“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”

Letter from Bethlehem (50), Before The War Starts

We live strange, somehow unreal times. So many people feel pressure on the breast or have a headache because of this restless waiting for the war in Iraq to start. Suzy tells me about a teacher at St Joseph who feels as if there is no bukra [tomorrow] at all, as if there is just an abyss

We live strange, somehow unreal times. So many people feel pressure on the breast or have a headache because of this restless waiting for the war in Iraq to start. Suzy tells me about a teacher at St Joseph who feels as if there is no bukra [tomorrow] at all, as if there is just an abyss. Another colleague confessed that he, like so many others, zaps from one news channel to another at home, all the time hearing about a positive diplomatic development that is immediately dashed by a negative development. He thus keeps himself frustrated and would “explode” if there was no way to get his worries out. Because he does not want to burden his wife and children, he shares his worries with his colleagues at school. For that reason he likes to go to school, he sarcastically tells his colleagues. They in their turn sourly thank him for the trust he puts in them.

Suzy’s classes tell her that they do not wish to think about the war at all. They even do not want to read the list of civic instructions prepared by the East-Jerusalem YMCA. The war is like a black hole for them that only invites negative thoughts and feelings which they want to avoid, and, anyway, it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen in the near future, they say. Black humor is much practiced at the school. “Get some energy, take vitamins every day,” says one teacher to the other. The careless response: “We’ll all die soon anyway, so the vitamins will just survive me.”  Suzy says that she is relieved to at least have finished the mid-semester term “before the war starts.” We all use that expression very often. It gives an awkward feeling to speak about a war as if it is primarily an interruption of one’s own daily business. “I’ll see you soon, Inshallah [if God will],” she says when I leave, knowing that a war is likely to coincide with a long curfew in the West Bank and Gaza. Imagine that people will have nothing else to do than watching the war on their TV screens at home. And how strange and bitter it is that for many the war will somehow come as a welcome release of the built-up emotional tensions.
      * * *
We all are rushing to do the necessary things before the war starts. I went myself to the Dutch embassy to pick up Tamer’s new passport. While standing in the early morning queue in front of the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint, I met a Palestinian friend, a technician, who also had to do an errand in Tel Aviv. One of the soldiers shouted that women should cross the checkpoint first. “A gentleman,” somebody in the queue whispered. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, my friend waved a quick hand gesture to point out a route to circumvent the guards or soldiers who were checking passers by at the entrance of Yaffa Street. “If you can circumvent them, always do so.” He is apparently well-informed about the ins and outs of traveling. In the collective taxi to Tel Aviv, while we are exchanging small talk in English, I suddenly realized something uncommon. My friend was systematically avoiding the names of “Bethlehem,” “Palestinians,” or any other term that would betray that we were from the West Bank or that he is a Palestinian. Instead, he was talking much about “Israel”, “the country” and the “Holy Land,” apparently because others, Israelis, in the taxi might be listening too. Among other things he relayed his recollections of the Gulf War in 1990; how he was in Germany at the time (it was his last time “to leave Israel”), and how his friends there advised him not to go back to the country because he might face great risks. He told them: “I don’t mind to die, as long as it is with my family.” While listening, I am struck by the ease with which many Palestinians are talking these days about dying. Somehow being left without rights and without future seems to degrade life itself.

On the way back from the embassy, I took a taxi whose Jewish driver recalled the times that he as an Israeli visited Bethlehem’s grocery shops and restaurants. He started blaming Arafat for the present situation but stopped when seeing that I withdrew from the conversation. Despite Mary’s worries about Palestinian attacks against Israeli buses, I took an intercity bus and decided not to read the morning paper but rather to enjoy the spring-like sun, and doze off a little. Back at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem I had a talk with a Dutch doctor running a socio-medical center in the Old City. She proposed to coordinate joint fieldtrips of school students from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “The Palestinians in Jerusalem nowadays have less of an idea what it is to live in the West Bank. For instance, staff at my clinic who live in Jerusalem do not really understand the sour faces of their colleagues who come in the morning from Bethlehem or Beit Jala. They don’t know what a hazard it is to make traveling arrangements and to sometimes wait for hours at checkpoints.”

