Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I can only tell you what I saw...

Silja is a young woman who came here three years ago and worked for EAPPI (The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel). She lived in Hebron. I met her at an Expat’s meeting on the Mount of Olives . She offered to let me come with her to Hebron. She wants to visit old friends and I tagged along.

I have had quite a day.
The only way to really see anywhere is get in the midst of it. By this I mean, that we often don’t see the reality of somewhere when we are on a bus or a train. Small buses, taxis and walking are often more hands on.

We begin our day on the blue bus to Bethlehem where we change to a little yellow minivan. We go through checkpoints but going in is never the problem.  Silja is so brave in my eyes. She speaks to everyone, asking them where they come from, where their families were before ’48. Everyone is so helpful, wanting to either practice their English or help us with our Arabic. The young man in our yellow bus is a teacher coming from Jerusalem, going home to Bet Jala.
We land in Hebron and as we make our way down the street Silja mentions a place in Arabic and the next thing we know a gentleman has stopped us. He was shocked to hear this Norwegian beauty speaking Arabic. He is a director of some government organization in Hebron. He is so happy to see us and gives us peaches. Beautiful fresh peaches. Sweet and crisp and just the thing for a warm afternoon treat.   It is a lovely welcome.

We make our way through a very busy part of Hebron. It is called H1. Hebron has been partitioned off into areas. H1 being safer, I guess because it is under Palestinian Authority and H2 being the area in which settlers live. I am told that there are 4 military for every one settler. In this settlement, built right in the middle of H2, there are 700 settlers. Settlers are allowed to carry guns, too. That is an awful lot of weapons in one small area.

As we walk closer to the area where Silja once worked, the streets became more and more empty. All the shops are closed and hardly anyone is around. It is eerily quiet for a sunny afternoon. We make our way to the Women in Hebron Cooperative. Silja knows the owner, Nawal, but she is not there today. However, her sister Laila is there and so happy to see Silja. She offers us tea. We sit and drink. It is hot and sweet. And we talk or rather they talk and I listen. It is an interesting mixture of broken English and scattered Arabic but I am beginning to catch a phrase or two here and there. They have much to catch up on and the main conversation is around the local gossip.  The young boys come around to ask us to buy bracelets from them and the girls coming home from school are so happy to see us and practice their English and take pictures of us.  Laila is so tired and not feeling very well. ‘No one stops by the shop any more. It is so sad. A boy was killed last week – just knocked down by a settler’s car. I am very tired.’ She just shakes her head sadly. I purchase a beautiful pillow cover – traditional Palestinian stitchery.

There is a pall over the city. The young men have little to do with their shops closed down. One young man, Issalam, has become our impromptu guide. He used to carry his wares in a box around town because his shop was on the other side of the checkpoint near the Mosque but now “they have knocked his box out of his hands and he has nothing to sell” but a few bracelets and key chains which he keeps in his pockets.  I buy a few trinkets from him.  Yet even in the midst of this, we are given gifts. An extra bracelet and another embroidered change purse. The hospitality and kindness are overwhelming.

Our ‘tour’ continues down empty streets. The older men sit in their vacant shops or bring their chairs out to sit in the empty souk. The smell of wafting coffee is wonderful, mixed with cigarettes and that sweet odour of fruit that is on the edge of becoming over ripe. There is no one around, a few little boys playing kickball in the empty neighbourhood.

We have arrived at the check point for the Ibrahimi Mosque / Tomb of the Patriarchs. This is the site where Jacob, Ishaq and Abraham are buried. A holy place for both the Muslims and the Jews. So they have split it down the middle and share it. Today it is closed for a Jewish Holiday. But we stand by the revolving gate that serves to separate the people from their place of worship. We look up and there, poignantly, hangs a teddy bear on the barbwire.

We walk back the way we have come and follow empty streets that are a confusion to me as they twist and turn yet somehow we find ourselves back at the invisible line where busyness seems to begin again.

So much has been pointed out to me today. As we walk through the old streets of Hebron (it is one of the oldest cities in Palestine, and when I say old I mean thousands of years old), above us are cloth or net coverings, slung from one side of the narrow street to the other. I thought this was to protect the people below from the hot sun but I am told it is to protect the people below from the garbage and chamber pots that are thrown out of the windows from the settlers above. They live above and the Palestinians live below. Always. The Palestinians settle the land in the valleys for farming. The settlers go for the hill tops. Or in this case the taller buildings. All high rise Palestinian homes are empty.

