Letter from Bethlehem

We got two full days of snow. It came with storm, so we found ourselves in a kind of emergency state. With so much snow falling on the roofs, water started to trickle down through the porous stones, and soon black spots appeared on the walls signaling humidity.

Palestinian child looking at two bullet holes (Photo: Ronald de Hommel, 2002)

We had to put a bucket in the bedroom of Jara and Tamer to collect water coming down. As always during heavy weather, there were electricity cuts, lasting a few hours. In response to Mary’s inquiry, the electricity office told us we were lucky, some houses had no electricity for two days. Also the gas supply stopped.

Mary pitied the inhabitants of the poorer and less solid houses such as in the refugee camps. We all put on double clothes, to the chagrin of Jara who insisted upon showing her summer clothes. But despite all that, the snow offered a pleasant break from the curfews. “No school today,” Mary said to Jara, “and this time not because of the manu’a tajaawel.”

In fact, the Israeli soldiers took a leave from town. Despite Jara’s cold, we made three snowmen in both our garden and that of my family in law’s, and we let ourselves be quickly pictured next to them as you never know how long the snow will last. In the evening, after Jara was thoroughly exhausted, I told her a Japanese snow story in which a man married a snow bride with a pale face only to discover that she started to melt away in spring. “Papa,” Jara commented, “I want you to tell me fairy tales with a happy ending!”

All people from Beit Sahour which is to the east of Bethlehem where there is no snow, went to Beit Jala to the west of Bethlehem, a few hundred meters higher, where there is a lot. (When the snow melts, rivers of water go down to Beit Sahour). The snow not only brought pleasure but also an opportunity to talk about other topics than politics or traveling problems. As if the people were connected to humanity once again.

While watching the children play, parents and grandparents evoked memories from those long and cold winters in the past.

And the snow has a romantic side too, certainly so in Bethlehem. From early morning on, photographers and video makers hunted for still images of a snow-covered Bethlehem trying to recall the atmosphere familiar from Christmas family films and songs.

A couple who wanted to marry in summer took an early wedding picture in the snow. Shireen, the secretary at the Institute, told me with twinkling eyes how she took a lone walk early in the morning to make a video of the snow-white streets and the university campus, silently hoping that “once the hearts of the people here will be as white as snow.” A nostalgic hunt for a virginal Bethlehem away from all trouble?

All these still, romantic pictures somehow remind me of the large Switzerland photos on the walls in Palestinian restaurants aimed at keeping customers feel cool. Mary always mocks me when we see those or similar pictures because she knows I consider them kitsch.

After the snow, reality sinks in. To our surprise, the Palestinian police caught those who robbed  the bank in Beit Jala. They declared that they wanted to take money in order to purchase weapons for a militant group a claim immediately denied by the group itself but unsurprisingly emphasized by the Israeli army. And the army itself is on the streets again, and rumors in the shop I visit say that a curfew is imposed upon a Beit Sahouri area, apparently in reprisal of shootings on the settlement Har Homa or Abu Ghneim - or perhaps it is because of shootings to Gilo, as another customer remarked. Or it is simply because the army is busy making arrests.

Last week three girls were arrested in Beit Sahour to be released next day, an event which made people angrier than usual. I myself feel that with each new wave of arrests or curfews Bethlehem, that town of hope, is dying a little. And now that the snow has brought a moment of freedom, you feel even more how unnatural the curfews are.

“Hsara ‘aleek, ya Bethlehem” [I pity you, oh Bethlehem] says Mary. Bethlehem as an idea will live on forever, but as a human reality it looks doomed today.

Mary cries at her work when she reads a poem of an American child condemning the war on Iraq. She cries more these days; she herself thinks it is because the weather reminds her of her deceased father who used to be very active in taking all kinds of measures to protect the house against the natural elements.

People working at a foreign consulate in Jerusalem tell about a rumor that the war is going to start on March 6, Thursday. Thursday?! I check at the Dutch consulate but they haven’t heard of such rumor. In any case, we think we are ready to face the new human-made storm; there are enough supplies stocked up, and we made computer back-ups following the advice of the Pontifical Mission from Jerusalem who distributed a leaflet on how to protect oneself during the war.

Mary’s colleague at work asks her: “Will it be safe in Bethlehem?” but of course nobody knows. Yet Mary is adamant about not leaving Bethlehem, in any case. “If two million people are staying here in the West Bank and Gaza, why should we leave?” I don’t object. Others take distraction from the news by watching American movies, collecting items about Lady Diana (as a neighbor of ours is doing), or yielding themselves to one of the specialized TV satellite stations (for music, fashion etc.) 

Jara, in her turn, fantasizes to live in the beautiful house opposite ours. “It’s like a hotel,” is her admiring comment. Mary has a hard time putting on her clothes as she is choosy like a movie star. “What a luck when she will wear the school uniform next year,” Mary sighs. But the talk about the “unavoidable” war is depressing. In general people feel a complete lack of hope about the result. “The war will create a Pandora’s Box,” is a typical remark.

Meanwhile, Tamer is all the time busy with touching, manipulating and eating the toys around him. He is now interested in baby plays, and all the time puts his head forwards and backwards as if he wants to pray like the Moslems,” Mary says.