Monday April 11 : Aida, Bethlehem and Al-Arroub

Friday 9 March 2012
popularity : 31%

This morning, we leave Al-Arroub with the taxi-van to the refugee camp of Aida (Bethlehem), where we are meeting Martine and Sandra for a convivial cooking activity together with the women of the camp. Aida is the place where Tanguy and Anne-Claire stayed for ten days with the first Taayoush Group in April 2009...

(détail carte)

We drive through Bethlehem towards its northern suburbs. We go past a luxurious hotel that stands only a few meters away from the entrance of the refugee camp: shocking neighbourhood indeed...

The taxi drops us in front of a small white wall that bears a colourful inscription: “ Ahlan wa sahlan fi Aïda / Welcome to Aïda - 1948.”

The artists have added a red triangle to the Palestinian flag they have drawn, so that it forms a cheerful arrow indicating the way to follow.

It is nice and at the same time, unsettling: these colours embellish something that is fundamentally awful. Yet they probably boost the camp inhabitants’ morale. Unless they are a way to reassure the potential visitors: come in, you run no risk if you come and visit us. We are like you, despite the circumstances...

We follow Tanguy and Anne-Claire, two of the "2099 Taayoushists” who both seem to be quite moved. We walk along small walls on which naïve paintings represent children playing. Next to them, a short text in Arabic and English: "Article 31, the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities and to participate in cultural and artistic activity.” A bit further, there is a glorious young woman standing black-clad. With one hand, she keeps a jar in a balanced state on her head. Her veil unfurls all around her and progressively turns into the green lanscape of Palestine. At her feet, there are children and Naji Al-Ali’s unescapable character,Handala, his hands crossed behind his back… [1]

We go past a property wall whose breeze-blocks are piled up so as to wrap itself around the twisted trunk of an old olive tree jutting out on the pavement. The tree looks as if it was struggling to tear itself away from this place… It is almost a metaphor for the inhabitants of this camp who are locked in, confined in a stranglehold that can but only blow up one day under the life-force it contains...

"Look!": a portal in the form of a key-lock spans the street. The refugees of Aida have topped it with a huge key, the symbol of their hope to be able to go back home one day, back to their house they were forcibly evicted from by the Israeli army in 48 and 67. "If we have time to", Tanguy announces, "we’ll go and see the fresco the inhabitants have painted inside the camp. It is really beautiful, you’ll see. It is a combination of paintings and mosaics of bits of broken tiles that tells their tragedy, the tragedy of all the refugees of Palestine".

All of a sudden, brutally in front of us: the separating wall built by Israel. It encircles Rachel’s Tomb where, according to tradition, the biblical matriarch Rachel rests. This place, Tanguy tells us, is the third holy sites of Judaism and is considered as a holy place by the Muslims too.

As you can notive, with the wall, the Tomb constitutes an enclave under Israeli military control that is right in the middle of the autonomous Palestinian city of Bethlehem. [2]

We watch the wall and remember what we were told about it during our preparation sessions with Marianne Blume and Michel Staszewski from the UPJB: it is presented as a security barrier (against the Palestinian terrorists), but in the facts, it is more a separation barrier, not only keeping the Palestinians and the Israelis apart (once the first ones have become invisible to the second ones, they have become little more than ghosts on which to project one’s (often unjustified) insecurities and deserving all the blame for them), but also isolating the Palestinians from each others. The different communities are cut from one another: “divide and conquer” is a well-known tactic…

This wall is really huge. It blocks our view and our breath. In silence, we survey the succession of the eight-meter-high concrete sections of the wall, each one perfectly fitted into the next one. In their upper part there is a round hole. This is no architectural affectation but the place where to put the bar or the chain of the crane to move and place them efficiently and rapidly. The wall of apartheid. Blocked horizon...

It is the first time we really size up what it implies for the Palestinian people. Near Qalandia checkpoint, where we had waited for Marwan in Jerusalem, we were not at all aware of what it meant to find oneself “behind”, confined behind, cut from the rest of the world. But today, in Aida, we are on the side of the “surrounded ones”…

The wall is really huge. There are colourful drawings and charicatures on it, most of them full of humour. They were made by all those who this soulless snake has outraged, but they don’t take anything away from the despicable character of the wall... On our left, the girls’ school, on our right, barbed wires and a watchtower. And the famous trashcan-container with the big blue UN of the United nations on it which we saw on the pictures the 2009 Taayoush group brought back after their trip photos of the 2009-group. We shake our head in disbelief and disgust, turn our back on it all and enter the alleys of the camp. They are too narrow for cars to pass, most of them have lost their macadam road surface (the camp is over 60 years old!) and potholes follow one another...

Sandra has come to meet us with Martine. On our way, they give us some information about Aida camp: about 5000 refugees live here, most of them former farmes who used to live in the surroundings of Bethlehem and were evicted from their lands in 1948 or/and a second time in 1967. The living conditions in the refugee camps are all the same: unemployment, poverty, the constant struggle to collect enough water for the dry months (hence these metal or plastic tanks on the roofs, which unfortunately are one of the soldiers’ favourite targets when they feel bored...), the refuse covered with lime, the hardly functional sewage system, no place for the children to play... And a survival economy all the time: sheet metal on the roofs by way of photovoltaic panels to warm water for the baths, for example...

The people here hardly sleep at night, because they expect soldiers to turn up in their homes at any time of the day and night to proceed to "administrative arrests" (for which no justification or motive is needed), including the arrest of children. Many of them have already been sent to one of the Israeli prisons...

