Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Gaza: The Old Man and the Key

It was in the spring of 1978, some friends had bought me a plane ticket from Paris to Tel Aviv. Israel was at that time at the summit of its powers, was still in full control over the Sinai peninsula. Crushed, the PLO was silent: there was no more "Palestinian question".

I did not want to leave this country without having made, on foot, the same journey as Jesus did in his days: from Jericho to Jerusalem.

I leave the greenery of Jericho behind, and enter the desert. A sinuous path, under the fiery sun. Then steep, stark slopes, I make my way along the hillsides.

No one. Sometimes a strange noise, echoing off the steep walls.

Suddenly, I arrive at the large road coming from Jerusalem. In the middle of nowhere, a bus stop. I approach: I’ve arrived at a hamlet called “the Good Samaritan”, a bus will stop by. To get on, it would mean to escape from the heat, the fatigue. A moment of hesitation, the remembrance of Jesus who did not have a bus at his disposal: I cross the road and sink into the sand once more. Jerusalem is over there, behind the waves of heat.

* * *

The desert.

Thirsty, very thirsty.

The sun: it must be three or four p.m., how can it be so scorching?

Blinding light. Suddenly, a voice calling me: yes, it is definitely me they’re after. In the quivering air, a concrete cube sitting in the desert, a sort of veranda, a man sporting a keffiyeh who is gesturing towards me with great movements of his arm.

I approach: he is very old, speaks to me in Arabic, points towards the smouldering sky, the sand, the direction of Jerusalem. What does he want from me?

A younger man appears behind him, and shouts to me in English: “Come, sir, come here!”

I have arrived at the foot of the concrete cube. The young man smiles, he is dressed European style.

“Sir,” he tells me with his bad English, “my father see you walking in desert. You come from Jericho, yes, going to Jerusalem? You cannot continue without drink, there is still ten kilometres. My father wants you come have tea. Necessary for you, you understand?”

The old man nods, takes my hand, seats me in the shade. With a trembling arm, he squirts a stream of foaming tea into a chipped glass. Hands it to me with a smile that uncovers his solitary teeth:

Bismillah, schouf, bech'er!

Yes, it’s good, deliciously sweet, fragrant. I come back to life: without this dose of water and sugar, I do not know in what state I would have arrived at the end of this long hike.

The old man turns his head, talks to his son, who struggles to translate:

“Our family live Palestine always, as long as memory of my father goes back, maybe back to Crusades. My father know: in this desert, without water, you in danger.”

I do not say anything. I absorb the tea, and also the eyes, the wrinkled face of the old man. A great sense of humanity, made up of sadness and compassion. He watches me drink, then turns towards his son and tells him a few words. The son shakes his head – no, no! – then ends up giving in, walks into the cube, comes back out instantly, his fist clenching an object.

“My father say that your eyes know how to listen. He wants to show you something, if you please: you must go up there.”

We climb a hill covered with sand and rocks. Having reached the summit, a vast panorama: way over there, Jerusalem and the dome of the mosque which glints under the sun.

In these days, the north-eastern suburbs of Jerusalem were not built-up. The young man extends his free hand, shows me some low buildings in the middle of the olive trees, on the edge of the city:

“You see? In this village, our house. Where my father was born, and his grandfather before him. And this, our olive trees. Planted by grandfather of my grandfather. We lived well, there was an oil press… and then, Tsahal came in 1948. They expelled us. Took our house, our plantation. Now the Jews make oil flow from our press, with the fruits of our trees. And us, we have nothing left. Just this, here…”

I turn around: down below the hill, the concrete cube, stuck right in the middle of the desert, is the epitome of desolation and solitary destitution. Not a single tree, nothing.


The young man opens his clenched fist. In the hollow of his palm, a rusty key:

“And that, that is key of our house. Every day since thirty years, every day, my father goes up here. He sees his house from distance, and he kisses his key, the key of his house, house of his ancestors. And then he goes down, sits on the veranda, stares at desert. Tears flow down his old cheeks. And me…”

He has clenched his fist over the key again:

“I am called 'Amin. In Arab as in Hebrew, this mean ‘loyalty’. Me… I think of our house, of the sound of the wind in olive trees in evening. My first son will also be called ‘Amin. And every day, like me, every day he will come here to watch our house. When my father is dead, I will give him the key. And he will give it to his son. For this day, when we come home. Home…”

I did not say anything. In 'Amin’s eyes, there is a peculiar glint, fiery and dramatic.

* * *

The next day was the eve of my departure for France. In Jerusalem, I took a bus from Rehovot. Going to Gaza.

Back then, it was possible to enter the territory just by showing a passport. Of course no tourist, ever, went there. But since my encounter with 'Amin and his old father, since the tea, since the eyes of 'Amin, I was no longer a tourist.

In Gaza I travelled towards a camp on the seaside, where the expelled Palestinians were concentrated. Immediately I was surrounded by a crowd of keffiyehs. No one was talking. But the dozens of pairs of eyes which were staring at me in silence bore the same reflection as 'Amin’s.

And then a Tsahal jeep drove by, braked in a cloud of dust. I was grabbed, thrown onto the hood of the jeep:

“What are you doing here? It’s forbidden, very dangerous for you!”

The Israeli soldiers drove me back to the bus. They only left when it drove off to Jerusalem, with me in it.

* * *

Ever since, I think of the old man’s key, of the house he has not seen again before he dies. Of loyal 'Amin, of his son who must be fully grown by now. And who must, in his turn, climb up the arid hill every day to observe, from afar, his house and his olive trees.

A rusty key in a clenched fist.

I see the glint in the eyes of all the 'Amins of Gaza.

And I know it will never be extinguished.

Michel Benoît, January 2009

Michel Benoît is the author of The Thirteenth Apostle and Prisoner of God. His blog can be found at: michelbenoit17.over-blog.com.

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