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The village of Tarkumia

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 28.07.2009:

Transhumance in Tarkumia An Exploration of Aspects of Palestinian Summer Identity

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

“Exploration is not so much a covering of surface distance as a study in depth: a fleeting episode, a fragment of landscape or a remark overheard may provide the only means of understanding and interpreting areas which would otherwise remain barren of meaning.” Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

The three-month summer vacation from schools liberates Palestinian families from the constraint of the temporal rhythm of school and from the constriction of space. The students are free, but the parents are equally liberated. This temporal space provides ample opportunities for exploration of self, of other, of place, and of time by means of travel. Travel is usually thought of as a displacement in space. This is an inadequate conception. A journey occurs simultaneously in space, in time, and in the social hierarchy. Each impression can be defined only by being jointly related to these three axes, and since space is itself three-dimensional, five axes are necessary if we are to have an adequate representation of any journey.

Travel is a form of exploration, a spark to the imagination, a quest, commerce, escape, and a means of self-discovery. The dislocation in space may be seen as an adventure, a means of exploitation, tourism, emigration, methodical alienation, and an expression of national identity formation and personal identity formation. When we travel we unsettle our identities, our everyday notions of gender, class, race, and self. Certain identities emerge and others disappear in transit. Narratives and other representations of travel shape and determine identity. Ultimately, only the anthropologist has actually lived this desire to lose the self in the Other through the emotionally cathartic disorientation of fieldwork: the anthropologist is the only practicing intellectual who is master of “his own intellectual alienation” made possible through travel.

Summer vacation has begun. Once again I am free to resume my ethnographic exploration of the West Bank villages, to take long rides in the countryside with Aida, and to visit my friends in the mountains, all of which had been precluded by my winter sojourn in Jericho and the school schedule.

I returned to Tarkumia to take photos of the last cave dwellings. Up to the turn of the century people used to bury the dead in the family hearth in the caves, a custom that betrays survival of ancient pagan traditions preceding Judaism and Christianity in the land of Canaan. Recently most cave dwellings have been levelled and replaced by handsome three-generation family apartment buildings. New fertile soil was purchased. The now-pitted caves became beds for verdant gardens attached to the new houses bespeaking post-1967 Palestinian economic prosperity. Only the Dababseh family has preserved its cave. This particular cave, now a family cemetery, has had a hold on my imagination for over two years.

Tarkumia has a magical ring.… The Arabic word echoes the old Roman name Tricomia, the four hamlets, known to the Crusaders as Trakemia. The four ancient Canaanite settlements are referred to as kufor in both ancient Canaanite and Arabic. These hamlets are Kufor Atta, now bearing the name Taybeh, Huraf, now known as Seif, Beit Naseen, and Natif. The ancient Canaanite capital, Yiftah, is the present-day town centre of Tarkumia. The village orchards and fields roll up from the foot of the Hebron mountains to straddle the surrounding hills that cover over twenty-two thousand dunums. Traditionally attached to Beit Jibrin, the village has been inhabited by Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, Hittites, Romans, and Crusaders whose traces are glimpsed in the genetic diversity ranging from dark-skinned dominant phenotypes and innumerable blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned genotypes. Historically Tricomia has stood as a sentry to the Shephelah (lowland), its valleys, its sites, and its routes, which became a battlefield between the Philistines and the Israelites. The struggles of that period illustrate how the open valleys of the Shephelah were coveted by people from the hill country in their quest to reach the coastal highway.

My student Fahed, whose family cave survives, was not in the village. During the summer vacation he joins the rest of the illegal migrant workers inside the Green Line. Instead I was received by Husni, a freshman at Al-Quds University. I was graciously hosted in the lush green garden within the family compound built on the site of the levelled family caves. All traces of history had disappeared under innumerable truckloads of soil. By way of consolation, Husni’s father took me to explore the ancient Canaanite khirbeh, known locally as Taybeh, literally the beautiful spot. The long dusty track through the vineyards and fruit orchards leads past the rubble of the ancient Kufor Atta to a number of ancient cave dwellings on the summit of the mountain.

“These used to be our homes long before we moved to Tarkumia. It remains our land,” Abu Husni explained. He pointed to a sheep pen, “I used to graze the sheep here as a youth. This is where I used to sleep…” My eyes followed his finger to a niche in the rocks.

Anthropologists always face the paradox expressed eloquently by Claude Levi Strauss in Tristes Tropiques; unfortunately we arrive on the scene either too late or too early. As I walked next to Abu Husni I snapped photos while trying to hide my deep disappointment. He was inarticulate about the way of life that had long disappeared. Barely 44 years old, he had not experienced or most probably did not want to remember the caves and the dire poverty and misery that such memories would bring up. The rubble and the caves stood as mute stones and rocks. Though his ancestors originated there, history did not speak to him. The poetry of time and place did not intimate transience and immortality. An officer in the intelligence department in the Palestinian Authority, he was not taken with the mythos of the land but rather embroiled in the ongoing Hamas/Fateh conflict. He soon apologised that he had to return to his office, and I was left alone with his son Husni.

