The Land Day memorial in Sakhnin. (Photo: ifpbphotos)
The headline in Haaretz announced: “Police gearing up for possible Land Day trouble.” I called my village body and asked him what to make of that. Toufiq agreed that it foreboded ill. Thirty-five years have taught us all how to avoid violent confrontations between large numbers of Palestinian youth and armed Israeli policemen.
“The ball is in their court: If they want to stir up trouble they will show up in force at the licensed demonstration site; If they keep their distance our youth will shout out their anger at the imaginary enemies and go home peacefully,” Toufiq explained the obvious.
“It says in Haaretz that ‘the security forces are not ruling out the possibility of unrest given the recent events that have engulfed the Middle East in recent weeks.’”
“That shows how feeble-minded their big shots are. We don’t have the critical mass, the sheer numbers that are needed for the Tahreer Square phenomenon. And we can’t speak for the country as a whole. We are still struggling for the right to have rights in Israel beyond the gilded right to vote. After all that is what Land Day was all about: the right to say ‘no’ to the dictates of the Zionists. And it has gone from bad to worse. Just yesterday the Knesset passed two more racist laws specifically to disadvantage us. But we need to keep shouting. Perhaps the world will hear us one day even if Netanyahu and Lieberman remain deaf.”
“Some of us are hearing them clearly though. You heard about the dispute in the Bedouin village where the mayor chose to take all his employees on an all-expenses paid picnic on Land Day instead of striking.”
“Well, he is ahead of his time. Remembering the Nakba is now banned. Land Day is next.”
“See you at the demonstration tomorrow.”
You don’t maintain your dignity in Arrabeh and keep away from Land Day events. Arrabeh, together with neighboring Sakhnin and Dier Hanna, was at the heart of the mini-Intifada in 1976 that established the landmark memorial now observed throughout the Palestinian community the world over. So, three days ago, Toufiq and I attended a youth function in honor of Land Day at our newly-constructed Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center. A shy and aspiring artist, one of my many nieces, waxed very effusive in conducting a tour for us of the many Land Day paintings by local artists on display at the center. By the time the evening started, the five-hundred seat auditorium was full. The Communist Youth Club in charge of the event added an extra row of plastic chairs up front for us, for the mayor and his wife who also arrived appropriately late, for Abed Abidy, the famed Palestinian Artist who designed the Land Day memorial in Sakhnin, and for few other Arrabeh elders.
No singing of national anthems, no recitation of the Koran, and no flags on display; this was a strictly local and secular function. The mayor was invited to the podium and spoke. He sang the praises of so many men and women who made history in 1976, bragged about his administration’s achievements, chief among which was the newly appointed committee for street names, (Arrabeh is 22 thousand and addresses are still designated by clan areas), and finally complained of the continuing government neglect and the authorities’ continuing designs on our remaining village land. To this day, he explained, ‘they’ refuse to implement a combined winter drainage and summer irrigation scheme for our fertile Battouf Valley, the only agricultural land of its size in all of Israel that continues to lack irrigation. And what excuse ‘they’ give? ‘They’ want to guarantee the survival of a rare insect that lives only in the Battouf Valley, he reported. “They give priority to insects over us!” the mayor explained at the end of his speech to the tumultuous clapping of the large audience. I wasn’t sure if they clapped that hard in admiration or out of impatience.
Next came the star of the evening, the home-grown crooner Amal Morqus, a beautiful young woman from another Galilee village with big black doe eyes who couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything other than Arab and with a voice quality that matched the best of them in the whole Arab world. In midlife, she had put on a little weight, just enough for the perfect belly dance sexiness were she to dare and wiggle her god’s gifts a little. But no, she is a proper honorable Arab diva and she conducts herself with the proper aplomb. She sang a selection of songs of longing and hope from her various albums. The one song that really brought the house down with the entire audience clapping rhythmically and singing along was a catchy local tune with appropriately adapted words about the loss of land: “Pour out your copious tears, oh my eyes, for they have taken my land by oppression and rape,” the refrain went. At the end of the evening a hoard of teenagers stormed the stage for a closer look at Amal and perhaps a touch of her hand. I walked up and got a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I had been to her house a while back to pick up some of her albums for my grandchildren in NY and California.
