Like many others in Jericho, Montasir was born a farmer by lineage, but eventually settled on the profession of “taxi driver.” He was not fortunate enough to be from a family of landowners. Instead, he was one of generations of farmers mitigating their lives in relation to the Ottoman, then British, then Jordanian, and now Israeli occupations.
After years of working in various Israeli farming settlements—picking dates, oranges, clementines and strawberries—he resented the fact he could no longer refer to himself as a farmer. He had simply become one of the 48,000 laborers working in Israeli settlements. Even with his feet on the ground and his hands constantly touching the land, he could no longer take pride in his inherited craft. It had become clear to him now that he was simply a laborer; a third-rate employee at best. In the perverse hierarchy of classes of workers, he was subservient to the waves of Thai workers imported by Israel. “At least the Thai workers are protected by international labor agreements,” he concluded.
After Friday prayer last week, Montasir had expressed to his cousin Mousa his desire to give more care to his modest garden. “Let me see your hands,” Mousa responded teasingly. “Are you sure you remember how to work the land?” The punchline had triggered a deep laughter that rippled and resonated through his newly accumulated belly.
Mousa was right, over time his grip on the steering wheel had indeed softened his hands.
Digging in his family’s backyard to make room for a much-needed lemon tree, he was hoping to forget the frustrations of his daily reality as a taxi driver. The impossible task of false promises to local clients seeking to venture—comfortably and efficiently—from the aggravated political demarcations of Administrative areas A, B, and C. So, he used the word Inshallah [if God wills] repeatedly, in full awareness that these restrictions were not the work of his God.
Preparing his yard for the lemon tree, he was not digging for any kind of past, if anything, he was looking to find a moment of calm in the otherwise stressful present, bleak in its potential for alternative futures. Perhaps in his attempt to escape, he dug too far, so he sat down, allowing the cushions of fat in his buttocks to sink into the ground.
Now just below the surface of the earth, his hands wandered across the dirt, interrupting the bustle of so many busy little creatures. There was no escaping this repugnant sulfur briny smell, as his fingers clutched something softer than bark. Amazing what you find when you are not looking to find anything.
But wait, was this a joke that Mousa had concocted?
A few months ago, Khaled, a farmer in custody of one of the few remaining independent date farms, had allowed a group of archeologists, ecologists and chemists to conduct a mock excavation and study of his farm. This was not an uncommon practice in the Jordan Valley, as many farmers and landowners were convinced that “mock” and “simulation” exercises conducted via cross disciplinary educational research projects could produce valuable real on the ground data to resist the imminent threat of the annexation of the Jordan Valley. It was during this simulation that the Special Jericho Salt (SJS) was discovered. A unique mixture of sulfur, sodium, and calcium that contained chemical qualities unlike the salt that had made both banks of the Jordan River famous. The academic murmurs suggested its chemistry allowed for the preservation of ink and parchment, but what remained baffling to all was how such a material could have remained undetected for centuries. Many scrolls had been discovered across the Jordan Valley with a coating of what is now referred to as SJS, but they were never able to locate the site of this salt. Identifying the location of this sediment allowed science to finally catch up with the magical potions of the past. As a result, Khalid’s farm had become an ideological and financial battle ground that involved governments, museums, religious leaders, archeologists, scientists and businesses. This enigma made SJS easy fodder for rumors, conspiracies and religious tales.
Under the flickering neon lights of his bathroom—the only place he was truly alone and away from the demands of his children—Montasir contemplated what to do with his find.
He imagined telling his wife Asma, and envisioned that she would be unable to contain neither her excitement nor her anxiety. He spent a long time imagining the details of their conversation unfolding…They would likely talk for hours about the different courses of action available to them. Asma being rational, would argue strongly that there was no point in notifying the Authority, for even if they had found the smallest trace of SJS on the object, both their house and garden would be subjected to further excavation, eventually displacing them. “I don’t want to be on the news!” she would likely say, “I don’t want to be the talk of the town! I don’t want to be another Khaled! I don’t want to be a martyr.”
Asma had studied math, but rather than become a school teacher as was customary, she had instead chosen to work as site-manager to several research and development projects in the Jordan Valley. She would likely opt for keeping it simple: she would probably meet her friend’s distant cousin who dealt in stolen artefacts from the West Bank, and let her know that she had an object that she needed to sell. Wait for her to make arrangements. Sure, it was dangerous, but at the very least this route guaranteed they would make some money quietly. They both knew that if the object was verified from the start, their compensation would be tripled. But given the choice between a small portion of money or nothing at all, she would take the risk and bypass the political headache and social scrutiny.
He could hear her voice in his head: “That little bit of money would allow us to buy land, you could be a farmer again, and we would be stakeholders—legal owners rather than hand-me-down laborers going from one form of occupation to another.”
He knew that Asma’s arguments would be right. He also knew that any other suggestion would not alter her conviction. In reality, she was the pragmatic one and he was the hopeless idealist, he would not be able to articulate that this was not just about their immediate family, but about the bigger picture. It was about The Cause.
