Leaving Aida Camp this morning, we passed painted murals of all the villages which the inhabitants of the camp long to return to.
From Jerusalem, we speed south west from Abu Tor along a perfectly paved bicycle trail that runs from ‘The First Station‘ all the way to Malha. Malha, once the Palestinian village that stood on the hill between Beit Mazmil and Al Walaja cultivating olives and cereal crops. Malha, once home to 2250 Palestinian residents – until July 15th, 1948.
As we round the corner catching our first glimpse of the Malha today we see the massive train station below us, the huge stadium and then the shopping mall. Looming over it all at the top of the hill is a lone minaret, surrounded by golden apartment blocks and Israeli flags billowing in the wind.
This is the sign we were looking for. The little pieces of Palestine that still remain despite the desperate attempts at their erasure. Today the crops are gone, the odd olive tree still stands, but the place is totally transformed. We are sitting in the cosmopolitan mall that replaces them, using the internet to post this blog.
Although al Malha was one of several villages in the Jerusalem area to sign a non-aggression pact with the Haganah in 1948. It was attacked in the early hours of July 14th 1948 by the Irgun – another Zionist militia. Palestinians launched a counter-attack and regained a stronghold, but as Irgun reinforcements arrived, they were forced to retreat and abandon the village. Most of the village residents fled to Bethlehem, believing that the expulsion would be temporary. 67 years later, their children and grandchildren have grown up in the same refugee camps. The depopulated homes were occupied by Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries, mainly Iraq.
Our first big hill – we brace ourselves and pray the gears on the bikes we borrowed from Aida hold out. They do. We arrive at the top, Israeli children escorting passersby over Zebra crossings in high vis jackets, lots of cars, nice shops, golden stone – the scene is suburban, tranquil. This is Malha now. Life goes on here. And there is much of it. But what we are looking for are the stories underneath.
Where is the mosque? Where are the Palestinian remains that might suggest life here once looked very different? We follow the road and finally see it, as we get nearer we are confused. How do we get closer? It is surrounded on all sides by houses, as if the minaret itself was an elaborate chimney rising out from one of the roofs. An Israeli election poster flaps in the wind beneath it. Stories upon stories.
We decide to talk to the neighbours. We knock on one door. A woman answers and we speak briefly in Hebrew. She knows immediately what we are after. It is closed now she says but she motions round the corner. We follow her directions, walking through a beautiful quiet street, covered in lemon and palm and olive trees. We knock on another door and another woman answers, we ask her about the mosque. She shrugs. It’s been closed for “years and years and years”, maybe even a lifetime ago.
We get as close as we can to this beautiful mark of a people whose souls will never leave this place. The giant elephant in the room this time takes its form as a golden minaret in the middle of a Jewish Israeli village with no signposting to suggest what happened here, what was lost to over 2000 people.
We were looking for the stories. We didn’t find them here. Only shrugs from the Israeli residents we met. (This is not to say that there are not many Israelis in Malha and elsewhere who care deeply about the fate of the refugees from Malha, but today we did not meet them).
An unspoken sadness fills the space between us. The refugees from this village live only a few miles away, unable to return. It isn’t fair.
I spy a bicycle, a sure sign of life, we watch people come and go, notice a yard filled with the bric- a- brac of life – the memories of the refugees we met do not fit here. This village has lived on. How to reconcile that? How to return?
But it is our first day and our first village, for now we remap and we remember, standing and cycling in solidarity with the Palestinian refugees who cannot be here with us, sending our prayers to the mosque that might not have seen any for a while.
As we leave I turn back to the minaret again, which looks so lonely and neglected on the top of that hill and at the same time so defiant. It seems a sort of bastion of memory of the Palestinians who lived there. An icon of what was, and what will never be forgotten.
Malha, we are sorry.