Tuesday April, 14: Aida —> Bethlehem —> Jerusalem

Saturday 9 January 2010
popularity : 14%

Our last day in Aida. We keep ourselves busy to prevent sadness overtaking us : have breakfast, pack our cases and bags, a cleaning-team to return a spotless Guest House to our hosts, another pictorial-art-team who, pots of paint under the arms, go in search of a patch of the wall that imprisons the camp on which to leave a surprise-present to our friends...

All the spots at man’s height are already used and we have no ladder : it doesn’t matter, there are other walls than the separating wall... It’s already quite hot and the “heartists” have no brushes, only their fingers which they wear out on the roughcast wall and from which little by little a huge smiling sun crops up made of all our names entwined ... Anne-Claire has gone back to the Al-Rowwad Centre, together with Tanguy who wants to engrave all our recordings on a CD which we are thinking of sending through the post to avoid any trouble at the airport. She comes across Oussama who is worried not to see anybody of the group and tells him everybody is busy painting something on the wall. He has an immediate reaction that nails her to the spot : "Please, no!… Don’t do that !" And as she wonders why, he really gets irritated : "This wall is hideous and must stay so I beg you, don’t go and paint flowers and little birds on it, please!... It is as if you decided to paint or sculpture the bludgeon with which you are going to torture us, the gun with which you are going to assassinate use!...We don’t want a “beautiful” wall! We want it to disappear !….Nobody here, no Palestinian would ever go and paint anything on this wall. Only the « international » people do so...!" Anne-Claire gulps (how stupid of us, indeed!) and reassures him : nobody in the group is painting on the separating wall (and thank God or Allah for there being no room at our height, and no ladder in the Guest House!) and there will be no flowers and little birds. Oussama softens and apologizes but again Anne-Claire reassures him : she understands it all so well.

Time is flying : we are having lunch at 1 p.m. We take our most loyal friends for "a last walk together in the camp". They let us guide them and, as if by chance, our route leads us to the wall we have coloured all morning. Théodore is going backwards in front of the group so as to be able to catch the moment when our friends will discover our farewell present...

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And that’s it, that’s the moment and all kinds of emotions pass on their faces and in their eyes : surprise and lack of understanding : ”What’s that ?… It wasn’t there yesterday !…” , then wonder and disbelief mixed , and finally, burst of joy, ace to the wall and exclamations : "You are crazy! It’s so great!... You are so crazy, really!" Ayssar keeps frolicking in front of our drawing : "Look, there is my name too! Look! ..." We are so happy for them, and so, so moved too and some eyes are misting with tears, oh yes…

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1p.m. We are eating at a lady’s in the camp, somebody who sometimes cooks for Martine, a way to allow her to make some money. She welcomes us in her dining room in which we pile up and immediately start salivating in front of the various dishes she lays on the table : for us, she has prepared a typically Palestinian meal, absolutely beautiful, delicious and hearty! If we had known earlier she existed!...

We meet some members of her family, with whom we start talking about everything as if old friends…

There are still so many people to get to know in Aida, and so many things to learn from them...


But here we are, « on the road again », going to Mustapha Abu-Srour’s little courtyard (one of the very few small gardens there are in the camp). It is our last “appointment” in Aida. We owe it to Martine.

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Mustapha is a man in his fifties, whose brother has been in jail for 17 years now. He first introduces us to their mother Sabha, an old but still very beautiful lady wearing a black and red jellaba she embroidered herself and a light white scarf that floats freely on her shoulders. Mustapha has mint tea served to us, which is most welcome under this merciless sun ! and then he goes along with the interview. What he tells us about his imprisoned brother reminds us of what Tarek told us on our way back from Nablus and Balata and again it shakes us...

"I have 2 brothers. The first one was killed by the Israeli soldiers, the second was sentenced to 99 years of imprisonment 17 years ago… He was 22, he is 39 now. He has been transferred from one prison to another and my mother is the only one allowed to go and see him… When she goes, she has to climb stairs, 70 steps in and then out, when the visit is over. It’s difficult for her. As you can see she can hardly walk now…”

The Israeli authorities do all they can to make it difficult for the family of the prisoners. Even before you get to the prison, there are first all the detours you have to make because the “Palestinian” roads are blocked, all the checkpoints throughout the country, the waiting, the controls which, I presume, aim at making people lose patience and give up.

Then, once at the prison, the visitors are left to wait in a corridor outside the building, sometimes for five, six hours, sometimes even longer. Then the soldiers call the register and send the people to another part of the prison, where again, soldiers call and control everybody… My mother usually gets up at 4 a.m. to take the Red Cross bus in Bethlehem. Then she has to travel one hour to Talkomia checkpoint, where they all wait until the Israeli authorities decide to let them go through, which can take between one and three hours. Then they have to take another bus that takes them to Shaba Prison (1h30 travel) where they are all put and locked in the outside corridor.”

