Betty and Palestine
Betty developed a long and lasting love for the people of Palestine after making a first visit there's first visit to the region in 1932 with her Aunt Margaret Nixon. Unfortunately the only account that survived among her papers are some incomplete notes which were for a talk she gave when living in Pembroke. Her last visit at age 77 stirred her sympathy and included some scenes of high drama. The best surviving account is in her article which appeared online in the New Internationalist in 1991.
These personal accounts of her visits are offered below.
Betty's First Visit to Palestine - 1932
“WE SET OFF FROM ENGLAND”
[These are the few crumpled pages of Betty’s account of her year long stay in Palestine with her Aunt Margaret in 1932, when she was eighteen years old. These were probably written for a talk in the 1950's.]
We set off from England in early October in high spirits. We took the car with us on the Dover-Calais ferry, and then drove right across France to Marseilles, where we spent a week exploring the lovely coast of the Corniche.
We then boarded a French liner that was supposed to disembark us at Jaffa. However, during the voyage across the Mediterranean disquieting messages were being received by the ship’s wireless. Reports of riots and shootings in Palestine. It was doubtful whether the ship could dock at Jaffa.
Then we heard that a general strike had been declared on the very day we were due to dock, as it was Balfour Declaration Day. The captain decided that we should have to proceed to Beirut. My Aunt, who spoke French fluently and evidently persuasive, went to see the Captain. If the ship could not dock at Jaffa, it would have to dock at Haifa, she had no intention of being carted right up the coast to Beirut.
(NOTE: Here there is a missing page.)
We docked at Haifa. In double quick time our car and all our luggage were on the quayside, but another snag cropped up. We were informed that there was a curfew proclaimed on the whole of Palestine and no cars were allowed on the roads. My Aunt marched to the District Commissioner’s office. He was sorry but nothing could be done about it. The rioting had been very serious, and as it was Balfour Declaration Day they expected more trouble. My undaunted Aunt got through by telephone to the chief of police in Jerusalem.
The conversation was obviously going to a long one and I stepped out to take a look at Haifa. I had no doubts that we should be on our way by car, curfew or no curfew.
My Aunt emerged from the Commissioner’s office triumphant. We had permission to travel by car from Haifa to Jerusalem, but we had to stop at every police station on the way to inform them of our safe arrival.
We were the only car on the road. The car was loaded up to the roof with our luggage.
Palestine is roughly the same size as Wales. It consists of a Northern Plain, the Plain of Esdrelon and a coastal Plain and otherwise it is all hills apart from the valley of the Jordan. Our journey from Haifa to Jerusalem would normally have taken us four hours, it is about 175 kilo, but it would of course take much longer having to stop at each police station.
The road runs through Nazareth, Jenin, where we would have to take on a police escort, owing to the danger of an ambush through the steep ravine, then Nablus and Jerusalem.
At the top of Mount Carmel you can see right across the plain of Esdraelon to the valley of the Jordan and right down to the hills of Nablus. We stopped the car for a moment and my first sight of Palestine lay in panorama before me. Nothing but bare brown hills and rocks, and limestone crags protruding like the blanched bones of some long-forgotten prehistoric animal.
There was not a tree or a blade of grass to be seen, but gradually I did identify the dusty gnarled olive trees and away across the valley the thin ribbon of the Jordan. In the distance the mountains of Moab rose like a forbidding barrier of russet sandstone. I felt my Aunt’s keen eye watching my reactions. Words came and failed. You must remember said my Aunt that not a drop of rain has fallen on the country since last April. It only rains in Palestine for two months of the year and all the rest of the time the country is exposed to the relentless burning sun.
The beauty of the country lies, as I learned later not from lush greenery, but from the ever changing shadows in the hills. The rising and setting sun changing the colours of the hills from russet brown to greeny blue and mauves. The white stone villages clinging perilously to hillsides, their architecture blending with the countryside. The gaily coloured people, especially the men. All these things give colour and contrast in a country that is colourless in itself.
I don’t suppose the clothing had changed since the time of our Lord. It is so practical and so attuned to climatic conditions. An “abeigh”, an outer cloak, is probably similar to what Joseph was probably wearing when his brothers cast him into a pit. The over their heads they wear “kafujah”, held in its place by an “agaal”. (I’ve left the spelling of Arab names as Betty typed them.) It’s a very practical garment. When the sun is very hot it shields the back of the head and also shades the eyes. When the wind blows cold, it can be wound round the lower part of the face for warmth.
