Wings of Freedom

An undated file picture shows Palestinian singer Ammar Hasan during the taping of an episode of the Arabic version of TV program “Super Star”. (AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian singer Ammar looks an introvert person. On the Lebanese Future station, where he is a finalist in the Idol-like competition (“Superstar” it is called here), he sings his almost classical Arab songs in a beautiful melodramatic voice. He remains serious while he laughs. Surrounded by glitter and fashionable show presentators and a screaming teenager audience, he looks out of place. Asked by a jury member why he is so reserved and sad, he replies that he cannot sing gaily when his people in Palestine face so many difficulties, and he mentions the people dying at checkpoints. Art is resistance for him, he says and also, “Art is a bird.” It can bring a message across borders. Together with the Libyan Ayman, publicly supported by Khadaffi, Ammar is the focus of the final stage of the popular competition. Anybody can vote, by email, fax or SMS. There is an enormous outpouring of support for Ammar in many countries, including the Gulf States, where he is working as a waiter. And certainly also in Palestine. “Imagine,” Mary’s cousin says, “it is mamnu’a tajaawel [forbidden to go out, the army’s phrase to impose a curfew] when he sings. You just hear his voice on the streets, like as when you in the West watch a big football match on TV.” In many public places across the West Bank large screens have been put up. After the programme, cars drive slowly on the streets and honk, and people shout rhythmically “Ammar, Ammar!”

This last week people were going to vote, on a massive scale. The local telephone company announced a special discount for voting calls, and in several places rows of computers serve the public. I hear that somebody voted no less than six times, each time mentioning another name. Others had or created different email accounts, and used them to cast different votes. Palestinian families warned their members and friends abroad to fulfil their duty. It’s national mobilization, until Sunday when the votes are counted and the end result is announced.

As if living in different worlds, we also observe the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners. In the evening our family watches groups of demonstrators passing by, shouting “Wahde, wahde, Wataniyye, Islam w Masihiyyeh” [Unity, unity, homeland, Moslems and Christians], an old slogan of the Communist, now People’s Party. Rita, Mary’s sister who is here on a visit from Paris together with her son and daughter, feels sad when she hears the shrieking songs coming out of the loudspeaker in the large tent which families of the prisoners have erected in Bethlehem to express solidarity with the prisoners. No show here. The songs are about how the mothers and children are separated from their boys in prison. Mothers and other family members keep up large and small photos of the jailed.

Thousands of hungerstrikers, now in their 13th day, ask for humanitarian treatment, for an end to the beatings, the throwing of teargas grenades in the prisons, and especially the lack of normal visitation rights for the family. I remember how traditional political posters used to display a caged-in bird to symbolize the prisoners as well as the general Palestinian condition. Right now the mighty Israeli army is trying to break the strike by organizing, yes, barbecues in front of the prison cells. Some of the political factions who support the prisoners strike are not happy with the public interest in Ammar and with Western-imported “reality” TV shows in general, and force TV monitors or big screens to be closed or taken down. In fact, both during the first and second Intifadas it has not been uncommon that celebration parties were prevented or broken up because they were considered not sensitive towards the suffering of the people. Underneath I feel that there is also a culture clash.going on between “traditional” and “modern” modes of expressing the national feelings.

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Despite Ammar, the spirits are down. Occupation is a heavy thing to bear. When talking about occupation, one usually thinks of the Israely army presence, and indeed these days we are witnessing repeated Israeli incursions into Bethlehem. The day before yesterday, the French hospital which is almost around the corner (our kids were born there) was surrounded by jeeps and soldiers who wanted to arrest three militants. They were told that the army would smash the rooms where they were hiding. At another occasion an armed Israeli undercover agent panicked in Bethlehem’s central Madbasseh street and, waving his gun into all directions, jumped up to climb the top of the roofs to escape. Mary was there and calmed down Jara who was frightened. Jara had just been in Holland and Paris with her aunts and uncles. We were a little worried, she is young, six years, and it was for her the first time to go and stay with family. At one point she said that she was happy but that she also had to cry. But she did fine. When she accidentally saw a group of French soldiers in Paris, she was surprised to hear that they didn’t speak Hebrew.