The roads are of course a permanent hazard for Palestinians. At Damascus Gate I saw the familiar view of dozens of dirty and dusty vans, many of them former police cars re-painted and re-used as collective taxis. The parking lot is black of car smoke, and in fact the clothes of the drivers have darkened, too. There are no good toilet facilities. In one corner the thick smell of strong coffee blended with the smell of urine. Since several months the police oblige drivers not to allow passengers in who don’t have valid permits or IDs. I watched the drivers arguing who would go to Bethlehem and along which way. The passengers pressured themselves into the narrow seats of the taxi only to be asked a little later to step into another one, and then into yet another one. When the final driver checked the papers of his passengers, an old man explained that he didn’t have a permit but that he just arrived from Mokassed hospital, and that he possessed up-to-date hospital papers. Why should the police bother him, an old man who is doing nothing? “Forget it,” said the driver nervously. He said it happened to him that police arrested a woman in his car who just came from an emergency at the hospital. His car had now been confiscated twice for periods of 30 days because he carried “illegal” passengers. He also paid thousands of shekels. He now has signed a paper at the police station stating that he will pay a fine of 30.000 shekels in case he is caught again. So he does not want to take risks anymore. Afterwards I talked with him about his predicament. He spoke good English; for sure he got a good education but circumstances forced him to work as a taxi driver. His problem was, he said, that he didn’t have “friends” among the police who could make things easier for him.

On the road, I saw drivers sometimes giving a sign to each other, to warn each other that a police check is coming, or that they have to make a detour. Palestinians, an expressive people, have this talent of quickly communicating visual signs with the fingers of their hand and the turns of their wrist.
      * * *
My own modest traveling problem is the need to get out of the country to renew a three-month tourist visa. A previous application for a renewal of the work permit was lost in the offices of the Israeli Civil Administration (the civil department of the army). While waiting for the renewal of the work permit it was better, so was I advised, to stay legally in the country by extending the tourist visa. And it was preferable to go out of the country by plane and come back before the war started. I quickly organized a brief trip. Mary asked Jara to daily pray for the visa extension since foreigners nowadays have sometimes difficulties to enter Israel. Afterwards, I heard that she did the praying in earnest even though she of course didn’t understand what a visa is.

Indeed, I got the three months. A Dutch colleague on a work visit who happened to be in the same plane received just two weeks. My (Jewish) travel agent in Jerusalem sighed upon hearing about the costly event. She told me that her thirteen-year old son wanted to dress himself as a priest during the Purim holiday. This holiday, in commemoration of Esther’s clever tricks during the Babylonian Diaspora, is marked by Jewish youths dressing up like in carnival. “In the past he chose to be a rabbi, or a whore, or whatever, and now he just wanted to be a priest, for the fun of it. But when he wore a large cross his school mates told him he better should change his tenue. Israeli society becomes xenophobic.”
      * * *
So we are waiting. Sunday night Mary and I visit a silent vigil of a few hundreds of people protesting against the war in front of the Church of Nativity. Mary hears that some new-born Palestinian babies have been named after French president Chirac. A colleague who works in Gaza but stays in Jerusalem says that she wants to quickly go back to Gaza “before the singing starts, if you know what I mean.” Jara asks why Michael Jackson dresses himself like a woman. Tamer is suddenly able to crawl from one corner of the room to another. He sheds his head and blows kisses in the air. All the time he makes the sound of “aja” [he came], and Mary interprets that he must be happy that I am back from my trip. There is again bad weather predicted these days. “The world is upside down, we got snow in spring, we have leaders who don’t listen to their peoples, and while the world is against, the war is coming,” says Mary.


2003-03-21T00:00:00+00:00 March 21st, 2003|Categories: News|