January 1, 2012 was my last day in Palestine and I was busy packing when my friend Jessie came to the door.
“There’s someone you need to meet before you go,” she announced solemnly.
“Madeleine isn’t far and we won’t stay long,” her tone uncharacteristically serious.
Sure, Arab time, I thought, short means long and long means indefinitely. Yet, I couldn’t refuse the chance to hear another story about life under occupation in the holy land. Anyway, I rationalized getting into Jessie’s car; I had all night to pack.
We stopped in front of a house, half hidden behind citrus trees choked by tangles of vines; a ground cover of weeds tumbled over the stone pathway leading to the door. The place was a misplaced spectacle among the neat row of sand colored houses in the suburban district of Bethlehem.
“It’s her sustainable garden,” Jessie explained spotting my forlorn look at snarls of twisted creepers, straggly wildflowers and thick clumps of odd greenery. The strong odor of citrus mingled with mint, cinnamon and eucalyptus greeted us as we entered the house.
A slightly built woman stood in the kitchen area vigorously stirring a pot that seemed half her size.
“We don’t buy anything,” she announced, not turning to face us, “picked these oranges and lemons this morning and got to get this jam going.”
I watched as she stirred, poured in sugar, tasted and stirred again, before turning to meet us. Smiling, she wiped her hands and began to slice cheese and arrange an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables on a plate and to pour tea for her guests, Jessie, a woman from Germany who had come earlier, and me. Madeleine was in perpetual motion; never stopped to sit and talked incessantly.
“The cheese, yogurt and butter are from our goats, the rest is from my garden; we’ll go there soon as the jam gets underway.”
She served us a plate of homemade cheeses and biscuits with butter she said she made from the unusual breed of goats she and her husband raised. After tea, Madeleine took us out into the back yard. Chickens roamed free scuttling in and out among the herbs and greens. She snipped and named each herb too rapidly for me to remember all except the spearmint, regularly added to tea served in Palestine. We followed her as she trailed in and out among bushes and trees, snatching off sprigs and handing them to us to smell or to sample for taste.
Back in the kitchen, she returned to stirring the jam, now and then stopping to sort and snip the greens she had collected for a salad during our walk.
“Where did you learn about living off the land and food preparation?” I asked.
“Had to,” she answered abruptly, “during the Intifada, it was survival.”
I recalled Emili’s story about Palestine’s Tea Party during the Intifada, when in 1989, citizens revolted against taxes and boycotted Israeli products; the arrest of the agronomist who was teaching Palestinians how to grow and prepare their own food when curfews forbid travel and gunfire made venturing outside risky.
“We had to do a lot of things to survive then,” Madeleine said, “and we had to take life threatening risks.” She stopped talking, reflectively she continued to snip, sort greens, and shred them into a salad bowl. She shook her head, “they were bad times, Israeli soldiers were everywhere, there was shooting in the streets, and arrests, a curfew; and my husband was dying.
For forty days, we were not allowed to leave the house; my husband had cancer and needed oxygen. I couldn’t stand listening to him gasp for air; knowing relief was only a few kilometers away in a Bethlehem hospital. You don’t think right when you see someone you love suffer like that; I just knew what I had to do.
I got into the car and drove straight to the checkpoint; only I didn’t stop. I gunned the gas, crashed through the gate, kept going and didn’t look back. I remember waiting for gunshots and not caring; but I heard nothing and just kept going. I reached the hospital and headed straight for the dispensary. Doctors, nurses, everyone stood in shock; then riddled me with questions – how did I? I was breathless, ‘just give me the oxygen,’ I ordered. One doctor offered to return with me, said he knew an alternate route.
‘Hell, no,’ I said, ‘No sense in two of us getting shot. I’m going the way I came – alone!’
They put the tank of oxygen in the car and I left, racing back the same way. Ahead was the checkpoint, this time heavily fortified; soldiers, rifles poised waited. There were jeeps blockading the road and on either side of the gate; no way to crash through. I had to stop. Soldiers surrounded my car; questions followed: Where are you from? How did you get through? Who let you through? Something inside said,’ bolt, go but there was no way and bullets would follow.
A tall older soldier sauntered up to my window. He appeared to be in charge as the others cleared the way for him. My heart sank; my throat tightened; all I could do was point to the tank on the seat beside me.
Leaning close to me, he hushed, ‘Go, go quickly.’ Then he signaled to the guards ahead to raise the gate, and waved me through.
Yes, occupation must end for the sake of all – Palestinians and Jews; yet, over these sixty-three years, occupation has been our teacher,” she said, raising and shaking a bundle of radishes triumphantly.
“People who do not know us say there can never be peace because Arabs and Jews hate each other; but when we meet face to face, we see the fine human threads that bind, teach and strengthen resistance.”