by Melissa Schwab
We asked him many questions—in English, Hebrew, and broken Arabic. But he asked only one, "Do you believe in God?"
The man who had asked me this question was Ashraff, our taxi driver for the day. It was through his eyes that I saw Bethlehem. He took Brian and me all around Bethlehem and its sites on a clear, sunny April day. While I saw the Church of the Nativity and other famous sites, it was this soft-spoken taxi driver that left the strongest memories.
Our day started off at the Shepherd's Field, a lesser-known tourist attraction said to be related to the announcement of Jesus' birth. Ashraff didn't know how to explain what this site was. Somehow, Brian and I had indicated that we were Jewish, and that I was Israeli, so he began speaking to me in Hebrew. Soon enough, we were carrying on a fluent, sophisticated conversation. Brian was very frightened to hear us speaking Hebrew, loudly, in Bethlehem. Ashraff said he'd tell us when it was okay to speak Hebrew and when to revert back to English.
Ashraff ‘s family had fled/been expelled from the Negev prior to the 1948 Independence War/Nakba.
His family moved to a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem 60 years ago and has been there ever since. Throughout this day of sightseeing, I learned about Ashraff's opinions and stories, each one reflecting a longing for a better future and disenchantment with the current state of affairs, but never with any feelings of vengeance or hatred. Ashraff said that tourism was important for the economy and wished there were more tourists, especially Jews.
Before the Second Intifada started, Ashraff worked in Eilat and Beer Sheva for many years, explaining his excellent Hebrew.
He was excited for Jews to be in his city, learning about the West Bank, its cities and what was going on in them.
After some reflection, I think Ashraff asked me the question about God because he recognizes a commonality between Israelis and Palestinians —he is a Muslim who believes in God and I am a Jew who believes in God. This shared belief should be one that brings us together.
Later, Ashraff showed us the Separation Wall. The times I had seen it from the Israeli side, it was very sterile, unemotional. Simply, a big gray wall in the middle of a relatively open expanse of dirt. Ashraff took us to the area in Bethlehem where the Wall encircles Rachel's Tomb. I felt its foreboding, physical presence. There was a watchtower at one of the corners: from below I looked up and I felt the gaze of the Israeli soldier's eyes. The power of this huge structure could not be seen in any other way—Israel controlled this space.
Despite the Wall's domination and oppression, the artwork expresses resistance. One mural depicts a lone, live tree, surrounded by a tall wall. Outside of the wall, all the other trees are dead, leaving just the stump. This wall is choking Ashraff and his people, but they do not let it overpower them.
From the Israeli perspective, this wall maintains one purpose: to prevent terrorism. From what Ashraff showed and expressed to us, this was a place passionate voices cry out in an unwillingness to acquiesce.
It was almost time to eat. Ashraff promised us a good meal at his home. We decided that it was important to see all that we could to learn and understand about Ashraff's life.
Ashraff lives in a 4-story house, with each generation having added on a floor. Before eating, we sat in the living room with Ashraff and his friend. They were so happy we were there. Ashraff saw that I was looking at a lithograph of the 99 names of Allah. He started to translate each name to Hebrew. Again, I felt that he wanted me to understand that his religion was just like mine—Allah's names are merciful, ever forgiving, all knowing.
We went into the living room and sat on the floor, devouring chicken, rice and salad, all with our hands. Ashraff insisted that we keep eating, that we felt comfortable and welcome. His young daughter crawled over, stared at us curiously and made her way to her mother's lap. We continued tearing chicken meat from its bone, balling yellow rice together, sharing one meal together, glancing at each other, rejoicing in the opportunity to sit together simply as humans.