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TAL et-THURMUS, ERASED

November 3, 2012

 I  had promised Munir I would take him to visit the site of his family’s home, Tal et-Thurmus, where the moshavim Timorim and Arugot stand today. During Israel’s Independence War, the Shana’ah clan fled to Gaza, where they lived until the ’67 war, when they fled once again, this time to Jordan. Munir grew up there, with Jordanian discrimination against Palestinian refugees from Gaza, as opposed to those from the West Bank. He would listen to his grandmother’s stories of life in Tal et-Thurmus before ’48.

 Munir and I serve together on the Board of the Sulha Peace Project, and I had seen the longing he felt to see his family’s land. A couple of months later, there we are, yesterday, on the road after doing a Sulha presentation for a group from D.C. at Neveh Shalom. With us is Fulla, our East Jerusalem friend, a medical clown, who is not feeling well, the three of us together on a Friday afternoon, in search of Tal et-Thurmus.

As we passed Kastina junction, I told Munir we were a couple of minutes from Timmorim. He grew quiet and pulled from his briefcase a camera. That briefcase, sporting Sulha stickers, we had shown to the Border Police officer who stopped us that morning at the Hizmi roadblock as we drove Munir into Israel. He wanted to send us back, for entering at a roadblock that was not mentioned in Munir’s permit, but surprisingly he listened as I told him I was taking Munir for Sulha business, and that we serve together on the Board. He looked at Munir and got who he is, and then gave Munir back his papers and waved us through. The day had started right.

Anyway, we get to Timmorim, and Munir photographs the hedges and villas that line the shady streets. We come to the edge of town, fields stretch east for 10-20 kilometers. I stop beside a guy sawing branches with a power saw. He straightens up, sweat ringing the neck of his t-shirt. I tell him why we’re there, and ask if he knows the village is built on the ruins of an Arab village. With a wry smile he replies, “Is there a Jewish town that isn’t built on a village?” He then explains that out in the fields there’s an area the locals call “Tel Thurmus” (thurmus is a tasty bean, tel/tal is hill.) The guy makes me a map to be sure I’ll find it.

We set out on a dirt road, and there, out in the dusty November fields, is a grove of eucalyptus and other trees. There must be water there, and where there is water there must have been life. We arrive at the parched grove, and Munir and I climb out. I am looking for some stone fragments of walls, anything that will show that we have found the village. He is searching for the old well. Nothing. The two of us clamber through brambles, down into a little gulley and up the other side. We come upon a Jewish National Fund sign, planted beside a messy “zula,” a collection low, broken and ragged couches, beer bottles strewn about, the local youths’ hangout. On the sign we are afforded a brief explanation about Tal et-Thurmus, a 6,500 year old Calcolithic village. Not surprisingly, they skipped mention of the residents of the most recent few hundred years in the explanation. As we look around, no sign of life 65 years before. Tal et-Thurmus has been erased. At some point after the residents fled, we Israelis must have brought in trucks and schlepped the entire town out of there. There is nothing. Fula’s virus is getting the best of her, and she sprawls asleep on the passenger seat, looking like a steamroller has driven over her. I can’t help feeling that it is the weight of Munir’s disappointment that has laid her low.

After some wandering around the grove, Munir is uncomfortable, worried that I want to get home. The sunset is just beginning, and there is still some light. We head back to Timmorim, and in the middle of the moshav we find an old shack from the moshav’s early years in the 50’s, with a fence around it and a sign warning people off this “historic site.” History? Whose history? A group of young locals, soldiers home for the weekend, are flopped with some beers on old couches before a shack. I ask Munir to cross the lawn with me and as we approach them, they are friendly. I explain what we are doing, and they confirm that “Tel Thurmus” is what we are looking for, and no, there are no remains of a village, to their knowledge. But one of them suddenly says that he knows of some Arabs who still live deep in the fields nearby. He explains how we will get to them, and we set back out across the fields, until we come to a couple of houses built Arab style, 2-3 kilometers east. Tractors and plows are strewn about, and people are relaxing outside the houses on well-kept lawns. It is their Sabbath day.

