It wasn’t the soaring arches or the elegant windows, with their curved caps. It wasn’t that the first room of the house was built in 1808. It wasn’t the jasmine that, like a woman letting down her hair, released its heavy perfume at night. It wasn’t the olive, loquat, lemon, almond, and apricot trees that filled the garden. Nor was it that the fruit from that garden seemed sweeter here in Bethlehem than it was in Jerusalem.
The apartment’s biggest selling point, in my landlady’s opinion?
She showed it to me the first time I saw the place, before I’d decided to rent the apartment. The well was hidden behind a curtain in the kitchen. She pushed the fabric back, revealing a deep recess in the wall. Inside the nook stood a pump and, on the floor, a large stone with a wrought iron handle. My landlady, who was in her seventies, gave the handle a tug. The rock lifted. There was a clunk as she placed it on the kitchen floor.
My landlady got on her knees and peered into the hole, a spot of night surrounded by chiseled white.
“See?” she tapped my calf, signaling that I should get on the floor, too. I obliged her.
I peered into the well. I didn’t see anything. But I could smell the collected rainwater below us.
My landlady put her hands on my back and pushed herself up. As she brushed the dirt off her knees, she explained to me that, if I were to take the apartment, we would share the well. And while our neighbors’ taps would run dry—as they always do here, eventually—we would never go without.
I remembered a long, waterless weekend I’d spent in Bethlehem in 2010. An American friend who lived and worked there had invited me to come celebrate his birthday. I was living in Tel Aviv then and had only been to Bethlehem once before, to work on an article for The National. The photographer who’d been assigned to the story also had Israeli citizenship. Unlike me, however, he had a car. That day, we’d left the Bethlehem area via the settler checkpoint outside the tunnels—a checkpoint we should have breezed through as two Jews riding in a yellow-plated vehicle. But the female soldier stopped us and asked for my ID. Nervous about the fact that I’d been in Bethlehem,...Read More