Every Wednesday during my first winter in Jerusalem, I met with Umm Atef, Umm Abed, and Umm Ali to visit the places of water in the village of Silwan, their home. Tala, my research assistant, helped to translate. We walked down narrow alleys, past Palestinian homes with rugs airing in the sun, and Israeli settler compounds overlooked by armed guards. Our first stop was ‘Ayn Silwan, or the spring of Silwan. To reach it, we passed the City of David archaeological and tourist site that controls most entrances to the spring, and whose backer, Elad, is an Israeli private organization whose objective is to strengthen settlements in East Jerusalem. Between the gaps of fences, Umm Ali would name each plant, Umm Atef might pluck a lemon for us to taste, or Umm Abed would pick a sprig of maramīa (East Mediterranean sage), guiding me to take in its scent. Under the shade near each site where the spring water surfaces to the ground, we would eat pickles, labne, and ma’amoul (date cookies), freshly made. On our first walk, Umm Atef and Umm Ali beckoned me to join them in the ‘Ayn Silwan pool, to dip our feet into the cool clear water.

During each of our walks, Umm Atef, Umm Abed, and Umm Ali shared stories from the past; mouth-watering orchard harvests nourished by the spring and shared family plots over generations, picnics like ours from years ago. Umm Abed would talk about how her father brought her to Silwan’s gardens before they became concrete builds, and how her son’s skin was healed from the Silwan pool. These relations with water are defined by an expansive care: through healing, watering, flourishing, cleaning, sharing. Now, when I travel back from my London home to see Umm Ali, Umm Abed, and Umm Atef, they tell me about their latest trip with their children to show them that the spring is theirs, and try to convince friends who are afraid of the Israeli settlers to join them next time.

‘Ayn Silwan lies at the heart of Silwan, a village in occupied East Jerusalem, whose topography and tempo reflect the occupation at large. Daily rhythms follow and refuse the contours of political violence (Peteet 2018). Palestinian Jerusalemites of Silwan live as permanent residents with the minimal rights of the Jerusalem ID–a precarious status with origins in the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, which every resident must renew every five years (Abu Hatoum 2021). Since Elad was founded in 1987, Palestinian expulsion and settler presence is especially concentrated in Silwan. Today, families in the al-Bustan area fight uncertain futures with a decades-long legal battle against Israeli authorities, Elad, and its partner organization Ateret Cohanim, where homes face threats of demolition and forced eviction, in favor of urban plans which seek to rebuild the biblical garden of King David in their stead (Sabbagh 2022). As an extension of Israeli tactics to take over Palestinian land, visions such as these justify Palestinian dispossession and displacement with narratives drawn from the politicization and revision of history (El-Haj 2001; Pappé 2007).

Chronologies of refusal and control also run through the waters of Silwan. The passages of pools and rock hewn channels of ‘Ayn Silwan are attractions designed to guide tourists through archaeological feats of engineering and mythological marvels from the past. Only one site exists as a public space for Palestinian Jerusalemites, whose families still remember the village life that the spring enabled just a generation ago. The water that flows through kitchen taps is made by the Mekorot, the national Israeli carrier founded before 1948. Its pipelines circulate a product composed from desalination plants on the Mediterranean Sea, freshwater from the Lake Tiberias or Kinneret, and extractions from the Mountain Aquifer, a geological formation under West Bank grounds. Water technologies developed by start-ups in Tel Aviv are exported with claims to solve an impending global water crisis. Israeli forces weaponize water, and NGOs herald its potential as a site for peace (Trottier and Brooks 2013; Zeitoun 2008).

These rhythms of water craft time. I stay with them in this piece to consider the particular charge that the present takes as it shapes and constrains the possibilities for life under political violence. I began to write this article in the spring of this past year, based on my research which followed water in Jerusalem between 2019 and 2021. I revise and rewrite now, in the winter of 2023, while the present in Israel/Palestine shudders under the weight of monumental loss; as daily existence in Gaza is shaped by Israeli rockets, blockades, and acts of care amidst the devastation; as my Palestinian friends in East Jerusalem follow the dehumanization and destruction on television screens and fear the soldiers and settlers on the streets;as my Jewish friends in West Jerusalem reel in grief from the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023. The present is a live topic; Palestinian scholars urge for accountability now, not once events are in the past (Eghbariah 2023); the ongoing Nakba is evidenced with daily footage; horrors unfold from the war’s start in real-time. The present tense that I write of here appears away from these extremes. Yet it folds them into quiet quotidian moments, to show how political violence both creates and is created by time—so that its effects persist, even when its events do not reach the global news.

For this, I return to Silwan and the spring. Over the months, I notice how the rhythm of our visits forms a pattern. Each visit takes a familiar shape, repeating past arcs, with a walk and a feast enlivened by the smell of fruit, the feel of a body submerged, the sound of water. Each time, the present becomes charged with a sensorial refrain that is deeply known. This is a particular kind of present tense, which creates political effects. A visit to ‘Ayn Silwan is an act of resistance against displacement and dispossession, drawn from what the women know. I see a kinship with the work of Ruba Salih and Olaf Corry (2021), who describe the travels of Palestinian families to commemorate destroyed villages, in acts which revitalize past ecological relations and challenge ongoing colonial erasure. In Silwan, every visit marks the continual presence of Palestinian life and ancestral relations with water, with a repeated claim of rootedness to a local village through care.

A walk to ‘Ayn Silwan, the spring of Silwan. November 13, 2019. Photo by author.

When I met with Umm Atef, Umm Abed, and Umm Ali earlier this year, I spoke with them about this temporal work. Heads nodded in our wider group, as we talked about how these acts bring the past to life in new embodied forms, making them potential futures; how they locate the possibility of liberation in tiny glimmers of pleasure located in a pool or tree, even as they are felt together with the pain of life under occupation. Other places of water in Silwan are less recognizable—Bīr Ayūb, or Job’s Well, is covered by a concrete block, ‘Ayn al-Lawz, or the spring of the almond, is filled with trash. ‘Ayn Silwan is the closest to past memory. If visits there invoke a past that is romanticized, it is with a deliberate choice to frame the present. As the women choose to share this present tense with me, I have also come to see that it holds a politics of solidarity. Against the dominant grain of advocacy which relies on narratives of suffering (Fassin 2008), with repeated visits to the spring, Umm Atef, Umm Abed, and Umm Ali show me the necessity of freedom not just through the condition of its loss, but from the bittersweet sensation of how it can feel in borrowed moments.

I think of this present as a particular tense, because its tempo has a shape, with a material, affective, and political