Journey Into the Past

In Maalul, both nature and people joined forces to cover up what happened here 62 years ago

Every time my 6-year-old daughter Hala sees a few trees through the car window - just ordinary bits of nature - she calls the place "Maalul."

I don't recall exactly how old I was, Hala's age or younger, when my father carried me on his shoulders, moving cautiously and with determination among the big rocks. I do remember that there were many people there, men and women, people my father's age, or so it seemed to me. They all spoke quickly and vehemently, but in low voices; maybe they were looking for something. The walk was burdensome. It reflected suffering. At least that was the impression of a young boy.

The event first took place in the early 1960s, on Israeli Independence Day - or as it is called in Arabic, "Independence Vacation." It wasn't until some 15 years after that burning-hot day in July 1948 that the residents of Maalul plucked up their courage and marched publicly back to their old village, located just west of Nazareth. At the time, in the shadow of the country's rejoicing, the authorities turned a blind eye to the total prohibition on Arab residents moving from one area to another. And so those who had resided in Maalul, and who for the most part had moved to neighboring Yafia, took advantage of this occasion - hesitantly during the first years - to visit their destroyed village. With time, the hesitant visit transformed into a march in which many participated.

Thereafter, the journey to Maalul became an annual event. And when the teacher asked us first graders, in the spirit of patriotism, "What do we do on Independence Day?" I, a son of the uprooted village, replied in a no-less patriotic tone, "We go to Maalul." This reply became a mantra: Time after time teachers jokingly asked me the same question, and I in turn replied, time after time, with the same answer and with the smile of someone who understands, though I didn't understand the meaning of the loud laughter that would erupt afterward.

Some went on foot. But my Uncle Suliman, who had an ancient jeep, drove the extended family: He would load on passengers in Yafia, let them off next to the main street in Maalul, and go back to bring others. We would sit beneath the carob tree on the outskirts of the village. On one of the visits my mother found her coffee pot under a rock, a pot she had not had time to take when fleeing in 1948. Tears rolled down my father's cheeks. At least that's what my sister Nahla, who is three years older, told me.

My father would light a bonfire, and the others prepared tea and coffee. They explained that this was where my family worked their land, while the women prepared the food in the field. Grandma Salma, we heard, would squeeze sour grapes onto the okra she cooked, instead of the lemon that was unavailable.

"Was it tasty?" I asked Aunt Khasneh with the amazement of a child, and she answered bitterly, "We worked all day long, in the evening we were very hungry, and we ate whatever they prepared."

After breakfast the division of labor was clear: The women - like all the women in the universe, who are preoccupied with feeding the family - began the work of picking the za'atar (wild hyssop). By evening they had collected several bags, which would supply the family for months.

Meanwhile the men, exempt from petty daily concerns, were busy teaching the younger generation about the tribulations of Maalul on Israel?s independence day. We marched to the spring during our annual trips there; there was still a lot of water flowing in it at the time. The women used to carry pitchers full of water on their heads, from the spring to the houses on the mountaintop. An exhausting journey in itself, even without the burden of carrying the pitchers. To this day it is hard to understand why they didn't build the houses of Maalul right next to the spring. Apparently suffering is not taken into account when it's the suffering of women.

Above the spring, to the west, looms a very steep mountain. Here of all places, on the mountaintop, 8-year-old Khasneh, a relative of mine whose father had died, was walking with her cousin Saeed, a year younger than she. The older village children gave up annoying little Saeed and Khasneh, and went to search for wild plants.

Meanwhile, Khasneh wanted to see a cave that, according to legend, is where salt is created. She was marching in front and Saeed behind her. One step before the entrance to the cave Khasneh slipped, and her small body fell, rolling downhill - over 100 meters. When she reached the spring in the wadi, the shepherds summoned the village residents. My uncle Saeed, who is now 76 years old, says he returned home only hours later. Khasneh was already there, black and blue all over, but without any serious injuries. Nobody yelled at Saeed, since Khasneh admitted that she was the one who had slipped. She enjoyed a special status, and was allowed to do whatever she liked, and said, "Lucky me, I'm an orphan."

Khasneh was 22 days old when her father Oudeh, my grandfather's brother, was killed in 1933. He died in a collision between two train engines while working at the railway station in Haifa. Placing his open coffin at the entrance to the house was how the family marked the tragedy. Twenty-five years later when I was born, I was given his name; Khasneh calls me "Dad" to this day.

So I was named after Grandpa's brother (Khasneh's father); my eldest brother was named after our grandfather, Khalil; and my younger brother was named after another relative who died, Eissa. My mother, with her barbed comments, wanted to know if there were other dead people in the family, so she could bring more children into the world who would be named after them.

A few shy fences

On the mountaintop, where the residents lived, it is hard today to discern the traces of houses. Only a thorough search reveals a few fences that testify, with apologetic shyness, that people used to live here - perhaps happily. Aside from that, everything is perfect on the mountaintop: The vegetation is thick, the trees are tall, the air is pure and the landscape is pastoral. And there is a mosque and two churches, which are all in need of immediate reinforcement, testimony to having coexisted for hundreds of years.

As we stood next to the remains of my grandfather's house, people told me how, in 1928, there was already a small-scale family "uprooting," after certain relatives were accused of a murder that took place in Maalul. The family then moved to Shfaram, where my father was born a year later. That same difficult year the herd that had wandered with them fell ill, Grandma told me. Once the family's innocence vis-a-vis the murder was established two years later, they returned to Maalul, along with someone else - my maternal grandmother, whom Grandpa had met in Shfaram. A year later they were married in the Maalul church. When the priest asked Frieda, the young bride, whether she agreed to have Salim, my grandfather, as her husband, she replied with sweet chutzpah: "Why else would I drag myself away from Shfaram?"

Among the ruins my family also led me to the room that once served as a school. One day, during the Palestinian Strike, in 1936, a sign was hung on the door informing everyone in garbled handwriting that the institution was closed on orders of the "revolution." Hours later they discovered that a bored child, not so different from today's children, had simply grown tired of school and "enlisted" none other than the revolutionary headquarters to close down the despised institution.

A few weeks ago I visited Maalul once again, and sketched out some scenarios in my imagination: What would have happened had the residents stayed? Would Maalul look like the other villages today - with narrow roads, dense populations, a shortage of land and growing violence? Both my heart and my mind tried to imagine a different "future."

What actually remains is only the past: I found a few piles of stones, the rubble of houses that were demolished. Everything else is now covered with greenery, lovely greenery, signs of treacherous nature.

In Maalul, both nature and people joined forces to cover up what happened here 62 years ago. Thus, for my daughter Hala, "Maalul" means "nature." In the future, slowly but surely, she will burrow into her memories and perhaps into the land as well. She will discover the stones and ponder the years that have passed, which for her are as though nonexistent.

Odeh Bisharat's book "Hutzot Zatunia" ("The Streets of Zatunia") was published this year by Am Oved.