Resilience

Palestinians waiting in line at a checkpoint (Photo: Ronald de Hommel, 2002)


“Why don’t you go to Tel Aviv and enjoy yourself instead of insulting and humiliating the Palestinians? You took Jerusalem away from us, and now you also don’t allow us to go around Jerusalem. Who are you to take this right? You know that you are in a place where you don’t belong! Shame on you and on Sharon! My family and I should not climb the hills like fugitives to avoid you. How can my mother do that?” The soldier at the Wadi Nar checkpoint, east of Jerusalem, had asked Mary and her mother and sister to open their luggage but then did not allow them to continue the journey, at least not along the road. The soldier moved to other Palestinians waiting to take their identities and to go home but Mary did not want him to escape the situation, and kept shouting at him. The soldier was accompanied by another soldier who whispered something. Mary was sure he was warning the first soldier not to pay attention to her. Meanwhile Jara was crying. Afterwards she told Mary that she was afraid that the soldiers would shoot to keep Mary on a distance. “You know what, Mama, I like to live in Bethlehem but I hate Sharon and his soldiers!”

***

Mary and family wanted to go for a weekend holiday to a good hotel in Jericho where I myself was having a workshop with teachers of the Institute about teaching the three monotheistic religions at Palestinian schools. Nowadays it is normal that four or five star hotels in the West Bank open their gates and swimming pools against a low price, especially for local groups. Organizations make use of this attractive opportunity and combine workshops with a day out. The previous day Mary was discouraged by people who warned her that she might have to climb a hill to circumvent the checkpoint. That would not be possible for her mother who is over 80 years. But the next day she tried and went with family through a silent Beit Sahour which was under curfew at that moment (then already for three days, nobody really knew why). After the incident she found out that the taxi driver who had brought them had quickly returned to Bethlehem. When Mary called him on the mobile, he barely dared to come back. According to information from other drivers, there was at that moment a soldier hiding in the hills who suddenly made appearances on the road to catch drivers who came too close to the barrier.

What might happen to those taxi drivers and travelers is at present a subject of much storytelling in Bethlehem. Mary heard from a cousin that her brother in law, a taxi driver, was beaten up by soldiers. Another of her cousins studies at Birzeit University and has to take the Wadi Nar road every now and then to visit family back in Bethlehem. A weekend ago she even didn’t dare to try to take that road. Apparently soldiers had erected a large tent next to it where those who were caught sneaking through the hills were brought together and sometimes beaten up. A month ago a man got a stroke there, waiting for hours in the sun; he had to be transported to a hospital immediately. Other people caught were apparently forced, as a kind of punishment, to climb up and down the hills. A lecturer at Al Quds University in Abu Dis was bitten by a soldier’s dog while passing the hills. All were people who for their daily duties had to travel from one Palestinian town to another. Mary’s cousin said that Mary shouldn’t have challenged the soldiers. “They don’t distinguish between men and women, also women are beaten up.”

“Yabayyeh!” [my father], Mary exclaimed to a shopkeeper after her shouting match. “You cannot imagine how you feel there, like a sarsour [insect].” “No,” said the shopkeeper slyly, “a sarsour is able to pass, but you cannot.” Yet Mary felt much relieved that at least she had brought out her anger.

