A youth holds a Palestinian flag during a demonstration against the separation wall, 2004. (photo: Muhammad Muheisen/AP Photo)
Al Baraem plays at the United Nations for the 50th anniversary festivities of the Pontifical Mission. (photo: Maria Bastone)
Selina and Maher spend time in the park with their boys, Fouad and Faris. (photo: Steve Sabella)
Maher Turjman, Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, has spent his entire life under occupation. A Palestinian Christian, Mr. Turjman’s childhood unfolded against the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars and he came into adulthood during the first intifada. Now, as he and his wife, Selina, rear two young children in Jerusalem, the possibility of living free of oppression and violence seems bleak. Here, Mr. Turjman shares his story of life as a Palestinian under Israeli military occupation.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1966 in the Old City of Jerusalem, which the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan controlled until 1967. My mother was born into a Greek Orthodox family from Ramleh, a town just south of modern Tel Aviv. She and her family fled to Amman, Jordan’s capital, during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. My father, who is Coptic Orthodox, fled West Jerusalem when in 1948 it became a part of the new state of Israel. He and his family settled in the Old City. He worked with delinquent children for the Social Welfare Department, which the Jordanians administered until the Israelis took over after the 1967 war. Now it is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.
Can you remember any of the 1967 war?
I was young, just over a year old. My family sought refuge in a shelter in a flower shop in Ramallah during the fighting. Later, my mother told me she was expecting another child, my younger brother, Nabil.
I can better recall the 1973 war. We had painted the windows of our house black, so light from the house couldn’t be spotted by bombers. Still, I was young then. I remember not knowing at all who the enemy was.
What was it like growing up in this atmosphere?
The Israeli Defense Forces were a constant presence; the soldiers were like boogiemen: ‘If you don’t finish your meal,’ our parents would say, ‘the Israeli army will get you.’ Growing up like this, too young to know about the history of anti-Semitism, World War II and the Holocaust, you thought of Jews as the bad guys. And we were too young to make a distinction between Jews and Israelis.
Was it different being a Christian, a minority?
At the time, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah had significant numbers of Christians, but religion wasn’t that big of an issue. Politics then was largely secular; you had a lot of secular leftist groups, including Fatah. There were many Christians who held important posts in the various Palestinian political parties. So, while you generally knew who was a Christian and who was a Muslim, it wasn’t that important.
Did you know any Israelis?
No, I only had contact with Israeli soldiers, who patrolled the streets. There weren’t checkpoints at the time — they didn’t appear until after the first Gulf War in 1991.
We were foolish. As children, we would throw stones at the soldiers and then run. It was a cat-and-mouse game, but we didn’t realize how dangerous it was, because sometimes they’d shoot back in response. Though just a boy, I was arrested several times for throwing stones at Israeli military vehicles, and each time I was quite scared.
Why were you throwing stones?
Part of it was just being a kid and impressing your friends. It was a game. But we also came to know the political aspect of it. Though Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian resistance leaders were in exile, many of us felt that something should be done at home.
But our resistance to the occupation was not only about throwing stones. It included also “throwing” revolutionary songs. Though we had the same feelings that most teenagers would have, it was not customary for Palestinian teenagers to sing love songs. We could not see the beauty of life; we faced injustices and hardships daily. These early experiences helped us to mature early, but they deprived us from growing up normally.
Where did you go to college?
In 1985 I entered Bethlehem University to study business administration. It was a relatively quiet time. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) had been kicked out of Lebanon a few years earlier. That was when I first got involved in following the politics of our situation. During the latter half of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), I was glued to Radio Monte Carlo, a French radio station that broadcast uncensored news in Arabic.
Though the university was a Catholic institution administered by the De La Salle Brothers of the Christian Schools, religious identity was not the issue it is today — it was still a nonsectarian environment. Occasionally, you’d see a few Muslim women on campus wearing the hijab, but that was rare.
My first few years at university were not unlike those of any student in any university. I played the guitar in a band called Al Baraem. We became quite popular, performing at Palestinian weddings and parties all over the occupied West Bank. Reportedly, we were even popular with Israelis. Some friends told me they heard our songs playing from Israeli military jeeps.
Did the campus atmosphere change?
Yes. Even before the intifada, which in Arabic means uprising, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a student at a demonstration on campus. Two months later, the intifada broke out and everything changed. The Israeli Defense Forces shut down the university. But to continue our education we had to gather in secret in houses, monasteries and hotels. In a way, it really made you appreciate your education, because you were literally risking your life to study.
