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On Wings and Prayers

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Monday 9th January 2012
On Wings and Prayers
from O Little Town of Bethlehem

As the sun went down, a wonderful atmosphere settled upon Bethlehem. The town was in a genial mood – people chatting and hanging out in the streets. At Cinema, a busy intersection with taxis and taxi-vans, I saw a six year old girl standing on some steps simply singing out loud to the street. This was not only touching but also rather refreshing because, for some reason, Palestinians tend not to sing.

Aisha, an English friend who teaches English at the Hope Flowers Centre and stays at my place one night a week, uses the large, empty, echoey conference room in the school for practising opera – she’s an accomplished singer but, living in Ramallah and surrounded with people who would find opera rather strange, doing her scales and practicing her arias doesn’t quite work easily. So she loves practising at the school, where she won’t be heard – and the conference room echoes quite nicely too.

Nevertheless, a neighbour discretely enquired of me what was happening. I explained and he smiled. He’d seen opera on TV, and was interested when I said that operas were like plays sung out loud, with stories to them. I asked him why Palestinians tend not to sing, and he said back, “Since the Nakba we haven’t had much to sing about”. Well, true, but I know that’s not the real answer, which I am yet to find out.

The Nakba, by the way, was ‘The Disaster’, the 1948 war during which the Israelis staked out their nation militarily, by ethnically cleansing and killing the Arabic inhabitants of hundreds of villages and towns in what became Israel. In the space of a few months, the population of Bethlehem quadrupled with refugees and they have never gone home – there’s no home to go back to. As a symbolic act, refugee families keep the keys to their old, lost houses, like a family totem, proof of having torn-up roots in their own land.

This afternoon was one of those times when people set their cares aside and enjoy the moment. That’s one thing I like in Palestine: people do their best to keep their spirits up and enjoy life. There is no alternative. Or at least, the alternative, dwelling on your problems, is far worse.

As Ghada Issa once put it, at a time when she was feeling pessimistic a few years ago, “In Palestine we don’t have up days and down days, we have down days and worse days”. She was at that moment manifesting symptoms of the strange collective bipolarity Palestinians live by, thanks to their circumstances: generally they keep their mood positive in spite of everything, but when they lose their strength and fortitude, they plummet into deep despond. That was where she was when she said this.

Palestinians wear their emotions inside out: love and sadness, friendship and disgust, humour and anger, they share them openly, men perhaps more than women. Their feelings spill out liberally. Mercifully it’s their positive emotions they show most. I have never seen a sign of violence except on a couple of occasions when Israeli soldiers are around, acting pro-vocatively, but even then Palestinians suppress it because they usually don’t feel like getting shot, beaten up, arrested or hounded. They got tired of that ten years ago, and it doesn’t achieve much.

But on a lovely, tranquil afternoon like today, there was still a problem. On the way home, passing through Deheisheh and Duha, there was smoke everywhere. People were setting fire to the skips in which they put their rubbish. They do this because civic rubbish disposal is patchy at the best of times, and the skips were full. It’s not only smoky but dangerous, since so much of their rubbish contains plastics and other toxic materials, and the slow smoulder of the rubbish means that it doesn’t even burn properly. They have a blind spot around this issue. When Westerners like me raise the matter, they shrug it off as if it is no problem. But it is a problem and a big one.

Before you disapprove of these apparently backward people, let me remind you that we in the West started seriously addressing issues such as this only 20-30 years ago, when it was already too late for us. Before that, we trusted in modernity and slavishly paid the price in smog, toxicity, fumes and ugliness. Even today, when I speak to Westerners of the dangers of mobile phones, microwave ovens, wireless internet and electro-smog, people smirk or frown, as if to say “Oh no, he’s one of them”, since this is a current blind spot. One day an enormous scandal will erupt about it and people will yell “Why weren’t we told? Who is responsible for all this?”. We are responsible. We know. But we don’t want to face it.

So blind-spots – areas of life that people deliberately ignore, ultimately to our own cost – are not unique to Arabs. In fact, Arabs look on Westerners as backward because we turn our backs on God – Europeans by becoming increasingly secular and Americans by turning God into a heavily-armed, consumptive patriot with conservative politics.

Every race and nationality covers its insecurities by looking on others as inherently deficient. The less contact they have with other kinds of people, the stronger the negative projection on outsiders – this is one reason for the separation wall, so that each side can project its fantasies about the other onto a concrete screen untainted by reality. This is why Iran is currently a bogeyman – no one goes there to meet the people, so it’s easy to dehumanise them.

This said, Palestinians must still address the issue of rubbish – creating less of it and disposing of it properly. Battery recycling, vegetable waste composting and plastics disposal? Forget it, it doesn’t exist here. But probably it will exist in 10-20 years’ time – Palestine is at a similar stage to the West in the early 1970s. Yet regarding social values, sharing and human warmth, Palestinians are advanced, at a stage that I hope the West will reach in a few decades’ time.

I went into town to do my shopping. I’ve been sitting slogging away at the computer for the last week, so I don’t have many events to report. The trouble with computers is that people hardly see the results of your work because it’s digitally concealed, distinctly not in your face. Much of the work is for people far and wide, so that people around you see little significance in what you’re doing – you’re just sitting at a computer, twiddling fingers and looking serious. I’ve been building a website, dealing with issues for Hope Flowers, doing bits of work and answering questions online – many questions, from many people.

When shopping I went to an old lady I visit regularly. She has a small stall on the streetside in the Old Town. By stall, I mean a stool and a few boxes and bags. She sells herbs and figs. She’s a lovely old lady, clad in her embroidered traditional dress. She walks into town daily with her husband, who leads their donkey, which carries the herbs – then he returns home to work on the land, and he comes back to pick her up later.

Palestinians are big on herbs – they have mint or thyme in their tea and they eat parsley, sage, coriander, spinach and chillies copiously. I buy my herbs from her – big bunches of them, far too big to use on my own, for 1-2 shekels per bunch (20-40p in British money). She likes her pet Englishman. She eyes me closely when she thinks I’m not looking. I think she knows intuitively that I’m roughly the same age as she is, except she’s an old woman and I look younger – apart from a rather wrinkly face which has clearly seen some things. She hasn’t figured me out yet. Life wears out Palestinians.

Then I went down to the market to get vegetables. Two stallholders were trying to steal me off the stallholder I usually go to, but he has the best vegetables. One thing many Palestinians don’t quite understand is this. They tend to think one is obliged to shop with them out of a duty to support them – after all, fair’s fair, isn’t it? Well no, I’m a Westerner, and I go for the best stuff and the best deal. Sorry about that. Also, annoyingly, I buy things only when I need them.

The souvenir shopkeepers down in town think similarly. I’m a Westerner, therefore I have money, therefore I ought to buy from them. Not so. I buy presents only because there are people I know and love to whom I wish to give things, and I buy specifically for them. There’s also the question of how to get it back to England, so I cannot buy much. I’m not a buying machine – well, at least, not in my own head.

Dear reader, this might seem elementary, but it’s not so for Palestinians. This is a walled-off cooperation and mutual-support economy, an economy where everyone depends on everyone else for keeping each other alive, so the emphasis here is on supporting your fellow citizens by trading with them, to some extent whether or not you need what they’re selling.

Nevertheless, when one of the traders, a young chap of seventeen who helps his elder brother run a shop, moaned to me today about having no money to buy schoolbooks, I took pity on him. He had said there had been no business today, and he needed 50 Jordanian Dinars (250 shekels or £50) for the books tomorrow. He was worried and depressed. So I wandered off to do other chores, including raiding a bank machine, and slipped him 50 JDs on the way back. He lit up and hugged me, shedding a tear. Now he could get his books.

I told him that this is a life-lesson we all need to learn: solutions often come when you’ve given up. When you give up, it means you’re opening up to Allah, handing over your problems since you couldn’t solve them yourself. This money is a gift from Allah, through a random Englishman. So give thanks to Allah.

“You are a good man, Mr Balden. I pray that Allah, he will pick you up when you have a need.” Well thanks, I might need your prayer to come true one day. This young Palestinian, poor yet intelligent, has better English than some of the 17-year old Brits I know. Good luck to you, mate – I sincerely hope you get a future.

© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book O Little Town of Bethlehem - Christmas in God's Holy Land by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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