stubborn widow, the seven extended families, pensive Mahmoud, his fainting great-aunt, Yusra, and her vibrant memories… all of them are conveniently erased.
Then my thoughts travel back in time. My parents fled the Soviet Union in 1983 as political refugees, in a train whose windows were shut by wooden planks. My mother held a screeching, curly-haired baby, and several suitcases. They escaped through an underground Jewish assistance agency, funded by an organization based in Queens, New York, and other agencies like the National Council of Jewish Women that have intimate partnerships with Israel. Before immigrating to Brooklyn, where my mother ironed white, collared shirts for Hassidic men as my father re-took his exams for medical school, they had the choice to move to Israel. I grapple with the fact that my existence rests upon the State of Israel’s funding, and look where I am today. Wherever I go, I always feel as though I am an ajnabiyya, a foreigner, unlike Mahmoud. I’ve never been to Russia.
I recall what Mahmoud told me: “This isn’t my story, it is Beit Jibrin’s story, and you are the writer.” When I record personal stories an endless journey of contradictions begins to unfold. Perhaps I carry a story of persecution in me. This is to say, I have space in me that can expand for more stories of displacement, and ruminations on return to be kept, listened to, and re-told.