"Come over here!"... Anne-Claire who was walking a bit ahead of the group is motioning us to come closer. "Look, this is the sun we drew on the day we left, a present to them all, to thank all of those we spent these ten days with in 2009. Look! All our names are there!" Time has passed, and the rain and the wind have washed down the colours of the painting but the big sun-smiley and all the names that serve as its rays are still visible: Mazen, Jamal, Laetitia, Marine, Marwa, Samira, Sophie, Ribal, Sandra, Myriam, Mohamed, Mahmoud, Tanguy, Théodore, Youssef, Bénédicte, Mourad, Guirec, Tareq, Oussama, Louise, Anne-Claire, Diane...

Anne-Claire tell us with emotion how they had left for a last walk together in the camp, how (as if nothing were the matter) the Belgians had directed their Palestinian friends towards this old rough cast wall on which they had ruined their hands (no paint brushes!). She tells us about the Palestinians’ faces when they saw the painting -surprise and emotion, then how they started shouting for joy and laughed proudly when they diciphered their name amongst the others. They were so glad too that we hadn’t painted this on the wall built by Israel. They don’t like it that much when internationals come and put colours on it: it is important that this wall should remain ugly, aggressive.

We go on through the camp. The houses of Aida are sad little breeze block constructions. Some are rather dilapidated but what? Would you invest in a shelter that is supposed to be only temporary? Or more exactly: that was supposed to be temporary. It has been more than 64 years now that these people are far from "home", as their houses are either inhabited by Israelis or reduced to ruins or ashes, as is the case in Sattaf and Lifta. Not a garden in the camp, not a park where children could frolic, nothing but the street. The whole of it is grey and smells indeed of poverty. And we can’t complain: there si sunshine today. In winter, it must be really gloomy here. Tanguy and Anne-Claire seem to get more and more emotional as we walked past places they recognize. Nothing has changed since we left two years ago, they tell us, as if life had been switched off this place, or is suspended and pending to be lived. "Down there is the Guest-House we lived in for ten days...” A few more steps and we reach our destination: Islam’s house where we are going to take our first Palestinian cooking course.

Cooking classes in Aida

“ Noor ("light")”, Sandra told us, “ is a project that aims at empowering the women in Aida Refugee Camp who have a disabled person in the family. Indeed, besides having to deal with a social stigma, they face financial problems that prevent the children from getting adequate care. Noor is a grassroot and independent project that was created by and for the refugee women of this camp in order to helps them find solutions for their everyday problems. It receives the help of international volunteers, like Martine and myself. Its motto was borrowed from Mother Teresa: Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”

Among the activities organised in the context of the project, the women of Aida, together with Martine and Sandra, have started Palestinian cooking classes for anybody who is interested in learning how to cook traditional Palestinians dishes under the supervision of home cooks. “After the class”, Sandra tells us, “we will all sit together and enjoy the meal we’ll have prepared…” Martine explains : “This workshop is an opportunity for the women to earn some money and have something to do while getting into contact with foreign visitors. You will have the opportunity to talk to them and learn about the life in a refugee camp. A tour of the camp can be organised after the meal if you feel like it. This cooking activity is quite successful with the internationals (tourists or volunteers): this month, for example, we have had a backery class with Italians.”


The classes take place two Saturdays per month, but Sandra arranged for us to have one on this Monday. We are welcomed by a thirty-or-so-old woman, wearing the hijab as is customary here. It is Islam. She has a sweet face and a large smile. She invites us in and from the dusty street we go through an iron door into a small inner yard. At the end of it, a staircase leads to the upper floor where, Sandra tells us, the living-room and the bedrooms are. On our left-hand side, a door opens onto a little hall: on the right of it is the dining-room (carpets, two old sofas, matresses and cushions along the walls). The kitchen is right in front of us. Nothing luxurioous in there either: a table, a few chairs, an oven that looks to us an antiquity, a fridge and a few cxupboards where the dishes, pans, cutlery and a few disparate kitchen utensils are kept.

Not all the women taking part in the activity are there so while we are waiting for them, Martine and Sandra suggest we took out the chairs into the little yard and sit in the sunshine: they are going to tell us a bit more about what the people’s life is like in Aida. We agree of course, we have so many questions: why are these people refugees? Where are they from? Why are they still here, almost 65 years after the Nakba?... Sandra tries to give us an idea of the difficulties the Palestinian refugees encounter day after day, on account of the fact that they are living under occupation. She particularly insists on the problems women are faced with… [3] In the course of the discussion, Laurie points out to Sandra that “we can’t let all the Palestinian refugees from all over the world come back to Palestine! It is not for the Jewish Israelis to take on this!”... Startled, we jump back and swallow in horror, stunned by Laurie’s words. But Sandra responds gently, apparently unruffled (she must have heard such comments before!) : “Tell me Laurie: who created this situation?” But it is not the end of it. Natalia switches to it: “But why couldn’t all those people go to another place, to the North Pole for example, there is enough room over there, isn’t there?”... Again, we look at each other appalled. Could it be that both of them are playing the devil’s advocate? We can’t imagine for a second that they are talking seriously…

Sandra goes on and tells us that the house we are in now has its own painful story: some members of Islam’s and her husband Ahmed’s families have resisted the Israeli occupation forces. They were denounced, probably by a neighbour, but how can they know for sure? The result is that one night, soldiers descended upon their house, firing at anything that moved. Islam’s brother was killed, almost at point-blank range. Her sister in law died a few months later: she had come to pay a visit to her mother. That day, the soldiers invaded the camp again firing at anything that moved (it is their way) and a bullet hit her. She was killed in her living-room while she was having tea with her mother. The house got visited several times after that. On another day, the soldiers came and ordered the inhabitants to get out and gather in the street, threatening them to set fire to the house if they didn’t comply with the orders quickly enough.

