Ancient time, ordinary time, disrupted time

by Toine Van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute

During a quiet morning a few weeks ago, I waited for a mass by Armenian priests in the Nativity Grotto to end. Together with guests I sat for an hour on the entrance stairs. We experienced the timelessness of Christmas through the slow, rhythmic singing of the priests.

Yesterday, at the occasion of Mary’s birthday, Mary and I visited a mass in the small chapel of the Bridgettines Sisters near Nativity Square. It is beautifully located in the maze of old small streets that is part of overlooked Bethlehem. The silence and sounds of bells and the inaudible footsteps of the sisters too remind of the ancient rhythm of the town.

Afterwards we rushed back into the ordinary sense of time. We have all kinds of sign posts that punctuate the normal days. Does the kaek man come in time so we can buy his bread with sesam before Mary leaves to Bethlehem University? Yes, there we hear his distant cry in the morning silence. Or we hear the shouts of school children going to school and know how late it is, or sense the quick steps of students going to their exams at university, studying from books they sometimes read while walking.

Yet there is always an unwelcome third rhythm: that of occupation. It interferes with the other rhythms. Full of uncertainty and threat, it puts people on their nerves. Last week, after a number of attacks against settlers and oppressive actions by the Israeli army, I noticed through Facebook that people in Bethlehem and Ramallah opened their doors for stranded travellers. They offer accommodation to those who do not dare to go out in the evening on the highways because their cars may be stoned by settlers. This happened for instance on the Wadi Nar road, the circling road to the east of Jerusalem which connects Bethlehem and Ramallah. According to an Israeli human rights organization there were last week within 24 hours after an attack against settlers “dozens if not hundreds” stone throwing attacks against Palestinian cars.

Travelling requires daily planning which is here always under threat of being disrupted by unplanned events. Such event can be a sudden mobile checkpoint but also (in my case) the shock of what you see while traveling normally. Along the Ramallah-Nablous road there are quite a number of posters put up by settlers in which the eyes of Mahmoud Abbas, the PNA’s president, are in the center of concentric circles. It is a call for assassination.

Sometimes there is positive traveling news, or whatever we for the moment regard as positive. Lately Mary got a permit to go and fly through Tel Aviv airport. Happy to get a permit to travel in your own country. And this time the permit did not come the day before or after traveling, so she is able to plan her trip well.

The rhythm of politics also interferes with the ancient rhythms of religion. This is not just about traveling or entrance problems when visiting mosques and churches, but about something as simple as sending a Christmas card. I tell people abroad that Christmas cards sent to Bethlehem arrive standard in February. Security.

But post can also take longer. In October it happened that 10 ton of post packages arrived in Jericho. They were held up for no less than 6 years at the Allenby Bridge after being classified as suspicious. Because of some kind of new arrangement between the occupational authorities and the Palestinian Communication Ministry the packages were now released. A favor.

I actually do believe that some Israeli army officials think it is not a humiliation but a confidence building measure — so all pervasive is the delusion of arbitrary power that keeps the occupation in place. Within days the packages were brought by the Palestinian post service to their real destination. Imagine, to receive a Christmas present after 6 years. What kind of time rhythm is that?

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