I was sold on the apartment. But my landlady wasn’t sold on me yet.
We went upstairs and sat in her salon. Once a porch, it had been closed in with glass windows and offered a view of the hills surrounding Bethlehem. It was one of the few vistas that wasn’t ruined by the occupation. There was no wall, no checkpoints, no military bases, no settlements.
As my landlady took her seat across from me, she handed me a small, wrapped hard candy. She apologized for not offering me coffee. I realized how much she needed to rent the first floor out.
“You aren’t the first to come see the place,” she began, adding that she’d turned the last applicant down because she suspected that he was a Jew. Under no circumstances would she rent to a Jew.
She looked at me, her gaze shifting from one of my eyes to the other, as though she was trying to read what was behind them. I understood that she was waiting for some sort of a reaction. I smiled.
“Happiness is more important than money,” she continued, explaining that it was important to her to find the right person for the apartment. The house was special to her—not only because she’d grown up in it but also because it had witnessed so much of Bethlehem’s history.
The cornerstone was laid in 1808 when someone built a tiny, stand-alone room next to the well. Several other one-room houses followed, making a half-moon around the well, creating an open-air courtyard. In the early 1900s, the cluster of rooms was turned into one large home. The courtyard was closed and the second story was built. New floors were laid with the hand-painted tiles common to the Levant—a reminder of the years when trains connected Beirut and Damascus to Jerusalem and Jaffa.
But those days didn’t last. The Middle East was carved up, including Palestine. During the Nakba, my landlady’s family left Jaffa empty-handed: her father lost his business; they lost their money, home, and belongings. Christians, they fled to Bethlehem where they had roots and family. A few years later, in the early 1950s, they moved into the first floor of this house, a once-wealthy family of seven crammed into two bedrooms.
But the place emptied as her brothers left...Read More