We go through another checkpoint into a no-man’s land. I can’t remember the name of the street but no one is allowed to live there as it is too close to the settlers .Everything is locked up tight although windows are broken and there is a sense of abandonment and utter loss. There are armed militia and cameras around. This is however the way the children have to come to go to school. The stories are coming now of how the children have been harassed – garbage thrown at them, yelling and insults. The school tagged and set on fire. No one is allowed to touch the olive trees – so no one can harvest their crop (this Issalam tells us as he takes a handful of olives from the nearest olive tree - the defiance written all over his face. His safety is in the internationals that are with him, I think. Us.) 

We make our way back again to H1. We say goodbye and promise that when we return we will look Issalam up and say hello. We grab a taxi and go to the Happy Bunny restaurant (it is the land mark we are looking for so we know where to turn to get to the home of Silja’s friends) (and yes, it is Bugs).

We arrive at the home of Hilda and Samir. Samir greets Silja with hugs and kisses and then turns to me as if he has known me forever and hugs me long and hard. My tears are near the surface because he reminds me of my father. Not at all in how he looks, just in his loving manner and kindness. We come into his beautiful home and we are given grapes and apples. He makes flowers out of the Kleenex to use as our napkins. We have coffee. He is happy that I like coffee. It is hot and slightly tart in that rich coffee way. We are given Twinkies as a treat. He has these amazing blue eyes. I have decided I don’t understand the basis for prejudice because of ethnicity. It doesn’t make sense – so far I have seen blonde blue eyed Palestinians, red headed Jews and beautiful dark haired and deep brown eyed people of who knows what religion. Our world has a lovely mix of people, such a shame it is not appreciated.

Samir goes to the garden and brings us sprigs of jasmine. The fragrance – light and delicate.

When Hilda arrives home she too is happy to see us. I laugh to myself because the first thing she does is take off her hijab. I always wondered what was underneath a woman’s hijab and now I know – underneath is a normal woman, just like me.  Will we stay for dinner? Of course. And when we are called in to the kitchen to eat, a feast has been prepared. A cabbage dish – like cabbage rolls – meat and rice and spices. Salads, hummus, eggplant, pita. And Samir keeps piling it on; every time I finish something I get more. I am amazed at the generousity. We meet a neighbour Waja, a teacher, with whom I have traded information. Perhaps I will contact her when she is in Ramallah.

Now it is time to leave. It is dark early now as the time has changed to winter time so Samir drives us to the bus stop. More hugs and promises to return. We wait for a while but our bus is not filling up and the driver wants to either wait for more people or have us pay 50 shekels to take us to Bethlehem. It is usually only 9.  We decide to walk and hope to catch a bus that is already on route.  And we do. We get to Bet Jala, take a taxi to Bethlehem and the Gilo checkpoint. It is deserted but I still get the sense of what it must be like during the day when people wait up to 5 hours to get through here. It is a long cattle path, really, with barbed wire everywhere and the barred path we walk down. It goes a long way, twisting back and forth – the Disneyland of the holy land.  We put our bags through security x-ray and show our passports, we walk through the first set of turn styles – tall, no escape and no return turn styles. More walking, another set of turn styles and another passport check and we are on the other side of the wall.

We have been walking with a man who is going in our direction. He is kind and although he doesn’t speak English, we have communicated enough that he has been keeping an eye on us through the check point and now into the street where we wait for our connection to Jerusalem. We wait again, for a while, and ask a passerby where the best stop is for the bus. It happens to be down the street so off we go again. We eventually get a lift from someone in a minivan who isn’t really a sharout (a kind of taxi) but he is going to Jerusalem so for 5 shekels we can get a lift. In we hop.

Finally home, I leave Silja at the blue bus station (where we began our day) as she has one more ride to go to get to the Mount of Olives.  I walk down Saladin Street.  I stop for an ice cream and make my way home. It has been quite the day. I am saddened by what I saw but heartened by what I felt. I met lovely kind, generous people – all day. 

And that gives me hope somehow.

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