When I arrived in Jerusalem in November of 2012, I received a disturbing phone call from the director of the news service where I work as a volunteer. News travels quickly in Beit Sahour, the quiet suburb of Bethlehem where the apartment where I stay is located. His voice somber, he told me that the husband of my landlady had died a few days before. “It was sudden and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said, his voice heavy with despair.
I arrived to find Samia, her two sons and their families distraught with grief. For days, I watched a steady parade of visitors pass my apartment on their way to her house. It was mostly women who came during the day, some wearing the Muslim headscarves, others bareheaded but all were dressed head to toe in black. Men came evenings after work, walking head down and slow. They came singularly or with families, others in groups as large as eight or ten. For forty days the stream of friends and neighbors came to share grief.
Respectful and accepting of Orthodox Christian ritual, tradition proved wearing for the bereaved widow obliged to endure unrelenting days of communal grieving. She greeted each guest hospitably, accepting with a tired smile the bitterness of her loss while serving tea, coffee and a sample of sweets.
The tedious days ended with a long funeral service at the Greek Orthodox Church nearby. We sat on hard chairs set up for the overflow surrounded by vividly painted icons of angels and the holy family. Over a thousand people came to pay tribute and say farewell to the community leader who had given so much and to share compassion that knows no single religion but embraces all.
The daily visits by caring people, many coming from villages and experiencing checkpoints, interrogation and humiliation that served to bolster commitment to humanitarian concern.
As the days went on, gradually, Samia’s story, one of the many experienced daily by Palestinians of all faiths unfolded; and I would learn later that Samia’s brother-in-law, living in Jordan, had been denied a permit by Israel to attend the funeral of his brother.
In spite of help from her two daughters-in-law, who kept coffee and tea ongoing to serve guests, the continuous flow of visitors and sleepless nights were taking a toll on Samia.
One day, she knocked on my door and humbly asked if everything in the apartment was all right. I sensed her need for relief and refuge and invited her to sit and have coffee. Graciously she accepted, a thin smile of appreciation crossing her tired face.
She began to talk, words tripping out in a jumble of English and Arabic that began softly as apology then became a story edged with anger.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” she interjected repeatedly as she told her story. He had been healthy, had returned from working in the U.S. in construction a few weeks before.
She said he had complained of mild discomfort; and when it did not pass, she took him to the local clinic. Though equipment was minimal and there were no specialists on staff, she was assured that everything they could do would be done and he would be all right.
There was no time to request the permit from Israel needed to travel to Jerusalem, six miles away, for attention at a good hospital; and, in any case, it could be denied. Likewise, a trip to Ramallah, which has adequate hospital facilities, requires an Israeli permit with time an added factor.
A bustling city in the West Bank directly north of Bethlehem normally would take about twenty-five minutes to get to by car; but Palestinians cannot take that route, which goes through Jerusalem in Israel. Instead, they are required to take a precarious winding mountainside road that avoids the city and takes well over an hour.
Samia said the last time she saw her husband alive was at the clinic. He had a smile and waved cheerfully as they wheeled him into another room. A short time later, a doctor came and said he was gone.
“There was no time… if only… it’s Israel and occupation…” She sniffled and dabbed her eyes. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be telling you, you know… those who haven’t been here, don’t know how we suffer, all of us, Christians, Muslims, even the Jews…”
In Beit Sahour, my second home, I see no hostility between Muslims and Christians. I see children of both faiths walk from school arm in arm; there is no crime and I feel safer than when at home in my St. Petersburg, Florida neighborhood.
Deaths occur because Israel denies permits; students and workers are delayed and harassed at checkpoints; and whether Christian or Muslim, are prevented from going to see holy sites and visiting their families during the holidays.
Every Sunday, church bells ring throughout historic Palestine; in Bethlehem, they chime and blend with the Muslim call to prayer, a harmonious call for peace among Palestinians who live and suffer together under Israel’s brutal occupation.