The loss of an olive tree in Bethlehem’s bare hills
Sabina leans over me, staring out the window. “I have never seen the Dead Sea,” she says, her hand resting on my leg. The South Hebron Hills look like an unfinished sketch in a series of oil paintings, dusty outlines still waiting for the wash of a paintbrush.
She leans back into her seat, takes my hand and points to things, ticking off their names in Arabic and then in English. She stops only when we roll through the checkpoint, squeezing my fingers till I shift uncomfortably and grimace.
The bus moves sluggishly through the desert, its engine groaning and sputtering as the driver pulls off the highway and onto a dirt road. Iyad looks at his clipboard, consults the driver. The students surge into the aisle, pushing through the narrow entrance of the bus and then spilling out into the desert. They hold their arms up to shield their eyes, orienting themselves against the hills before rushing down the steep embankment and onto the shore of the Dead Sea.
“Watch out for sinkholes,” I shout in a panic, but Amira only grins. “It’s safe here, habibti. Halas. Stop worrying.”
Iyad is walking across the dirt, measuring out where the students should stand. He checks his watch. “The plane will be here soon.” I nod and Amira and I walk down the embankment to gather the students. Across the Dead Sea, Israelis and Jordanians are congregating to form the numbers 3 and 0. We’re the 5. When the plane flies over with a photographer leaning out the door, our collective bodies will form the number 350. The parts per million of CO2 that scientists have told us we need to stay below in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The photo will join thousands of others from climate protests around the world.
The climate movement in the Palestinian territories at the time is only a handful of proactive environmentalists and scientists. Iyad is one of them. I’m a newly minted graduate, a climate researcher, working on adaptation policy in conflict zones. Amira is an educator, determined that her students learn the effects of desertification and how to map water pollution. “Transboundary,” she tells them. “Pollution is transboundary.”
We stand on the line Iyad mapped out, holding hands, and looking over our shoulders at the glint of the water behind us. The mix of high school and college students had been eager to participate when we explained the project, but I suspect their enthusiasm surrounded a trip to the Dead Sea. Sabina keeps looking at her reflection in the water, stretching her hand out and dipping her fingers into the mud. “They’ve never seen so much water in one place,” Iyad says as he walks up behind me.
The sun is at its highest point, blazing down and baking the ground. Iyad whistles, waving his arms. We herd the students back onto the bus and drive to Ein Gedi. In the office in Beit Jala, Iyad had decided we would make a full day out of the excursion, have lunch at the botanical gardens in Ein Gedi, watch the sunset from an amusement park in Jericho.
Amira and I sink down onto a picnic bench as the students scatter. The shade collects in pools around the trees, nothing like the searing white heat of the hills around Bethlehem — hills stripped of their forests and replaced with the plain walls and red roofs of settlements. Amira gestures toward the Adenium flowers. “My father would love to see this.”
I nod. Every Sunday, after mass at the Church of the Nativity, I join Amira’s family for lunch, where we sit around the dining room table for hours, drinking coffee and making lazy conversation about the weather. Last week, I asked after their olive trees, expressing admiration of the silvery leaves and the shade. A shadow passed through his brown eyes before Amira’s father stood up and shuffled out of the room in his house slippers. He returned with a black and white photo, handed it to me over a tray of sticky honey desserts.
The photo is grainy and curling at the edges. I don’t believe it’s Bethlehem, but slowly the hills in the photo reveal themselves as familiar silhouettes, the same lumps of earth I stare at every evening from my rooftop apartment. But in the photo, a forest stretches over the hills.
“There were many trees,” her father says, before lapsing into silence, quietly stirring sugar into his coffee.
I turn in my chair, squinting my eyes against the sun as I look out the window at the beige hills.
“Pine forests,” he says, answering the question I hadn’t asked. “Beautiful pine forests. I used to go there with my family when I was a boy.”
His voice is so choked with emotion that I don’t know what to say and mumble incoherently about how beautiful that must have been. He clears his throat, reaches for the photo. Our eyes meet and I duck my head in confusion, sliding my gaze over to Amira for reassurance, but she is staring at her hands.
She is my age, unable to recall the way the forests looked, relying on her father and an old photo to safeguard that memory.
In Ein Gedi, I look at Amira and wonder if this is her way of ensuring that her father’s memory of the forest lives on. I know she shows that photo to her students.
The teenagers are throwing their lunch trash on the ground. I yell at them to use the trash cans. Amira frowns. She shakes her head. “How could they tear up those trees?” she demands. “How could they?”
I lean my head against her shoulder and we are silent. For a while, we stay like that, listening to the kids splash in the creek.
