Traveling to Nablus from Ramallah was more terrifying than wandering around the region or the city. In Nablus the threat is kidnapping. I was advised by J of the International Solidarity Movement where I stayed overnight not to be out after 9 pm, probably not to visit the old city alone, and Kanan gave a clear warning: do not walk around the city at any time alone. To reach Nablus I rode a serveece (shared taxi) from Ramallah to the Huwarra checkpoint, passing into Nablus easily, meeting Kanan. Reversing the route, I took a jammed bus from Nablus a few short km (for 2 shekels) to Huwarra, easily this time thru the checkpoint thanks in part to my age—males over 40 and of professions go thru a separate speedier line, females in a slightly slower one, younger males in a glacially moving one—and a friendly man I met on the bus, Saleh Zitawi, living in Jammain near Nablus (he invited me to his village, sorry I need to get back, another time when I return.). Back on a serveece, total time about 2 hours. Distance: about 38 miles, in the states, a 45 minute drive. But the initial serveece was petrifying: fast, tail gating, passing in dangerous conditions, often on narrow winding roads, altho at times we sped along the major north south highway 60. I chanted Namu’s (a Buddhist prayer) much of the time, and sure enough, we survived.
Huwwara checkpoint, south of Nablus
On my second trip to this region, with the same water engineer from the Palestine Hydrology Group (PHG) I’d met with last year, Kanan Swade and I visited some of the same areas. This time I learned names of locations and more details about the water issues. One major difference was dryness—now is the end of the dry season, the rains have not yet returned. Plus a better sense of locations and names. We were generally in the Wadi Fara’a area, leading to the Jordan River valley, hilly, open, dry with not much growing. Some corrections about last year are in order: for instance, the swimming pool that we’d marveled at is not in Tubas but in Al Badan. Its source is rainwater collected in Nablus, flowing by gravity to Al Badan.
Tomato coop owner
The greenhouses we visited, with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, etc and water collecting systems, are in Tamann, a village of some 13,000 people. Before the beginning of the second intifada this area’s men had been employed in Israel. The restrictions terminated their travel into Israel and they had no local traditional industry. So they turned to greenhouse horticulture despite the region’s water scarcity. They buy water from Wadi Fara’a and ship it by tankers, they also gather water thru the roof collecting systems, filling cisterns, irrigating from this during the dry season. Thru some arrangement Kanan tried to explain to me to my continuing bewilderment the farmers sell to Israeli wholesalers. This is a good year for sales since Jews are observing the 7th year, the sabbatical year, land lying fallow, and thus not raising crops themselves. In other years they can still sell but at lower prices. We visited a coop agent who was the central collecting and reshipping point for the local farmers. Then to a checkpoint, I’m not sure which, and the back-to-back shipping system which is so cumbersome and costly: drive a Palestine truck to the checkpoint, unload, carry across somehow, and reload into an Israeli truck.
A part of this story that mystifies me concerns Kanan’s claim that the primary Jewish customers of these tomatoes are ultra orthodox. Somehow they observe every step of the process: planting, watering, cultivating, harvesting, and shipping. I thought I heard—from the sky! But this seems ludicrous. I think we have a language problem. Yet, in Israel-Palestine, nothing is beyond the pale (to use an old Jewish pogrom reference)
To track costs a little bit more: a large tanker of water costs some 150 shekels (3.8 shekels to the US dollar) but the person filling the tanker pays about 25 shekels, 10 for a small tanker pulled by a tractor. A huge markup. I don’t know how large the tanker is, nor how long its water lasts, nor the total costs of raising a crop, nor the sale price, nor the profit. This information might be available on the web or elsewhere. Maybe Kanan knows if he’d be willing to communicate with me, but our history of staying in touch is not promising. I’m convinced I could do a much better job of journalism if I had a writer with me who concentrated on matters like this, freeing me for the photography. That’s exactly where M last year might have come in. Ah, a dream not to be realized, I suspect.
