Twilight Zone: A Feast of Rotten Tomatoes
By Gideon Levy
Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which was celebrated this week, was not a happy occasion at the Sau home in the Aqbat Jabar refugee camp outside Jericho
It wasn’t that the refrigerator was empty. Not at all. It wasn’t that it contained only water, as one often sees in a refugee camp. The refrigerator was actually full of food. But the sight was heartbreaking: Between the shelves on which the leftovers were standing, there was one shelf loaded with tomatoes. Rotten, shrunken, wrinkled, cracked tomatoes, with black, white and purple stains on their flesh, a layer of mold hiding their rottenness. Rotten tomatoes not only in the refrigerator, but in the large bowl in the kitchen, covered with flies.
We didn’t ask where they were from, but apparently the father of the family had collected them before the holiday from the garbage cans in the marketplace, as he does occasionally. That is the only way to support his six children, and to try to give the holiday a special flavor—with tomato sauce, as rotten as the tomatoes may be. There is no hunger here, but this is the holiday menu for Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, an hour and a half from Raphael, half an hour from Arcadia, the fancy restaurants of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Every few years we make such holiday visits: During the Feast of Sacrifice in 1994, the Wajya beauty salon in the Qalandiyah refugee camp was still full of young men getting haircuts for the holiday, in the camp’s cafes people played cards, and only two new graves of the fallen had been added to the cemetery. Six years later, on the same holiday in 2000, we visited a house of mourning in Jeba: The story then was that a grandmother and grandfather were returning from a holiday visit to their grandchildren when soldiers fired 17 bullets into their car, killing the grandmother and severely injuring her husband.
A year later, during the same holiday in 2001, we visited the home of the poorest family in the Deheisheh refugee camp. “This is how the next suicide bomber is being raised,” was the headline of the report from there. A few months later, the collaborator of the bomber who blew himself up in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem did, in fact, come from that house. And on the Feast of the Sacrifice in 2002, we drove around in the sea of West Bank checkpoints, observing the desperate attempts of residents, who have a “celebration” every day, to pass through the checkpoints in their new holiday clothes.
This year, in the Aqbat Jabar refugee camp on the outskirts of Jericho, there was no special holiday activity discernible. In the lowest place, in the lowest city, far below sea level and below the poverty line, the members of the Sau family sat and stared at their cracked mud hut. With no yesterday and no tomorrow. Their eldest son, aged 19, is in prison, they have no idea until when, they don’t know if he has a lawyer, they have no idea whether he has been tried or is sitting there without trial, they have no idea what he did, and the last time they saw him was in December.
The mother of the family is also incarcerated: She doesn’t leave the house. She is in Jericho without a permit, an infiltrator in her home, an illegal resident in her city. But the dreams here are limited only to two rooms of one’s own. That’s all. Not a trip abroad and not winning the lottery, not the right of return and not Jerusalem, not equality and not brotherhood, not a car and not a computer, not freedom and not justice, not clothes and not shoes, not health and not a career—neither the children nor their parents. Only the holiday tomatoes and the big dream of a little house.
The father sits idly in the yard of his house near the chicken coop, a dozen brown hens running back and forth in the tiny space, laying free-range eggs for the family’s use, but only in the summer. Walid Sau is 53 years old, his wife Iman is 34, and the two have six children, three boys and three girls. Amani, 18, is the only breadwinner: A student of social development in the Open University in the city, in the afternoon she works as the secretary of gynecologist Dr. Nasser Anani. Her monthly salary is NIS 500, she spends NIS 250 on traveling to the university and to work, and with the remaining NIS 250 she pays for her tuition. The family has no other source of income, since the father fell ill and his son Subahi was arrested. In the summer his father sent him to Jordan to bring some money from their uncle, but Subahi was arrested by Israeli authorities on the bridge, en route, and hasn’t returned home since then. Before his arrest, he used to do odd jobs in addition to his studies and bring home a few shekels.
Now Subahi is in the Ofer prison. Just yesterday he phoned in honor of the holiday. Once, in December, they were permitted a visit to him, but only his father could go. Iman was not allowed to come with him. (“Why are you talking to me about visiting Ofer—she can’t even leave the house!”) This month they were allowed another visit, but when Walid arrived at the entrance to the prison, they didn’t allow him inside. He has no idea why. He didn’t ask. Nor does he have any idea what happened to the lawyer that the prisoners’ association appointed for his son: Since August he has been phoning him, and his cell phone is disconnected. That’s why Walid has no idea what his son is being accused of, and doesn’t know if he is in administrative detention or has been tried. Subahi told him on the phone that no lawyer has ever visited him. He’s fine, thank God.
This week, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman gave us the indictment that was filed against Subahi last week. The essence of his crime: membership and activity in an illegal association. The details of the crime: The accused was a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Just this week the indictment was read. The father has no idea what it’s about.
