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Figs in Palestine


young and old reaching

*Shaking figs from a tree.

Figs are a fruit I’ve only ever known as a dried and packaged treat that we import from the Middle East. Until I came to Palestine, I’d never seen a fresh fig, never imagined that the chewy fruit almost like candy was once a succulent and juicy fruit, refreshing in the summer season when they flourish.

In Ezbet Abed Rabbo, on the first day of Ramadan, I’m treated to figs of different varieties… I don’t yet know the difference, but their are Turkish figs, and other figs… My friends have a number of fig and other fruit and nut trees, and always insist on sharing. Now that it is Ramadan, that sharing, giving compulsion is all the stronger.

I recall figs from Susiya, in the south Hebron hills, where the Palestinians who’ve lived there for decades or more (some are original inhabitants, others have been displaced by the various Israeli wars and land annexations) struggle to exist amidst Israeli settler and soldier violence and harassment.

The life in Susiya and the other hamlets around the south Hebron hills could be so fulfilling: figs, saber (cactus fruit), tomatoes, cucumbers, plump grapes, olive and nut trees, and wheat once flourished. They still grow, but face the obstacles of Israeli settlers cutting down trees, setting fire to crops, plundering fruits, stealing land… and Israeli soldiers arbitrarily declaring areas ‘closed military zones’, severing the farming/herding residents from their land and sustainable means of living.

The figs in Susiya were delicious, as was everything grown there. Natural, local, fresh off the tree.

Susiya was the first place I experienced Ramadan. The life is simple (in the sense of the bare necessities) and (without the mentioned settler and soldier violations) pleasant, though continually labour-filled.

People sleep early in Susiya, 10 pm at the latest, and rise early 6 am at the latest, to bake bread, herd sheep, tend the poultry, …start the day as farmers do.

Ramadan in Susiya had a wonderful quality: stumbling out of sleep around 3 am for Suhoor, the stars still brightly visible (the illegal Israeli settlement spotlights also still blindingly visible). The air was fresh, and our meals took place either inside the tent at the open door or just outside on the rocks.

Once, Susiya residents lived in homes and in caves, caves made quite hospitable, with shelves etched into the rock, and rock carved into bed frames, upon which the standard narrow, flat mattress was placed. The caves were cool in summer, and with a small fire in winter they sufficed against the cold.

Relegated to shanty tents, their homes demolished (some multiple times) by the Israeli occupation army, their caves destroyed and filled-in with rubble, the Palestinians of Susiya now live in unnecessary discomfort (and unease, always fearing the next settler attack): hot during the summer and cold in winter, the frail plastic and canvas of the tents no match for blustering winds.

I phoned my Susiya friends the other day, missing them very much. It’s been 2 years since I saw them, and I know the settlers are no less vicious, the soldiers no more impartial.

Back in Gaza, I find places and people which remind me of Susiya… it’s not that far away, after all (less than an hour by car, were that possible), and it’s Palestine, after all.

The border regions, for example: in the Israeli-imposed “buffer zone”, where farmers face Israeli occupation army (very lethal) violence on a daily basis. Life is hard, and the land is more lush (some of the best agricultural land in Gaza; 1/3 of Gaza’s agricultural land lies in these areas forcibly-deemed off-limits by the Israeli authorities)… but the same quality of living off the land, the same pride in growing one’s own food, in tending fruit, olive, and yes, fig trees (those that haven’t been razed by Israeli military bulldozers on a rampage ordered from high up in the Israeli chain of command, to be sure).

The father of my friend, a pre-1948 Palestinian who recalls vividly his hometown, from which he was expelled during the Nakba, for the creation of Israel. He speaks of how his family farmed, worked the land, his work as a youth, their dispossession… coming to live in an overcrowded, haphazardly erected refugee camp…that has become permanent… His manner of recalling in calm but emphatic speech, the life story etched in lines and wrinkles on his face, the sporadic and warming laughter… he reminds me of a Susiya man, Khalil an Nawaja, Hajj Khalil, my favourite grandfatherly person.

And from a taxi window in Khan Younis camp, I spot an older man shaking the branches of a fig tree, drooped elegantly over a graffitied wall, as the toddler next to him waits expectantly for the fruit ( he wasn’t disappointed!).

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