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In Palestine: Conversations Around the Table and through the Bethlehem Streets

March 2004

I hope to return from Palestine/Israel a more compassionate and wiser person, although that remains to be seen. What is already written is that I will return much larger. Palestinian hospitality has been abundant bordering on excessive. Last night, a family took my colleague and I to dinner and the waiter did not rest until he’d placed on the table 24 small plates of hummous, tabouli, fatoush and various beet and eggplant salads. Other meals have been only slightly less modest. I thought I’d share with you some conversations had around the food, anise licquer, Arabic coffee wafting cardamom and a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke.

As I pawed at sautéed lamb brains and spleen in Bethlehem, Fatima described the sharp drop in her tourist guide work since 2000. Due to the escalating conflict and the difficulty of arriving in Bethlehem — we ourselves had to leave our car on the far side of a dirt mound that serves as a roadblock and walk towards Bethlehem – tourism has dropped dramatically. Restaurants are empty, souvenir shops don’t bother opening. Overall in Israel, tourism has fallen from some three million visitors a year in 2000 to 45,000 currently. “My husband and I are in our mid-fifties, we should be preparing for our retirement. Instead, we look for jobs.” Fatima is taking every conceivable computer class available, hoping to be ready if a job comes along. Her husband, Ahmed, had been a successful dental technician, employing eight technicians in a lab that primarily served Israeli dentists. Now, checkpoints prevent him from traveling to Jerusalem to pick up the molds to make crowns and to deliver finished work. His long-term clients have reluctantly had to switch to Israeli labs.

We stood on her porch and looked out towards Jerusalem. To the south rose the security fence/separation wall/apartheid wall — it’s called different things depending on one’s perspective. The grey, pre-fab slabs go up quickly; within a few months it will run through the valley just below her house. Her house sits in a class C security zone, which puts its value and Fatima’s and Ahmed’s long-term tenure there in jeopardy. Because of that and dwindling funds, they’ve stopped construction work on the second floor. Looking at the wall, she joked, “We’ll write on it, we’ll write on it all the names of the people that have died in the Palestinian struggle.” On the far side of the valley rose a housing development, which I inquired about. Gilo, she said, explaining that some call it a neighborhood of Jerusalem but she calls it a settlement. It was constructed after the 1967 war on land belonging to Beit Jala village, I told Fatima that next week I hope to visit distant relatives in Gilo. She paused for a moment to take this information in, then grabbed my arm, “I will put a red flag up here on my house. Please tell them to look for it and not to shoot.” Then she smiled. “I’m terrible, I know.”

The TV played through the meal. We watched Claude Van Dam blow away thugs in a desert town and then surfed to the news. It showed a young boy from Nablus wrapped in an explosive belt arrested at a checkpoint. A robot handed him scissors to cut off the belt. “You honestly believe that the boy was bringing explosives into Israel?”, Ahmed said to his son Mahmoud. His son nodded affirmatively, “No habibi (darling), don’t believe that. Look at how he cut off the belt with so much confidence. Look at the Israeli soldiers so close to him. It was planned.” Conspiracy theories are common here, Mahmoud said – but so of course are the real conspiracies. But this time, in the aftermath of the Sheikh Yassin’s assassination which Mahmoud feels instantly recruited thousands more to Hamas, this was the real thing.

After the meal, we took Fatima with us to visit the Ibdaa Cultural Center, a Grassroots International partner, in the Dheisheh refugee camp, home to 11,000 refugees. Along the center’s stairwell are murals and names of villages from which the refugees were driven in 1948. Up until recently, they would occasionally sneak a visit to the ruins of their villages; now movement is too restricted to make the trip. Dabke dancers (traditional Palestinian folkloric dance) practiced at the Center, preparing for this summer’s international tour — 50 days in Scandinavia, England and France. The Center’s director, Ziad, is proud of Ibdaa’s accomplishments and showed off the many trophies that the refugee camp’s sport teams have won. The sports activities — especially basketball – serve as a community magnet. Thousands of people come out to watch games. Fatima commented that her husband volunteers at Catholic Action, whose youth recently competed against Ibdaa — and lost. Due to Ibdaa’s strong programs, they’ve recently received funding to help other refugee camps build develop youth centers.

Grassroots recently received a proposal from Ibdaa for a media training program. Ibdaa seeks to train refugee youth in graphic design, photography, journalism, media advocacy and community radio. With respect to the latter, they will, for example, interview Islamic women about what it was like to be married at 12 years old, they will rescue oral histories from lost villages, and interview youth about their sports activities and life as refugees. They already have commitments of training support from many Palestinian and international journalists and communications experts. It will serve to communicate better within the Dheisheh community, raise the profile of Palestinian refugee issues around the world, train youth for jobs in communications, and fortify a communications network among refugee camps.