Islam tried to explain to one of the soldiers that her son Mohammed was still upstairs in his bedroom. She told him he was a handicaped child who couldn’t walk: consequently he was unable to obey the given orders. She begged the soldier to allow her to go and fetch her son. The soldier chose to go himself. He went upstairs where he found the child completely terrified by the noise and shouts, passed him through the window and dropped him as a vulgar pile of rags... We gasped gobsmacked with outrage: how can this be possible. Natalia and Laurie giggle – the picture is funny, isn’t it? No, it isn’t. They pull themselves together in front of the look we throw at them. Their reaction is probably due to their nervousness...

Martine tells us that many of the children are psychologically and/or physically handicaped. There are different explanations for this: one is the constant stress in which the refugees have to live, another is the fact that women who are about to give are sometimes retained for hours in the checkpoints before being allowed to go to the hospital. Many babies were born in the checkpoints... Martine gives us the example of one of the women she looks after: this young future mother had had contractions for two days already but she wouldn’t or coudn’t let the baby come because the soldiers had frightened her so much at the checkpoint. The baby, of course, suffered a lot from this...

Reunion…

All the women taking part in the cooking workshop have arrived now. Tanguy and Anne-Claire let the youths in their good care. They are going to use the opportunity to go and meet their friends from Al-Rowwad Centre, with whom they shared so many intense moments in 2009. They have hardly gone out of Islam’s house that, surprise!, they bump into Mazen. Dear Mazen!... They have so many good memories with him!

How many emotions, laughters and meals shared with him and his two fellow-singers of the “Freedom Sons”! How are they all getting on? Do they still sing together?... It is obvious Mazen is moved. He is both happy and, like Ribal yesterday, kind of distant. No, they no longer sing together. In fact, he has dropped his studies and works now for the police. Anne-Claire teases him: for the police, really?... Mazen winces: he has got to eat, hasn’t he? There isn’t much work in Palestine and young people have little choice once their studies are over.

Very quickly, Anne-Claire finds back the gestures of complicity and affection she had for Mazen two year ago, as well as the nickname, habibbi, ("my darling, my loved one") the 2009 Taayoush Group had given to him. But he is no longer the teenager he used to be. His face is more square, his eyes less shining, his smile more contained, his movements more tired. Yet, he hasn’t forgotten anything nor anybody, especially not Sophie for whom he had kind of a crush. Tanguy gives him a copy of “La belle Résistance”, the book the first Taayoush group wrote after their stay in Aida. Anne-Claire opens it and points at some pictures: look! It’s you and the Freedom Sons !, as well as at the places in the texts where his name appears in bold type. The book was written in French but, she tells him, there is now an English version on the site www.taayoush.be. Mazen promises that he will visit the site. He looks both proud and in awe, a little incredulous too: so, their encounter has become a book, hasn’t it? In general, the people who come to Aida completely disappear from their life once they have finished their (training) course or once their stay in Aida is over…

Anne-Claire plies him with questions about the others: has he heard about them? No, not really. He no longer knows much about Mohamed nor about Jamal, the other two Freedom Sons. This makes Tanguy and Anne-Claire really sad. The three of them had such a great energy and seemed to be so strong together against the greyness, the confinement and the violence of their life under occupation… Youssef has left, Mazen tells them, and plays basketball abroad (his(dream->art41] has come true, what good news !). As for the activity-leaders of Al-Rowwad, what he tells them confirms what Martine, Sandra, Tareq and Ribal already said: many of those whom Taayoush met in 2009 no longer work there. Oussama, Tareq, Samira, Marwa have left, as well as Salam who has now got engaged and should soon get married.

Martine will explain a bit later that the Palestinians society still operates a lot under family or clan-rules and that Al-Rowwad has progressively become the territory of the director Abdelfattah Abu-Srour’s family – many inhabitants in Aida are members of his clan and, consequently, their children are now in the majority among the participants in the activities organised in the centre. Sometimes also, because of the rivalry between the clans, some children don’t want to go to Al Rowwad... It is such a pity to hear that, all the more as Abdelfattah’s discourse [4] let people believe that the centre was a real opportunity for all the children of the camp. Nepotism again... Well, what should the Palestinians be better human beings than the rest of the people? Nevertheless, it sucks and Tanguy and Anne-Claire grimace in disappointment. They give their habibbi Mazen a big hug. They have planned to go to Al-Rowwad centre, they will do so despite what they have just heard, be it only to give a copy of their book to Abdelfattah.