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"The soldiers check her documents, again and again, and everything, her shoes… She gets body-searched in case she would hide something… This again can take 30 minutes to 1h30… And only then can the visitors go along the passage that leads to the room where their family member is waiting for them. They can meet for 45 minutes.. It means its often 1 a.m. the next day when my mother is back home…"

When we ask Mustapha why his brother is in prison he answers that the reason was a Jew had been killed. “The big problem was my brother knew an operation was about to be carried out. He didn’t do anything himself, but he knew other people were about to. Yet, for the Israeli, if you know something is going on and don’t tell, it is as if you had done it yourself…”

We want to know how his brother feels, if he has given up. No says Mustapha, he hasn’t given up and won’t : ”Do you remember there were elections in 1996? My brother thought he could be part of the Palestinian Council. All the prisoners voted for him and he was elected, but the Israeli authorities didn’t acknowledge it… After that, he enrolled in the Israeli University and last year he finished studying Israeli Law. He thought he first had to understand the Israeli system properly so he could defend his and other people’s rights afterwards… The other prisoners have chosen him as their spokesman to the Palestinian Authorities : he is the one who tells them about all the problems the prisoners have with the Israelis… He also teaches them languages : English and Hebrew…”

Whether there is any hope his brother’s sentence could be shortened ? “As you know maybe, there are talks between Israel and the Hamas about the liberation of Palestinian prisoners, in particular those who were imprisoned before the Oslo Agreements, which is my brother’s case… Which means he might be released any time… But let’s not talk about the future… We know nothing about it…."

We look at the old lady sitting quietly next to us. She speaks only Arabic and can’t know exactly what Mustapha is telling us. We smile at her, she smiles back at us. We would like Mustapha to ask her to tell us what she wants to say to us. Sitting as straight as she can on her chair, she addresses us in Arabic. Mustapha listens very respectfully than summarizes in a few words : “She wishes there could be peace on earth for everybody and that no mother should be deprived of her son…”

Sabha, Mustapha’s mother
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The whole group again is overwhelmed by what we have heard and look at the old lady with so much respect and tenderness too. Gathering the very little Arabic she knows Anne-Claire then compliments her on her beautiful jellaba. (“jamil jiddan! Mabrouk!” ). The old lady smiles, stands up and with a sign, invites her and Laetitia to follow her inside a little room : carpets on the floor, pictures of the martyrs and of the imprisoned son on the walls. She opens a little cupboard, from which she takes 3 more jellabas : “I embroidered them myself when I was young, she explained proudly, but now I can’t anymore, my eyes are almost dead.” And she shows the two girls that she wants them to try the jellabas on. They can’t refuse, really!!... Another glass of tea, and we have to leave…

For the last time, we go back to the (impeccable !) Guest House, long enough for a last farewell rap from our friends (recording 98) and a short farewell visit from Sandra.

The last one
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Then we haul bags and guitars on our backs, and for the last time, walk up the street that leads to Al-Rowwad center. All along, the kids, all those who saw us coming and going during our ten days in Aida (and who never failed to call out for us and play the "Hello, what’s your name? Shusmik, shusmak?-game) wave at us "Bye, bye! What’s you name? Shusmik, Shusmak?" Our little tradesmen wave too, "Ma’a salama!" (May Peace be with you!) and other people we come across. As if we had been here for a long time...

Tarek and Oussama are at the Centre, and Mourad and Youssef and, of course, Mazen, Jamal and Mohammed, all have our little postcard in their pocket. We have no choice but start saying goodbye. Long and warm hugs, smiles and strings of Thank you – merci – chukran. We get on the bus, which this time is not even a bit late, and go to Bethlehem checkpoint

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This time, nothing can penetrate the armour of positive emotions and energies : turnstiles and Marine’s irritation at the electronic portal that rings again and again - the invisible soldier finally lets her go through after she has taken off all her jewels, her shoes and belt and it is still ringing !

Checkpoint 2
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Then we take the bus to Jerusalem, same place : our youth hostel at Jaffa Gate. Shower and soft landing on the terrace where we listen to the muezzin’s call.

Appel des muezzins - The call
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We absolutely don’t feel like staying in the old city at this moment : it is the end of the Pessoah celebrations and the streets are full of the ever haughty orthodox Jews. We need to go for a drink in a nice place with our friend Daoud we have of course immediately contacted. Tanguy knows a quiet vegetarian restaurant in the new town. Unfortunately it is closed. We finally end up having a horrible junkfood meal outside an Israeli pub (mountains of French fried potatoes and ketchup which cost us an arm and a leg)...

The fact is we are so completely inhabited by the faces and voices of our friends confined behind the wall, these boys and girls we have left on the other side of Bethlehem checkpoint, without their being able to come and go freely as we are, every day of our life.

The shock too to realize how easily life goes on for the Jews of Jerusalem, in total oblivion (or ignorance) of what everyday life is like for our friends of Aida, Al-Aaroub and Deheisheh, for the Palestinians of Balata, Nablus, Hebron, and all the places we haven’t seen, places that are but a few kilometres away from here...

In a word : this meal in that place at that moment was an enormous mistake from all points of view but it was all we found then. So, we concentrated on Daoud, who was too happy to see us again to let us guess he felt uneasy in that place (how can we be so tactless ?) and who give us some stickers "Free Palestine. Boycott Israel" and « I’m proud I didn’t take part in the occupation of Jerusalem » Then, back to the youth hostel, but we won’t be able to sleep on the terrace : too many occupants already...

Read the continuation of the trip