Field trip to Taybeh

On the occasion of Independence day, November 15, some 60 school and university students and teachers leave together for a fieldtrip to the village of Taybeh north-east of Ramallah. A long journey! Who wants to travel nowadays along the damaged and bumpy roads in the West Bank for almost two hours without some very specific need, such as study or work? Several invited students decided not to join after hearing the previous day that Wadi Nar, the long-winding road that circumvents Jerusalem to the east, was closed. But we are lucky. Only once on the route we need to stop for a military patrol. While waiting for the checkpoint, there is some consternation in the bus: Would the soldiers ask us to unfold the banners we carry which proclaim the Palestinian right to education? But nothing happens. Only one university student is taken out of the bus for an identity check. The presence of Father Elias, a Syriac priest who has joined the institute’s activities, seems to help passage. At the background we notice a dozen of workers standing. They were probably caught after trying to enter the Jerusalem area through the fields. We relatively quickly move on and arrive early in Taybeh; earlier than Fr Raed, who is the priest and our host, is expecting us. Usually people stand for an hour at the checkpoint, we hear, but today it is quiet on the roads, perhaps because people don’t venture to go out of their towns and villages during the politically charged Independence Day.

Taybeh is known because it is the only completely Christian village in Palestine and Israel, and also for more mundane reasons since its locally made “Taybeh beer,” is liked among foreign visitors to Palestine as well as locals. There are 1500 inhabitants of Roman-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox and Greek-Catholic (Melkite) belief, among them three times more women than men due to emigration and study and even a higher female birth rate. As Fr Raed tells the youth, the name of Taybeh (“good”) was suggested by Saladdin as an alternative to the old name Ofra which, as the inhabitants told Saladdin, was associated with “afreet” (devils) and “”affras” (making dust). Under the village are many caves as well as a large tunnel system that apparently came into being because Ofra or Efraim was a city of refuge in Old Testament times. Later on Efraim was “the city near the desert” (John 11:64) to which Jesus retired when His death was decreed. The views from a high point eastward to the desert are stupendous except for the inevitable nearby settlement with irs cosy red-roofed houses that remind of misplaced Swiss chalets. In the far past, the villagers’ lands used to stretch to the Jordan valley dozens of kilometers further away but now the village is of course constricted by checkpoints and settlement roads. Are there still any Palestinian villages left from where you can’t see settlement hill tops?

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The first general meeting is about non-violence. The discussion is lively, almost charged. Fr Raed, who is knowledgeable about non-violence in Islam and Christianity and introduces the topic, faces a hard time answering sceptical students. Is non-violence not a way of giving in to political dictates? A general consensus among the audience is that what is needed is organization, planning, leadership, vision - all things which the youths feel are totally lacking now.

While in another session the students discuss the Palestinian Declaration of Independence from 1988 - which details everything they don’t have - the foreigners in our group receive a guided tour from Fr Raed along several new projects which aim to revive the ancient heritage of the village. They include a village museum, bedouin guest house, a village well and an impressive 250-year old house that illustrates ancient home customs and is used by Fr Raed to illustrate Biblical parables. In fact, there are many unoccupied ancient houses in the village which await restoration. One new project, he says, is a School of Stone. Stone? Yes, the idea is to create employment for some dozens of youth in the village who will be taught to restore old houses. The school itself would be housed in a few of such old buildings. Restoring the school could in fact become part of the curriculum!

Above: A bottle of Taybeh Beer. While Taybeh (meaning “delicious” in Arabic) is the only Palestinian beer, potential competitors would have quite a struggle to come up with a better beer. Highly recommended.

Afterwards we all visit the Taybeh beer factory. The owner is asked not to give the students beer because of Ramadan. The fasting is observed by most students, including Christians who do it as a gesture of solidarity. (My Dutch companion in the visit, the Franciscan Father Louis, in fact keeps the Ramadan for the complete period - a personal action which he also did last year and for which he has now become locally famous).

Then it is time for our joint demonstration which is part of the “Let Our Children Go To School” campaign. It is the second demonstration in a series. On Monday we had the first at Manger Square in front of the Church of Nativity. Then a hundred participants walked with banners demanding the right to education for the tens of thousands of Palestinian children who presently cannot go to school due to curfews, roadblocks and checkpoints. Solemnly we were passing the Nativity Church and the Omar mosque. Due to the muezzin, it was difficult to hear the verses from the Bible and the Koran told and sung by Moslem and Christian children. Mohammed Medani, the governer of Bethlehem who together with the mayor and several NGOs joined the walk, remarked that there wasn’t a need to do separate prayers in front of the church and the mosque. Why not do them together?

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And that is what we do in front of the Latin Parish in Taybeh, where this time the church bells accompany the reading of verses from the two holy books. We are joined by Taybeh youths. The banners are folded out, and we walk with hundreds of youths and teachers over the winding and sunny streets of Taybeh, where families appear on the veranda to see what this invasion is all about. Is it possible to combine a fieldtrip with a demonstration? In our case, it is. The youth are happy to hear the mayor’s speech and let themselves explain the history of the ruins of the Byzantine church of St George, where up to this day the inhabitants every two weeks or so conduct vows and do animal sacrifices. (In fact a pre-Christian, Canaanite usage to which the villagers cling in their drive to keep traditions).

The walk is more than anything else a festive demonstration, a celebration, of the need for freedom. Some of the Taybeh boys, who themselves lack entertainment because the village is cut off from nearby Ramallah, group together and eye the visiting girls. Afterwards we take the Iftar, the fast-breaking meal, exactly in time as Fuad keeps the Christian youth in check not to start eating earlier than allowed. Then the bus moves out again. A few times we are passed by elated joyriding youth from Taybeh who honk and shout until we are out of the village borders. At the checkpoint all the older male youth - that is, the university students - are waved out of the bus but we can again continue after a while, and everybody breaks out in applause and rhythmic clapping as is usual here during happy fieldtrips. Later on, back in Bethlehem, the girls of St Joseph tell Suzy that they had tacitly hoped that the soldiers wouldn’t have allowed them to pass. They had even prepared a whole program about what they had wanted to do before going asleep in the pleasant hostel adjacent to the church. At last they would have been out of the busy and noisy Bethlehem roads into a calm and beautiful village, they said.

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At home, Mary and I discuss whether she would join my trip to Jerusalem next day. No, once again she decides at the last moment not to go after a week of thinking about going. She doesn’t want to go like a “thief in the night” crossing the field roads and then to be nervous in Jerusalem about checks. Moreover, the shop assistants there are much less friendly towards Palestinians than before. At dinner, Mary suddenly starts an ode about the olives we eat, with so much emphasis that our neighbour and I tell her that when you can’t enjoy the big things, you try to enjoy the small things. When asking her later what she wants to do during the sunny afternoon, Mary says mockingly “I’ll take Jara and Tamer and go to the beach” but her laugh is louder than normal. In the evening we hear Independence fireworks - or is it shooting?

Meanwhile, Jara warns Mary and me that she “doesn’t want us to have another beautiful baby like Tamer.” She is jealous but has found out that you’d better express that in an indirect way. Her fantasy takes her away while she is drawing birds, boats, a princess with wings, and a dark Snow-white (after receiving a dark-skinned Barbie pop).

Toine van Teeffelen, a Dutch national married to a Palestinian, is project manager at the Arab Educational Institute, and the local coordinator of the United Civilians for Peace, a Dutch initiative to send civilian monitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.