Fifteen kilos of radishes in the Galilee and a vote

I met up with a group of friends, including a few of my favourite village boys. These boys are not a politically minded bunch. They don’t know the difference between the leftist democratic front (Jabha), the lefty-ethnic nationalist democratic assembly (Tajamu), the United Arab List, and so on. They don’t spend their nights over steamy Arabic coffees after trips to the theater discussing the latest election news.  

I’ve pretty much had the impression that these guys are village boys. They think politicians talk out of their asses while fingering the change in their pockets; they’ve seen enough local council leaders hire all their relatives once they get into power.

The West Bank is as distant as New Zealand to these boys. Forget they used to have wild nights in Ramallah and cheap shopping in Jenin, that their parents built their homes with Gazan labor. These boys now shop in Egypt, take their holidays in Eilat; work their asses off to build a house, when they find work.

I once asked a few of these guys what their identity was. They kind of laughed uncomfortably. “Why are you asking?” “Do you want me to go to jail?” “Hey, Israel and I are best friends” were the responses I got…and they know I’m ‘clean,’ not a collaborator.

So it kind of surprised me – threw me off – to hear these boys talking about a middle-aged lady in their village and her husband, accused of smuggling weapons from Hizbollah.

People were talking about it openly, how nobody suspected the polite owner of the corner store, their son already in jail; the word “Hizbollah” was used out loud.

Who are you going to vote for? I asked the boys. I didn’t normally ask questions like this, simply because its previously been a conversation killer. One wouldn’t vote on principle. The rest were going for Tajamu, a newish party on the block, made famous by its leader, Azmi Bishara, hounded and harassed by Israel’s right wing. More importantly, Bishara is an academic, philosopher, and a strong advocate for equal rights in Israel, a state with a democratic basis and a Jewish character, as opposed to what it is now, a Jewish state with a democratic character.

He first rose to popularity in these circles – the working poor and under classes when he organized trips to Syria for people to see their relatives…a lot of people these boys know went, including a few relatives.

We soon moved to my friend’s sister’s house, in a fairly poor working class area of Haifa. The local Tajamu representative came over. I met this guy last year on a different issue, of destroyed villages in Israel and the internally displaced refugees. We’ve been on good terms ever since. He isn’t an eloquent academic like Azmi, but that’s his charm. He came after slipping on his back, picking up some black money for moving furniture. In Fahd, you could see how Tajamu’s intellectualism translated for ordinary people.

Although Azmi claims that Tajamu is not his party, he is simply its leader (and Fahd claimed the same thing), it was hard not to laugh when Fahd would literally confuse the two when he got excited. But his heart was in the right place though. I liked the way he directly asked the boys, “What are you?” and he got gutsy answers – these are conversations I’ve never heard before, and I’ve been to a few heated debates. These aren’t the middle classes or the elites who know their jobs are secure or their best friend is a smooth talking lawyer. These guys literally rely on Israel for their jobs and future.

“Palestinian” “Palestinian” “Palestinian” “Palestinian”

Which became an argument about whether to vote, to give legitimacy to Israel or not; the consequences of not voting. The house we were in didn’t vote, again on a different principle. They belonged to the Islamic movement, and didn’t vote for Zionists. Tajamu was too secular for them, although Fahd is a respected friend, and they wouldn’t be budged into voting. Fahd must have picked the hardest neighborhood (it also happens to be his own) to get votes. Here, in his neighborhood, the ultra-nationalist Abna al-Balad (Sons of the Countryside) movement plan their ‘movement to boycott elections,’ the Islamic movement boycotts as well; and then all you have left are underclass Ethiopian and Russian Jews who wont vote an Arab party.

Over coffee, argileh, quotes from the Qur’an, Azmi Bishara, unemployment and how people felt about the Knesset and being loyal to the flag, the boys argued, joked, disagreed and decided they’d all be arrested. A middle-aged lady accused of smuggling weapons from Hizbollah and an open discussion on politics in loud voices…what was the world coming too?

A day later, I was in a village in the Galilee, visiting. My friend’s father who knows I like ‘that sort of thing’ gave me a leaflet. It was from the local Islamic movement…. I lost the leaflet; otherwise I’d translate it for you. It went something like this:

“Citizens, we are now facing uncertain times in the Middle East and it appears that there will be war. We ask all of you to be prepared by doing the following, for “Reminding may be useful for the believers” (Quoting from the Qur’an)

1.   Read Qur’an, pray five times a day; Remember God;
2.   Ensure that your gas masks are up to date and renewed
3.   Buy enough fresh water to last a month
4.   If you have a well, keep it in good order
5.   Stock up on canned foods

Yours sincerely,

the Islamic Movement

About an hour later, after prayer, my friend’s father came back with 15 kilos of radishes to be pickled. I peeled them to pass the time, finding out that my friend’s mother had already been to Sakhnin, a large Palestinian town nearby, to buy wheat for 1.5 shekels a kilo (about 75 cents Australian). She’d already made enough bread for a month.

Her son came over and almost fell down laughing. “Oh my God! You are taking this very seriously, aren’t you?”

His mother glared at him. He’d been overseas during the Gulf war, and had been called to be told the secret location of all the villagers’ gold and money, in case they all died.

“The ’67 war lasted six days,” his mother told me casually, “the Gulf war around 2 weeks. Israel is strong enough for any war, but I’m not taking chances. He can laugh at me like an old person from Mi’aar” (Mi’aar: a now destroyed Palestinian village once famous for stupidity…a role inherited to the village I was in). The elections were taboo once again in the house.

My friend’s mum told me not to talk about politics, “otherwise I’ll throw you off the balcony. We are more nationalist than anybody, but we don’t go around shooting off our mouths.”

Her kids wondered in and out, her daughters were visiting each other from their distant villages, in case they’d be separated in war, and I went to Shaab, a village nearby.

Shaab isn’t just famous for mini-skirted blue-eyed girls, it was the last Palestinian village to fall in the Galilee in 1948, and since then, who ever wasn’t forced to flee to Lebanon has been busy buying back their lands from the absentee property division in Israel, when they can. The village is surrounded by Israeli settlements, and Shaabi’s just keep building giant houses in defiance.

I told my friend about preparations in Nahef. She just laughed in disbelief and told me it was a typical response to life from the village I’d just been to. “Nobody here cares.” The village was busy with the upcoming elections, with big banners all over the village for Tajamu and the Jabha. I thought the houses had been wallpapered on the outside, the effect was very surreal.

Surreal or not, I made it back to Jerusalem half asleep. I knew I had arrived when an Israeli soldier stopped the car. It wasn’t the end of the world yet.

Diaa Hadid is public advocacy officer at LAW - the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment.