Letter from Bethlehem

Perhaps “crocodile” is not the right word to describe the big machine which roams our streets, as I did in my previous letter. It looks, and sounds, more like a dragon.

During late afternoons, when the weather cools off somewhat, the university road fills itself with dozens of children. If you wouldn’t know better, a lovely sight. The empty street with the children playing reminds somehow of the autoloze zondag (“carless Sunday”) temporarily instituted in Holland in 1973 when the country ran out of oil supplies, and when the highways were ostentatiously occupied by bikers taking pleasure in the full freedom they then enjoyed. Some of our neighbours lean relaxed against the sidewalls while the kids are playing. A week ago, Janet gave Jara a scooter which she now proudly demonstrates to the other children of the street whom she all knows and whom she tries to lead with a voice which seems to become more voluminous each week: “Marwan, Marwaaaan, Diiiiima”, she shouts to attract the attention of her friends and, I think, of anybody else as well. Last week she moved from one neighbour to the other and didn’t stay home at all. In the evening she had to vomit. Was it because she got too many sweets?

At one point the dragon observed the kids playing, and it wasn’t satisfied. Climbing with its thunderous, screeching sound towards the top of the university hill, it threw out a bang to warn the families. Not to leave any doubt about its intentions, it came back several times to clean the street. Like the ebb and flow of the sea, the kids withdrew - from the street to the space behind a gate, or if the noise was too scary, back to the garden, or, as a last retreat, into the home itself — always to return when the monster had disappeared out of sight. One child told Mary in a wise voice far beyond his age, “We have become used to live with the dababeh (tank).”

Next day, Mary saw the tank stopping in the middle of the road. It put off its engine, circled its barrel, and then poured out a benzine smell and apparently also dust. Mary said that she even had to close the windows. I imagine the angry beast from the movies, swinging its long neck from left to right, exhaling fire and smoke, leaving traces on the ground. Lately, the mayor of Bethlehem said that according to Israeli law tanks are not allowed to come into Israeli streets because of the damage they inflict upon the roads and the pavements. Bethlehem streets, like all the main roads in the West Bank, are now marked by the beast’s furrows.

Afterwards, Mary warned me not to take my daily route to our own house through the gardens anymore as soldiers might find that suspicious. I now sometimes walk in the afternoon only after having carefully listened to children’s voices in the surroundings so as to know that the tanks are not there. Another good sign is when there are women on the high roofs of ‘Azza camp putting fresh linen on the lines while keeping a watchful eye on the streets below.

Intimidated, Jara asked Mary the other day to be guided back to the street instead of going alone. She longed for that new flat, slightly sloping playground that she can use so well for her scooter. After being sternly told that she should immediately leave the street as soon as the tank approached from afar, Jara answered that we should be not too concerned about her, “because you always still have Tamer.” That remark stung. We became angry. Did she say this because she was jealous for all the attention we now give to Tamer, or because death had somehow become a normal part of our life? I myself was lately caught talking in an apparently careless tone about somebody who was assassinated. “Do you realize what you are saying,” I stood corrected.

This evening, I hear two loud bangs. Returning at Mary’s, she explains that soldiers had observed our opposite neighbor standing in the street and that they had given a warning shot directed towards our side of the street. It landed low in the electricity pole in front of our gate. Mary shows me the hole. It is the place where Jara and the other kids are usually playing.

* * *

The most annoying, almost unlivable aspect of the present curfews is its complete unpredictability. One day opening hours are from one to five, another day we first think it is from ten to two, but no, it turns out to be from ten to six, or it is altered still another time. What everybody hopes for is that Israel in its mercy will decide for a curfew that would stretch from seven to seven, a time span which now seems enormous to us. That would allow people and institutions to function somehow normally. Yet today and yesterday we had a 24-hour curfew.

The lifting of the curfew is announced only at the very last moment. Everybody is ready to go out to work but is continuously frustrated. Inevitably, all kinds of theories float around about the reasons behind the length of a particular curfew: It could be yesterday’s attack in Gaza, or the suspicion is that a suicide bombing mission is prepared out from the Bethlehem area (“For sure they think we conspire in the Church of Nativity”, comments a university lecturer), or the curfew is thought to be a preventive measure against disturbances expected during the Friday when many Moslem believers go to the mosque. As if subject to a psychological experiment that measures the limits of coping with frustration, we are gradually treated to slightly higher doses of uncertainty. “Yes, we are like mice in the box,” says Mary. According to reports in Haaretz, the Israeli army warned Sharon that if curfews would remain in place for too long people would riot at checkpoints and many would be killed. One interpretation of what is going on is that the army has decided to lift curfews a little so that people have some breathing space and would not riot with all the ensuing negative publicity; however, as soon as journalists turn their heads away and people get some hope the curfews are to be reinstalled in force. The official interpretation brought forword by the Israeli army is that when people remain calm they earn‚ longer opening hours.

