By Melkam Lidet
As a foreigner in Palestine who’s taking Arabic lessons, I try to use the tiny bits and pieces of Arabic phrases I know to communicate with vendors in the market. I try to say “wahad kilo” (one kilo) and ask how much it is in Arabic while supplementing it with hand gestures. What’s funny though is that just when I utter some words, most vendors either call a person who speaks English or reply in English. I wonder if it’s because they sense I’m trying too hard or my Arabic (accent) is that bad!
As most conversations go, they then ask me where I am from. I tell them that I am from Ethiopia; they smile and say “welcome, you’re welcome in Palestine”. They offer me tea or coffee and tell me the one or two Amharic words they know or Ethiopians they have met. Most people in Jerusalem especially remember Emperor Haile Selassie who stayed in Jerusalem for some time. Others mention the Muslim community that took refuge in Ethiopia in 7th C.A.D, escaping persecution in Arabia. For others however, what they know of is the Ethiopian Israelis in the army. Once I explain that I am Ethiopian from Ethiopia and not from Israel, they smile again and say “ahlan wa sahlan – you are welcome in Palestine”- words that make me feel truly and warmly welcomed every time I hear them.
Every country boasts of its hospitality. Mine does too. Ask any Ethiopian what Ethiopia is known for and they will tell you “hospitality”. “Ethiopian hospitality” is synonymous with freshly roasted, ground and brewed coffee, from the very birthplace of coffee” they will tell you. But hospitality in Palestine is different.
In Palestine, not only the individuals you know, but every Palestinian you encounter takes it upon her/himself to welcome you to Palestine. What made this very touchingly clear was an encounter last week. It was Saturday, the second day after the holy month of Ramadan was being observed and I joined an activist group who went to a village in south Hebron. The group I went with was a mostly Israeli – international activists’ group that accompanies shepherds in the village as they graze their herds. Since these shepherds face attacks from settlers and soldiers frequently, the purpose of the trip was to document and confront the settlers or soldiers if they try to harass the shepherds.
Anyhow, we indeed had our confrontations and arguments with the settlers as well as the Israeli soldiers that followed them. A lot of legalistic arguments as to whose land this was and who had the right to do what and who had the obligation to protect whom, what the job of the soldiers was etc. etc. were thrown around. Finally, the shepherds were tired both from the scorching July sun and from repeating this cycle of confrontation every day. Hence, they decided to take their sheep and go home; so we also decided to do the same.
As we were heading back from the hills to where our mini-van was, these shepherds we had met offered to take us home for some tea and coffee. Mind you, it’s the Ramadan fasting season and all of them were fasting. They would offer us water, coffee and bread even though the last meal they had was at dawn that morning and would not have any food or water until dusk that evening. In Ramadan, even people who don’t fast don’t eat in public or in front of people who fast. But out of true hospitality, they extended their “‘Mitzvah’ – their act of kindness” to us, as one of the Israeli activists put it.
So this is what I mean when I sway Palestinian hospitality is different. No treason to Ethiopian hospitality but four weeks living in Palestine and I still smile at every “ahlan wa sahlan – you’re welcome in Palestine” I get and every cup of na’na (mint) tea or cardamom coffee I’m offered.