Michael grew up gazing up at the hill from Kibbutz Tzora to the clearing on the mountain where Sar’a once stood, though he never knew of its existence. From his childhood, he remembered one grand stone building which had once been the centrepiece of the kibbutz. They called it “Bet el Sheikh” (The house of the Sheikh) but he knew nothing of its history before the establishment of his kibbutz in 1948.
This was the house of the Mukhtar (village elder) of the village of Sar’a.
It was not until the age of 40 that Michael learnt that this site had once been home to an entirely different community. He was intrigued. He looked into it. It had a population of 400, he read. 400 people? In one house?
A shy laugh crossed his lips as he recalled his first reaction to the discovery of the existence of Sar’a; “I had no idea that this was the only building which had been left standing” he continued, “nobody ever told me.”
Since then, Michael has been coming to terms with the history of his home, and has dedicated himself to unveiling what was hidden from him for so long.
Sar’a was entirely cleansed of its approximately 400 inhabitants in July of 1948. Later the same year, a group of young Israelis, fresh from serving in the Palmach forces, were granted the land as the result of an ultimatum given to them by the Israeli military. To remain in the army, or build a Jewish community on this land and stay there for at least two years. Choosing the latter, these young people were also committed to an important part of the deal – they must ensure that none of the expelled villagers return.
Michael shows us photos of the early days of his kibbutz, before it moved down the hill to the site on which it stands today. “Look” he says, flicking through black and white images of young, grinning faces, “they are so happy – and here” he points somewhere in the background of each one “is the village.” We join him in marveling at this bizarre juxtaposition; a youthful laugh, captured in a moment, behind the joyful subject – a picture of sorrow. A cheerful moment, so transient – as we expect it to be, but a camera can preserve it for generations to come. A village, stone houses, a community dating back to the 1500s – these shouldn’t have to rely on appearing accidentally in the background of photographs to preserve their memory.
At the time, these young people were living with this emptied village, an eerie backdrop to their new lives. The house of the Mukhtar stood a little way from the village, and this is where the kibbutz first established itself, enjoying the spacious building as their key communal area. Michael wonders what they thought of their macabre surroundings. He interviews some of those, now elderly, faces from the photographs. Their response; “we didn’t like it”, “we were frightened of it”, “we didn’t really think about it’. The kibbutz moved down the hill only 16 months later. The story goes, to be closer to the fields. Michael ponders about whether their uncomfortable, silent neighbour had something to do with it.
Michael is thoughtful and quietly emotional as he tells us these stories. He is someone who seems to truly be able to put himself in others’ shoes. A quality many could benefit from. He speaks of some of those he has interviewed, asking challenging questions about how they felt about building their new lives on the land – and in the homes – of others, so recently dispelled. “Sometimes they don’t want to speak to me” he says, “and I can understand this.”
The same sentence was uttered when he talked about Sar’a’s refugees – who ended up mostly between Qalandia and Dehesheh camps. He has managed to meet several, and is desperate to hear their memories, to see the land through their eyes. “But it can be difficult for them to trust me, of course – I am the occupier, I am always conscious of this.”
The village remains were demolished in 1967, and a very thorough job was done. The house of the Mukhtar continued to be used as the venue for kibbutzim gatherings – the mysterious place of Michael’s childhood memories – but was also demolished several years later; the reason given that it had become unstable.
Two of the Palestinian villagers, Sara and Miriam – who were aged 5 and 20 when they were forced to flee this village on the hilltop with beautiful panoramic views – were able to return last year to visit their homeland. Michael accompanied them and invited some of those first members of Kibbutz Tzora to join. One woman, Ella, accepted the invitation. Ella was 20 (one of the oldest members) when she first came to the land.
They walked, they talked, they discovered that both Ella and Miriam had got married on the land. “We are both brides of this place” Ella had said to Miriam. A comment Michael mentioned was a little hard to hear, it implies an equality between them. But it was moving, he remembers, to see the connection between these women of the same age, who made their vows in the same space, and lived their lives in different worlds, only a handful of kilometres apart.
Miriam found the spot where her baby son was buried in the village cemetery; recognisable only from the distinctive iris leaves bursting from the soil. Here, Michael had learnt, they used to bury their dead with three bulbs of an iris flower; one at the head, one at the heart and one at the feet. So little evidence of Sar’a remains today. But each springtime, a patch of iris flowers blooms, and we imagine – in a couple of month’s time – purple petals blowing gently in the hill-top breeze, giving away the life that once was. A call from those who passed away before their village was taken, to those they left behind. Now the villagers of Sar’a, who have lived a life of exile, desire, at the very least, to be put to rest on the land which grips their hearts.
NB: Michael is in the process of making a short film about Sar’a, he hopes to release it next year. It will be called “The iris only blooms in May”.
We have many more photographs and stories of Sar’a to be uploaded in the near future.