Maqam Al Nabi Samwail (The Tomb of the Prophet Samuel) used to be one of our favorite hiking destinations when we were children. From our nearby village of Bir Nabala, the hike up the mountain to the site of the tomb of the prophet was the perfect pastime for a bunch of children who enjoyed the outdoors. At the time, we children were oblivious to the fate of the 250 or so inhabitants of the village of Nabi Samuel, only concerned with ensuring that the fried chicken and potato salad we lugged up the mountain would reach the top intact.
The trip up to Nabi Samuel this time around was a totally different experience. What used to be an open road through Bir Nabala and Al Jib on our way to the small village/pilgrimage destination is now cut off by an all-too recognizable Israeli checkpoint. The ubiquitous iron turnstiles (of what the locals like to call the “chicken defeatherer”) stand ominously alongside the closed off road and the bullet proof booth where Israeli soldiers wait to see proof of “coordination” that would allow our bus to pass through. Only those with their names at the barrier through prior coordination with the Israeli army are allowed entry to the other side of the checkpoint, the only “safe” way to reach Nabi Samuel. After another check of our ID cards, some back and forth in Hebrew and a dismissive wave of the hand, the soldiers lift the bar for our bus to cross.
What met us was more like the famous scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy steps out of the closet into Narnia, a world completely disconnected from reality. What had been poorly paved and unlined roads marked by sheep droppings and Arab-style houses on either side now opened up into a foreign looking landscape, nothing even close to the natural environment of Palestine. Neatly marked roads, stoplights and carefully designed red-roofed houses met our eyes as we passed into what looked like a suburb of Tel Aviv. Israeli flags waved from rooftops, road signs pointed to destinations such as Giv’on Hadasha and Har Adar and nothing remotely Palestinian save for the age-old olive trees in the distance could be seen.
That is, until the road curved and a drab-looking sign reading “Nabi Samuel” took us up a winding road into a scene that abruptly flipped back into “Palestinian.” The village that met us, across from the actual tomb and adjoining mosque (and synagogue to boot) is the epitome of impoverishment. Nothing is allowed here –” not one stone can be added to the houses, not one tree can be planted, not one school can be built. The small village is in Area C and the land around the tomb and its surrounding land have all been confiscated and reclassified as a “national park”. Israel has closed off the village to the outside world and has made life well, impossible.
The village is seated high on a mountaintop, with a breathtaking view of Jerusalem to the south and Palestinian villages and agricultural land to the west. The cool breeze and picturesque view is not, however indicative of the state of its inhabitants. “We cannot beat them,” says Hajja Shukriya, the 85-year old village matriarch. “Only God can.” Nevertheless, the headstrong Hajja says they will never uproot her. “The only way I will leave this place is if God takes me,” she says.
“This place” has no medical clinic let alone a hospital. The school is a one-room box shaped edifice that hosts seven students from grades one to four. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor the villagers are allowed to expand it, not even by one room. Most of the villagers’ children trek their way down the hill to nearby villages such as Beit Iksa while others go by bus to schools in Al Jib or Bir Nabala. This means they must adhere to the only bus system allowed by the Israeli army –” one bus leaves the village at 7:30 a.m. and takes the kids back at 2:00 p.m. The only other time the bus passes to and from the village is at 4:00 p.m. There is no other public transportation allowed.
That is assuming the kids finish school at all. Many village women say their sons drop out of school to look for work in Jerusalem, which can be seen from the hilltop. But the geographic nearness is deceiving in terms of its accessibility to the Palestinians. The highway just below Nabi Samuel is Israeli-only and security cameras are in constant vigilance of “trespassers.” If young men from the village try to cross the highway to make it into west Jerusalem, they are often caught, beaten or arrested.
The houses, rundown and in desperate need of maintenance are not even the villagers’ original abodes. Those are now in ruins, demolished in 1971 by Israeli authorities and fenced off as archeological sites. The original village was built in close proximity to the mosque/tomb, the houses nestled snuggly against one other. “This was because in the old days, people were afraid of thieves, so they built their houses next to each other for protection,” says one resident. The current houses belong to others from the village who moved out before 1967 and who offered them as homes to those who remained.
But even the current inhabitants are finding it difficult to stay. With no space to expand or develop, their daughters are marrying more and more outside of Nabi Samuel and newlywed men are renting homes in nearby areas. But the people of Nabi Samuel will not give up without a fight. Those who have found a way to remain on their land will remain until death, they say.
Hajja Shukriyeh, shrunken and wrinkled, is as tough as nails. She relays a story about when an Israeli soldier mocked her. “He was laughing,” she said, “saying I only had a few years left before I die, then the army would be free of me.” In defiant resistance, Hajja Shukriyeh waved her finger in the young soldiers’ face. “Even after I die, there will be a thousand Shukriyehs to take my place.”