National Geographic

The Judge

Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, 31°49'55" N, 35°13'44" E

The tribal judge sits in the shade of a shop verandah. The shop is closed. It is a Saturday—a weekend. The judge plays a table game in black and white: Mahbusa the Arabs call it.

“I resolve problems between families,” Fuad Zaghayer explains, sliding a checker forward. “Murders are the worst.”

He is a welcoming man, Zaghayer. Sober, thickset, stately in his gestures. A man used to the theatrics of power. He goes on:

“When someone is murdered, I first go to the victim’s family. I ask them for a three-and-a-half day truce. This is to allow them a period to mourn. It is traditional. After that, I go to them with 150 local men, maybe 200 neighbors. We begin to negotiate. I am the negotiator.”

For clemency.

“30,000 to 40,000 Jordanian dinars ($45,000 to $60,000)—that is a typical down payment, an advance. It varies with the sharia codes, of course. Has the victim been killed by a car? Has he been stabbed? The final amount varies with the nature of the crime. After a year, the two families must agree on the ultimate cost. 140,000 Jordanian dinars, total, is a normal amount. The killer’s family will try to get that number down, of course.”

And if the blood money is rejected?

“There are families who don’t accept it. They want revenge. It is rare. But it happens.” The judge holds up both palms in helplessness. “They will kill someone from the other side. We try to prevent this. We always ask for mercy. But if one side says no, that is their right.”

The judge stands. He half bows. He shakes our hands.

My Palestinian guide, Bassam Almohor, and I walk on in the hot sun. We are reunited once again, walking together out of Jerusalem, back into the West Bank. We set our course for due north: on foot, across a hundred miles or more of rumpled hills and valleys, of which every square inch is contested, to the Israeli town of Nazareth.

Mahbusa, the board game, means “prisoner” in Arabic.

Beit Hanina, the judge’s ancient neighborhood, which dates back thousands of years to the time of the Canaanites, means “house” (beit in Arabic) of “he who deserves pity” (han-nina in Assyrian).

There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jean Carr
    June 6, 2014

    This is fascinating. The amount of money is staggering: do people really have that kind of money available? Is property sometimes exchanged instead? Do women and children cost less than adult males?

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Jean, the families of perpetrators rely on extended social networks—mostly relatives, but in some cases even more tenuous links, such as fellow clan members, local politicians and even unrelated friends—to help pay off crimes committed by family members. In some cases, a crime can bankrupt the wrongdoer’s immediate family—forcing them to sell off cars, property and empty bank accounts to meet the diyyah or blood-money fine.

      And yes, crimes against men, women and children all demand different (and usually diminishing) levels of payment. In fact, the pay scales for crimes settled by sharia law are codified in minute detail. In early Islamic times, for instance, the standard penalty for manslaughter was 100 camels. But that payment had to be made only in she camels apportioned by age groups. (25 one-year-old camels, 25 two-year-old camels, etc.) In non-lethal cases, blood money fines vary according to severity of the injury—flesh wounds, bone breaks and harm to limbs, eyes and hair each demands a different payment. For a compelling look into this medieval from of jurisprudence, read Laura Blumenfeld’s engrossing book, “Revenge: A story of hope,” in which she describes her own quest to come to terms with a terrorist attack that wounded her father.

  2. Margaret Mazzaferro
    June 6, 2014

    I agree with everything Jean said above, and I’m also wondering – since it mentions being killed by a car – whether this process also applies to accidental killings?

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Yes. While walking though Saudi Arabia, I came across the tragic case of a man who learned, by telephone, that his young daughter had been murdered at home. Distraught, he sped home in his car from work, only to plow into another vehicle, killing another child. The family of the traffic accident victim accepted $80,000 in blood money. The bereaved father, in turn, is demanding the execution of his daughter’s killer.

      The options under sharia re: forgiveness, blood money, revenge.

  3. Nita
    June 6, 2014

    That much money, a deterrant, maybe? Time to mourn, to think it through, or an eye for an eye? Wisdom in all of these old ways, a huge responsibility for the wise who help mediate. As always, thank you Paul.

  4. Linda Timmins
    June 6, 2014

    I wonder how a tribal Judge would solve the problems between Israel and Palestine.

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Given the success of international mediation over the past 66 years, I think it’s time to try anything.

  5. Phil Merlino
    June 6, 2014

    Interesting. Sort of like how we used to do things growing up in the school yard, minus the money. I wonder how long this practice has been going on, if it is widely known & accepted, and the reason for the extra 1/2 day truce? Does the ‘half day’ have an effect on one’s considering a truce?

