by Raju Peddada
Soldier of life, and soldier of fate,
sent to the wars of intense hate.
Roiled in turmoil, at hell's gate,
never coming back to see a mate.
(Swans - October 10, 2011) I cannot help but cogitate about all those innocent hearts and minds that are fed on hate, while growing up, and wonder how they deal with their corrupted conscience. Do they retain any capacity for contemplation and query within themselves, or do they just become rabid robots in the service of their religious politics, manipulated by their elite? Why would any "peaceful" ideology turn its acolytes into murderous fanatics, at the expense of their humanity? This imagined exchange between the "pious and the dedicated" sacrificing the innocent, in the service of their theocracy, is anything but manipulative and chilling. There is no tranquility for those who are bred and trapped in the doctrines of intolerance, which essentially ends up swallowing even those on the fringes of their faith just scratching out a living. My intent here is to capture the anxiety and the anguish of the common folks who are used and abused by their own leadership to various ends.
"Khadija... Amir-Rahman is coming over tomorrow, god willing... get some Turkish coffee and baklava -- he likes Turkish coffee."
"Is he coming with his entourage?"
"No, just his driver from Ramallah... where is Razia?" Razia is their 17-year-old daughter with one eye lost to an accident when she was a toddler.
"She's babysitting for Leila... she had to take her older son to the doctor."
"I've been thinking about her..."
"What do you mean... You were never concerned about her... and now you are?" With a sharp furtive inquiring look at him, which he ignores.
"Last time Aziz sold us stale baklava; make sure it's fresh this time... I'm going to ask the Amir to stay for dinner."
"In that case, we'll need more than baklava... I'll go to the bazaar... why are you suddenly tense?"
"It's nothing... Amir always comes to ask something of me... I don't know what it is this time." They both are instinctively not happy at the prospect of having Amir-Rahman as a guest.
Next day, at 3.25pm, his guest arrives, but is accompanied with his driver and another grim looking turbaned elder.
"As-Salam Alaikum, brother Khalid, how have you been... I haven't seen you since the demonstration." The Amir introduces the young driver, Adam, and the elder, Gasim; then, he turns to Gasim to tell him that he had known Khalid since they were seven, in the madrassas.
"As-Salam Alaikum, brothers... welcome to my humble abode, we are honored... would you stay for dinner?"
"Sorry brother, we cannot stay... we are wanted back urgently, and we have things to talk about with you. Gasim here is organizing a meeting, lots of things percolating at the HQ, people are mad about the trees, and we need to respond... God willing, in days perhaps... but, I'll visit alone again one evening... we can catch up with the old times."
"Why do I have the honor of your visit ... how am I needed... please, sit down."
Gasim pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and starts talking. "There were in all 278 olive trees that were bulldozed last month by the Zionists, claiming that the trees were used as shields by our boys to attack their heavily armored forces. Now brother, these trees average 300-odd years in age... planted by the Ottoman Pashas, and were the livelihood for 21 families; the trees were high output Kalamata variety from Greece... its a catastrophe... we have to find a way to take care of these families... and we cannot deny God's vengeance for them, can we... anyway, here is a list of the suffering families."
Khalid excuses himself, minutes later, he comes out carrying a tray full of coffee cups, a steaming carafe, and a platter of baklava. While he was away, Gasim asks the Amir: "Will he acquiesce... is he a patriot for our cause?" Amir responds: "I have no doubt."
Ancient olive trees are considered national monuments and treasures in Spain, Greece, Crete, Italy, and the Middle East. Trees that had been there when Alexander was rampaging across Persia; trees that had witnessed Pericles build the Parthenon; and trees that had seen the Crusades unfold, as attested by the bones and artifacts found in the hollows of ancient trunks. Ancient trees are the silent sentinels of dissolved eras, and are the stationary corroborators to the epochs that birthed and died in their presence. Imagine what havoc it causes when trees that had been in the families for generations are bulldozed, it's no different than bulldozing people. Trees are looked upon as sons, that are productive family members, and it is no less a murder to bulldoze an old tree. And how can any culture that calls itself "sensitive or civilized" hack off trees that had been there before their ideologies and nations took shape. I believe this to be a universal sentiment.
Khalid looking at the list: "Yes, I heard... my uncle knows one of the families on this list... the old man Faisal, almost killed himself with a khanjar... they had to restrain him, he's under observation to prevent further attempts. Apparently, he had learned walking under those trees, with his grandfather holding his hand... his sons are thirsting for blood... any news of who was responsible?"
"We are working on the details... this morning we came to know the names of the infidels who destroyed the groves. One of them, a major by the name of Ben, is related to the Lt. Colonel, who ordered this. He is the colonel's son-in-law, and owns a restaurant in Haifa. It seems the family works there on the weekends... always crowded." The Amir looked at Adam, and asked him about the place, who had been to there with his brother two months ago, before all this had happened.
"Sir, the place is not that big, perhaps 130 square meters, but is located between a computer school and the supermarket on the corner, it's always densely packed with guests... and there were off-duty officers outside when we were there... we were inside for about half an hour."
Khalid listens, losing some color, instinctively knowing what's coming, turns his head to the Amir and Gasim and offers: "Tell me brothers... what can I do?"
"We need your help... we're sending a contingent of boys and girls for training across the border, we wondered if you could send Razia... this training will honor the god, honor our cause... and your family."
