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The Bethlehem summer rhythm (not thinking about war and occupation)

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 26.08.2006:

Notes from a diary: July 2 – July 9, 2001

Toine van Teeffelen

Timelessness and pastoral quiet are basic attributes of Bethlehem. The name of the town is known allover the world and has an unquestionable meaning to hundreds of millions of people. During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century many photographers, mainly European but also Arab ones, tried to catch and appropriate this timelessness in pictures in which local Palestinians, perhaps against some payment, stood model for the Nativity scene and for the shepherds hearing the good tidings. Pictures that have been rightly criticized for their tendency to over-romanticize the image of Bethlehem. They turned people into objects of a Western gaze only interested in ‘seeing’ eternal Biblical scenes where in reality a thriving community was struggling to survive in the face of war and occupation.

The timelessness of the message of Bethlehem blends with the rhythm of a pastoral life adapted to the agricultural cycle and the manual skills typical for Palestinian traditional crafts. Once glassblowers and pottery makers in the region told me how the rhythmic movements of their hands were learned in the early years and could not really be acquired by adults, in the same way as learning to play the piano is best done when young. Some even told that the kinetic capacity to perform a special handicraft was genetically transmitted.

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My Arabic teacher tells how her mother used to have vivid memories of the times when she and the women of her extended family and neighbors sat next to each other in the courtyard of the house, working on the difficult cross-stitch patterns typical for the Bethlehem embroidery. They looked over each shoulder and jealously watched whether their neighbor was faster, their tongues telling the stories of the day, their hands creating colorful products of art. It is these and similar scenes that old people remember when evoking the good old days.

Some years ago I discussed with students at Birzeit University images of Palestine as expressed in Palestinian literature. We were astonished to see how writers, even in the very rhythm of their language, evoked the pleasant daily life of a quiet, undisturbed Palestine. In a recollection of his youth in Bethlehem, the writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, author of the restless novel ‘The Ship’, lovingly tells about the life among the orchards and trees when the people at harvest time climbed in the trees and sang their refrains while picking the fruits, one ‘tree’ rhythmically responding to the other’s sung questions. A fragment of Jabra’s life story that touches me especially now is a description of his father just before the man became ill and weak. A tyre was accidentally lost, and it rolled down a Bethlehem hill. The father ran after it and proudly caught it in the eyesight of the son who observed that his father was still energetic and strong. I myself often run after Jara’s balls which repeatedly threaten to roll down the steep hill near my mother in law’s house. Unconsciously I want to show her that her father is still well and running, as if time does not pass by.

* * *

The Palestinian feel of timelessness is not flat, so to speak, but punctuated by bursts of vivid, dramatic emotion and lack of patience. Some of the words most used in Palestine are the impatient chalas (stop it) and yalla (move on) which stands in opposition to the also frequently used istanna (wait). Lately my wife Mary and I, while waiting in a taxi, observed a discussion interspersed with those words that took place between a taxi driver and peasant women who wanted to bring their large baskets and boxes with vegetables and fruits into the car but balked at the price they needed to pay for the space taken. A big discussion ensued, with concomitant gestures and shouts. But not before long all were laughing. The taxi driver helped bringing in the heavy boxes telling the women: “after I have put them all inside, I will have a backache and women will refuse marrying me.” Later on we get out of the car but can only do so by climbing and jumping over the fruits. The driver tells Mary that a little exercise will be good for her.

I will forever remember the scenes in which Mary and our daughter Jara, both playing as if exasperate at each other, call yalla, meaning that Jara has to come and eat. Jara, who does not want to eat, shouts at her turn yalla as if to say that she hears what mother is saying, understands the importance and urgency of what is said, but has her own private considerations that dictate her not to go and eat, at least not right at this moment. It sometimes happens that people who want each other to do something, tell in a crescendo of apparent mutual agreement, yalla, yalla!, but stay unmoved and continue to do their things for another while. A certain stubbornness is definitely another Palestinian cultural trait.

While sitting in a taxi, a few women pass by graciously but very slowly. The taxi driver bends backwards in the chair, put his hands in relaxation on the back of his head and remarks that the women walk “like the Patriarch.” At Christmas time, the patriarch and the procession solemnly move through Star Street to the Church, as if emphasizing the message of Bethlehem. The deep values of Palestinian culture are likely those values associated with an uncomplicated, quiet rhythm of life. I can’t count the times that people told me “Don’t complicate things!” a sin which is somehow connected to doing things hastily and unreflectively.

* * *

Together with my Arabic teacher I read a local story about King Sulayman, the snake and the mole. (King Sulayman is King Solomon of the Old Testament). While the King is in Damascus, the snake and the mole wish to know why they are without legs and without sight. The King tells them that he will speak justice only on his throne in Jerusalem. The mole and the snake break records in speeding to Jerusalem where they arrive even before the King riding his famous horse. The King tells them that if without legs or sight they even go faster than his horse, how much destruction would they bestow upon the world if they would receive what they ask for? God created them like they are in order to protect the world against their eagerness to speed.

* * *

The slow harmony of Palestinian life has been uprooted not just by the naqba, the wars and the settlements, but also by a capitalism breaking up a peasant economy and the accompanying life rhythm. The quietness of a rural lifestyle has now been superseded by a tenseness that is escaped by few. On my way back home yesterday, I witnessed a discussion between two taxi drivers who complained that their colleagues were all busily going after money. Whatever one’s opinion about capitalism and earning good money, it to some extent contradicts basic cultural values, and you can see that many Palestinians don’t feel at ease with the associated ‘fast’ lifestyle. As if they are doubly uprooted, politically and culturally. The driver who takes me back to Bethlehem, and who doesn’t have any other passengers apart from me, refuses to accept money as if he momentarily wants to say “no” to everything that has corrupted the Palestinian lifestyle. In essence, people long for the good life to come back, if only fleetingly or dreamlike.

(Published in: Bethlehem Diary: 2000-2002, Arab Educational Institute, Culture and Palestine series, Bethlehem, 2002)

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