I had just finished an enjoyable lunch with a few associates in Bethlehem when I walked back, toward where I had departed the #21 bus, at its last stop. I could not recall the location of the Bethany Bible College, but knew I was very close. I decided to try my luck with the PA Police, an armed force which works to maintain order in those areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
As tonight the United Nations would vote on the the Palestinian bid for “Observer State,” the outcome unknown, many more armed police had come out to line the streets and stand at the corners. When I was in this same place one week earlier, the IDF had been painting that section of the wall, gate, and guard tower aircraft gray to cover the graffiti and damage from fires set by Molotov cocktails. Already, sign of a place in contention had returned, “FREE PALESTINE” in black and red spray paint.
The first two PA Police I spoke with did not have a command of English, and my Arabic remains mostly non-functional for the lack of time I have committed to study. They directed me across the street to a half dozen heavily armed men in, on, and around a PA truck.
As I approached they straighten-up, a few smiling, the others looking somewhat grim.
“Marjaba. Kif harek?”
” ‘suta ilhamdilla,” one of the men replied, offering an outstretched hand. The others smiled, laughed, or said something I did not understand. Likely semi-offensive as the others laughed more.
“Wen Bethany College?”
“What?” he asked in English.
“College. Bethany College?”
“Where you go?”
“To the college, somewhere, … over there,” and as I waved my arm, I saw the sign and realized it was just diagonal from me, on the same side of the street I had just come from.”
“Where you from?”
“Jerusalem. That is where I live.”
I could already tell this was more fun than they had enjoyed all day, and I might be here for a while, so I played along.
“La, la. No. Where you from–what country?”
” ‘merika,” I responded.
“Ah! President Obama!” They all laughed.
“Yes, President Obama.”
The half dozen police, those of whom were not sitting in the truck, were carrying fully automatic machine guns. While I have grown accustomed to seeing this, either with the IDF or Palestinian Police, it didn’t bother me. However, I found myself studying the weapons now that they were within reach. It intrigued me as to how physically abused they appeared to be, scratched, dented, and worn. I wondered if this was from use, or simply carrying them around all day, for even my camera has suffered quite a bit in the recent months without my having mistreated it in any fashion.
The driver of the truck leaned toward me, across his associate in the front passenger seat. “You have passport?”
“What?” hearing him, but not really seeing the point as I was only asking directions.
“Passport. Let me see your passport.”
“My passport? Uh … Ok. Hold on.”
Everyone got quiet and watched as I pulled it from a pouch in my backpack. I handed it to the passenger who had apparently not reviewed many western passports, for he looked for my photo in the back. The guy in the driver seat grew frustrated and took it from him.
“Yes. America,” I repeated, smiling.
When I turned back to the four men standing by the truck, one of them had stepped closer to me and was holding a stick of Wrigley’s gum, in its famous silver foil wrapper, in his outstretched hand.
They all laughed as I unwrapped the gum, placed it in my mouth, and began to chew. I could not recall the last time I had a piece of gum. It was refreshing.
The guy to my left, whose machine gun was closest to me asked, “You like Hamas?”
Taking a slight risk, but having a feeling I knew the correct answer, “No! Hamas is c-r-a-z-y!” circling my index finger round my head.
Immediately, they all cheered and rewarded me with a round of high-fives.
“Obama. He hates Palestinians,” the same man said.
I lowered my head as I considered how to address this, and then looked back to him, “No, no,” (shaking my head) “Listen,” I took a deep breath, calling upon a reduced, simple vocabulary to make certain they all understood. Each of them moved a little closer and were very quiet.
“Listen. No president, not Obama, not Bush, not Clinton–no president can say no to Israel. Too much money. Too many Americans in Israel. Too many Israelis in America. Too much business,” (spreading my hands wide) “It is not possible.” I waited, watching eyes and faces, “Understand?”
They all nodded, but of course, it was not the answer they were looking for.
I stated, “But tonight, United Nations votes for Palestine, right?”
“Yes, yes. But last year, it no … ” another finished the sentence “… no work. Halas.”
“Maybe this time it will be different,” (looking at everyone in turn) “We will see.”
“Inshallah!” (God willing)
“Inshallah,” I repeated.
The driver handed my passport to the passenger who in turn pretended to polish it with the end of his sleeve, turning it over a few times to make certain it was spotless. He handed it back to me, grinning.
I thought I would be free to go when the man in the passenger seat raised two Red Bull cans and offered one to me. With his right hand closer to me than his left, he said, “Whiskey.” Alternating, he pressed his left closer while retracting the right, “Rum. You want?”
I could not believe this, but at the same time I was not surprised. I laughed really hard, temped to try them just to see if they were joking, but decided against it, “La, la shokran. But, wait, wait, … you drink this all day?”
“Yeah! Sure!” They all laughed.
This went on for some time, the same offer extended again. The conversation degraded a bit, and I was eager to get on to my next meeting.
While I was not excused, which seems like a good idea when leaving six men with guns, I lifted my backpack, shook all their hands, and turned. The one who had given me the stick of gum grabbed my shoulder and gave me a hug which would have likely been a kiss on both cheeks, as is tradition here among men, had I remembered the protocol. It seems the loaded, fully automatic machine gun pressing into my hip and side caused me to forget my manners. I shook hands again and I said goodbye.
Across the street I enjoyed a tour of the Bethany Bible College multi-media centre and was invited to use their studio for filming interviews. I was very impressed by the setup and quality of gear. They invited me to share my experience as a film maker with their class. I hope to return soon, and next time, I will be packing gum (sorry, couldn’t avoid the pun).