To visit Bethany in the West Bank, after more than thirty years, I first walk across from the Damascus Gate to the Arab bus station accompanied by my husband. Nothing has changed here. The crowded bus station sits under the hill known as Golgotha. The same Muslim tombstones crown the top of the hill. The natural caves on the side of the cliff still startle the knowing visitor with the visage and image of a skull face.
One by one, I ask each mini-bus driver if he is going to “Al Azaria” as Bethany is called in Arabic. With a curt but polite nod, each one indicates – over there. I continue down the line of buses to the very last one, which is indeed going to Al Azaria. We get in, pay the six-shekel fare and take our seats. I knowingly tell my husband, “We won’t leave until the bus is full.”
The driver finally pulls out of the station and turns right on Nablus Road. I anticipate we will soon curve back and pass below the Mount of Olives with its majestic view of the Garden of Gethsemane. Bethany, the traditional home of Mary and Martha, and of course, their brother Lazarus, is only a short fifteen-minute drive from the Old City of Jerusalem. Two thousand years ago, it was a Sabbath’s day walks from Bethany to the Temple.
Before I get too complacent and comfortable on this short journey, I realize the bus is entering a large underground tunnel between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. We emerge on the backside of the Mount of Olives, hurtling down a highway with road signs that read “Jericho” and “Maale Adumin.” My husband has just read the same sign and turns to look at me. “Did you pick the right bus?”
I shrug. “Well, a visit to Jericho might not be such a bad idea,” I reply, as I look out the window at the barren hills, not yet green after the winter rains. The Judean wilderness is awesome and majestic in an ageless silence. Soon, we see in the distance a small Arab town. The villas are two and three stories high. How do I know it is Arab and not Jewish? The architecture is the first clue with the flat top roofs and large balconies. We could be anywhere in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, Jordan or Lebanon.
After about twenty minutes we approach a crossroads where the signs say Jericho to the left and Azaria to the right. I smile at my husband. “Looks like we will visit Bethany after all.”
The bus turns right, passing Maale Adumin, a large Jewish town. The two and three story villas all have red tiled roofs and architectural esthetics that reflect a Mediterranean style. There are obvious signs of landscaping and carefully planned street patterns in contrast to the haphazard planning of the Arab town we just passed.
Almost immediately, we enter the outskirts of Bethany. But this is not the sleepy village I remember of thirty years ago. Either side of the road is jam packed with shops and businesses: care repair shops, butcher shops with whole slaughtered goats and sheep hanging outside on hooks, poultry shops with live chickens, vegetable shops, toy stores, clothing stores, wedding gowns, garden shops, cement block workshops, welders and brick layers. On top of each shop is an apartment where presumably the proprietor and his family live. Behind each shop, accessed by side lanes are more houses. Everything looks raw and brutally pragmatic. Not a tree or shrub, park or fountain in sight.
I turn to my husband, “I don’t recognize anything. This could be a town in Turkey or Iran (we’ve both lived in those countries). He nods in agreement. “I can’t believe how ugly it is, and yet it has the ambiance of prosperity and progress.” We continue on as I anxiously look out the window trying to locate a landmark that will tell me where we need to ask the bus driver to stop and let us out. After sometime, I recognize the Greek Monastery that used to be on the outer edges of Bethany. I now know we will soon enter what I now call “old Bethany.” Sure enough, I catch a glimpse of the church spires that mark the lane where Lazarus’ tomb is located.
Getting off the bus, my husband has the foresight to ask the driver where we catch the bus going back to East Jerusalem. The driver nods toward the other side of the street, so we know we will return the same way, through the Judean desert.
With eagerness I walk up the lane where I soon reach the villa, which my dear friend, Dr. Flora Colby rented in the Seventies. The gate to the garden is open so I walk in and stand in the driveway. The current owners have three late model vehicles parked there. A partial second story has been added, and the garden is somewhat neglected, but otherwise looks just the same, even to the almond trees on the side terraces. I smile as my husband takes my picture. You can go back, I tell myself. I feel a sense of comfort and peace, even though, those many years ago when I lived here, I was a young mother, bereft of her children and could not be comforted.
Turning back to the lane, I urge my husband to come see the compound next door where the goat herder and his family of ten children used to live. The ruins of the compound are still there, two rooms and a large open courtyard. They had no running water and no electricity. The daughters drew water from the village spring and carried it back to their compound. They were the only family in the village that lived with out modern conveniences, but they were not poor, with a herd of a hundred goats and each goat worth many hundreds of dollars.
I remember the beautiful children of this large family, some of them with blond hair and blue eyes. The eldest daughter, with black hair and violet eyes was as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor. She is the one who coaxed me into driving her to the East Jerusalem post office to pick up a package sent by a tourist. She had never been outside of Bethany before and her father did not know she was going with me. At the post office, she presented her father’s identity card that contained a record of all his children.
The clerk looked sadly at her and said. “Your name is not registered here. Only sons.”
I felt a sharp pang in my heart as I looked at her disappointed face. I didn’t know what was worse, not getting the package or knowing your father did not care enough to register the birth of daughters. But, being young and full of high spirits, and more importantly, outside of her village for the first time in her life, she ran out the post office door saying, ”let’s visit all the shops.”
