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If it weren’t for our hubris we could learn so much

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(Editor’s Note: In March we published Howard Cohen’s account of his first visit to the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran where his student Noor Abu al-Qia’an lives. Noor is the son of Yakoub al-Qia’an who was killed by Israeli police earlier this year.)

It was my third time visiting Noor in Umm al-Hiran this Friday [May 19, 2017] after teaching in Beersheba. He was waiting for me in his late grandfather’s house (his grandfather died two weeks after Noor’s father, Yakoub, was murdered). I brought a large watermelon with me–it seemed somehow wrong for me to visit the stricken village empty-handed—and the melon was immediately taken from me with an embarrassed smile and disappeared from sight. We shook hands and I was ushered into the large open but darkened room (darkened because there was no electricity) and the row of simple foam mattresses were removed from the floor and a white plastic chair placed before me. Some of Noor’s brothers and cousins were sitting in a small circle, also on white plastic chairs, opposite from us, talking amongst themselves in Arabic and staring into the screens of their mobile phones. We greeted each other with nods and smiles. Some things are cross-cultural, I observed wittily, and I made a light-hearted observation to them of how today everyone meets up socially only to engross themselves in their telephones rather than in the company before them. Noor’s cousin, who I was told the previous time was a brilliant straight A student, still had the plaster and metal calipers on his right leg as a result of the surgery he had undergone, only this time an older cousin had joined him in apparent solidarity, with his left leg plastered up to his thigh. I joked again with them at this scene of a confederacy of plastered legs, and he informed me that he had injured himself at a work accident in the supermarket he was employed at.

I began to speak to Noor about the campaign that is now reaching its end and wondered if it would be necessary to alert his bank first before the money is transferred into his account. As with all my dealings with Noor, he was low key about the subject and preferred not to make an issue and to alert the bank only in retrospect if there was a problem. I concurred with him, if only to put him at his ease, and as if to support his conviction that there would not be a problem of the payment into the bank he went on to tell me about a cousin from his village who was beaten to a pulp by plain-clothed policemen last year in Tel Aviv. It was only when he finished relating the story that I came to understand his point, although now, in retrospect, as I write this, I can see that there were many more common elements to the story of his cousin and his own tragedy than I had perceived at the time. Noor’s expression grew animated with tension and excitement as he related the story, as if he himself was reliving it. His cousin was working in a supermarket in Tel Aviv and had stepped outside into the street to smoke a cigarette. A young man came up to him and demanded aggressively that he show his ID. The Bedouin youth was indignant at this unwarranted intrusion into his life and replied that he was not a police officer and had no right to demand from him anything. “Show me proof that you are a police officer otherwise just leave me alone,” said the youth proudly. The man refused to show any ID and also refused to accept that the Bedouin Arab could defend his rights according to the law like any other citizen and set upon him brutally. His friends who were nearby came to the scene and joined in the lynching. Noor’s cousin was beaten to a pulp and hospitalized as result. “I think I remember hearing about this on the news at the time,” I said. Noor nodded, confirming that the event indeed reached the mainstream news outlets. “A campaign was set up for him and he received 80,000 shekels which was paid into his account.”

“At least it was gratifying to see that there are people who cared and wanted to help,” I said, realizing that I had said, or at least thought, the same thing regarding the contributions to the campaign that I had set up for Noor. It is only now that I realize the much starker and darker points of commonality between the two stories. The fact that a Bedouin citizen of Israel, holding an Israeli passport, with full voting rights and forming part of Israel’s heralded democracy, is to all intents and purposes an “untermensch” with no real rights and whom the state can set upon at will and beat to a pulp simply for not belonging to the supremacist elite, or whom (in Noor’s father’s case) police officers can elect to shoot at point-blank range on no more than an unfounded suspicion, and then be left to bleed to death with all medical help being denied.

