Return to Bethany

A journey of 30 years and worlds away.

Sharon Geyser in Elzariya 311 (photo credit: Sharon Geyser)
Sharon Geyser in Elzariya 311
(photo credit: Sharon Geyser)
Visiting Bethany in the West Bank, after more than 30 years, we first walk across from Damascus Gate to the Arab bus station. Nothing has changed here. The crowded station sits under the hill known as Golgotha. The same Muslim tombstones crown the top of the hill. The natural caves on the side of the cliff still startle the knowing visitor with the visage and image of a skull face.
We find the bus going to Eizariya, pay the NIS 6 fare and take our seats.
Bethany, the traditional home of Mary and Martha and, of course, their brother Lazarus, is a short 15-minute drive from the Old City of Jerusalem. But, to my dismay, I realize the bus is entering a large tunnel between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. We emerge on the backside of the Mount of Olives, hurtling down a highway with road signs that read “Jericho” and “Ma’aleh Adumim.” My husband turns to me. “Did you pick the right bus?” After about 20 minutes we approach a crossroads where the signs say Jericho to the left and Eizariya to the right. I smile at my husband.
But this is not the sleepy village I remember of 30 years ago. The road is packed with car repair shops, whole slaughtered goats and sheep hanging outside on hooks, shops with live chickens, vegetable shops, toy stores, clothing stores, wedding gowns, garden shops, cement block workshops, welders and bricklayers. On top of each shop is an apartment where presumably the proprietor and his family live. Everything looks raw and brutally pragmatic. Not a tree or shrub, park or fountain in sight. I don’t recognize anything and I can’t believe how ugly it looks, yet it has the ambiance of prosperity and progress. Then I see the Greek monastery that used to be on the outer edges of Bethany. Soon we enter what I now call “Old Bethany” where I glimpse the church spires that mark Lazarus’s tomb.
Getting off the bus, my husband has the foresight to ask the driver where we catch the bus going back to east Jerusalem. The driver nods toward the other side of the street, so we know we will return the same way, through the Judean desert.
I see the villa that my friend, Dr. Colby, rented in the 1970s. The garden gate is open so I walk in and stand in the driveway. The current owners have three late-model vehicles. A second story has been added, the garden is somewhat neglected, but the almond trees are still on the side terraces.
I urge my husband to follow me next door where the goat herder and his family of 10 children used to live. The ruins of the compound are still there, two rooms and a large open courtyard. They had no running water and no electricity. The daughters drew water from the village spring and carried it back to their compound. They were the only family in the village that lived without modern conveniences, but they were not poor, with a large herd and each goat worth many hundreds of dollars.
I remember the beautiful children of this large family, some of them with blond hair and blue eyes. The eldest daughter, with black hair and violet eyes (like Elizabeth Taylor), once asked me to drive her to the east Jerusalem post office to pick up a package sent by a tourist. She had never been outside of Bethany before. At the post office, she presented her father’s identity card that contained a record of all his children. The clerk said, “Your name is not registered here. Only sons.”
What was worse? Not getting the package or knowing your father did not register the birth of daughters? But, being young and full of high spirits, and more importantly, outside of her village for the first time in her life, she ran out the post office door saying, ”Let’s visit all the shops.” She did get out of her village within the year.
On the eve of her marriage to a young man from Ramallah, she ran away with her uncle on her mother’s side. The police tracked them down in short time and kept the girl in custody for her own protection. Her father and brothers felt they must keep the family honor by killing her, but her mother sought the intervention of Dr. Colby, who in the middle of the night drove to the police station and reasoned with the father. The police also wanted this to end well, and they brought in the groom, who was still willing to go ahead with the wedding. So, my neighbor, the eldest daughter of the goat herder, married her intended husband. I heard she was locked in her in-laws’ home for the first year. Now, I like to think she is the contented mother of many children and probably, like me, even a grandmother.
Later, my husband and I make the return journey. On the backside of the Mount of Olives, the driver pulls over. We all get out, two other passengers plus the driver, walk through a metal detector gate, show our passports to the young soldier, then get back in the bus. The security check takes only minutes. No one experiences any of the humiliation that the BBC harps about. Still, it is a big inconvenience to travel 40 minutes extra because of the security fence.
Back in east Jerusalem we congratulate ourselves on having a fine dayin the West Bank, something my husband vowed he would never do forsecurity reasons. Only later that night did we learn a rabbi, a fatherof seven children, had been murdered on returning to his home in theWest Bank and consequently there had been a shoot-out in between IDFforces and the suspected killers.
The writer is currently livingin Haifa with her husband who is on a sabbatical at the University ofHaifa. She is the author of Daughter of Jerusalem and The SamsonOption. The sequel to The Samson Option called The Time of Jacob’sTroubles will be released soon.