Ahmed is a Palestinian living in the Bethlehem area. He is not yet thirty, but his studies were long ago interrupted by the closure of his university in the occupied territories and nowadays he earns part of his living by escorting foreign visitors around the West Bank. His itinerary is selective, leading from one dark scene of bereavement or injury to another. We meet in Bethlehem on a wet December morning. The shopkeepers are already closing up – the half-day is a regular feature of the intifada, a mass protest, now over a year old, against the Israeli occupation, itself over twenty years old.
We drive to a freezing office in the city where a large lady in her forties is seated at a desk beside a one-bar fire. Her card reads ‘Artificial Limbs Manufacture, Cinema Street’. ‘What do you think of our intifada?’ she asks with evident pride. ‘You saw Bethlehem at Christmas? How was it?’ ‘Empty,’ I say, and she looks me up and down with a smile of approbation. After a time she leads me into another cold room – a modest prosthetics workshop containing several upright legs and a grey metal rack full of plastic arms and hands. Her workload has increased dramatically since the intifada began, she claims, lifting a thin, short prosthetic hand and forearm from the rack. It is for a young boy who was injured before Christmas. She alleges that the Israelis ordered him to take down a Palestinian flag from a high-voltage wire near Nablus. They made him stand on a jeep and had him try to remove the flag with a metal pole. The force of the current blew off his hand and forearm. Holding the prosthesis in her own right hand, she tugs at a string on its underside with her left; the lifeless fingers enact a brief, sclerotic clench, moving less than half an inch in all. She replaces it carefully on the rack. At the end of our meeting I ask her to write her name on a piece of paper. She writes: ‘Alice Saad’. ‘You know,’ she says with a brusque laugh and a shrug of the shoulders, ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
Bethlehem is quiet. A funeral procession has just gone by and there are several soldiers in the square near the post office. The rain sweeps across the arcades and the metal shutters on the shop fronts rattle in the bitter wind. Two nights ago, on Christmas Eve, I went through the security systems into the Church of the Nativity with a handful of other tourists – or ‘pilgrims’, as they’re known. The intifada kept all the local residents indoors, the shops were shut and the rain was pouring down. When I emerged from the stifling Grotto of the Nativity into the dank, dripping Basilica of Justinian, I had the impression of entering an underground cavern. The worse the weather in Bethlehem, the more the history of Christianity resembles a long and disastrous pot-holing expedition, starting with the immaculate conception and culminating in the disappearance, no less immaculate, of the Archbishop’s Special Envoy in Lebanon. Outside, now, there are still a few tardy foreign visitors making their way through runnels of rainwater on the hillside like jaded salmon struggling back up the leaps to breed. The wind angles the rain almost horizontal to their bodies.