Letter from Bethlehem

Jara and I play in the neighbour’s garden under the pleasant Mediterranean sun. ‘Do you have everything?’ she asks the neighbour. It is one of those routine questions which people now ask each other and which she has picked up as a normal way of showing concern. Some hundred meters down, almost out of our view, we hear a tank rolling by. It gives the sound of a huge washing machine. Jara runs to look in the far corner of the garden. From other kids, whom she now can reach by way of a ladder between the gardens, she has learned about different types of tanks, the dabaabeh and the mujanzara. Mary and I don’t even know the difference.

At one corner of the neighbour’s garden we envision the school, at the opposite corner the house, at another far end the shops. As if we are kids of similar age, we take breakfast, then Jara runs to school. ‘Quick, quick, the soldiers do pow-pow,’ and she fingers at me as if she wants to take care of her little friend. While running, she screams out the joyful fear which she also radiates when playing with the dog. After we do our counting exercises at school, Jara opens the imaginary door of the garden house and puts her hand on her mouth, in seeming shock. ‘Look! Everything is broken. The sleeping room, the dining room, even the kitchen.’ She apparently remembers the images of Jaryou’i’s damaged house that we visited a few days before. I ask her to tell the journalists what happened. ‘Yes, yes, all the journalists should know.’ Afterwards we play shopping; we go to the shopping section of the garden and buy a new TV and couches. At least she understands that you can do something to change a situation. Helplessness is the worst. I hope we can avoid it.

The question we face each time when we leave the house is how far you can go out. At one point, our ball rolls down the hill. Should I run after it? Fifty meters, but not more, I decide. At one point, Mary asks me to go and bring keys to people in a house some 200 meters further up the hill near the university. I start arguing, ‘What if sharpshooters look; do you know which houses the Israelis have occupied?’ At last, I bring the key; the recipient laughingly walks out of his house. We turn out to meet half-way. It is strange to feel palpable danger in an area that is so familiar. Even crossing the street in front of our house feels uncomfortable. You don’t know for sure whether the Israelis see you from their high positions. Jara, too, now differentiates between a zone around the house that is safe, where you can run around, and the zone that isn’t safe. When the shops are open and we go out, she instinctively tightens her grip on her hand when we cross the border to the area that she knows is normally out of bounds. At another occasion she warns me: ‘Papa, you cannot go outside, it is dangerous!’ I suspect that she is not really afraid but rather that she wants to say things like the adults say.

The eerie silence in the evening when the birds don’t sing is somehow unsettling, too. In fact, to hear the sound of the tank is in a way more reassuring than a complete silence that threatens be disrupted. Last night, the neighbour’s dog was barking because soldiers walked around. Mary, who gave milk to Tamer, heard the footsteps. Next day, she could not find out whether they had entered houses. Even those neighbours who always hear the news could not say. Mary tells that two of her friends use the same expression as she; she feels as if a sahra (rock) pressures on her breast.


After almost five weeks of curfew, people start worrying about their money. Even during the ‘opening hours’, the banks are not open. So people lend money from family and friends. Much more than in the West, people have extensive family, friend and neighbourhood networks, and they can usually buy on credit. I also see customers buying with foreign money, dollars and Jordanian dinars.

The shops now have more articles than a week ago, also more fresh fruits and vegetables. Last time we bought so many scarce tomatoes that we now have to rush to finish them. From where do they come? Of course from Israel, there is almost no way that fresh products from the surrounding countryside can reach Bethlehem. Mary is angry. We are occupied and besieged, and they have the gall to make a profit out of it. She wants to boycott the products but after a while she gives in to the family needs. At least we have some bottled products, like the very tasty apricot jam that Janet prepared.

Many people now take care to buy as little as possible. In the Nativity Church, the imprisoned people were eating soup made from wara’a lemoun, the leaves of the lemon tree. A soup that was never tried, local TV bitterly comments. We hear that Arafat and his companions in the Ramallah compound took lentils during their imprisonment. Those who live in areas without telephone connection, like my colleague Elias, are careful with their telephone cards.

Just now the news comes in that international peace activists managed to enter the Church and distribute food, an action that will certainly earn them great respect among the local population. Except for those activists, there is exasperation with the international community, including the United Nations who gave in to Israel’s pressure not to have the Jenin enquiry. ‘They are all thieves,’ is a common saying. A few days ago Salah Ta’amari, negotiator for the Palestinian side in the church stand-off, suggested on local TV that when the international community would leave the situation as it is, the Bethlehem citizens might take the initiative into their own hands by breaking the curfew.

During the latest opening of the curfew, a few kids started stone-throwing at the soldiers. Immediately the curfew was re-installed. While I walked quickly to buy eggs and cheese, military jeeps gave the familiar call through their intimidating and ugly loudspeakers: mamnou’a tajaawal (forbidden to walk around). A bit of panic; cars sped homewards.


These days, Christians are allowed to go out for church mass during late afternoons. It is the Greek Orthodox Holy Week. In Beit Sahour, a largely Greek-Orthodox city also Moslems went out. The army checked some of them and they were beaten up, according to Mary’s family.

Laughingly, Mary takes me out of my computer work and puts a crying Tamer on my breast. After taking the milk, Tamer appears the healthiest boy ever. He even starts to make movements with his mouth that look like a laugh. We both laugh looking at him.

Jara takes granny’s hanger with an image of the Virgin, and kisses it: ‘Let de Israeli soldiers leave Bethlehem.’ This time no pretending.