14 July 2003 — Mabrouk (“blessings to you”) is an Arabic expression to congratulate people. You not only use it on occasions like a birthday but also when something new has been bought, like clothes, or in the case somebody has moved to another house. Saying mabrouk confirms that your interlocutor made the right choice. Arab culture has more of such customary expressions. They are not just polite ways of showing that you know the rules of address - like in the West - but they are said in an often quite enthusiastic and involved manner showing that the speaker has been alert and has detected something new or special. Naa’yman, people tell you emphatically and gaily after you took a shower or had a haircut.

Summer especially is the time of saying mabrouk. Nowadays each Sunday in Bethlehem is marked by a series of weddings and baptisms; some of them delayed because of all the curfews last year and the beginning of this year, others scheduled because the summer provides the appropriate weather and allows visiting family members from abroad to join. Summer is also the time for congratulating students with their school or university diplomas. But I have noticed that saying mabrouk is now extended to cover occasions for which it was never reserved. Thus, it is quite common to congratulate one another upon reception of a tasrih (a travel permit). A few weeks ago Mary embraced a friend and congratulated her for the tasrih that allowed her friend to leave for Germany during the summer holiday. Her friend was enormously relieved to be able to travel through Tel Aviv airport (traveling via Jordan, the other option for West Bankers, is now very difficult too).

It is indeed nerve-wrecking to wait until a tasrih is given. You usually hear of a positive decision at the very last moment, such as the day or the morning before departure. The procedures to get a permit entail frantic calling, long waiting lines at the Civil Administration offices, communicating with soldiers who don’t speak Arabic or English, interventions by embassies, and the acquisition of medical statements from abroad saying that there is an urgent need for you to leave the country. Mary heard that a Beit Jala family obtained a tasrih for the airport after the mother showed a document that she was going to be medically examined abroad. However, the airport security staff, detecting swimming suits in the luggage and seeing that children were joining, decided on the spot to withdraw the tasrih, and the family was sent back home. They were not supposed to leave for pleasure! These months it happened to couples none of whom were ever involved in politics that the man got a tasrih and the woman not, or the other way round.

To get the valuable tasrih, you sometimes need help from friends, like Israeli friends who have access to army circles. An acquaintance of mine was said to be on a black list among other things because his organization hosted “undesired foreigners” (read: peace activists). One day this summer he was told he wouldn’t get a tasrih “until the year 2099.” Yet next day, after the quick intervention of an Israeli friend, he obtained it. Of course, few people in need have such valuable circles of friends. The permit system - if that word is at all appropriate - is drowned in arbitrariness, humiliation and a self-absorbing bureaucracy. It is designed to create a feeling of dependency, and to wear out people. Saying mabrouk for a tasrih is rarely done without a sense of bitterness and ridicule.

Our neighbours roared with laughter after they wished us mabrouk for the occasion of the incoming of the Palestinian police into Bethlehem. “Look, it is as if we celebrate their coming home. But they were already here and have just put on their uniforms!”

In fact, few inhabitants of Bethlehem went out to watch the police coming in. That’s not to say that people were unhappy to see them. Rather, it wasn’t an occasion. There has been too much bad news these days. A week before the announcement of the withdrawal, the Israeli government decided to start building the separation wall around Rachel’s Tomb and some hundreds of Palestinian apartment buildings nearby. Land confiscations are under way for the purpose of constructing settlement roads to the north of Bethlehem. And, above all, there has been no change in checkpoint policy. A few days ago persons with the relevant permit were suddenly allowed to pass the DLO (the Israeli-Palestinian liaison office) in Beit Jala to go in and out by car. “It’s morphine, morphine!” a colleague of Mary repeated incredulously. Now the route has been closed again.

Of course it is helpful to have the Palestinian police taking care of law and order but the larger issues of traveling restrictions and a disastrous economy are not touched by the Israeli withdrawal. The withdrawal is anyway to the borders of Bethlehem, and so the army can come in any moment. Moreover, as Mary said, many of the poorer people who cannot pay their electricity bills are reported to have the Palestinian police at their doorsteps.