Well, to return to our journey from Haifa to Jerusalem, the first police post we stopped at was occupied by two very young British policemen. It was on a very lonely stretch of plain with not a house in sight.
They were delighted to see us and gave us a great welcome. We could not stay long however, and we pressed on towards the dreaded Jenin Pass. We stopped at the large police post just before we entered Jenin and were welcomed by the superintendent, a very large Turk wearing a waxed Kaiser moustache. He looked very formidable, and I could not help recalling the tales of the ferocity of the Turks when they were fighting the British. We were taken into the post and given the traditional black coffee. My Aunt I noticed was trying to attract my attention with grimaces and shakes of her head. I promptly surmised that what she was trying to convey to me was that the coffee was poisoned. It certainly tasted like that for it was extremely bitter. Directly the fierce looking Turk turned his back I quickly emptied my cup into an unsuspecting potted fern. By my Aunt’s severe frown I realised I had done something wrong. Later she explained that her first grimaces were signalling to me to turn the cup round and drink from the other side, as she didn’t think they would bother to wash the cups properly as they were so short of water. I felt very humbled.
We piled into the car again, and this time accompanied by and Arab sergeant who perched himself miraculously on top of the luggage. We were proceeded by a police car carrying the chief and four Arab policemen, and behind us came two more police cars. We were a stately procession, and I was only sorry there were no spectators to cheer us along. The policeman perched on the luggage could not seem to find any better place for his rifle with its fixed bayonet than to rest it on my shoulder. I felt the blade was uncomfortably near my neck in the event of a sudden halt. I signalled to him to move it, but he just grinned very happily and nodded and left it just where it was. My Aunt then explained what was required in Arabic, and then he obligingly moved it to what I felt was a safer place.
We proceeded however without incident, and there being no other cars on the road we sped along in great style. About ten miles the other side of Jenin, we said goodbye to our escort and thanked them for accompanying us, and we carried on alone.
The sun was just beginning to set as we neared Jerusalem. Its rays gilding the white masonry and minarets and sparkling on the wonderful blue tiled Mosque of Omar. Jerusalem stands on a hill three thousand feet above sea-level, and viewing it from a distance in the light of the setting sun, it truly looked Jerusalem the golden. Far beyond, the mountains of Moab were turning purple and mauve and green before they faded into the fast falling night.
My Aunt lived in a delightful old Arab house belonging to one of the hereditary Sheiks of the Dome of the Rock. It had flat roofs and arched ceilings. It consisted of a large hall/sitting room leading straight out into the garden. Each side of it were two large bedrooms. This was the main house, but a door at the other end of the sitting room led into a charming courtyard gay with trees and flowers, and around this was built, the dining room, kitchen and bathroom and maid’s quarters. These were originally the Harem quarters with courtyard with high walls providing the necessary protection. The walls of the house were over a metre thick, thus providing delightful cupboards originally used for sleeping mats carefully folded and covered with an embroidered cloth. One was reminded of our Lord saying to the man sick of a palsy, “arise take up thy bed and walk.” The bed would not be our beds as we know them, but one of the sleeping mats they use in Palestine today.
The old Sheik, my Aunt’s landlord, was a frequent visitor. After many compliments, serving and drinking of coffee and eating of sweetmeats, he would invariably ask, “Would you not like to pay more rent for the house?”
Jerusalem at first sight might be a disappointment to many. Its holy places are hard to distinguish, so overbuilt are they with churches and chapels, each denomination of the Christian church vying with each other for the best places. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre that houses the holiest places, our Lord’s burial place and the crucifixion, is not beautiful in itself. It is a large straggling building, and within it contains the chaples and altars of all the Christian churches. Greek, Armenian, Russian, Coptic and Abyssinian.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre comprises all the spots associated with the closing career of our Lord. There on the right, he stood and wept, by the pillar on the left he was scourged, on the spot just before you he was crowned with a crown of thorns, just there he was crucified, down there he was buried. All in one building, and each spot marked by an altar with hundreds of candles and incense burning.