We approach them, Munir is instantly in his element and explains to them who we are and what we’re doing. An older man steps forward, a shy smile on his face, and says that he and his family are also descendents of Tal et-Thurmus. They were allowed to stay, during the war, because this man’s grandfather had papers proving ownership of some of the land. He immediately directs Munir to his pickup and says he’ll take us to the site of the middle of the village, but that the land we are standing on is also part of the villagers’ original holdings, some 2,500 acres. He motions me to follow, and Munir climbs in beside this guy, whose name is Nasir A’za’ame. Munir is asking questions a mile a minute.

After some minutes, we arrive into the same grove that we had been in earlier. Yes, says, Nasir, this is indeed where it was.  At one point, Nasir asks Munir again his family name, and suddenly his demeanor changes. Munir is warmly and respectfully speaking with him, but Nasir changes the subject, does not want to talk about the families. Munir later explains to me that some 70 years before, a member of Munir’s family had killed someone in Nasir’s, in a dispute over water rights. Munir remembered his Jordanian grandmother warning him that if he ever got back to Tal et-Thurmus, to be careful if he came across people from the A’za’ameh family. Apparently, the dispute and killing had never been settled, and then came the War, dispersing everyone.

 Munir makes every effort to be warm to the man, and in the end Nasir allows me to photograph him with Munir’s arm around his shoulders. Nasir takes us to an old gnarled tree, must be at least 100 years old. The only thing in the area that was here when Munir’s and Nasir’s families lived here and worked the land, and also, apparently, were at each other’s throats. He then leads us to a part of the vineyards, where, though the season is long over, there are still some incredibly sweet grapes hidden among the vines. I pull a plastic bag from the trunk, and Munir fills it, telling us that he will take the grapes, from their family’s land, to his brother in Ramallah.

 While all this is happening, I think about my wife Frumit’s trip with her mother to Poland, to find the house she had grown up in before the holocaust. I’m having a sort of collective déjà-vu. And here, in Tal et-Thurmus, Munir’s grand-father was part of a village feud whose remains appear on Nasir’s face, seventy years later. In the car, I tell Munir, “I get upset when Frumit and I fight for 2-3 days, and you guys go on for seventy years. Was that a dangerous visit we just made, Munir?” And he calmly reminds us that he believes in God, and “…anything that might have happened today would have been what was supposed to happen…” Not a stone is to be found, yet the enmity of two families still leaves its mark. In the end, it’s what happens between people that remains.

 I picture Munir going back to Tal et-Thurmus and bringing about the sulha that has waited so long to occur, before 72 year old Nasir is gone. Earlier in the day, Munir asked why I left America to live in Israel. “I love the people, I love to live here, and I love being part of bringing a better future. In America,” I explain, “I just don’t care about things this way.” And now, as I drive Munir back to the Kalandia roadblock outside Ramallah, he asks me how I am feeling. “Never mind me,” I say, “what are you feeling?” He says, “No, I want to know….” So I tell him, “Munir, I am sad and happy. I’m happy you got to see your family’s land. But I am filled with the awareness that we took this land from you and your family. We made you refugees. I am not sorry we have a home for the Jews in Israel, but this was your home and we took it from you. We have to do what we can to make up for the suffering we caused.”

 In the car, Munir grows quiet. At the roadblock I get out of the car to hug him. “I don’t have words,” he says, and kisses both my cheeks. Off he goes, toward the soldiers at the roadblock, armed with his bag of grapes.

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5 Comments
  1. This is fabulous writing, Yoav. (But of course I’m wondering about the sick woman lying on the front seat.) You are so fortunate – blessed, really – to be doing what you’re doing. This story should be widely read.

  2. Thanks, Judy. Fulla’s feeling better. Yes, I feel blessed.

  3. Shanti George permalink

    My responses to your blog, Yoav, always seem to be ‘very moving,’ but it is true in all cases and especially for this report. You have captured not just complexity but multiple complexities.

    A trivial thing. Fruit often seems to play a part in these stories of bitter sweet Arab and Jewish encounters. I believe that there is a book and a film called ‘The Lemon Tree.’ I remember an Arab partner in Israel narrating how he passes by a grove associated with displaced Arab families (like the one that you describe) and how he picks delicious figs from a tree there, somewhat similar to the grapes that you describe. I hope that there is some promising symbolism in all this!

    Very best, Shanti.

  4. marilyn Paul permalink

    Amazing, beautiful. Thank you. As always. Marilyn

  5. Ilka Peck permalink

    Forwarded this to a number of people here who tend to lose heart, Yoav – such stories are more important than any news report. Thank you.
    Ilka

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