Ever since I returned to Palestine last year after studying in the U.S., I have been working on a photographic project documenting Al-Manateer, abandoned agricultural watchtowers scattered across the Palestinian countryside. I’ve focused on the watchtowers near the mountains of Kobar, my ancestral village. To do this I had to hike and explore all the mountains and lands around Kobar, but some of these mountains are close to Israeli settlements. No one knew about my project or what I was doing until I started posting to my Instagram story, trying to educate and share the beauty of my homeland to friends who have never been to Palestine.
On one of those hikes I visited an abandoned farm known as Katilia, which my grandparents used to plant before an Israeli settlement known as Nahliel was built near there in 1984, on a mountaintop overlooking the valley right below.
A warm, sunny Friday in the middle of January of 2008 — my last year in high school, and the first time I visit Katilia.
I put on junky clothes and rush to the door holding my shoes in my hand. My mom notices me from the kitchen and asks, “Why are you wearing that, where are you going?” I open the door and motion to my uncle who is upset, waiting for me in the car outside, that I’m coming. I turn my head and tell my mom that I’m going to the mountains with Uncle Yusuf and his friends to get “faquo”- a mushroom that grows in the West Bank Mountains and looks like a cap, close to Red Pine Mushrooms. My grandmother, who is mumbling some prayers while sitting in her usual spot near the fireplace in the living room, cautions: “Stay away from the settlement and be careful if the shepherd is around.” I put on my shoes and run toward the car, saying to myself, I’m sorry grandmother but we are going really close to the settlement.
I reach the car, open the back door and sit beside Basem, my uncle’s friend who works with him in the Palestinian authority. I bend over to tie my shoes and notice that my uncle and his friends are wearing military shoes. I clear my throat and ask: is it okay to use your military clothes for personal use? My uncle gives me a look through the mirror and says, “Shut up, we are late because of you and you criticize? If the shepherd is out I will beat the crap out of you.” Basem and Mohanad, another friend of my uncle, laugh and I do too.
The car reaches a point where it can’t go further into the mountains (facing the settlement from the north.) Down in the valley is the place that my family used to spend most of their time in, “a simple place that is as simple as the world can be, yet the place where we had the best time of our lives” according to my grandmother.
My uncle and Mohanad are heading to the eastern side of the settlement, far away from Katilia. I stop to ask Basem, who is struggling to tie his shoes due to his belly, about where are we going but he raises his head and says “Ask them, I’m just a follower like you.” I call to my uncle and ask him, and he points to a further place than Katilia. I frown and say “what? You said we will go to a place next to Katilia, otherwise I wouldn’t have come to look for mushrooms.”
He picks a cigarette, licks it upside down, puts it between his lips and says: “well I said if we did not find mushrooms in other places we will go to Katilia. Why would we sacrifice to go to such a dangerous place if we could find mushrooms in less dangerous places?”
We reach the place that my uncle pointed towards earlier; I look at the settlement at the top of the mountain and it seems to me like a dictator who wants everyone else to be inferior to him. My uncle and Mohanad are marching ahead of us, checking every single oak tree but they show no sign of achievement. I look to my right; Basem doesn’t bother to bend over to look for mushrooms, he just raises an acorn branch and moves on to the next one ahead.
I don’t even bother looking for anything. Aside from the fact that I suck at mushroom hunting, I just want to see Katilia. Five minutes later, Basem picks a cigarette, lights it and says, “you are wasting your time here, it is obvious that this area has been dogged and inspected carefully by others, let’s go somewhere else.”
The way we are moving in is to the west part of the mountain, where Katilia is, the fence of the settlement so close that I can see a red sign in Hebrew. I look at it but I don’t know what it means. I hear Basem from behind saying “it’s an electric fence, don’t get close, that’s what it says.”
“Since when do you know Hebrew?” I frown.
“Yeah I learned the basics when I used to work in the orange groves in Jaffa when I was eighteen. Now let’s hurry, they are walking in a fast pace, seems they admitted that we won’t find anything here.”
“They are moving towards Katilia I bet,” Basem says “at least we will drink water from the spring there, I’m so thirsty.”
While we are trying to catch up with them, I tell Basem that he doesn’t look serious about looking for mushrooms. “Why did you come if you are not looking for mushrooms?” I ask him.
“Well, the weather is nice and it has been forever since the last time we had the chance to talk and joke around, plus I know that your uncle will share. He is good at it,” he replies.