After coming back she felt that Bethlehem was not beautiful. Mary found out that she, in her own logic, meant to say that the presence of the soldiers and jeeps were making Bethlehem not beautiful. And Jara was right. There is that basic lack of harmony, as for instance normally present in celebrations. At another moment this summer, soldiers broke up a wedding to arrest a brother of the groom. It’s strange to observe in the 21st century that a foreign army can come into one’s country at will and just do what it wants, without any legality backing it up. While I am writing these words, Jara rings at the door saying that she is afraid to go out because there is a military jeep crossing our street.

Back to the term “occupation.” I feel that people are also occupied in a literal sense, that is, their mind and spirit are becoming heavy, as it were, and crowded by worries. This summer four local shopkeepers in our neighborhood became seriously ill or passed away, from heart-related diseases, and I imagine that being a shopkeeper with all its hazards is not a healthy profession anymore. In fact, Mary and I and our friends are astonished to hear about all the illnesses and deaths around us. It is as if people stumble and fall under the daily burdens they carry. The worrying attitude is also discernible in the way how people greet each other. “How are you?” “Not bad.” ” I’m sure you’re not good either.” Or: “How are things? Good. Up till now.”

Fuad, the Institute’s director, is used to say when discussing the future, “Always expect the worst,” and that is good advice under the present circumstances. The worries determine life. Another of Mary’s (many) cousins, a carpenter, goes each Sunday to a neighboring Jerusalem suburb for his work now business has declined in Bethlehem. He makes his escape journey through Tantur, next to the checkpoint, and then calls his worrying wife and family from his mobile to inform them whether he succeeded or not. The rest of the week he stays more or less locked in at his working place at about two kilometers from his dwelling place in Bethlehem, afraid that the Israeli police may catch him without permit. A few weeks ago, he shouted during his Sunday night journey at a shadowy colleague to ask whether there were any soldiers at Tantur. The man turned out to be a soldier himself. Fortunately, Mary’s cousin was only ordered to return to Bethlehem. There he waited for a new opportunity. His worries make him grey but at least he has work.

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The Jerusalem checkpoint is going to move up further south into Bethlehem. The taxi drivers are held some hundreds of meters away from the Bethlehem side of the checkpoint so that one has to walk longer towards and from the checkpoint, passing a new huge parking lot which will give the future checkpoint the appearance of a terminal. Lately our neighbor passed by and saw a group of taxi drivers, together with the father of one of the neighboring kids with whom Jara always plays, locked up in something like a cage, patrolled by a female soldier nearby the checkpoint. Our neighbor did not know how to exactly describe the cage, it was rather small and strange, like a container. Apparently the taxidrivers were caught being too close to the present checkpoint, and were kept for a few hours like naughty kids who should be taught a lesson. Why the father of the neighboring kids was held there, was not clear.

So Bethlehem becomes smaller and also surrounded by the Wall. Our two-year old Tamer is happy to see all the diggers and trucks working on it. “Papa, jiraffe [digger]! Papa, truck!” he shouts excitedly since he adores everything machine-like. “Papa, vliegtuig [plane]!” he points to a military plane in the sky. “Yes, fantastic, boy.” But he too is aware of the presence of soldiers. As soon as he hears a shooting sound, like yesterday when we saw firework at a distant wedding, he exclaims “jaysh” [army]! And he manipulates his toy drill to imitate gun shooting.

Mary, Rita and I and the kids went a few weeks ago to the opening of an exhibition in the Peace Center opposite the Church of Nativity. It was about traveling and the Palestinian identity. In front of the center a number of wooden, man-sized passports were exhibited designed to raise attention to the different IDs and foreign passports Palestinians carry. Because the exhibition had already been traveling across the world, I wondered about the eyes of the security at the airport when they saw these huge alternative passports unpacked in front of them. Inside the center, we watched two video monitors put back-to-back. On one side you were invited to adopt the viewpoint of a driver who freely drives along the settlers’ roads in the West Bank; while watching, you get that flowing, flying feeling as if the world belongs to you and nothing stands in your way. On the other side, you had to share the viewpoint of a driver on the bumpy, obstacled Palestinian roads of the West Bank.Great fun. “Look, there is the Al-Khader checkpoint!” a visitor exclaimed in surprised recognition of his own reality. The atmosphere was gay, despite the subject. People were lively talking with each other. “Such occasions [like opening an exhbition] help to uplift the spirit,” said Mary.

