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Doves on the Rooftop: A View from the West Bank

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily by Sam Kestenbaum
Abu keeps rabbits on the roof of his family's home. There are five of them and they're brown, white and black. He tosses them a handful of yesterday's pita and they scamper underfoot, nibbling on the edges of the bread. "You see the fat one?" he points, "She's the mother. The first one I owned." Downstairs, Abu lives with his wife and his newborn daughter. They stay on the third floor; his father and mother live on the second and his two brothers live on the first floor. Abu also has two sisters who live in Jerusalem. It's early in the morning, but the sun is bright. I shade my eyes with my hand to look into the light. Abu wants to show me the view from the roof. Ramallah, he explains, is behind us. "And you see that building?" Abu says, stretching his arm out and pointing to the west. The building that he's pointing to looks like it's on the same block, but it isn't. It's in another city. "That's my sister's house. That's Jerusalem." He takes me by the arm, to the edge of the roof. "And right there is the Israeli wall," he points down.

It's maybe forty feet from the house, a string of concrete slabs, stacked next to each other, cutting the village in half. We're in the West Bank and Jerusalem is on the other side of the wall, just a few feet away. Abu, like most West Bank Palestinians, can't leave. He doesn't have the proper Israeli-issued identification. The wall is 24 feet tall, about 430 miles long and it winds through the West Bank. It wall goes by many names. In Hebrew, it's called the "anti-terrorist fence" and the "security fence." In Arabic it's called the "racial segregation wall." And it's also a symbol of the conflict, of the segregated, polarized climate of the area. For Palestinian, Israeli and international activists, it's become a destination. In the holy land this is another, odd kind of pilgrimage site, for a different kind of pilgrim. Construction on the wall started in 2003, during the Second Intifada. An Israeli friend explained to me that the wall makes him feel safe. "Without it," he said "we'd still have bombs exploding in Jerusalem." Opponents, Palestinian and Israeli, have also told me that the wall does far more harm than good. From the top of Abu's house, I can see the wall stretching into the distance, until it disappears on the horizon. "I remember when they put it up," Abu says. It divided his town in half. "But what can we do?" he shrugs and we turn away from the view, back to his rabbits. They're scurrying underfoot and have moved on from the bread to pieces of old lettuce. There are sections of the wall that are plastered in graffiti. Some of it is angry and outraged, some of it is hopeful. In the town of Qalandia, there are colorful, sprawling portraits of iconic Palestinian leaders. In Bethlehem, there's a painting of Jesus and Mother Teresa. Some of the paintings look professional, some are done by amateurs. One person stenciled, "We have not forgotten about you;" another wrote, "I am ashamed to live in the world that built this wall." There's more. "I resist," "Illegal occupation," "Zionism is racism," "From Palestine with love," "Stop the wall," "One wall, two prisons," "Free Palestine," "I love you," "I miss you," "We shall overcome" and "Will you marry me?" The words are written in German, French, Danish, English Arabic and Hebrew. It seems like half the world has come here. There are pieces by famous artists like Banksy and there are hastily painted smiley faces. There are painted hearts and stenciled handprints. Some of the messages are angry, some are hopeful. Near the military checkpoint in Qalandia, one of the most memorable paintings for me was an image of a flock of doves flying up, over the wall. Abu also keeps a shed on his roof for doves. He opens the screen door and tosses them a handful of seeds. They hoot and flutter into the air. Abu tells me that he lets them out every other day, "and they always come back." With Abu I practice my Arabic. We teach each other new words. He points to the bird, "In Arabic, hamama," he says. "Hamama," I repeat. "In English, 'doves.' " Doves always make me think of Biblical stories. In the Song of Solomon, I remember this quote: "Open the door for me my love, my dove, my pure, for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night." A dove lands on Jesus' head when he's baptized. Doves also appear in a lot of Islamic art; in one tale, doves fly out of Mohammad's ear as a sign of divine inspiration. And of course there's Genesis: "And the dove came back to Noah that night," we read "and, there, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off. Then he knew that the floodwaters had gone down." Finished with the chores - doves and rabbits fed - Abu and I leave the house. We hail a bus on the street, a small, six-seated yellow van and jump inside. There are two women, one wearing a hijab and one not, sitting in the front seat. In the back there are two older men, one wearing a keffiyeh and the other a three-piece suit. "Salaam alieykum," I say, which means "peace upon you," and we take the seats in the back, next to the men. "Wa alikyum salam," "and peace upon you," the two men respond. The bus jerks forward. Outside of the city, the suburbs give way to countryside. Long rolling hills stretch into the distance, covered in rocks and olive groves. The country appears suddenly and it's almost shockingly beautiful. It's spring now and everything is blooming. The hills are green and patches of blazing red and bright yellow flowers stand out. The day is clear and there are huge, billowing clouds on the horizon. Shepherds graze their flocks of sheep, small white dots on the tops of the hills. This is a rare moment. I might almost forget where I am. The wall is behind us and for now, out of sight. I don't see any settlements or checkpoints, no barbwire or concrete. I pull open the window and breathe the fresh air. On the radio, the driver turns on a recording of Qur'an recitation. I can't make out the Arabic, but the chanting is plaintive and evocative. The older man next to me holds prayer beads in his hand and works them over meditatively. Abu and I pay our fare and get off the bus at the next village, where we're meeting another friend. "Ma salame," I say to the driver, "Peace be with you." Sam Kestenbaum lives and works in Ramallah, the cultural capital of the Palestinian West Bank. Sam was drawn to the West Bank because he wanted to see firsthand the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to hear the human stories behind the headlines. Sam is also studying Arabic. For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest or visit us online. You can also likeTikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.