Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 07.05.2006:
Alexander Qamar is a retired factory owner from Jerusalem who lives near Aida refugee camp in Beit Jala, opposite the Wall. Here is his life story:
“Every two or three weeks the army comes knocking at the door. They have come four times since they built the Wall. They ask us to leave the house and stand for two or three hours on the street. You hear a voice outside shouting: “Open, open!” “Who is there?” I ask. “Jaysh [army], jaysh, Israeli jaysh!” Then they search the house. It is not a living. The last time was about three-four weeks ago. It happened that a fellow from them spoke French, he was an officer. So I spoke with him French. I told him: “From where are you, from Morocco?” “No, no, je suis Parisien!” Briefly, I got a feeling of cosmopolitanism, but under what circumstances!
The street there in front of our house leads to Rachel’s Tomb. It used to be the easiest way to reach the center of Bethlehem or to go to Jerusalem. However, it was closed during the last Intifada. When the boys from Aida camp came out along that street and saw the Israelis, they started throwing stones. After the closure of the road we couldn’t easily move anymore. The refugee camp became a backwater. There used to be many people living in this area but now there remains no living soul here. It’s empty. See, how difficult it is for you to find somebody over here who knows my place. A year ago, the PNA opened another street behind Rachel’s Tomb, to make it somewhat easier for the people. However, with the building of the Wall access again became more difficult. In fact, the Wall was one of the reasons to close our factory.
In the past we used to get a two- or three-week permit to go to Jerusalem. Sometimes you took a sideway, for instance the path through Tantur [ecumenical center besides the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint]. That is now not possible anymore. I am an old man now, I am 81, and I cannot run as before to cross from here and there, or even to go and walk the distance. I have to go all the way and ask for a permit from Kfar Etzion [Israeli civil administration branch of the army]. Either they give me one or they don’t.
I used to have customers in Mea Shearim, Bukharim, Arab places in Jerusalem. Up until now the merchants in Jerusalem owe me some money which I cannot collect. Our textile products were brought to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nablous, or Ramallah. Now we can’t enter, or easily enter, those places. Before the closure [in 1993] I used to be in Jerusalem within a span of 15 minutes. Now, if I have the chance, it costs at least half a day. It is as if we are in a prison; not a prison of a room, but of a quarter.
We used to have a view up until Gilo. Now we don’t see anything in front of us except the Wall. To have a look, I have to go to the terrace on the roof. Under the present situation I want to sell my house. But buyers don’t want to pay as before. That means that I am losing. With the Wall nearby, nobody wants to buy. If I would be able I would move to another place, or move to my two brothers in Canada. Nobody is living in this quarter. Many have left for Bethlehem or elsewhere. The Wall has closed in on us.
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All my life I have been a factory owner. The places of our factory and living house have changed over time. In 1948, our living house was in the Rehavia quarter in Jerusalem, Arlosoroff Street nr. 15. We were at supper in the night when we heard knocking at the door: “Anton, Anton, come out, we want to speak with you!” [Anton was my father]. He went outside and some four or five of the Haganah [the regular Zionist army at the time] showed their Israeli-made stenguns to him. They told us: “You are living in a Jewish quarter. We have a fellow living in an Arab quarter, in Baka’. You have to go in his place and he will come in your place.” What could we do? This man from Baka’ was an attorney general in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, Dr Nacht. We knew his auntie, and so we accepted.
At the time we had our factory opposite Mea Shearim. It was in part a laundry and in part a dye house for textile. The factory was taken over by the Haganah. We had just ordered new machinery from abroad. The machinery came from England and had to go all the way through Beirut, Damascus, Amman, and Jericho. Since we had to move we were forced to put the machines either in Ramallah or in Bethlehem. We decided to put them in Bethlehem. We installed the machineries and started working in 1951. Our old factory in Jerusalem was completely lost. The laundry equipment was taken over by a baby home in Jerusalem. We also lost our other properties. Inside Mea Shearim our family had twelve shops. Since 50 years we haven’t received any rent. We had pieces of land, 200 dunams, near Beit Safafa. We all lost it.
Until 1969 our factory was located at the junction of the Jerusalem-Hebron and Bethlehem-Beit Jala roads, at what is nowadays called Baab el-Zqaaq. One Sunday an accident happened with an Israeli car in which there were three officers and the driver. A truck from Beit Jala took them and crushed them in front of our factory. The three officers and the driver were killed. Then the Israeli government announced that we had 48 hours to move our factory away from that place. The factory was thought to be too close to the street. It made the street narrow – Zqaaq means “very narrow” – and that was considered to be the reason of the accident. The Israelis wanted to enlarge the street. After intervention of a Jewish lawyer, I got 40 days to move. They didn’t want to pay me any compensation money. They told us: “Collect it from the mayor of Beit Jala.” Now is Beit Jala a small place, and the municipality didn’t have money. All what they gave us was 1500 Israeli lira, just enough for moving to another place. In 40 days we built the building where we are presently in.
