The Wrong Side of the Wall
Greetings and ahlan wa sahlan to you from the wrong side of the Wall! I'm sure most people would consider Bethlehem here on the Palestinian side of the separation wall as standing on the wrong side of the safety rope, but for the next month or two over thirty of us intrepid PSE travelers will be calling it "home." To be in what can be such a controversial place, I am surprised at the busy pace that surrounds me every day on my way to volunteer, to class, back home, and while exploring with friends. Cars zip around us as we occasionally fall off the sidewalk, small groups of college and university students pass us on their way to one of the several schools here in Bethlehem, shopkeepers open their doors to show off their wares, and teenagers sit chatting on the side of the road. For a city that is virtually in quarantine from the outside world, Bethlehem remains surprisingly alive. Even with the stores and buildings that have been boarded up from a drop in the tourist trade, the people defiantly make the best with what they've got.
On our first trip into Jerusalem, I may have caught a glimpse of the quality that makes the Palestinian people so amazingly special. After navigating the frantic crowds on the Via Dolorosa on Sunday and the press of bodies in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we drove a little ways out of the Old City to Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial and Museum. The design was strikingly done with a long, almost prism shaped building out of concrete lit by scattered skylights in the one hallway and the doors at either end of the tunnel; within the rooms of the museum itself, there were no windows and the lights were kept dim. The walls were bare, covered only in pictures, movie screens, and descriptions of the suffering of a people. A subtle mark of defiance in the writing and the sound clips made me smile - everything was first in Hebrew, then in English. Despite horrific efforts to the contrary, the Jewish people remain and have grown stronger than ever. It felt wrong, but I couldn't help but smile a little to imagine the expression of a Nazi soldier or administrator wandering into this shrine of Jewish triumph. At the same time, though, something seemed wrong. After five or ten minutes, I finally realized why I was bothered. Passing through the museum at the same time as our group was a group of newly recruited Israeli soldiers. Part of their compulsory military training obviously involved coming together to witness the evidence of cruelty suffered by their ancestors. In their spotless uniforms with highly polished sidearms, their eyes roamed almost hungrily over the exhibits as they listened to an officer narrate through the museum in rapid Hebrew. My blood chilled as I watched them, standing proudly together, their whole beings focused on the atrocities of the past. The message was crystal clear: Never Again.
Looking at their concrete walls covered in horror reminded me of another wall and another people. In Bethlehem there stands a wall. If you're looking for it, I don't think you can miss it. It is around 20 feet high and massively thick with barbed wire at the top and dozens of soldiers patrolling around it. But this wall is not barren. On its side are works of art, beautifully and strikingly colored, the voices of the people who must look at it for what could very well be the rest of their lives. Among the messages of betrayal and outrage, you will find messages and images of hope and acceptance. This has long been a land of heartbreak and tears, but I have discovered something else that is far more important. This land belongs to a people with an amazing capacity for hope - and for joy. Despite the occupation, despite the checkpoints, even despite the wall, the Palestinian people continue to look forward. They continue to hope for a better day and they possess the patience to see it through. Yes, I have found bitterness and I have found anger and despair, but never so much that it drowns out the music or the call to prayer or the laughter in the streets. Their wall displays not only memories, but also dreams. And hopefully, before I cross back to the other side of the wall, I will have learned from them the art of allowing the heartbreak while embracing the joy. Maybe that is the true magic of Palestine.