Mufaqara, Part 2: Moving In

In the last part of this series, I introduced the town of Mufaqara. Today I move in with Mahmoud and his family for a month.

A man in a ghutra, which is the collection white cloth and with black ropes that men here use instead of a hat, speaks loudly at me in Arabic. I can’t understand a word he’s saying, of course. Is this really going to work out? I don’t want to be shouted at for a month. The old English maxim that if you shout English loud enough, everyone understands isn’t true. It turns out, it’s not true for Arabic either. Before the rest of the international guests leave me here, I ask them to carefully explain to Mahmoud that I do not, in fact, speak a word of Arabic. And then, I am left, mostly incommunicado, in the South Hebron Hills, with some kind cave dwelling shepherds to document their determined resistance against the Israeli army and the Zionist movement.

My cellphone actually works if I stand in the right place in the village. And I’ve been here a few times before for the day to take pictures and help with house building. So things are not as odd as they may appear, but I know that I am in for some serious culture shock. I am more prepared than most Westerners, however, because of my experience living in an Ashram rural India and a monastery in Thialand. It turns out the conditions are much the same, which is to say extremely basic. I prefer to look at the situation as camping in a very nice, sturdy tent rather than living with no electricity or running water. Anyways if these people have been living here for years, I can do it for a month. It just takes some getting used to.
In front of the Temporary Portable Structure from the UN

One of the first things to get used to is quite serious for me. Normally, I’m vegan. But I have temporarily suspended my veganism with the justification that the whole point is to work against oppression. Sometimes, one needs to keep that in mind and in the balance I suppose that the oppression of these people somehow outweighs the oppression against the sheep from whom we take milk. Fellow vegans, judge me not. I am determined to remain vegetarian, which will come up later in this story in a most hilarious manner.

Playing with the goats

Mahmoud has a herd of 100 livestock, a mixture of goats and sheep with more words than I can keep track of for each type, age and sex of animal. Almost every meal has some sort of goat cheese in it. Every day they milk the goats by hand after they return from grazing.

Curious goats

Since it is the dry season, the animals graze the planted grain fields. Some grain fields have been harvested by hand, and the sheep and goats are there to glean whatever is left. On the hills, badly eroded and with very shallow soil, a more tough grain is growing at quite a low yield. The yield is too low to harvest by hand, so these areas are eaten directly by the grazers.

The animals mostly have ear tags, and there is a breeding program going on, I can see from the paint on the animals. Paint is normally used to track which animals have mated, so they can be given the extra care they need during pregnancy. Although there are some painful looking infections in some of the animals ears, in general they look well shorn and taken care of. Their living area is clean and tidy, with good ventilation, shade and outdoor space. Although divided during many parts of the day, they can generally socialize and come together often, the lambs and kids drinking milk from their parents and playing together.

The building I am sleeping in is called a Temporary Portable Structure, donated by the UN agency, OCHA, The Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. Thank you, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, for the present. May I suggest, however, an Itchy Canadian Reduction Program: in future, use finer screens for your buildings, rather than mosquito netting. The cost is about the same and in this case it would have considerably decreased the incidence of itchy and sleepless Canadians whom have been attacked by by the voracious sandflies which are able to easily pass through mosquito netting. For the rest of my stay I have to thank the US Army, something which I am not prone to doing, for discovering DEET insect repellant.

In the evening, the whole family gathers together in Mahmoud’s above-ground house for dinner and to watch television. His family is the only one in the village with a small diesel generator (actually it’s a modified portable power take-off shaft, also useful for driving farming equipment). Every evening it runs a small compact fluorescent light bulb, and the television for three hours. Also, we all jostle for plugs to charge our cellphones, my computer and camera as well as the family spotlight.

Many of the families in these hills seem to have spotlights, so they must have some more quiet way to recharge them than a diesel generator. At night time I can see the lights crisscrossing the hills. Combined with the barking dogs it seems like someone just escaped from a nearby prison. I suppose the whole exercise is to deter attacks by violent settlers. This area has a history of violent settler attacks, including midnight fire bombings and murders.

When it’s time to go to sleep, everyone gets out the mattresses, sets them up in their preferred spot and settles in. Many of the girls sleep next to the garden. Some men sleep on top of the cistern. The boys prefer to sleep on top of my Temporary Portable Structure. To my chagrin, they also enjoy stomping and wrestling into the night and in the early morning. Sleeping outside in such a hap-hazard way seemed odd to me at first. But you can be perfectly sure that it is not going to rain these days. And there is rarely much dew. The breeze apparently keeps away the sand flies. There is available indoor space, so they sleep outside out of preference, not necessity. There is, no doubt, something celebratory, adventurous and free in the way the boys can decide one night to simply sleep on top of the house, grabbing a mattress and cheerfully flinging it up there. Huckleberry Finn would be pleased.
Milking the goats. In the background you can see the bedding on the roof of the temporary UN structure.
Milking the goats. In the background you can see the bedding on the roof of the temporary UN structure.

At night time I toss and turn, not just because of the sand flies. The bombers and attack helicopters criss cross the sky as I dream about army raids. I’m told that they sometimes conduct random raids, ostensibly to “search for weapons” or some other excuse. (This concern about people owning weapons never fails to prick me with it’s hypocritical nature.) The first few nights pass without event. Each morning I am woken up by relatively peaceful braying donkeys, curious children and crowing roosters. That, however, will not last.
-Official blog for the Mufaqara campaign to exist.

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