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Three days is the standard period of mourning in Islam. (As in Christianity, the numeral three carries metaphysical significance: Muslims also wash the bodies of the dead three times.) Where the extra half day comes from—some cite a third of a day—is a mystery to me.

      Anyone else know?

  6. Jim G
    June 6, 2014

    Mr. Salopek, Enlightening. Judge Zaghayer should have a TV show. It would be more interesting than most of what is on American television! Safe journey to Nazareth.

  7. Turi
    June 6, 2014

    Dear Paul, never is too late. I have discovered just now about your epic travel. I wish you all the best and I hope,one day in the future, ours walks can cross. I’ll follow you in the next five years and half to know more about our ancestors and our future. Thanks a lot, ciao.

  8. Gary Schlosser
    June 6, 2014

    Brilliantly written! Is the Judge a mulleh, lawyer, a what? You were reunited with Bassam? I didn’t know you were separated. So many questions I could sit and talk with you for hours and hours. I pray you are healthy and continues to be so. You see, Paul, we who follow your footsteps care about you.

  9. Dennis Dimick
    June 6, 2014

    Hi Paul

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Hi Dennis. Glad to see you following along.

  10. Steve Richard
    June 6, 2014

    Motive is apparently biddable to money. Its fitting that man’s reconciliation of judgment would be a prelude on the road to Nazareth. Best to you Paul.

  11. Tevan
    June 6, 2014

    Dear Paul, have a safe journey in Middle East; preach peace to Arabs and Israelis. Looking at the game board; I think it is the same as “backgammon”, or Nardi in Persian.

  12. eva Maria Huschka
    June 8, 2014

    You raised a lot of questions in your last dispatch. Will these crimes be also brought to justice in a civil court? Do people go to jail? Do the relatives accept a jail sentence as “Just” in case of murder? My students in Ethiopia did not think so.

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      Indeed. Just because cases are settled at a tribal or religious level doesn’t mean civil law doesn’t apply. The power of civil courts over Islamic laws varies from Muslim country to Muslim country. Turkey, a relatively moderate Islamic state with a secular civil code, differs profoundly from Saudi Arabia, a pure theocracy where the Koran is essentially the law book.

  13. Zach Webster
    June 9, 2014

    Who would have a family member killed thats crazy! What if it’s an accident?

  14. Sylvia Fullerton
    June 9, 2014

    I am so much enjoying your journey & your journal on your adventure. I look forward to reading your account of upcoming events….a wonderful & ambitious project. With thanks for sharing your adventure.

  15. Linda Hoernke
    June 9, 2014

    Thank you again for your dispatch. I have the same questions written by Maria Huschka above. Safe travels Paul~~

    • Paul Salopek
      June 11, 2014

      See answers above, Linda.

  16. daniel
    June 11, 2014

    Hi Paul,Its good to hear from you again.What is the role of the 150 or so local men/neighbors, my guess is that they may be the juries?

  17. Lorna Ellema
    June 11, 2014

    Reading you latest dispatch and others’ comments/questions, mine seem so trivial. Mebhusa…is that the origin of backgammon? Safe journey Sir Paul.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 17, 2014

      It’s one of the sources. It’s an old game, much adapted and diffused from similar board games across the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia Minor.

  18. Karinj Jamgochian
    June 14, 2014

    Amazing undertaking!! How are your knees and feet holding up?

  19. art bader
    June 15, 2014

    What a great narrative. Kudos to you for making the journey. Thanks for putting it in perspective fou those of us who probably will never get to go where you are.

  20. Thommen Jose
    June 17, 2014

    Fascinating account of dispute-settling; even with modern day penal systems many in hinterland India too seem to go with a similar one – but here its over opium. I found one underway in an interior village in Rajasthan and have the details on a post I shared on my blog,… Instead of judges, the presiding guy is usually the ‘thakur’ or the feudal landlord. And the warring parties still prefer this crude system for it is fast and less hassle.

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    June 25, 2014

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  22. HikerBob
    June 26, 2014

    This is a really good story. It is hard to be a judge, a noble calling when fulfilled well. Beit Hanina has it’s cultural rules that are different that Western ways, but the basics still underlay the human condition: compassion vying with blood-lust.

  23. ASM Alghamdi
    June 28, 2014

    For those who did not know, Paul needs your support. Here is the link…

  24. John Gamez
    July 2, 2014


  25. ilya
    October 19, 2014

    Why people play checors

  26. Tim Surette
    December 10, 2014

    Fascinating! Looking forward to the adventure. I would hope that a book is in the offing in 5 to6 years.

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