Breaking up the intensity of my thoughts, the door opened at the back of the room and Noor’s tiny brother appeared with two large and weighted trays of watermelon cut up into small, triangular slices. The small, comical figure, approached with a stern, concentrated expression, as if exaggerating the importance of his errand, and then stumbled and almost fell directly into the pink flesh, before righting himself and somehow saving the contents before they slipped off the tray onto the floor, and continued on his way towards our eager eyes. One tray was placed in front of the group of youths at the side and one before Noor and myself. The cool, moist fruit was a welcome respite both from the still, dry heat inside the room and from the visions of Noor’s lynched cousin laying bleeding and bruised in the streets of Tel Aviv. A few moments later Noor’s brother emerged again through the door carrying a copper teapot and two glasses which he placed on the small table before us.

Noor’s brother studying in a tent in Umm al-Hiran. (Photo: Howard Cohen)

As we sipped the sweet Bedouin tea, and Noor’s cousins made approving comments about how good the watermelon was, a second serving of the melon was brought to us by Noor’s ever active brother and we resumed our conversation. I asked him how the Israeli lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, was getting along with the case. I imagine he will be demanding a lot of compensation from the state for what they did. Noor’s reply was true to form, “It’s not the compensation that’s important,” he said, “We want an official apology. They destroyed my father’s name. They didn’t just kill him. They wiped out his whole life. Everything that he had worked for, everything that he represented, they took all of that away. The whole country referred to him as a terrorist. All the newspapers, all the ministers, all the police. We want an apology. We want his name to be made good again. All of those years of study. All of his teaching. All of his dedication to others….”

I nodded silently. “It’s not the money, that we need,” he repeated, “It’s our houses back and our names restored and the respect for our lives.” And then, as if to counter the fact that he was in any way a victim, he continued, “We will always get by. We are a large family that help[s] each other. That is our way. We all study, and we all help each other as we do so. For instance, I will use this money from the campaign to help my brother who is studying medicine in Ukraine. He needs it most now. Then he will come back and work in Israel, and if we need anything, he will help us. That is how we function as a family. We always have.” I thought of the selfishness of my own family, how self-serving and individualistic every member was, and in a strange and perverse way, despite the immense tragedy and suffering that Noor’s family and community had undergone, despite their despicable treatment by the state and the abject conditions in which they lived, without electricity or running water or sewage, I couldn’t help a part of me feeling a little bit envious of Noor to have and experience such an authentic and integral sense of familial responsibility and unity.

As Noor and I continued our conversation, sipped our tea and devoured the watermelon, the group of his cousins to our side continued to stare into the screens of their phones and talk quietly amongst themselves as a parallel and simultaneous action. Occasionally, however, one of them would interject a comment or a reply from the side into our conversation and by doing so, it made me realize that they were in fact following assiduously our every word. “And what about your cousin,” I said to Noor, pointing to the lame, straight-A student with the plaster and calipers on his leg. “How come you don’t have a phone in your hands?” I asked him directly with a smile. “It’s being charged,” said his brother, and they all found this hilarious and burst out laughing in unison. Then Noor, serious as ever, found it necessary to pick up my question and answer me in earnest, “He is far too young to have a phone,” he said, “He is only 15. We don’t agree to giving phones to the children when they are that age. It would interfere with their studies.” I thought about the plague of Israeli children addicted to their phones, that new bodily appendage of the modern era that seemed an inextricable part of Israeli kids and once more felt a sense of weighted admiration for the values that Noor was eschewing.

At some point during our talk Noor told me that he had erected a tent next to the ruins of his father’s house and feeling that it would be good to have some air, I now suggested that he take me to see it. It was touching to see Noor’s face light up when I asked this and without a second thought he eagerly took to his feet, startling me somewhat by the speed of his actions and the overwhelmingly positive change in his expression. I duly bid farewell to his cousins, and we left the house at a brisk pace, passing the memorial set up in Yakoub’s honor following his murder, and ascending the hill towards the ruins of Yakoub’s house. Behind the broken concrete slab belonging to the roof of Yakoub’s home, which until now Noor had been sleeping on, a Bedouin tent had been erected with sturdy aluminum profiles, blue canvas tarpaulin sides that were raised and a tightly-netted roof. Noor informed me that the materials for the tent had been donated to them and that caravans were going to arrive soon too. “But won’t the authorities take the caravans away,” I asked pessimistically, “just like they threatened to do last time you tried.” “Maybe,” said Noor, shrugging his shoulders.