A chill snakes down Khalid's spine, speechless for moments, as if a marble became lodged in his trachea, eventually he gathers himself and offers: "She's our only child... we're very attached to Razia... I will have a talk with my wife... I don't think we can do it... I'll let you know in a couple of days, god willing."
Amir, with a goading smile: "since when do you listen to a woman's opinion... time is of the essence here... and, we have been guaranteed $12,000 for each family... sacrificing for this cause. The money is assured -- it can be deposited for you, once the girl leaves for training. The Zionists don't have any capacity for atonement... we'll provide it..." Long silence.
Khalid looking down: "I cannot assure anything... but, I sure can use that money."
"Then, it's there for you, get back to me tomorrow." Dead silence ensues for eternal seconds.
"Where will they take her?" Khalid, struggling for income... reluctantly, decides to sell his girl.
We don't have specific information... its restricted, but, wherever they are, she'll be well cared for... remember brother, nothing is more rewarding than to honor God by taking care of the infidels... your own words... she'll be taught to revel in the glory of sacrifice for her brothers and sisters, and learn how God will bless them in the heaven for their work... don't worry, she'll be OK." The Amir and Gasim look at each other in triumph.
Khalid swallows hard, with watery eyes... "will we see her again?" The Amir puts his hand on Khalid's shoulder.
"Sure, why not... but, she'll be busy in God's army."
"Amir... I may not be able to do this... it is my only child."
"Brother, what life is assured for her in that state? She will bring honor to your family... and money... you have never let us down for anything, that is why I am here asking... for our cause against the Zionists. The van leaves in three days... I know you'll never let us down... call me on it." The visitors get up to leave... baklava untouched.
In this barter, the girl's fate is sealed. There is an emotional firestorm after the visitors leave. Khalid's wife had overheard everything, her heart was shredded. She knew her husband had just sold her, and she was never going to see her again. Recriminations fly, the wife, shrill now, beats her chest and screams "I should never have married you... I'll never forgive my father for giving me to a heartless murderous oaf!! God... why doesn't he kill all the men?! When is the revenge and feuding going to stop... God, I'd rather be an infidel, than send my child to die for you... I hate you... and the killers who follow you... bastards... all bastards!!" A paroxysm in tears and snot.
Khalid takes two quick steps and delivers a hard backhanded slap on her face, sending her reeling: "Shut up you worthless devil... if God hears you... he'll send me to hell for having you for a wife... I am sure you have Jewish blood in you... bloody infidel!" The wife collapses sobbing, at that very moment, their daughter Razia walks in.
On the other side of the divide, in Tel Aviv, a coterie of officials is debating the value of the trees and livelihoods affected, after they bulldozed the olive groves on the West Bank. They are fully aware of the blood memories they represent, with reprisals in the offing. They had to reach out financially, as quickly as possible, to take the steam out of their anger. Putting a value on 300-plus-year-old trees, that had been their source of income for generations is quite nearly impossible. The haggling between the sympathizers and the antagonists who insisted that the Palestinians deserved it continued for days, reaching no reasonable conclusion. On the other side, the training was over, and planning the attack was only hours away. The Israelis send in a negotiator, an Arab, to the owners of the trees, with a compensation of $150,000 per household, that is $3,150,000 in total compensation for the 278 trees. In the commercial horticultural business, each 300-year-old tree could fetch around $20,000 and 278 trees would be valued at $5,560,000, almost 44% more than what was offered. The parties settle for $3,500,000, but, the Palestinian leadership steps in and says no deal. They want $10,000,000 for the damages, and also claim that they cannot stop the individual acts of revenge or reprisals against the Zionists. The negotiation breaks down. This is generally what ensues at the homes of the olive grove owners.
"How can we survive without our trees? It takes years for the saplings to mature and bear fruit... what shall we live on... god, it's like someone has carved away my heart... my grandfather's grandfather played in these groves... our blood is in those groves... don't you all get it... this is the end!"
"Father, Please... please relax, at least, we will have cash in our hands, we can survive till we can figure out what to do with the money... perhaps replant... or a new business or something."
"You fools... you naïve idiots... you think our bloody leadership will let us have this money... they'll negotiate for themselves... they'll not even allow our presence at this negotiation... it's political, the trees have become political... we want our trees, but the leadership wants their money and revenge... they don't care about our livelihood... you watch this, we'll not receive any compensation... quit dreaming!" We all will be forgotten... as the trees will become a symbol of revenge and controversy... you all watch this, we're doomed kids... God save this family...God... it's time for me to die... I can't take it!"
The old patriarch's ranting is prophetic. A week after the negotiations were dropped, their leadership offers bogus assurance to the families that the Zionists will come to the table with another offer. They never come. On the eighth day, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in Haifa, at a restaurant, where four members of the family, along with seventeen customers were killed. Among the killed were Ben, his wife, their teenage son, and his paternal aunt. Two survivors had seen this young pregnant women, dressed like a European, with red hair and a bad eye, who sat near them, get up and half-run towards the kitchen, when everything flashed white. Thirty-eight hours later, Mossad operatives were given their assignment, trace the bomber and eliminate the planners. The olive grove owners were forgotten, more, victims to their own leadership, than the Zionist "proportional response," with more coming. This is how lives unfold for the folks in the Middle East, crushed between their religious beliefs and the ruling class. This recycling of malignance continues, grinding in folks that simply want a way out.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)