Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.06.2007:
Like Peace Needs a Bicycle…
By Peter Stockton
‘Asira Shamilya is five kilometres to the north of Nablus and situated behind Mount Ebal, the highest mountain in the West Bank. Like most Palestinian villages, it does not appear to have much that is distinctive about it at first. It is set amid the hills and olive trees, and the air is good; but it’s not too remote to be immune from occupation. Sound familiar? However, it does have a bit of a reputation, and it’s a good one. And I had a nice day there. My wife, who is from Nablus, used to come here for picnics, and it’s still a pleasant place to cycle round, with its intense midday heat blanket, dusty pine smells, birdcalls and bees and, apart from that, an incredible silence. It has also dealt with some of the pressures of occupation in ways that may not be spectacular, but that seem to be effective.
We cycled to an example of one of these – a school that is located seven kilometres from the village, serving the teenage boys of ‘Asira and nearby villages. Not an obvious location unless you have it explained that some settlers and the Israeli army had once eyed it as a nice little place in the country and had made moves to build the dream. This prompted locals to do a big fund-raise to get a school built there instead, before it got to be declared a military zone or uncultivated land or some such legal nicety. The villagers built their school, and for their pains, it became a constant site of conflict during the first years of the second Intifada. A sniper shot one student who was trying to get back to his village – a memorial marks the place – and at one stage, soldiers closed the school and actually used it as a holding area for prisoners. Nice to think that you’re being taught in a room where your father or brother had been held prisoner, or worse. At other times, soldiers would throw gas into the school and taunt students going in and coming out. What is interesting (and I don’t know how much this is an ‘Asira thing, though it had already come up in a different context) is that the students were instructed not to respond. Don’t rise to the bait. Don’t throw stones. And they won. It’s a small victory, but the school is still there, still working. It reminds me of what a student of mine once said on the subject of litter: we should tackle the problem as if the occupation weren’t there. ‘Asira, perhaps, tries to tackle the problem of the occupation as if it weren’t there. Not always easy.
My guide for the day I had first met in Nablus a month before. He was going to spot me easily: on a bike, over 40, and foreign, but he didn’t say what he’d look like. But there he was, by the side of the main street going into Nablus, sporting what I can only call a handlebar moustache.
The first thing he had to do was buy some flowers for his garden. He’s unusual; he looks Prussian, and he likes to grow sweet peas – “the mouth of the fish” he tells me – that he’s bussed back to his village on the back of his bike. He’s unusual for other reasons too (in addition to the fact that he keeps cats). He has a few stories to tell.
We go upstairs to his office in the Refugee Affairs Department, past his rather nice-looking mountain bike – very cool but for the green plastic basket on the back, the practical bit for, among other things, sweet peas. Then he sits, framed by the window overlooking the hills around the town, and he tells me about a women’s cyclist group that are arriving today and how they’re probably going to be whisked off to Jerusalem and maybe Ramallah and Bethlehem.
“We’re the only bike group in the West Bank, but no one wants to come up to the north of the West Bank because it’s too difficult. Too many checkpoints. But that’s the whole point.”
He tells me that he started cycling three and a half years ago because it took too long to get into town. “I cycled in one day – ten kilometres around the mountains – and I rang the people who I’d left in the queue, and they were still there.”
A bike is a funny thing here. Neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a car, so you don’t need a permit for it, and you’re not a pedestrian, so you don’t have to queue. You can just cycle up and go through if the soldiers are in a good mood. If …
Three of his bikes have been broken by soldiers who’ve found the conundrum his bike poses too difficult. “They shot my wheels once, and I had to get a taxi to take my bike and me back to the village. I returned the next day and they sent me back, saying that I needed a permit.”
“Another time they held me for five hours in front of the people waiting at the checkpoint, and then they took me to Shavei Shimron, the settlement nearby. One of the soldiers put a rock on me and – the most disgusting thing – pissed on me.
He also describes a time, perhaps the worst in his life, when he was stopped during the winter of 2000 on the way back from Nablus, where he’d bought winter clothes. He was stopped for hours, stripped, beaten, and threatened with a troop-carrier to the head, until a message came on the radio ordering the soldiers to leave the area.
“The vehicle left, but what were they going to do with me? Kill me? One soldier came up behind me and kicked me down the hill. Then they left.
“I was right next to the village, so people knew what was going on, but they hadn’t been able to come out. After the soldiers left, they came with blankets and took me home. Both my arms were broken. I tell you, I watched our house being destroyed in ’76 and I’ve seen plenty, but I’d never experienced anything like this.
“For me, I hate those soldiers. I asked them how they would feel if they were in my place and I in theirs, and they didn’t answer. They just said that it would never happen.
“Afterwards, though, I felt stronger. When I was better, I went back to Nablus the same way, bought the same things from the same shop, and came home the same way, passing the place where they’d tortured me. They’d told me it was a military zone, but it wasn’t. Since then, it’s given me power and strength.”
This empowerment has informed his life since, a lot of it with his bike. Generally, biking works, and he cycles to Nablus every day. “You can go over the mounds of earth that block roads, and you can carry the bike through trees. But I don’t care if I meet soldiers now. In fact, I prefer to meet them so I can talk with them.”
This attitude has gotten people in the village interested, and now there are 25 cyclists, though only 10 bikes. “The economic situation. We are trying to get more.” The group has had some donations, though requests to Israeli cycle groups have met with no response so far.
My guide described what villagers had tried to do themselves: “With the closures, we started doing more things in the village and getting kids interested in cycling locally. Then last year, we started to work with people who couldn’t get to their land. ‘Asira has olive trees that are hundreds of years old, and it produces the best olive oil in the West Bank. But the army declared a lot of the olive trees to be in military zones, and the village wanted to challenge this. The harvest is in November, so we spent the month before preparing people. ‘Whatever happens, just carry on. Don’t react, but don’t stop working,’ people were told.
“So everyone went out to the trees during the olive harvest season. The old women prepared food, the children played in the trees, and everyone else picked.
“People got there at six, and then at eight-thirty the soldiers appeared and, using loudspeakers, told everyone to go home. Everyone just carried on although the soldiers fired in the air. In the end the soldiers came down closer to us, which was what we wanted so we could speak to them. The officer told us all to leave. We asked him to look at what was happening: people working, old women singing traditional songs, kids playing. The officer told us to finish what we were doing that day and not come back.
“The next day the villagers returned and carried on with their work. The soldiers also came back, and the officer asked why they’d come back when they’d been told not to. ‘Because it’s our land, and we’re not doing any harm, and we need to harvest the olives.’ ‘Then finish harvesting the olives and don’t come back,’ he told them.
“When the harvesting was finished, we came back with experts to clean the tress, to cut back the dead branches, and so on. When that was done, we came back with horses and donkeys to plough the land, and when we’d done that, we came back to rebuild the walls. And the soldiers just left us alone. Now the villagers can go to their land, and other villages are feeling encouraged to do the same.”
So it can be done. Perhaps it needs chutzpah, as they say over there. Cheek. How to build small victories. The outcome is that ‘Asira can at least harvest most of its olives; though this has created another problem that needs to be solved: the houses of the village are full of olives, olive oil, and its products. It is very hard to export through Israel or even Jordan. As I said, it’s not always easy.
As I leave, he gives me some still-warm taboun bread that his wife had baked and that we’d eaten for lunch. Oh, and two bars of fragrant, olive-oil soap. Slowly, slowly, ‘Asira solves its olive surplus problems.
Anyone know a quicker way?
Peter Stockton is an English language teacher in Nablus who works with Amideast. He is presently writing a book on the Prophets and their representation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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