Al-Rowwad’s building has changed: the floor that was still under construction when the first Taayoush group interviewed the young people of Aida during their ten-day stay in April 2009 is completed now... Probably with the help of the French association Amis d’Al-Rowwad!… When Anne-Claire and Tanguy arrive, Abdelfattah is in his office, talking with internationals. Once he is free, Tanguy and Anne-Claire go and greet him... They have the feeling that he kind of looks down his nose at them, condescends to accept the book they want to offer him as a proof that things didn’t stop for them when they left Palestine. It is obvious to them that he is not going to read it... Strange feeling, which Tanguy translates after the fact saying: "Maybe we are wrong. For us, all this was a really special and intense experience, but for them, it may not be the case. They are maybe a bit blasés in this camp because they get so many visitors? If this is the case, it is a good thing we are now in Al-Arroub...” Anne-Claire has another theory: the problem is maybe that, like with many people, "success" (in this case that of Al-Rowwad cultural centre) has gone to the director’s head? And she reminds Tanguy of the first time they met Abdelfattah. It was in Brussels and he had quoted Edmond Rostand’s long tirade of the ‘no, thank you’by heart. This had impressed the public of course but at the same time, it said a lot about the man: perhaps he is convinced that he managed it all on his own? Perhaps he thinks he doesn’t owe anything to anybody nor to thank anybody for anything? As to whether we should hold a grudge against him for it, no. Human beings are only human beings...

Our two pilgrims go back to Islam’s house feeling a bit sheepish… On their way, they wave at the man selling fruit and vegetables: no, he is sorry but he doesn’t remember them nor the 2009 group… Oh! "Falafelman" has moved to another place... Neither of them feels like going down to the Guest House where they stayed in 2009. Time and water has flown and run under the bridges and they feel that without the laughters and songs of the young Palestinians they met there, the place must be gloomy. Fortunately, there is Sandra, there is Martine and above all there is Tareq to help them believe that people are not that interchangeable and that what was experienced together in 2009 hasn’t completely sunk into oblivion…

Birth of a project

In Islam’s kitchen, a lot of good work has been done: the women of the camp have explained to the young ones what we were going to eat today - a maqloubeh. Indeed, as Caroline says, “eating” is a more appropriate word than “cooking”, since the women had finished preparing the main dish before we arrived - didn’t they trust their Belgian guests-cooks? No, it was just out of a lack of time. But, they have let them prepare the salad...

The most enthusiastic of us (no names!) have rolled up their sleeves: while slicing, mincing, folding, filling and mixing the different ingredients, we have listened to Sandra telling us about Islam’s house and family. The first room on the left of the kitchen, where we put our bags, scarves and coats is in fact Mohammed’s (Islam’s son) bedroom. He often has to go to hospital for medical visits. He now has a wheel-chair, a gift from the Hadassa Hospital in Jerusalem. We smile at Islam, who smiles back warmly and benevolently. She does us good, nevertheless we feel quite shy in front of her. She and the other women are wearing beautiful scarves. We tell them the best we can… Sandra and Martine both feel completely at home and chat in Arabic so easily that it makes us green with envy. So does Caroline, of course: she has found back the language she used to speak when she was a little girl and she obviously enjoys it.

Sandra tells us again that all the money from the cooking classes is used to support the project Noor. “Don’t forget », she says, « that in a society that is mainly Muslim, it is hard for women to find a job. In Islam’s case, the money enables her to pay for the medical treatment that her son’s health requires. For the others, it is really an important part of their income, if not the only source.”

In order to make us well understand the kind of difficulties the mothers of Palestinian families encounter, Martine tells us a little anecdote: as the women of the camp couldn’t afford buying nappies for their babies (60 shekels a pack), she and Sandra looked for and found a manufacturer who could make them for 20 shekels only. For these women, it means a lot less to spend. We grimace on hearing that: just the bare necessities…

Margot, as the great professional cook she is, has cut her finger quite deeply so Marie-Gaëlle has taken over and finishes slicing the tomatoes and peppers while Caroline chops the parsley and carots… The women smile at us and with patient gestures they show us how to use the utensils “Palestinian way”… They are really kind with us, so anxious to teach us something, to give us something from them. We really appreciate that...

All the ingredients are ready now: purple, red, green, orange, yellow, white and creamy, a beautiful palette of colours and smells (ah! Tomatoes that smell of tomatoes!) and tastes (ah! Cucumber that doesn’t only taste of water!) : we are ready now to make the dishes. Paul sprinkles lemon juice on the mezze lavishly while our mamma-chefs give us the recipe of their famous “upturned dish”. Martine, Sandra and Caroline translate their explanations when the gestures are not clear enough.

Sébastien busy himself with taking pictures, which is a way like another not to pitch in :-). Then we prepare the dessert: Islam makes us discover the qatayef, sort of small pancakes which Natalia, Laurie and Paul fill with a mixture of spices, nuts and yoghourt before they fry them in oil and dip them gently into syrup. Yummy!... All this is going to be delicious!...

We can now move into the “dining-room”, in fact a room with matresses and cushions directly on the ground. We leave our shoes outside… The different dishes are put on the centre of the carpet that serves as a table. On the menu today: tomato and parsley mezze with home-made yoghourt, tabbouleh and maqloubeh, a typically near-eastern dish made of carrots, rice, chicken, onions, peppers, eggplants and spices that is cooked “upside –down”, (eggplants underneath, rice above, the whole of it turned upside down at the last moment). We help ourselves with pieces of flat bread, which we use as cutlery. We can tell you we enjoy it thoroughly!

Although we insisted, our Palestinian hostesses refused to sit down and eat with us. But now that the meal is over, they have come and are ready to answer our questions if we have any. Their children are there too, shy boys, smart and clever little girls: on hearing that Anne-Claire used to be an English teacher, one of them has brought her English vocabulary game-book and shows Anne-claire what she can do and say. Impressive, really! This gives a few complexes to Laurie who has decreed once for all that she can’t speak nor understand English. (Well, according to who she is with: with the young men of Al-Arroub, we have noticed that she rather gets by.) Not all the children are present though: Mohammed is missing. With Sandra and Martine’s encouragement, Islam starts telling about him. She does it soberly, without complaining nor begging for anything.


