Saturday, June 29 2013 Umm al-‘Amad by David Shulman

June 29, 2013    Umm al-‘Amad

Ahmad likes to sing. Almost from the moment we turn up—around 7 AM, when it’s still deliciously cool with light wind and cloud—he’s been singing happily as he keeps an eye on his goats. Ahmad is something between a boy and a young man. Seems happy. So do the goats, feasting without pause on the varied menu of thorns that this hill offers them. The songs, too, are varied. They include the latest hit in Palestine, the song a young singer from Gaza, Muhammad ‘Assaf, sang to win the Arab Idol competition last week.

Mostly Ahmad sings songs of love and yearning. A Palestinian idyll:  the shepherd out on the hills with his flock. And the hills are ravishing this morning, the contours sharply etched, tinged with blue. In the distance the village of Karma spills over the rocks. Umm al-‘Amad, where Ahmad lives, is hidden by the slope and the olive trees.

There’s a stain on the idyll. Needless to say, we’re not alone. Two jeeps of soldiers from the Lavi regiment—regular army—are here to watch. Their lieutenant is a burly Druze. Heavily armed, they station themselves on the dirt path that they have declared to be the boundary that Palestinians cannot traverse. With them is the security officer, also armed, of the large settlement of Otniel, which sits on lands stolen from Umm al-‘Amad and other villages nearby.

For some reason today, unlike other times at Umm al-‘Amad, everything proceeds peacefully. For once the soldiers make no attempt to interfere with the grazing, and the shepherds carefully keep away from the entirely arbitrary boundary. Ahmad sings his songs. We chat and joke and laugh; the goats munch thorns. Slowly the sun warms to its summery task.

A couple of hours go by. I decide it’s going to be an easy, even boring day. Then something happens.

I don’t hear the words. Only later I’m told that Ahmad, talking with the officer, asked the latter if he fasts on Ramadan. (The fast begins in 10 days’ time.) The answer was no. Ahmad said that means the Druze will burn in Hell. But maybe it wasn’t quite like this; I can’t say. In any case, I suddenly see the officer dragging Ahmad onto the forbidden boundary path and then arresting him. He pushes him, surrounded by soldiers, into one of the jeeps. By now we’re milling around, stunned, on the path. I’m tempted to throw myself down in front of the jeep. But I’m unsure of what’s happened, and why. The jeep takes off with its prisoner.

Now what? We’re angry. We weren’t prepared for the sudden transition from halcyon morning to the dark poison of the Occupation. Bitterly, we speak our minds. “What do you think you’re doing? Why did you arrest him? Why are you being so childish? Some hero you are, lording it over children. This is how you choose to show off your power?” The officer says that Ahmad stepped onto the path and was therefore arrested. But we saw him dragging him onto the path himself, and we’ve filmed this. Scornfully, we tell him so, over and over. He doesn’t answer. His face is already set in stone. He’s feeling insulted, no doubt about that, and Ahmad’s crime, it appears, was just this—“insulting a public servant.” It’s a punishable legal offense, although the court, if it goes that far, may not be overly impressed. In any case Ahmad is to be handed over to the police, whom the lieutenant has summoned on his phone. It’s also possible that the officer was simply waiting for an opportunity to flex his muscles and make an arrest; maybe he was irritated by the patriotic song of Muhammad ‘Assaf that Ahmad was singing. Who can say?

Time, which had been rippling along smoothly, slows down under riptides of pain. Suddenly I notice that it’s hot and dry—summer in the desert. The officer is impassive, immovable. His body language speaks of supercilious defense, as if he were standing, uncaring, in a concrete bunker. The power—to dispose of his victim however he wants—is his. We hurl our futile arguments at him and his soldiers. No reply. I have no words, but I let my eyes lock onto his, and for a very long moment we stare at one another, under the sun, in wordless communication. I feel enraged. I am looking at the naked arbitrariness of power as it targets the most accessible, usually the weakest, victim. I am looking into the face of the Occupation.

