Dispossession and difficult conversations

Since fieldwork is often about trying to really get into the messy contradictions of a process, it often involves some sort of prying. Doing so often doesn't feel great. And since we get next to zero training in how to actually do fieldwork, developing a working set of practical ethics usually seems to happen in a kind of ad hoc fashion. One of the ways I tried to balance respecting peoples’ privacy and space, while at the same time getting my research done (which could only happen if people would talk to me), was simple: I would almost always begin by asking rather banal questions to let whoever I was talking to respond in a way that was as personal and detailed as they were comfortable getting. Sometimes though, even the most general questions ended up not being safe.

This one particular instance happened when I was brought to a village outside of Salfit. Someone at the Land Authority wanted me to speak to a woman who was head of the village council about what she thought about the PA’s land settlement and its impact on women's rights. In some places, land and women's inheritance rights is, well, quite a sensitive topic. Further, since this particular village wasn't one of my main sites, I figured I would learn what I could, but keep the questions broad and not take up too much of this woman's time.

So I drive with my Land Authority companion from Salfit along a road that descends from the town, winding through a few pine-covered hills and into the village. We park at the school, and I was introduced to Mona [name changed]. Likely in her 50s, she is married and has nine kids, and in addition to teaching (and perhaps being the headmaster as well), she was also the head of the local council at the time. I asked her about the land project, and things start out generally enough. According to my field notes, she tells me:

Like other places, people no longer work on the land much here. The village is very poor, she said to me, you probably noticed it when you drove in. I told her I hadn't, and she replied that well, from the outside it looks very nice, but people are struggling. The situation in this village is extremely dire. There are three ways one can find work, and in order to preference: 1) settlements (Ariel); 2) Israel; 3) Ramallah. In labor, construction, etc. The poorest people, she said, are the ones that work in Ramallah. 

Since Ariel and settlements came up, I asked her what she thought about the idea that land registration could prevent expropriation and hence protect land. In my notes I wrote "total bullshit", although what she probably did was just shake her head.

They can't even protect us inside our homes, she says, how would land registration protect the lands? She then told me a story, of something that happened after the 2nd Intifada. One evening, soldiers occupied her home. They didn't say way, but she surmises that they were likely searching for someone. They put her neighbors and her family (she was pregnant at the time) into one room and held them there overnight. Soldiers slept in the other rooms, eventually left the next day. 

That was surprisingly personal, and I felt not great that it went there. Mostly because when people like me go to places like this, it is almost expected that people will tell you stories about military violence, and I really didn't want people to feel like they should do that. (A guy who I knew through Stop the Wall, and who helped me out years ago in his village, would come with me to interviews, introduce me, and then say: "tell him about your suffering!" He thought that was fucking hilarious.) But then we returned to the question of rights and land titling.

But women's rights, sure. But there are many issues here. For example, her mother lives in Jordan, and her uncle has basically encroached on her rightful land. Now, she can make her claim, but it is very difficult. All the work when one is abroad -- knowing the law, finding a representative, following everything up. Her mother may be able to do it, but others will not. There are quite a number of people in Jordan, 500, that were expelled in 1967 and don't have IDs.

Land registration often meant an increase in land value, and so I was always curious what people thought about this change. It turned out to be the most crushing part of the conversation.

I had asked if she expected prices to go up, if that was a good thing. She said that it didn't matter, because most of the land had been sold already anway. She mentioned companies "from Ramallah, from Salfit" buying up lands; most of the land on one mountain, and all the land on another. People are poor and have no choice; if they want their kids to study, to marry. She said that, if she had any land, she would have sold it a long time ago. That is a difficult thing to hear someone say. But she continued, by the time the land titling is finished, or sometime in the near future, the people of the village won't actually own any of the village's land. 

Then she she started telling me about her family, she was close to tears. Her daughter, who got a 99.8% on the high school exit exams and I think the highest grade in Salfit, is in her third year at al-Najah University, studying medicine. But despite her grades, there are no scholarships. Getting her through school has put the family in debt. The whole thing is debt fueled, from the payment of fees to, and this is the most important part, transportation. Her daughter leaves early in the morning and gets back in the evening, and has to pay 50 shekels a day in transportation. Add that to the other kids, who are past the 6th grade and thus go to school in town, which cost 30 shekels because there is no public transportation to the village, and you have almost all of the family income going just to move the kids from place to place. 

If she had land, she said again, she'd sell it and get a house in Salfit, at least then transportation would be less. Just a few days ago, she said, her husband was seriously considering immigrating, leaving for Jordan. To where, it was unclear, but at least somewhere he could find work and support the family. Of course everyone is selling, she said, again close to tears, what choice do people have? Protecting women's rights...it can't even protect men's rights, it can't protect us from anything. 

At this point, I kind of wanted to disappear. Or better yet, go back in time an hour and spare everyone this moment. It was hard to look at her: this woman, who is about my mother's age and had accomplished so such, brought nearly to tears in front of someone she doesn't know. The only thing I could do – really, probably the most useful thing I did for most people while I was in the field – was to give her and two of her boys a ride to Salfit. As we were leaving, she pointed out the hills we had seen as we came in. That hill, gone. That hill, gone. I heard the names of the same companies and land brokers that I've heard over the course of this year, buying up dirt cheap land that will likely, as the years go by, become pretty valuable. And maybe then, after all the land is gone, someone will finally decide that the village deserves a bus route.