Only once before have I eaten a breakfast as good as the breakfast in Abu Ahmed’s coffee shop in Qalqilya and that was five years ago in Yemen.
Abu Ahmed’s is not a fancy place; quite the reverse. It is where men gather to smoke a sheesha (hubble bubble), play cards, backgammon and draughts. They sit and talk and sip coffee or sweet Arab tea infused with sage. It is out of bounds for women.
Since the Intifada (struggle) began two years ago and Israel blocked movement in and out of the town, unemployment has risen to 70%. ‘Goods’ may be imported, but not people, and nothing and no one – without special permission – is allowed to leave. Men have ample time to smoke and to chat.
Like the majority of people in Qalqilya, Abu Ahmed is effectively bankrupt. However, families pool their resources and somehow they manage. Although life is not how it used to be, people haven’t forgotten how to live.
My breakfast was prepared personally by Abu Ahmed. He made the foull (bean paste), and the humous with the freshly pressed olive oil. The green olives were this season’s crop. The chopped cucumbers and tomatoes were also local. The falafels, spicy with peppers and onions and sprinkled with sesame came from next door, as did the warm Arab bread. The aromatic coffee tasted delicately of cardoman. With food like that – and providing the Israelis do not shoot them – is it any wonder that Palestinians live so long?
What a town of contrasts this is. As I walked to the end of a side street to see the ‘apartheid’ wall – a vast concrete structure which will eventually encircle the town and separate it from Israeli settlements nearby – I was passed by the butane gas cylinder salesman’s van blaring out ‘knick, knack, paddy wack, give a dog a bone’, as if for all the world life was normal and cheerful. Moments later, having rounded the corner, I was confronted by the wall, the watchtowers, gun emplacements and razor wire.
Wanting to take some photographs, I removed my passport from my pocket, held it high and moved into the middle of the road. I walked forward slowly, half expecting a sound grenade to land at my feet or warning shots to be fired. There was also the ‘whoops’ factor to be considered.
Whoops accidents are a regular occurrence in Palestine – “whoops I didn’t see that house clipped by my tank”, “whoops my finger slipped. I did not mean to shoot him”. Happily on this occasion there were no whoops. I walked to within twenty metres of the wall before a voice from the watchtower called out, “Stop. Who are you? What are you doing?”
“English”, I shouted back. “UN visitor to the UNRWA hospital in town.” Silence. I stood immobile.
“What do you want?” shouted the voice.
“Photographs” I cried.
“OK English” came the reply.
Relieved, I snapped away, then retraced my steps. If I was Palestinian, I would now be dead.
What a place! Forty thousand Palestinians incarcerated. Their surrounding farmland confiscated, their water wells and aquafers annexed, and businesses and factories closed. In two years an average family income with two male earners has fallen from US $ 2000 monthly to $ 60. To cap it all the Israelis have built a sewage plant and a rubbish dump next to the wall – one hundred metres from the edge of town. With Tel Aviv just twelve kilometres away there is no shortage of either.
Astonishingly Palestinian resolve has never been stronger. Traditionally for a Palestinian to sell his land or the family home is to dishonour himself and his family; to do so would make them social pariahs. Nobody is selling today. Nobody is even thinking of selling. Why should they? It is their land after all.
Courtesy Israel Shamir