Jerusalem nowadays spreads out over a large area. Outside the old city walls there is a modern Jerusalem, now occupied by Israel. The old city, within the walls would seem to be very similar to the Jerusalem of our Lord’s day. Of course it has been twice raised to the ground since those days, but it would have been built up again on much the same lines. It is built on sharp salient rocks with deep ravines, which were filled in during Herod’s time. In the old souk or market, the narrow alleys run steeply up and down as they always did. Now as they are covered in with carved arches, the houses so closely facing each other that neighbours can almost hold hands across the cobbled streets. Then each street sells a different commodity.
There is the street of the carpenters, the street of the shoemaker, the street of the copper beaters, the street of the sweet makers and so on. Each displaying their wares in a colourful profusion. The shining copper bowls and pots, all hand beaten, the green Hebron glass, and the blue pottery, handspun silks and tempting Eastern sweetmeats. I found it all fascinating. Wherever I went I got a cheery greeting from the stalls, “Good morning Mees Neexon”. On one occasion a friendly hand thrust me aside to escape a pail of slops carelessly emptied from an upstairs window, to the accompaniment of squeals of laughter. The method of drainage is just to chuck everything out of the window in the hope it will find its way to the gutters running by the side of the alleys. It is best to be aware of this.
Although sanitary conditions left much to be desired, I found the people of the country most hospitable and highly intelligent and with a great sense of humour and justice. At that time the population was predominately Arab. About one million Arabs to about 200,000 Jews and the rest made up of almost every nation of the world.
Most of the political troubles of Palestine have been due to a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation. People of the Western countries have been apt to think of Palestine as a barren rocky land inhabited only by roving bands of somewhat feckless Bedouin. This was very far from the truth. Of course on the outskirts of Palestine and in the surrounding deserts there are tribes of Bedouin, and I will tell you of my visit to the Bedouin tents later. Palestine Arabs were of all classes of society, rich and poor, shopkeepers, business men, landowners, professional people and the aristocracy. One and all they had and still have a passionate devotion to their country. Like the Welsh they are very nationalistic. They have not just drifted into Palestine when the Jews moved out 2,000 years ago. They can trace their ancestry back to long before the Jewish people ever came to Palestine. The title deeds of their land go back further than anyone can claim in this country. The Jews in fact never possessed the whole of Palestine. They only occupied Judea. The coastal plains and Galilee were never Jewish, and it is rather ironic that Israel should now occupy those very parts of Palestine that they did not occupy in Biblical times.
During my stay in Palestine, I had the opportunity not only of seeing the historic places of that country, but also of meeting a great cross section of its population.
Indeed it was perhaps the people I met that intrigued me even more than places of historic interest. I was taken to dinner at Government house, by Dr Weizmann the great Jewish leader of those days. I met Ben Gurion, the present leader of Israel. I dined and lunched with the great Arab leaders, Musa Bey Alami, and the Mufti of Jerusalem. Apart from the Jewish and Arab leaders, I met all the European communities. I was a guest of the various consulates, American, Austrian, French and German, at a time that Hitler was rising to power. At Government House I met writers, artists, politicians (the dullest of the lot) and a few cranks.
Yes, there were always cranks in Palestine. The elderly lady that went up to the Mount of Olives at daybreak every morning with a flask of hot coffee, to await our Lord’s second coming. The man who claimed to be Jesus Christ, and who went to my Aunt’s office to ask if she could arrange for him to see the High Commissioner.
He inadvertently got locked in my Aunt’s office overnight.
As I have already told you my first impression of Palestine was of as rocky barren land scorched by a merciless sun. As I travelled round the country and got to know it better I was often amazed to see how every possible little nook and cranny was utilised for agriculture. Even the steep sides of the hills were terraced to give perhaps only a few yards of cultivable soil, which was lovingly ploughed by hand.
The incidents I have mentioned, were only a small part of my aunt's work. As well as being in charge of the women's Central Prison in Jerusalem, she had other government responsibilities, including the supervision of three Homes for women and girls, a project which she had set up on her own initiative.
The need had become apparent to her some years before and, after fighting to extract money from the British Mandate, she established a Women’s Home in Bethlehem, another in Hebron, and another in Nazareth. With barely adequate funds from the government, my aunt canvassed the expatriate communities in Jerusalem. It was their generosity that provided the furnishings, through gifts and donations.
The Homes were not only for women and girls facing probation or remand, or awaiting trial, but also for abused women and girls with serious difficulties at home.
