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Authors: Ibrahim Fawal

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On the Hills of God

BOOK: On the Hills of God
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On the Hills of God


A novel



Ibrahim Fawal



NewSouth Books

Montgomery | Louisville

NewSouth Books

P.O. Box 1588

Montgomery, AL 36102


Copyright 1998, 2002, 2006 by Ibrahim Fawal. Foreword copyright 2006 by Robin C. Ostle. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by NewSouth Books, a division of NewSouth, Inc., Montgomery, Alabama.


ISBN-13: 978-1-58838-204-7

eBook ISBN: 978-1-60306-075-2

LCCN: 2004300490



To Rose



Robin Ostle


This novel is a rare work of literature. Other Palestinian authors of the highest quality, such as Ghassan Kanafani or Emile Habiby, have written novels in Arabic which have been translated into English, but for the most part these books have remained locked within the specialized circles of Arabists and Middle Eastern scholars.
On the Hills of God
belongs to that small number of creative works written in English by an Arab author, in this case by a Palestinian American who has lived in his adopted country since 1951, yet who has never ceased to be haunted by his childhood and adolescence in Ramallah and by the unending cycle of injustice which has been the lot of the Palestinian people throughout the second half of the past century.

The pages of
On the Hills of God
pulsate with passion, drama, and violence: the love affair of Yousif Safi and Salwa Tawil which triumphs against the powerful odds of social convention in a traditional society; and the killing of Dr. Jamil Safi which is a powerful symbol of the death of the future of Palestine, a future that was full of promise grounded in vision, humanity, and the common cause of Muslim, Christian, and Jew. The culmination of the book is rape, pillage, the slaughter of the innocents, and forced migrations—all the usual and predictable consequences of the exercise of brute force in the place of compassion, reason, and compromise. Interwoven with the fictitious human drama of the novel are the momentous historical events of 1947–48; the approaching end of the British Mandate, the abortive UN Partition Plan, and the Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath which is still with us.

But beyond the compelling pace and gripping tension of the plot, this is a novel with special ingredients made up of the rich texture of the vital details of the necessities and rituals of daily life: the food that accompanied family and festive occasions is described with minute and loving precision, emphasizing the connectedness of a Palestinian people with their land of milk and honey which they nurtured, as it nurtured them. Through such constant and daily rituals, families exressed the love they felt for those closest to them, and the affection and respect which they showed to friends, acquaintances, and guests. The three friends, Yousif, Amin and Isaac—the Christian, Muslim and Jew—share a delicious breakfast prepared by Isaac’s mother Sarah, while all are so horribly aware that the love which bound together their families and their community could so easily be split asunder. On this occasion they share a powerful foreboding of the final meal, after which things will never be the same again. The hills, the countryside, the vegetation, the fruit and produce of the land, have presences on these pages as vital as those of the human characters. The very soul of this land and community of mixed faiths was expressed most eloquently and movingly by the blind musician Jamal, who had been persuaded to teach Isaac to play the ‘oud.

On the Hills of God
is a testimony, at once moving and shocking, to the essential fragility of relationships, both individual and communal. The Palestine that was destroyed in 1948 was a rich and delicate human fabric which has been built up over many generations. Muslim, Christian, and Jew shared a common language—Arabic—and a common culture, and they shared the land. That delicate fabric was destroyed rapidly and brutally, creating a massive injustice, the roots of which lay in Europe and had nothing to do with the Holy Land.
On the Hills of God
is a re-creation in literature of the human beings that were Palestine before 1948, most of whom now live under occupation or are scattered in yet another of the twentieth century’s diasporas.


St. John’s College fellow Robin C. Ostle is University Lecturer in Modern Arabic at Oxford and a member of the staff of the Oriental Institute.



In Palestine’s last summer of happiness, seventeen-year-old Yousif Safi was awakened by the familiar voice of the muezzin calling man to prayer. It was not six o’clock yet and he lay warm and comfortable in his bed, but the moment he opened his eyes he was fully awake. He could hear the chirping and twittering of his birds in the aviary in the next room. On this day early in June 1947, the new house was to get its roof. His parents and relatives and all their friends had been waiting for this occasion. He could hear the workers gearing up for the mixing and pouring of concrete on top of the house. The iron grid, which would hold the roof together, had been fastened atop the nearly finished villa a week or two earlier.

He stretched in bed thinking of the ten years his parents had spent waiting to build such a house. Thank God it was nearly finished. He admired them for their foresight and determination. They had divided and landscaped the whole mountaintop long ago. Trees needed years to grow and his parents had wanted the house and gardens to be ready at the same time. And while the trees were growing, they were saving the money to build their villa. Not satisfied with a good income from his medical practice, his enterprising father had invested wisely over the years, buying and selling real estate at a good profit.

Luck must have been with Dr. Jamil Safi. Young as Yousif was, he could tell that scheming and making money were against his father’s natural instincts. What did interest the doctor was building things and making them grow. It was he who had thought of developing the only real estate agency in Ardallah. It was he who had invested in the first cinema. It was he who had advised the Chamber of Commerce to send men on a public relations tour of the surrounding Arab countries to promote Ardallah as a summer resort. It was he who had conceived the idea that Ardallah needed a hospital and had started raising money for it. No wonder, Yousif thought, the townspeople had wanted his father to be their mayor.