Lately she decided to leave for Jerusalem together with her foreign-passported sister and succeeded. Only the way back turned out to be a problem because the taxi drivers did not want to take her and in her turn she did not want to lie to the drivers about her lacking a permit because they might face sanctions, up to the confiscation of their car, when caught carrying unpermitted passengers. Finally a taxidriver took her and handed her an ID of a girl twice as young as Mary. Apparently he held the ID for emergency cases and as a way to protect himself. (I wondered whether the girl agreed). But afterwards Mary felt it would not have been a bad idea to stay the night in Jerusalem, and especially not in that very pleasant American Colony Hotel, with its traditionally tiled floors and walls which Mary likes so much. “What,” I protested, “in that hotel with its $ 150 per night rooms?” “You only live once, Van Teeffelen.”

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Last week our institute organized a fieldtrip to places south of Bethlehem. Our bus was stopped at the DCO [Israeli liaison office] near the entrance of Beit Jala and we had to take a detour of an hour to the east, then again to the west, to reach nearby Battir. The village is now full of fences that separate rows of local houses from a settlers’ road. I believe the fences are not part of the Wall but a kind of temporary measure, or semi-permanent, or something. It would be so nice, I thought, if we could do like on those paintings of Chagall, to fly in the air, over the houses and the hills. As in a dream. Once a girl from Arroub refugee camp near Hebron described her dreams of peace in terms of flying, as a body, across the river Jordan. She would study over there in the real world, and then fly back to help her people. Even I myself, foreign-passported, have such flying dreams. They should be shared by a great many here. In Battir, a teacher told us about the history of education in the village, how many academics the village had raised up, and how much education was frustrated now because of the circumstances. Afterwards we discussed non-violent actions to raise attention to this caged-like life. We gazed at the beautiful terraced fields hemmed in by a settler road. I suggested to take the bird as a symbol of education. The birds take one’s spirit to distant horizons. “Speak, bird, speak again,” family members used to exclaim when during the long winter nights in the countryside they wanted their mother or uncle to continue telling folk stories. The Palestinian social scientists Muhawi and Kanaana wrote a folklore book under that title. Moreover, according to some, Battir means “house of bird.” Others agreed and added more natural elements; air, seeds, flowers, sun - “that’s all what we need.” We brainstormed about the advocacy effects of kites and balloons, noise and prayers; they all should bring out the message.

In fact, there is increasing attention to non-violence in Palestinian public opinion. These days, the grandson of Gandhi is on a solidarity visit to Palestine. Our institute in Bethlehem welcomes him Sunday night in Bethlehem with a banner containing a quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you. Then you win.” A friend had reservations about the last part of the slogan. Optimism is a rare good these days.

* * *

Tamer chases the butterflies in the garden. When he is silent we quietly doze away enjoying the rest, but then jump up realizing that sudden quietness means that something is going on…. And we catch him in his dangerous electricity or water projects.

Jara is watching Dutch satellite TV and hears a popstar saying how much she likes her adventurous life but that she is so terribly bored during all those long flights she has to take when she goes from one part of the world to another. Unbearable. Yes, TV distracts people’s attention from their reality, for better or worse. Both Jara and Tamer enjoy the Lebanese Nancy who conquered the Arab world with two summer hits. The lower her dress cut, the more the imagination is taking her viewers away. When I hear that Jara may join an exhibition of drawings about peace in Holland, I’ll ask her if she likes to do so. She asks “What is peace?’ but then remembers that particular bird, the dove, and that’s what she would like to draw.”Standing or flying?” I ask. She is puzzled by the question but then says “flying,” with a bright smile.

Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem and local coordinator of United Civilians for Peace.