Mohamed is her second child. She has got six: 4 daughters and two sons aged 2 to 13, all healthy and well except for Mohammed. He was born in January 2000 and has a severe brain paralysis due to a lack of oxygen at his birth. He can neither walk nor speak and is incontinent. He suffers from epileptic fits that have become so frequent that they prevent him from sleeping at night. He attends a specialised institution 5 days a week (“Jemima »). On the other days, Islam and her husband Ahmed take care of him.

Sandra translates what Islam answers to our questions and discreetly adds a little informations: “All this wouldn’t be so problematic if they lived in a “normal” context. But Islam lives in a refugee camp, in a country that is occupied by a foreigh power, with all the consequences this situation entails for its inhabitants. Ahmed, for example, Mohammed’s father, has spent several years in the Israeli prisons. As I have already told you, some members of his family are “terrorists”, which is the word Israel uses to refer to people who resist occupation – and many of them have been subjected to constant vexations. In prison Ahmed was tortured and hit on the head violently. The result of this is that he now has difficulty concentrating and suffers from permanent headaches. Before he was imprisoned, Ahmed worked as an electrician. The abuse he endured in prison have among other things caused him to forget most part of his knowledges. Consequently, he is no longer able to do his job properly and has worked since then as a handyman in the building field. Yet, like most unqualified workers, he is not under any contract and only works when he is lucky enough to find an employer. Which means that if he has some work, it is generally only for one, maybe two days. The rest of the time, he doesn’t have any income.”

“Again, this wouldn’t be unmanageable if Mohammed’s handicap didn’t require a special environment and supervision. Mohammed costs a lot of money: the specialised school he goes to in the weektime is a private school. Islam and Ahmed can afford it only thanks to the financial support of a Belgian group (!). But they have to bear the cost of Mohammed’s daily transports to the school as well as to the hospital. They also need money to pay for his medicines and to buy the nappies which he wears day and night…”

Islam tells us that her family live upstairs on the first floor, which means that every day, they have to carry Mohammed down and back up when he goes to or come back from school. This is becoming a real problem as the boy is now aged 11 and is getting quite heavy. Sandra confirms: Islam only manages with great difficulty. “The last time I saw her carry Mohammed, I can tell you it was heart-rending. She almost dropped him several times and when she got to the first floor, she was exhausted.”

We start to think and talk about it all with Sandra: the flat on the ground-floor, where the cooking classes take place, is empty most of the time. If there were an inside staircase between it and the first floor and if Mohammed could have his bedroom downstairs, Islam’s life would be transformed. She could shift the everyday life on the ground-floor, keep the first floor for the bedrooms of the parents and girls, the cooking classes could still take place downstairs... In our heads, a project is slowly forming: once we are back in Belgium, we could work at collecting the necessarty money to build this staircase, Tanguy could give a concert with his trio (he plays the flute!), we could organise a Palestinian lunch with friends and our families…

We take leave from Islam and the other women with whom we have had so much pleasure cooking, speaking and laughing. We tell Islam nothing about our project. We first have to make it a reality, we don’t want to give her false hope. [5]

Little detour by the Al-Rowwad centre for everybody: we are briefly meeting Ribal, Issa, Mourad, Mazen and Mohamed-the bird, five of the youths with whom the first Taayoush group lived in 2009. We meet in the main room downstairs and each of them first tells us who they are, what they do in the centre (for the first three of them).

Then they ask us why we have come here. We tell them that we wanted to come and see how the Palestiniens are getting on, because we don’t know what we should think or who we should believe in Belgium, be it on television or in the newspapers, or even at school, with our history teachers. They thank us for that... They are happy to meet Anne-Claire and Tanguy again and they say so. But it is obvious that they miss the 2009 group, especially Mazen who stays at a distance and whose eyes look sad...

Knock-knock! The door opens and three little girls enter. Sandra gets up and leads the biggest one to Anne-claire: “Do you remember her?” It is Qamar, one of the children Sandra could help thanks to her Smile project on dental hygien. “As you can see, she has come alive again”. The child doesn’t immediately understand what is going on but when Sandra tells her in Arabic that Anne-Claire helped financing her braces, the little one smiles at her in awe: thank you. Anne-Claire strokes her lightly on her cheek: I haven’t forgotten you... As the child leaves with her two friends, Sandra tells us that she has just heard Qamar wasn’t going to school anymore. She is worried about that and wonders if this is not due to problems the family encounter again.

Our Palestinian hosts invite us now to have a look around the centre. On all the walls, there are great pictures. All of them were taken by the children and teens taking part in the "Images for Life They are gifted!... Finally, Sandra takes us onto the roof of the centre so that we can have an overall view of the camp.

Reunion and Arab Spring in Bethlehem

We now walk back down to Bethlehem where we have planned to spend a little time.

To Paul’s great pleasure (he seems to have waited to go and pray on the sites of the Holy Writ since we arrived in Palestine). An apportunity for those who are interested in visiting the Nativity Church and the building next to it - built in the 19th century by the Franciscans, it has a very nice little cloister . [6].

