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Palestinian Land Tenure, Picnics, and Volcanoes

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.01.2008:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Come live with me and be my Love

And we will all the pleasures prove

That hills and valleys, dale and field

And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks

And see the shepherds feed their flocks,

By shallow rivers, to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals

Christopher Marlowe

Spring is born in the midst of winter.

Whether a thick cluster of almonds in an orchard, with a shepherd and his flock of sheep grazing the fresh green grass around the tree trunks, or standing single, solitary, and forlorn in full splendour against the background of a greyish landscape, the picturesque almond blossoms are the harbingers of summer. Beneath the cold sunlight of January, delicate white petals tinged with a blush of rose bud out of the grey branches. Almond trees do not blossom all at once. Each individual tree and each geographic zone has its own rhythm. The first trees to blossom appear in the woods of Jerusalem and the last in the Roman ruins of Sebastya.

As January dissolves into February, life quickens in our mountains; other trees and flowers burst in colour. Under the canopy of pine woods we begin to look out for the cyclamen that grows in thick patches. Up the rocky terrain clamber red anemones, crocus, wild hyacinth, and miniature deep-blue iris.

Our country rides constitute a cultural discourse with nature. I grew up in a generation for whom a country ride was almost a daily family ritual. Improvised picnics with tea kept warm in a thermos. Sandwiches with labaneh and cucumber, zaatar, or mortadella furnish my childhood recollections with their warmest memories. Our country rides, driving not too fast but not too slow, were pastoral ventures. El-mishwar (the car ride) for shammet el-hawa (breathing fresh air) was our contact with nature.

“Picnics are relatively new,” my 48-year-old friend Mash-hur from the village of Rammim explained. “Nowadays youth from the village go to the orchards and barbecue meat … When I was young, this was unthought-of …”

“They probably did not have money then,” I argued.

“No. They lived in nature … they worked the land. For them the countryside is not imbued with the sense of marvel and magic that it holds for city people. When I take my children to the village and show them the flowers or bubbling water bursting from the rocks or soil after rain … my family does not relate to our fascination!”

I recall my third visit to Beit Ummar. Abu Nasser, six weeks later, had not yet returned to Amman. I was charmed by his explanation:

“I am waiting for the first rainfall. I am waiting for the smell of the soil and of the trees during the first rain; I miss the pattering sound as the rain falls in the hosh (courtyard) and as it runs into the conduits leading to the water well …” He added, “In my modern villa in Amman, I don’t experience the change of seasons.”

The transformation of the relationship to nature among the Palestinian peasants, who have become either white-collar professionals in the West Bank cities or in the Gulf or blue-collar workers in the Israeli economic sector, corresponds to a heightened sense of nostalgia for the land and for the change of seasons. The delight in nature takes the form of picnics …

“Where do you picnic?” I asked Abu Mujahed and Sarah from Bet Suriq.

“We picnic in our orchards … under our trees …”

Abu-Shadi from Halhul picnics in the grazing land on a high promontory in the mountains of Hebron overlooking the coastal plain and the villages scattered in the cascading mountains …

“Apart from grazing pastures or orchards, don’t you have nature?”

Abu-Mujahid looked puzzled.

“By nature,” I tried to make myself clear, “I mean the natural environment, el-tabee’ah or wilderness, el-barrieh/el-khalaa – those places that have not been substantially altered by human intervention. You know, places in nature that exist independent of human will or consciousness; a virgin land.”

“There is no virgin land,” cautioned Abu Mujahed. “Palestine is an old country and people have been living here for thousands of years. Recently, the Palestinian landscape was surveyed during the Turkish Tanzimat of the 1850s, and each plot of land has its owner with land registry …”

According to the Ottoman Tanzimat, all land belonged to the state and the inhabitants were allowed six legal means of using it. 1) Mulk – private ownership. This was the only actual non-government private land in Palestine to which people had inalienable ownership rights. 2) Miri – the most common form of tenure, consisting in absolute ownership by the state and leased to private individuals subject to payment of the land tax. Individuals could purchase a deed to cultivate this land and pay a tithe to the government. Ownership could be transferred only with the approval of the state. Miri rights could be transferred to heirs, and the land could be sub-let to tenants. 3) Waqf – which was actually miri except that, upon expiration of the founder’s line, it passed to charitable purposes. 4) Metruke – common land used for roads, grazing, etc. 5) Mewat – wasteland claimed by the state but often used by Bedouin or Fellaheen. 6) Jiftlik or mudawara lands – private lands that had been bequeathed to the Sultan and were therefore government property. The largest such parcel was the Beisan area, which consisted of 302,000 dunums. The second-largest jiftlik area was in Rafa and comprised 90,000 dunums. The third-largest jiftlik area was in the Jericho district and covered about 75,000 dunums. The government could lease these lands to tenants in such a way that they were not liable to eviction as they were on miri land.

Sarah, daughter of Jamileh from Bet Shinneh, patiently explained the various usages of land in the Palestinian village. There are five classifications, each corresponding to the particular agricultural usages specific to the terrain and determined by the proximity to or the distance from the land to the village.