My uncle and Mohanad are sitting in the middle of a field of olive trees just below the road which surrounds the settlement; the grey and light black trunks have wrinkles that say I’m so old that you can’t tell how many years I have been sitting here. The branches are forked, scrawny, and the yellow leaves tell that no one has been taking care of them. The field around the trees has a lot of weeds and huge white rocks that seem alien to the other rocks.
I ask where did these rocks come from and Basem ironically says, “are you sure you are good in school? It’s obvious. They are here since the settlers have opened the road.”
Closing his left eye to avoid the smoke from the loose cigarette in his mouth, my uncle asks Basem, who is leaning on one of the huge rocks, “do you remember Abu Saeed?”
Basem nods with a smile drawn on his face.
“Who is Abu Saeed?” I ask.
“He is the owner of this field. He is from Almazraa, the village to the south of our village” Basem answers.
“And why did you smile?”
“Well, here is a story that you probably did not know about,” Basem giggles: “Abu Saeed’s field, the one we are in now, was the best in the area and it always used to give more olives due to the special care that Abu Saeed gave it.”
He exhales from the cigarette and continues “one day your uncle and I were on our way to your grandparent’s farm – Katilia – and we tried to steal some olives from this field to sell and get money to buy candy.”
“We were like eight or nine years old.” He seeks approval from my uncle and my uncle nods.
“We inspected the field to make sure Abu Saeed was not there and we did not see him, which was unusual because he never left the field during the day. We climbed a tree and started picking olives but out of the blue I looked down to find Abu Saeed waiting for us to get down. If you look at his face you think that he is as old as his olive trees, but while he is working he seems to be thirty,” Basem says, half laughing.
“And so what happened?” I laugh.
“Your uncle got down first, so Abu Saeed caught him, but I jumped and ran away. He dragged him by his ears all the way down to the farm and your grandfather hit him so bad,” Basem laughs out loud.
“And you were dead laughing at me while watching me getting hit from far away,” my uncle says.
“But how did he know you if he is from another village?” I asked my uncle.
“He was a friend of my father and he used to come to the farm every day to fill up water from the spring,” my uncle mutters.
Mohanad gets up and says “okay enough talking we have been wandering for hours and we haven’t found anything. My wife will think I’m a loser if I come back empty handed.”
“She will think you are a loser or she won’t let you in the house you mean?” Basem asks, giggling. Mohanad tells him to shut up and start marching.
As we get close to the farm, we get far away from the fence but any loud noise we make could alarm the settlement guards. Five minutes later I see my uncle and Mohanad waving something to us while standing between some oak trees, saying something I couldn’t hear.
They’ve found mushrooms and they are whispering because they don’t want to catch the guards’ attention. Basem explains, “I’m going down to the spring to drink some water.”
“What spring! Where is it?” I wonder.
“Katilia spring, the one on the farm that your family rented and planted for many years,” he answers while marching down the foothill.
I look down and see sparkling water but no sign of any farm.
I quietly follow him and think to myself where is the heaven on earth that my grandmother talks about every single time we have green beans at dinner or when she sees someone holding lemons?
I reach the spring.
Basem is on his knees, chucking water from the water that flows between the rocks to a small damaged pond. The terraced land around the spring is filled with weeds. A lone surviving lemon tree stands, about 20 meters away.
Basem sits near the pond, its west corner is damaged, letting water run through before it reaches the top. He throws a small stone that creates bursts on the surface and says, “I used to spend most of the summer here with your uncle and many other guys from the village when we were children.” He continues to say something but the scene of my uncle and Mohanad approaching us with full buckets of mushrooms cuts him off.
That much in such short time?
“No one has reached this area and it’s full of mushrooms, besides I still remember the oak trees that we used to find mushrooms in every year when we used to farm here,” my uncle explains.
Both drink from the spring and sit on the huge rocks near the pond.
“Do you remember?” Basem asks my uncle while tilting his head toward the pond.
With a smile on his face my uncle says, “Yeah, I remember when I used to drown you every time we swam here and you never succeeded to dip me under the water.”
Basem snickers and tells me, “The contrary is the truth. Your uncle is just too shy to admit that he was a soft boy.”
My uncle starts to say something but the sound of gunfire gets him on his feet. He grabs the mushroom bags and declares: “It’s the shepherd, we had better leave before he arrives!”
I rush to the lemon tree, climb it, pick some lemons, and catch up with them before they notice that I’m behind. Putting the lemons in the bag I brought for the mushrooms, I ask “Why are you so afraid of the shepherd?”
“No reason,” my uncle says while giving some of his mushrooms to Basem “it’s just that he carries a gun taller than you.”
