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One destroyed village and the ghosts of the past

For decades, Jews and Palestinians alike would wander through the abandoned village of al-Walaja, encountering ghosts of the past, and facing the intimacy of a stranger’s home.

By Natasha Dudinski

Israelis swim in a spring belonging to the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Walaja, near Jerusalem. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Israelis and Palestinians swim in a spring belonging to the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Walaja, near Jerusalem. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A spring walk in Nahal Refaim. Blue sky, cheerful sun, red anemones, white almond trees, and the rocky green Jerusalem hills. It is the most beautiful part of the year, filled with hopes for something new; groups of weekend hikers dot the valley’s trails. I follow my own unbeaten path, zigzagging between the present and the past.

The three stone houses along the road are there regardless of the season. They were once an organic part of the landscape, built by people who lived here for centuries planting trees, growing vegetables, raising goats and sheep, and maintaining an ancient irrigation system based on local springs and agricultural terraces. They probably did many other things which I know nothing about.

By the time I saw these houses for the first time many years ago, their inhabitants were long gone. The overgrown wild vegetation surrounding them still held their memories. I did not yet understand the language of these memories, but I could feel them. The air was thick with them. There were no bars over the windows yet, allowing any curious passerby to enter. One could touch the inner walls and hear the voices and whispers, laughs and cries left behind in the nooks and crannies of the old house. I wanted to know to whom they belonged, why did they leave, where did they go, and would they ever come back?

The destroyed village of Al Walaja, West Bank, now used by Israeli settlers as a bathing and picnic area, July 5, 2007. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The destroyed village of Al Walaja, West Bank, used until recently by Israelis and Palestinians as a bathing and picnic area, July 5, 2007. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Later my friend Sheerin told me her and her family’s stories about her village of al-Walaja and about the springs of Ein el Hanniya, Ein Balad and Ein Lavan. I have kept coming back to this valley ever since — it was love at first sight, which hasn’t disappeared over the past 20 years. I now have my own memories of the place, too.

A few years ago, the concrete separation wall began to snake its way through the valley, cutting al-Walaja off from most of its lands, including water springs and ancient agricultural terraces. And then, someone in Israel’s corridors of power came up with a brilliant idea: to turn all this breath-taking beauty into a national park.

First came the fence. Then the ancient nymphaeum at Ein al-Hanniya was cleaned of graffiti and other patina. A centuries-old irrigation system was excavated and its inner workings exposed. Now that those who cultivate the terraces and tend to their sheep have been fenced out, the park’s visitors will soon be able to bathe peacefully in two sparkling pools. Actually, people used to bathe in one of the pools before the clean-up. Unarmed Palestinians and Israelis, as well as armed settlers and soldiers, used to show off their bravery by jumping into the pool from a hill, while sheep, donkeys, horses, and dogs would quench their thirst from a basin at the bottom of the nymphaeum. Families and youths with guitars would have picnics and smoke nargileh next to each other in the wild open spaces. For years, the place was teeming with life, unplanned and unmediated. All languages and dress codes were welcome.

Palestinians march toward the Green Line in a Nakba Day protest in the West Bank village of Al Walaja, May 15, 2014. (Activestills)

Palestinians march toward the Green Line in a Nakba Day protest in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, May 15, 2014. (Activestills)

Now most of the greenery is gone, too. Asphalt and parking lots are being paved, new staircases are bring built, marked paths are being designated. Trees stand isolated in the barren landscape, and each of the stone houses has been surrounded by a fence. Soon signs will go up, telling the story of the place. Everything will be clean and clear. Organic connections between different parts of the landscape, created by humans and nature over centuries, are being cut or rearranged according to the official plans and one authoritative narrative.

These stone houses were once an organic part of the landscape. They remained so even after their inhabitants were long gone. Like a memory which lingers on, refusing to let go. The wild vegetation marked the time since it had last been cultivated. The houses were open to anyone who was not afraid to enter, to face the intimacy of a stranger’s home and touch the human warmth accumulated in the depth of their thick stones. Now they are surrounded by fences, with signs warning of danger. Perhaps to protect us from the weight of the memories crumbling upon us.