The Homes were supervised by women from England trained in social work, but staffing was minimal. The girls themselves did the cooking, cleaning and gardening. They also learnt how to work the traditional Palestinian embroidery which they sold to visitors to raise additional funds. It seemed that they had a natural flair for design and colour without formal training. Visiting one home with my aunt, I was struck by the beauty of a cushion cover they had embroidered for her.
The girls’ name for my aunt was Um il Binat, Mother of Girls. Their liking seemed genuine and the mood in the Homes was a happy one. I saw no signs of sullen indifference usually typical of government institutions. Instead whenever I visited the Homes with my aunt, I was struck by the good humour and happiness of the girls.
My aunt insisted that the girls should be helped not only with their immediate difficulties, but should be allowed to stay until circumstances made it possible for them to return to their own homes and find suitable work.
It’s not to say that were no problems. There were many issues my aunt would be called upon to deal with. On one occasion she received a report that the Communist prisoners were smashing up everything they could -- windows, glasses and crockery. My aunt spoke to the leaders and told them the truth, that there were no funds availabel for repair or replacement and so windows would not be mendedand they would have to make do with their damaged cups and plates. They soon cooled down, and order was quickly restored.
On another occasion a pretty young girl had caused a great deal of trouble in her village by running away from her old husband with a young cousin. The girl's life was in danger and she was brought to one of the Homes. Aunt negotiated with the family and soon concluded that the husband’s limited interest in his wife could probably be offset by by a small monetary return. After an hour or two of persuasion and haggling, she prevailed upon him to divorce the girl so that she could marry the cousin. The deal was settled and it was agreed that the young man and the girl’s the relatives would arrive together to take her away from the Home. My aunt promised to be present at the occasion to supervise the departure and witness the reconciliation. All was quiet when she arrived and to her horror she saw fresh blood on the steps. Fearing some relative had ordered the girl’s death in traditional punishment for adultery, she ran inside to find the whole family sitting together calmly. To her great relief she learned that they had killed a lamb on the threshold, and sprinkled the door posts and lintels with the blood in token of the reconciliation. Old Bible customs were still in evidence at that time!
My aunt acted as advocate, regularly attending Magistrates Courts to speak on behalf of the accused. On one occasion, three little girls from Beit Hanina had been brought before the court, accused of assaulting a grown up man. The Magistrates asked aunt to investigate. It turned out to be a family quarrel which had erupted after an abusive uncle had visited the home. It had ended up with the children biting and scratching the man, but was hardly a case for a Magistrate's court.
Strange superstitions from pagan times live on even in the land that was the birthplace of Christianity. A girl arriving at one of the Homes was reported to have a terrible burn on her head. My aunt went over and demanded to know who had done this to her.
“I had a terrible toothache,” the girl told her, apparently inconsequentially.
She explained that she had gone to see a sheikh known for his healing powers. The sheikh inflicted the burn in order to cure her toothache. The patient, however, was satisfied, the girl assuring my aunt that the treatment had been successful!
My aunt’s charges included both Arabs and Jews and despite the growing hostility within the mandated territory, there were no ethnic divisions within the Homes.
A woman with a British sounding Cockney accent accosted my aunt on a street in Jerusalem and, without preamble, asked her for a loan of 5 Palestinian Pounds, a not insubstantial sum in those days. My aunt recognised her, addressing her as Sara, and told her to come to her house to her later. She duly arrived that afternoon and my aunt, very much to my surprise, leant her the money.
Sara, my aunt told me, was a former charge who had left a Home two years before. She was Jewish, and had left her home in Whitechapel, London when her British parents cast her out after she had given birth to an illegitimate baby. Arriving in Palestine illegally, With no money and few possessions, she was promptly picked up by the police. She was taken to a home and work was found for her. She left a few months later after meeting and marrying a Samaritan pedlar. Sadly the man had died after little more than year and Sara was now trying to continue his trade by selling his wares.
“That’s the last you’ll see of your money,” I said.
“Maybe,” my aunt said. “Maybe not.”
I later learned that Sara came to see her every month to pay 5 shillings on each visit until she had paid it all off.
