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Recently I was someone, now I’m nobody

The writer visits a friend he hasn’t seen for a while. A piece about longing, dreaming about a white horse, freedom and steak for dinner
Mats Svensson
25 August 2011

I have visited Muhammad around sixty times. But it is only now that we begin to really talk to each other. Seven years ago, I met Muhammad for the first time. I was then out on one of my long weekend walks. Muhammad came towards me, pointed towards the olive grove and introduced me to the long gray dragon that was approaching his house. At the time he did not know whether the Wall would go east of the house and let him belong to Jerusalem with all the practical benefits that accrued, or if it would go west of the house, and forever shut him out of Jerusalem. It was a lottery with a winning ticket and a losing ticket. But he could not select his own lottery ticket. Some other people were making this decision over his future. Then he spoke about the dragon that was approaching, the dead dragon that devoured everything, and that would soon devour him.

Over a long period of time we ended up meeting several times each week. We sat on his porch when the dragon passed, laying itself down heavily in front of his house: a dragon that shut out the light, making the sun set already at three pm and the view over the old city disappear. For him, it meant that everything died, plans, dreams and a possible future.

“Recently I was someone,” he repeats, with heavy and sad eyes. It was just at the point that I had thought of leaving, I had completed my visit, I wanted to return to Jerusalem, I was going to the American Colony in the evening. But I stayed and began to listen to someone who no longer felt that he was somebody.

“Mats, you don’t really know anything about me,” he says. “I’ve just given you a piece of the puzzle, perhaps the only piece remaining. All others have been taken from me. I’m not sure that you can really understand me, just like I can’t really understand you. I felt it when I took you around the garden,” says Muhammad. “I showed you all the vegetables, tomatoes, pumpkins... I explained that it never came to anything, that they dried up before they were even one centimeter big. I explained that it was because I could not water them. But Mats, you never asked me why. And I, I was ashamed to tell you that we only get water twice a week. Last year we always had water, now we only get water to quench our thirst, cook and do the laundry.”

It is now after I’ve known him for seven years that he needs to tell me this. The fact that I was suddenly back sitting on his worn couch made him partly happy, but also sad. He said that I ”personify his inner dreams.” Dreams that for him are beautiful but impossible. He sees all the freedom I have. The same freedom he had until recently. For him also, this freedom was natural and obvious; he says that he ”didn’t even feel gratitude for it.”

Muhammad tells me that he recently owned a white horse. He says, ”I had it when we who were in Abu Dis were entitled to all the land between Abu Dis and the Dead Sea, north, south and west. Mats, you have an Audi, I had a white horse. The white horse could be several kilometres away, he was completely free, but always followed me with his eyes. At the slightest movement or sound he came running back. Everyone knew that this was Muhammad’s horse. Somehow, he followed me and I followed him. We were both free.

Muhammad’s old father enters. He would usually sit curled up in bed, watching TV. When, seven years earlier, I met him for the first time he sat leaning against a chair in the garden, guarding a few sheep. Behind him, the Wall that Palestinian workers were building was quickly approaching. I then saw a man with a tired body, worn clothes and crooked legs. I thought that I understood. I imagined that this was what a shepherd looks like. He matched that image very well.

Now I find out that in the 1940s he belonged to the Jordanian army. He was in Jerusalem on the Jordanian side when Israeli terrorists murdered Bernadotte. In detail, he tells me for the first time how it happened. I listen and do not know what to believe. When later on that evening, I read about the murder of F Bernadotte, most of what the old man had told me makes sense.

Then the old man begins to talk about being free. Before he became trapped behind the Wall in Abu Dis and after he had left the Jordanian army, he made a living by buying animals in Yemen, Jordan and Syria. He was constantly travelling and returned with animals that were sold in markets around Palestine. I had had prejudices about him, the same way that I had had prejudices about almost everything surrounding the occupying power and the occupied.

Muhammad had a white horse but he had been freer than that. Muhammad had made a living by building houses. His deep knowledge was in his hands. He had built up an extensive network of contacts in Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Now both his hands aswell as contact network are unusable. He says that he, “would like to show me all the houses he built in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

He would like to show me everything he is proud of, his expertise. “But Mats, I cannot show you that. I can’t even show you what I have done. I can’t bring you to the people who are grateful for what I have built. I have no rights left, I cannot even bear the fruit of what I own. Perhaps most difficult of all is the fact that I cannot care for my 102 olive trees. Well, I can take care of two. You can see them through the window. The other 100 are a few kilometres from the checkpoint between Abu Dis and Bethlehem. But they are too close to an Israeli settlement. The last time I tried to harvest the trees was eight years ago. I was driven away like a dog. They said I was a security risk. They stole our land and built a settlement. Just on the outskirts of the settlement are my trees. Each year the trees gave 3000 kilograms of olives. Now someone else is picking them, I don’t get anything. They have stolen what has belonged to my family for centuries. It is so close.”

I worked at the Swedish Consulate for two years. Every week I met Muhammad. But I had to leave him for an extended period of time and return for him to think it was important to talk about his innermost thoughts, about his constant longing, yearning for freedom, for a white horse. He wanted our conversation to be meaningful. He says that he is no one today but that he was once someone.

Within myself I can no longer push aside my own questions. Who am I? Am I someone? What do I do with my freedom? Muhammad told me about himself. Can I tell him about myself? “We have lost our land, our trees, our water, our work, our freedom and also our dreams.” Before I leave him, he asks me if I think I am going eat meat tonight. “I think so,” I say. “It is long since I ate meat,” says Muhammad.

Muhammed behind the wall, the dragon in Abu Dis.

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