What They Took

By Sharif Elmusa 0

Once symbolic of progress, the tractor, recalls Sharif Elmusa, owned and loved by his family of Palestinian farmers, became a tool used in their literal uprooting, in the removal of the soil beneath their feet


I was invited recently, together with nine other Palestinian writers and poets to New Delhi, to participate in a colloquium about the Palestinian condition, especially the role of memory and imagination for those of us who are refugees living in exile. This is a perennial question, which I have spoken to in different ways in poetry and prose. One angle I haven’t touched on in any detail is my relationship with the country’s beautiful and varied landscape, which intrudes on all others as a benchmark or a spoiler.

For a while now the landscape has been pressing itself into my consciousness through the tick-tock of a crawling Caterpillar tractor, ringing in my ears as if it were a tinnitus of memory. This machine, with an unwieldy, yellow body and black lettering, had prompted wonder in my young heart only to morph over time into a menacing presence and symbol of the erasure of Palestine, occasioning demands by human rights groups and others that Caterpillar halt the supply of tractors to Israel. I hope nonetheless that by yielding to its insistence, I do not stray far from the land: as my friend, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, said of our departed fathers during a conversation on our cellphones, they were our “landlines”—the tractor, in its own way, is also a landline. And, in various ways, its story is freighted with the tenacity that has characterised the Palestinians’ response to a seemingly interminable predicament.

The question of what it means to be a Palestinian in exile has far-reaching political ramifications. According to the United Nations humanitarian news service IRIN, there were in 2010 more than seven million Palestinian refugees (descendants of Palestinians who were forced out of Palestine in the 1948 and 1967 wars) worldwide, and their right of return is a key issue in the intermittent Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. I do not speak here to the legal and political aspects of this right, whether people would return given the choice, or practicalities of implementation; I am interested in an existential angle that undergirds the political and the legal.

Perhaps the most immediate way I feel like a Palestinian is when I commit a “Palestinian act”—as WH Auden said about feeling like a poet only right after he had penned a poem—such as when I sign a petition supporting a boycott of Israel, write an article about the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, or cook makloubi for my guests. But these are episodic performances; thoughts, feelings, memories, fidelities, promises, can only be told in some form of autobiographical narrative—whether poems, stories, or essays. Such narratives require not only a beginning and a middle, they must also have an ending, a teleology that enables the person to scheme and envision, and to persist as oneself. It is what makes memory an ever-compelling present and future, not just a chronology or a nostalgic peek into past lives. Who would Odysseus be, and what would his “adventures” mean, without his promise to himself to reach Ithaca? It is the homesickness and the thought of arrival that propelled him forward, and gave him the courage, the will to battle the Cyclopes, to forgo the love and paradisiacal “jail”’ of the goddess Calypso, and to be tied to the mast so as not to answer the irresistible call of the Sirens. I summon Odysseus because his fabled journey is frequently evoked by Palestinian writers and poets, including myself, as a trope for what they consider their relentless quest for the lost home.

The journey of Odysseus was a lone one, except for the kind gods who guided him along the way and people he encountered on the road. Yet, despite the surfeit of individualities, the story of a Palestinian would be unintelligible as an individual narrative, because for us the political is unhappily personal. Political Zionism and subsequently the state of Israel have by and large written a “totalitarian” history of Palestine that includes only the Jews as the legitimate claimants of the country, and has never given up on the Zionist “wordless wish” of making us disappear: “A female soldier yelled:/ Is this you, again? I killed you, didn’t I?/I said: You killed me and, like you, I forgot to die,” mused Mahmoud Darwish in his poem, “In Jerusalem”. Even if you live in Palestine, you are by Israeli laws only a resident, an individual without the rights of a people, an invisible presence. And not to be allowed to return—as millions of Palestinians have not been—is to dwell in “other-man’s” land and language, bare, in a state of nature, a metaphor of oneself, as Ocatvio Paz said of a translated poem.


The first crawler tractor I knew was a D35, or Diesel 35, one of which my early-adopting family bought in 1942, three years after the 1936-1939 peasant revolt that almost drove out British colonialism, the great architect of the Palestinian tragedy. My father told many times of how he brought the tractor from Jaffa port and got the licence to operate it, always with a grin that seemed to bridge the passage of time.

He and three of his brothers farmed land inherited from my grandfather in the village of al-Abbasiyya, now Yehud (part of Tel Aviv international Airport is built on part of the former village’s land), in a partnership that was to last a lifetime. The tractor helped them earn an additional living by tilling the land of other farmers for fees. In subsequent years, they roamed Palestine, turning its soil from north to south and east to west. When I told my father in the summer of 1997 I was going to work in Gaza with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), he recalled that he had taken the tractor to the area a couple of times in the 1940s. And he, the man who always praised the last meal he ate as the best, singled out the guavas of Khan Younis as the most delicious guavas he ever had. He was living in Amman, Jordan, at the time where the Elmusas ended up after the 1967 war, during which Israel occupied the rest of Palestine. Fortunately, late summer and early fall is the time when guavas ripen; and I was delighted to be able to send him a whiff of a taste that had lodged itself so deeply in the recesses of his palate, and to have him enjoy for a moment a palpable connection to a land he never again could step into after 1948.

