Fellah tales

The term fellah is a loaded one. It literally means “cultivator,” has sometimes been used sociologically to mean “peasant,” and is wrapped up with the history and ideology of land politics in Palestine. The Christian explorers mapping out the Holy Land in the mid-nineteenth century didn’t quite know what to do with them. The fellah was an Arab, so as far as these Europeans were concerned, course naturally untrustworthy. But the fellah was considered native to the land, and as such was taken to be an invaluable source of information about the geographical knowledge of the bible. Weird ethnographic methods followed, of course. Later, Zionists sought not only to dispossess them, but also to convince everyone that new Jewish immigrants and the fellahin shared a common class enemy in the (absentee) landlord (the villainous effendi). And of course, nationalist movements and parties have alternatively praised the fellah as the backbone of the struggle and cursed him as conservative, self-interested, and regressive. 

Anyway, here are a few fellah tales.

The first was in Nablus. I was interviewing a well-known agronomist from the city, and I was trying to figure out land/tree separation. 

So Dr. F— grandfather was one of these large land owners, and had 1,000s of dunums. It turns out that much of this land was sold after it was divided amongst his brothers and him in the 1970s, and I was wondering why. There were a number of people in the room, and it was weird because as he told this story, he looked at them all and literally apologized to them (they were all from Nablus villages). He goes on to say that they had to sell the land because the villagers made it impossible to control. It was far away, and the fellahin would basically rip off the city dwellers, not giving them enough of the surplus to make it worth it. It was funny to me that he was asking them not to get offended (and rather was not embarrassed that his grandfather had acquired so much land, likely not so nicely). Then an older woman, who were worked in the office and had heard his story, told a similar story. In their village, someone from Nablus, had somehow gotten ahold of a good bit of mountainous, rocky land in the village. This land they had someone local take care of it. But even though it produced something like 4–5 tanks of oil, the cultivators would give the owners 2 bottles (tanka vs kazaz). Apparently one year the owners, not believing that their investment was only yielding this poor amount, went with them and forced them to give them full amount. But they couldn't do it every year, the land was far away, mountainous and a pain, so they ended up selling it off. 

The second was in a village outside of Salfit. I included parts of this story in the dissertation, but not the truly bizarre conclusion.

Outside of Salfit, a large real estate project has raised land prices and rendered the area of interest for land brokers and speculators. Late in the summer, I joined the a three-man survey team, accompanied by a village council guide, as they set out to survey a plot of land close to the proposed real estate project. Salameh, the owner of the plot, met us there and unlike most people, had his own map ready. As I would learn, this man was a well-known land buyer from a nearby town.

As we walked the land, Salameh made clear that he had several complaints, both of which had to do with borders. His plot was sort of at the bottom of the valley. It had high rock sides, natural, large steep rocky areas (the rocks are very big, sheets of rock in the side of a mountain) that are called arak. Usually on top of these we see the man-made sinasel (a wall made of rocks to mark boundaries). The rule that the survey team followed to decide who owns what was “from the sinsal and above,” meaning that the arak below should go to the lower owner. Salameh asked the team to mark the coordinates below the sinsal, the lead surveyor differed, citing local tradition as articulated by the ihktiyariya, or the elderly people whom, according to general consensus, are able to speak on older practices of land division. Salameh continued to repeat his response, throwing rocks at the wall where he wanted the men to spray point the coordinates. The lead surveyor did not wish to comply. After a bit of yelling back and forth, some more rock throwing, an offer by Salameh to climb down the sheer rock with the GPS and mark the spot himself (an unlikely and somewhat dangerous proposition), the lead surveyor sat under a tree and refused to do anything else until the owner of the contested plot was called.

A half hour later, two more men arrived: the owner Abu Zehed, helped along with a walking stick, and his oldest son. Salameh made some half-hearted arguments about a different interpretation of local practice, but mostly referred to his map. Abu Zehed simply articulated his personal history: the border wasn't that far down below the wall because he and his family were the ones that divided it up, and they knew the borders; he had been coming here for decades and plowing it. “It goes from the sinsal to the that kherub tree,” he said, gesturing with his stick. “That land is yours, and this is mine.” “I am a fellah too,” Salameh told us, to which Abu Zehed shook his head, saying “yes, yes, I know, we all are.”

The second problem arose when the survey continued. The teams generally used a red, gloopy paint applied by a wood stick. On the ground, however, were coordinates done with blue spray-paint that were left over from the private survey done for the recent sale of the land from the previous owner to Salameh. Unfortunately for the latter, it seems that the land he assumed he had purchased was, perhaps, not all of the previous owner’s to sell. Specifically, there was a small strip of plowed land that was a bit further down the mountainside. While the blue marks included it in the plot, Abu Zehed objected. “Its a mistake,” he tells the survey team. “I plowed that land (as you can see) and planted several trees, a fig and an olive tree. Why would I do that if the land didn’t belong to me? Why would plow someone else’s land?” Salameh, likely sensing this whole thing is quickly going south, held his map aloft and points to it: “I bought this land,” he told us, “this is the land I bought!” But it seems that Salameh, or his map, or the man that sold him the land was mistaken.

At this point, the whole situation spiraled out of control. Salameh was gesturing to landmarks and hurling rocks at them. Abu Zehed was upset, but also taking pleasure in pointing out the land buyer’s errors (“thats not even a sinsal you’re pointing at” he says at one point). The lead surveyor was yelling at Salameh, another surveyor was yelling at the lead surveyor, and then abruptly gave up to retreat to a tree and play games on his smart phone. Another surveyor was still walking around, trying to find out where exactly they were supposed to map. Abu Zehed’s son threatened to rent a backhoe to carve away the side of the mountain to make it clear whose land was whose, and Salameh screamed at him that if he did so and the mountain gave way than he would be finically liable. Then, furiously shouting the everyone was against him, that his land was being eaten from all sides, and that if he continued he’ll have no land left, Salameh stated that he wanted nothing to do with land titling that day and departed. 

We were leaving the plot to find the next owner when Salaamed returned. In a final, and truly weird twist, he had an elderly man in tow. We are quite far from the village, so where this man came from is still a mystery to me. “Go and ask this man about the arak, since you don’t believe me!” he says triumphantly to the lead surveyor. The old man smiled, seemingly completely oblivious to war he was being conscripted into. But the lead surveyor, who had just spent the last half hour in an apoplectic state, was just exhausted (and, I think, genuinely surprised by the pointless tenacity of Salameh). “You’re giving me a heart attack.” he responded. “Salam ‘ala qalbak (peace upon your heart),” Salameh replied.

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