One of the Last Gatekeepers of Aboud

Posted on Oct 2, 2019

by Xavier Abu Eid* | This Week in Palestine

In 1870, Victor Guerin, the French explorer and author of La Palestine, described Aboud as a village surrounded by water wells, valleys with lemon trees, pomegranates, and olives. The “city of flowers” as known by its people, is a breathtaking village located around 30 kilometers northwest of Jerusalem. Inhabited from ancient times, Aboud was part of the summer path taken by the Holy Family on their way from Jerusalem to Nazareth, it welcomed Queen Helena on the way from Jaffa to Jerusalem in search of the Holy Cross, and it provided refuge to Saint Barbara as she came to Palestine after being persecuted by her family for converting to Christianity.

The vivid testimonies of these historic episodes can still be seen today. Aboud is a village of 2,500 inhabitants that, like it or not, feels as though it is stuck in time. Walking the small streets of the old city, you will notice some vine- and tree-covered ruins and old stone houses that bring to mind the centuries of village traditions. This is the feeling at the Orthodox Church of the Dormition of Virgin Mary, known also as “al-Aboudiya” (from Aboud), built in 332. This is perhaps the best place to meet Sa’ed, known properly as Abu Bassam, who would rarely miss a Sunday Mass, showing the nostalgic elegance of the hatta w ergal on his head, the traditional Palestinian scarf made famous worldwide by the late Yasser Arafat.

Image: Abu Bassam and his wife Rafeeha.

Abu Bassam and his wife Rafeeha.

Born in 1931 (“at least this is what is registered”), Abu Bassam has an extraordinary memory of the historic events that have marked the history of Aboud. He remembers with details, as a child, how British forces assassinated Yacoub Anfous, the first martyr of the village, as he was going to bring water from a well across the village, in the Lemon Valley, on a day of curfew: “He was fearless, he didn’t care about anything. We were in a time of revolution (1936). He took a mule, put four tanks on it to be filled with water, and left.” Abu Bassam remembers, “I was with my dad. We were sitting with other people from the family, and someone asked, ‘Where is Yacoub?’ We were told that he had left to bring water. Some went crazy. But Yacoub had told everyone not to worry. ‘They know me,’ he said. But, of course, they didn’t know anyone.” The British army had imposed martial law. “The first bullet went into his chest, the second into his head. He fell into the water, and four men were the only ones allowed to retrieve the body, having to immediately arrange the funeral.” Yacoub Anfous was 30 years old. He left his wife, six daughters, and a son.

At the age of 88, Abu Bassam is a man of extraordinary strength. Going deeper into the story of his life, it is not difficult to discover why. He was the youngest of three brothers. Atta, the oldest, was educated at Birzeit College (“and learned very well Arabic and English”) and then moved to Jaffa, only around 30 kilometers away, to work in the municipality. This until the Nakba: Zionist bombardments and terror attacks of the Irgun and Lehi, carried out in March and April 1948, forcibly displaced thousands of people and drove the last resistance forces led by Michael Issa out of the city. Mayor Yousef Haikal ended up giving up his hopes of retaining “the bride of the sea,” as British troops failed to protect a population that was still under their “control.” The hills of Aboud, just as those of Birzeit, Jifna, and the surrounding areas, witnessed thousands of refugees expelled from Jaffa, Lydda, Ramleh, and the neighboring villages, people who for years lived under olive trees, in precarious tents and caves, waiting for the fulfilment of their internationally recognized right of return.

Image: View of Aboud (Photo courtesy of the author)

View of Aboud (Photo courtesy of the author)

After the traumatic events of the Nakba, Atta lived in Aboud for about six years. Then “he got tired of this life” and joined the Jordanian army, settling in Amman. The second brother, Raja, stayed with Abu Bassam in Aboud. They were, just like the vast majority of the village, fellahin (peasants), mastering the land with the few tools they had. Abu Bassam particularly remembers harvesting wheat and picking olives. Counting the lands that were worked in a cooperative with other people, they had around 400 dunums as well as cows and “a mule.” I was surprised by the mention of cows. “Really? Cows in Aboud?” “Yes,” Abu Bassam responded proudly, “almost 2,000.”

The arrangement worked well until Abu Bassam was 25 years old. Raja, tired of working in the field, joined waves of other young people who were attracted towards the tempting horizons of the Arab Gulf: “‘I’m going to Kuwait,’ he told me. I was like, how come I have to deal with everything on my own? ‘That’s your problem now; you can sell if you want, but I’m leaving.’” And he left. But Abu Bassam didn’t sell anything. He managed to gather workers and kept almost 400 dunums producing. And not only that.

“When did you get married?” Abu Bassam takes a pause to respond. Then he smiles. “In those days, people didn’t use to write everything down.” Then he looked at his wife, patiently sitting beside him. “I got married when I was 25,” he remembered. “And how old were you, Um Bassam?” he asked, looking towards Rafeeha, the gorgeous lady with an easy smile and sweet tone known as one of the last to keep the tradition of wearing the traditional thobe. “I also was 25.” “What? Wasn’t that strange at that time, marrying someone of the same age?” I asked. They both looked at each other laughing, symbolizing a simple yet beautiful love story. “We are the same,” Rafeeha concluded.

