More Falafel, Less Religion
When you tell someone that you are staying in a refugee camp, they usually visualise something resembling a dirty and desperately dense campsite. Many are like this and Aida was no different once, however the camp is now 71 years old. Allow the tragedy of a refugee camp existing for 71 years digest. You can’t live in a tent for 71 years, potentially bringing up four generations in those conditions, therefore naturally the camp has evolved in time. After 5 years UNRWA built small concrete blocks (1 room) to replace the tents and now, after years of efforts, the camp is probably best described as being a bit like a shanty town.
The three of us were living with Dembers’ family for the week – they have a nice flat at the start of the camp, roomier than most others given its location. It is a busy household with a large family always coming and going, most of whom still live there. Despite this, we were given the largest room available – the other two sharing the double bed and me perfectly content with a mattress on the floor. The hospitality was incredible and totally humbling: the home open to us to come and go as we pleased; and every meal, of every day, freshly prepared and sitting on the dining table waiting for us.
Our host was busy with Uni work so the three of us explored Bethlehem on our own. We walked the apartheid wall, appreciating some of the artwork, and paid a visit to the Walled Hotel, an interesting Banksy museum which sits in the shadow of the wall. Following this we took a half hour stroll in the afternoon sun down to Bethlehem old town and wandered the steep and narrow cobbled roads. Like three typical, pasty, Scottish tourists in an exotic land we wandered into the first Nativity attraction we encountered: on came the lights, next the music, 15 Shekels paid, and we wandered around as many alternative depictions of the Nativity you can imagine until we finally found the exit. Lights out, music off and 45 Shekels banked until the next daft tourists arrive. When in Bethlehem and all that…
The falafel was far more impressive. Freshly made in front of us, we watched our chef piece together our sandwiches on the corner of Manger Square before devouring this Middle East delicacy in the shadow of the Church of the Nativity. I wonder if Jesus was a fan? Of falafel, not the church. Manger Square was busy, as you’d expect. The Church of the Nativity was mobbed and even less enjoyable. I’ve been in far more impressive Churches however given that this was supposed to be the birthplace of Jesus I planned on going back when quieter to see the specific site of his birth (I never did).
Dembers arrived to collect us and we drove to some vantage points in Bethlehem to see the place from up top. The tone of the previous night’s conversation continued as he pointed out all the illegal settlements and areas which they are due to expand in – Palestinian land obviously – which was grim hearing whilst standing viewing it. Again, it’s details you may already be aware of however there’s nothing like seeing it in person and hearing it first-hand from the people most affected. We started our descent for the camp where Dembers would give us a tour of the Lajee Center and camp itself.
The Lajee Center is a two-storey building which sits at the front of Aida camp, diametrically opposite a massive Key of Return monument-arch which you pass under to delve deep into the camp. It is flanked by the apartheid wall on two sides like a right-angle – one side of the Wall containing an army watchtower looking over the Center, its recreational grounds and the camp itself. The Lajee Center boasts the only recreational land of the camp which comprises a garden, park with kids’ playground and 5-a-side football pitch – all of which is blanketed by a high net to keep out tear gas canisters. Inside it has offices, function and media rooms, libraries and – my favourite – a rooftop garden terrace which overlooks the camp.
The camp itself was always lively – lots of kids playing in the streets and, given that, strangely lots of joy riding. Stranger still (perhaps maybe impressive in terms of driving skill) given how narrow the streets are and another example of the lawless vibe of the camp I had mentioned previously. The walls are mostly covered in graffiti – the majority of which is political: slogans of resistance or murals for martyrs. I loved the anarchic feel with no real show of authority – whilst I’m sure there is authority, I got the sense that with such a tight-knit community there is no need to have any forceful reminder of who is in charge, perhaps something other societies could learn from. As we walked the streets, we heard various stories of incidents that took place in certain spots and the stories behind them – the authenticity of it all was powerful.
After some lovely scran, we met up with Dembers’ mates and headed to play pool. The pool hall was stereotypically Arab – a large, old-fashioned room with simple décor and furnishing; men only; the room engulfed in smoke which formed a strangely palatable aroma once fused with the strong scent of thick Arabic coffee. Older men played cards and dominoes whilst younger men played pool. It was just a Tuesday night to them, for us it was a unique experience.
Our experience of securing delivery of a package, which was integral to our trip, wasn’t as great. Here to work on the Aida Celtic project, the team’s kit – which we intended to promote – had been stuck in a Tel Aviv sorting office for almost two weeks. The operation to liberate the kits quickly became a somewhat symbolic struggle and tiny taste for us of the unnecessary restrictions, complications and barriers put in front of Palestinians or anything Palestinian.