Israel

THIS PLACE IS A SALAD’

On an Israeli farm in the shadow of the West Bank, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU discovers a complex mix of people and emotions

May 10 2004
Israel

THIS PLACE IS A SALAD’

On an Israeli farm in the shadow of the West Bank, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU discovers a complex mix of people and emotions

May 10 2004

THIS PLACE IS A SALAD’

Israel

On an Israeli farm in the shadow of the West Bank, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU discovers a complex mix of people and emotions

Maclean’s Contributing Editor Alexandre Trudeau has been in the Middle East, examining how ordinary people on both sides of the enduring conflict continue to coexist. This is the second of his reports, detailing life with the family of Nahum and Dalia Atar, Jewish farmers in northern Israel.

IT IS MY second night with the Atars, the Israeli family that took me in for a month and a half. We are sitting together in the living room after dinner. Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has just negotiated the handover of an Israeli businessman and the return of the bodies of three Israeli soldiers from the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. In exchange, Israel has released over 100 prisoners. On television, we watch the broadcast of the state memorial service for the three killed soldiers held at the airport in Tel Aviv. Three coffins lie solemnly before family members and rows of dignitaries. They are draped in the white and blue flag of Israel. One by one, the fathers of the dead soldiers are invited up to say a prayer for their slain sons. But the third father doesn’t say a prayer. Instead, a sheik comes to the microphone and sings some verses from the Koran: “God is great. God is merciful.”

The words rise over the flag-draped coffins, and weigh heavily on the downcast heads of the Israeli politicians assembled for the occasion. They fill the Atars’ living room, where we are silent with emotion. The slain soldier was a Muslim killed fighting for Israel, a Bedouin from a village near Haifa. I am surprised and moved to hear a Muslim prayer at an official function of the Jewish state. This place of two tribes, of walls and war, is more complicated than one can imagine.

The Holy Land has always been an enormous confluence of cultures. Long before it was holy, it was inhabited by Neanderthals, who were slowly supplanted by modern Homo sapiens. Since then, its hills, valleys and coast have been home to the Samaritans, the Canaanites, the Hebrews and the Philistines. It has absorbed Arabs from the south and Assyrians from the north. Romans, Crusaders and Turks have passed through here.

The Atars run a farm in northern Israel. Their village is at the very edge of the northern border of the West Bank. They grow root vegetables and citrus fruit, and also own a produce wholesale business. In the fields or in the packing shop, there is plenty of work for me. There’s also a microcosm of the complex social fabric of the region. Out in the fields, I am with the Atars, who are Kurdish Jews, and their Arab labourers and a Thai guest worker. In the shop, I work alongside a Palestinian, an Israeli Arab, an Israeli Bedouin, a Kurdish Iraqi and an Orthodox rabbi.

Dotan Atar, 26, one of five sons in the family, laughs at his crew. “It is quite the family of workers we have here. They are very different people, but all good men. Take the rabbi, for example.” The rabbi is throwing out vegetables. “For every 100 kilos of produce that passes through here, he throws a few kilos in the garbage. Don’t ask me why. But that is Jewish law. If we want to sell to the fancy hotels and restaurants, their own rabbis won’t accept our goods if they don’t bear the rabbinical stamp. That’s life in Israel.” The rabbi is a good-natured man. As he works alongside the Arabs, they tease him about being the holiest man in Israel.

Itay is jolly and round, and works for the Atars’ produce business as a salesman. He is Ashkenazi, of Polish origins. “This place is a salad,” he says, referring both to the farm and its diverse collection of workers, and the region itself. “But it is also a pile of tinder, peaceful because no one puts a match to it. It would only take a spark for all this to burst into flames.” I realize he is urging me to tread carefully, lest I stir something up in this delicate world.

“I don’t know what he thinks of me,” Itay continues, referring to Rami, the Palestinian foreman of the shop, “but I love that man.” Rami is listening from afar with a sour smile. “He is a Palestinian from the other side, from the West Bank. But if they were all like him we would have peace here.” As Itay walks away Rami begins shouting to him: “Fat man go home!” It is said mostly in jest, but not entirely. “He doesn’t know me one bit!” Rami tells me gravely.

Rami is indeed complex. He arrives at the shop at 7 a.m. and leaves at 11 p.m. every day except Friday, the start of the Sabbath, when he works only until sunset and starts again at sundown the next day. He is unrelenting and methodical. We were both born in 1973.1 tease him about the traces of grey in his hair. He nods quietly. But later, he rushes to me in a panic: “Look what happened!” “What?” I ask, concerned. “Look what the ve-ge-ta-bles”—he clowns, pronounces the word in detached syllables— “have done to me. My hair is turning grey!”

Rami is from a village just outside of Jenin. He has worked for the Atars for 10 years. The family sends out over 100 shipments of produce a day, which Rami oversees. “For 10 years, my life is work and sleep,” he says. “In fact, it is no life at all.” I ask him why he doesn’t own a car, why he doesn’t have a house, why he isn’t married. “I will work here, but I won’t build a life here,” he growls. His soul is on the other side, but he’s trapped here. “There is no money, no work over there. I work to support my whole family, my whole village, in fact. But since the intifada, since they built the fence, if I cross over they won’t let me back into Israel. So I never see them.”