Life at the time was simpler than their own grandchildren could imagine. There was no electricity, no radio, and no phone in the village. Yet for Abu Bassam those were beautiful years of simplicity. “How would you go to Ramallah?” “There was a bus, it used to come from Birzeit. It would come at 8:00 am and return at 3:00 pm.” Years later, it was the turn of his son Sami: “He bought a car, and everyone would come to ask him for rides, to Ramallah, to Jerusalem.”

Image: Saint Barbara Church (Photo courtesy of the author)

Saint Barbara Church (Photo courtesy of the author)

In 1967, Israeli forces occupied what was left of Palestine in 1948. Given the strategic position of Aboud, overlooking the Mediterranean coast, it was one of the first villages to fall to the Israeli aggression. There was almost no resistance. Those who tried to do something were left alone, a few Egyptian fighters were in the area coordinating with Palestinian guerrillas, but the efforts were in vain. Abu Bassam witnessed this: “We were going with Abu Zaki, who had the only truck in the village, to pick up someone from Rantis. Then suddenly we realized that there was war. On the way, we were stopped by a group of fighters who asked for transportation. We took them with us until we reached a checkpoint. We thought they were Jordanians, but as we got closer, it became clear they were Israelis. I said, ‘That’s it, the end.’ We were being caught with men and weapons in the car.”

But life had an alternative path for them. The Israelis focused on those who were armed and left the two men from Aboud on the side. “What happened to them?” Abu Bassam asks the same question. It’s difficult to think about those who lost their lives for the freedom of others. Perhaps when the destiny of those detained on the way to Ramallah was sealed, Abu Bassam and Abu Zaki had already managed to run a few yards towards Aboud, through the olive groves that surrounded them. For both of them this eventually marked the beginning of a new life. Years later, Abu Zaki’s son married Abu Bassam’s daughter.

Image: Roman ruins Al-Makata’a (Photo courtesy of the author)

Roman ruins Al-Makata’a (Photo courtesy of the author)

“When they entered Aboud, there were no killings. There was nothing. People raised white flags. Instead of one vehicle they used thirty. After occupying us they kept moving towards Ramallah.”
Like many others from neighboring villages, such as Deir Abu Mashaal, Beit Rima, and Deir Ghassane, Abu Bassam ended up working in an Israeli company for a few years. “What happened to your land then, did you leave it?” I asked. “Of course not, I was working on both sides (…). When it was fig season or something else, I would tell them that my son was sick and that I had to take him to the hospital. But instead I would go to help with the harvest.”

At around the same time, there was the first Intifada, when Mariam Ishaq became the first female martyr from Aboud: “She was traveling by donkey to harvest grapes. It wasn’t that far away from us. An Israeli military jeep ran over her, crushing her head. She died instantly.” Her killing took place on August 15, 1988.

By that time, Rafeeha and Sa’ed had already had eight children – four daughters and four sons. Unlike other Palestinian Christian families from the same generation, most of their sons and daughters remain in Palestine, yet only two are in Aboud. “We only have the youngest ones in Aboud, Sami and Samia.” His older son, Bassam, lives in Amman. He married Raja’s daughter, reuniting the two brothers that had been separated since Abu Bassam was left working alone in the fields of Aboud. A decision he never regretted.

Image: Rafeeha at the Dormition Church.

Rafeeha at the Dormition Church.

Aboud has been able to keep its character, yet the realities imposed by the Israeli occupation are threatening its future. With two settlements built on its lands, Ammorim and Beit Aryeh, and almost a third of the village taken by the illegal annexation wall, the control of the village’s water resources has made it difficult to keep investing in agriculture. One of its ancient shrines, Saint Barbara’s shrine that dates from the fifth century, was blown up by Israel in 2002. At the entrance to the village is an Israeli roadblock, and only 2,000 dunums, out of Aboud’s 12,000, are available for Palestinian construction in accordance with the rules imposed by the occupation. This has pushed some people, especially the younger generation, to leave Aboud. Abu Bassam’s parish priest, Fr. Talaat Awwad, explains that there are over 100 “young men and women, over 25 years old who are not getting married because they don’t have a place to live.”

Abu Bassam moves into a pensive mode: “Life is nice, but people now live in fear. There is no security. You may plant on your land, but you are afraid. Once, a few years ago, we were working a piece of land we own by the entrance of the village. I left two workers there. After a while one sent his son to talk to me. ‘Uncle Abu Bassam, my father says that the Israelis kicked them out,’ ‘What?’ I asked. Three days later, I told the workers to come with me to the land. They were afraid, but I told them that if we were kicked out, I would still pay them. We started to work, and the soldiers came and shouted, ‘Hey you!’ I said good morning to them, but they didn’t respond. They just said, ‘Get out of here!’ But I replied, ‘We’re not going anywhere, we are working the olive trees.’ They then threatened to shoot us. ‘I have a permit to be here.’ They left. Good they didn’t ask me for the papers because I didn’t have any permit. It was simply my land, and I was taking care of it… perhaps we would have been beaten!”

Sa’ed, Abu Bassam, is a humble man who is regarded with admiration by the people of his village. Aboud, the same place that witnessed the Holy Family on its path from Jerusalem to Nazareth, has kept this simplicity in the eyes of Abu Bassam. The love for his land, his family, and his church has solidified his role as one of the last gatekeepers of the identity of this ancient Palestinian village.

*  Xavier Abu Eid is a political scientist and holds a master’s in diplomatic studies.

This story is one of many featured in the October 2019 issue of This Week in Palestine. Click here for all the stories.