Moreover, adding to what I observed last year, Kanan showed me a roof collecting system. Very simple: flat concrete roof tilted slightly in one direction, rimmed with a 2 inch or so high concrete barrier, hole in the barrier leading to a hose, hose to a cistern. Walla. Water. Unfortunately the water is often dirty and because of poverty chlorine is not added. The man whose home we visited looked very poor—he works in the greenhouses Kanan told me. Neither he nor the PHG which put in the system can afford chlorine. The system cost some $1400—800 from the man, the rest from the PHG. His concrete block house had no windows, only plastic sheeting. He collects gray water to water his few miserable looking trees. I saw remnants of tomato plants in his yard. His black water, i.e., from the toilet, goes into a septic tank which in turn pollutes the reservoir. There is no central sewage system, no treatment whatsoever. Everyone has amoebas.
Water collection on the roof, then into a cistern
I can draw some general conclusions about the region, water, PHG and Kanan. The region is vast, unfamiliar to my North American eyes, open, rolling, few crops or livestock, occasional villages, roads relatively open. Water is scarce, precious, expensive, and controlled by Israel. This is self-evident. Travel restrictions seem to have eased somewhat since last year when Nablus was totaling locked down. The Nablus-Jenin (aka the Al Badan) road that was blocked when I was here with the American Friends Service Committee in April 2006—leading to one of my more dramatic stories, and where I noticed inexplicably a Ferris wheel, incongruous and stark against the sky—is now open. I’m told there is a checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin but we didn’t reach it. The Ferris wheel has a sister amusement, also derelict—a huge passenger jet, perching on pylons. This was once an amusement park, long ago. Now the city dump, or one of them, is nearby. We saw men with acetylene torches cutting thru metal to scavenge anything valuable. Some piles were burning, creating that awful but typical stench I often smell in Palestine.
Along the road Nablus to Jenin, an amusement park abandoned because of Israeli control of the road
Driving further into Wadi Fara’a, near the entrance of the Jordan River valley, a place called Atuf, not exactly a village but a series of homes, Kanan showed me the electrical power plant—completely solar. To me this region clearly was the most attractive of the many regions we saw. I could imagine living here for a period, each day concentrating on the light, the land, the sky. Truly the big sky country. Because of occupation we could go no further. Israelis now inhabit most of the valley.
Atuf, near the Jordan River valley
Kanan received his training in geology in the former Yugoslavia, studying there for 6 years, meeting a Bosnian woman he married. The family, including 3 kids, lives in Palestine about 3 km from Nablus. Wife and children return to Bosnia every summer. He’d intended to study medicine but after one year changed plans. He chose water not for any solid reason, he intimated, but largely because of its importance as an issue to Palestine. Kanan seems healthier and more talkative than last time, jabbering amiably with the many we meet who he seems to know and often works with. He is also more forthcoming with me, explaining water matters in more detail. He seems proud of what he’s doing thru the PHG, the new tank in Wadi Al Fara’a for instance that we visited, enlarging the water facility combining well water and water from the Wadi Fara’a spring (we were here also last year, where I photographed the tanker filling up and the driver lent me his kaffiyeh to wear for a photo). At this time of year the spring is nearly dry so they supplement the flow with well water. At this site I photographed the new tank under construction, the various pumps and pipes, the trickle from the spring and the water gushing forth from the well. Kanan explained that the spring is dirty, the water used only for agriculture, but the well water is suitable for drinking. The new system of tanks, pipes and pumps will separate the two flows.
Tomato coop owner (L) with Kanan Swade of the Palestinian Hydrology Group
I’m not sure how much to dwell on hydrology vs. politics vs. the mystical dimension of water. I find myself equally enthralled by all.
At the end of our tour Kanan dropped off his car (major oil leak) for repairs in Nablus and then hiked me around the old city as he did errands (had his wife’s shoes repaired, his family’s clothing altered) and I gawked at the vendors, residents, architecture. He claimed this city has 7 levels of civilization, one above the other, predating the Roman period. It is called the City of Fire because of the traditional staunch resistance of its residents (the much acclaimed movie about 2 potential suicide bombers is set in Nablus, Paradise Now) and its role as the primary economic engine of Palestine. We stopped at a sweet shop—Nablus is also known for its sweets—and I treated him to kibi, a kind of roasted wheat drenched in honey.
(To be continued.)
Mountain Aquifer: Cradle to Grave Analysis (slide show by Glenna Anton in URBS/Geog 515: Race, Poverty & the Environment taught by Professor Raquel Pinderhughes, Urban Studies & Environmental Studies Programs, San Francisco State University, Spring 2004)