Yesterday, in summer-like weather, I go out for a walk with Jara to observe the Bethlehem streets during the Moslem Eid al-Fitr feast. It is curfew. Just before leaving, we hear two shots. “Wat a minute,” Mary says, “that might be teargas.” After a while we go out, and pass by the children’s graveyard at the beginning of the university road.
Yesterday, in summer-like weather, I go out for a walk with Jara to observe the Bethlehem streets during the Moslem Eid al-Fitr feast. It is curfew. Just before leaving, we hear two shots. “Wat a minute,” Mary says, “that might be teargas.” After a while we go out, and pass by the children’s graveyard at the beginning of the university road. It is open – during Eid al-Fitr it is customary to visit the graves of deceased loved ones – but nobody is inside. The roads are also empty except for some children. Near the university Fuad and his wife Sylvana pass by. I suddenly remember that Sylvana once had a pregnancy interrupted due to the inhaling of teargas. They tresspass the curfew to say kul sane inte salem (may you have peace each year) to their Moslem friends. Further down into the center we enter Madbasseh street, where a grocery owner peeps outside from behind his half-closed door. His shop is nearly always open but he is on the watch-out to see any possible military jeep approaching.
The other day Mary went there to do shopping and while she was inside a jeep passed by and threw teargas towards the kids roaming on the street. A soldier told municipality cleaners to move aside of the street and the grocery quickly closed the door. Mary stayed for half an hour indoors waiting until the smell of teargas outside had disappeared. While waiting, she listened to teargas stories of the shopkeeper. That day in Beit Sahour, he told, it happened that a shopkeeper twice ignored an order of the army to close his doors, each time waiting until the jeep had left, then opening the door. The second time the army went into the shop, swept things from the shelves onto the ground, threw teargas into the shop with several people inside, and closed the doors. The grocery owner also related a happening he witnessed himself. A few days ago a car bringing Tnuva (Israeli) milk products was stopped by the military. They requested the driver to open the window, threw teargas inside and forced him to close the window. Mary comments that the army, who is not very present on the streets these days, in some way challenges the people to go out of the house but then punishes them for doing so. Also at the central Bethlehem market salesmen sometimes start their business early in the morning, are allowed to stay there for a while but then again soldiers come to throw vegetables and fruits on the ground and chase the vendors away. After leaving the grocery Mary decided not to buy bread in Madbasseh street; as it could smell of teargas.
With the garbage piles untouched for ten days, Bethlehem’s main street is not a pleasant place for walking. After a few minutes we reach the Nativity Square which is empty except for a group of boys standing near the church complex. When we approach them, they throw a stone. (During this Intifada I have learned to distinguish between different kinds of stone-throwing; either challenging, friendly, or fast and dangerous. This one was friendly, it was thrown a little off-target and with a rather high curve). I congratulate each of the boys, all well-dressed. Jara watches at a safe distance. “Was the army here,” I ask the boys and yes, they were there half an hour ago, “throwing chocolate and perfume,” the kids laughingly explain. We continue our walk, meeting another foreigner on the street whose eyes betray bewilderment. Uphill we pass along one of the oldest houses of Bethlehem, covered with graffiti celebrating the Brasilians in the 2002 world soccer championships. Jara becomes tired. Should I take her on my shoulders or would that be out-of-place under curfew conditions? But the walk made her really too tired after sitting home for such a long time. Somewhat embarrassed, I greet half-smiling passers by. After a while, the empty streets look like in an old sleepy French village on a Sunday morning – except for the garbage piles. Jara and I make a game out of listening to the sounds of silence: the footsteps far away, the songs of the birds, our neighbour Ibrahim’s voice. At one point I approach a man standing in front of his shop. Like others, he takes his place to see what is going on, ready to go inside when jeeps or tanks approach. He says that one should be careful to tread the streets during curfew, and always listen well: “Last week a woman from Ramallah of 95 years old was shot dead when the van she was in did not stop at a soldier’s notice,” His main point is that the Christians of Bethlehem suffer economically, and that the Christian world has all but forgotten them. He insists on speaking in English and doesn’t want to let me go, desperate to tell his story.
Back at my family in law, I tell Jara her fantasy stories, including one about the Box of Pandora, from which all the smelly winds of disasters flow out to bring death to mankind. Pandora closed the box in time before the last and only fresh wind could leave: Hope. But Jara is too young for the story, bored and doesn’t wait until the end. Rather we go hill biking. While I push her up, she comfortably sitting in the chair, Mary appears to call us for lunch but suddenly says “Stop, turn around and look at the grapeleaves at your right.” Indeed, the leaves show all their beautiful autumn-like colours. At home Tamer pronounces his first words: mama, kaka, baba. His first teeth can be felt, another milestone!.Mary decides to watch Liberty TV, a French-language channel with programs of beautiful holiday sites, and with romantic Santa Clauses or Saint Nicholases treading West-European streets. “Ahhh, that will not be for us,” she says. Jara disagrees, “Don’t be afraid” – a phrase she has learned from us and which she now herself uses to show her independence and authority – and mysteriously says that we should wait and see how beautiful Christmas in Bethlehem will be.
During the afternoon, I watch through my window Fr Louis striding into Azza camp to visit his Moslem friends. With his long white beard he is planning to play for a public St Nicholas/Santa Claus; if not on December 5, then on December 19 when St Nicholas is celebrated in Beit Jala, and if not on December 25, then on one of the two other Christmas days in January celebrated by the Greek-Orthodox or Armenian communities.
In the evening we all put our shoes under the Christmas tree. Next morning St Nicholas turns out to have found his way through the curfew zone and has put presents given by friends from Holland. Tamer is excited by the lights in the Christmas tree – in fact by any kind of light – and is determined to take the balls down.
Today, Friday, opening hours are announced early morning. Somebody says that he feels like a chained dog released in the open air. As always during opening hours, it is more than busy on the streets. Last Monday it was almost impossible to proceed on Madbasseh Street. Everybody has to do everything at the same time: going to work, visiting relatives, shopping, bringing medicines, meeting colleagues, and – in the schools – laboring on the mid-term exams. Shall we be released at Christmas?