Where Saddam and Arafat live on

In Ratab Kabha's small but busy barber's shop in east Barta'a, Saddam Hussein is in the closet.

arafat metro 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
arafat metro 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
In Ratab Kabha's small but busy barber's shop in east Barta'a, Saddam Hussein is in the closet. A posed color photo of the deposed Iraqi president, donned in army uniform and beret, sits inside a glass-fronted closet on the wall, surrounded by an array of scissors and hair products. On the opposite wall an even larger photograph of the late Iraqi dictator stares down upon customers sitting on the couch awaiting their turn for a haircut. On a high wooden electricity pole directly outside, a large painting of Yasser Arafat seems to be keeping a watchful eye on the constant traffic flowing past the barber's shop and home, situated on a somewhat dangerous corner. A short distance behind the building, a white stone minaret alongside a yellow-domed mosque seems to shoot toward the blue sky. The black, white, green and red of a Palestinian flag flapping on a pole starkly stands out against the white stone. Barta'a is a sprawling Wadi Ara village that straddles the Green Line. Over 4,000 Palestinians live in east Barta'a, and about 3,000 Arab citizens of Israel live in west Barta'a. Inside the barber's shop, hardly a minute goes by without conversation being drowned out by a cacophony of loud horns as itchy-fingered, irate drivers try to navigate the sharp corner on the steep narrow road that is the main thoroughfare through the Palestinian section of the village, divided by the Green Line in l949. A few shops down, cartons of detergent are stacked high on the roadside. Peeking between two brands of washing powder promising to make your whites whiter-than-white, another tattered poster of Arafat is stuck to the detergent merchants' wall. A few more shops down, on the other side of the road, carpets are on display - long rolls standing upright on either side of the shop entrance. Inside, prayer mats hang for sale from the ceiling. On one mat the image of Arafat gently sways to and fro as the breeze whips through the front door of the large premises, a short distance from another large mosque, this one with a green dome but no flag. The yellow-domed mosque is in East Barta'a where the majority of the Palestinian residents have Jordanian citizenship and car license plates are white with green digits issued by the Palestinian Ministry of Transport. The green-domed mosque is on the Israeli side of the l949 divide. Residents of west Barta'a have Israeli citizenship and yellow number plates affixed to their vehicles. The father of eight, Rateb Kabha speaks Hebrew almost like a native, using slang terms liberally during our conversation. Before his hair cutting days, Kabha worked for over 20 years in Tel Aviv where he prepared meat for kebab and shwarma eateries. During this period he befriended Sami, a Moroccan Jewish hairdresser who convinced him to learn his trade so as to have something up his sleeve for a rainy day. The rainy day Sami had foreseen came in a torrent with the outbreak of the l987 intifada and the revoking of work permits inside Israel for many Palestinians, including Kabha. "If Sami hadn't have taught me his trade I don't even want to think about what situation I and my family would be in today," says Kabha, whose youngest child is 13. The eldest of his daughters recently completed her degree in pharmacy at Al-Najah University in the Palestinian autonomous city of Jenin, some 25 kilometers away. She pops in to say "hello," together with a few of her brothers, the eldest of whom graduates this month from the same university with a degree in sports education. Another son will continue studying there next year. Speaking in English, the hairdresser's daughter excitedly talks of starting work next month in a new pharmacy due to open in East Barta'a. Kabha's son, tall with a broad chest and developed biceps, will begin to teach sports in the local high school later this year, replacing the present teacher who comes from another village and not from the extended Kabha clan. This writer has known them since they were young children, always welcoming visitors with a smile and scurrying off to bring some cold drinks and coffee. "Tuition fees are high - around NIS 8,000 a year, but more for my daughter as she studied pharmacy," explains Kabha, his pride obvious as he beams in her direction. One aspect of daily student life his offspring will not miss is the journey to and from the university. Although not allowed over the Green Line, as residents of an area on the Israeli side of the security fence, the Palestinians of east Barta'a need to pass through a checkpoint a few kilometers behind their village to go deeper into the West Bank. Until recently the checkpoint - known as the Reihan checkpoint close to a Jewish settlement of that name - was manned by IDF soldiers but now it is run by a private security company. "As difficult as it was before, the soldiers were far more respectful toward us than the present security personnel," says Kabha. Recently, while attempting to organize a quiet demonstration of local residents at the checkpoint requesting that women be allowed through separately and a separate track opened for east Barta'a residents, Rateb Kabha was wounded in the shoulder by a rubber bullet. "Some of our young people were out of hand. We need to be able to organize in such a way that it is not seen as threatening, just people wanting to make a difficult situation easier all around," he explains. What about Saddam? "He is our hero, a real man," he says with a smile. "For you it is difficult to understand, but for the Palestinians he was the only Arab leader who actually did something for our people, gave money for the destitute and spoke about Palestinian pride as a nation." "It's all so complicated, isn't it?" he concludes, spreading his hands and wincing as he pulls on the wounded shoulder.