As the one year anniversary of Mike Brown's murder passes, we mourn his death and celebrate his life. This time also gives us a moment to reflect and salute the strength of people who chose to fight back against a system that brutally dehumanizes and destroys Black lives. We honor all the residents of Canfield, families, and individuals who took to the streets to demand justice.
We here at PAPERMAG.com are devoting the final week of our January Health & Wellness month to interviews with awesome plus-sized models who are challenging body norms, one misconception and major campaign at a time. Check back every day this week for more insights on the industry, new burgeoning body-positive movements to check out and more to kickstart your year the right way.
After isha the last prayer of the day, Mayor Hadj Sami Sadeq Sbaih’s niece pushes his wheelchair in between the sliding light blue gates that protect his home. He’s a plump middle-aged man with gray hair and round red cheeks.
He leads Arabella, an English woman in her mid 20’s, to meet with his neighbors the Jaber family. Arabella is on hiatus from her theater troop in Italy. She has an aura of kindness and chaos- with a toothy grin and bellowing laugh. She wears bright orange parachute pants- the kind only a tourist in the Middle East would ever buy let alone wear in public. As always, she arranged her hair into a disheveled bird’s nest. She’s eager to make new friends and hopefully learn a new Arabic word to add to her vocabulary book full of coffee-stained pages and notes scribbled all over the place in different directions.
They walk in complete silence aside from the sound of the wheelchair’s motor. Mayor Sami maneuvers slowly around the bend of the dusty main road. It’s nearly vacant. Arabella follows Mayor Sami dutifully; everything is dark, with the exception of the green glow of the mosque, the stars lingering above, and the bright moving beacons of light from the watchtowers in the distance. It’s hard to tell if Mayor Sami is a man of few words or if there just isn’t much to say…
What does a mayor do when 95 percent of his small village is under demolition orders and two-thirds of his population has been forced to relocate in the past five years?
He works dutifully in his office every day. He answers phone calls, responds to emails, helps people in the village with problems, meets with reporters and arranges rooms where foreigners can stay when they visit the guesthouse he established with the Building Alliance, an American non-profit. His office is connected to the village’s only kindergarten where Al Aqaba’s next generation learns the letters from alif to yeh as well as greetings that teachers coax their pupils to say in unison, “Marhaba, Ahlan wa sahlan. Shorufna!!!!! (Good day, welcome, nice to meet you!!!!!!). However, they’re too excited at the opportunity to yell to care about coordination.
The school was constructed in 2004 with the help of the Rebuilding Alliance, without a building permit. The military issued demolition orders for the school from 2004 to 2008 but after multiple appeals, the building was allowed to remain standing. Since Al Aqaba is located in the Israeli military zone C, along with 62 percent of the West Bank, all citizens must apply for permission to construct any new buildings or additions. The majority of the requests are denied, limiting the village’s progress as well as the ability of families to stay in Al Aqaba. In many villages in Palestine, it’s customary for fathers to build additions onto their house for their sons and daughter-in-laws. Without permits granted, families are forced to separate and relocate. When permits are denied or people can’t afford to apply for them in the first place, families that can’t afford to move often build additions anyway and run the risk of having their houses demolished later.
Meanwhile, there are 135 Israeli settlements and 100 settlement outposts within Area C, with more continuing to creep up and demand local resources, slurping water from reserves. The remainder is limited and out of the price range for most people in Al Aqaba and nearby villages in the Jordan Valley. The villages are increasingly fragmented by settlements, restricted roads, and military bases, like the two planted outside of Al Aqaba.
Mayor Sami’s weary eyes reveal many sleepless nights, including two nights ago when Israeli soldiers came to his house in the middle of the night and fired two shots above his house.
Israeli soldiers and guns are a familiar combination in the village of Al Aqaba. Soldiers and guns are why Mayor Sami has been confined to a wheelchair since he was 16. The military perfected their aim by shooting at moving and breathing targets until 2002, when the Israeli High Court banned the military from firing at civilians. “They shot me three times, one of the bullets is still lodged near my heart, it was too dangerous to remove,” Mayor Sami explains.
Al Aqaba is still used for military exercises which means families are notified in advanced and confined to their houses for hourly periods while the military goes to work, using the village’s freshly vacated land as its playground.
Arabella and Mayor Sami continue walking and pass by the village’s only health clinic on the left, which was also given demolition orders by the Israeli military. Home demolitions throughout the village and denied building permits have forced over 700 people to relocate, more people to take on the name of refugee or idp- internally displaced person, to identify with the rest of the population whose surroundings are less familiar by the day, the parameters of confined free movement shrinking smaller and smaller due to illegal settlement expansion and security wall construction.
Mayor Sami rolls up to the Jaber famiy’s home, past their barn on the right where over 100 goats are asleep for the night. During the day, they rustle around, pushing back and forth for a bite to eat. In as soon as two days, the barn as well as the family’s home may be nothing but metal fragments in the dirt.
