Stories from Palestine
By Delia Khano
Most of the original place-names in Palestine are from the Aramaic, and the meaning of Wadi Fuqin seems to be ‘Valley of Thorns’ from the Aramaic word. There is a village of the same name, and the valley runs east-west from it to where the West Bank meets Israel. From early times it has supplied Bethlehem, which is about eight miles away, with her vegetables; and till recent years this was the main source of livelihood in the village. There are five springs in the valley.
When my son Mark and I went to the village, our host was Fahmi, a personable young man who had trained as a tourist guide in Bethlehem before the Second Intifada. His wife was a nice-looking young woman he had married nine years before; she was Palestinian but her parents had lived for many years in Kuwait. Her father had left Wadi Fuqin when he was sixteen, and had only been able to return for a week at the time of the wedding; that was the last time he had been to the village. It was difficult for the young couple to meet the parents at all and it usually had to be in Jordan. They now had three beautiful children who had the old English virtue of being seen and not heard.
The furniture and décor of the house was expensive but tasteful, and the couple served us with fruit juice and - later - tea and biscuits although they themselves were fasting for Ramadan. The conversation was about the difficulties of the situation that the people of the village found themselves in: Bethlehem, their market town and cultural centre, as well as the home of friends and relations, was often completely closed to them, often too under curfew (both states unpredictable), and though it was sometimes possible to transfer produce from one lorry to another at the Israeli checkpoint, this was costly. In happier days Wadi Fuqin was famous for its cucumbers and would often supply Bethlehem with three truckloads a day. Not any more. Now in Bethlehem, as elsewhere, Israeli goods were taking over: their trucks had no problem at the checkpoints.
Real tourists do not exist these days but Fahmi said he had very little guiding business sent him by NGOs for people interested in the environment and the water situation. One NGO (non-governmental organisation) had taken him with some Israelis and Jordanians to El Paso, Texas, to see how Americans and Mexicans dealt with water issues.
Mark and I said goodbye to Fahmi’s wife and children and he took us in our car for a drive through the village and the valley. It was a broad wadi, but frowning down on it from the south side was the Israeli settlement of Betar Illit: to the north was Tzur Hadassah, an Israeli town beyond the green line. One of the fears the villagers had was that the ‘separation wall’ - already being put up in the north of the country - would include in Israeli territory both Betar Illit and Wadi Fuqin, thus separating the village from Bethlehem. The Israelis would be happy to gain such a fertile valley, and under a hardline government it seemed a distinct possibility.
The village had a rather ramshackle appearance which was explained by its history: Fahmi said there had been raids by the Haganah before 1948, and even before the creation of Israel the inhabitants had fled to what afterwards became Deheisha camp in Bethlehem. Then in 1972 more space was needed in Deheisha and the Israeli government said they could return to their village if they could build themselves a house within a month; this they did. Therefore, in the midst of ruined houses that resulted from the raids were what seemed attractive modern homes, and one did not see the simpler type of Palestinian cottages. Fahmi asked Mark to stop where there were some caves, and he pointed out a cross on the stone. He said, “These are ancient caves where you can see an upper level and a lower level where animals were kept. Their breath warmed the dwelling in winter and Jesus may have been born in such an upper room." And I remembered seeing the fascinating old house in Taybeh.
Like many of the Palestinian villages - especially those with a name starting with Deir (monastery) - Wadi Fuqin may well have been Christian at one time, and Fahmi believes there may have been a Byzantine church under these caves. There was said to have been a monastery on the hill where monks were sent as a punishment, and a nun once came from Bethlehem to write about it. But on the whole Byzantine and early Christian remains do not attract scholars and stay hidden under the earth.
Soon we were out of the village and saw the rich brown of the earth and the verdant green of the vegetables where the villagers had their strips of land. Strip followed strip with a great variety of vegetables, with an occasional olive tree and now and then some vines shedding their leaves. A settler road had spoilt the contours of the south side of the wadi, where streams of stone seemed to rush down to the ground. We passed a man with a small boy as we drove along the track, and Fahmi said that he lived in a cave and grazed his flocks nearby; he ate only the products of his sheep and goats and such vegetables and herbs as he grew; he was said to be 89 and never to have been to a doctor. A little later we were shown a cave in the other side of the vale where another man lived; he had a house but preferred to be a cave dweller and to live by his field.
It was a long wadi and not all of it was cultivated, which was hardly surprising considering that their market was unreachable. It must have been impressive in its heyday. Fahmi said the village once owned twelve thousand dunums (three thousand acres) but this had been cut down to four thousand when the border with Israel was made.
On the way back Fahmi asked us to stop at one of the greener strips which had a pool of water at its head. This was his father’s patch, and he gathered huge bunches of parsley, mint and radishes for us to take home. They tasted quite exceptionally good from this abundant valley.
This was in December 2002. Now we learn that the Apartheid Wall is to separate the village from Bethlehem in Area A. They will be between the Wall and the Green Line. How this will affect their life, time will tell . . .
The writer is a long-time resident in Jerusalem, co-founder of the Guiding Star and authoress of “By Eastern Windows"