It was much the same during the first Gulf War [during which Arafat declared his support for Iraq], when we were put under curfew for 40 days. We spent much of this time in our rooms, which were completely sealed. We were equipped with gas masks, in case Iraq attacked Israel with chemical weapons, but they were only given to us after a long legal struggle with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Do you recall how you felt about the Oslo Accords that ended the intifada?
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, brought a lot of hope. Finally, we thought, the nightmare of occupation is going to be over. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977, we thought he was a traitor. But now, most Palestinians are ready for peace. With Oslo, our economy started booming and Palestinian émigres were returning to invest here. The Palestinian Authority received significant international financial support and started building.
My band participated in the first anniversary celebrations of the accords, held in Norway’s capital city of Oslo, performing in front of 20,000 people, including Arafat and Shimon Peres. It was our first opportunity to play alongside Israeli musicians. One of the more touching moments was seeing Israeli, Palestinian and Norwegian children sing together for peace.
Is this when you joined CNEWA?
Yes, in 1993 I was hired as projects coordinator for CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission. My job, based in the Old City of Jerusalem, allowed me to see more broadly just what the needs of the Palestinian community were. And, for the first time of my life, I was challenged to contribute to long-term development and relief work.
How has the situation changed since?
Well, a lot has changed. In 2000, you had Camp David and the beginning of the second intifada. For Palestinians, there was frustration at the failure of the peace process to secure rights, such as Palestine’s borders, the status of Jerusalem, settlements and the right of return for refugees. We had the Palestinian Authority, but our lives weren’t improving.
What is the situation for Palestinians like you?
It’s getting worse. The frustrations continue to grow daily. It’s difficult to move around even in Palestinian areas. The West Bank has been separated from Jerusalem by the separation wall, and Jerusalem is where many Palestinian services are located.Why should I, whose family has lived in the area for generations, be checked by Israeli soldiers who have just arrived from Ethiopia or Russia? Last Christmas, I had to argue for one hour with a young Israeli soldier to allow my wife and me to go to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. We cannot drive more than 30 minutes without hitting one of the hundreds of checkpoints, which paralyze traffic.
Traveling internationally is also humiliating. We are singled out and routinely checked. Once I had to remove my underclothes. My children are also searched thoroughly.
But aren’t such measures useful in preventing acts of terrorism?
It’s a good excuse to punish the larger Palestinian population for the misdeeds of the few. There will always be ways for people to carry out attacks, as long as the motive remains. Of course, Israel has a right to protect itself, but if you live here as a Palestinian you know firsthand that what you are being subjected to is not intended solely for protecting Israel. These measures not only humiliate ordinary Palestinians, they dehumanize us.
As the situation deteriorates, can Christians play a special role?
Well, let’s face it: This conflict is evolving into an interfaith clash, pitting Muslims against Jews. Of course Christian Palestinians are Palestinians — we also seek a Palestinian state — but if there’s some special role it would be as mediators, to help Muslims and Jews come together, to dialogue and to listen. Last year, I visited a synagogue for the first time. I was invited by some Jewish friends and it was an eye-opening experience. Until then, I never had understood how Judaism is a major source of our Christian faith.
Conflict makes people blind to the good things in others.
Were you, as a child, better off than your children are now?
My wife, Selina, and I often discuss this. Thank God, we live relatively well compared to the rest of the population, who are poorer, generally, than they were just 10 years ago. Unemployment or underemployment affects most of the population. And for those who are lucky enough to earn an income, they lack the freedom to enjoy it.
When I was a child, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza were not divided, literally and figuratively. Of course this is not the case today. Because of walls, checkpoints and political divorce, we are a divided lot. We used to have access to Israel, where many Palestinians worked. As Christians, we once knew where we stood. But now, those of us who are left feel confused and isolated, as if we have been excluded from the game.
Why do you stay?
Selina and our boys, 4-year-old Fouad and 2-year-old Faris, are citizens of the United States. So we could settle there. But this is our country. Palestine is home. Our families live here. Many of our friends live here. Yet, we are very concerned about this growing climate of violence. What will happen when they are old enough to get involved?
If we emigrate, we may rear our children in a better place, but it will never be their home. We will also risk our right to return, even as tourists. In a way, our departure from Jerusalem — our home — would be final. Honestly, I do not blame my friends for leaving and settling elsewhere, for looking for a better life. Making that decision is painful and it consumes a lot of people a lot of the time.
Are you optimistic?
No, I’m sad to say. As a people, we are in a state of shock. There’s no vision for our future. My sons are the third generation of my family to live under occupation. Every time we see a light in this dark tunnel, we discover that it was only a mirage.
And if this is how I feel, remember that I have a good job and a relatively good life. Imagine how some unemployed Palestinian living in a refugee camp feels. For now, there doesn’t seem to be any hope.