A mother brought in a girl who, she declared, had been very tiresome, and she had done everything possible to control her, and had even spent 10 shillings consulting a sorcerer. The mother showed my aunt his “prescription” which he had given to her together with some powdered stone. He had written out instructions that the girl was to drink some of the powder in water, and the rest she had to make into paste beads to hang around her neck. It was the sorcerer’s signature that amused my aunt. Mohammed Jesus Solomon!
My aunt was also the chief Inspector for welfare in the factories. Usually they would be textile firms, and there were firm rules on the size of the workrooms, and the space that had to be allowed between each employee. Some firms, in order to increase the workspace, halved the height of the room by putting in an extra floor! This was quite unacceptable, but sometimes quite difficult to identify, the girls being ordered to stop work and keep silent while the inspection was taking place.
The sensitivity of the ethnic and religious rivalries was highlight by my aunt’s experience as a member of the Board of Film Censorship, a government-sponsored board that included a representative from both the Palestinian and the Jewish communities. On top of the considerations, any film with any ethic association required tactful consideration. The film "The House of Rothschild" was a case in point. After viewing it the Jewish member of the Board demanded the first scene be cut. It depicted the Rothschild family hiding away all valuables, and dressing their children in rags on the approach of the tax collector. The British members including my aunt saw little harm in cutting the scene if it risked of causing any sectarian offence and drafted a resolution to that effect. The Moslem representative promptly objected.
“It’s the only true part of the whole movie,” he said.
One day my aunt invited two elderly Quaker ladies home for lunch, having first taken them to visit the Girl's Home at Bethlehem. After lunch, the two ladies expressed a desire to visit the walls of the old city and walk along the top for a panoramic view of the city.
“Excellent idea,” aunt said, not hiding her eagerness to get back to work. "Betty will take you there.”
“Where exactly?” I asked.
“The wall, of course. You know the way don’t you?"
Weakly I affirmed that I did. With the confidence of youth,I reckoned I'd find a way. The walls should be easy enough to find. The entrances, I suspected, might not be.
We took a decrepit old bus, packed to the limit with the locals on their way to market with large baskets of vegetables and a crate of chickens. Not one seat appeared to be vacant but as soon as we stepped aboard spaces appeared and we squeezed ourselves in. My Quaker ladies seemed undismayed and even appreciative of the local insights I was giving them.
At least I knew I’d chosen the right bus when it turned to go up the hill to the Jaffa Gate, though as the engine sputtered and the springs squeaked I was not as confident it would reach its destination. It did and when we alighted I knew I’d come to the limit of my knowledge of the whereabouts of the steps that would lead to the top of the city wall. I looked for someone to ask.
I approached an older bearded man who was respectably dressed and looked wise. He smiled at me and nodded politely to the ladies, listening to my every word but clearly not understanding a single one. It was the first time I realised the extent of my problem. I had little idea of local geography and could not speak any Arabic. I pointed to the top of wall. He looked puzzled and shook his head. He beckoned to another passerby for help. In no time we were joined by a crowd, all talking at once, trying to help. Some had a few words of English, but they all pointed in different directions.
I led my visitors in the direction that seemed to most represent the consensus of those trying to help us. We found ourselves outside the city walls, and in a stony field. Maybe the steps were outside the walls, I thought. We continued on until I realized I could not even find the way back to the gate.
"I think we might be lost," I confessed.
“I’m sure you’re right,” one of the ladies said. Both by now looked quite exhausted.
As I tried to retrace our footsteps I heard angry shouts. They came from the other side of the field, and were soon followed by a shower of stones. We ducked for cover behind a low stone wall. For a few moments stones continued to whizz over out our heads.
All three of us were frightened, but then I began to giggle. My companions looked at me worriedly, obviously thinking I was going into hysterics. Imagining my aunt’s reaction if I reported that we had been in terrible danger, I suddenly remembered something she had told me some months earlier. The Palestinians have a wonderful gift of accuracy in stone throwing. Had they wanted to hurt us, we’d have known about it. In those days Jewish squatters were already moving onto Palestinian land and as a result people had become very sensitive to trespassers. The stones, which now seemed to have ceased, had been a warning.
Cautiously I stood up, to be assaulted not by stones but a hail of Arabic, incomprehensible but almost certainly unprintable. We hurried off, without dignity but also without harm. The two ladies took it all in good part, but never again did my aunt ask for my help in escorting visitors.