The tented structure stood at the top of the hill and looked out across the valley towards the undulating hills on the other side. The view was truly spectacular. The floor of the tent was formed from the sandy stone desert ground and the space was empty of furniture except for a pile of mattresses and a small, rickety formica structure at the very edge. Sitting at this makeshift desk, in what was for me one of the most incongruous and almost surreal sights I can remember, was a young boy with black-rimmed, elliptical-shaped glasses, an exercise book and a pencil, scribbling away with serious intent. The boy was so engrossed in his work he didn’t even look up to greet us as Noor found two white plastic chairs for us to sit on in the middle of the tent’s open space. “Who is he?” I asked with a smile, looking endearingly over towards the earnest looking pupil. “That’s my brother,” said Noor. He went on to tell me his name which I have shamefully forgotten, as I forget all names when they are first related to me. “What is he studying?” I went on to ask. Noor called across to his brother in Arabic and a short exchange of words took place, without the boy looking up from his work as it did so. “He’s studying Civics,” Noor told me. It was impossible not to consider the perverse irony. An irony that Noor himself seemed to be oblivious of. It was also impossible for me not to comment upon it. “I find it incredible,” I said, “that Israel obliges schoolchildren to learn civics at school, to learn the meaning of democracy and the obligations incumbent upon being a citizen of such a ‘democracy’, when the state behaves in such a heinous way towards such a large percentage of its citizens. Look what they did to you, your village, your father, and there he is studying civics.” Again Noor seemed unable or unwilling to take up the thread of my argument and replied flatly that this was a part of his studies and emphasized how important it was for them all to study. “Without studying we can’t get on in the world,” he said. “Those are the values that my father inculcated in us all, and that’s why we are all, every one of us, good and hard-working students. My brother goes to the school in Hura that my father taught at.”

Mentioning his father seemed to make Noor nostalgic and I watched him as he entered willfully and soulfully back into the space of his past. He pointed over to the ruins beneath the hill. “You see those doves, perched at the side next to the goats. They still hang around, but most of them have disappeared. I had about 200 doves. I loved those doves. I really did. I love all my animals” “What happened to them,” I asked. “When they destroyed our houses, they also destroyed the structures in which the doves were kept. They have nowhere to come back to now. So most of them have disappeared. But I’m hoping they’ll come back eventually. I’ve always kept doves, ever since I was a little boy.” I could see him now losing himself warmly to his memories. “Everything I ever had, I earned myself,” he went on proudly. “That was how my father brought us up. He could have just given things to us, it wasn’t that he couldn’t afford to do so, but he wanted us to earn them. It was his way of making us feel a responsibility and a value for what we had. And it worked. It made us appreciate everything so much more. As a tiny kid I would get up at the crack of dawn, I would go down to take the goats out of their pens and walk them over the hills, then I would bring them back and milk them and fill their troughs with water and food. Then I would bring the milk up to the house. And I would get paid for the work that I did, and I would use the money to buy doves. They weren’t just given to me. I bought them,” he said proudly. “And then after finishing with the animals I would go back home and do my homework, have breakfast and go off to school. That’s how we were brought up. We worked hard, and everything we had we had earned.” Yakoub didn’t die in vain. He has left his legacy clearly and infallibly with you. When I hear you speak, I feel I can picture your father with his steadfast values for life and for the land directly before me. Are you aware of how faithfully you carry and project his life before you? These are the words of a fragmented monologue I found echoing within my head. But I didn’t reveal them. I felt embarrassed. Now I wish I would have done so. I wish I would have let Noor know how strongly, in those moments, I felt Yakoub’s presence before me.

Despite the heat and dryness of the day, the wind blew relentlessly through the tent and the netted roof pushed and pulled and tugged violently against the aluminum frame. I was reminded of the harshness of this merciless desert. “Aren’t you afraid the tent might fly away in the wind?” I said, only half in jest, thinking about how even more relentless the wind would become in the winter time. “No,” Noor replied, without breaking into a smile, “It’s tied down on all the sides.” He pointed to the heavy steel pins that had been hammered into the ground and the cords, attached to the material, that had been tied around them. “And what about in winter,” I went on (and a thought immediately entered my head that he might not be there next winter, that the state was due to return to finish the demolition of the rest of the village that it had begun that fateful day on the 18th January–but once again, and this time thankfully so, I did not give voice to my thoughts), “won’t the rain come through that netted roof.” “No, not at all,” said Noor, and now his lips did curl into a wry, proud smile, in spite of himself, “There’s a waterproof canvas layer between the netting on either side. You can’t see it, but it’s there in the middle. So no water will get through.”

