Arts News __Featured Slider — 29 March 2013
An Alexandria photographer forges new bonds in Palestine

By Susan Hale Thomas

Cloudlike puffs of our breath escape as we giggle, buried under six blankets and illuminated by our smartphone flashlight apps, trying to figure out how we’re going to make it through the night.

There is no warmth save what an old kerosene heater that is propped up on an old broom handle gives off. It’s powerless against the farmhouse’s icy stone walls. Creeping across the marble floor to use the bathroom is unthinkable — the cold penetrates the thickest of wool socks straight into our bones.

Without any discussion, we end up in the middle of the bed hoping to create a warm spot. Excited for our first full day on the farm, we manage to fall asleep quickly.

We’re in Palestine to make a documentary on behalf of the Middle East Investment Initiative, a nonprofit formed to stimulate economic development in the region. It has brought us to the tiny, hilly village of Nisf Ijbal in northern Palestine. But except for the Arabic and occasional Yasser Arafat graffiti, one would think we were in southern France — the rocky hills are covered in sweet-smelling herbs.

Our driver, Eshak, left us the day before and will return for us the following evening. He’s protective and has become our friend. He already had called to check in on us, making sure we were OK since no one had met the farmer before our arrival. But we felt right at home, making buddies with the family’s three children, all younger than 5.

That first morning the sun is at least an hour or more from rising when Athan, the Muslim call to prayer, begins. I bolt upright and stare directly at the videographer, Caroline, traveling with me. It feels as if we had just fallen asleep, but the prayer, which sounds as if it’s coming from under the bed, has jolted me awake.

 

I love the prayers that drift across the cities of North Africa and the Middle East, but this one is piped through a loud speaker directly above the farmhouse. It’s meant for the entire valley below to hear and even wakes Caroline, who has managed to sleep through everything else these past three weeks.

I mutter something and can’t go back to sleep. We laugh at the absurdity of the early hour. The heater has gone out, and it’s still dark. The rooster is up and so are we, shivering as we slide into our frosty, dirty clothes.

The fruits of labor

The air is crisp, the sun toasty and a beautiful breakfast — all from the farm — has been set out on the terrace outside our room: warm pita, zaatar, olive oil, olives, halloumi cheese and tea spiced with maramia, a sweet herb that grows in the hills surrounding the village. I feel my bones defrost with the tea and the sun’s heat. The farmer and his wife soon join us for the morning meal.

Imagine Daniel Day-Lewis in a Gilligan hat, and that’s Khadir, the farmer. His wife is a very slight and shy Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike.

They sit with us while their three children play in the sunshine. “Saha,” we all say, the Arabic equivalent of bon appetit. We speak very little Arabic, and Khadir speaks very little English. Somehow we manage to communicate through smiles, gestures and the Arabic book I occasionally pull out. Our company isn’t awkward but rather refreshing and real. We’re curious about each other.

We found Khadir through a farming cooperative in northern Palestine and were told he is a proud innovator. After years of working illegally in a plastics factory in Israel to support his family, he is finally able to make his living off his land in Palestine.

He worked nights for six years, sleeping on the factory floor and never seeing daylight or his children. Khadir has since joined the farming cooperative, which supports fair trade. Together, the farmers have implemented organic farming techniques, begun selling their products internationally and seen their income double. It’s a big step for Palestine and its farmers, and it’s been a successful move for Khadir.

A trip into town

Eager to show us his village and farm, Khadir leads us through the dusty streets after breakfast, greeting the women opening their windows and the men gathering out in the narrow streets for their first cigarette of the day.

At the village school we plant olive saplings as the children and teachers arrive for classes. Because the children and teachers are distracted by the spectacle of us filming, school starts late.

Still, they serve us coffee, chocolates and cookies, as Palestinian hospitality dictates. I detest coffee, and this coffee is particularly strong, like sludge in a cup. Unable to choke it down and fearful I will offend our hosts, I switch my cup with Caroline, unbeknownst to her. I confessed my sin days later on the plane ride home.

We stop by another olive grove to get Khadir’s horse, a small animal with a sweet demeanor. A few children and the farmer’s son, Mohamed, who is celebrating his fifth birthday, join us, skipping along the way.

Winding down the road to the bottom of the village we reach another grove where we stop to clear some underbrush. It’s winter and Khadir is busy with maintenance work as the harvest has ended. Yet another pot of tea arrives, and we sit in the dirt for our third beverage break of the morning.

Since there’s not a lot of work to be done, Khadir has the luxury of entertaining us and leads us up a valley along a stream. Terraced rocky hills spotted with more olive trees rise up on either side of us. These hills belong to Khadir and his family. He is proud to share his farm with us. It is stunningly beautiful here, and he can tell we are pleased and enjoying ourselves.

Khadir thinks it would be fun to put Caroline up on the barebacked horse and lead her. It turns comical — she can’t get up without the assistance of two men, who must pick her up and put her on the horse. Khadir stops to take a picture of her for a keepsake. At some point I end up on the back of the horse with Khadir.

With the temperature rising, we’re glad to be outside and warm. We sit along the crystal clear stream, enjoying the sun and watering the horse.

Khadir squats down and cups the water into his hands, takes a sip and then splashes the rest onto his face. We share some apple juice and feed the horse cookies.

A few local girls make their way down the streambed, laughing despite soaked jeans. I talk soccer with some of the local boys by sketching a field in the dirt with a twig. From this, we manage to teach each other some English and Arabic.

We are family

Saving the best for last, later in the afternoon Khadir takes us to the top of his mountain with the tractor. Caroline and I ride in the back of a trailer with a couple of the kids — I take pictures while she films. The dirt road is steep and washed out, but the view is breathtaking and worth being jostled about. We’re filthy and completely in awe. We’ve all bonded and don’t want the day to end. We sit in silence on the rocks, stretching the time in an attempt to make it last. The light is golden, the sky a deep blue and the ground covered in sweet oregano.

A little later Eshak managed to find us at the top of the mountain and is happy to join us for a sit. He translates, but we’ve understood all along despite the language difference: Khadir wants us to know we are welcome anytime. We are family now.

We ended the evening back on the terrace with a delicious chicken and rice meal. The kids are washed, the sun has set, the moon is up and it’s time for bed. The children’s laundry sways in the evening breeze. We hug the kids, toss the littlest in the air and say our goodbyes.

We feel the same, Khadir. We are family now.

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