Life was easy, because we had workers; refugees from the camp here [Aida camp], in total 40 of them, girls and men. We taught them how to labour in the factory. However, over time the situation of the textile declined. Before the factory’s closure two years ago we had only 22 workers. We couldn’t anymore compete with the cheap labor in China.
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Our life has changed hundred percent, it has moved from freedom to imprisonment. In Jerusalem we were free, we lived differently. Jerusalem was like Europe. Before 1948, there was this open atmosphere. On Thursdays and Sundays the cinemas were especially for the Christians. Saturday night after Sabbath the cinemas were for the Jews. At the time you had no TV, it was just cinema. The Christians in Jerusdalem were larger in number than the Moslems and the Jews. That was so in the Baka’, Katamon, the German Colony, the Greek Colony, with plenty of Germans and Greeks from Turkey who came to Jerusalem, Armenians who fled from the massacre, and Christian Arabs.
We ourselves were Arabs from Jerusalem. My grandfather came from Lebanon from Dar el Amar [Shof mountains]. He came after clashes between Christians and Druzes, and after the Crimean War . After that war Turkey was obliged to open Jerusalem to all. My family started to work in hotels and mix with the people. My grandfather became a blacksmith in a shop in the old city. He happened to have a neighbour from Malta, who worked with the Cook Traveling Agency. My grandfather married the daughter of the agent.
With so many different nationalities we felt free in Jerusalem. Nowadays Jerusalem is divided between Jews and Moslems. But it used to be a cosmopolitan city. On Sunday all the roads were full of Christians going to churches. On that day you only saw Christians on Jaffa Road. We spoke different languages: Arabic, French, English. There was the Alliance Israelite, a Jewish institute that used to teach the French language at an elementary school. Their boys came to the College de Freres or Terra Sancta to continue their studies. They came from Morocco, Tunis, Turkey, there were even Jews from Egypt. That was up until 1942. At the time many Christian schools continued to teach the Hebrew language, not obligatory, but after the normal lessons. I sat with Jews in the same bench, with Moshe Shetrit, and others. Every morning we went to the church while the Moslems and Jews remained in the courtyard. Then at eight we all entered the class together. There were Jews with us in every class. From the thirty students were seven or eight Jews and two Moslems, the rest were Christians. I had a fellow in the same bench; he was called Louis. He didn’t continue the school but after seven or eight years I met him in Jaffa Street. I looked at him – he had red hair – and told him: “Aren’t you Louis Schnevelstein?” “From where do I know you?” he told me, “Were you not in the College de Freres? But now I am not Louis.” “What are you now?” “I am Levi now!” He had changed his name. He didn’t want to speak with me further. Imagine, we were in the same bench.
At that time Jerusalem meant liberty. There were no patrols. We used to go to the same cafes, the same restaurants. On Saturday we went to café Europe. It is on the crossroads of Jaffa Road and Ben Yehuda Street. The building belonged to a fellow of Bethlehem, Sansur. One was free to enter that café, to dance, to do everything. It didn’t matter whether one was Jew or Arab, there was no difference. That was so until the publication of the White Paper in 1939. Before that, in 1936, there was an Arab strike [of half a year] but that took place only in the old city of Jerusalem. In 1939 the Jews, the Haganah and the Irgun [paramilitary Zionist band], began to strike at the British. Then the Jewish boys stopped coming at our school.
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In the course of time many Christians left. The Germans were imprisoned and taken to Australia. A lot of Greeks returned to Greece after the 1948 war. Many Armenians went to America. Most of the Christians lost their houses outside the city walls. They fled to America, Canada, or Australia. The Christians are now less than 5% of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The Christians are also leaving Bethlehem. People go to places where there is work. There are now 250.000 descendants from the inhabitants of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour living in Chile or Mexico. Here in Beit Jala you may have just 10-15.000. Maybe 85% of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour live abroad. The people of Beit Jala left especially for Chile; the Bethlehemites to Mexico. Nowadays they are leaving for America and Canada. Most people don’t find work here. And it is work which keeps people going on.
The Jerusalemites and Bethlehemites are a mixture of different peoples, and that is something I value. St Jerome [who translated the Bible into Roman and lived in Bethlehem in the 4th century] came from present-day Romania. In the past you even had Jews who converted to Christianity and established themselves in Bethlehem. Most of the intelligentsia of this country used to come from places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You always had change here. People were on the move, there was an atmosphere of cosmopolitanism. That’s why all over the world you can find people from Bethlehem; in Europe, America, South Africa, everywhere. But now you just find a prison here, you cannot travel, you cannot cross borders anymore.”
Interview: 16/12/04, Beit Jala
Toine van Teeffelen
The Writing on the Wall series