Then we have a glass of tea on a terrase that opens on Manger Square where the Palestinian "Indignants" have erected their tent. Anne-Claire, Margot and Marie-Gaëlle start chatting in French with a distinguished elderly man who sells ancient postcards in a little shop nearby. They invite him to sit down at our table. His name is Anton, he cooks typical meals and rents rooms in his (very old) house in Star Street. He says that we are welcome and so are our friends and families: when they come to Bethlehem, they only need to tell him that we sent them. In spite of Tanguy’s signs (he is the great Time-Keeper and time always goes past much too fast), we follow him into his little shop where he shows us ancient maps of the area that look like maps for a treasure hunt. We could stay for hours listening to him, but Tanguy is getting impatient. Anton gives us his card and e-mail address, just in case [7]

We say good-bye to him and go into the souks where some of us want to buy presents for their friends and families - and help the local Palestinian trade. There, Anne-Claire meet Alla again: he has a souvenir shop and for the tourists, he has changed his name into David. That’s what he told Taayoush in 2009. He tells her his business is OK, then he invites some of us for another glass of tea: yalla! this is the kind of things you can’t turn down.

The whole group meet again at the foot of the stone staircase that leads to the destroyed house Sandra showed to the first Taayoush group en 2009: only the external walls were left standing, all the rest having disappeared in the 2002 bombings (during the second intifada...) Waouw! This is a surprise! Rebuilding work has finally begun, the bottom of the huge pit has been cleared of the rubbles and vegetation that had had time to spread and conquer the ruins. There are ladders and shoring to support the little that is left of the original three floors... Sandra didn’t know about it and this makes her all of a sudden so happy!...

We go down the stone staircase, briefly stop at the little shop in front: a woodsman works in a tiny dark workshop. Paul buys him an olive wood cross, a crib and a rosary. Good for the craftsman.

In the meantime, Tanguy who was walking around the tent erected on the esplanade just in front the Peace Center of Bethlehem, runs into Jamal, the second one of the three Freedom Sons. What good luck! Jamal looks really happy to meet Tanguy again! He just can’t believe his eyes! Tanguy asks him what he is doing there, on this square? And who are the young men and women who are with him? What about this tent, the Palestinian flags, the chants?...

Let’s have a short flashback. Arab Spring and little flowers of revolt blooming in Palestine too: on March 15, the Palestinian youth coalition was born, which organized rallies in Gaza and West Bank cities to demand national unity, the release of political prisoners, and the elections of the Palestinian national council based on a one-person, one-vote model for all Palestinians around the world.

 [8]

In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, a group of youth continue their sit-in just in front the Nativity Church. Among them: Jamal. Since March 15, he and other students have led a series of activities there: speeches, music, songs, poetry and theatre in front of what they call the "Unity Tent”: a tent of protest and of call to the two main partis Hamas and Fatah to work together rather than against one another so as to put an end to the division between Gaza and the West Bank. Some of them, of whom Jamal, camp out there at night.

“We are determined to stay here until unity and our other demands are met”, Jamal explains to Tanguy. “We were 9 on the first day, Tuesday 15. On Wednesday we became 30, two days later we reached 90, and then 100. We really hoped that more and more people would join us. On Wednesday night, the Palestinian police came and tried to remove the Unity Tent, but without success.”

We learn that these young people are connected with the other groups that are still organizing protests and sits-in in Ramallah and in the Gaza Strip. It seems that this movement has had a real impact on the Palestinian population as a significant number of Palestinians did go into the streets, leaving their political partis flags behind and clearly asking the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas to reach a solution. Even stronger: Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to meet Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh... But as Jamal says: "I want to see them do things and not just say they will do it”.

As we discuss with Jamal, Amy and other youths, we really feel that their movement is truly independant and youth-led. These youth are not naive.


 [9]

They know they cannot change things overnight but they believe in the possibility of change. And more than just believing in it, they make it happen. This is excellent news for all the people who feared that the Palestinians may be tired after par 60 years of broken promises and give up fighting or stop working at taking back their destiny into their own hands…

It is really great and impressive to see Jamal’s background and career: from the sweet dreamer and the tender composer of rap-songs to the committed young adult who has never renounced his values of peace and non-violence… [10]

Evening in Al-Arroub

We are back in the camp. Some of us want to rest or laze about but Anne-Claire, Marie-Gaëlle, Margot and Caroline decide to go and have tea at Sarah’s. Watan is sleeping in his parents’bed. While Anne-Claire sits with Tareq, the girls help Sarah prepare the evening meal and like everywhere on the planet, when women are together, they chat and talk about life, death, love, children and clothes...

A very intimate conversation, in which Tareq doesn’t take part directly. He listens to the girls and his face is like an open book for Anne-Claire: smiling and relaxed when he hears our comments while Sarah takes off her hijab and shows us how to wear it elegantly. (According to her, most men just look at women as if they were nothing but pieces of meat. She thinks the hijab gives women some dignity. “But”, she adds, “for me, the girls who wear it and loose coats but use make up lack respect for the Coran”. We make no comment although we feel there a kind of a discrepancy between this and her more “modern” points of view on other subjects) Wrinkles on Tareq’s forehead and sad eyes however when Sarah tells us how stressed she is. She worries so much all the time about their two-year-old Watan who is constantly ill. For her, this is due to the violent atmosphere that reigns in the camp on account of the soldiers’ constant presence. The little boy is apparently having an earache now and is being awfully difficult. Sarah takes him to the doctors all the time. There is a medical centre in the camp which is managed by the UNRWA, but it is worth nothing she says. She prefers to go up to Bethlehem, or even to Jerusalem. [11]

()

Sarah is mad with her son, this is blidingly obvious. “But”, she confides to us, “sometimes I regret giving birth to him. What can I offer him? What future is there for him here? What present? Every night he cries when he hears the shootings... Each time I leave the house to go to work, I wonder if I will see him again safe and well in the evening.” Of course, it would be nice for Watan to have a little brother or sister, but, she says « it would be disgraceful to have a second child in these circumstances, as it already was to have a first one.”

