I walk through the checkpoint complex in the wall separating my home on the outskirts of Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Among all the “vendors” shouting out their destinations, I find a service (pronounced: serveece), going to Hebron. I climb in and take a seat next to a Hajji (a term of respect for an older Palestinian woman.)
The experience of using this shared van form of public transportation in Palestine is unique and difficult to describe. If you happen to be the last passenger, it departs within seconds of your arrival. However, if you happen to be passenger number one, you could wait 30 minutes to an hour for all seven seats to fill. While some journeys are taken in relative silence, this is not generally the case. There is often news or music blaring from the radio ~ some engage in animated discussion, some eat, some smoke, some are on their cell phones, some visit with those next to them or in front of them ~ people are getting off and on at various “stops” ~ fares are passed forward and change passed backwards ~ it becomes a mini community on wheels.
On this particular morning, I am the next to the last passenger to board. We wait five minutes. The last seat fills and we are off. Traffic travelling south out of Bethlehem city is especially slow this morning. About ten minutes after our departure, our driver is stopped by the Palestinian police and asked to exit the van. A few minutes pass and passengers begin checking their watches, anxiety mounting as they anticipate being late for work or school. Some disembark and unsuccessfully try to hail other modes of transportation. The Hajji next to me gets off, saying, “Eat,” and proceeds to enter the closest restaurant. After about 10-12 minutes, the unhappy driver climbs back into the van with a piece of paper, which I assume is a ticket for something. But the Hajji is now missing. The man in the front seat approaches the restaurant yelling, “Hajji, Hajji.” Soon she emerges with her little bag of food and climbs back into the waiting van of frustrated passengers.
We are off again. Some 10 minutes later, the Hajji pulls her shawarma sandwich from her little bag and offers me the first bite. I decline gracefully (I hope) and point to my own bag, indicating that I too have a sandwich. She smiles, nods and takes a bite. I retrieve my sandwich from my bag and do the same. As we eat, we share conversation ~ a bit of English on her part, very little Arabic on my part, and lots of hand gestures. Before long she is writing her name in my little notebook and inviting me to her home, which it turns out is in the neighborhood next to mine.
The time has passed quickly and the van has reached the small village which is her destination. With a big smile and a pat on my knee, she wraps the remainder of her sandwich, gathers up her various bags and is gone ~ her final words are: “You come to my home.” As I finish my sandwich, I reflect on the richness of my morning experience with the Hajji ~ A complete stranger offers me the first bite of her sandwich and invites me to her home ~ I wonder if this would ever happen in our western insular society ~ I ponder the real meaning of what it is to welcome the stranger.
In the texts of our tradition, we are reminded: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for in so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it…” However, today I sense it was I, the stranger, who experienced the angel. Thank you, Hajji, for this lesson in true hospitality.