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Points of Departure -- Part 2

Linda Dittmar
November 5, 2017
Photo above: Palestinian ruins in forest (photo credit: Deborah Bright)


by Linda Dittmar

In Part 1 of “Points of Departure,” as the writer and her touring companion, Deborah, travel through a Jewish National Fund pine forest in Israel’s Gilboa region, they come across stones that might, or might not, be the remnants of a Palestinian home from before the Israel-Arab war of 1947-48. Tensions rise and an argument breaks out. To read Part 1 in full, prefaced by a background introduction, click here.

IF OUR forest detour had suggested that it would be hard for us to disregard the Nakba, the next morning confirmed that. Once named, even if by way of an argument over some scattered stones, thoughts of the Nakba tugged at each of us. Here was the photographic project that had enticed Deborah as an outsider, but also a repressed chapter of my own Israeli history that I could no longer, not quite, deny.

It was just after dawn when we woke up in the youth hostel of Beit Shean, a good time to explore the neighborhood with a camera, especially as the town sits at the edge of the Jordan Valley, prostrate in the heat that seeps in from the east. The mountains that surround this bowl of a valley trap the heavy air so that by midmorning, everything already shimmers with refracted light. But at this early hour, as we left the building, the light was still limpid, pale gold, and there was still a slight breeze in the air. It was a good time to be out in the open.

“I’m going that way,” Deborah said, heading to the left, her “I” making it clear that she wants to explore the area alone, perhaps all the more so given our argument the previous evening. Standing by a large empty lot, two or more city blocks in size, I watched her head for a phalanx of cheaply built apartment blocks developed for some of Israel’s poorest immigrant communities — mostly North African, Gruzinians (Georgians), and newcomers from from Central Asia whom Israelis referred to as “Russians”. The lot looks so empty, I thought. Just thorns, smashed tiles, and wind-tossed garbage, as far as I could tell, though a row of low houses at the far end intrigued me. Those low houses were nothing like the standard-issue apartment blocks where Deborah had vanished.

[caption id=“attachment_64856” align=“alignright” width=“287”] Beisan, circa 1935[/caption]

I had to tread carefully as I stepped over and through the rubble strewn throughout the lot. Mostly I needed to watch out for thorns, but at one point I noticed a piece of a rusting valve still attached to a corroding pipe fragment. Should I save it as a souvenir? As evidence? Those single-storied houses, I discovered when I drew near, were strung together along the smashed asphalt of a neglected street, with their dented metal doors and splintering window frames sunk helter-skelter into stone arches now roughly sealed with cinderblocks. The sweep of the arches, the decorative use of black volcanic stone, and fragments of decorative wrought iron all spoke of the Palestine that had existed here before 1948, before concrete blocks and urban master plans turned Arab Beisan into Israeli Beit Shean.

At one time these few remaining buildings were part of a busy commercial street, I realized. That was when the place was still a provincial Ottoman capital, and then a commercial Arab center under the British, before the padlocks on the shops’ makeshift doors rusted. Now these abandoned buildings mostly stored construction materials behind their sealed arches. One shop was half-heartedly spruced up to sell hand-made crafts for which there seemed to be no buyers: candles, ceramic bowls, and Jewish mezuzah door blessings. Its padlock was new. A separate building nearby, hugging a spacious courtyard, was probably once an elegant home. It now stood derelict, with shreds of awning dangling from a twisted frame that at one point had hung over the courtyard. A rusting Hebrew sign spoke of a failed Israeli attempt at a restaurant.

I don’t know how long I stood there, surveying this dereliction. Was it seconds or minutes before I allowed myself to register what was so hard for me to admit, that the buildings I was staring at were not merely old, but Palestinian? Not too long ago, somebody put sacks of cement inside one of them and padlocked the doors. Someone tried to open a modest gift shop. Another hoped to start a restaurant and failed. The empty lot I had just crossed was not empty either. It was a demolition site where absence resonates with presence, where bits of ceramic tile, stone, and plumbing testify to people having lived there, knowing daily joys and sorrows. Yesterday’s argument with Deborah returned with a rush: it is a choice whether or not to see a razed city block as empty, the stones strewn among the trees as nature’s outcroppings.