The incident was a reminder of darker events threatening what had once been a peaceful land. It was a land Britain that was holding in trust under the League of Nations and was bound to protect under the terms of the Mandate. Yet the Administration had found it could do little to stem a massive flow of illegal Jewish immigration from all over Europe which was being secretly sponsored by the Zionist organisation.
Palestinian discontent had started in the twenties after the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This was an extraordinary unilateral declaration by the British government to establish a home for Jews in a territory occupied for many centuries by another people. At the time it might not have seemed so significant, maybe more of a symbolic gesture than political, since the Jewish population accounted for little more than five percent of the total.
However, with immigration the balance was rapidly changing.
The British faced violence on two sides. They were obliged to protect Jewish immigrants, even if illegal, from the wrath of the Palestinians, and at the same time to protect the rights of the Palestinians which were being consistently and methodically undermined. The Jews fought the British for not allowing unlimited immigration. The Palestinians fought us for allowing it at all and for not stopping so many illegal immigrants coming through.
It was not an easy situation and it was getting worse by the day. It would all erupt into greater violence with the Arab Revolt in 1936, but at the time, fascinated by a country that seemed rooted in its historical past, I could not imagine change and thought little of politics.
Of aspects of Palestine life, the most unchanged and unchanging was that of the Bedouin. So I was very excited to be told by aunt that I was to accompany her to a Bedouin tribe. In 1932 there was a severe drought, barely noticed in the cities, but heavily affecting the nomadic Bedouin, whose wells had dried up.
A little convoy had been organized by the District Commissioner of Jerusalem, a Palestinian, to deliver food to a tribe in greatest need. He and his British wife accompanied us and we picked up our donkeys in Bethlehem, for that was the most practical means of transport.
Bethlehem then was a charming little town, with sixteenth century houses, and small shops round the little square, and the Church of the Holy Nativity in the background. The shops displayed gifts and mementoes of the Holy Land, including mother of pearl crosses and brooches, coloured beads and rosaries, olive wood boxes and awkward pencils with carved camels on the ends. The square was quite empty when we arrived, but our numbers soon increased. Our donkeys wer brought to us and we were joined by a guide, two policemen on horseback, two donkey drivers and six more donkeys bearing the sacks of food and clothing that had been donated by the international communities of Jerusalem.
Soon the square filled with spectators, women in long black dresses, heavily embossed with the colourful Bethlehem embroidery, and children inquisitive, and fingering the heavily laden donkeys.
Aunt, taking the lead as always, was the first to mount. Her donkey snorted in protest and immediately carried her off at great speed. She held on, protesting indignantly. I confess to laughing with the townsfolk as we watched her disappear from view, her legs flapping wildly.
One of the policemen galloped after her and returned moments later with a docile donkey and a subdued aunt in tow.
She had at least chosen the right path. After we had all mounted, I saw we were following the same dusty track down which Aunt and her donkey had disappeared moments earlier. Soon the track gave way to open desert, not the romantic landscape of sand and rolling dunes that I imagined. This consisted of rocks and stones and sand and dust and hills and crevasses, and more stones and rocks. All I could see for miles around was an endless arid landscape that seemed to stretch to eternity -- and sand and dust in endless continuity, with not a blade of grass to be seen. I wondered how anyone could survive in it.
At least some creatures survived in it -- snakes and scorpions. I saw two scorpions scuttle away between the rocks as I passed by.
We had been told that the Bedouin encampment was about twenty miles outside the town. I hoped it was not further.
We had a good guide, and he kept us in the shade of the tall cliffs as far as he could. The sure footed donkeys trotted along, knowing just where to place their feet among the stones and up the narrow tracks skirting the steep escarpments.
The sun beat down relentlessly, and I was very relieved when, after a couple of hours, the cavalcade was brought to a halt. The Districk Commisioner had brought oranges, and we ate them gratefully to quench our thirst.
I guessed that we had already covered more than twenty miles and to my concerne an argument started up between the guide and the drivers before were able to set off again. There was much gesticulation and pointing. The worrying part was they pointed in different directions. The desert looked much the same to me wherever I looked. The argument became more heated, while I waited anxiously, suspecting we were lost and wondering if we would ever be found.
My aunt and the District Commissioner joined in the argument. Soon the voices became calm and my aunt signalled me to get back onto my donkey. The argument, she explained, was about the drivers wanting more pay. The journey was further than anticipated and they claimed it was putting more strain on their donkeys.
