I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
It’s Saturday night in Beit Sahour, and a 70-something Palestinian woman is threatening to feed me arak (and salted almonds. I’m anyone’s for a few roasted almonds).
Could be worse.
As part of my gruelling guidebook research project, I’m staying at the Arab Women’s Union guesthouse in Beit Sahour. The beautifully refurbished hostel – closed for renovation when I was here 18 months ago – is now known as El Beit. The AWU are a well-established organisation which run job creation and welfare projects, and the proceeds from the guesthouse go towards the Union’s work. All good.
I’m not sure what the right word is for my hostess with the arak. She’s not the manager per se, but she certainly runs the place. Housekeeper doesn’t really cover it. She has acquired legendary status amongst habitues of the AWU for her warm welcome and motherly care for all her guests. I suspect she’s responsible for the spotless cleanliness of the whole place, and the scientific precision with which the bedcovers are folded. But she is much more fascinating than a mere good hostel-keeper. She worked for UNRWA in Gaza for years, leaving for her home town of Beit Sahour when her elderly parents decided in the late ’70s that they wanted to live out their days in their ancestral home. She recalls the day in 1967 when she and her family “went to bed under UNEF rule, and we woke up at four o’clock in the morning with Israeli jeeps with loudspeakers outside saying: there is a curfew now, do not come out of your houses, if you come near the windows you will be shot.” And her affection for arak seems to date back to the days when it was doled out in Beit Sahour to ward off cholera epidemics with, apparently, considerable success.
Going back beyond her own memories, she can also tell her father’s tales of life under the Ottomans – including stories of children forced into hard labour – and under the British Mandate. His recollections of that period seem to have been very positive, compared with those of some of the people I saw interviewed in Nablus about the British regime for the Empire & Commonwealth Museum‘s forthcoming exhibition on the period. Perhaps that’s down to the social differences between a Christian Orthodox priest in Beit Sahour and rebellious young men from Nablus.
It only remains for more people to come and stay at El Beit and listen to her stories (and drink arak).