Something of the street punk and village elder mingle in Jawad Siyam. Wiry, dark and stubble-chinned, with a cigarette often dangling from the side of his mouth and a slightly amused look in his eye, he bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean-Paul Belmondo–if, that is, one can imagine the star of Breathless as a Palestinian community organizer who speaks five languages fluently, is married to a Bosnian Serb, has two small children, and is waging a possibly last-ditch struggle to save his village from destruction.
Born a year after the 1967 annexation of that village, Silwan, to Israel, Siyam, the seventh of nine children, literally grew up with the occupation and at the same time saw Silwan evolve from a sleepy rural enclave to a teeming urban slum–now one of the poorest and most troubled in East Jerusalem. For Siyam’s entire life, the people of Silwan have been considered “residents,” not citizens, of Israel, which is to say that they pay their municipal taxes and get very little in return: they cannot vote in national elections; they have no local high school, no post office and no public parks. Some homes aren’t even hooked up to the sewage system or electrical grid. But for all that hardship, Siyam’s childhood was, to hear him tell it, somehow simple–almost pastoral. When he was little, his peasant grandmother picked vegetables from her garden and sold them in the market, and his family lived in large part off their land, harvesting olives and lemons from their trees, raising sheep and chickens.
Like his older brothers, Siyam began to work at an early age, washing cars and peddling popsicles and cold drinks to the tourists–both Jewish and Arab–who came to the nearby Old City and to Silwan, which contains the most ancient parts of Jerusalem. II Samuel says the area was once the city of David, the king. In the Gospel of John, it is here, in Siloam, that Jesus, devising a miracle cure made of spittle-mixed clay and water from the village pool, makes a blind man see.
Silwan spills down along the southern slope just beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Wailing Wall, and as Jawad Siyam remembers his childhood, the villagers lived comfortably with–if not in precise scholarly awareness of–the multiple layers of history and culture around them, whether Canaanite, Jewish, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader or Ottoman. The ancient tombs and terraces were their very own stony backyard. Stories were told of how, during the fighting in ’67, people hid in secret networks of tunnels underneath the village.
Despite the hush that often attended such tales–as though it was buried treasure being whispered about and not what are probably 2,000-year-old waterways–the Silwanis saw the antiquities as part of their past, and they welcomed the Jewish archaeologists who came to excavate there in the late 1970s. Many of the villagers were employed on that dig, as they had been on others since the nineteenth century. “It wasn’t political,” Siyam insists. “It was work.” When violent protests broke out around the site then, the demonstrators were ultra-Orthodox Jews who objected vehemently to the possible desecration of Jewish graves. The Palestinians of Silwan, for their part, were basically glad for the digging.
Those days are, alas, also part of ancient history. By now excavation in Silwan has become synonymous with a particularly aggressive campaign to expel Siyam and his neighbors from their homes and install in their place a die-hard cadre of flag-waving, gun-toting Israelis: since 1991, the first time a local Palestinian was evicted from his house to make way for settlers, a small group of Jewish families has planted itself in the midst of tens of thousands of Palestinian Silwanis, and all signs indicate that this is just the beginning. While Silwan’s archaeological riches used to be a source of pride for the villagers, the presence of those same subterranean strata now seem to represent for them a nearly existential threat: To Dig a Tunnel Means to Kill a Village, reads the Arabic and English banner slung over the entrance to the protest tent where the local men spend many of their evenings, under the constant surveillance of several settler-owned security cameras.