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Death and life

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 19.10.2015:

Toine van Teeffelen


Last week Tuesday it happened that Mary’s sister Janet was suddenly struck by a massive heart attack. She passed away immediately. Janet, 69 year, was an incredibly warm personality, she did a large part of the household and was like a second mother for the children. From her birth on, Mary lived together with her, as well as with her mother who passed away a year ago.

Janet looks peaceful in the open coffin, placed in the family house. As if sleeping. Her face seems to express that she did not suffer. In a circle around the coffin family members murmur Hail Mary and Our Father prayers in Arabic. I speak a Hail Mary prayer for Jara who cannot attend as the traveling from Holland to Amman and across the Allenby Bridge is too complicated under the circumstances. Rita and Norma, Mary’s sisters from Paris, are able to travel through Tel Aviv, and are present, like Rita’s son Gabriel.

While we walk outside, Tamer hesitatingly puts his arm around Mary’s shoulder. At moments we hear shooting not far away, at Rachel’s Tomb – illegally annexed by Israel and transformed into a walled military fortress. We are alert for smelling clouds of teargas and other gases that may float into our direction.

The organization of the funeral requires some improvisation. The day before the funeral is a general strike because of the death of a protester from Dheisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem. When he was killed by an Israeli bullet he stood watching the clashes besides Jacir’s Palace (the former Intercontinental in Bethlehem).

With the family’s support, Mary succeeds in time to obtain the death certificate, as the Palestinian Ministry of Health decides to close the doors as soon as a demonstration starting in Dheisheh passes by. We buy flowers on the funeral day itself when the shops are open again. The family decides to organize the mourning days not in the usual hall at the Catholic Antoniana house for the elderly, as teargas from nearby Rachel’s Tomb may come in. Instead we rent a hall in the Armenian monastery that is part of the Church of Nativity complex.

The memorial service is Thursday, also in the Church of Nativity. The moment that the close family puts a last kiss on Janet’s face before the coffin closes, is intense.

The hall in the Armenian monastery is built in Byzantine times and the upper part, I think, in Crusader times. The women, wearing black, and the men sit separately in the large hall. Bitter coffee is served.

I stand in the row of male family members who shake hands with those who enter and leave. In the three days mourning period I press the hands of a great many people who show themselves respectful, compassionate or friendly. Sometimes a piece of wisdom about life and death is relayed. A few show a hint of a smile in my direction, as if saying: “You have no choice than adapting to our elaborate customs….” Once the mourning period was actually eight days.

Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, also pases by, like countless known and half-known persons. Of course people take the opportunity to have a talk with one another. Among the women many conversations are about the families, the men talking more about the political situation. The mourning days somehow show the transition from the silent sadness after the loss of a loved one to the liveliness of involved conversations, as if the family and the community come to live after the decease of one of their members.

Once in a while a curious tourist enters to have a look in this unknown part of the Nativity Church. Many attendants watch the latest news on their mobiles. Two lawyers tell each other how soldiers are entering houses. At Jacir’s Palace, the hotel, daily clashes last with few interruptions from 12:00 noon until 19:00 evening . The demonstrators throw or swing rocks, sometimes Molotov cocktails. The Israeli soldiers shoot various kinds of bullets from the watchtower or from small panels in the gate; at times they come out of the gate running, or jeeps suddenly appear.

Again somebody is seriously injured, in the face. The outer part of a house, including the veranda, belonging to the son of a cousin of Mary, is burnt due to an Israeli fire projectile. You can better not live or work in that area, if only because of the smell. Somebody tells that his son cannot go to school because he has to pass Jacir’s Palace. Now the son is playing between the mourners.

The third day starts with a Holy Mass in one of the Milk Grotto chapels, a visit to the graveyard, and then back to the hall where sweet cake and bitter coffee are served. During the lunch the family offers kiddreh, in this part of Palestine a well known meal – spiced rice with lamb meat – often served during such occasions. “C’est la vie,” sighs somebody, after which we collect ourselves and go home.

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