The hakurah is the courtyard garden adjacent to the house in the village itself. The term denotes the empty space between buildings, and its produce is for domestic use. Scallions, parsley, mint, radishes, spinach, and leeks are planted. A vine for the areesheh (gazebo) is a must as well as a lemon tree. The hakurah cannot be more than 50 square metres.

The mikthat (vegetable field) is reserved exclusively for planting zucchini, tomatoes, lupines, beans, and cucumbers, and is a minimum of 20 dunums in size. In early February and March, we begin ploughing, fertilizing, and preparing the land for planting seedlings of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, etc. They give fruit from July to November.

The karem (orchard) is used for fruit trees: plums, almonds, olives, figs, grapes, and apricots. The grapes are made to climb on the terraces. The pruning of these trees and vines takes place in February.

El falhah (ploughed land) is used for cereals such as wheat, barley, lentils, and chickpeas. The minimum size is nine dunums. The seeding begins as early as November, after the first rain in September. Cereals are harvested in April.

El boar is the grazing land. This invariably rocky terrain lies on the distant outskirts of the village and is mashaa’ (communal land). There one picks the wild zaatar, miramieh (sage), and other herbs for traditional medicinal purposes. Some communal land can be used for planting cereals if the terrain permits ploughing.

Nature in its essential form, as land untouched and untainted by human influence does not exist as such.

There is no virgin land in Palestine. All land belongs to individual villages, and the desert is territorially portioned among the Bedouins.

But the concept of el-khalaa (roughly equivalent to the concept of wilderness) exists. El-khalaa refers to land that is far away from the village, be it privately owned or communal, and feared because it is felt to be haunted by wild animals such as hyenas, wolves, foxes, boars and, of course, highway robbers. As such the three ancient oak trees on the way to Bet Suriq may be considered wilderness, i.e., pertaining to nature.

“The memory of hyenas and wolves lurking behind the ancient oak trees and devouring the late-night traveller are common tales … ya latif!” Sarah wanted to quickly change the horrid subject.

“Wilderness (el-khalaa) includes the distant orchards, the scattered pine woods, the few oak trees, and the thickets where dangerous animals prowl around. These lands may belong to the village communally or be private property. There is no land that does not have an owner. What appears as wasteland or wilderness is someone’s property,” Abu Mujahid explained.

The word “wilderness” (el-khalaa – unpopulated land) connotes the notion of “wildness”; in other words, that which is not controllable by humans. From this point of view, it is the wildness, the lack of people in a place, which makes it a wilderness. The mere presence or sporadic activity of people does not disqualify an area from being “wilderness.” Many ecosystems that are, or have been, inhabited or influenced by activities of people are considered “wild.” This way of looking at wilderness includes areas within which natural processes operate without human interference.

Wilderness is nature; the picnic par excellence is in the family olive and fruit orchards. This is the area where the muntar used to be built, the watchtower remnants that still dot the Palestinian countryside and where peasants used to live watching over their fruits during the summer season until the olive harvest finishes in autumn.

With the despoiling of the communal grazing lands and woods by the settlements and the destruction and bulldozing of the orchards and vegetable fields for building the Separation Wall, an inarticulate sense of manque à être, of an existentially sensed lack, found its expression in a particular art form. A copy of a painting of an idealized natural scene has assumed a prominent position on the wall of most Palestinian homes next to the iconic Dome of the Rock picture. This picture of a beautiful exotic landscape has come in lieu of the close-up picture of the child with a tear dropping from his/her eye.

This picturesque landscape composition juxtaposes elements of nature and culture in a never-never land. In the overall context of pristine nature, a lake or river is surrounded by evergreen mountain forests with verdant borders, a waterfall, and a log cabin stands peacefully. The repertory elements of nature and their relationship to the human person living in peaceful isolation, in the context of political usurping of land and intensified violent local village feuds, is an expression of a collective wish for otherness. In the desert, among Bedouins, the popular image is of Venice and its canals; the magic of a city with lots of water …

In this context our country rides from Jerusalem through the scenic routes that meander past the various villages – a series of disconnected pictures through the window – are infinite mental photographs that combine both landscape and people. These mental images represent nature not as wilderness but as pastoral vignettes that express our underlying nostalgia for the other. Our haneen, melancholic nostalgia, is compounded by the nightmare produced by the Israeli settlements and the grey Wall whose power of destruction is as strong as earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes.

Before the mountains disappear I drive through our countryside and feel nostalgic for our fields and valleys even as I look at them.

I breathe our mountain air and yearn for it at the same moment.

I fear that the mountains of the West Bank will turn into residential barracks for Jewish settlers.

This fear is no longer a transient nightmare that disturbs our sleep.

The truth is clear and bitter.

In the near future, each Palestinian city and each village will be surrounded by a thick belt of settlements and we will be strangers in our land.

Sooner or later, short of a miracle, the mountaintops will disappear from the horizon, will become extinct, and will retreat to become hostage in a few nature reserves.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

February 2008

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