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Memories of East Jerusalem

The Fruiting Fig Tree

by IRIS KELTZ

In 1967, a caprice of fate found me assimilated and married into an Arab family living in east Jerusalem within two weeks of my arrival.  Forty years later, I am reliving the war with a view of the front line from the safety of my armchair.  I have poured over history books, read personal accounts and spoken with other eye witnesses to try and understand the tectonic forces– political and military, that were shaping the world, while Faisal and I fell in love, married and dreamed of our future while hiding in a basement apartment in Ramallah.

My personal drama happened against a backdrop of catastrophic war.  On the morning of the sixth day of the war, a shrill, angry voice on the radio, announced in Arabic that east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and the Sinai Peninsula were now under Israeli military control.  In less than one week, Israel grew three times larger than it had been after the 1948 Armistice.  While it was a crushing defeat for the Arabs, the 1.3 million Palestinians living in these territories became Israel’s responsibility and problem.

I was living in east Jerusalem when the old and new cities began to merge after nineteen years of separation.  The fluidity of this situation would harden into a new reality but for a time immediately following the war, a curious flirtation to “meet the other” mixed with high levels of anxiety.  The Palestinian community around me lived in a state of limbo, soaked to the bone with apprehension.  Fear of the Israeli soldiers was embedded in their memories from 1948 when hundreds of thousands of people were expelled from towns and villages upon the creation of the state of Israel.  Almost twenty years later, their world came crashing down– again.  The family who treated me like a daughter and offered me food and shelter held onto their precious Jordanian passports but were not sure what country they belonged to now.  Jordanian dinar was still accepted currency in the market.  None of us had Israeli shekels.  People hoped to remain living in their homes, were anxious to reopen businesses and keep their jobs.  Those working for the Jordanian government definitely lost their jobs, many becoming economic refugees like Faisal’s brother, who ended up moving to Kuwait.  

Faisal’s mother was a nurse-midwife and his father ran a small cafe on an obscure street in the Old City.  The family, originally from Al-Arish in Egypt, south of Gaza, migrated generations ago to the Hebron area where they owned many dunams of land in the Palestinian village of Al-Samu.  I tried to imagine my family being kicked out of Queens by an advancing army who claimed Queens as their ancestral homeland, forcing us to resettle in New Jersey, only to be displaced nineteen years later.  I could not imagine such traumatic displacements.  On the surface, the family seemed to accept their fate with equanimity or maybe they were too shocked to mourn and scream about what was happening to their family and community once again.

* * *

After the war, Faisal and I were among the first people to walk through the western gate that had been sealed for nineteen years, and enter a formerly forbidden area that had separated east and west Jerusalem.  For nineteen years, the Mandelbaum Gate, a UN checkpoint, offered the only safe passage between East Jerusalem, Jordan and West Jerusalem, Israel.  When the British evacuated in 1948, battles between the Palestinians and Jews raged, but the Jews were unable to conquer the Old City.  Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli forces and his Jordanian counterpart, drew a two-mile armistice line that held for nineteen years and the forbidden swath of land in between became No-Man’s Land.  

Built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the western gate was known as Bab el-Khalil to the Palestinians and the Jaffa Gate to the Israelis.  During the 1800’s, it was the main egress between the old and new cities of east and west Jerusalem.  Faisal and I walked through the western gate like German Kaiser Wilhelm and British General Allenby once did, but we were not visiting dignitaries.  We were in search of his grandfather’s stone house. 
   
Without the intrusion of people or traffic, vegetation rioted between barbed wire, rocky hillsides, refuse and abandoned homes.  Left untended, olive, fig and almond trees had matured into exotic shapes.  Oleander bushes, with little need for water, proliferated along with wild roses and holy thistles.  Others wandered through the landscape, along side of us, also in search of their past.  Arab farmers set up makeshift stands to sell their freshly grown watermelon.  No Man’s Land had been littered with land mines we were not aware of any such danger.  Perhaps the Israeli soldiers monitoring the activities had already swept the area.

