When you watch a Palestinian farmer tend his land just before the bullets fire, that’s exactly what you do: watch.
You can call out to him.
You can wave your arms to the old man and yell, “Put the olives down and look!”
You can point towards the settlers aiming from the hilltops.
You can drop your shoulders and take that long held breath when he ducks to pick up the ripe lemons.
You can nod your head and smile when he looks in your direction, showing off the fruit.
You can take out your phone send a snap of this farmer who refuses to move.
You can stare at the farmer, who continues to brush olives on the branch before you, in clear view of an afar settler’s shot.
You can watch two worried villagers stare at the farmer and call for him from the unpaved road. These men, who may have orchards of their own to tend, could be hoping that they would be approached by their brethren if they were in plain sight of a settler's shot. The men from the street make their way to the farmer. These men make it a conscious responsibility to look after this farmer as though he were their family member, “Hajj,” they call him. The farmer seems to understand this concern, he is old and used to all the village men looking after him like how he, too, looked after older men such as his grandfather and father. The moment slows down, the men continue to warn the farmer of possible danger and it is evident that the farmer doesn’t care. This frustrates the men, who begin to say, “Think of your son, think of us, if your father was the stubborn one, you would act like us.” They explain themselves in as many ways as they can, repeating that the farmer was once his father’s son and how that should be enough justification for his leave. It’s true. And now he is his son’s father.
They continue to exchange arguments and it isn’t long until the men place their hands on the old man’s arms and try to take him away. I stand on the other side of the stone gate entrance. I feel my palms sweat and stick them together and wait. I watch the farmer fight the men, he doesn’t want them to touch him. They cannot lift him, this shriveled old man, they cannot pull him away. His feet are buckled to his sandals and his sandals are dug into the drying mud. “The land will be lost, that’s what they want!” he yells.
“Would you rather lose yourself over your land, Hajj?” one of the men asks.
The farmer becomes quiet and curses the man under his breath for the question, “I will not lose anything,” he says.
But as I watch him say this, with his head dropping to the gaze of his dragging feet, I think that in reality, his father was lost, he is lost, his son will learn. We do not know how he will learn, but in this village, on this land, boys will always learn. They will learn that to be Palestinian, they must watch.
A neighbor runs over and tries to calm the scene, “They’ll shoot, Hajj Abu Karim, they’ll shoot,” he tells the farmer. I watch this neighbor, I am not sure where he lives or who he is and wonder how he came here. The three of them beg Abu Karim to come with them, they beg him to leave his orchard and follow them to the street.
It is early morning, the air is humid and heavy and the sun is hot. I would leave, I think to myself. I would go inside. But he refuses. He gets on his knees so it could be harder for the men to drag his body forward. He refuses their help and I watch him sit on his knees and I watch all three men exchange looks of confusion and anger. He is a stubborn old farmer. He does not explain himself, not once, not even when the men ask why he insists on staying with the settler shouting from the hilltops warning, “Get off my land, you filthy Arab!”
But he doesn’t explain, not even once. With his resistance his voice is raised and lowered in fragmented moments, and then silenced.
The men carry his limp body to the side of the street and I think, this man is no longer on the land, what do I watch now? Who do I watch now?
The three men scream and yell over the farmer’s body. They call for help and village men are already making their way up the street to where the blood flow starts. They follow the red lines up to the neighbor, the two village men and the old farmer, each with a deeply distraught expression. They rush discussion and decide all at once to lift the farmer and walk towards the village doctor’s house. Once they reach Bilal’s house the door is already open, his wife is already outside waving for the men to go in.
I wait outside and watch the wife. She is praying, lifted hands to the sky and asking for mercy on Abu Karim’s soul, I watch her assume he’s dead until I see him come out hours later, limping with his arms around the two men who fought him. He was going back to his land. The men lead him down the road to his orchard and my eyes follow their steps. He is resting under the olive tree, holding a branch of leaves in his hands and struggling to brush off its last olives.
The men give him a nod and part ways. I was expecting something more from them. I was waiting for them to give me meaning, to show me passion, to teach me balance of despair with hope. But they simply walk away. They were fighting him hours ago and now they are not, they comply with his wishes and I wonder if they understand why.
The hilltops seem empty and distant so I walk through the gates of Abu Karim’s orchard and sit next to him under his tree. The farmer who was tending his land, who refused to pick up his heavy feet from the deep soils of the land, now sits under an olive tree. I am not the only one in the scene, someone else is calling for him from a distance. When the haze of the heat clears I see it is his son, running and yelling. He has a son, who he watched grow and now, as he closes his eyes, his son, out of breath and sticky from sweat, watches his father. He watches his father and I know that he is learning.
When I leave Palestine I tell everyone about the farmer on his land. I want to share all the details of his story and, at the same time, I find myself holding back from telling it all; perhaps I do not want to tell his story. I think that maybe I watched what happened, but that my seeing is not enough witness to what happens regularly, to the farmer, to the neighbor, the villagers and the sons.
I give it a try anyways and I tell my friends in Pittsburgh, for they’d understand my reasons and my emotions.
I tell my family as I sit around the dinner table one evening.
I tell my roommate and I even tell my roommate’s boyfriend and his friends.
I tell my teachers and my peers.
I tell myself, over and over again in the mirror that what I saw was a man on his land.
They say, “No way.”
They say, “I can’t believe it.”
They say, “That’s awful.”
They say, “The settler shot him and then what?”
They say, “The men just walked away, there was no hospital?”
They say, “What can you do, Palestinians and Israelis will never get along.”
They say, “Are you okay?”
They say a lot of stuff.
They say nothing at all that matters.