We thrown a glance at Tareq. He is sitting next to Anne-Claire and both of them listen to his young wife, Tareq his head bent over one of Watan’s toys which he fiddles with unconsciously. He know all about that : he and Sarah have often talked about it. Their marriage is a real love marriage, not one of those arrangements between the families as is customary in Palestine. Sarah has told us how she, the “city-dweller”, met Tareq the “villager”: he had come to sign up for an English class and she was one of the teachers. They met several times and spoke together about different things. Met again a few months later. Went again to have a drink together and talked a lot together again and little by little, love made its way through friendship, the mutual admiration they felt for each other’s courage, frankness and involvement in everything they said or did. Today, they know each other well and treat each other as equals, with much respect. A really modern and adult couple. “But”, Tareq concluded with a smile, “I never had any English class eventually!...”

Sarah shows us the pictures of their wedding: she explains that there were only women at the ceremony because she was wearing a dress and no hijab. She remembers that some of them were shocked because she was wearing a bustier-dress without straps... We tell her she really looks gorgious and her long hair is wonderful. She seems to be really happy to show us pictures of her family. She is so glad to receive us because, she says, since her wedding, she hasn’t had many opportunities to have visits, nor to go and visit other people (women are advised not to go out at night in the camp). She also tells us it is the first time she is not wearing her hijab for such a long time.

As we ask her, Sarah answers that yes, she would like to go away from here, take her son and her husband, her mother and all her family to go and live somewhere else, where they could live without all the time being afraid for the ones you love. But at the same time she loves Palestine so much. It is her country, another loved one, which she doesn’t want to nor can abandon. But it is true she worries a lot about Tareq too: he is so involved in everything he does, not only as a teacher at school but also in the activities with the children at the centre and Al-Rowwad’s theatre company (they perform abroad, which is a way for him and his fellow actors to try to show to foreign people what is going on in Palestine). She is afraid that one day he should have serious problems. He has already been to prison, he could be sent there again. No need to do something reprehensible, being a Palestinian is enough.

She tells us a bit about her present job. She used to be an English teacher but it had become too hard for her: the childrebn at school can sometimes really be difficult. She stopped teaching when Watan was born. Then she found a job as a translator for Doctors without Borders, which enables her to get a six-month visa for Jerusalem. She uses the opportunity to go and pray there with Watan because in general the permits for Jerusalem are only granted to people who are over 55! Which means that Tareq can never go with her.

The organisation she is in now works at helping and supporting the Palestinian prisoners. They are badly treated in the Israeli prisons. It is a horrible world, she tells us. She is all the more affected as her younger brother has recently been arrested without any motives. As she tells us about him and shows us the last pictures she has got of him (an handsome 24-years-old man wearing a suit who is smiling at the camera), tears roll down her cheeks: it was during a party for Watan...

“Everybody has forgotten the Palestinian prisoners”, she says.“ The Israeli authorities use and abuse of their power, keep them in solitary confinement, give collective punishment, deprive them of suitable medical care or urgent surgery. They prevent them from studying, conduct humiliating inspections and when, at last, the prisoners have visits from their family, they tie their hands and feet to the chairs… According to a recent report by the Palestinian Authority, there are 6000 Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli prisons, of whom 219 are in administrative detention and don’t know the reason why they were arrested.” And Sarah gives us the address of a site on which we can read more information about this tragedy->http://www.maannews.net/eng]

Dinner is ready now and it is going to be served and eaten from the flat pan it was cooked in: Palestinian way. We want to leave them together but for Sarah, not sharing the meal with them is simply out of the question. So, we sit round the low table and, fitted with little pieces of bread which we use as cutlery, we dip into the delicious dish, trying to take as little as possible so as not to take away too much of their supper. But Sarah keeps an eye on us and pushes the best bits of meat and vegetable towards us: “kouli ! kouli !” (eat !eat!). We finally manage to slip away, pleading that Tanguy and the others are going to strangle us for having left them for so long. Anyway, they must have prepared the meal for us too...

Tareq takes us back home. On the way, Anne-Claire asks him: is it a problem for you to see that Sarah is becoming more and more religious? He shrugs his shoulders, heaves a sigh. He doesn’t want to criticise her. He respects her choices, understands them: she is so unhappy at the moment, so sad for her brother as nobody knows what for nor how long for he is in prison...
Tareq looks on the verge of crying so Anne-Claire lips her arm under his and pretends she wants to interview him seriously: can you tell me another story in link with your experience in prison? Tareq smiles at her, OK. He knows that we want to go back to Belgian with stories that happened to "real people", not just statistics that move noone.