***

Meanwhile, I myself was in Jericho feeling down because of the missed holiday. I didn’t enjoy the beautiful weather and the company, and was not even in the mood to buy a swimming suit – the luggage was with Mary - and go for a swim. “You enjoy! - if you don’t, you are not allowed back into the house!” Mary blackmailed me. “Mmh,’ I said but allowed myself to be convinced, halfheartedly. Working on an article about Palestinian resilience [veerkracht, in Dutch] I did not feel myself resilient at all, contrary to Mary who quickly recovers after a frustrating experience because she is able to throw out her emotions. I went out to slowly walk down 500 meters to the nearest shop, thinking about this somewhat elusive concept of resilience. How are people keeping up their spirit when you face humiliations on an almost daily base? Girls at the private school of St Joseph in Bethlehem, together with boys from Arroub refugee camp, just published a 300-page English-language diary book (“The Wall Cannot Stop Our Stories”) in which they expressed their feelings and reflections. According to Suzy, the school teacher, the stories helped the students to release and thus to cope with their feelings, many of them related to suffering, a very concrete and recognizable experience. But what exactly is resilience, this inner power to cope and overcome suffering? The Palestinian concept of sumud [steadfastness] is close to it, it is the strength to stay put and not give up, going to your daily study and work even when it takes extra hours. But resilience is a more elastic concept than sumud; it relates not just to inner determination but also to flexible, inventive survival strategies. I had to think about this clever girl in Beit Jala, who said that she would open up a business when the wall would come. She would set up a ladder against the wall and give people a paid opportunity to climb and then peep over it to have a good view. As long as the visitors would take a minute or so to watch the other side and not climb over the wall, the soldiers would allow it, she knew. Indeed, a brand-new kind of tourism - desperate tourism. You have to be inventive these days to survive, like some of the olive wood workshops in Beit Sahour who now try to sell their olive wood products in the US through middle men rather than waiting for the tourists to come to Bethlehem. And it indeed seems that some of such workers have become economically resilient after the setback of the previous years. (Other growing economic sectors are of course the cigarettes industry, and also the Internet providers and mobile telephone sectors. In areas where you cannot travel normally, computers become even more important).

Anyway, I went out and made my walk through the stunning spring landscape of Jericho: a plain area with high mountains rising on both sides, with red bourgainville bushes along the road and topped off by elegant clouds. Like the Intercontinental hotel in Bethlehem, the hotel is built close to a refugee camp, Tell el-Sultan, now largely uninhabited. The luxury hotels in the West Bank have a kind of desperate atmosphere, empty as they are due to lack of foreign tourists. “A desperate place for desperate people,” our neighbour lately remarked when we visited a hotel that had opened its doors for the occasional party. But on my Jericho walk the depressive feelings did not get a chance to sink in. “Shalom,” shouted a lonely girl at me, sitting on a fence. When I arrived at the shop, the man there showed genuine regret not to have a swimming suit available and offered to borrow his own. It was not quite the right size yet it was nice of him anyway. Not without determination he called his brother to come over and buy me a swimming suit in Jericho downtown. I felt better. Business is business, but it was done in the Palestinian way, with total loyalty to the client. I went back to the hotel. “Shalom,” the girl shouted again. Then a car driver suddenly stopped to ask me where I was heading for and whether he could be of service. We had a friendly conversation on the middle of the road. Never mind other cars had to stop. Soccer-playing kids shouted something friendly at me. The clouds started to form beautiful salamanders. I began to keep my head higher; the steps became faster and more elastic. “When is the swimming pool open?” I asked the hotel desk. “Always.” “Can I use the room towels for the pool?” The desk person looked puzzled. “Of course, why should you change towels?” Bathing in the friendliness from all sides, I felt much better and jumped with conviction into the pool, swimming with slow strokes and looking upwards to the horizon.

***

Back home, I discussed with Jara what happened and showed my own anger by striking a fist on the table. “Laat je niet kisten {in Dutch: don’t let people discourage you], we’ll cross Wadi Nar once again and we will succeed.” A Jewish acqaintance in Paris wrote an email the same day to encourage Jara - “I am not Jewish, I am not Israeli, I am not French, but just a human.” Afterwards we did our favourite play: Jara and Tamer standing on the bed each alternately jumping into my arms. As usual, I helped Tamer climbing on my body so that he could stand on top of my shoulders, to absorb his own distant views with a relaxed smile.

Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem and local coordinator of United Civilians for Peace. The “Bethlehem Diary”, published by AEI in the Culture and Palestine series, has recently been published in Dutch by De Stiel: “Dagboek Betlehem: 2000-2004.”

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