Jara quickly patched up her understanding of the Palestinian police. “Is this a wedding?” she asked when the employees of the governate honked their cars triumphantly. “No, the Israeli army withdraws,” said Mary. “Where to?” asked Jara. “To Rachel’s Tomb,” Mary answered dryly. “But that is in Bethlehem!” “Yes,” Mary said, “They withdraw and they stay.”

Jara remained in an argumentative mood. Later on, during the evening, we walked on the street and I told her about the little moon men who are busy polishing the moon to keep it shining. “Moon men don’t exist!” she cried out. Me: “But at least we can dream about them, what’s wrong with that?” “No, I don’t want to dream, I am afraid of dreaming,” she said in a voice that didn’t tolerate objection. A few days later, she was afraid of a police unit walking along both sides of the University road. They looked like guerrillas with their heads down and guns ready. In reaction, Jara put on her mask that she made during the summer camp and which made her look like a cat. “Now they don’t see me.” “You don’t need to be afraid, they will be afraid of you,” I told her.

Ismail, the headmaster who lives in the refugee camp Arroub north of Hebron, wished me mabrouk after I arrived safely home from a countrywide journey in the company of a Dutch women’s delegation. Coming from his mouth the compliment was no polite gesture. More than anybody else he knows about the challenges of traveling. Lately I was an instructor at an intensive diary-writing course in the camp, and Ismail and I used to walk some kilometers up and down the main street of the camp because the lecture halls were distant from each other. Each couple of meters Ismail greeted people who were sitting in front of their houses and shops. He said to know almost all - perhaps some 3000 - inhabitants of the camp, many by name. In the crowded refugee camps the bonds between people are tight even though sometimes affected by family tensions or political divisions. At the end of our daily walks, and dozens of polite greetings and declined invitations later, we used to reach the camp entry where Ismail would halt a taxi for me. There we instinctively fastened our pace.

It is barely possible to think of a more awkward place to say goodbye. Opposite the entry on the other side of the main Jerusalem-Hebron road the army has erected a grey watchtower of cement, some 15 meters high, with a dark semi-circled narrow opening at the top through which soldiers watch out over the camp. In fact, you can’t see well whether there are soldiers in the tower or not. Each morning on his way out of the camp to go for his work in Hebron, Ismail and his driver must stop in front of the rolled lines of razor wire that obstruct the entrance. Keeping their IDs high, they wait until the soldiers have finished their check using binoculars. A loudspeaker voice from the tower then asks him whom he is, what he is going to do, where he wants to go to. The same questions are posed to the driver. Ismail suspects that the questions, which are exactly the same each morning, are asked by the same soldiers. But he doesn’t know for sure as the metallic loudspeaker sound makes the voices unrecognizable. The soldiers know Ismail but he doesn’t know them.

The most difficult part of this surrealistic exchange between technology and human being is when Ismail keeps his ID high in the air but is uncertain whether there is any soldier in the tower or not. Standing in an unnatural, frozen pose he feels like a fool. Questions race through his mind. How long should he keep his ID up? Are the soldiers perhaps mocking and humiliating him by not showing up, or are they really absent? Are they testing him? Would they shoot at him when he would roll back the wire without permission, and ask the driver to move on? Ismail said that several times he kept waiting like this. After about two minutes the sense of humiliation would grow too strong and he would move foreword. Until now he never was shot at but what about next time? He always feels relieved when passing the watchtower obstacle. It may take 20 minutes. It goes without saying that it is not his last traveling obstacle. On his way to work Ismail passes along no less than six checkpoints. They increase the duration of his six kilometer-journey to downtown Hebron, where his school is located, up to an average of 1.5 hour.

At one of our daily meetings, Ismail showed his own diary. That day he had woken up at four in the morning and couldn’t sleep. He wanted to note down his Via Dolorosa and tell the world about his daily project, a mabrouk worthy. “Do you never become angry?” I asked him. He smiled back, without responding.

Friends and family say smallah, smallah (“in God’s name”) to Tamer who looks so lovely with his curly hair. Some older family members utter the expression in order to protect him against the evil eye. After all, when you look so incredibly charming like him, how can you avoid people becoming jealous? And of course, nothing is safe for him. While we are eating and don’t pay attention, a hand suddenly appears on table, takes a fork or a plate, and things get tumbling down. Smiling, he makes his first hesitating steps. Yes, he walks, a real and pure occasion for saying mabrouk!

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