In every municipal council election he had entered, Dr. Safi had always come out on top. The British, who effectively ruled Palestine and with whom he was on relatively good terms, had offered him the position of mayor several times. But the doctor had always declined, satisfied with being just a council member. After all, the major decisions for the city were subject to approval of the British authorities, and they consulted him on important issues such as zoning and opening new roads. Anyway, from the doctor’s point of view, who needed a job of worrying about paying garbage collectors and inspectors and a dozen or so policemen, or threatening with legal action people who were delinquent in paying their local taxes, or issuing building permits, or listening to citizens’ complaints about the need for light posts on dark street corners? No, the doctor felt he had better things to do than be a bureaucrat, no matter how exalted. And now, in the summer of 1947, Yousif’s parents were realizing their dream of building their own villa and Yousif, their only son, was happy for them.

Yousif shaved, took a quick shower, and stood by the window tucking in his shirt. It was a beautiful morning, without a cloud to mar the blue summer sky. He could see the maid, Fatima, spreading white tablecloths on the fifteen long tables that had been set under the trees the night before. Fatima’s husband and two teenage sons were bringing in dozens of chairs borrowed from relatives and friends or rented from cafes. Two or three workers were picking up odd pieces of wood or scrap metal off the ground. Others were inside the house, hammering at the scaffolding.

A large pile of cement was already on the ground and another big truck was being unloaded, raising a cloud of dust. The builder, a stout man with a grayish beard, was on top of the roof for a last-minute inspection. The two workers with him were bent down, welding. The gravel-voiced blacksmith and a couple of helpers were at the far end of the driveway installing the huge wrought-iron gate before the crowds arrived. Only Abu Amin and his six stonecutters were relaxed. Their job done, they looked awkward in their clean ankle-length robes. They had done a beautiful job on the house, Yousif observed, and he was glad to see them with no dust clinging to their clothes. It would be nice, he mused, to see drinks in their hands rather than hammers and chisels.

By the time Yousif finished eating breakfast and feeding his birds, the old house had begun to fill up. Aunt Hilaneh, Uncle Boulus’s wife, and other women were already stuffing three large lambs with rice, chunks of meat, pine nuts, and spices. Two or three of these women took great pride in their cooking, and Yousif wondered which one would appoint herself as supervisor. At other occasions he had seen them make faces behind each other’s back and bicker about too much cinnamon or not enough nutmeg. But not today. Today, everyone was working in harmony.

Maha, cousin Basim’s wife, was hard at work with a crew of women on the balcony. Aunt Sarah, Isaac’s mother, was helping to chop parsley, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, and to fry meats and mash garbanzo beans. One and all, they were preparing
for the guests to nibble on while drinking.
Kabab, falafel,
fried kidneys and dips—
and eggplant—cheeses, pickles and olives were piled up in dozens of small dishes to be placed on the tables throughout the yard.

Yousif was in charge of drinks: whiskey, beer,
lemonade, and water. By ten o’clock, his best friends, Amin and Isaac, were with him. They helped him crush the large ice block which had been laid in the bathtub, and they helped pass around drinks as the guests began to arrive.

Yousif’s father was in constant motion, giving last-minute instructions and greeting well-wishers. Around 10:30, Father Mikhail and Father Yacoub of the Roman Catholic Church joined the small knot of guests under the trees. Soon scores of men were in the garden. Some sat around on chairs with high backs or small short backs with straw bottoms; the younger ones stood watching by the sparkling-white, colonnaded house. Yousif and his two friends brought out the drinks and the
. The rest of the clergy followed each other, as if by plan. Then came two more priests: one Melkite Catholic, the other Greek Orthodox. Five minutes later they were joined by an Arab Anglican minister and two Muslim
. Then came the suppliers and sub-contractors. They were followed by the mayor of Ardallah, the entire municipal council, attorneys Fouad Jubran and Zuhdi Muftah, Dr. Fareed Afifi and his wife, Jihan. Even Moshe Sha’lan had closed his shop for the occasion.

Half an hour later the moment of excitement was at hand. The grayish builder wove his way through the crowd until he found the doctor. Yousif saw him signal with his forefinger that the ceremony was about to begin. The doctor in turn signaled Father Mikhail.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Everyone stood up, silent. A laborer was ready to haul the first leather bucket full of cement up one of the many ladders placed against the exterior of the house. But before he would start, the crowd waited expectantly for the Roman Catholic priests to say a prayer.

As everyone watched, Fathers Mikhail and Yacoub put their vestments around their necks and smoothed them down their chests, looking resplendent with their large crosses. The priests alternated saying short prayers, giving thanks to God for all his blessings and exhorting all the saints and angels to look after the Safi family and make their home free of jealous eyes or evil spirits. Their prayers were augmented with a profusion of incense from the two large censers they kept swinging back and forth over Yousif’s head, over the heads of his parents, the guests, over the cement mixers, the hands of the laborers, over the balconies and doorsteps, and throughout the finished but unplastered, unpartitioned house itself.