Long minutes pass like this. He stands at the edge of the field, his soldiers lined up on either side. There’s no way to reach him, to reason or persuade. There’s nothing more to do. The orphaned goats, by now satiated, are huddled together in conference, peacefully chewing their cud.

What will happen to Ahmad? Probably nothing awful. He’ll be hauled off to the police station at Kiryat Arba’, kept waiting there for hours, perhaps overnight, handcuffed, interrogated, fingerprinted, photographed. It will be a bit scary:  he’ll be alone amidst the men with guns. Eventually, in all likelihood, they’ll let him go on payment of a deposit, something between 500 and 2000 shekels—a very large sum for an impoverished family of shepherds, and one which can almost never be retrieved even after the case is settled. Then he’ll come home. It’s also always possible that the case will ramify unexpectedly, that they’ll concoct some other charge, that things will drag on indefinitely. No Palestinian can hope for justice at the hands of the Occupation police, or the military courts.

Still, it’s a small incident, no need to exaggerate. They’ll probably let him go. And yet—I can’t help but see it as profoundly expressive, even emblematic. Sometimes it’s the small things that most starkly show the truth.

Now, in the distance, the figure of a woman appears. She is struggling uphill in the fierce heat along the dirt path. She’s clearly agitated. She wears a black scarf on her head, a rather lovely patterned dress of magenta checks and rhomboids. She’s Ahmad’s mother, and she’s heard the news.

There’s no limit to her fury. We try to explain to her what’s happened, but she has no patience for our words. Very rapidly she locates the officer and unleashes her tongue. “Haram ‘aleyk, shame on you. You should be ashamed of yourself. Who do you think you are? Allah sees everything. Allah is stronger than you. He’ll punish you. May He do to your children what you have done to my son. Shame on you! What did he do? He got up in the morning, he didn’t even have a drink of water, he ate no breakfast, he came out here on his own land with his goats and sheep, and now you’re taking him away. When you looked at him did you see some ra’is, some Minister or politician, some big man? He’s just a boy, a shepherd. You’ve burnt my heart. You’re a big hero, swaggering over children, over women. You’re weak, concerned only with your self-importance, your sharaf. Nothing else interests you. You know nothing of justice, of what is right. But we’re not afraid of you. I’m staying here, I’m not going anywhere until you give me back my son. You can kill me if you like, it would be better.” She raises her arms to the skies, she invokes the name of Allah, she turns this way and that, swirling, raging, bitter with scorn. From time to time she lays her hand on her heart.

What can I say, it’s a performance like no other. A torrent of juicy Arabic washes over the rocks and thorns. Inventive, fearless, she curses him and the soldiers for the misery they’ve caused. We support her as best we can, we address the officer again. “All this because you’ve been offended? Look what you’ve done to this mother.” Frozen, unyielding, he suddenly blurts out, “I’m not offended, lo pagua.” He’s trying to say, it seems, that Ahmad committed a serious offense, something beyond the personal, but Amiel immediately sees the meaning of what he’s just uttered: “If you’re not offended, then there’s no basis for the arrest; the boy insulted nobody. Let him go.” The lieutenant lapses back into stony, sullen silence. No contact. The mother sits down on a stone, still crying out her refrain:  “Haram ‘aleyk, haram ‘aleykum, Shame, Shame!” She demands to know what her son did wrong; the lieutenant won’t say. “He didn’t do anything,” says another of the shepherds, trying to comfort.

One of the soldiers emerges from the jeep with a thick bunch of green grapes. He offers them to his comrades, who seem entirely indifferent to the drama unfolding before them. Noisily, hungry, he gulps down the grapes. The officer stirs, stone momentarily reverting to flesh: “Don’t eat in front of them,” he says. But the mother has seen them: “You eat and drink and have a fine time, and he didn’t even have a glass of water today.”

It’s a miniature of the Occupation: gratuitous cruelty, arrogance, greed. Yigal says we’re looking at the classic face of colonialism. “First they steal the land and expel you, then, when you complain, they feel entitled to feel insulted and arrest you.” I’ve been through many moments far worse than this, more consequential and devastating; yet the agony of this mother says it all for me.

