To be determined: An East End school visits the Holy Land - Day 2

10th February 2014 at 22:35


In Bethlehem, the political is personal. A night drive past Jerusalem took the students of Raine's Foundation School from an urbane Middle-Eastern suburbia, past the enormous wall that separates the two tribes and into the territories. Bethlehem, on the Palestinian reservation, is another dimension, and decades fall away as the border is crossed. Security was tight on the way in because, as our guide reminded us, their ruling neighbours are less concerned with who goes in than who goes out again. The wall is a monolith, a punctuation mark as high as a hill and as ugly as only reinforced concrete can be. Someone called it the biggest prison in the world. Its purpose, we were told, was security, and watchtowers testified to its purpose. But hundreds, possibly thousands of people cross it, furtively, every day to work, so its aim could be described as psychological as much as anything. 

Shepherd's Field School

And in this place, there were schools. There are three type of schools in Palestine: UN schools, state schools and private schools, although that has nothing in common with the fee-paying institutions of economic privilege it implies in the West. We visited the Shepherd's Fields Greek Orthodox School in the Bet Sohor district, where George Saddah, the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, also acted as headteacher. A through school, it had 400 children from kindergarten to pre-university. Tiny children in classes of 15 boggled at us like little children do as we were politely shown around by the head. Every class was ordered, tidy and traditional. Sparsely furnished by UK estimations, there was no sign of indifference or taking anything for granted: children here, we were told, saw education as important. When moving around your own country is a luxury; when unemployment is a fact of life and opportunities are measured out jealously; then education is seen for what it is: a lifebelt, a matter of pride. If you could call the Territories prisons, then what else does one do in a prison except live and learn? 

I asked a class of Year 12 pupils if they wanted to go to university, and interest was high, but places were limited in local universities and if they wanted to study a subject not served within their boundaries, then they had to apply, laboriously, for one of the few scholarships to study abroad. I thought of the ease with which our children could tumble into tertiary education – and how lightly some UK students value it – and felt the abyss of opportunity. One student, Mera, stood up and stunned us with her perspicacity and will. "I want to study women's rights," she said. "Abroad. And then I will come back and help people here." Her certainty was like a laser, and it seemed that nothing would stand between her and her dream, and no wall could stop her. But reality builds its own walls, and without scholarships and money, opportunities are rarely built from ambition alone. But if anyone can, it will be her. 

George took us for a break in the library, and we took coffee – not the limp watery brew of British breakfasts, but the liquorice Rottweiler beloved in this country; in Bethlehem, coffee drinks you – while listening to the impromptu school quartet on their lyres and ouds (think: The Apprentice). Our students stepped up and drank like champions and I blessed their courtesy. But before we left, George told us his story, just one of a million in his shattered country: years ago, when driving near the wall, his car came under fire without warning. Luckily for him, he was only shot nine times in the back, his wife wounded with shrapnel. Unluckily for his daughter, she didn't survive the automatic fire, and passed instantly. In the depths of his fathomless tragedy, another tragedy lingered; his story wasn't rare or even unusual, but part of the tattered backdrop to a land where some lives, it seems, have greater value than others.


How, I wondered, could people endure such a world, let alone organise schools, classes, lessons? Another reminder, if any were needed, that humanity finds a way, that life finds a way. Whatever is written for us, people will struggle to determine matters for themselves, even in the face of death. They don't need iPads and luxury; they need to be left alone to grow, and to grow young minds made for play, and ploughshares, not vigilance and the siege. The verb "to be inspired" has been prostituted by an industry where everything, even hope, is commodified. But I can use it here with precision. The people of Shepherd's Fields School inspired me: the teachers, especially the students – and certainly George Saddah. 

Belief and the Land 

After that we spent some time exploring skyscrapers of belief and value; the assuredly legendary caves where the Gospel Shepherds were called to witness the nativity, and then the Church of the Holy Nativity itself. Tomorrow, we go to the heart of old Jerusalem itself, and feet first into the mountainous terrain of faith that Israel represents. Our group is a rainbow of belief, from infrared scepticism to ultraviolet devotion, but we all sat in the tiny cave as the school chaplain conducted mass, which was a sacrament for some and a moment of peace and thought for others. I found witnessing the Eucharist in the ancient fields of holy antiquity to be ineffably moving, and for half an hour, questions of empirical authority were less important than every lived second of being present in the instant. 

The Church of the Nativity was a treasure for all of us. Stolen in the back entrance by a guide, we did it in reverse, still ending up in the tiny grotto beneath the bones of a dozen renovations and rebuilds by successive Caesars and queens and consulates. A tiny bowl, circled by a silver star, marked the spot of one of the least contested geographical points in Christo-histography. Whatever your location on the compass of faith, the significance of the time, space and place hummed with meaning for us all. Possibly from that spot, a story began that shook history like an rattle. What does one do with such an experience? Where does it go?

The Alrowwad Society

Later, we visited one of many refugee camps in the occupied territories: Aida, home to thousands of displaced Palestinians. The poverty, merely visible before, became unmissable. Perhaps it is unfair to concentrate on the lack rather than the life there, but perhaps it is also anodyne to ignore it. Children roamed everywhere: an impossible 68 per cent of the camp is under 25 in that community of labyrinthine boxes and ingenuity. We were guests of the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society started by Abdelfattah Abusrour – another child of the camp who left, studied in France, but returned to bring art and culture to a place where people scratched lives out of apparently nothing. Intelligent and patient, he explained how in France he had been allocated a residency card: at the point where it said Nationality, it indicated that he was a Jordanian refugee, despite the fact that this was untrue. He was, he told the French authorities, a Palestinian, and not a refugee who merely happened to be a guest of Israel. The authorities considered this Gordian knot and changed his designation to "To be determined". 

And that's one thing that we – the teachers and students on this journey – took from the day: what it meant to be alive in conditions that would be considered unbearable; what iron you need to turn up to school every day and study and learn with barely enough seats in a classroom even though there may not be a job at the end of it for you; to love learning, and language, and art and science for its own sake because it makes us human.

To be determined.