“Not so fast,” I shouted as I ran after her, with visions of her angry father wreaking vengeance on me if anything untoward happened. “We’re going straight back.”
Poor girl, she did get out of her village within the year. On the eve of her marriage to a young man from Ramallah, she ran away with her uncle on her mother’s side. The police tracked them down in short time and kept the girl in custody for her own protection. Her father and brothers felt they must keep the family honor by killing her, but her mother sought the intervention of Dr. Colby, who in the middle of the night drove to the police station and reasoned with the father. The police also wanted this to end well, and they brought in the groom who was still willing to go ahead with the wedding. (Why wouldn’t he, she was as beautiful as a movie star). So, my neighbor, the eldest daughter of the goat herder, married her intended husband. I heard she was locked in her room for the first year to prevent any further rebellion.
Now, all these years later, I like to think she is the contented mother of many children and probably, like me, even a grandmother.
Next to the deserted goat compound, I see a three-story house is being built. I ask one of the workers standing there if they remember the family. “Of course, he says, “This is their sons’ building.”
Next, we head up the lane to Lazarus’ tomb where I hope to encounter another old neighbor and friend, Ibrahim. I ask a man near the gift shop if Ibrahim is in his shop today. He tells me, with sad eyes, that Ibrahim died some years ago.
Oh, I might have anticipated this, as it has been over thirty years. I tell him that I used to live in the villa down the street with Dr. Colby. His eyes light up at Dr. Colby’s name. He remembers the doctor, but does not remember me.
Everyone in the village loved Flora Colby. The children would run to open her garden gate when they saw her gold-colored Peugeot drive up the lane (with me at the wheel). These same children never hesitated to ring her doorbell in the hottest months of summer to ask for a glass of ice water or lemonade. In fact, she was always available to anyone who rang her bell, be it the mayor of the village, or his drunken doorkeeper, or the seven-year-old daughter of the UN Colonel who rented the villa next door. Many a secret did we hear from this little girl as she sipped her lemonade in Dr. Colby’s sunroom. For example, her mother always took a nap after lunch (which I wish I were doing instead of drinking lemonade with this child) and her father, she innocently told us, went into his secret closet to talk on his radio.
Now, at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb my husband and I decide we might as well do what tourists are expected to do and descend down the narrow stone steps deep into the bowels of the earth. At least three levels below street level we crawl on hands and knees through a narrow tunnel emerging into the tomb proper. This was something I most emphatically did not do when I lived nearby in the villa. Coming back up to the sunshine and we walk around a bit more than stop at a solitary kiosk to drink a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We sit with the vendor and are soon joined by an Arab man in his mid thirties who speaks English. “Not many tourists,” I say. He shrugs and replies, “the wall.”
Of course Bethany, having only one “holy site” was never a big tourist draw and yet I tell the young man, “I can see by all the new shops and homes on the main road that Bethany is prospering.
Again he shrugs, “Well yes, these are the people that used to live in refuge camps. As an after thought he adds, “Also many Bedouin moved here permanently.”
As we pass by Dr. Colby’s villa once more, I remember the other Ibrahim, Dr. Colby’s houseman. He cleaned the floors, and did the heavy laundry and ironing. His home was in Gaza and he left his two wives and twelve children, returning home every other week. Dr. Colby made sure he returned to Gaza laden with bundles of good, gently used women’s clothing, as well as the toys and sweets that Ibrahim bought for his children.
I did the cooking for Dr. Colby and her guests and so I was often in the kitchen as Ibrahim went about his work. “Sharin, come see,” he called me over one day to gaze in awe at the vast number of feeding dishes that Dr. Colby put out for her many house cats plus her one little white dog. These were just the food dishes of the pampered inside cats that slept on her bed at night. Outside, every homeless cat and dog in Bethany, of which there were plenty, found refuge, food and water in her back terraced garden. I would just smile at Ibrahim’s puzzlement, for I knew that I also was one of the strays that she sheltered in her home in Bethany.
Later, my husband and I catch the same minibus, returning back to Jerusalem through the desert of Judea. On the backside of the Mount of Olives, the driver pulls over at the Israeli Army checkpoint. We all get out, there are only two other passengers plus the driver, walk through a metal detector gate, show our passports to the young soldier, then get back in the bus. All told the security check takes only minutes. No one experiences any of the humiliation that the BBC always opines about. Still, it is a big inconvenience to travel forty minutes extra because of the security fence. Life was better for both Israelis and Arabs back in the Seventies I think to myself.
Back in East Jerusalem we congratulate ourselves on having a fine day in the West Bank, something my husband vowed he would never do for security reasons. Only later that night did we learn a rabbi, a father of seven children, had been murdered on returning to his home in the West bank and consequently there had been a shootout in Jenin between IDF forces where the suspected killers were shot dead. Thirty years have passed and there is no improvement in the situation.
Both the Arabs and the Jews are building permanent homes and communities in Judea and Samaria and neither are going away. There is ample room for both as is evident by the miles and miles of empty hills and valleys. It is a matter of the heart being willing. Perhaps Dr. Colby made a small difference during her tenure in Bethany, in that she welcomed every living creature. Back in the Seventies, there were a handful of Christians and Jews living in Bethany, in harmony with the Muslim majority, now there are only Muslims.