DIASPORA STORIES: Abu Ismail
This guy - what a sweet man. He is the very essence of sumud, the Arabic word for resilience.
Anytime we stop by his gas station for a fill-up, he invites us to stay for a cup of coffee and a conversation about his beloved hometown, Battir. We’re always on a tight schedule, so we decline. This week I took him up on both offers.
In between the trickle of customers paying for gas or buying cigarettes, I heard the story of this man who deserved better than what the universe gave him, who had every right to be bitter, but wasn’t. He told me matter-of-factly the story of his life – but the story of his town really got him excited and proud.
Abu Ismael was born - promise me you won’t calculate his age - in 1948, the year of the war that birthed Israel and the Nakba, the Catastrophe.
He told me how, when war was imminent, his father sent his mother – who was great with child – to Bethlehem for safety. Abu Ismael was born in Bethlehem; when the war ended, the family reunited in Battir.
Railroad tracks, built during the Ottoman era, ran through the valley below the town. About 1/3 of the farmland belonging to the residents lay beyond the tracks. When the war ended in 1949, the tracks became the armistice line, leaving part of Battir’s farmland inside Israel. Luckily, the new state allowed these farmers access to their land - in exchange for keeping an eye on that stretch of the train’s route as it ran between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Abu Ismail remembers seeing Israeli soldiers on the other side of the valley, watching all the time; he recalls his father going to pick vegetables from his farm and loading them on the donkey for the trip back home.
Once, the donkey escaped and ran past the approved boundary, into Israel proper. When Dad chased it, he was caught, sent to Jerusalem, and interrogated for 3 days.
Now, decades later, we had a good laugh over the Donkey Incident, but at the time it must have been terrifying.
Abu Ismail looks back with great fondness on his years in Battir. Life was simple, life was good – except for the ever-present Israeli military.
After high school, he went to engineering school in Amman, Jordan. Finding a job was a challenge; eventually he ended up in Iraq where he did soil testing for years. Then he spent time in Abu Dhabi, where he started a business. It flourished for a while, then things went sour.
He was unable to find work in the Middle East, and eventually came to the States, where his son lives. One thing led to another and he found his way to Rockford. Now he runs the friendliest gas station in town, with plenty of carved olivewood gift items, imported from Bethlehem.
Before our conversation ended, Abu Ismail emphasized several points that are important to him.
First, his story is not like that of most Palestinians. He has been away from the troubles for years, while many Palestinians have to struggle every day with the occupation, and many entire towns have lost their source of income because of the wall.
Abu Ismail was also adamant that he feels no hatred for Jews and no desire to “destroy Israel” or “push anyone into the sea.” “We know that Israel is there,” he said. “We accept that. We just want to have respect and justice.”
After hearing my friend’s story, we turned to a photo gallery on my laptop, and his eyes lit up. He spoke with great enthusiasm and tenderness about his hometown, pointed out the various buildings, named the man who built the park, described his son’s wedding in the town square.
I got the feeling that while Abu Ismail is in the US bodily, his heart and soul remain in Battir.
The town is described by the Welcome to Palestine website as “spirited” and even “feisty.”
Putting up a fight
In 2007, residents of Battir sued the Israeli Defense Ministry when it revealed plans for its infamous Separation Barrier to cut through their farms and the irrigation system.
Battir’s farms are located on breathtaking man-made terraces, and fed by a 2,000-year-old irrigation system. A spring in the mountainside fills a pool, and each day a different family gets to channel water to their farmland. The ancient structure is still in operation today.
Battir earned the nickname “Basket of Vegetables” for its well-watered crops, which were famous in Jerusalem.
While the lawsuit dragged on, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) recognized the treasure of Battir’s farmlands, and awarded the town a $15,000 prize for "Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes."
In 2014, Battir became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as Land of Olives and Vines — Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir.
In 2015, the Israeli High Court ruled that the Separation Wall plan would have to be changed; as they explained, Battir’s terraces were also an Israeli heritage site.
While this was a great victory for one town, context is important. About 170 towns have been compromised by the barrier, which runs mostly inside the West Bank, effectively taking over almost 10% of the land that still belongs to the Palestinians.
As one Palestinian environmentalist put it, “If they want to not destroy the terraces, they will destroy other people’s land.” A true victory would be the removal of the wall altogether, and an end to the occupation.
Battir is a treasure.
Palestine is a treasure.
Every Palestinian - in Palestine, in Israel, in diaspora - is a treasure too.