The last to be blessed was the laborer at the bottom of the ladder who was poised to haul the first bucket. No sooner had the priests stopped praying than the laborer lifted the leather bucket to his side and began to ascend. The moment his sole touched the first rung, a woman’s voice burst out in a ululation halfway between a yodel and an aria. She had a powerful voice that managed to startle quite a few. Yousif turned to look. An unsuspecting man standing by the singing woman had both of his hands over his ears. His mouth puckered. His eyes closed. At the end of the customary four verses, the woman began trilling. She pursed her lips as if she were about to whistle, while the tip of her tongue darted left and right like a piston. She electrified the crowd; they burst into applause.

Other women now broke out in song. The men atop the walls of the building and those mixing and transporting the cement started a chant that Yousif knew from experience would last for hours. The eighteen or twenty workers, reminiscent of those who had toiled to build the great Pyramids, were divided into two groups: those on the ground and those on top. One would start a verse and the other would repeat it, and so on and so forth until more than a hundred verses had been exhausted. But the robust, rhythmic, joyous singing was uplifting to Yousif.

Yousif stood by his parents and put his arm around his mother. Well-wishers approached them and shook their hands.

they all said, smiling. “Congratulations.”

There were hugs and kisses. The guests were full of compliments and good sayings.

“It’s a beautiful house.”

“May you see nothing but happiness in it.”

May we visit you next at your son’s wedding.”

“May your son fill your house with grandchildren.”

Yousif broke away to tend to his duties. He rushed inside to be with Amin and Isaac. The three were soon joined by Salman and other young relatives who helped carry out trays of drinks. Glasses were touched and the guests moved about, sampling the variety of
laid out on the tables.

The maid, Fatima, came out of the old house carrying on her head a large tray of stuffed lamb. She was followed by two women carrying two more lambs. All three were headed toward the neighborhood bakery to have them cooked and browned. At the sight of the lambs the men on top of the house cheered louder—and within moments the festivities increased to a new level of gaiety.

By 11:30, no less than forty or fifty women began to arrive from all directions carrying
on their heads. This substantial meal, Yousif knew, was most appropriate on such occasions. All his life he had seen some of the town’s women carry such large wooden bowls filled with layers of thin sheets of bread soaked in delicious
topped with heaps of rice and fried pine nuts, all covered with chunks of spiced lamb meat.

This was the meal to be proud of—the one to serve a multitude of honored guests. Normally eleven or twelve such bowls would arrive on similar occasions. Today, Yousif counted up to thirty and stopped. They were so many, half the town could have been fed. They were brought by Christian families and Muslim families; by rich and poor; and by quite a few patients of Dr. Safi’s, grateful to be alive. Of the three Jewish families in town, the family of Moshe and Sarah Sha’lan, Isaac’s parents, was the closest to the doctor and his family, and they too chose to participate in the celebration. Instead of contributing the usual
they had ordered two large trays of
from Nablus—a town twenty miles to the northeast and famous for its pastries—and paid a taxi driver an outrageous fare to drive all the way and pick them up. The arrival of the two reddish trays was met with more cheers.

For Yousif the bacchanal was incomplete until he saw Salwa Taweel arrive with her tall, handsome parents. In her yellow dress, she stood out like a goddess. Yousif had been in love with her ever since she came to his house, almost two years ago. She and her mother had been attending a women’s meeting. That day Salwa wore a white cashmere sweater and a brown pleated skirt, her hair tied in a bun behind her head. She was only fifteen then, but was as tall and mature looking as a girl of eighteen. From that moment her image had not left his mind. One day he would move heaven and earth to marry her, of this he was certain; but until then he knew he would have to endure all the agonies and obstacles of a romance in a sheltered society.

Yousif had been carrying a tray of cold beer around the garden when he spied Salwa. He stood frozen, unable to take his eyes off her. He could not move until she looked around. Then he beamed, causing Amin and Isaac and some of the men to laugh at him. Embarrassed, he moved on but his foot got caught in the leg of a chair and he almost stumbled. The beer bottles on the tray began to bang and rattle.

At noon, a black limousine arrived, escorted by two jeeps full of British soldiers. Yousif watched many of the older men in the garden rise and line up to receive the dignitaries. He saw his father also weave his way through the crowd to welcome them. A very tall, uniformed man, with cap and baton in hand, stepped out of the limousine, which had been opened for him by a slender chauffeur with a birthmark the color of raw liver on his right cheek.

Yousif recognized the distinguished man with the matted hair as Captain Malloy, the British chief-of-police for the entire district, which consisted of Ardallah and thirty villages. The smallish, bespectacled man who got out next was the Appellate Court Judge Hamdi Azzam. The rest of the retinue was made up of British first and second lieutenants, who stood out like gold statues compared to the dark Arabs.

BOOK: On the Hills of God
8.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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