They both sit down on the front steps of the house and Tareq lights a cigarette: “It is the story of a friend I made when I was in prison. His name is Bashar and he is from Hebron. I met him on the second day. He told me he lived in the old city of Hebron right in the middle of Israeli settlers”. Anne-Claire interrupts him briefly: yes, I imagine. We were in Hebron yesterday. Tareq nods than goes on: “He told me this was the tenth time he had been arrested and thrown in prison. When I asked him what he had been arrested for, he answered this:“ I was helping my mother do the shopping. Of course she was wearing the hijab. There were many settlers on our way down to the shops and they set to calling us names in Arabic and Hebrew. There were soldiers there too. They could hear how the settlers were addressing us but they weren’t doing anything to stop them. Suddenly, some settlers started to hit us and tried to tear my mothers’ hijab off her. This made me so furious… The soldiers were only laughing at the scene so I tried to stop the settlers. This made the soldiers furious so they caught me and pinned me up against a wall. I cried, “But don’t you see what these people are doing to us? Why is it me that you are pushing against the wall ” They yelled at me to shut up: the settlers weren’t doing anything wrong, I was the one who was looking for bovver. And they pressed my head against the wall, blindfolded me, put handcuffs around my wrists and brought me here.”

“I told them I would tell the Judge what really happened. This made them roar with laughters… I have told you: this is the tenth time they have put me in prison. The first time, I was 15. Now I’m 19 and trust me, I have a certain experience with the Israeli judges. The soldiers laughed in my face: “You seem to have forgotten that all the judges are Israeli…” The judge didn’t believe me, of course. He called me a liar. He chose to trust the soldiers even though he knew that they were the liars.”” Tareq puts out his cigarettes then concludes his story: “After my friend had told me that, I asked him what he intended to do. He smiled at me and said: I’m going to stay in the old town and go on living there. If they do that to us, it is only to make us leave Hebron. I’ll never leave Hebron. Even if they put me in prison another million times.”

The door of the house opens behind them. It is Tanguy who is getting the news: we aree expected at Nour’s house for a musical evening. Are we coming too? No, thank you. Anne-Claire says she is really tired and need to go to bed early andtareq is going back home. They both wave at our group as we are leaving to Nour’s with some of the young Palestinians who feel like joining us.

At Nour’s place, we meet our two Danes Jeppe and Ipsem (both are staying with Nour’s family) and the concert begins : Nour on the violin and piano, his younger brother on the tambourine, his father on the oud and a friend on the darbouka... Tanguy recognizes one of the musicians: the singer went on a musical tour in Europe some times ago! That’s crazy, isn’t it? As for Marie-Gaëlle, she is in seventh Heaven: Nour is so gorgious!…

Concert chez Nour
IMG/mp3/concert_Nour.mp3

This musical evening is really welcomed after such a dense day. Music is said to soothe the savage breast... In this country, this means more than anywhere else!

See photos of Bethlehem

See photos of Aida camp

Read on about our trip


[1See photos of Aida camp

[2Rachel’s Tomb is in the midst of a Palestinian Christian quarter. It is part of the C zone, in other words under the control of Israel since the Oslo Agreements the Israelis and Palestinians signed in Septembre 1993. However, as it had become the target of a number of attacks by Palestinian fighters at the beginning of the Intifada, the pilgrims were forbidden access to the Tomb for about three years. The Israeli army built a labyrinth of walls, barbed wires and watchtowers in the streets around the holy site. Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the Oslo Agreements, had initially thought of giving the control over this part of Bethlehem to the Palestinians.(...) Some religious however eventually persuaded him to keep Rachel’s Tomb on the Israeli side (...) Actually, almost all the Jewishs believers disn’t know that the Tomb is also a holy site for the Muslims and the Christians. Some Christian traditions even situate Jesus’s birth on this place. Rachel’s Tomb was christianised under the Byzantines and in the 1980s, it was a stage in most of the Christian pilgrimages.

[3See “Beautiful resistance” for more details about the life in Aida camp.

[4« "With our “Beautiful Resistance” we want to show our desire to go on (even when people want to demean us) behaving like human beings worthy of this name, and to create breauty. Preserving our dignity as the highest form of our resistance". »

[5The concert finally took place in June 2011 see account and pictures) ; it brought us 300 euros. Then Margot worked and earned some more money and we sent it all to Sandra who saw to it that Islam and her husband got it. Ahmed bought the necessary material and built it himself! Here is a picture before and after!

[6… well, depending on what you go through there. In 2009, Ribal reminded Taayoush group that in 2002, some Palestinians had barricaded inside the church to try to shelter from the Israeli army and that they had nothing to eat left but the fruit from the orange-trees growing in the little cloister. They had surrendered after 38 days of total isolation -http://www.taayoush.be/Lundi-6-avril-2009-Camp-de-Aida-Al.html.

[7anton.mussallam@hotmail.com

[8Photo : (c) Anne Paq/Activestills.org, Bethlehem, 18.03.2011

[9Photo : (c) Anne Paq/Activestills.org, Bethlehem, 18.03.2011

[10The atmosphere was very nice and uplifting on Manger square that day. Was, because, when Tanguy, Anne-Claire and JF came back a week later, everything had vanished. The police had ousted the demonstrators and in thr absence of fighters and energies, they had had to pack up. But they partially met their objective a few weeks later: on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, Hamas and Fatah announced that they had managed, under the aegis of Egypt, to reach a reconciliation agreement and would soon organise a meeting with in a transitional government. Presidential and legislative elections will be organised within a year.

[11Anne-Claire doesn’t know it yet but tomorrow she will need to go and see a doctor because she will have lost her voice out of exhaustion and above all, because she will have become totally unbearable for those sharing the bedroom with her (she coughs all the night long). Tareq will take her to the medical centre and there she will understand what Sarah says about it: in addition to the fact that the doctor won’t sound her chest, he’ll prescribe her “all-purpose” medicines. Indeed, one of Tareq’s colleague who had come at the same time because he had a stomack ache got the same pills...