Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Old Lady from Bethlehem

On Monday morning - a bright, chilly Ramallah morning - a tiny, bent woman climbed the steep hill  that leads up to the main road from the mosque in Al-Tireh. She had a coat on to protect her from the wind; a skirt that reached just above her ankles; black stockings, and a colorful little silk scarf tied under her chin, covering most of her gray hair.

In her right hand, she held a brown wooden cane to support her slow, slow, arduous ascent.

When I caught sight of her, on our way to work, something tugged at my heart and I gave Tarek a nudge,

"Honey, ask her if she needs a ride," half thinking that she would never agree to get into a stranger's car. Where I come from, you don't offer people rides unless you know them.

Tarek rolled down the window and called out,

"Sabah el kheir, ya hajjeh." Good morning, hajjeh (a polite way to address old ladies).

She stopped and leaned against her cane, squinted her eyes at us.

Tarek repeated the salutation, and then: "Where are you going, ya hajjeh?"

She couldn't quite hear.

A little louder: "Get inside the car, ya hajjeh, we will drive you."

The little lady obliged, showering us with blessings, mumbling her gratitude to God Almighty as she scrambled her way into the back seat. I helped her with her cane.

"Where are you going, ya hajjeh?"

"To the doctor." Her shoulder was aching, and she was on her way to see the doctor.

"What doctor?"

"The one that is in Ramallah Tahta," she replied.

If I walk from the house in Al-Tireh to Ramallah Tahta, the old part of the city, it would take me at least half an hour.

I looked back at the little lady, her brown, smooth, leathery face. She was old, she could barely hear and her back was curved with age, but there was a whole lot of spirit in her.

"Where are you from, ya hajjeh?"

"Bethlehem, but I moved here 45 years ago." After some quick calculations in my head, I realized that meant that she had seen the 1967 Israeli invasion, the first Intifada, the second Intifada and the 2002 invasion of Ramallah; and she looked old enough to having been a girl in Bethlehem during the ethnic cleansing of what is now Israel, that culminated in the 1948 war. I wanted to ask her about it, but she could hardly hear anything and I got self-conscious about my Arabic.

She looked at me, "Where are you from? She doesn't look Palestinian," she told Tarek.

"I'm from Sweden," I replied.


"From Sweden, Sweden."

"From where?"

"Sweden, ya hajjeh."

"Sweden in Europe," Tarek clarified.

"Ah, Amreeka, yaani?"

"Yes, Amreeka." Close enough.

We drove. Up the hill, past the olive trees, rounded the gas station, passed the UN Women's Vocational College, the Scouts center, the Kol Shi Shahi delicatessen, the video rental store with bootleg DVDs.

When we got to Ramallah Tahta, we pulled over and said good bye to the little old lady.

Then, as she was hobbling away from the car, Tarek suddenly said, "I have to make sure she has money to see the doctor," and went after her. Three strides and he caught up with her.

I watched them through the rear window.

When Tarek came back he said that he had given her a 100 shekel. He had asked her if she had money, and she had replied,

"No, but God will look after me."

Then she had refused to take money from Tarek, but Tarek insisted and finally tucked the 100 shekel bill into her pocket.

She was right. God did see to it that she would be able to pay the doctor's bill.

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