As I write this on Saturday evening, the sun setting over the western hills surrounding Bethlehem, I am listening to the call to prayer (5:10 pm) echoing from hill to hill. Several mosques—some live, some recorded. Different styles, melodies, some more like chanting, some with more melody.
Bethlehem is a town of hills--nothing is level, a lot like Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Roads curve and wind up and down, the apartheid wall cutting into the old pathways, making travel even more difficult. Especially around Rachel’s Tomb, near the entrance to Bethlehem. Walls, walls and more walls, isolating stores, homes with laundry out to dry and the tourist shops that are at the heart of Bethlehem’s economy.
Earlier today we were in Hebron, where the violence of the fanatical settlers spills over into the city—bleach poured down on the merchandise in the old suq, Palestinian children stoned on their way to school. After our visit to the Mosque of Ibrihim at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we were walking back to our bus through the modern market street (the old one having been closed by Israeli soldiers). Near the bus, one shopkeeper asked where we were from. I smiled and said brightly, “America!” He shook his head and replied “enemy....enemy....enemy.” So hard to explain. What could I say? Because he is right.
When we got back to the hotel I took a walk along the Israeli separation wall near our hotel—where the wall runs around Rachel’s Tomb near the entrance to the city. The wall curves and dips, climbs and winds through a neighborhood of homes with garden courtyards and what used to be tourist shops, where the tour buses stopped on their way into and out of Bethlehem. Now the shops are shuttered with the traditional turquoise steel doors, locked and bolted shut. The wall hovers menacingly over olive trees, jacaranda bushes, rhododendrons and laundry blowing in the evening breeze on the balcony. The gun-turret watchtowers rise high above the 24-foot-high wall. The graffiti on the wall is testimony to the longing for peace and freedom of the Palestinian people of Bethlehem, testimony to the international support for Palestinian freedom and testimony to the creativity of the Palestinians who always manage to make something beautiful out of their misery and oppression. Also hard to explain, but I am grateful tonight for this gift.