Nicola arrived in a taxi to pick me up at about 8:30 in the morning. She was going to Bethlehem to visit some artists in connection with the exhibition in London and so I accompanied her. There are several routes you can take to get to Bethlehem but we chose the most direct one through Jerusalem. This is a route that is reserved, however, for people with a Jerusalem-ID or for foreigners with international passports. People with the green ID from the West Bank aren’t allowed on that road and instead have to take a long curve around the city. From the bus station in the centre of Ramallah, we took the number 18 bus which drives through the Qualandya checkpoint to get to Jerusalem. When we got to the checkpoint, Nicola told me that older people and foreigners could stay in the buses whilst all the other passengers had to get off and go through the control inside the building. I thought about going along into the building but decided to stay in the bus with 8 to 10 other people. A very young Israeli soldier with a machine gun and bulletproof vest got on the bus, looking over everyone’s documents and messing around a bit with peoples’ bags and so on. The machine gun dangling at his side was pretty overwhelming for me but for the Palestinians it was obviously completely commonplace. The control wasn’t very thorough though and the bus rolled through the checkpoint to pick up the other passengers on the other side. Apart from one person who’d apparently had problems in the control building, everyone got back on board and the bus carried on towards the bus stop at the Damascus Gate. After a few problems finding our next bus in the confusion of the Old City, and after a cup of Arabic coffee, we took a number 21 bus and drove on towards Bethlehem.
Jerusalem is dispersed across several hills and it’s quite fascinating to see the many views that appear whilst the bus is moving. Bethlehem lies to the south of the city but because of the settlements that have been built on the hills between the two cities it almost merges with Jerusalem. After going through several checkpoints, it was difficult at times to tell which side of the wall we were on as the journey was very curvy and hilly. The different areas of the city lie like tongues next to each other; the settlements and the Palestinian neighbourhoods in between one another. Beit Jala is a smaller city next to Bethlehem and we drove down there to meet Samira. Samira is married to the Palestinian ambassador in London but as their son wasn’t happy about living in London, she was back at home in Palestine. Nadira, a friend of Samira, was visiting her. She introduced herself as an ‘amateur artist’ but it turned out that she had made some good things. For example, she had made a game of cards of all the various UN resolutions over the years that had condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. These resolutions had, however, never changed a thing. There were many cards in the pile. I’m not entirely sure why she had chosen a card game to represent the uselessness of the UN. It might have had something to do with suggesting that the international community plays games with the fate of the Palestinian people — or something along those lines. Samira had baked for us some small breads stuffed with cheese and some excellent cakes with a lot of nuts in.
Nadira told us something about Samira’s house being broken into but Samira misunderstood this and took out pictures from 2002, a time when their house had apparently been hit by an Israeli missile. She thought this was what we’d been talking about. One could see from the pictures how the missile had dug itself through the outer wall and then exploded inside the house and caused a lot of damage. The family had been in the house at the time but no-one had got hurt because the missile had hit the furthest side of the house. There was also a picture of Samira’s son, who was about 10 years old at the time, proudly holding up the missile canister. ‘Made in the USA’, Samira said, which sure enough was written on the side of the canister. She told us that there had been people from the Palestinian militia in the area and that they’d fired rifle shots towards the Israeli settlement Gilo that is on the next hill in the direction of Jerusalem. The Israeli response had been the missiles. Samira jokingly complained that no one from the militia had even been in their fairly large house, because “at least then we would have deserved the missile”, as she put it.
Samira was clearly from the Palestinian political establishment but had a wide political engagement. She works, amongst other things, in the organisation Open Bethlehem (http://www.openbethlehem.org) that strives to get tourists and more life back into Bethlehem. The city has become completely squeezed by the Wall which now surrounds it, and at the same time tourists in Israel are told that it is dangerous to stay in Bethlehem for too long at a time. So the city’s hotels, restaurants and shops are dying. Open Bethlehem is trying to change this development.
Nadira, Samira, Nicola and I left in Nadira’s car to visit another artist in Bethlehem. Here we met Samar, who does watercolours and computer graphics, mostly of women with very large eyes. We were also fed a lot of coffee and snacks here. Samar’s mother then started cooking hot food for us which we had to politely refuse as we were by now already full up. There is no limit to the generosity when it comes to both food and stories here.
After we had visited another artist on Nicola’s list we went to the Nativity Church at the heart of Bethlehem. Everything was peaceful and joyous, with a wedding procession outside and tourists on the inside and in the cellar where it’s said to have happened — by this I mean the birth of Jesus. I could not help but think of a big battle that had taken place in the church only five years earlier when a group of militant Palestinians sought refuge in the church which was then put under siege by the Israelis. Approximately 25 Palestinians died on that occasion. It’s quite peculiar how in Palestine such traumatic experiences are very quickly normalised so that life can go on. There were no traces to be seen of the siege. I only noted how few tourists there were in the church and the narrow streets of Bethlehem were quite deserted, which was sad to see.