I was reassured by the guide’s confidence as he led us on our way again, even though we were following no visible track. I was more reassured when I something in the distance. At first they looked like dark objects floating above the landscape. A mirage? They were black tents, my aunt told me, and we jerked our donkeys forward to get there quicker.
Long before we arrived, we were met by a party on horseback. The Bedouin had spotted us before we had seen them, and the old sheikh and his sons had ridden out to greet us and escort us into the camp.
When we arrived we saw the wives waiting eagerly but keeping some distance away. Cautiously they came closer, and fingered our dusty clothing. The old Sheikh drew made a humorous gesture of despair and, drawing out his whip playfully lashed out at them. The result was screams of laughter and undeterred the women took hold of the laden donkeys and led them off, escorted by an excited throng of children. It must have seemed like Christmas to them.
We were ushered into the largest of the tents, dark and surprisingly cool and comfortable, and furnished with Persian rugs and cushions on the floor. I gather we were to sit at a circle of cushions at one end of the tent. The guide, the policemen and the drivers followed later and were shown to the other end of the tent. As soon as we were all seated, coffee was brought in and handed round in tiny brass cups. The women had disappeared into their own quarters. The coffee was green and bitter. I had longed for a long cool drink, and had to hide my disappointment as stop my face screwing up in distaste. I managed to stretch a smile and nod my thanks, only to be presented with another cup, with smiles all round! However, I have to admit the coffee was surprisingly refreshing and I soon forgot my thirst.
A large white cloth was brought in and laid out on the ground. We all sat in a circle around it and watched as two men carried in a huge metal platter, at least three feet in diameter, piled with rice and the carcass of a lamb that had been cooked until the meat fell off the bones.
The Sheikh sat with my aunt on his right. The District Commissioner and his wife sat on his right. Sat, uncomfortably cross-legged , surrounded by sons and sons in law. Another large dish was brought in for the policemen and the drivers and guide and set down at their end of the tent.
There were no plates or knives or forks, so there would not be much washing up. As there was very little water, that seemed just as well. I watched my aunt reach out to pick a handful of rice and meat, but hesitated to follow suit.
The dishes consisted of pieces of roasted lamb, which had been specially killed in our honour, and prepared with herbs and spices and served on a pile of rice.
More hands reached into the dish. I still hesitated, feeling awkward, until a young sheikh sitting next to me reached into the bowl and tore off a large piece of meat and handed it to me in his rough brown hands, most graciously.
Very tender and delicately spiced, it was delicious and I hesitated no more. When I finished the first piece, I reached in again, remembering my aunt’s warning to use only my right hand.
The rice presented quite another problem. Looking around me I could see it was easily overcome by those with the knack of taking up a handful, rolling it round into a tight ball, before tossing it up in the air, and catching it in the mouth as it fell.
Under the guidance of my young sheikh, I tried this a few times. It seemed a cleaner way than stuffing hand¬fuls of rice into one's mouth. In my case it had the added benefit of providing great amusement and entertainment for our hosts. I eventually opted for the alternative solution of stuffing handfuls into my mouth.
Afterwards, a bowl of warm water and a cloth were brought in and handed round for everyone to wash their hands, in the same bowl of course!
Later I learned that the lamb had been killed in out honour and that it had taken three days to cook. A fire had been lit in a hole in the ground, and when the embers were very hot, the lamb was covered with herbs and spices, and put in a cloth, and laid on the hot embers, covered with earth and left to cook in the heat of the sun, a real barbecue!
Of course we didn't finish the huge dish of meat and rice which was just as well. Afterwards it would be passed on to the servants. When they had had their fill, it would be taken to the women's quarters, where the children would have the first claim on it, before the women took their turn.
The killing of one of their prized flock by this wandering Beduoin tribe, and setting it before us with such dignity and pleasure, touched me greatly, for I knew that, apart from the small amount of food we were able to bring with us, they would be on very short supply until the rains came to bring life to the earth, and pasture for their flocks.
There are many degrees of hospitality, but none more appreciated by me than this traditional repast, given with such genuine delight.
[NOTE: This is where Betty's obviously incomplete manuscript ends.]