I asked Amal to give my kind regards to her aging father. Briefly, in the early 1950s he was my Arabic language teacher before he was fired because of his communist leanings. He was small of build but had a very firm earth-molded farmer hand that left one’s cheek smarting for hours on the occasion that he punished one for some grammatical mistake. His name is Nimr, Arabic for ‘Tiger.’ We called him ‘Little Tiger’ in contradistinction to ‘Big Tiger,’ our other teacher by the same name who was large of build, darker of skin, and an internally displaced Palestinian or ‘present absentee.’ Big Tiger went on to become a school principle, on the strength, it is rumored, of having persuaded several relatives of his to sign away their right to their land in their former village, now a thriving Jewish-only community. He even was reputed to carry a handgun; he was that close to the authorities. Little Tiger, Amal’s father, made a living as a day laborer in Haifa and become a full-blooded communist, rising in the party’s hierarchy as his means of survival dwindled. To this day, every time I meet Little Tiger, a mysterious twitching develops in my left cheek, a sign of fondness I presume.
Yesterday, just before sunset, I heard the sound of a loudspeaker from a pickup truck. I stepped out to my garden to make out what kind of announcement: Was it a wedding invitation, the call for another religious lecture in one of our seven mosques, or just another door-to-door salesman? It was none other than Zahi, another communist, reminding all of their duty to turn out in mass today for the memorial march of Land Day. Zahi – Arabic for ‘the one who shines brightly’ – has a distinctive booming voice that I would recognize anywhere. It runs in the family. I knew his late father and his late grandmother before him and they all seemed to have boom boxes for larynx.
And successfully wrestling with boulders also ran in the family. Zahi had worked for years at a stone cutting shop in the village while his late father was the strongest compressor operator who would be called on by contractors when they encountered an especially solid layer of quarts. The grandmother, known in her time by her nickname of Dallua’a – the spoiled widow –was a legend in her own time. She lost her husband at an early age and raised her three young boys by the sweat of her brow, single-handedly clearing a good stretch of mountainside land of rocks, spurning many suitor and eking a living for herself and her three orphans against all odds. The three grew to be among the earliest communists in the village even before Israel’s rejection of communism made it the fashionable thing for Israel’s Arab citizens to stream to it in their droves. When the state contested her ownership of her land Dallua’a turned to Hanna Naqqara who found in her an admirable subject for his defense of Palestinian land. He was a city dweller, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, and a licensed lawyer when lawyers were so rare that ‘they could be found only in brides’ trousseaus,’ as we say locally. Still, when he would stay overnight in Arrabeh he would insist on spending the night at Dallua’a’s hovel and no one in our conservative community of the time would blink an eye about it; she was that independent a soul. In court, with Naqqara’s coaching, she put on a veritable show for the Israeli judge: She brought the prickly pears from the cactus she grew on her cleared land to prove how delicious, how healthy, and how natural the process of growing and eating it was: No need for any ploughing, for any watering or for any tending whatsoever. And you could collect and peal the fruit with your bare hands. That is why all those agricultural experts had testified to the court that her land had laid fellow for three years and hence should revert to the state. She even challenged the judge to come and see for himself if he could make any of the boulders she had pushed to the perimeter of her land budge at all, or alternatively if he were interested in wrestling with her as her way of proving how healthy the fruit was for you.
Commitment to land and Land Day runs in the family as well: in 1976 on ‘the mother of all land Days’ itself, women in Dallua’a’s neighborhood were rumored to have trapped an Israeli tank in a narrow alley and forced its commander to negotiate a withdrawal under a hail of stones. On the eves of the following Land Day memorial marches Abu-Zahi, her son, would be routinely arrested and fined and warned to behave to no avail. And to this day, no Land Day march is complete without the shrill voice of Zahi on the mobile loud speaker urging all to show their “commitment to Galilee, to Palestine, to the blood of our martyrs.”
By 13:00 hours a near thousand youth and striking men and women in Arrabeh marched to lay wreathes of wild spring flowers on the grave of Kheir Yasin, the first of the six unarmed youth who were killed 35 years ago in the mass protest against the confiscation of Palestinian land in Israel. A liberal Jewish friend showed up and gave me a sympathetic hug in full view of the military blimp that appears regularly on our southern horizon every Land Day. I suddenly remembered the many meetings I had attended in my days in the Ministry of Health for no other reason than to be counted as the token Arab participant. I insisted on giving my friend a second extended hug facing south. He had lost a son in a bus explosion and I felt the deeper significance of his solidarity. “Take our picture together!” I wanted to shout at the blimp. We marched to the Western entrance of Arrabeh to meet the gathering thousands from the rest of the country, mostly Arabs but with a few busloads of Jewish leftists. The three speakers at the farmers market where the official event took place this year were mercifully brief and said all the expected blather. Only one theme surfaced that was new: the repeated call for unity. Perhaps the police were right to be on the alert. But they saved themselves the trouble of showing up in force and the entire event ended peacefully enough.
Hatim Kanaaneh is the author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel.