Overnight in Bethlehem

Snapshots from our dinner and home-stay experiences with Palestinian families in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala

By Tatyana Turner, Giacomo Tognini, Eleonore Voisard, Natacha Larnaud, Haleluya Hadero, Jonathan Harounoff, Bella Farr

Part 1: Tatyana Turner,

(Photo: Tatyana Turner)

It was the start of an unforgettable night in Bethlehem. Though Michelle and I were very excited about the venture with our host family, the unknown made us feel apprehensive. But after a few short minutes of conversing on the comfortable black leather chairs in the lobby of the Jacir Palace Hotel, our minds were put at ease.  

Reema Azar, a woman wearing a neat updo and a kind smile, escorted us to her car. Our host is a third grade teacher and lifelong Bethlehem resident. She explained that she only lived five minutes away from the hotel, but because of rush hour we were caught in traffic. Nevertheless, our 20-minute car ride was enriching because we were able to drive through the urban parts of Bethlehem as we passed through the town’s main center, including Manger Square with its stately church and brightly lit boutiques.

During our ride, Reema gave us some background on her family. She has three daughters ages 24, 20 and 16, and an 11-year-old son. Reema’s husband, whom she met in her youth at Sunday School, built the home for their family. In 2000, he expanded the size of the home to accommodate guests as another source of income. Our arrival was greeted with music: Joseph, the 11-year-old, played mellow tunes on his lute, accompanied by his father on the drums.

Part 2: Giacomo Tognini and Zachary Folk

When we arrived at our host Jeries Qumsieh’s home, on the border of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, we quickly discovered we knew one of his cousins. Our professor Greg Khalil is a member of Jeries’ mother’s family, the Abu Farhas.
Through our conversations with Jeries and his family, we heard an alternative to the brain drain that is plaguing Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank. Jeries’ wife, Rudaina Sahoury, is an English teacher in a local school in Bethlehem. While Jeries is acutely aware of the difficulties of living under occupation — he was imprisoned in an Israeli jail from age 15 to 17 for throwing stones during the first intifada — he said he is deeply loyal to his hometown.

“I will never leave here,” he said, as we got into his car, outside the tall, concrete apartment block where he lives. “I have family in America, in Flint, but for me, this is home.”

We took the car for a quick drive to a nearby shop with two of his three young daughters — Nutra, Cedra, and Christa — to buy a gift for Mother’s Day, which was the following day. Nutra and Cedra were excited, speaking in excellent English about their plans for the Mother’s Day party at their primary school.

As he began to prepare a meal of pasta with spiced meat and mushrooms, Jeries mused about the local education system. “The schools here teach Arabic, English, French, and German,” he said. “But I wish that my children could learn Hebrew, because they will need it.”

He speaks from experience: Jeries works as a plumber in Jerusalem. Over our meal he showed us two large blue papers, which were his Jerusalem ID cards: one for his work, allowing him to enter Jerusalem every day from 5 am to 10 pm, and the other card allowing him religious pilgrimage for a few weeks over Easter.

The end of the evening took a much more somber tone, as Jeries and his wife began getting news alerts about a shooting that took place at the Bethlehem checkpoint. The parents turned the TV channel to the news, away from the movie that the children had been enjoying. As we watched the coverage, Jeries browsed Facebook for more updates. There were a lot of unknown facts about the shooting, but he was able to check in with family members quickly to assure their safety.

Part 3: Eleonore Voisard

In Beit Sahour, Nadine recently graduated high school. Her father makes Christian art out of olive wood. In these photos he carves crosses that he will turn into fridge magnets.

(Photos: Eleonore Voisard)

Part 4: Natacha Larnaud and Radha Dhar

When we first arrived at Marcelle and Elias Bandak’s home, Radha, Thea and I were greeted like old family friends. As we settled onto their living room couches, the Bandaks noted with laughter that we said “thank you” every time we were offered drinks, food, or blankets.

“There are two things Americans tend to say a lot,” said Thea. “Thank you, and sorry.” This was all it took to break the ice.

Marcelle and Elias, both 34 years old, are an energetic and good-looking couple from Bethlehem. Marcelle is a stay-at-home mom and Elias a basketball coach and referee. The family is observant Christians: both adults wore crosses, and religious candles and icons filled the living room space.

The couple’s young daughters-- Alleen, 3 and Ormella, 6--spent all night talking about the costume party that was supposed to take place at their school the next day. They both chose to dress as characters from the movie Frozen.

We continued our conversation over dinner in the kitchen. Marcelle had prepared savoury lentils with caramelized onions, diced cucumber and tomatoes. We were served green tea with fruit and local sweets for dessert.

As we sat back on the couches after dinner, the couple shared an apple and mint shisha, a regular evening ritual for them. Elias enjoys debate and discussion about many topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Marcelle was more peaceful, and wanted to show us a dramatic Lebanese soap opera she enjoys (which I must say was pretty captivating to the rest of us). Her philosophy was to let go of what is out of her control. “You’re going to talk about this again, Elias?” she said when her husband started speculating about the future of their country. “Khalas habibi (enough, dear),  life is today, not tomorrow.”

In the middle of our conversation, the news broke that a Palestinian man had been shot at the checkpoint on his way home. The mood shifted. Elias’ rebellious attitude turned into a deep silence which lasted until the end of the night and Marcelle’s positivity turned into exhaustion. As she was sitting on the couch, phone in hand, exchanging texts with family and friends about what had happened to find out more, she sighed. “It’s all the time. And it’s closer and closer. I’m just tired.”

She later found out that schools would be closed the following day due to the incident. When I expressed my concern about the girls being disappointed that the costume party was cancelled, she said, “While we’re here worrying about a costume party, two mothers are mourning their son.”

We stayed up talking about the power of intercultural experiences as a solution to break stereotypes and hopefully one day achieve peace. Hosting foreigners as the Bandaks do gives people the opportunity to live their life through their lense for a short period of time, and breaks any stereotypes one may have about Palestinians, which to be completely honest, I myself had before staying overnight with them.

Our farewell followed a delicious breakfast which included pita bread, olive oil, zaatar and labneh, in the company of Alleen, their younger daughter. Elias drove us back to the hotel, and as we hugged goodbye and thanked them for a lovely stay, we promised that one day, we’d be back for longer.

(Photos: Natacha Larnaud)

Part 5: Haleluya Hadero

A quick glance inside the Maria house in Bethlehem signals this is a Christian home. Wooden crosses are spread across the white walls, small paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary are tucked inside the brown living room doors, and bright red stitched art with the phrase, “God bless our home” is framed on top of tables.

George and Natalie Maria’s family is Catholic, and worships weekly at the Church of the Nativity. It’s not lost on them they worship in places most Christians only dream about. “I count it as a gift,” George said about his birthplace.

Under the bright fluorescent lighting in the white-tiled dining area, we enjoyed an “upside down” meal -- a yellow rice dish mixed with zucchini, yellow corn, spiced potatoes, and sliced carrots, coupled with stuffed green olive leaves, and a mixed bowl of bright red tomatoes and chopped cucumbers.

For Natalie, stuffed olive leaves are a cumbersome dish to prepare. It requires patience to continuously wrap the leaves, one after another, around tiny scoops of rice. But in the end, it pays off – in addition to looking beautiful laid out atop the green tablecloth, they’re George’s favorite dish.

Michline, one of the couple’s four children, took a break from her dentistry studies to welcome us. She attends a private college, something, according to George, is common in Bethlehem. “All the Christians send their children to private schools,” he said. They worry about safety in public schools, and ultimately, problems with mixing students of different backgrounds together in the school system. But for the most part, the couple hopes to tune out the problems on their doorsteps.  

Before we ended our night, we took a slow stroll in the old city, up to the Church of the Nativity, a mere ten-minute walk from the house. Looking up at the bright red cross on top of the church, I told George that as a fellow Christian, I wanted proof that Christ was indeed born in this spot.

He turned around and looked at me. “Do you believe?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s the only proof you need,” he said.

Part 6: Jonathan Harounoff

When Paul, David and I stayed with the Khair family in Beit Sahour, we experienced much more than a delicious dinner. Our host Therese, an East Orthodox nurse and mother of two, encouraged discussion about family and community over the course of our stay in the two-story home.

Mais, Therese’s 16-year-old daughter, told us about an important religion test she would take the next day at her private Christian school. Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem, is overwhelmingly Christian, with a minority Muslim population. Around 80 percent of the town’s inhabitants belong to some type of Christian denomination, Therese told me.

Therese poured each one of us a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade made from lemons she had been growing on her property. Religion, politics and nursing all came up over dinner, but Mais’s studies dominated conversation. She was torn between wanting to leave her home town for better academic opportunities and staying with her family and settling for a below-par education.

The next day, as Paul and I entered the family’s living room, Mais was in a celebratory mood. Her exam was cancelled because of a town-wide strike. The reason for the strike was less cause for celebration. Though the full details were yet to emerge, a Palestinian had been shot at a checkpoint, causing many shop owners and professionals to shut down their businesses as a form of protest. One of the shops I walked past bore the following sign:

                  إضراب إحتراماً لدم الشهيد

                 Striking in honor (and support) of the martyr

Part 7: Bella Farr

After a long day traveling through the West Bank, we were thankful to spend a night with our host family in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town just east of Bethlehem. We were greeted by Kawkab, a nurse who often hosts people from all over the world in her home.

The family was warm, welcoming, and, thankfully, liked to eat. Her four children, who ranged from 13 to 26 in age, popped in and out of the kitchen in their pajamas, sneaking bites of pita. Scooping large helpings of maqluba and mujaddara onto our plates, the family plied us with questions: “what are you studying, why are you here, and what do you think of Palestine?”

We spoke about our backgrounds, and learned more about theirs. The family’s only daughter, Luciana, was in the process of getting a master’s degree in environmental studies in Ramallah, and Elias, the family’s middle son, was working at a gift shop in Bethlehem and had just finished his bachelor’s degree in media studies. He had completed his thesis on the impacts of media on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

After sharing a pot of hot tea and watching an episode of an Egyptian soap opera, we went to bed in a newly renovated portion of the house. The family plans to move into the space this summer in order to start renting out the rest of the house to Airbnb guests. We fell asleep under Donald Duck blankets, using their high speed internet connection to watch a made-for-TV movie on Netflix.

The following morning, everyone was running late. After getting downstairs, Kawkab told us to hurry while serving up large portions of eggs cooked in olive oil and seasoned with zaatar. We missed the Covering Religion group, but it was nice to feel at home for a little while.