“Bastards,” Basem says “the land they stole inside the fence is not enough, they want all of it. Twenty years ago, this settlement was just on top of this mountain, but now look at it, it has eaten the whole mountain and the mountains next to it from the other side.”
I arrive home by dusk, open the back door and take off my dusty shoes. I hear my mom begging my brother to get her some lemons but he complains and says that he is studying. I scream down the stairwell: “no need to go anywhere I have brought some good lemons!” I hear my grandmother laughing: “He went to get mushrooms and came back with lemons.”
It felt as if it was yesterday that I brought my grandmother those lemons, but this time I was with my camera bag, aiming to document the dormant farm and its surroundings.
The settlement has expanded since the last time I saw it in 2016. As I drew closer to the settlement, the digging machines stopped and I could see the settlers, who were by the construction site, watch me disappear in the valley that leads to the farm. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid. I was terrified. I kept my eyes on the cliff above the valley expecting that settlers would come down at any time now that they had seen me.
But that fear didn’t stop me from visiting and documenting. I went home and posted to Instagram, trying to educate my followers, most of whom are friends I met while studying in Chicago between 2015 and 2018. My first time visiting this farm in 2008, we ran away when we heard the shotgun, so I only remembered the damaged pond and the lemon tree. But this time I spent more time photographing and exploring. I found a collapsed mulberry tree, a fragile guava tree, and the same lemon tree with many lemons on it. I took a couple of the lemons, put them in my camera bag, and when I got home I gave them to my grandmother.
First, she sniffed them, then she asked: “Where did you get them? They smell good.”
“From Katilia,” I said.
Both my grandmother, who was sitting close to the fireplace as usual, and my mother, who was making dinner in the kitchen, freaked out. “Why would you go to Katilia?!”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Are you crazy?!” My mother was annoyed with my response. “What if settlers were there? They would kill you and we wouldn’t even know where you are!”
I faked a smile and told her that she was exaggerating.
My grandmother waved toward my face and said, “A couple of months ago they attacked Musa, a Bedouin shepherd who resides around the village, beat him up and stole some of his goats.”
Their fears didn’t stop me from continuing my project but I had to listen to my mom’s lectures every time I put on my hiking shoes.
“Tell me where are you going.”
“Don’t get close to the settlements.”
“Leave the mountains before it gets dark.”
I continued exploring the mountains and kept on posting photographs to my Instagram. A lot of my friends who went to college with me in Chicago would ask me to take them on a hike when they visited Palestine.
When the Israeli army arrested my younger brother Omar after breaking into our house at 2:00 am on the 21st of December 2018, my mom added a new line to her cautions: “Isn’t it enough that they took your brother? Do you want them to take you too and add to my pain?”
“Tell me where are you going.”
“Don’t get close to the settlements.”
“Leave the mountains before it gets dark.”
I stopped hiking and exploring the surrounding mountains for two weeks after Omar’s arrest, but then I went on a hike to the neighboring village of Jibiya, parts of which were in danger of illegal confiscation by settlers.
A few months later, the same area we hiked to in Jibiya was under full control of illegal Israeli settlers who almost killed two Palestinian students when they unintentionally got close to the area they confiscated.
A couple of weeks ago I got a message from a good friend whom I met in Chicago telling me that he will be in Ramallah soon and that he wants me to take him on a hike in the mountains. Knowing that he had been banned from entering Palestine for so long, I was excited to take him to my favorite route on a mountain that is close to a settlement from the north west of the village. The route circles around a lower mountain. Then we hike through olive fields to reach the higher mountain where my favorite Mintar is and where I planned to watch the sunset.
While hiking through the olive fields, I spotted a guy with his wife and his son walking, but seconds after they saw us, they started running away. I couldn’t hold back my laughter when my friend asked, “What happened, why are they running away?”
“I’m sure they thought we are settlers,” I tell him.
“Come on man, why are you laughing? Call them! Tell them we are not settlers, that’s insane!”
By the time he finished his sentence they had reached their car and pulled away.
I knew the family very well, their older son and I were in the same grade. And I know that they are not the type of people who would confront a violent person.
When we got home and I told my father and uncles about the incident, my uncle explained, “you are coming from the settlement’s direction, with your camera strap and your friend’s bag, and settlers would go to that area a lot anyways. Aside from what they can do with their rifles on them all the time. So, don’t be surprised.”
We have a proverb that says, “The worst disaster is the one that makes you laugh.”
“You go out to walk with your family in nature, on your own land, and then you run away from your own people thinking they are the settlers who might kill you.”