Who Will Speak For Battir?

admndaretwrtWriters at Home and in Isolation

Share this on

When the pandemic took hold, my overwhelming feeling was fear; then came lockdown, bringing calm and control, but also increasingly, a sense of entrapment. I escaped by letting my mind wander to my travels. Most often, my meandering thoughts cast me back to a Palestinian village in the West Bank, which I visited in the spring of 2017. Suddenly, I was transported back to my evening walk in Battir with my travelling companion Judith.

We are guided by the sound of fresh water from the ancient spring, tinkling and chattering along the irrigation channels. Twilight edges over the hill and the Call to Prayer rises, soars and echoes from valley to valley in the darkening countryside. Above us, the sharp outline of a crescent moon in the sky still glows blue-gold with the light of the vanishing day. A donkey looks intently at us, shakes off the last flies.

Our walk ends with an invitation to a party, from a family sitting by the spring under a canopy overlooking the valley. They call out and invite us to join them. They smoke water pipes, laugh, urge us to dance with them. It is my first day here and already I have discovered that in Palestine becoming friends is immediate and spontaneous – a given, one of the many gifts you will receive if ever you visit. Later in the night, we will sit and talk with our kind host, Ibtisam, and her extended family. One after the other they appear, visiting from houses all over the village to spend time with us. We sip mint tea, and delicious cold drinks made with lemons from the garden.

Battir is an agricultural village near Bethlehem, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its fertile hills and valleys are sculpted into stone terraces where vegetables, olives and grapes have been cultivated since the time of King Herod and the Romans.

The village is situated along the route of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, which wasn’t running on my evening there, as it was a Friday – the day of prayer for both Muslims and Jews, and the start of the holy weekend. The train track had been taken over by some of the village’s young people and it was a strange sight to see them sitting on the ballast, or jostling on the rails and sleepers. The spring breeze lifted, caught their screams and laughter, then dropped; and the valley fell silent once again.

Battir is a quiet paradise where time seems to have stopped. A woman in a bright red headscarf tills her fields, a young boy strides down the hill behind his herd of sheep… scenes which could be taken straight from the Bible. The fertile terraces spread out, step upon step, a symphony of green singing lush, vibrant and tender notes. The scents of Mediterranean soil, sap and flower are intoxicating. The villagers smile and welcome you. But look closer at their faces and you will see the furrow of worry, a fleeting look of sadness in their eyes. Look deeper, ask, talk to them. Battir is stalked by a shadow of anger and fear. It is a paradise under threat.

The village is overlooked by an Israeli settlement called Beitar Illit. It looms on the hill like a white fortress – the towering walls of ugly modern buildings which house people who have arrived from all over the world to stake a claim over the land.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers want to bulldoze the precious land which surrounds Battir, to make way for an industrial zone on the edge of the terraces, right on the area which, for thousands of years, has been used to feed the spring and rich umber soil of the terraces. Recently, settlers have threatened and harassed local farmers – camping on Battir land, contaminating drinking water by bathing in the spring, walking around the fields armed with guns and accompanied by large dogs.

The US President has plans for Israel to annex large areas of the remaining areas of the West Bank – those which haven’t yet been grabbed from Palestinians to create illegal settlements or military zones. This is not the first time settlers have tried to take over this area, but Trump’s words have emboldened them even more. Battir is strategically important for Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank.

During lockdown, I travelled in my mind; but I also reflected on isolation, and what it meant in different contexts. Isolation can mean facing a situation alone, while the world looks away. It can mean staring straight into the deafening white noise of indifference. In Britain, we say we value human rights, nature and heritage. We will march, protest, sign petitions to save precious land and buildings near us – the river which is home to endangered newts; or the old covered market, due to be demolished or converted into luxury flats. We will donate to save Notre Dame and the Amazon. But when a precious World Heritage Site in the Holy Land faces erasure, as so often happens when it comes to the fate of Palestine, will we, once again, look away?



Samiha Abdeldjebar is a French-Algerian writer and film-maker living and working in Corsham (rural Wiltshire). Trained in Film Production at La Fémis (Paris), she has written, produced and directed seven short films since 2013, and is passionate about documenting issues around social justice and human rights. Samiha also writes short stories, poetry and non-fiction.

Share this on