All this time I am reduced to muteness. I keep trying to imagine what we might say that could turn things around. Can’t find the words. Numb in mind. I can see that the officer is in a zone of sheer, cussed defiance, unable to budge, unable to lose face before his men. He seems to me brittle, rigid, trapped in a situation he himself created, heavy with ego. I don’t think I can reach him. I can’t believe he is unmoved, on some level, by the mother’s distress, but I can see that he’s unable to address it. I’m gripped by mild despair. I figure that I’ve hit another case of wickedness, more hopeless than some; such cases interest me, but that’s of no use to Ahmad now.

“If only there were something useful to say,” I mumble to Soryl, a friend from Montreal. To my surprise—the first of several in store for me—she takes this statement seriously and urges me:  “Go talk to him.” “I don’t know what to say, I don’t think I can get through to him.” “What’s there to lose?”

OK, maybe she’s right. It’s worth a try. Not that I have any hope. I’m sure he’ll reject anything I say out of hand. And I have no idea how to begin. Anyway, I pick my way over the rocks to the edge of the dirt path. Where’d he go? Must be here somewhere. I look on the lee side of the jeep. Sure enough, he’s there, alone, talking on his cell phone—probably trying to get the police to hurry up. Maybe on some unconscious level I register that he’s out of his men’s sight, and thus this moment could be opportune. I’m not thinking clearly, in fact not thinking at all. I approach him, he turns toward me. “Can I talk to you?” I say, gently, no sting attached.

“Yes.” Another surprise.

I introduce myself. I tell him I’m from the University. “Look,” I say, “I see that some situation has developed here, wouldn’t you like to bring it to an end?”

“Yes. But I can’t do anything when people are screaming at me and there’s chaos, balagan.”

“Wait a minute,” I say, waking up,  “You mean if I get them to stop screaming and we calm things down, you’ll release him?”

“Maybe.”

I go back to my friends to report. We back off. An infinitesimal shift. There’s a question of whether we can ask the mother to quiet down for a second. No:  can’t do it. She has to have the freedom to speak her heart. At least that. But now another figure is making his way uphill through the dust. Ahmad’s father—balding, tall, dignified, in an ironed blue shirt—arrives on the scene.

He speaks firmly and gently, mostly in Hebrew; from where we’re standing, we can barely hear the words. “If you were insulted by something my son said, then I, too, am insulted by it.” It’s exactly the right tone. The shift is more than infinitesimal now. Over the next minutes, a solution is achieved. They’ll bring Ahmad back and file no charges. The father will explain to him, clearly and sternly, how to comport himself vis-à-vis the soldiers. That’s the condition. The Druze soldier will listen to this paternal lesson, father to son. They call the mother over, and she understands; the curses stop.

The officer seeks me out to tell me. Apparently, he has a need to explain himself. “I’m here,” he says, “to guard over everyone—these people, and the settlers on top of the hill, and you, too. That’s my job. We’re letting him go.”  I nod, relieved. The job description is revealing, though unpersuasive. I can’t quite bring myself to thank him—I’m all too aware of the mess he’s made—but slowly and carefully I say, “That’s good.” I’m sorry, now, as I write, that I couldn’t find in myself the generosity to thank him after all. I think that for a short moment he overcame something in his nature.

He asks if I’m with one of the organizations. “Ta’ayush,” I proudly say; “from almost the beginning, years ago.” I think I see him wince. He asks me what I teach at the University, and I tell him. He seems curious and slightly amused. “When you finish with all this,” I say, “you can come learn some Indian language with us.” He smiles. “Not me. I’m staying here. I like the Army.”

One of the jeeps turns around and drives off; ten minutes later they’re back with Ahmad. High noon. In the white heat, the white dust of South Hebron, the parents embrace their son. At once sheepish and insouciant, his wrists still bearing the deep marks of the cuffs, he goes off with his shepherd friends. In silence we walk the parents home.