Tractor-Elmusa-Al-Karamah 1982

The Tractor: taken in al-Karamah camp in October, 1982 in the Jordan Valley||  From left to right: Author’s uncle (father’s brother, Sa`ad), Sharif Elmusa and his brother Ibrahim

That year my family joined the exodus of about three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their villages and towns. Second to the legend of the death of my mother’s brother—Ahmad—while on patrol defending the village with a malfunctioning rifle during the last stand of the resistance, the story of how the tractor was saved was a recurrent theme of my childhood. Al-Abbasiyya, according to documented history, was captured twice—the first time was on May 5, 1948, ten days before the declaration of the state of Israel. It was wrested back by irregulars from the village and neighbouring ones on June 10, the eve of a general armistice. In the first takeover my family left the tractor in the village but wanted to make sure it didn’t fall into the hands of Jewish militias. They dug a large hole near the farm’s water pump, rolled the tractor down into it, and camouflaged it with hay and a mound of prayers. When the fighters took the village back ten days later, my father said that the first thing he did was to run and check on the tractor. To his great relief, the hay was undisturbed and he concluded that the tractor was still hidden beneath in its cocoon. A month later:

We lost the war
and became a nation of refugees.
It is always the beginning.
Fuelled by fear, my father gathered
the clan, lugged me in his arms,
and headed, on his peasant feet,
across plain and impassable mountain,
without a compass, headed east.

We set down in a desert
without the sinuous sands
of the movies, in a camp,
by the gateless Jericho.

The tractor itself had been quickly transported by one of my uncles out of the village after my father found it intact. Now my father and uncles could work the tractor only in what became the West Bank of Jordan and, of course, the East Bank. Ten years later, when I was in the fourth grade, I heard my uncle announce, as if talking of a chronically ill relative who had died, that they had left the tractor to retire in the Jordan Valley. Although this did not stop the recounting of the episode of its miraculous rescue, the lack of regret in my uncle’s voice must have been aided by the fact that the D35 had already spawned a D4 and a D6,which were joined later by two harvesters, first a red Massey-Harris, then a green John Deere. The al-Abbasiyya tractors, like modern nomads, traversed Jordan and for many years, almost single-handedly, ploughed its fields.

Like the other boys (the reader may have already noticed that this is an all-male tale) in the family, I was recruited during summer recesses to assist, to buy groceries, make tea and coffee for the workmen, clean the trailer, and pump diesel into the tractor’s tank. This way I had the opportunity to see many parts of the country, including Tulkarm and Jenin on the West Bank, and Irbid in the north and Ma’adaba in the south of the East Bank. Occasionally, the boys were able to drive the tractor and do a couple of rounds of ploughing; it was not easy for a novice to keep the deep furrows straight. I took charge of it only once on the outskirts of the refugee camp of al-Karama (“Dignity”, what else can you call a camp for the defeated?), and my furrows were so horribly crooked that whenever I fail at something that image raises its mocking head. I recalled my experience at al-Karama in the Acknowledgements section of the book, A Harvest of Technology, which emerged from my PhD dissertation:

“…men and women in the middle of cruel summer heat, sweating profusely, some barefoot, briskly following the tractor along the furrows to clear the dark stones and make the land ‘cultivable.’ I remember in particular Umm Ahmad—a frail, old (or who appeared to be old) lady in a black dress, parsimoniously embroidered, keeping up, in spite of all odds, with everyone else…I hope the book can still be…a tribute to them.”

What is most impressive about this business was how my uncles and the hired workers were able to master the technology of that complex machine without any formal training. They would bring the tractor once a year to the camp for overhaul. They parked it in the street, in front of the house, took it apart piece by piece, and reassembled it, seldom needing the assistance of a mechanic from the company. It was learning by doing. They used mostly English with an Arabic slant for naming the parts: makina, gear, jackka, filtir, bastouni. I think now that they thoroughly indigenised the technology when they would reply “bintaqtiq”—aping what they heard as the sound of the tractor under easy load—to describe the state of the work. They meant work was not bad, mush battal, pas mal.

I watched them disembowel the beast, reduce it to a skeleton, and bring it back to life, in some years giving it a fresh coat of yellow or orange paint and black lettering.


How much I wish today that this would be the only kind of memory of the tractor that stayed with me. In his poem “Belonging”, Palestinian poet Walid Khazandar delicately dramatises the insecurity of the Palestinian condition and yearning for normality by setting the poem in the house (my translation):

Who entered my room in my absence?
The vase is slightly out of place,
and my papers are collecting themselves
after a hurried reading.
This is not how I leave my pillow.
This is not how I leave my dirty shirt.
Who will restore to my pillow
and to my shirt
the scent of the citizen?