The wind moving through the trees creates a dry, rasping sound. We both look up at the branches and I tell her how the Cherokee believe that God is apparent from the treetops. My Grandmother’s voice fills my head. “Unelanuhi, she says, her British accent carefully enunciating around the word. “Great Spirit, Apportioner of Time.”
An Israeli park ranger walks over. “These kids are with you? They are throwing trash on the ground.”
His sandy hair is pulled into a ponytail, his blue eyes are fixed on me with suspicion. Amira has withdrawn, her shoulders curling forward, her eyes fixed on the trees in front of her. I apologize, brush the dust from my pants, and begin picking up the trash, shouting at the kids to come help. Amira rests her head in her hands and I let her be.
A week later, Hassan and I are hiking to Battir. He pulls the limb of an almond tree down to my outstretched hand. I pick the fuzzy drupes and he cracks them open with a rock. “Here, try.” I nibble the end of an almond shard, and he smiles when I thank him.
We keep hiking, stumbling over the rocks and dry grasses in our sandals. The group — a crew of journalists, human rights workers, and curious expats — trails behind us.
Battir, a small town famous for its terraced landscape, is fighting hard to protect itself from Israeli development and the placement of the West Bank security barrier by petitioning UNESCO to recognize the village as a World Heritage Site. Hassan leads us along a trail he hopes will attract tourists to hike from Bethlehem to see the village. Habituated to the dry, dusty hills surrounding my apartment, I feel the same way I did when I first ventured to the north of Israel, where I made Wally pull over so I could stand at the edge of the road and let the green hills quench my color-parched eyes.
Walking in silence, I note the grape vines, the olive, almond, and fruit trees — an explosion of the small pockets of garden that exist in the corners of Bethlehem fortunate enough to have an adequate water supply. Oak and terebinth trees lower their limbs to the ground, stretching shade across the desert. The terraced landscape is such a dramatic contrast to what I’m used to that I keep turning to Hassan and then back again, an incredulous expression plastered to my face. He points to the low rock walls: “Palestinians are losing this knowledge, they are forgetting how their ancestors handbuilt these terrace walls.”
His hand is resting on the branch of an olive tree, and he wears the same expression as Amira and Sabina: matter-of-fact tinged with an inherited nostalgia.
When the sky fades from a hard blue into the pale purple of a Vartan’s iris, I walk home, fumbling my sadness and confusion over the Bethlehem trees, the fight for Battir, Sabina who had never seen the Dead Sea. Ideas on place and people percolating through me, pressing against the festering, angry sores of my own land, but leaving me marveling at the thread of continuity between humans, how we can be driven from the land, and dozens, hundreds, thousands of years later, still yearn for it. This attachment is a balancing act, a perpetual battle between economics and emotion as our political systems struggle to grasp how a person can belong to a place, how the sway of a particular tree or the jagged cut of a mountain or the smell of the dust or the sound of the cicadas can shape a heart like a puzzle piece, slipping it into a niche like one of Darwin’s finches.
That memory, gifted from generation to generation, is not uprooted as easily as an olive tree, that sadness is not as easily extracted.
Because when I sift through the images my mind cannot erase, my heart always stops on the same one. An old woman clinging to a tree. Her gnarled hands scraping at its smooth bark, its trunk gathered together like the sinews of a forearm. A bulldozer pushes forward and then stops, plumes of dust rise above its tires, a fine sand that chokes the lungs. The woman buries her face against the tree.
Two soldiers step forward out of the dust, grab the woman by the arms and lift her up and out of the way. Their faces stonewalled, betraying nothing. The bulldozer churns forward, pushing the silvery leaves of the tree into the dust, its darkened roots left reaching up to the sky.
The woman sinks to the ground, collapses her face into her hands, shoulders hunched forward, shaking. The leaves shudder gently in the breeze.
I am immobilized. I’m here to interview this woman and her family, document everything for a report, but my reflection in a nearby window is like a ghost staring back. Family members gather, moving stiffly across the ground, hard chunks of desert cracked open to the sky. They lift her and she hangs heavily. Her wailing echoes across the empty land. She is screaming, shouting in Arabic. “These trees are all we have left.” A child clutches the end of her dress, eyes wide. “This one was a thousand years old,” she cries.
Her sons bow their heads, but the child pulls away and races to the tree. The soldiers raise their weapons, then lower them. There is an uneasy stillness, hesitation hanging in the air before the boy places his hands on the tree, breaks a branch, holding it above his head as he runs back, his heart wrapped in the memory of a tree. His legacy, a branch splintered off.