Iyat is 15, the twins Amal and Mohammed are 14, and Naal is 6. Walid’s family fled or was expelled from Ramle, he has no idea about that, either. Iman’s family is from Samakh, today Tzemah, on the shores of the Kinneret. Walid has never been in Ramle. He has hardly been anywhere, except for the years when he lived with his family in Jordan. Nor does he want to be anywhere, except in a house of his own. He has hardly ever worked at a regular, ongoing job, but always had odd jobs, except for the eight months he worked in the Mishor Adumim sewing factory. Nor does he have any idea what the sewing factory was called. But when he became ill in 2002 and had to stay in bed, he was fired.
He was hospitalized for 25 days with a heart attack, and since then his heart has given him trouble. Making any sort of effort is difficult for him. He will never be able to work again. He has a document from the government hospital in Ramallah testifying to his condition, with an illustration of the blood vessels that lead to the heart; the paper is stuffed inside an International Red Cross document that testifies that his son has been under arrest since August 7, 2004.
In the camp they say that occasionally they have seen Walid walking around the camp, a Hebron carpet on his back, a peddler trying to sell from house to house, but he prefers not to talk about that. “I’m an excellent tailor. I can take apart a sewing machine screw by screw and reassemble it. I know how to sew car upholstery, and all kinds of suitcases. And belts, too.” Until 1998 he lived in Jordan and then, when he lost his money, they moved to Jericho, the birthplace of his wife, the illegal resident.
Rent for their hut is NIS 400 a month; Walid hasn’t paid it in three months. He has no way of paying. The landlord lives next door. Half the street belongs to him—one of those who took over the houses of the many refugees who fled to Jordan in 1967. Walid has a refugee card that entitles him to several basic food products from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees, but that also works on an occasional rather than a permanent basis. His pleas to receive a piece of land from UNRWA and to build his two dream rooms on it, have not been answered so far. He says that even 20 square meters would be enough for him. Since 2002 he has not earned a penny. The family lives off the largess of others—on the 40-50 Jordanian dinars that the uncles in Jordan send them occasionally and on charity from neighbors and relatives.
Now Walid’s voice breaks. He says that he gathers vegetables and fruits from the marketplace. Occasionally, God sends him something, too.
Happy holiday, Mr. Sau. What did you do on the holiday? Nothing. They woke up at 8, and the children went to friends. This year they didn’t even buy them new clothes, as usual; they took good care of the clothes from the previous holiday and wore them again. The parents stayed at home. What did you eat? “Write that we ate makhluba [a dish of meat and vegetables]. But the truth is, I don’t remember.” Walid goes into the kitchen to ask Iman what they ate for the holiday meal.
Meanwhile, their son Mohammed, 14, whose curls are combed with gel, doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Write “a teacher,” he finally decides, after considering some of the suggestions made to him.
Mohammed was in Jenin once in his life; the neighbors took him and brought him back the same day. That was about half a year ago. Aside from that, he has been almost nowhere. When his sister got engaged he was also in Nablus for a few hours, and once he visited his uncles in Jerusalem, and from his childhood he remembers the sea, but only the Dead Sea, from the Jordanian side. He has never seen another sea. Nor has he seen a movie theater. Where would he like to visit? He thinks and thinks. Saudi Arabia. To make the pilgrimage. Egypt? No. Paris? No. London? No. New York? No. Only to Mecca.
His father has returned from the kitchen meanwhile: On the first day of the holiday they ate potatoes and fried tomatoes. Yesterday they ate chicken. “If it comes, it’s welcome.” Today majadara (lentils and rice). “If God sends us NIS 2, we buy falafel and it’s considered a meal.”
Make three wishes, we ask Walid. No, he says. Only one: “A plot of land. A small plot of land on which I will build two rooms. And that’s all. Nothing else. I cannot be sure how long I will live, and I still want to leave two rooms to the children.”
The skies of Jericho have darkened meanwhile. Half a dunam costs NIS 12,000. Sometimes Walid doesn’t leave the house at all, sometimes he goes to town, to collect some food and to meet with friends. What does he wish for his children? “That they’ll be like all the children in the world. That they’ll live in dignity.”
The television satellite dish broke, it’s lying in the yard, now they get only Jordan and Palestine. Walid says he voted for Abu Mazen because he is the man who is needed now. He himself has never visited Israel. Not even Bethlehem or Hebron.
On the stained bedroom wall, Subahi’s matriculation certificate is hanging, with greetings from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). “But he is not in the Democratic Front,” says Walid, who has an almost toothless mouth, apparently unaware that the Shin Bet security services consider his son to be a little terrorist.
Some of the electrical outlets are wrenched out of their sockets, hanging by a thread. The ragged shirt worn by Naal says “Sweetie.” Walid’s medications are in the door of the refrigerator, next to the rotten tomatoes. Suddenly, he recalls how in his childhood he once went to the Rivoli movie theater in Amman and saw a film starring the famous singer Farid al-Atrash.
—Ha’aretz, Friday, January 28, 2005