For Muhanna Salman ‘Arab, “steadfastness” is a word with a personal twist. This vociferous 55-year-old Palestinian can teach any listener a lesson or two about endurance, resolve and loyalty to one’s country and home. Sitting under his small but thriving grapevine with the cool breeze from Jerusalem’s hillsides blowing gently, ‘Arab speaks of a life seemingly intolerable. He narrates story after story of treachery, expulsion and destruction, using the flowery but jagged language of a spited poet.
‘Arab lives in the very center of the Israeli settlement of Gilo, southwest of Jerusalem’s Old City and around the corner from the checkpoint leading to Bethlehem. Directly behind his dwelling is the settlement’s power plant, a towering electricity pole hovering dangerously overhead. Just behind that is the Shabak headquarters, Israel’s infamous General Security Services. With the exception of two other Arab houses, he is the only Palestinian among 30,000 Jewish settlers in this posh, upper-class colony. ‘Arab, a single man with no other family, has lived alone in an old, broken-down Israeli bus since 1984, compliments of the West Jerusalem municipality.
Since then, with financial assistance from various international and local organizations, ‘Arab has also built a small cement room at the tail of the bus, in which he stores a medley of odds and ends – old fans discarded by his Jewish neighbors, mattresses, rusty pots and pans, and every kind of tool one could imagine.
The iron door to his makeshift home is adorned with a handwritten sign in Arabic, Hebrew and English. “Peace, peace for everyone,” it says, with his full name written below. The tiny plot is actually part of a dirt road that is officially state land. ‘Arab has electricity, water and a telephone line, and is eligible for Israeli medical insurance. “My ID says Gilo as my place of residence,” he says triumphantly, considered a victory in his own tiny battle in an overwhelmingly unjust war.
A step into the actual bus, whose original door has been replaced with a metal door complete with lock and key, opens up a fascinating world that portrays the past and present of who Muhanna ‘Arab is, what he stands for, and his undying hope for the rectification of wrongs done unto him. Popular Arabic and English sayings adorn the low, arched walls of the bus’s interior – some from famous Arab intellectuals and others penned by none other than himself. “Rights never die,” is one recurrent theme in ‘Arab’s bus, written in various colors and calligraphy, both in English and in Arabic.
“Do you see this lot with the three trees?” he asks, pointing to a photograph of three tall evergreens surrounding an empty lot, which now hosts a playground. “This is where our house was, before they demolished it. We owned all this land,” he continues, as his finger tenderly traces the area around the lot, the yellowed picture in the simple black frame suddenly coming alive in his memory and in his voice.
Now, the lot is encompassed by the quintessential red-roofed homes of Israeli settlements, the vivid memories of ‘Arab’s home completely erased from the reality on the ground.
“They say the Jews took the land by force, but this is not true. It was a dirty Arab land broker who manipulated our land deeds and sold the land to an Israeli,” he tells, clearly distressed. His voice rises to an angry pitch as he explains that the broker – who he repeatedly calls a traitor – sold the land of his forefathers without a smidge of remorse, and then took off to the United States.
When the family found themselves homeless, the Red Cross set up a tent for them on what was once their land. That too was torn down by Israeli authorities seven months later, in order to make way for the construction of additional homes in the already expanding settlement. Finally, according to ‘Arab, the Red Cross mediated with the West Jerusalem municipality – after all, the family was registered as Jerusalem residents – and a bus was brought to the dirt road adjacent to the family plot.
‘Arab claims that the municipality tried to offer him a home in central Jerusalem, fully paid, if he would only leave the land. He also says Jewish settlers offered him $7 million for his tiny plot. Both offers he rejected.
“At that point, we had two choices,” he says, of himself and his father, the only family members remaining. “But we emulated Tareq Ibn Ziad,” he says in reference to the Islamic military leader who conquered Andalusia in 711 AD by burning his fleet to force his men to move forward. ‘Arab offers Tareq Ibn Ziad’s most famous quote to show that they did not even consider leaving as an option – “The enemy is before you and the sea behind you,” giving his army no other choice than to advance, to either kill or be killed.
The land for ‘Arab is sacred. He has planted mint in his tiny plot, and plump grape bunches hang from deep green grape vines. “You see this vine, it is a symbol,” he says emphatically. “It is a symbol of our land and of our resolve to never surrender it.”
“The land is not theirs to own,” he explains. “Neither is it ours. The land is God’s and the land is the mother of all mothers,” he says poetically.
This is why he refuses to leave. “If between myself and the land there was a sea of blood and the horizon was ablaze with fire, I would still go forward,” he says, reciting a famous phrase coined by the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
‘Arab, who never married and therefore never produced a son, knows that his cause will die with him. He is satisfied, however, because he knows that he will return to Mother Earth and will have fulfilled his father’s dying wish. “When my father fell ill and I took him to the hospital, he held me by my collar and made me promise that I would never surrender our land,” he tells, choked with emotion.
His case is still being studied by an Israeli lawyer, who ‘Arab says has all of his father’s land deeds proving that the land was his family’s. But he has long lost hope that any legal recourse will produce positive results. “I have lived my life according to God, and when I die I will return to the earth, so I am content,” he resolves.
“This is steadfastness,” he concludes. “Other people would have fled. Who else would settle for this kind of life?”