Books: The Way of the spring

Journalist Ben Ehrenreich paints a portrait of the Tamimi family in Nabi Saleh and their struggles.

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a rally in Nabi Saleh last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a rally in Nabi Saleh last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three years after his widely read New York Times magazine feature about the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian hamlet made famous by its Friday afternoon protests, Ben Ehrenreich has returned to the town with his first non-fiction effort, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine.
Like other popular books written about the contested slice of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land and historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem come to mind), Ehrenreich humanizes the land and the struggle for it by focusing on the story of a particular family – in this case the Tamimi clan of Nabi Saleh.
Ehrenreich begins the book by telling the story of the town, where he spent most of his time during his stint living in the West Bank from 2011 to 2014. It’s located about 10 km. northwest of Ramallah, adjacent to the Halamish settlement. In 2008, the residents of Halamish began pouring concrete for a series of pools to collect the water of a small, natural spring on the outskirts of the town referred to by the Palestinians as Ein al Qoos, located on land that the Tamimis claim has been theirs for generations.
The settlers built an arbor for shade and put a bench by the spring. They gave it a name – Ma’ayan Meir, after one of Halamish’s founders. Once they began taking interest in the spring, it became harder and harder for the Palestinians to tend the fields adjacent to the water source. The settlers threatened them and threw rocks, the Palestinians claimed.
About a year later, in December 2009, the first protest march was organized by the villagers of Nabi Saleh. After Friday prayers, the villagers marched toward the spring. In the ensuing melee between the activists, Halamish residents and the IDF, 25 Nabi Saleh residents were injured. The next week, more came. Then came Israeli activists and journalists. The march has continued for more than half a decade.
Every week the marchers are repelled by rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and the ominously named skunk truck that sprays a foul-smelling liquid, before they make it to the spring. But getting to the spring isn’t necessarily the end-game of the marchers.
“The spring is the face of the occupation,” Bassem Tamimi, Nabi Saleh protest movement leader and the book’s protagonist, said. “The occupation is illegal and we have the right to struggle against it.”
The book recounts Bassem’s non-violent philosophy, his ever-expanding family and their respective stories, his multiple jailings and subsequent releases, and the deaths of members of his family and his friends at the hands of Israeli military and law enforcement officials.
It’s a well-worn story and often reads like an Al Jazeera news report, but what sets Ehrenreich’s book apart are the characters.
It is as if they came out of a novel, they’re so richly described.
Take, for instance, Eid Suleiman al-Hathalin, a vegetarian sculptor with an interest in Buddhism, from the Palestinian town of Umm al-Kheir in the South Hebron Hills, who makes sculptures of helicopters and Caterpillar bulldozers out of salvaged plastic. Though Ehrenreich initially assumed his sculptures were being created as a response to the conflict, it turned out that Eid just likes big machines and his goal is to have his pieces accepted at the Caterpillar museum at the company’s headquarters in Peoria, Illinois.
Ehrenreich hauntingly describes Eid’s cousin, Mohammad Salim al-Hathalin, who, Ehrenreich tells us, suffered brain damage in an altercation with settlers.
“He would stride suddenly and with great purpose, a lumbering giant, until he encountered some phantom doubt and stopped abruptly, turning around and retracing his tracks. His eyes were almost always on the ground, as if he had lost something important and couldn’t remember what it was.”
The book won’t turn any Likudniks into leftists, and will further entrench those that support the Palestinian cause. But as Americans are an ocean away and Israelis are barred by law from going into areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, it is difficult for the book’s readers to ever meet someone like Eid, Mohammad, or the Tamimis.
Most of all, Ehrenreich’s book helps to break down the Palestinian monolith into individual stories.