After the weekend in Jerusalem, it is lovely to be back in Bethlehem, my head in the books, my brain swimming with random Arabic words and phrases. I woke up this morning saying to myself, in Arabic: ‘I live in the university’. That’s the way it feels with 3-4 hours of Arabic lessons each day this week and at least that, if not more independent study.
Because we won’t be home for Christmas, I’ve been trying to get some shopping done between lessons. There’s a lovely shop in the souk which sells amongst other things, scarves, bags, purses embroidered with traditional designs by local women. I bought a scarf from the owner of the shop last year when I was in Bethlehem for the Kairos Conference, and I returned yesterday. We talked about Scottish Independence and the referendum last year, which was followed closely by people here in Palestine. ‘Why, why did you vote no?!’ they always ask. ‘I didn’t!’ I answer. The shopkeeper drew aside some scarves and a shirt to proudly reveal a YES sticker from the campaign last year.
He pulled out his phone, placed an order for coffee, and invited me to sit. A few minutes later, our coffee appeared, hot and thick with cardamom and very sweet. ‘Tell me about your family,’ I said. A couple of his siblings live in America. They saw no opportunity here and went abroad to study, married, and stayed. It’s a story I’ve heard many times. ‘I live on that street over there,’ he told me. ‘My friends from my childhood, they are all gone. America. Australia. England. I know no one on the street anymore.’
‘How do you feel about what is happening now?’ I asked.
‘They are pushing us for the third intifada. The children throw stones. They do not understand that this is what the army wants, that it gives them an excuse for violence. The children are angry. They want to be free. They want to fight. I did not like Abbas. I still don’t like him. But I think he is the right person to have in authority right now because he knows we must act with caution, that now is not the time to fight for peace. We cannot have someone from Hamas in power. We must wait, wait patiently for the right time.’
Today I was wandering the souk between lessons, in search of coffee to clear my head and keep me awake through the afternoon session. I saw shop after shop closing. ‘Is it a holiday?’ I asked someone.
‘No. Everything must close because of what is happening at Al-Aqsa.’
‘Al-Aqsa? In Jerusalem? But why close Bethlehem? Who says to close? I don’t understand.’
‘The people who think they have big muscles, they say to close. People here want to work. But they say we cause trouble. The farmers, they want to sell. You see them in the souk, the shopkeepers sitting outside their shops. They don’t want to go home. We want to work. Why close schools? Why send students home? It makes no sense and it makes me very angry. We want to work. What are we supposed to do if we don’t work?’
My mind keeps drifting back to the angry look on the faces of some of the shopkeepers as they locked their doors. I could feel the tension building, and it made my spine tingle as I walked back through the empty streets to my lesson. As someone said on my Facebook page, it’s like Inverness paying the price for trouble in Carlisle.
There’s so much I just don’t understand.
Edited to add: This article from Al Jazeera explains more of what has been happening today. Shopkeepers held a two hour strike in response to clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. There is a noticeable air of tension and unease here in Bethlehem at the moment.