The nine-meter high cement obstacle that now encloses a large part of Bethlehem and Beit Jala from the north. (Arjan El Fassed)
On Friday morning, when Tamer does not have school, the both of us left together for an exploration of the garden, sweeter than ever because of the spring. We passed by the little sculpture of St Mary hidden in an artificial cave made up of little stones. There a few days ago Tamer prayed Abana Ladi (Our Father); then turned keys and spontaneously chanted Allahu Akbar, the Moslem prayer with which he has become very familiar because our house is almost under the mosque.
While walking we heard the “ka’ek, ka’ek” shout that each morning cleaves the sky to encourage people to buy a particularly tasty kind of bread covered with sesame. It is sold together with falafel balls, eggs heated in the same oven as the bread, and a little za’ater (thyme) rolled up in a shred of newspaper. The vendor carries the fragrant bread on a wooden cart that he pushes foreword, or he keeps it in a shelf on his head.
As a joyful game, Mary and I used to put Jara, and later on Tamer, horizontally on our head, shouting “ka’ek, ka’ek.” Our vendor, thinking that I as a foreigner can be tricked more easily, always quickly puts some more ka’ek, eggs and falafel than the amount that I order. Then with an innocent face he tries to charge me the full amount. Lately Mary told me that the guards at Bethlehem University started calling him “the crow” since his creaky shouts remind them of the bird considered to bring the bad news.
While eating his ka’ek Tamer saw a little cat, of which he is fond, and that was making elegant jumps over the roofs and the terraces. So as to follow the cat, he wanted to climb down from a little wall at a nearby courtyard. At the same time he was judging the risk involved. Tamer often looks a little afraid to explore things; possibly - Mary and I speculate – because while Mary was pregnant of him there was a lot of shooting and shelling in Bethlehem.
His first weeks of life were marked by a prolonged curfew that imposed fear around the house and the garden. So as to soften his fear, now mixed with an equally strong thrill of adventure, I took his hand and carefully climbed down from the rocks to a lower plateau with bushes and flowers, to follow a declining natural path that quickly became narrow. First he did not want to continue but then his curiosity took the upper hand. We took a big step across a narrow, deep gap and landed on the roof of a neighbor’s house.
The little journey somehow became an adventure because in this country you often have areas in or between gardens which are not clearly cultivated and therefore give an atmosphere of wilderness to the surroundings. On the slope that we followed a pattern of terraces divides the land into long, stretched-out steps, as when you walk down a giant staircase. The edges of the steps are marked by little walls made up of irregularly shaped stones. While walking Tamer and I discovered new vistas in this landscape not yet molded by the western need to put as much order as possible in everything around us.
Our neighbor (neighbors are people living in a circle of some hundred meters around one’s home) saw us appearing on the roof and invited us to come down. The neighbor still recognized me from some years ago when during the long curfews the normal University Road was unsafe because of passing tanks, and I had to use this unconventional route to reach the house of my family in law.
Tamer and I carefully climbed down a path of rocky winding stairs and were subsequently invited to share the neighbor’s food and delicacies: looz, almonds, now bitter-fresh, and ka’ak and ma’mul, two cookies eaten during Easter time shaped in forms suggestive of Jesus’ thorn crown and the sponge that carried the vinegar he drank on the cross. Tamer explored the garden, while the neighbor and I drank half-sweet black Arabic coffee, the smell of which mingled with the fresh air warmed up by the morning sun. The little idyllic scene reminded me of the crossing of borders that this neighborly landscape invites.
The scene starkly contrasts with the situation around Wall, the nine-meter high cement obstacle that now encloses a large part of Bethlehem and Beit Jala from the north. With its army roads and barbed wire it will soon dominate the western border of the Bethlehem area, as well as a large stretch of the south. The checkpoint to the north of Bethlehem is going to be moved southwards, approaching downtown Bethlehem. It will be in or immediately behind the Wall.
On the Jerusalem side of the Gate, there will be a kind of no man’s land filled with a huge Terminal of stone buildings and technology through which people will have to find their way. According to rumors, Bethlehemites (or West Bankers in general) will be asked to carry a magnetic card. This will prevent them to have physical contact with the army while passing the Gate. Those who live close to the Wall will see their houses losing in value. In the long run the Wall will mark a dead and desolate zone of segregation between Bethlehem and Jerusalem deeply inhospitable to those lucky few who have a permit to cross it. It will be a Wall that makes impossible human contact and human landscaping, let alone neighborly exchanges.
Lately Mary said that “we are slaves now,” – slaves even without the possibility of shouting at your masters. “How sad is it that we are happy to get a permit,” she said after hearing of people who received a permit to travel to Jerusalem during Easter week. She herself applied but did not receive one. We heard of many couples who received only one permit. According to some, there were seven hundred permits to give away for a thousand applicants. Most people did not bother to apply.
A few weeks ago I asked Jara to close her eyes and to tell what she imagined. I see the Wall, she said.
The crow cries.
Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem.