Blog from Bethlehem
The area is surrounded by imposing 9-meter high walls topped by barbed wire and cameras, and flanked by a watchtower. A closed iron gate constitutes the forbidden entry to Rachel’s Tomb, transformed by Isrrael into a military fortress. The modest dome over the tomb is just visible here. Most inhabitants have left the area years ago. Several closed garages are in a dilapidated state.
Unsurprisingly, the fortress attracts Palestinian youth and children, in this case from neighboring Aida refugee camp. They see it as a confrontation zone. In a cat-and-mouse game, the youth throw stones and the soldiers fire back, from teargas to rubber bullets or worse – a game with serious, sometimes deadly consequences.
There is a little hatch in the iron gate that can be opened and closed from inside. Once I saw a curious orthodox Jewish child opening it to peep through, then parents quickly closed it.
Around the gate are thin-metal posters glued to the Wall. Many commemorate the nakbe, the disaster of 1948 when 7-800.000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homeland. (Last week the nakbeh was commemorated in many places. In one case old trucks used at the time were again operated, in a queue).
On some Wall posters, present-day youth from Aida camp give their reactions upon photos of fleeing refugees and destroyed villages. One 1948 photo shows a refugee woman who in shock and despair puts a cloth before her mouth. A boy comments that the photo reminds him of present-day women in the camp covering their mouths against teargas.
End of the World Rd
Further down, along a street renamed ‘End of the World Rd,” are small posters with quotes from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The quotes interact with the surroundings: “The last train has stopped at the last platform and no-one was there,” or, “A mother reprimands the prison guard: ‘Why have you spilled our coffee unto the grass, you mischief maker?’” “A human being is a bird unable to fly.”
The street sign “Apartheid Avenue” next to the military gate has been removed by soldiers. It took them several attempts, as the glue is strong.
In this dystopian environment the youth, staff and volunteers at AEI arrive for some work. With the help of staff and equipment of Bethlehem nunicipality we remove piles of garbage next to Antoinette’s house. Antoinette is a member of an AEI women’s group and former music teacher in Aida camp. During the shellings of the Second Intifada she gave music lessons to children in the cellar of her family house, to calm them down.
Besides garbage we collect dozens of teargas and other canisters found near the gate. To people who still live in the area we explain that we do the cleaning to test out possibilities for music and sports activities. “So you come here for a few hours, then leave?” “No,” we say, “the intention is to keep coming back.”
In the weeks afterwards we try out open-air activities in the grassfield of Antoinette’s backyard and along the End of the World Road. Two large sewage tunnels under the Wall, closed off by bars, form an interesting backdrop. Once, we are told, they were used by workers from the camp to reach Jerusalem, until they were teargassed back into the camp.
The youth play a little Alice-(Leyla)-in-Wonderland drama in front of the tunnels. A week later we watch a poet and a rapper talking and walking on a narrow ledge above the tunnels.
There are several thrown-away checkpoint blocks in Antoinette’s backyard. They too are a useful setting. One checkpoint panel can be used as a table on which some youth play a large cardboard game. It is a freedom of movement or checkpoint game in which the players have to find their way along obstacles (“The soldier at the checkpoint has a bad humour. Wait two turns.”) Sitting on a checkpoint panel, chin on knee, one participant looks like a chessplayer thinking through the very limited possibilities to reach Jerusalem. Coloured canisters are used as pawns. Other youth glue canisters on the Wall, or paint footsteps of a climbing Spiderman, or color stones.
We further try out 70-cm hurdles with images of the Wall, for jumping over. They are a bit too high for children. We spread out car tires on the street. This works well for a jumping game. A new youth music group plays music in front of closed garages, including the melody of Beethoven 9th, “All people become brothers.”
International volunteers design wishing boxes to be glued to the Wall. “Wishing the Wall Away” is mentioned on top. Next to one of the boxes we fix dozens of wishes sent last year to Bethlehem, in English and Arabic translation.
As Lennon sang: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one.”
Toine van Teeffelen
May 20, 2016