Tea and hospitality in Bethlehem

I just picked a lemon off a tree to slice and put in my tea. I’ve always wanted to pick a lemon! We are also eating popcorn that Zoughbi has made: I am being made extremely welcome at his apartment, which is five minutes’ walk from manger square, where there is the church of the Nativity. Zoughbi heads the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre here in Bethlehem, called WiamIMAG0094 Here is Zoughbi holding an enormous orange eaten here (thanks for posing!).

John Henson escorted me from Jerusalem to Wiam in Bethlehem, we walked through the turnstiles of the checkpoint at midday with no problems. But early in the morning and late at night, when thousands of Palestinians are going to and from work, I gather it is like a cattle shed. Once inside the wall many Palestinian taxi drivers enthusiastically greeted us hoping we would need a lift, but Wiam is just fifteen minutes’ walk from the checkpoint so we refused, repeatedly!

The walk took us along the wall, and I took the opportunity to snap the best of the graffiti and wall stories that have been posted up. IMAG0076

When we first arrived at Wiam it was slightly daunting to sit and explain to unknown faces why I am here and where I am from. It was helpful that John already knows both Zoughbi and Osama – he is another key person here working in community reconciliation. But over numerous cups of tea with lemon and sugar, Zoughbi felt he could use me to do some proofreading and gardening. The Wiam garden is one of the only green spaces left in the area. And I heard something about their work.

After about 45 minutes of chatting we heard what I thought sounded like gunshots outside. Osama looked worried and said they were teargas canisters being launched by the police near to the nearby Aida refugee camp. There has been unrest near the camp for the past week, with nightly checkpoints being set up just outside Wiam. John asked about it and Osama suggested we step outside and we might even smell it. So we did, and John asked if we could go to see the camp and what was happening, so Osama said it would be best if he took us. So here we are:IMAG0087

Then an ambulance drove by:

IMAG0088and then we saw soldiers standing at the end of the road and some young Palestinian people were walking up behind us:IMAG0091

It happened very quickly and just as we turned to go back the way we had come more shots went out and two or three rubber bullets bounced on the road a few metres ahead of us. So Osama told us to come off the road into a nearby cemetry area, a few more young people were gathering on the road behind us, we heard teargas fired, and we moved away and found another way out by going through the run-down cemetry. I felt nervous but our lives weren’t in danger, but it was eye-opening to see the kind of confrontation that happens on a daily basis at this refugee camp.

Osama led us back nearer to the wall and past ‘Rachel’s tomb’: we could just about see the top of the dome. The separation wall makes an incredibly audacious snaking journey beyond the legal, UN-agreed ‘Green Line’ to take in this place. Rachel is the mother of Joseph, a patriarch in Jewish, Islamic and Christian traditions. Before the wall was erected, all three could visit. Now it is only open to Israeli ID holders. The wall has taken a quarter of Wiam’s land and much land from other Palestinians. It is really sad to see its effect on people’s lives in so many ways.

One way I learnt tonight, talking to Zoughbi’s daughter Marcelle, is how it is restricting mobility for work, and also mixing of different communities. As a Palestinian Christian girl, it is very difficult to find ‘eligible’ young Christian men now (Palestine is only 1% Christian) – there are all sorts of ID cards in the Palestinian territories, so if you have a blue and pink one (Bethlehem/Jerusalem area) you can’t marry someone with a green one, and there are also plain blue ones, depending on the extent to which the territory is controlled by the IDF or Palestinian police. I may have got confused with the colours but you get the gist.

Tonight we ate Marcelle’s lovely stuffed onion and carrot casserole – stuffed with cinamon-flavoured beef mince and rice, cooked in a tomato gravy. The tomatoes they pulp and preserve in jars at harvest time. Here the Christmas decorations are still up for Armenian Christmas on the 18th January. And we passed the evening watching an episode of Sherlock from a special down-loading website, except it only worked for the first half, so we had to abandon it.

Life here is different in so many ways and the same in others. With that thought, I sign off.

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About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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One Response to Tea and hospitality in Bethlehem

  1. Francoise Pinteaux-Jones says:

    Thank you Sophie. It is great to see the Holy Land through your eyes. Love and prayers

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