Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The hidden story of Biram

From the entrance, it just seems like a pleasant national park area. You pay a fee, park your car and meander up the rock steps to the site of an ancient Roman temple that had been converted into a synagogue by the Jewish community in the third century in the Christian era. The ruins of another synagogue are nearby. A sign an the entrance to the park tells part of the history.

What it leaves out are the hundreds of years when this village of Biram was the home of the Melkite Christians, generations of Palestinian families who cared for this land. One of them was the Chacour family. A son of that family, Elias -- the founder of amazing educational institutions at Ibillin, now the Melkite bishop of Israel -- wrote about that point in history that gets only a glancing reference in the tourist brochure.

"During the War of Independence (1948), the villagers were evacuated," the park brochure says. In Chacour's book, Blood Brothers, he offers a lot more detail.

First the Israeli soldiers, moving to take control of their newly formed nation, showed up in Biram and took up residence in many of the family homes, including that of the Chacours. The family slept on the roof. Then in the spring of 1949, the military commander told the village elders that they needed to evacuate for a few days. Leave the keys with us, they told the elders, nothing will be disturbed.

So the families "evacuated," as the brochure said. But they never again would be allowed back in their homes. After extensive legal battles, with two rulings from the Supreme Court that the army should let them return to their village, the commander told the Biram residents who had been staying in a nearby village that they could return on the morning of Dec. 25, 1951. But as they approached in joy that Christmas morning, the Israeli artillery opened fire on the village, destroying virtually all of the home, damaging the church.

So as we walked deeper into the park, we came to the church, rebuilt in the 1960s by some of the young men who had been born in Biram. Chacour tells of helping them "rebuild a symbol of hope for the Palestinian people." The church is now used for Christmas and Easter ... and for funerals. This day, our group from Wisconsin and Mississippi stood outside the church. Nancy Baumgardner took the stairs up to the roof and rang the bell.

If there is a glimmer of life at the church, the rest of the village of Biram is a monument to destruction. The ruins of the old homes dot the landscape. You can see the door frames, a grill, a window. But mostly, you see weeds overgrowing the piles of stone rubble left by the artillery barrage of 1951.

At the edge of the village is the Chacour home, just a bit down the road from where Eilas' parents are buried. In the book, Elias tells the story of his older brother Rudah, who came home one day with a rifle back in the late 1940s when he heard that the Israeli soldiers would be moving in. (It was Rudah and his son who took me on my first tour of this village in 2004). When their father, Michael, saw the gun, he erupted in a rare display of anger: "Get it out of here! I won't have it in my house." He paused, then said more calmly: "We do not use violence ever. Even if someone hurts us."

There is a rich history of family love and tragic displacement in these stones. It's a history that most visitors to this Israeli national park never encounter.

1 comment:

  1. Phil, you captured it so well. Thank you. Last year Anis Shakour, another family member, stood with a group of us in Biram in the rock-cluttered, overgrown ruins of the home where he was born in the late 1930's, and said, "It's so hard for me to have all of you as guests in my home -- and not be able to offer you coffee." It will never not be home to many of them.