Hadj Sami joins the Jaber family and men from the community on their lawn. He parks among an array of relatives seated on different colored plastic chair surrounding a small plastic table. Um Nasser, the family matriarch brings out small glasses with delicate handles, filled to the top with warm amber liquid- the perfect blend of herbs, water, and sugar- shay for the guests.
Some of the children linger in the doorway or peek curiously out of the window. She’s already put her youngest son, Hamdan age two to sleep. During the day, when it’s just him and Um Nasser, he is the man of the house. He wobbles quickly from wall to wall, weaving in and out of different doors playing peek-a-boo or inventing a new game on the lawn.
In two days, the Israeli High Court will hear the Israeli Civil Administration’s arguments for why the Jaber family’s house and barn must be demolished and reach a decision on whether the Civil Administration’s arguments are valid.
One of the village elders Salem takes notice of the foreigner and sizes her up. He’s wearing a long olive green robe and a white headdress, with a weathered black blazer draped around his shoulders. He keeps his cane in his hands, lifting it up and digging the pointed bottom into the ground to emphasize his frustration.
He moves his seat closer to Arabella. She looks at the family and struggles to make eye contact and a human connection through the translations. The whole idea of first impressions is pushed to the side by the severity of the situation and anxiety in the air.
Salem begins to sink his dull claws into Arabella with questions.
“Where are you from?” Salem demands.
“Min Britania,” she said (I’m from Britain), taking advantage of her weeks of Arabic classes where everyone would repeat after the professor like ducks in row and stumble through the unfamiliar sounds and words. Salem did not find her Arabic endearing.
“It’s you- you’re fault you gave our land to the Jews,” Salem accuses.
She’s live flesh to gnaw at but alas he’s far too late for his distrust of the British to account for anything. However, she’s the best opportunity he’ll have to express his built up anger that began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917. She’ll just have to do.
“Now the military is strong, but the times will change. When the Israelis damage our house we will remember, the times will change.” He warns her like a soothsayer.
Salem’s fury simmers and he rests back into his seat and is quiet for a while, leaving room for other voices to chime in.
The father of the family, Ahamd glances quickly from Salem to Arabella. Long lashes decorate his deep brown eyes, as he steadily inhales and exhales smoke, deep in thought, deciding what to add.
“We pray that the house won’t get damaged, Insh’Allah. The army is very strong, no one can do anything to stop it,” he states matter-of-factly. “This is our house and it’s not a threat to the Israeli army. Why do they want to destroy it? I built this house. That’s my question for everyone. It’s my house on my land.”
“All the time, we are afraid that the army will come and damage the house,” Salem adds.
“The children are very afraid.” Ahmad looks like he’s about to add something and then pauses. “Throughout my life of 40 years, the army is always trying to take. They take the land and the water and give it to the settlers. We are denied water because they want us to leave.”
Thoughts swim through the air in silence; the words that reach the surface all sound similar: slightly angry, nearly defeated, and completely exhausted. The uncertainty is nothing new. The Jabers thought their home might be destroyed in June as well but the hearing was delayed. The family was grateful to celebrate at least one more peaceful Ramadan in their home.
“If the Israeli army comes to damage the house, we will stay here with the tents. We don’t have another place to stay!” Salem shouts. “We will build a tent right here!”
The family repeats to their foreign guest that they’ve been living on this land for generations and that they aren’t threatening anyone. Each time, the elder gets louder and more irritated. They assume Arabella can’t understand, but she tries as best as she can. As best as a nomad by choice, a woman wandering from country to country, can understand- someone who relishes not having a home or husband to return to.
After countless utterances of Insh’Allah under the family members’ breath, and in the midst of the cycles of coffee cigarette tea, coffee cigarette tea, Salem slowly moves the plastic chair back from the circle and leaves for the night. Maybe he’s grown tired and unsatisfied with the foreigner or satisfied enough with his questions and statements- khalas, enough.
Ahmad shakes his head and looks at the ground, “You give rights when you want, and take them when you want, these are rights? These are not rights.”
Over the next few minutes, an orchestra of generic cell phone ringtones goes off as the conversation continues in circles. It’s either a coincidence or Mayor Sami and his guests have overstayed their welcome.
Mayor Sami evaluates the situation and sees the conversation is going nowhere. There’s nothing anyone can say or do. This is a waiting and power game where no smiles or condolences will help. Over the course of an hour, Insh’Allah- leaving it up to a higher power and prayer seem to come out on top as the most rational responses to impending demolition orders.
“We need to live with the peace, not under occupation,” Mayor Sami concludes, struggling to smile at Arabella.
The family subtly calls it a night by passing out dates and agrees to meet with Mayor Sami bookra, tomorrow, Insh’Allah.
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