The question about the rain once more sent him back towards the familiar presence of nature that he felt so at home with. I wish now that I would have noted down the words and sentences that came forth so spontaneously and so forthrightly from his lips. For they weren’t just fragments of life, they were the very essence of life embracing itself in a way that is so utterly foreign to our own refined lives. So foreign, I am ashamed to admit, that I have forgotten much of what Noor explained to me. I wish too that I had captured the intense and lively animation in Noor’s words and in his expression as he expounded this. There exists, Noor told me, not just one word for the rain, but many words, each referring, in their own way, to a different time and a different activity that the rain is involved in. There is a word for the very first rain, the October rain, that first light rain that washes the dust off of the olive leaves. And there is the word for the first heavy rain of the season, the one that beats down mercilessly upon the ground and destroys many of the insects and bugs that would otherwise eat and destroy the fragile shoots that would soon be coming through the ground. There is then a word for the November rain that brings up the shoots, and another word for the December rain and so on until the very last rain, but alas, as I mentioned I have forgotten much of what he told me. What I remember most, however, was the life force that returned so impressively into his speech and body as he spoke of these things, making me feel wholly impoverished in my turn. I remember thinking too of the monstrous hubris of the state believing that it is “educating” the poor, ignorant, backward Bedouins by forcing them off their lands into the sterile wilderness of the towns and cities. “For their own good,” is the mantra that the state sells to itself, believing nobly in its self-righteous values of civilization. “They are barbarians!” “They live like animals!” are other such mantras that are repeated. And there I was listening to Noor’s explanations of the rains, lost inside this richly exquisite poetry of nature, thinking only of my own ignorance and of the utter ignorance of the world which wants to instill its values by force upon those that have not yet succumbed – this homogenous wasteland of ignorance plastered violently upon us all.

Somehow, the conversation returned to the livestock (maybe it was because Noor had mentioned to me that he wanted to give me a present of some goat’s milk from his herd) and once again Noor expressed how much he loved his animals. “It’s for that reason I’m a vegetarian, I said. I couldn’t possibly kill an animal or want to eat an animal that was killed for my benefit. Don’t you find it difficult to slaughter them, if you love them so much?” I continued, both with a sense of naivety and curiosity. “Not at all,” he replied, as if surprised that I could even ask such a question. “I deeply love and respect all my animals, but their death is as natural as is their lives. It’s no more than the cycle of life. That they will be slaughtered for food is part of that cycle, but knowing that doesn’t let me love them or respect them any the less. For instance, I would never let them see the knife that is going kill them. I respect their lives right up until their very last moment. They never know they are going to die and when I do take the knife to them, it cuts through their throat right at the center, so that the blood is immediately cut off to their brains and they lose consciousness at once.” I found it difficult to listen to Noor describing so graphically the act of their slaughter, just as I find it difficult now to write it down, but I did find myself, nevertheless, feeling a profound respect for what Noor was telling me. I think of Western man slaughtering his animals in a merciless, bloody and relentless holocaust of cruelty inside the horrors of the abattoir without the slightest of consideration towards the life of the animals that are being destroyed and I compare this to Noor’s description where he relates to me a reality of utter compassion, respect and consideration towards every one of his animals until the very end (for him a natural end) and I am once more filled with a deep admiration for this ability to be so inseparable from the nature that he is a part of (in contrast to the hubris of the West that believes itself so superior from having separated itself from that Nature).

