It was about this time last year as I was preparing to return home after my second 3-month term as an ecumenical accompanier that I took my last walk on the wild side. The last for now…
Wild, as in desolate, rugged, rough, remote, sparsely inhabited…
Wild, as in unrestrained, out of control, senseless, crazy, ludicrous…
Known as Masafer Yatta by the local Palestinians, this wild, seemingly desolate, rugged, rough, remote and sparsely populated area sits in the far south of the occupied West Bank bordering the “green line” – the unofficial boundary between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. It is a haunting landscape of deep valleys and rocky hills that found its way into my very soul. Parched brown in summer and fall it is carpeted green in winter and spring. There are no paved roads.
Walking this terrain, we occasionally come across a small village ~ 12 of them, actually ~ where several extended families live in tents or caves and make their living as shepherds and subsistence farmers as their ancestors have done for generations. Children appear “out of nowhere,” on donkey-back or running alongside ~ shepherd boys with their sheep and goats fan out across the valley ~ the odd camel wanders by ~ a farmer with his small tractor or donkey and iron plough works the land ~ women wave us to their tents ~ Ahlan wa Sahlan ~ Welcome! We arrange ourselves on mats and are served hot tea, delicious Bedouin bread, and a special hard goat cheese that has dried in the sun ~ little ones play at our feet ~ communication is limited ~ the women smile ~ they are glad we have come ~ sometimes words are overrated and unnecessary ~ we have entered another world… It is to this land that I longed to return for one last walk on the wild side before my departure last year.
Abed, our friend and driver/translator, also longed to return ~ to be able to walk these wild hills and valleys. It is the land of his birth. He knows the terrain like the back of his hand. The land is part of his soul. But to him it is forbidden! This walk on the wild side is not for everyone, meaning not everyone is able to choose to walk this land! The indigenous Palestinian people are occupied by a cruel, inhumane army ~ they live under military rule ~ and the state of Israel has declared this land to be “Firing Zone 918” ~ land that is needed for military training purposes. Thus, Palestinians who do not live there are forbidden entry. And Palestinians who do live there live in a state of fear because the ultimate goal of the state is to dispossess the local population. They fear the bulldozers will make them homeless ~ fear their two small schools will be demolished ~ fear the soldiers will conduct another night raid ~ fear their children will be arrested ~ fear the settlers will harm their flocks ~ fear their village will be obliterated ~ fear they will be expelled as has already happened to several neighboring villagers. This too is wild ~ as in unrestrained, out of control, senseless, crazy, ludicrous… Not to mention inhumane!
We have come full circle, and it is our last day in the south Hebron Hills. Each person on our team has expressed a desire to pack a picnic and spend this day visiting villagers in these hills and valleys ~ a way of saying good-bye to what we have come to love. Abed longs to accompany us. But he is apprehensive, because he is forbidden! Has the army been active in the area in recent days? Would he be safe in the company of internationals? His wife is pregnant with their first child. Is it prudent? He weighs the risks. He seeks the council of his father, his friend, and his brother. Ultimately it is the call of the land and the tug of his own heart that prevail.
We spend an amazing day together walking the land. We visit families and enjoy the tea graciously offered. And this time, with Abed’s help, we can communicate with words! Late in the day, we perch on the ubiquitous rocks and share a simple picnic. Everyone is comfortable in the silence. The day has been meaningful and memorable in many ways, and each of us is occupied by our own thoughts and feelings. I am feeling a mixture of gratitude and nostalgia as I say my goodbyes ~ I wonder what Abed is feeling ~ At times during the day he has seemed reflective and melancholy ~ a deep sadness settling over him like a cloud. At other times he has exuded a sense of euphoria, scampering over the rocky landscape ~ relishing his freedom. In those moments it was as if his soul was singing! This is my land ~ I am home!
Returning to the present moment and mindful of the lengthening shadows, we pack up and begin to retrace our steps. Suddenly the idyllic scene and the tranquil calm of our peaceful day are shattered by explosions in the distance and helicopters overhead. Military training! This is wild as in crazy, insane, senseless. Our pace quickens ~ our hearts beat faster ~ our stomachs tighten ~ But we realize that we can walk away from it all ~ The friends we visited earlier this afternoon live here!
As we round the top of the last hill, Abed speaks from his heart and thanks us for this day ~ for this opportunity to once again walk the land that claims him, the land in all of its wildness ~ And in so many ways it is wild! ~ For starters, we are the outsiders, and yet he thanks us for creating for him a feeling of safety so that he could take the risk of doing what we take for granted ~ walking the lands that claim our hearts ~ lands that are home… Making our way to the car, I reflect on the wildness of the day. For the goodness in this wildness I am deeply grateful. Against the insanity, cruelty and inhumanity in this wildness, I pledge to speak out ~ Will you join me?