Rather than devote this posting to my father’s departure from Palestine and my initial reactions to life in Bethlehem (both of which topics I promise to cover next time), I’d like to share an experience I enjoyed this evening (Saturday, August 25) that has caused me to think again about the relative nature of safety. After a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment near the Paradise Hotel to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, I sat down to eat a falafel sandwich for dinner and observe the people congregating in the square. Perhaps because it was after 8:00 at night, almost all of them were male (ranging from small boys to elderly men), though occasionally a few women or girls would pass by. The boys played soccer, while the teenagers sat and talked. Policemen, and members of the security force wearing camouflage gear and shouldering rifles, watched cars pass by and occasionally questioned drivers. (Two were friendly enough to allow me to take a photograph with them.) At one point a blond man who appeared to be either European or American approached a police officer at the wheel of a van and demonstrated card tricks for him, drawing a small and admiring crowd. “It’s magic,” he explained in English.

I noticed a group of young men smoking a nargileh (hookah) and asked if I might photograph them. They not only agreed but—demonstrating the hospitality for which Palestinians are rightly admired by foreigners—invited me to join them.

Mustafa (at twenty-six, the eldest of the group) spoke English, and he interpreted our conversation for the others. A graduate of Bethlehem University, he was visiting his family on a vacation from his job in Dubai, which is among the most prosperous, modern, and fastest-growing cities in the Arab world. For an hour we discussed life in Bethlehem, the trouble that young people—even those with (advanced) university degrees—have in finding work (the unemployment rate, I’m told, approaches fifty percent), and his desire to emigrate to the United States. “I want to live the American Dream,” he told me with a smile and without a trace of irony—though he also admitted wistfully that even in Dubai he missed Bethlehem and wished conditions would allow him to make a living there. He described the considerable difficulty that Palestinians under forty face in securing permits to pass the Israeli checkpoints that divide Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Ramallah, and other nearby large population centers where they might find work. “It’s like we’re living in a big prison,” he concluded. I wondered whether the checkpoints made everyday Israelis feel safer (a topic I hope to broach with them, provided I can negotiate said checkpoints).

After a pause, Mustafa inquired where in the United States I lived, and when I responded, “Chicago,” his eyes widened a bit. “I hear it’s not safe there,” he said quietly. I laughed and told him that many people in Chicago believed Bethlehem wasn’t safe. “No, no,” he replied with animation. “It’s very safe here! We love peace! Tell them this! You will see this for yourself!”

What I’ve seen again and again, after only five days in Bethlehem, is that the people here are almost unbelievably warm, gentle, and humane. I’ve never felt safer.


Copyright 2007 Jamil Mustafa | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.