May 29 - Al-Khalil (Hebron)

I am awaked at 4:00am stirred by the Muslim “Call to Prayer” broadcast over loud speakers across Hebron.  As I lay on my pallet on the floor, an eerie, sleepy quiet was broken by a low male voice chanting in Arabic from the Qur’an.  Sometimes other voices from other loud speakers join in close harmony, almost in a call and response format.  The other call from sleep comes from far more mundane sources.  Our CPT apartment is located above a chicken coop where chickens and birds are kept and sold during the day's market.   Motivated by instinct, roosters seem confused by lack of daylight and sound their alarm at all hours of the early morning and sometimes night.  Both siren calls remind me that I am far from home and a visitor in a land I’m only beginning to understand and know – if only in small amounts.

Morning school patrol beckons and most of us rise early to sit for an hour at the Palestinian checkpoints where boys and girls parade through metal detectors simply to enter a part of the city where their schools reside.  For U.N. documentation purposes, we must count boys, girls, and teachers who make the daily journey past razor wire, soldiers in battle gear, and metal turnstiles that turn and stop – their movement often controlled by unseen soldiers sitting in booths.  Some children carry backpacks or wear T-shirts with animated cartoon figures and children’s icons from film or TV, while others simply carrying a plastic sack holding their precious materials for learning.  I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of young girls walking to school.  Israeli soldiers treat them all (including the very young) as potential terrorists and often teachers are detained, although they come through daily, so that ID’s can be checked.  Our Arabic translator informs us that detained teachers often call out to passing children, instructing them to tell the principal they will be late – again!  After 20 minute delays of anyone, we are instructed to call TIPH (Temporary International Personnel in Hebron) who have the authority to come question the delays.  This is a group affiliated with the U.N. and most are from Scandinavian countries.  The most frightening aspect of “school patrol” is watching the cars and buses full of Israeli settlers zoom through the narrow curvy roads where children must walk and cross without the benefit of sidewalks or stop lights.  No one can get in another persons’ mind and judge their thoughts or motivations, but the excess speed is frightening and very dangerous and I have to wonder about the seeming need to intimidate Palestinian children walking to school – are they seen as potentially just collateral damage?  I witnessed some close calls between child and vehicle and my stomach leaped to my throat on a few occasions as the children seemed “invisible” to the drivers.  Had something happened, I had to question my ability to practice non-violence in such a scenario.  The children’s familiarity, expressionless faces, and casual acceptance of the situation spoke volumes about their understanding of what is “normal” daily life for them. 

The rest of our day was spent walking through Hebron being shown what had been, what is, and what is hoped for the future of the historic Palestinian city, known for centuries by its important economic presence in the West Bank.  Hani showed us his land (including some centuries- old olive trees), and his home which has constantly been threatened with destruction although his official deed dates back to the Ottoman Empire.  Walid, from the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, was like a one man Chamber of Commerce taking us through the “Souk” (market area) – the stone walls and tunnels that have teamed with merchants for centuries.  When speaking of Palestine, the numbers shock us into the reality of natural and man-made objects that date back to the crusades of the 12th century or earlier.  Stone walls and buildings were built to remain cool in the sun-baked heat of the summer and warm during the cold winter months.  Historians of Palestine don’t deal with hundreds of years but thousands years when they discuss Hebron and the West Bank - mindboggling in its enormity and scope – humbling in its story of human enterprise and survival.  I suddenly feel, once again, that I am the time traveler here and my existence ethereal in such a place of gravitas.