At that moment, Noor spied a small scorpion scurrying about on the ground just outside the tent and he called out to his brother, disturbing him from his schoolwork, who went outside and stamped the scorpion into the ground. I got up and looked at the squashed, black object, feeling a fleeting sense of sorrow for the extinguished life as Noor told me matter-of-factly that it was the younger scorpions that were the most dangerous. We left the tent and walked down the hill to the cattle pen. Noor found a discarded plastic water bottle on the ground, picked it up and handed it to a younger brother who was inside, uttering to him some words in Arabic as he did so. He went on to explain to me, once more with an animated tone, how the goats were separated within the pen. It was the first day, he told me, that the males and females had been placed together. I smiled to myself as he used the term “getting married”. “Today they are getting married,” he explained to me, obviously thinking this the most natural expression to use, and once more forcing me to reflect on the paucity of my own ability to apprehend the world about me. They had been given a special hormone, he explained to me, which allowed them to get pregnant even though it was before the time they would naturally do so, and he pointed out to me some very large specimens, which were quite obviously some very horny studs closing in on the females. Noor’s brother returned with the liter-and-a-half plastic bottle filled with goats milk whilst Noor informed me that each she-goat was able to fill two such bottles daily.

We returned now to the direction of the grandfather’s house and my car. As we did so we passed a dog sleeping under a rock. Noor tried to coax it out, but the day’s heat had obviously worked its lackadaisical way into the canine body and it paid us scant attention. “Is that one of your dogs?” I asked. Noor nodded affirmatively. “How many dogs do you have in all?” I enquired. “Six,” he replied. “So what do you feed them on?” “I don’t feed them,” he answered. “They feed themselves.” I thought of my three spoilt dogs waiting greedily for their daily meal of super-premium dried food, and the idea that a dog could feed itself successfully seemed to me an incomprehensible one. But I had to admit the dog that we passed didn’t appear to be undernourished. “But what do they eat?” I asked incredulously. “They eat the remains of dead sheep or goat carcasses, they scavenge around, they find bread, bits of fat. Food that have been thrown out from the houses. They always find something.” We then passed a dried river bed and Noor pointed out to me a small cavern in its side. I bent down and peered inside and within the cavern I saw a bitch with tiny pups suckling from her. This was the harsh, inhospitable desert and yet I felt that I had been taken on a wondrous nature trail. “Wow!” I muttered. “But you will feed her, won’t you?” I found myself pleading. “I mean she needs all her strength to feed her pups. And it will take so much out of her.” “I will feed her if I think she needs it,” I heard Noor answering, although I didn’t know if he was relenting as a result of my pleading and somewhat pathetic tone or if rather he had everything under control and was simply uttering what to him was a wholly obvious reply. I suspect the latter.

Learn more about the fundraising campaign to benefit Noor and his family.

Howard Cohen

Howard Cohen is a writer in Israel.

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6 Responses

  1. annie on May 30, 2017, 12:49 pm

    This was the harsh, inhospitable desert and yet I felt that I had been taken on a wondrous nature trail. “Wow!” I muttered.

    and you took us all along with you. thank you very very much. amazing.

  2. Citizen on May 30, 2017, 1:05 pm

    Reminds me of Dances With Wolves movie. Then I think, that was done in the 19th Century. Since then, two world wars resulted in Nuremberg Trials & Geneva IV etc. USA is dragging itself down, cheered by Zionists.

  3. YoniFalic on May 31, 2017, 1:59 am

    BTW, a book addressing racist and bigoted East European “Jewish” attitudes toward East European peasantry is Bieganski: The Brute Polack Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture by Danusha Veronica Goska.

    For the most part recent careful scholars have almost in toto overturned the Jewish Leidensgeschichte of poor oppressed Jews at the mercy of brutish Poles, Belorussians, and Ukrainians.

  4. gamal on May 31, 2017, 4:24 am

    that was great, really nice to read of your visit. Yackoub and Nur are so similar to the Awfs in An Nakhas, one day we will visit them.

    “I loved those doves.”

    everyone has a dovecote back home, we make ours of mud sometimes as stand alone structures.

    • Maghlawatan on May 31, 2017, 9:57 am

      I even saw dovecotes in the bit of Cairo where the rubbish collectors live. The zabaliyeen.

  5. Maghlawatan on May 31, 2017, 10:03 am

    Lovely piece. Such a tragedy that the only way the Zionists could see to make the project work was to dehumanise the locals. It goes against what Judaism is about and will break Israel. Israelis support forces that do not work in their long term interest.

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