We were about to walk through the camp and see other Ibdaa programs but we were obliged to leave in a hurry. Ziad’s cell phone rang with the news that a Dheisheh boy had just been killed at a checkpoint by a sniper. Anticipating protest, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) would be arriving soon to impose a curfew. It was best that we leave. In 2002, Dheisheh was under strict curfew for 160 days.

Fatima led us on a tour of old Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Her voice assumed the rehearsed and authoritative lilt of a tour guide. In the grottos of the latter, we saw parallel versions of the birthplace of Jesus Christ from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. She narrated the Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman histories as she poked at layer upon layer of construction and reconstruction. She suggested that the complex mosaic was a mirror of the politics and cultures here. She then took us to the outskirts of old Bethlehem past a presidential palace built for Arafat — one of his many homes in Palestinian cities. (Her younger son, Amir, sniped that it was not in fact a presidential palace; they still await a democratically-elected president.) “This palace cost millions and endangers the whole neighborhood,” she said. Fatima’s in-laws moved up the hill with her and Ahmed when eight bullets passed through the elderly couple’s house nearby house. “The big international donors don’t care about all this corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA) — they just dump money here out of political obligation and then close their eyes.” Fatima continued. “I really don’t think I will ever see a solution to this conflict. Neither will my children.” She suggested that the solution is actually very simple, but the leadership on both sides is so very bad. I asked her son, Amir, if he shared his mother’s pessimism. “Me, no, I am very optimistic. I am leaving.” I clarified that I wondered about his optimism for his country. “Ah, for my country, no. No, I have no hope for my country. I have only one life to live and I will leave here and have a good life. I will not lose my life here.” Over eight million Palestinians live in the diaspora today.

For the first time, Fatima and Ahmed are also considering leaving, but at her age she fears that the transition will be unaffordable and that it will be too wrenching to leave family and community. “I would stay if I had a job. This is a wonderful place to live if you have a job, a great community to raise children, even with all the problems.” She never thought that Arafat would be so corrupt and incompetent or the Israelis so vicious. “I think that Arafat is really an Israeli,” she laughed, explaining that his inept greed plays right into the Israeli strategy of tightening the occupation and wearing the Palestinian people into leaving off resistance or leaving the country altogether.

We picked up Fatima’s husband at the Catholic Action community center. Bethlehem has the largest Christian population in Palestine. Since his dental business has declined, he serves on Catholic Action’s board of directors. Fatima organizes community dinners on the center’s outdoor patio in the summer with music and food. “In Jerusalem, an evening like this would cost $100 and only the wealthy could go. Now we all get together here. We put lights on the trees, dance and forget our problems a little while. The parties have helped build community.” These days, Fatima’s family’s movements are restricted by checkpoints to just a few miles in either direction from her house.

Before heading back to Jerusalem we returned to her house for tea. We plopped onto the couch and Ahmed’s sister — who lives with them – said, “I just heard on the news about another boy killed —” “No”, Ahmed stopped her abruptly. “Tell me about it tomorrow. We’ll start again tomorrow.” The atmosphere suddenly turned gloomy and silent. Fatima spoke in frustration, “they treat us just like the Europeans treated them.” Ahmed calmed her, “No habibi, you don’t need to go that far. No habibi, there are no ovens here.” “Yah, but the inhumanity,” she said, “we are animals to them.” “Yes, that is true”, he slowly nodded his head in agreement.

Ever the hostess, Fatima regained her spunk and composure, “Who wants tea? I have Tension Tamer tea.” Everyone accepted and after pouring, Fatima stood in front of the coffee table and told a very funny, off-colored joke. As the evening drew to a close and we prepared to leave for Jerusalem, I wondered how to return the family’s hospitality. Come to Boston, I of course offered. But if they can’t travel to Jerusalem, they’ll not make it across the Atlantic. “When you go to Gilo,” Fatima assured me, “just tell your cousins to look for my red flag and not to shoot. That’s enough.” I’m not exactly sure how that particular conversation will unfold, but I do know that as we near the time when many of us will sit around the Passover table and recount the story of Jewish oppression, I will feel braver and more obliged to speak about a history intertwined with the Jews, that of the Palestinians. More than anyone, Jews should know — proudly – that a people’s history can never be buried over. I look forward to a Passover of conversation and debate — however uncomfortable that may be — that includes Palestinian history and rights, and strategies that each and every one of us can and must employ to bring about a just peace between Palestine and Israel.

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