Like Khazandar’s things, “my” tractor had been tampered with while I was away. Enabled by my American passport, I have been going back for brief stays in Palestine since the mid- 1970s. The tractor (now an armoured D9, or D11) was continuing the tasks it had performed on Palestinian land and property which Israel occupied in 1948. It did not pull a mouldboard plough, it pushed a bulldozer clearing the land for Israeli Jewish settlers, at the same time demolishing thousands of Palestinian houses. It cut deep swathes in the hills for multilane highways defying the contours of the terrain, at the same time it dug holes in antiquated Palestinian roads and uprooted thousands upon thousands of olive and other trees.

Plough-Elmusa-Al-Karamah 1982

Plough: Taken in al-Karamah camp in October, 1982

What the Israeli tractor did and continues to do is not accidental: put a gun in the hand of someone with a grudge to settle and he will do so swiftly, efficiently; give a bulldozer to a state and a society with a project to take over the land of others and they will do it in no time. The subject and object of Zionism has been the building and maintenance of a Jewish state. The late Israeli general and prime minister, Ariel Sharon, a champion and leader of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank, was nicknamed “the bulldozer.” The settlements—as the Israeli architect, Eyal Weizman, has shown in his Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation—were envisioned by Sharon as an “in-depth defence” system to be established on mountaintops to surveil and dominate the Palestinian villages and towns, traditionally located on the slopes and in the plains where the landwas more cultivable than on the eroded mountain peaks. They were linked by a network of highways, flyovers, and tunnels that served also to separate them from the Palestinians’ communities. The bulldozers and the dynamite required for the construction disrupted the calm of the hills, accelerated the geologic change of the land and its appearance, and furthered the disinheritance and control of the Palestinian people. They fragmented the villages and towns and turned them into isolated archipelagos under the mercy of the Israeli army and the settlers. After a summer stay in Nablus in 1987, I wrote the poem “A Day in the Life of Nablus” in which I tried to capture some of this feeling:

In gowns of soft lights
the town performs the ritual of sleep.
Will they caress the mouth of the vendor,
and the woman who lost her house?
The settlement, fortress on the mountain peak,
and the jail on the hilltop
flood their sleep with yellow lights.

The refugee camp itself—which my love for, to paraphrase what Palestinian poet Ali Mohammad Taha said about his happiness, bears no relation to love—was levelled in 1984. When I went back to see it ten years later all that had remained of it were the structures that belonged to the UN: the camp manager’s headquarters, clinic, public showers, and the three schools, two for boys and one for girls. On the eastern margin of the former camp, there were a few acres of farmland, at the end of which stood a three-story concrete building. This was the house, as I learned subsequently from relatives, of the extended family of Abu ’Asr, the only family that stayed in the camp after the 1967 war, maybe because they had land they could farm. The family had raised cows when I was young, and on many evenings I went to buy milk that my mother warmed up and made yoghurt from. I did not have a chance to go in and talk to them and, anyway, the grandchildren would not have recognised me. Other than this small planted plot of the lonely family, it was an utterly desolate landscape framed by the UN’s scattered, decaying buildings. All had been melted into dusty air by Israel’s erasure machine.

The houses were all gone. Their whitewashed mudbrick walls did not purr when we lived in them, and perhaps had already looked like ruins to outsiders, but they sheltered the private pleasures and agonies of many families, and stood as testimony and symbol of our expulsion in 1948. Now they were not even rubble that one could gaze at and try to reconstruct in the mind’s eye, or reanimate with the lives that once filled them. The grocery stores, the barbershops were gone. The butcher’s shop gone. The pool parlour, where I spent many hours in high school shooting billiard balls, gone. The water stands, where female members of the family fetched the water in clay jars balanced over their heads, gone. Since its inception, Israel razed more than 400 Palestinian villages, and covered 80 or so of the sites with forests to cover up its deed and erase the memory of their former presence; the camp, on the other hand, has not received such a green treat. Archaeologists, who used to scour the area around Jericho for traces of ancient ruins, would be hard-pressed to detect evidence of our lives in the refugee camp.

Being a Palestinian refugee then is a purgatorial state, living precariously, ups and downs. I walk today with two tractors in my head, one draws a ploughshare and a counterpart pushes a purposeful bulldozer; one embodies the forgetting of a family, a village and a people to die, and the second a blind power determined to put an end to their forgetting. To endure, the self, like a tractor, needs upkeep, an occasional new coat of paint, and clear lettering so that it may repair the wear and tear, that it may keep the promise:

And when my boots grow heavy
I will think how that caterpillar
wove her cocoon on the sand of the beach.


Feature illustration: Tanuja Ramani

Photographs: Sharif Elmusa

This essay was published in the Jan-Mar 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. Subscribe here.

Elsewhere in the issue, Jai Arjun Singh writes about caring and communicating with an ill mother he is exceptionally close to, Jerry Pinto ponders over familial bonds and what lies at the heart of the family.  Sydney-based writer John Zubrzycki tells the wondrous story of Ramo Samee, the most famous Indian magician of the 19th century. Anita Roy visits the Lancelot Ribeiro retrospective in London and find how the painter found his distinct voice. Karan Kapoor talks about his inspiration, his parents, Shashi and Jennifer KapoorMandakini Dubey reflects on the nature of family ties.

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