Rami (left) says he is trapped; the rabbi approves produce about to be shipped

Faisal Shibli has a very different life. He drives to work in the early afternoon. On most days, he joyfully serves himself a cup or two of vodka to keep him going through the evening. Slapping his chest, he proudly jokes, “I am Bedouin: a Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Israeli Bedouin.” He is from Shibli, an ancient Bedouin village on the slopes of Mount Tabor near Nazareth. Everyone there is of one extended family; all are named after the town. Faisal has a big house with an amazing view. When I visit him, he points to a hill in the distance. “Over there, Salahdin surrounded and crushed the Crusader armies.”

When I ask him about his life, he says without hesitation, “Israeli Arabs have the best life in the whole Arab world. There are a few problems. For instance, it is very difficult for us to get permission to build anywhere except on the steep slopes on the mountain, and building there is very expensive. This while we watch Israeli housing developments thrown up on the plain in front of us. Deep down, they would probably like us to leave, but we won’t. After all, we live in a wealthy and organized democracy, with good-paying jobs.”

Rami makes sure to point out what the ceremony on television already made clear to me: the Bedouin are famous for serving in the Israeli army. “Why do you help the Israelis kill your Arab brothers?” Rami asks Faisal at work, for my benefit. “No! We don’t kill them,” Faisal replies. “We only tell them to be good Arabs, to stop throwing stones and go back to their homes.” “Why did you leave?” Faisal then asks Rami, referring to the mass Palestinian exodus from land captured by the Jews in 1948. “Why didn’t you take me with you when you ran from the Jews? We had to hide in caves, but we stayed. We kept our land.” He then jokingly laments to me, “Rami left while I was sleeping. I woke up all alone surrounded by the Jews.” Rami says, “Faisal was so drunk that night that I couldn’t rouse him. I had to leave without him.” They go on like this for hours.

Faisal is a live-and-let-live kind of guy. But his people’s past is heavier than he at first lets on. “My village didn’t used to be called Shibli,” he admits to me. “We killed a lot of Jews in the early days of Israel. But when we realized that we couldn’t win, we changed the name of the village to clear our reputation, and we agreed to serve in the army in order to secure our right to live in peace on the land of our ancestors.” On another occasion, he tells me about the first time he ever slept with a girl: “She was Jewish, the daughter of my boss. She came to my village to see "how the Arabs lived.’ I had to hide her from my parents, but it was worth it.”

Both Rami and Faisal tell me that if they were paid 100 shekels by an Arab boss, and 10 shekels by a Jewish boss, they would work for the Jewish boss because “Arabs treat their underlings like slaves.” Interestingly, the Atars’ second son, Dro, who manages a supermarket, tells me he prefers Arab workers. “The Arabs will work 15-hour days,” he says, “while the Jews will come in at nine and will already want to go home by four.”

Thai guest workers are another component of this strange mix. With their ubiquitous balaclavas, from sunrise to sunset they are like quiet shadows in the fields. As Israel becomes more modern, fewer and fewer Israelis have any taste for farm work. In more peaceful times, it would be done by Palestinians, but since the security fence has gone up, that labour pool can no longer be relied on. So Israelis have to import guest workers.

The man in the Atars’ employ is Nai Lon Sat. He lives in a shack on the edge of the fields and comes out only to work. He is in his 20s and intends to stay for two years, hoping to return to Thailand with enough money to build a house and get married. No matter how deft I get at picking vegetables, I can never match his speed and care.

Ironically, every day many trucks arrive at the Atar shop from Jenin and the West Bank, carrying vegetables. Goods may pass the border, but not people. But then again, onions and potatoes don’t blow themselves up on buses. When I ask Rami about the fence, he answers sadly, “Don’t ask. Just look at my life. It is like a zoo, a human zoo.”

FOR Jews and Palestinians, the barrier that Israel is now erecting will never bring true separation

Yossi is the Atars’ fourth son and the only one to work in the fields. He doesn’t have to, he just does. He is also serving in the army, but managed to talk his way into an easy job: he is an officer’s driver at a nearby base, and spends his days sleeping in the vehicle. “Yossi’s no soldier, he’s a dancer,” his brothers say with mock reprove. His real passion is indeed the nightclub. He loves flashy clothing and spikes his hair with copious amounts of gel. He listens to trance and techno music. Faisal’s son, Mussa, also known as Moshe, is also about to joint the army. I’m amused to see he also favours flashy clothing, spiky hair and trance and techno music.

The two sides live together. This land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, is a land of two peoples and nothing will change that. The barrier that Israel is now erecting will never bring true separation. Neither will political machinations ever bring, on either side, a government completely free of the interests of the other. And neither of these peoples will ever leave. In the water they drink, the crops they grow, the places they pray, the land they love, the Jews and the Arabs are stuck together. Iffl