What We Would
The bus at the station by Damascus gate on Saturday mornings. Number 231, I think, with the six and a half shekel fair to Beit Jala. Sometimes Sam and I talked on the way, sometimes we didn’t. I usually stared out the window and watched as the landscape transformed from a foreign country into one of the many paths home.
We got off at the roundabout and walked up the side of the highway to where the service taxis and friendly drivers waited. We would ask around, “Battir, qaddesh?” until someone nodded and waved us over. We would pile in the back of whatever vehicle granted us passage, with whomever else happened to be there. I have sat next to giggly Palestinian school boys and gentle hijab wearing women. On both occasions I almost forgot my foreignness in their welcoming presence.
Once or twice massive blocks of concrete and imposing military tanks closed off the road. When those cases, the car would speed down through a neighboring town, winding its way around back. I was grateful for those cement blocks. They reminded me that my safe haven was not so for everyone. Yet while the barrier were only a minor inconvenience for us, this road blocks could easily destroy the livelihood of those for whom this little village was not an escape, but a life lived in tension.
We were always dropped off by the Roman fountain. Going down the stairs, running our hands under its cool crisp water, then following the ancient irrigation channel down the alley, turning at the end and ducking under the arch. Here was a humble open air cafe, where we spent many mornings, afternoons, and evenings; Eating, drinking, talking, playing, listening, watching, being. Here in Battir, we just were. There were many moments spent in stillness, in silence, not doing a single thing except being. And I was happy.
The cafe was a bright little place with a handful of tables and a wood burning stove in the middle. The famous terraces lay all around beneath it, heavy and full with eggplant, cabbage, lemon, and cauliflower. I loved sitting by the windows, watching life happen all around me. The farmers diligently tending in their fields, the school children playing at the water, the donkeys singing their off key songs.
I remember one chilly evening better than the others. The irrigation tunnel ran over an arch and the water tumbled down into a pool green with age and algae eight feet below. The boys of Battir became men as they climbed up and dove into the murky water beneath. The evening came cold and Sam, shivering in shorts, prepared for manhood. Hassan and Lawrence and our other Battiri friends hung around with cigarettes in hand to watch this American college student leap into the dark water, like they all had as school boys years ago.
A running start and a dive, a splash and a second of silence. Then ripples as he surfaced, and swimming to the edge, was met with applause and laughter. Back in the cafe we pulled up chairs to the stove, upon which Sam hung his dripping shorts after emerging from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. The men christened him Sayyid Miniskirt. We sat around that furnace with Lawrence for hours, holding hot paper cups of dark Turkish coffee. We talked about our homes, about peace, about faith, discovering the intricate similarities that tend to exist between all people.
And then it was deeply night. At night there was driving. Driving through mountains and through cities, screeching and shouting and laughing. There was always so much laughter, between the barbequed chicken hearts and the chili pepper aphrodisiacs. We would speed through Bethlehem to a grocery store that was always open, no matter how late we got there, and run through the aisles, filling up a shopping cart with anything and everything that caught our attention. Hassan and Sam teased me mercilessly for tossing in slices of plastic yellow cheese. After buying too much food we would stop for vodka to bring back for Sultan, a peace offering for letting us cook at his apartment. At Sultan’s place we would prepare the grill outside on the balcony, fanning coals until they glowed red beneath the grate. I’d snack on potato chips and grapefruit juice while the boys worked. Hassan tried to teach me how to grill once, laughing and scolding me as I squealed and stabbed the chicken. We’d come in out off of that wind swept balcony and feast, sharing food and stories and life. As night passed into the early hours of morning, we would leave, eyes heavy and stomachs full.
We stayed at Hassan’s apartment, the first floor of a stone building out towards the edge of the town, bordering the terraces. There was more talking and laughing; There was always more talking and laughing. And there was dancing, too. Dabqa and swing at one in the morning on the cold tile floors.
The sheets went unwashed on the beds and it felt like home, like coming back to my own bed at the end of a trip. Unwashed sheets were an open invitation to return. They said that our visits required no work, no extra effort on the part of our host. He would simply give us the key and drive away into the night as we fell asleep soundly. In the morning I stood in the wind and watched the almond trees, their white blossoms hiding the fuzzy green almonds. When Sam woke up, always later than I did, we would breakfast on whatever was left over from the night before, usually dates and almonds or chocolate. Sometimes Hassan would be asleep on the couch and we would smirk, wondering where his night had led him and how recently he had gotten here.
I loved these Battiri mornings. The apartment was so still, our whispers and munchings the only sounds. We’d pack up our few things and leave, walking down the shop lined streets or taking a long winding trail through the terraces. The faint trail led down into the valley to a wide gravelly road. This road followed the snaking path of the train tracks. Our first day in Battir we had heard the story of the train, about how once upon a time it had stopped at the edge of this village, transporting its famous produce from the border to the coast. But then there was a war, and Battir had lost. Now there was no stop here, no Battiri vegetables from border to coast. Just constant threat of land possession in the name of security.
The valley was still beautiful, though, there among the terraced hills covered in olive groves and almond trees, a thousand different shades of green and an infinity of growth. We witnessed the blooming of Battir as we walked through this valley, red poppies and pale apricot blossoms. Fil mish mish, they say in Arabic, When the apricots bloom. It’s a saying about waiting.
Our last morning was spent quietly in the cafe, watching life move slowly and waiting for Hassan. He came, late and rushed as always, and we got into his car to drive back to Bethlehem. There was talking and laughing; always talking and laughing. He dropped us off that spring morning and we said our heavy goodbyes, lightened with the hope of “Bashufik, enshallah”. I will see you again, God willing.