“They are mad,” says Mary, “and we become mad.” During the single day that she was able go to the university after her pregnancy leave, she observed how several of her colleagues turned inwards, didn’t give articulate responses to questions, were less concentrated. On this Sunday, if the curfew was lifted, there would have been several masses in the Nativity Church; two for the dead, and several more to commemorate the third or the 40th day after the decease of a loved one. Like many others, Mary’s cousin delayed her wedding in the church “till the curfew is over.” Also this Sunday the mayor’s son is supposed to have his engagement, but the opening hours are from ten till two while the engagement is at two-thirty.

“Qataluna” (“They killed us”), Mary says suddenly.

“Don’t say that too quickly.”

“No, we are killed, at least I am.” We look upwards, to the clear starry sky. Mary thinks she observes a shooting star. “That’s what we need, a guiding star.”

* * *

These days are particularly frustrating for tawjihi (matriculation) students. Elias, whose son Faady is in the tawjihi, told me a week ago that an exam was announced the next day although nobody knew what would happen. As it turned out, there was curfew. Like others, Elias took the risk and brought his son by car to the exam in Beit Jala. Just at that moment, soldiers were in the area of his house, apparently in search for somebody whom they thought was hiding. According to Elias’ family, who observed the soldiers’ behaviour through the window, they used screwdrivers to prick the face and back of people tresspassing the curfew, or they cut the cars‚ tyres. Afterwards, the soldiers entered Elias‚ house while he and his son were out. They noticed in the ID of Elias‚ wife, Judith, that she was married and had a son of tawjihi age. So they stayed in the house to wait until Elias was back. Judith was however able to warn her husband by mobile. After the exam, Elias and Faady waited for some hours in Beit Jala until Judith informed them that the area was free. However, it did not take long before the soldiers re-entered the house. After concluding that the son was not the wanted one, they left. One (Druze) soldier said that he himself, too, bore the “beautiful” name ‘Faady’, and that this was good enough a motive for him to allow Elias‚ son to go free. Like anybody else, Faady is of course barely able to concentrate on his exams.

* * *

During a day with opening hours, I queue with others in front of the main Bethlehem checkpoint. We are waiting about twenty meters before the soldiers‚ shed in a narrow iron corridor suitable for cattle. Some waiters are impatient and encourage a university student to go forword but the soldiers turn her back. With each waiting minute the queuers move a little forword to win some useless meters. There is a female relative of the soldiers who is apparently there to support them emotionally. This seems to be a new army guideline or practice. But who needs counseling?

On my way back to Bethlehem, I take a very long road through the far eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, together with some young workers who took the risk of breaking the curfew to illegally work in Jerusalem. When at one point the desert road is blocked, we climb down a rocky hill and take a walk for half an hour. (The price of donkeys, the only means of transport that can take any mound, has risen hugely in the West Bank). Fortunately, the walk goes through the stunningly beautiful desert valley of Wadi Nar; the valley of fire, that is, hell. When we arrive down at the small Kidron river — a smelly sewage stream, this a gift from the Jerusalem municipality to the environment — we pass a checkpoint where many vans are waiting ready to go to their destination but stopped for an unknown time. The drivers argue among themselves who will take us. One car is willing to go deep into curfewed Bethlehem. The car’s main door cannot close at all but the weather is fine and who cares for such details anyway? Some of the workers tell me their fancy dreams of Amsterdam. One laughingly makes an obscene gesture. “Can we come there?” “Yareet” (hopefully) I answer, always a handy expression.

Suddenly the driver stops behind a parked car and makes a desperate wave with his hand. It looks as if we are stranded. There is an APG [Armoured Personnel Carrier] waiting and a new checkpoint set up. The workers don’t expect they can pass but try anyway. They are not allowed and go back. As a foreign passport holder, I am able to enter the curfew area. Walking down a kilometer or so into Beit Sahour, a lone car passes and I put up my hand. It turns out to be the same van with the same passengers. They had found a brief detour and now with a big smile invite me to join once again. We leave the van close to ‘Azza camp, six shadows walking in the silent, ominous Bethlehem streets.

* * *

Jara goes to a Bethlehem summer camp‚ which includes a lot of swimming. Each day she asks whether she can go out and swim, but until now she could leave the house only once. When we tell her that we plan a summer vacation in Cyprus, she is not convinced and says that she is happy to play in the garden in her big plastic water bowl and otherwise at the summer camp’s swimming pool. Imagine all the kids whose parents cannot pay for swimming, I think. Yesterday Jara played in the bowl together with Tamer, whom we lovingly nickname Tamoura, and who each days shows us more of his beautiful laugh. After Jara sees the glossy photos of the swimming pool in the Cyprus hotel she wants to go too. “Is that Al-Quds (Jerusalem)?” she asks. Jerusalem has become her eternal dream place.

Meanwhile, each afternoon she tends to a little dog which was hit by a sudden car.