In its effort to save Al Aqaba, a small village in the Jordan Valley, from Israeli demolition orders, the California-based Rebuilding Alliance has been raising money to build eight houses in the village in defiance of Israeli plans. The first house was pledged to a young couple, whose wedding came off last month. The Rebuilding Alliance sent out a report by email. Here is an excerpt. –Ed.
Good Friday and Passover would be an unlikely time for a Christian or Jewish wedding, but exactly the right time to hold a wedding-turned-national-celebration in Al Aqaba, a tiny Muslim village in the Palestinian West Bank’s Jordan Valley, Area C. Passover meant that the Israeli Army’s training camp just down the street was silent as the soldiers went home to be with their families for their holidays.
Only two weeks before the major access roads on all sides of Al Aqaba Village were filled with tanks, bulldozers, and hundreds of young Israeli soldiers in training, as military jets seared the air. The sounds were terrifying, especially to the 140 children huddled together in Al Aqaba’s kindergarten. I feared the worst when the peace talks collapsed that week.
As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, “Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released. And so day went by, day two went by, day three went by and then in the afternoon when they were about to maybe get there, 700 [Israeli] settlement units were announced in Jerusalem. And poof! That was sort of the moment.”
The day before that ‘poof,’ I asked a group of soldiers to move their armored bulldozer away from the high school. Instead, more bulldozers arrived and armored personnel carriers too, but they did not enter the school or village. The Israeli Army held to the agreement brokered by Attorney Netta Amar at the Israeli High Court in 2002 when the Israeli Army promised “live-fire training will no longer take place within the perimeter of Al Aqaba village.” Though Al Aqaba stayed safe, on April 1st, as reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Israeli Army destroyed homes and animal shelters in nearby Tubas, Jiflik, Nablus and Salfeet, all in Area C, a wave of demolitions that displaced 60 people, including 31 children and undermined the livelihoods of 30 others.
As three days of wedding celebration began in Al Aqaba Village, the air was clear, the roads were peaceful again, the crops nearly ready for harvest, the village filled with sounds of birds, sheep, and wind. The bride is from nearby Kardeleh, also an Area C village in the northern part of the Jordan Valley, a town like Al Aqaba (and all Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in Area C) that also faces demolition orders. Area C is the 62% of the West Bank directly controlled by the Israeli Army. When the Israeli Army denied Al Aqaba’s Master Plan for the fourth time, Al Aqaba’s Village Council bravely issued their own building permits in accordance with their master plan, the first Palestinian village to do so in Area C. Rebuilding Alliance, the American NGO that I run, provided the first Revolving Mortgage Loan in Area C, with a clause stating that if a home is demolished, the owners stop payment until occupancy is restored. Over a thousand people, mostly Americans, crowd-funded the construction of the first three ‘Rebuilding to Remain’ homes together with the villagers themselves who created their own credit union. Built with innovative wind-chimney stairwells and fans for airflow, each 3 bedroom home is 125 sq. meters with a foundation strong enough for a future 2nd floor.
On Thursday, Sadiq’s mom, sisters, cousins and I brought the henna covered in flowers to the bride’s home, singing all the way there with tabla drum in the minivan, then dancing and singing with the bride inside a large room in her family’s home.
On the Friday of the groom’s party, the road in front of Mayor Haj Sami’s house transformed into a town square. Mayor Haj Sami and the cook said it was truly a first — they fed over 1000 people and put the village on the map as a great place to hold a wedding!
The groom and his brothers took center stage (portable with lighting all in place) while a rotating drum light shone into the sky. Music was full blast as the street filled with lines of debka dancing– the experienced bounding, and little boys just learning. Hundreds of visitors, all men, filled chairs set-up next to Al Aqaba’s Goat Cheese Factory to watch and talk. Others stood in line for dinner set-up inside the courtyard in front of Mayor Haj Sami’s house. Meanwhile, the women of the village squeezed into Mayor Haj Sami’s house for their own spirited dancing.
Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Wafa press were all doing interviews and I welcomed four groups of international visitors, taking them for tours of this first ‘Rebuilding to Remain’ home. A friend from UN Habitat and his family came. The head of the Palestinian Housing Council attended and asked for a follow-up meeting to explore expanding our ‘Rebuilding to Remain’ program. All the mayors of all the neighboring towns were there. Famous peace activist Prof. Mazin Qumsiyeh and his wife Jessie came from Bethlehem. Two other remarkable groups came too, including renowned artists, Lily Yeh (barefootartists.org) and Robert Shetterly, and a group of transformative peacemakers visiting from South Africa, Germany, and Scotland.
The next day, Saturday, would be the first time bride and groom would celebrate together. The groom’s happy family traveled to Caradala through the Tayasir Checkpoint without incident. Mayor Haj Sami Sadeq led the group, driving there in his famous car, wired to allow accelerator and brakes controlled by hands instead of feet. (Haj Sami has been paralyzed since he was a teenager and was shot by Israeli soldiers during a training exercise on the village lands.)
“I told them in Hebrew that we were going to pick up the bride to bring her to our village,” said Mayor Haj Sami.“The soldiers asked when, and I said, ‘in 30 minutes.’ So in 30 minutes, I was back. Now they asked where she was and I told them ‘in the next car.’ They laughed and said, you told us you were bringing the girl, not the whole wedding party. Then they let us all through, coming home to Al Aqaba without a problem.”
The bride and groom drove to the wedding hall in nearby Tubas city where all the women gathered to dance and celebrate. Bride and groom danced together, bride danced with her new sisters-in-laws — and the groom’s mother danced with her daughter-in-law, with her son, and with everyone as she had for all three days of celebration!
The bride and her new sisters, and the little girls of course, did not cover when the groom was the only man in the room. Soon though, they donned formal covering robes as men were invited in. The bride’s uncles, brothers and father came in first and went up on stage to give gifts of money and jewelry to the bride and groom. There were tears in her father’s eyes and in her own as she hugged him — she is his only daughter.
Then Sadiq’s uncles, including Mayor Haj Sami, Sadiq’s brothers, brothers-in-law, and his father came in. More gifts, then more dancing and celebration.
In all the weddings I’ve attended, including my own, the newlyweds dashed away from family and friends to their honeymoon. Here friends and family danced and celebrated, the photographers (both women) staged wonderful photos, the hall emptied as guests when home, and the young couple sped away, horns honking. But instead of the dash to a honeymoon, his family and her family gathered to welcome them to their new home, the fathers and brothers sitting with the groom outside to have coffee and soda, the mothers and sisters sitting with the bride inside as nieces and nephews dashed in and out. Soon enough they would be alone but for now, in their nervousness, a new home and welcoming joy.