- - - - -

A FEW DAYS LATER, when Deborah and I visited Tzipori National Park in the Galilee, that reality became even harder to avoid. Like Beit Shean, Tzipori’s main attraction is archaeological: the ancient town of Tzipori had seen recurrent settlement through the millennia, including the usual list of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, and assorted Muslim rulers through the Ottoman era. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Tzipori also became an important Jewish center -- the seat of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish communal assembly) and the place where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi shaped the oral law into the Mishna codex. As at other archaeological sites, you park, pay admission, and tour the excavated remnants of the ancient settlements along marked paths, assisted by brochures and explanatory signs.

What I did not expect, though, were the huge clumps of prickly-pear cactus that lined Tzipori’s gravely paths. Untended and at times rising as high as seven feet or more, they would buckle periodically under the weight of their large, top-heavy limbs, the succulent leaves decomposing in the merciless sun. If you bend to look closely, you will see their oval, putrefying leaves sending roots into the sunbaked earth, with young fleshy shoots already peeking out of the rot.

There was something eerily feral about this vigorous determination to propagate. Life was renewing itself out of decay with shocking determination. The huge succulent creatures were crawling over the desiccated land onto the gravely paths, their large silver-grey leaves like metallic shields in the bright sun, bristling with dagger-like thorns.

“So these are the village cactuses that ten years ago you wouldn’t let me photograph?” Deborah asked. She was only half-teasing.

I just nodded, stunned.

“There is so much of it here,” I said later, back in the car. “The park rangers can’t keep up with it .” It was worse than anything I had imagined, left to propagate in full view. Do tourists think it’s just landscaping?

“We need to come back,” Deborah said. I nodded. We were mostly silent on our way home.

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AN ARCHIVAL photograph of Saffuriyya (Tzipori’s Arab name), taken in 1932, shows a huge village crowding a wide hill. Three years before the war, in 1945, it was the largest Palestinian village both in population (4,330) and size. By the time Deborah and I came there, in 2005, all we could find was an attractive Jewish moshav (cooperative village), a large sprawling pine forest, and the archaeological park where cactuses now pass for ornament. A more recent photograph shows the same view, entirely covered by forest. Only the Crusader Qal’a fort remains, towering at the hilltop.

[caption id=“attachment_64708” align=“alignright” width=“300”] Newly planted pines and prickly pear cactus (photo credit: Deborah Bright)[/caption]

We did return to Saffuriyya in 2006, this time heading for the forest — a forest clearly planted by Man: uniform non-native pines, all of the same age, spaced with unswerving determination in regular rows. Signs tell you that it’s a JNF forest, the plantings donated, as they were on the Gilboa. We crisscross the forest on dusty dirt roads, park, search on foot, and drive on. Just pines and more pines, occasionally dotted with clumps of cactuses. I was about to give up when Deborah called me to join her at a narrow tunnel-like opening among the towering cactuses.

“It’s inside,” she said. “You need to come in.”

It was slow going. Thorns clawed into my T-shirt, snagged my hair, and scratched my arms, though within a few excruciatingly slow inching-forward steps I could see why she had called me: five hand-chiseled stones were still attached to one another in a curve that, at an earlier time, had been the arch of a welcoming doorway. A few similar stones lay loose nearby, half-hidden among the huge cactus clumps.

[caption id=“attachment_64709” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Stone pile in Saffuriyya-Tzipori (photo credit: Deborah Bright)[/caption]

That was all we found of old Saffuriyya that day. Had we continued to search, we might have found a few more pieces of masonry, but what was the point? The “No, no way!” of that first conversation was gone. That had been over a decade before, in 1995. Now, after our drive through the Gilboa, after Beit Shean, and then Tzipori, for me at least there was no turning back.