Following childhood memories from the first six years of his life, Faisal found his grandfather’s stone house, intact and untouched.  The flat roofed building had withstood the test of time in the shade of a fruiting fig tree.  Only broken and missing window panes testified to its vacancy.  Surviving hollyhocks and wild iris’s lined the steps leading to an unlocked door.  Reaching out to nearby branches, we gathered ripe figs.  It was as if the house and the tree were waiting for this moment.  Tasting the sweet fruit helped unlock Faisal’s childhood memories of his grandfather, Sheik Mahmoud, a well known visionary, scribe, mystic and scholar in his day.  

Overhead, the desert sun burned hot, but inside, the house was cool.  Strewn over the floors were torn notebooks and yellowed pages filled with Arabic scrawl, streaked with animal excrement in the otherwise empty rooms.  Lying on the floor, in a faded red cloth bag was an old handwritten Koran.  Faisal’s grandfather, had unwittingly abandoned his house, believing he would return the next day or shortly thereafter.  Or, he would have taken his Koran, his personal correspondence and journals like Faisal had done during an unexpected war.  The grandfather had left his home along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians during the Jewish War for Independence, known in Palestinian history as al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe”.  Some fled in terror after rumors of massacres like the one on April 9, 1948 in Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem where hundreds of men, women and children were massacred. 

Faisal sorted through the papers while I leaned against the thick stone walls and dreamed of serving feasts to friends who would rest comfortably on pillows scattered over finely woven rugs.  “Ahalein wesahalein,” I’d say to welcome honored guests into our home.  We’d tell everyone the story of finding his grandfather’s house in ‘No Man’s Land’ almost twenty years after it was abandoned.  Faisal’s voice broke my reverie.

“Erees, there are handwritten letters from King Farouk of Egypt, thanking my grandfather for his dream interpretations and personal advise, and a letter from Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”  At the time, I had no idea who these men were.  Since then I discovered that Jinnah, a lawyer by profession, gave voice to the dream of a secular democratic Muslim state carved out of British ruled India and became known as the father of modern Pakistan.  I wish I could have asked Faisal’s grandfather, what advise he had given to Jinnah and what did he now think of a state carved from another state for a particular religious group?

The afternoon passed quickly and before we knew it, the sun was low in the western sky.  Gathering the torn journals, the correspondence and the old Koran like a miraculous harvest, we hurried home through No Man’s Land, through the western gate, into the Old City, excited to  share every detail of our discoveries with Ampty, Ibrahim, Samira and Marwan.  The next day, we went together to see the stone house.  This time we planned a picnic with hummus, cheese, olives, pita bread and freshly picked ripe figs for dessert.  But we were too late!  

An army of bulldozers had leveled the land– for a park– we were told.  No trace of the house.  We searched in vain for the fruiting fig tree.  Gone as well!  We walked in circles, disoriented, not believing what had happened.  The entire neighborhood had been uprooted.  No landmarks were left for the mind to hang onto.  Concrete and stone rubble mixed with mangled trees, shrubs and garbage, creating a mini dust storm.  Dust mingled tears ran down cheeks like rivulets of grief as our sorry processional meandered back through No-Man’s Land, through the western gate and into the Old City, our faces caked with mud.     

This was an unbearable sorrow.  Hope, a rare commodity in this part of the world was quickly crushed.  How many times, had I combed my Queens neighborhood with my two brothers, collecting money to plant trees in Israel, wanting to help make the desert bloom.  It has taken me years to understand why the Israelis could not even spare a fruiting fig tree.  They were erasing an inconvenient history.

IRIS KELTZ is a writer and teacher, living in New Mexico since the late sixties.  She is the author of Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie (Cinco Puntos Press, 2000).  While traveling through the Middle East, on her way to live on a kibbutz in Israel, Iris met a Palestinian family living in East Jerusalem and lived through the 1967 war with them.  Since then, she has returned four times to bear witness to the changes that occurred from life in the West Bank under Jordanian rule to life under Israeli occcupation.  This story is an excerpt from the book she is working on about her experience during and after that war.   She can be reached at irisk13@earthlink.net