The landscape was first assaulted by the wall, and is now being fenced in, sterilized, and tamed. No more wandering around and wondering aloud, no more intimate encounters with the ghosts of the past, no more unexpected discoveries, no more flights of imagination, no more questions, no more spontaneous sharing of space, no more sense of freedom and adventure. That’s how you control both the past and the present, and through them the future, too.

These stone houses were like a memory that lingers on refusing to let go. A painful memory, like a wound, but a wound you could touch. Now they are being turned into a ride in an amusement park. One of many national parks created to anesthetize our memory of this place.

Natasha Dudinski is a filmmaker living in Jerusalem. She worked for many years as a reporter for the BBC broadcast in Czech, Czech Radio and Radio Free Europe.

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    COMMENTS

    1. carmen

      Sad and bittersweet account of what used to be.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Yes, what used to be of the Jewish homes in Baghdad, Tripoli, Damascus. Aleppe, Fez, Algiers, Cairo but was destroyed by Arabs is a sad bittersweet tragedy. Don’t you agree, Carmen?

        Or is that whataboutery too?

        Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          That’s not what this is about, so yes lewis, more whataboutery. You really should start your own blog, but that would require due diligence, which you must not have because it’s so much easier to sit at your keyboard and troll every article on this space with endless whataboutery.

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            Lewis is right, Carmen. We were 1 million Jews in Arab countries. We have been dispossessed and kicked of these countries in the 50′ and 60′. Of course it does not matter for you. What an injustice…

            Reply to Comment
    2. Baladi Akka 1948

      This is just a tiny exemple of what Zionists have done all over historical Palestine, everything they’ve built is ugly and artificial, and really shows that they don’t belong to this land, the houses, the parks, everything is so fucking ugly …. like Zionism itself.

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordin Halevy

        Dear friend,
        Did you watch most of the Arab villages in Eretz Israel? They are ugly, dirty, without trees with young people sitting on the floor. Israel is one of the two countries in the world which have more trees than 60 years ago. Israel managed to become one of the most developed countries in the world. Every day the Jewish country is getting better. Arab countries are falling in chaos.

        Reply to Comment
        • Baladi Akka 1948

          Wer’re certainly not friends so spare me your BS. If you knew what i think about people like you and your fascist comments here !

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            I was being sarcastic. My comments are not fascist. My words are in accordance with the reality and it displeases you..

            Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        So you don’t like Israel. Good.
        So f*** off back to the 22 Sunni Moslem Arab States where you belong!

        Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      The Arabs did a great job in destroying Jewish sites in Hevron and the east Jerusalem, including the Old City which had something like 55 old synagogues and yeshivot destroyed, having many converted into goat pens. Add to that the mass desecration of the 3000-year old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. When the Arabs conquered Gush Etzion in 1948, after massacring the fighters who surrendered, they plowed the buildings under and even uprooted the trees that had been planted.
      Of course, we can see what they do their brothers in places like Aleppo and Moslum (current examples) by seeing the World War 2-like devastation they inflict on each other.

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        What aboutery isn’t an argument. – פלשתינה-فلسطين في الذاكرة
        http://www.palestineremembered.com

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordin Halevy

          Carmen, as you know, the “Palestinian people” does not exist. It is better to say “Arabs living in Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            Itshak, I can’t print the words that would to do justice to exactly how I for one feel about your genocidal remarks and hysterical pov wrt to palestine and palestinians.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            Carmen, sorry you do not know anything about the Middle-East. Zuheir Mohsen who was leader of As-Saïka, Member of the PLO between 1971 and 1979 admitted that the “Palestinian People” do not exist. Fathi Hayad, Minister of the Hamas confirmed it at the Egyption TV on March 23, 2012. Please check on the net. I have a large number of other examples.

            Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          What is there to remember in “palestine”?
          The palestinian poets / writers / thinkers that existed in the 16th, 17th & 18th Centuries?
          NONE CAN BE CITED

          The palestinian kings and queens that reigned in the region during the middle ages?
          NONE CAN BE CITED

          The famous palestinian printing press that printed the notes of palestinian currency?
          NONE CAN BE CITED

          The great palestinian capital city that was famous for its splendour and architecture.
          NONE CAN BE CITED

          In fact, there is no palestinian anything. Its a fake nation conjured up in the late 1960s by a gay Egyptian pedophile (arafat).

          Reply to Comment