Note: this post was written during Steven Martin's recent trip to the Palestinian territories, joining a delegation from Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (pcpj.org).
As I was finishing up my last blog post I noticed things were getting noisy outside the window of my room at the Bethlehem Bible College. We're used to fireworks every evening (there are a lot of celebrations here: weddings, parties, etc.), but it seemed unusual to hear them in the daytime. For the uninitiated, Palestinian fireworks can sound like gunfire.
I finished writing and stood up to look outside my window. All around the neighborhood I could hear young men yelling things I could not understand. Two blocks over I saw a car driving by, very slowly, with a huge Palestinian flag being flown out the window. Something had provoked the locals to a spontaneous fit of nationalism. What could it be?
I grabbed my camera and went out to the street. I asked someone, "Do you speak English?" "Yes, a little bit," he replied. "What's going on?" I asked, making a circular motion with my hand above my head. "I don't speak English," was the reply. Was this young man trying to hide something? Did he not want to talk to the American with the camera?
I started getting nervous. I had seen things like this on television, celebrations that erupt just before a war begins. Maybe a prisoner had been released. Maybe it was as benign as the Israelis turning the water back on. Or maybe it was something more serious, a suicide attack or some other act of terror. The noise on the streets continued to increase.
I got back inside the building and headed up to the roof. From there I could get a good view with my telephoto lens. I saw more cars with young men hanging out of the open windows, some flying large Palestinian flags. Whatever was going on definitely smelled of some big national, collective experience. I snapped a few photos from the roof, making sure to take the camera strap off my neck so I could hold my camera in such a way that it could not be seen from the street. The several-years-old bullet holes in the roof door reminded me that people sometimes play for keeps.
Someone came to the roof and said that our team leader was ready for devotionals, and that it was past the appointed time. Everyone seemed concerned, full of speculations, but no one had answers.
It came time to board our bus and go to the next destination. As I walked downstairs to the door to go back out on the streets, a young woman came out of one of the classrooms. Perhaps she might be able to speak English well enough to answer my questions.
"Excuse me: can you tell me what's going on outside?"
"Oh," she said in a lowered tone, almost a little ashamed. "We have very difficult exams in the schools here, and everyone just received their grades."
"You mean that all this celebration is happening because school's out for the summer?"
"Yes, that's exactly right."
I thanked her and went away laughing. As I came down to the bus the rest of our group had already heard the news. Iran had not attacked Israel; a flotilla had not broken through the Israeli blockade. No suicide bombings, no acts of terror. It was all just a rite of summer, a celebration that one more milestone toward adulthood had been passed.
I was laughing at myself, for as enlightened as I would wish to be, I too fell prey to stereotypes. Those presumptions about the Palestinians were once again laying in tatters on the floor, and I was once again the butt of my own joke.
Later that night it came time for me to leave the country, to travel back home to Tennessee. As I stood on the street at midnight, waiting for a taxi, a car full of young men came around the corner and slowed down right in front of me. One of them took out an eight-inch cube, put it in his hand, and lit a fuse. The car started moving again as the cube launched little noisy rockets up into the air, exploding in different places as the car moved along the street.
I heard our team leader yell from a top window at the Bible College, "That was AWESOME!!"