If you are a tourist or pilgrim who arrives in Bethlehem via Checkpoint 300, the first thing you will see as you turn into the street is the concrete barrier that slices it in half, severing the neighbourhood from Rachel’s Tomb and the military base that lies adjacent to the holy site. Get closer to the wall and you will find the women of the neighbourhood waiting to meet you.
One of the simplest but most important aspects of my organisation’s work is providing a space where people can tell their stories. One day Toine had an idea: why not turn the wall itself into that space? We could collect short vignettes from the women who use the centre and hang them on the concrete. The stories would be like windows: tourists on their way to see Nativity Church or eat dinner at the optimistically named Bahamas Fish Restaurant would be able to catch a glimpse of Palestinian life.
Difficult as some of these stories are to read, I felt tremendous happiness as this project began to take shape. These women have endured the occupation in silence for a long time. Finally they have been given a voice – and amplifying that voice is the wall itself, part of their oppression. The use of the wall as a backdrop for these stories seems to be a form of poetic justice, and a sign of what it means to have sumud: an ability to go on resisting in any circumstances, undermining the occupation with the occupation’s own weapons. For this reason the sight of these posters on the wall always reminds me of a cartoon that Reem has in her office. It shows a wading bird trying to gulp down a frog. The frog’s head and most of its body is inside the beak, but with its webbed feet it is clutching the bird by the neck, preventing it from swallowing. The caption: ‘Never Give Up’.
It is also significant to me that many of the women who have shared their stories so far are Christians. It is extraordinarily common for perplexed tourists to ask the local Christians, “So when did you convert from Islam?” These women represent the oldest Christian community in the world, yet their very existence isn’t widely known. When supporters of Israeli policy talk about them, they often try to explain away their suffering in terms of Muslim persecution, as though this is a religious conflict and Palestinian Christians are somehow miraculously exempt from martial law. (If I were ever to write a book on Top Ten Ways to Piss Off Palestine’s Christians, ‘When did you convert?’ and ‘Palestinian Christians only suffer because of the Muslims’ would top the list of handy techniques.) The most frequent complaint from Christians in Palestine is that they are not listened to by the wider world. During Operation Cast Lead, Manuel Musallam, a Catholic priest in Gaza, wrote of his community: “The word ‘love’ is choking in my throat…We cry and nobody hears us.”
In placing their stories on the wall, next to those of their Muslim neighbours, the Christian women show Palestinian society as it is. The inclusion of stories from the refugee camps and the Diaspora as well as from our immediate neighbourhood also helps to portray the community as a rich and vibrant whole, as opposed to the splintered tattered thing that the occupation has tried to make it. Many of the stories are bleak, but as you walk away from the ‘Wall Museum’, you are left with the feeling that this fight is not yet over, and that these women will not be beaten so easily.