"Seeking truth in Palestine"
New Internationalist, issue 226 - December 1991
As a teenager Elizabeth Graham-Yooll visited a land called Palestine. This year, aged 77, she returned to the same place - now the Israeli
Occupied Territories. Her motive - to find out what the press and the politicians were not telling her.
I have never written for a magazine before but I feel I must express my deep concern about what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza - and the apparent indifference of both the press and politicians in the West.
I feel that there will be no peace settlement in the Middle East unless the human rights abuses that are happening now are addressed - and that means bringing the truth out into the open
It’s easier said than done. United Nations observers who wanted to look at the human rights situation were refused entry to the Occupied Territories last year. Organizations like Amnesty International find it difficult to operate in Israel, while journalists leaving the country are interrogated at the airport and often have their notebooks seized if they are found to contain critical material.
After speaking with a journalist acquaintance I became even more infuriated by the lack of information coming through the media. I got a vague sense of what was going on from women I had come into contact with in the Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners. So I decided there was only one thing for it - I would have to go back to Palestine and see for myself.
It was 60 years since I had last visited the area, to stay with my aunt who was working there to improve conditions for women prisoners. Most people I knew strongly advised me against returning. A 77-year-old woman should not be travelling on her own in such dangerous parts. I ignored their advice.
I encountered difficulties with soldiers and guns and curfews, of course. On one occasion I had to furtively climb over the eight-foot wall of a refugee camp in Bethlehem in order to talk to a 14-year-old girl who had been imprisoned for wearing Palestinian colours on her dress.
But wherever I went I was greeted warmly by Palestinians. The families I visited said they wished more people would visit them. In the refugee camps in Gaza I heard no self-pity - not even hostility towards Israelis. I found courage and resilience and a determination to make the best of things. For example, the single 10-foot-square room in which a refugee family was expected to live was kept spotlessly clean.
I learned that there are 800,000 refugees in Gaza and that since 1987 nearly 400 Palestinian homes have been demolished and 261 sealed. This is the general practice in the Occupied Territories. The homes are demolished at night without warning, the soldiers arriving with bulldozers and leaving the family sitting by the roadside or scrabbling in the rubble to retrieve a prized possession. There is nothing anyone can do to help them. And the land, tenderly cultivated with olive and orange groves, may also be bulldozed to create new settlements to house foreigners.
But far worse are the physical abuses. I discovered that almost everyone goes to prison at one time or the other. It is an accepted fact of life. Most people are held without charge, with no recourse to law or medical help. To be arrested all they have to do is to be seen in a group talking, or wear Palestinian colours on their clothes.
On arriving at prison they are usually prevented from sleeping for several days. The prisoners are made to stand against a wall with hands manacled behind them and with a hood over their heads. If they fall or faint they are clubbed, or their heads banged against the wall. Before being released they are asked to sign a form declaring they are terrorists. Refusal to do so means a longer period in prison.
At the end of their imprisonment they have to pay a fine. Since most have no jobs they are assigned employment with Israeli firms, for which they get minimum payment. Two young men I met - who had been at university before it had been closed down - told me that to help them pay their fine they had to sew garments for an Israeli business person. These young men would be working for three years to pay off their fine.
I heard of so many abuses - and so many mechanisms for abuse. But it was in the Al Alhi hospital that I became most painfully aware of how bad things are. There I was shown the rubber and plastic bullets, which often contain sharp metal pellets that travel around the body so fast they cannot be located or removed. I saw huge gas canisters that were thrown into the small homes causing enormous suffering, sometimes death.
Hospital staff - among them several young British doctors and nurses - gave me the appalling statistics. In 1990 alone the hospital dealt with 705 live gunshot wounds, 375 wounds from rubber and plastic bullets, 1,551 beatings, and 281 victims of gas attacks. And so many of the victims - 979 - were children. The average age of children killed by Israeli soldiers was 12 years old and 40 per cent of the children killed died less than 10 metres away from their homes. In 39 per cent of the cases medical help to the dying children was delayed and obstructed by soldiers.
This is a terrible record. I have just set down what I saw and heard during my visit to Gaza and the West Bank. And I have to conclude that I fear very greatly for the safety of all Palestinians in any peace agreement.
Betty climbs into a Gaza refugee camp,
barricaded by the Israelis.
Betty with a Palestinian child in the refugee camp.
Success! Betty reaches the top and enters the refugee camp.