When I finish for the day at the Musalaha office, I catch Bus 124 to the checkpoint. After quickly presenting my passport, I walk across a small empty parking lot and through the Wall. A hive of taxis constantly swarms like massive yellow bees around the point where the Wall severs Hebron Road. I’ve become friends with several of the taxi drivers, and they begin shouting greetings when they see me walking through the grated tunnel. They call me Hanna, Arabic for John, and they make sure every other driver gives me a fair price. He is a friend, they tell them, so do not cheat him.
Of all the taxi drivers, I’ve become closest to Walid. He first gave me a ride several months ago, before our first visa renewal trip to Jordan. Walid drove me all over Bethlehem looking for a bank that would give me Jordanian dinar. Now, he drives me near my house almost every time I come back to Bethlehem from the office. Most of the other drivers yell and beg, urging me toward their open doors. But Walid stands in the back with his hands in his pockets, a confident smile on his bearded face because he knows I’ll ride with him.
Not long ago, I came back early from the office. I’ve begun doing that much more frequently in the past few weeks. I write much better from the house. As I walked down to the buzzing taxis, I heard people calling my name and I saw Walid standing tall next to a fruit stand, a thick strand of dark hair curling naturally across his forehead. Before I had time to acknowledge him, he climbed into his car and waited for me to join.
“Marhaba, Hanna,” he said after I closed the door. “Keyf halak? How are you?
“Ah tamam, okay,” I said, setting my backpack between my feet. “Inta? You?
“Kowaies, kowaies,” he replied, speedily maneuvering the taxi within an inch of pedestrians and other cars. “Good, good.”
We drove out of the pocket formed by the Wall’s horseshoe-curve and soon turned down to Beit Sahour at a large roundabout built for the pope’s visit. A long line of clothing stores rushed by on the left, and behind them, across the valley, the Israeli settlement of Har Homa reached like a white hand over a once-forested hill. Trash swirled from the sidewalks and got sucked under our tires. Walid rotated the steering wheel with one broad brown hand, the other propped through the open window. He told me he was getting more and more excited with each passing day: his pregnant wife was expecting their first baby in less than a month. They had only been married for ten months, and apparently wasted absolutely no time in starting their family. Mabruk, I said to him. Congratulations. And he said Hamdullah, hamdulillah, praise be to God.
“Walid,” I said, watching the road bend in front of us so that I could see my house on a distant hill, “are you Muslim or Christian?” I didn’t hesitate in asking, because the strange Western taboo on discussing religion and politics doesn’t really exist here.
“Ana?” he asked, slightly turning his head toward me, but keeping his eyes straight ahead. “Me? I am Muslim.”
“Are you very religious?”
“Do you fast or go to the mosque to pray?”
Walid clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth.
“Believe me, very very little,” he said. “Maybe I go after.”
He laughed and added, “After one month, one year, who knows?”
“Lesh?” I asked. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Ma ba’raf. I don’t know.”
All around the hills and valleys, minarets pointed up like dozens of antennas searching for a heavenly signal. Several times a day, numerous calls to prayer from numerous mosques reverberate from every direction, overlapping like echoes in a still cave. I told Walid that there are almost as many mosques here as there are churches in East Tennessee, where I’m from. Steeples of some persuasion rise out of almost every street corner in Jellico, the little town in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. He asked if there were any mosques in East Tennessee. Not in Jellico, I said.
I told him I had heard of animosity between Muslims and Christians in the Bethlehem area. Walid looked at me with inquisitive eyes.
“In Beit Jala mostly. This is what I’ve heard. Have you felt this?”
Walid looked surprised and shook his head, sticking out his lower lip.
“No,” and he rubbed his forefingers together and said, “We are brothers.”
The guys and I sometimes buy groceries from a small store partially underground, in a side alley in the old city of Beit Sahour. During one shopping venture, Patrick and Paul struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper, who said he was Christian. Patrick said we are here to help make justice and peace, adaala and salaam, in whatever small way we can. The Christian shopkeeper then said, If it weren’t for the Muslims we would not have all these violent problems. Patrick and Paul were stunned. Well, Patrick slowly began, maybe Christians and Muslims should all be working together to end what they both share in common, the Israeli Occupation. No no, the shopkeeper interrupted, the Muslims are the cause of all these problems. They always have been. In every sermon, the Muslims preach destruction of Christianity. And the Crusades didn’t even happen. The Crusades are Islamic propaganda to turn Christians into the bad guys and to give Muslims an excuse to persecute Christians. No, he insisted, Muslims are the real problem and the real enemy.
“Shu inta?” Walid asked. “Ortodox? Latin?”
I shrugged. “Ma ba’raf.”
He laughed, and nodded.
“I was raised as Christian,” I continued. “But I have many problems with Christianity. There can be many bad things.”
He nodded in acknowledgement, his face turning serious.
“But, I do feel called by the way of Issa the prophet, who said to love your enemies.”
Walid put his hand over his heart and looked at me and said, “Issa, Muhammad, Musa, all this I believe.”
“Yes,” I said, and I put my hand over my heart, and in that moment we seemed like we were pledging allegiance.
“Issa and the prophets teach and live love and justice, and this is what I believe. They teach to serve the poor and the sick, the Jew and the Christian and . . .”
He broke in: “And the Muslim!”
“Yes, and the Muslim, sahibi.”
Walid shook my hand with a firm slap.