She would certainly respond with perfect cynicism, “Habibi, they already sold the land and the Cause! You have been given a sliver of an opportunity and you have to decide what part of the line you want to fall behind: A, B, or C? Or simply leave”?
Maybe it was a bad idea to share the finding with Asma. Once you share something it is by definition no longer yours alone. Ultimately, whoever would be let in on this would be burdened with responsibility. It was not about secrecy, for he trusted her. It was about what this object would bring and subject their relationship to—the potential hope, wealth, anxiety, destruction and disappointment. But as long as no one knew of what he had found, it was as if he hadn’t found anything at all.
Back under the flickering neon lights of his bathroom stall, he realized he had been unable to defecate since the day he had found the object, an excruciating and existential constipation had taken over him. He closed his eyes and attempted to stimulate bowel movement.
A few weeks ago, he had chauffeured a man and a woman around the Jordan Valley. They worked for a big museum in New York City, and were here for a site visit following the recent discovery of SJS at Khalid’s farm. They had asked for samples of SJS to be sent to their lab, for research on how to use it to preserve the endangered artifacts in their collection.
Montasir knew how to deal with foreigners, especially Americans: start the journey on time, otherwise you will spend the rest of the day trying to overcome what they perceive as “lost time.”. Punctual beginnings almost always lead to peaceful conclusions. Keep the taxi clean and air conditioned, set the radio to the news (on low volume), and organize the first stop for coffee (American of course). Unlike other taxi drivers, he did not talk a lot, he was friendly and generous but always waited for the customer to initiate conversations. Once the coffee was running through their bloodstream, they were eager to talk, excited to describe every detail they saw from their window seats.
For this pair, it was a landscape of miracles. Dry rough desert-like mountains speckled with bursts of green luscious oasis, and a sea so thick that things never sink. Expansive grey mud that cured pain and restored health. “Take us where Jesus walked, Moses hopped, and Rehab plotted,” they said. The world is their oyster and this car is their joy ride. So, he pointed his finger here and there and told them what they wanted to hear.
They were in the same car but they were not in the same time zone. It was pointless to try to point out invisible borders of zones A, B, and C. Only those who lived within these restrictions could see and maneuver them. Instead, Montasir’s clients saw relics of old stones and assumed those living around them were gleeful tour guides.
He asked them why people treated the “Special Jericho Salt” like they found oil or gold. “It is just salt! It does not even taste good!”
The woman explained that over 2000 years ago, people were paid in salt, many wars were fought and journeys were made in order to get hold of salt.
“But now salt is on every household table in the world. What is it about the Special Jericho salt that is so unique?”—he insisted to know more.
This time the man chimed in, “From what they can see so far, you can rub SJS on parchment, animal skin, after it is soaked with lime, which immediately makes its surface whiter and allows the ink to stand out more prominently.” He used a lot of scientific words and before discovering a basic metaphor could be used for the purposes of illustration. “You know how plastic works right? You see how we put our food in plastic, and it protects it from decaying? This Special Jericho Salt creates an insoluble layer, almost like plastic. But unlike plastic it can protect it for more than 2000 years. People wrote things over 2000 years ago and we can read them today because this salt protected it!”
At that moment, he wished he could rub and bathe himself in SJS and lime solution. Maybe then they would be able to read and decipher his reality of this landscape. He contemplated sharing with them what he had found. But kept his thoughts to himself, and asked, “So does this mean you have something you want to write and protect for more than 2000 years? It must be so important!”
The passengers laughed profusely. At first, the woman mistook his innocent inquiry for sarcasm. Upon noticing his puzzled face, she elaborated, “For us, the Special Jericho Salt is important because it can help us develop a better technology for the restoration and preservation of our collection, therefore it helps us better preserve the history of humanity.”
He nodded but still appeared confused. “You really don’t want to write something yourselves? You are just looking for what was written before?”
“Don’t worry!”—the man assured him—“we will write a lot of books about the objects we already have and the new objects that will be found.”
Back under the flickering neon lights of his bathroom stall, he heard himself blurt out loud: “Why did I thank them?”
His eyes wide open, his anger morphed into hysterical laughter. They did not understand the inherent sarcasm behind his words of gratitude.
Please forgive me Asma.
I feel so heavy,
unable to release.
unable to think on my feet.
Nothing moves my gut.
They say my condition is psychosomatic.
Existential rather than physiological.
They recommended that I dig deep,
and this is the object that I found…
The author would like to thank the Harbs as well Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Jumana Manna, Sarah Beddington, and Haig Aivazian for their editorial support and feedback.
Shuruq Harb is an artist filmmaker and writer. She is the co-founder of several independent art initiatives such as “ArtTerritories” (2010-2017) and “The river has two banks” (2012-2017). Her artistic practice focuses on online visual culture and traces subversive routes for the circulation of images and goods. Her film The White Elephant received the award for best short film at Cinema du Reel Festival in Paris, 2018, and was short listed for the Hamburg International Short Film Festival, 2019. Sheis the winner of the 2019 Han Nefkens Foundation – Fundació Antoni Tàpies Video Art Production Award.