The mountains of Tarkumia are beautiful. On the way to Gaza it was the last village we crossed before entering the Green Line. Twenty years ago I made a painting of the landscape that I still treasure on my wall in Jerusalem: A Mountain Path.

I stayed behind walking in the grazing fields surrounded by olive, fig, apricot, plum, and peach trees, admiring the vineyards cascading in orderly terraces into the horizon. In the open spaces, ba’ali plots of land looked very well maintained. I was now inside the painting. All stones and pebbles were removed, the land was well ploughed.

“Obviously they love their land,” I mused to myself as Husni trudged next to me. The golden wheat sheaths caught the rays of the slow late-afternoon sunset. From the coast glared the thick haze of humidity that blew over the mountain top as a soothing moist breeze. At that moment, when the long, dry, hot day gives way to the freshness of the evening, human voices became audible. I followed the dusty path in search of the speakers. Imagine my surprise upon seeing a handsome, blonde, hunky, fair-skinned, blue-eyed man dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt with two children beside him fighting over whose turn it was to ride the donkey.

“How old are your children?” I asked after I had introduced myself.

“I am only nineteen. They are my brothers!” Ahmad exclaimed. “I am a student at Al-Najah University in Nablus,” he added proudly.

“Where are you from?”

“We are from Tarkumia. The summer vacation has begun, and I am not taking summer courses.” He pointed in the direction of a cottage house among the orchards. “We live here in the summer.”

I followed his hand movement and I saw, scattered amidst the orchards, a few field houses. The style, finishing touches, and type of structure reflected the socio-economic status of the individual family.

The mountain summer residences, in general, are composed of a single room wherein mattresses are stacked and food is stored. Irrespective of the money expended in this summer house each residence had, de rigueur, a protruding mastabeh invariably with a north-western view. The mastabeh is an elevated flat platform of cement that may be used alternately for sleeping and for whiling away the night. By necessity the platform is either covered with palm leaves for shade or is built under the shade of a huge fig tree or a vine that would offer protection from the scorching sun during the day and the heavy fall of night dew.

“We will be here for the summer,” Ahmad repeated. “My brothers’ school year has ended and we have moved up here.”

“It is the custom in Tarkumia,” explained Husni. “Families that own land move up to the mountain to tend the ba’ali vegetables, to plough the land around the olive and fruit trees, to fix up the terraces, and to harvest the wheat. Many move with their sheep to graze. They also bring their chickens for fresh eggs and their flour to bake bread.”

Along the way I had already noticed that they depend on the ancient water well. Children walk to the well. The boys pull out the water in buckets scattered amidst the orchards and empty them into plastic containers; the girls help load them onto donkeys.

“But settlers harass us,” Ahmad explained. “They attack us from the settlements of Natif and Adora.”

“Those whose lands are adjacent to the settlements are terrorised by settlers and by Israeli soldiers. They don’t allow them to build the traditional cottages. They bulldoze them and don’t allow them to graze their sheep on their land or harvest their own crops,” Husni elaborated.

In Dura later that evening my old friend Abu Ali explained: “Summer vacation to the Palestinian peasant is not a two-week journey to Italy or Spain. Rather it is a rejuvenation of the self through total immersion in the land. Indeed many peasants bi-azbu (spend the summer in the mountains).” After a moment of silence he inquired, “But did you eat from the fakous in the valley?”

Fakous is a local variant of cucumber. It is a typically ba’ali vegetable whose sweet taste Palestinians cherish. In the foothills of Taybeh, on the borders of Idna, the fields specialise in fakous.

Between the two villages, on a hill that commands a panoramic view of the fields, stands the well-preserved sanctuary of al-Sheikh Saleh; a dignified testimony to the deep roots of Palestinian cultural identity in ancient Semitic and Philistine civilisations. On a clear winter day, in the distant horizon, the chimneys of Ashkelon factories visibly belch their toxic fumes. The idyllic pastoral image of the farmers collecting the fakous within the sight of the sanctuary assumes a precarious vulnerability within the encroaching danger of Israeli colonialism.

Summer is here. Flashes of palm trees, green cabbage fields, goats and shepherds, hints of orange blossom, richly foliated petals of tea roses and recollections of innumerable lunches with friends and family will join the image repertoire of past winters in Jericho. By May most Jericho winter homes were closed down. The long march to spring in Jerusalem punctuated by Easter culminates with the maturing of the succulent aromatic baladi mishmesh (local ba’ali apricots) by early June. The ritual apricot marmalade preparation celebrates the passing over of the cold, wet rainy season. The scholastic year in both schools and universities comes to an end. Winter is over. Summer vacation has begun.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear and Jerusalem in the Heart. Forthcoming is Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at


July 2009

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