OLAMGADOL2: "Abu Salah and His Thieving Wife"
Abu Salah and His Thieving Wife I made my first visit to Israel in 1970 when I was 15 years old. My grandfather, who was born in Jerusalem shortly after the turn of the century, used to proudly proclaim himself a Palestinian, as he and his famaily emmigrated to America while Israel was still under Ottoman rule. My great-grandfather, a Russian immigrant, married three times. His first wife was my grandfather’s mother. His legacy was to establish families in both the U.S. and in Israel.
I stayed with his half-brother Nechemia (my half great-uncle) and family for four months. They live in Yavne’el, a “moshava” (or collective farm - not a kibbutz) in the lower Galilee. Yavne’el is a pastoral town, although it has grown to nearly unrecognizable size in the last two decades. Nechemia was a miner of gypsum (a chief component of plaster of paris) and most of his business was conducted in the West Bank. He used to take me on jobs to towns that you wouldn’t venture near today: Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus.
His business associates would often invite us into their homes, where we would be served delicious fare: grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb, hommous with olives from local olive groves and olive oil expelled from local presses, freshly-made bread, mint tea - usually served by silent yet smiling wives who kept themselves hidden except to serve food and remove the plates. I remember once asking one of them if I could help her to clear the table - she looked at me, horrified - and her gestures implied that I was to do no such thing; I was a guest! Guests don’t clean!
Dahli, who carved toy ploughs from olive branches; Adel, whose life was saved by my uncle when his clothing caught fire from an errant spark; and many others whose names I cannot remember….their warmth and hospitality harkened to a different time, when politics took a back seat to commerce and friendship.
Yavne’el was also home to several Bedouin families, who settled permanently upon its gently-sloping fields and verdant hills. One Bedouin who I remember particularly well was Abu Salah. Nechemia and I used to visit him often. His wife kept a pot of coffee always on the ready over the ever-present cooking fire, and her husband would do the honor of wiping the crusty, coffee-stained cups with the hem of his robe before slowly filling them with the sweet, fragrant, cardamom-scented brew.
Nechemia’s daughter Dafna, my cousin, a robust blonde with a quick wit and hearty sense of humor, would often accompany us. Abu Salah used to joke with my uncle that he would like to buy her - in fact, he would give up half his flock of sheep and goats for her - but it was always with a hefty dose of humor.
A dear Israeli friend from childhood, Avram, told me this story when I visited Israel for the seventh time, in 2005. Avram is also a shepherd, and he is what I call “salt of the earth” - a gentler and truer soul you will not find, anywhere.
One summer day in 2000, he went to visit Abu Salah on minor business, but Abu Salah was nowhere to be found. The campsite appeared to be overturned and the fire in disarray, scattered. There was a foul odor coming from the fire, and what appeared to be a pile of rags smouldering in the middle. When Avram approached, he realized that the pile of rags was a BODY. Horrified, he took out his cell phone (very handy to have if you’re a shepherd!) and called the police. The police arrived and extinguished the fire, and carefully examined the partially-burnt body. It was the body of Abu Salah’s wife.
In the days that followed, the story came out that Abu Salah was involved in some shady business dealings and had frittered away most of his money. His wife, in order to protect her dowry, took all her money (and some of Abu Salah’s, as well) and hid it away. Apparently they got into a fight, and Abu Salah stabbed her. He attempted to burn her body to destroy the evidence of her murder. He went to trial, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison (there is no death penalty in Israel).
Was this a simple case of domestic violence? You might say yes... and then again, you might wonder why Abu Salah's wife - a woman so invisible that nobody seems to be able to remember her name - shares her untimely fate with so many others like her, prisoners of a culture where women have no voice, no face, not even the meager dowry for which they were bought.
Then again - you just never know about people, do you?