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Where tragedy and comedy meet: the story of Elias Haron

By J.C. Aevaliotis '06 M.A.R.

Palestinian guideI'm going to talk about someone our group became very fond of, a Palestinian man from Bethlehem named Elias Haron. Elias's story, the small parts that I can tell, could be told in two ways. I could tell Elias's story as a tragedy or as a comedy. Tragedies are broad in scope, dealing with the fates of entire peoples, with impersonal, brutal and institutional forces bearing down on individuals or families. They hinge on the choices of one or a few people, and end cathartically. I could also tell the part of Elias's story in which we participated as a comedy. Comedies are smaller in scope, dealing with the spheres of family and interpersonal relations. Comedies have absurd interludes with complicated entrances and exits, and generally end with the re-forming of society around the marriage of the protagonists. Elias's story has strong elements of both.

If I wanted to tell the tragedy, I would tell you about Elias's effervescent brilliance first. Elias, like many Palestinians of his generation, is phenomenally learned. He has studied religion, history, and political science. He has lived in Denmark and Portugal and traveled extensively in Europe and in Asia . He is fluent in Danish, Portuguese, Arabic and English. He wears his wit and his brilliance, however, modestly. They are still impossible to miss. At the beginning of the tragic version of Elias's story, he had succeeded, had escaped the stifling environs of occupied Palestine to do what he loved. But, like many tragic heroes, Elias was forced to make a choice of grave consequence. Like many tragic heroes, Elias's sense of familial obligation overrode his strong desire to escape to Europe and build his own life.

He returned to Bethlehem , to live with his aging parents and work part time instead of cavorting around Europe with some fragrant and sophisticated Parisian. Elias returned to Bethlehem , where the illegal and inexorable 30-foot high “security fence” appeared one morning literally across the street from his childhood home. Regardless of one's feelings about the justice or injustice of the wall, or its efficacy, what is beyond dispute is the effect it is having on Bethlehem . It is choking the city economically, carving up ancient neighborhoods, and uprooting families. Like other families along the wall, Elias's was and is forced to allow Israeli snipers access to their roof. These soldiers sometimes broke windows and damaged structures needlessly. Elias lives now in a state of siege, confined by law to Bethlehem and the increasingly carved up West Bank . He is one of the lucky ones. He has a job as a guide, and he speaks to international groups, showing them around Bethlehem . Elias is frustrated, though, and speaks candidly about the occupation, about his parents, and about the life he left in Scandinavia to return to Palestine . This, in broad strokes, would be Elias's story as a tragedy.

Like me, however, I think Elias would prefer his story as a comedy. This version would begin at the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in continuous use in the world. This 6 th century church is a wonder, and many come to see it, the site of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is also a functioning church, though, and stern squadrons of Orthodox priests maintain respect and quiet with sharp hisses and penetrating gazes. Their power over the sanctuary is absolute, and they wield it arbitrarily at times. Before taking us in, Elias informed us that “The Greek Orthodox priest here, he don't like me.” We laughed, but Elias shook his head. “I'm serious,” he said. “Don't be too loud in there, and don't make me speak too loudly, or he will yell at me and make me leave.” Thus the first of this comedy's absurd entrances.

Over the next days, Elias accompanied our group nearly always. We grew quite used to him and developed a high degree of comfort. He started sharing more personal stories and even took us out at night to one of his favorite bars. That night, Elias told us about how he was briefly enrolled in a Roman Catholic seminary, when he was 12. He jumped the fence and ran away. The next day, New Year's Eve Day, we visited Hebron .

Hebron is one of the economic centers of Palestine and one of the hot spots of the Conflict, with frequent violence and a Palestinian population in close proximity with both a hostile Jewish settler community and the Israeli defense forces deployed to protect them. On our way in, Elias told us that there was playful animosity between Hebronites and other West Bank residents. He told us a few of the jokes Palestinians tell at the expense of Hebronites. Some, he said he couldn't tell us. We arrived in the middle of the day, with arrangements to meet with the Christian Peacemaker Team working there. There was confusion between Elias and our CPT host as to where we would meet. So, Elias ran around like mad, and we milled around a busy city center, 21 Americans waiting for a Palestinian and a Mennonite to take us somewhere. We finally collected both Elias and Art Gish, a stout older man from Ohio with an Abe Lincoln beard and a vibrant red CPT ball cap. We then processed, Art at the lead, a mile or two through the market, the sook, at its busiest time. We were a sight to behold to Hebron , an American man in a rather silly red had speaking tortured Arabic leading 21 other Americans and one Palestinian like a group of lost ducklings. Thus our next absurd entrance.

Our visit to Hebron astounded us and saddened Elias. He hadn't been in about 5 years, since before the start of the Second Intifada. The years had not been kind, and Elias was strangely sober on the bus. Through the hills on the way back to Bethlehem , Elias sang us an Egyptian love song. “It is about seeing your lovers eyes everywhere,” he said, singing softly in Arabic through the crackling speakers of the bus's PA system.

By the time we arrived in Bethlehem , Elias was in better spirits. “Who wants to be drunk tonight?” he asked over the microphone. There was silence. “No one?” he prodded. “Not even JC?” It was New Year's Eve, and I'm a sucker for peer pressure, so we made plans to celebrate New Years in the way it is typically celebrated. That night, our last in Bethlehem , we drank vodka and arak and rang in the New Year on the roof of Christmas Church with Elias. Jeremy Hultin realized with panic 30 seconds before midnight that we hadn't shared resolutions, so like a drill sergeant or the dictatorial conductor of a self-improvement symphony, Jeremy made us each spit out a resolution as the clock chimed midnight . Hours later, the sad remnant of our New Year's Eve party waited on the street with Elias for his parents, who picked him up by car. We said hello through the window, and goodbye to Elias. A little sad, Elias got into the back of the car with his parents and drove off. Another absurd exit. A little little sad, we wondered if we would see Elias again.

We planned to, in Jerusalem . It seemed easy to us. Jerusalem is perhaps a twenty-minute journey by car. Why wouldn't Elias be able to come spend more time with us? At the checkpoint at the wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem , we started to understand. The 30-foot wall had two towers in which armed soldiers sat. The gate opened, and another heavily armed soldier waved our bus through. “Welcome to Jerusalem ,” a sign on the wall said. In true comic form, this was a truly absurd exit, though a story can adhere to the formal elements of comedy without being funny.

A few days later, on Jan. 4, my birthday, Elias shared with us the news that he had been approved for a pass to travel the 15 kilometers between his house and where we were staying in Jerusalem . We made plans to meet just outside the Old City shortly before dinner. We had to be flexible in our meeting, though, because Elias wasn't sure how long it would take him to get through the checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Israel . An absurd entrance of indeterminate length.

Elias got through quickly, and it was lovely to see him. He was happy to see us, though a little quiet. Later on at the restaurant, he confided that traveling makes him nervous. Sometimes the soldiers don't care, and sometimes you wait for four hours. Elias didn't have to wait, but in Palestine , absurd entrances sometimes stay with you for a while. Dinner was lovely. Abbot Bailey procured me a cake. Instead of a candle, there was some sort of novelty firework or low-grade military weapon that shot a plume of sparks eight feet into the air. The group made many toasts, and Elias translated for us a strange bout of flirtation between our waiter and a certain member of our group. Our group had become a bit of a family, along with Elias, Said (our guide in Jerusalem ) and Jad, our bus driver. Comedy is family-sized.

Some of us moved on to another bar, where Elias taught us the finer points of hookah smoking. There was then some cheerful banter about Elias marrying a member of the YDS party—although a date was never set.

Having fulfilled comic necessity by ending with a wedding, it was time for Elias's final absurd exit. It was about 12:30 when we left the bar, and Abbott Bailey and I walked Elias to the taxi stand, where he hoped to be able to get a driver willing to brave the checkpoint. Elias's mobile rang on our way there. It was his mother. “She's worried,” he said sheepishly. “At night, the soldiers can do what they want to people at the checkpoint.” Elias was also worried, he let on, about getting back into Bethlehem without being detained. He also didn't want to risk the wrath of our hotel's staff by sleeping in one of our rooms. At the taxi stand, however, with no cars in sight, Abbot and I finally convinced Elias it was wiser to try in the morning, when safety could me more assured, though still not guaranteed.

Elias sneaked into our hotel, borrowed a pair of my pajamas, and slept four our so hours, until it was starting to be light and the checkpoints would be busy with Palestinians trying to pass back and forth between Jerusalem and Bethlehem . Elias was still a bit nervous, though he found a taxi right away willing to take him. We said goodbye, and he got in the car and left. Elias would have to face this absurd exit alone, in the back of a taxi.

Thus our time with Elias Haron. Compared with many Palestinians, he is lucky. He's well educated, with a regular job, and able to do far more travel than many of his peers. Yet even lucky ones like Elias are marked by the daily, grinding absurdity of occupation. And for just a night, on my birthday, I got to see this absurdity through Elias's eyes. We spoke a few more times before I left. He asked me to greet his fiancée for him. We made hopeful plans about future visits. Elias has never seen the US , and would love to. We were sincere about these plans, but still, in the face of it all, they sounded a little absurd. There's a hollowness, and a sadness, sometimes, at the core of great comedy. Yet there is also warmth and intelligence, and these are the parts of Elias I take with me long after his last exit.


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