The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
It is still the same Bethlehem of Judæa. The vast changes of 2000 years in the West have scarcely touched these Bible towns of the East: and the years I spent at Bethlehem, studying the simple country life of the industrious, open hearted people, with their quaint, old-time customs, were crowded with interest.
My first duty at the Girls' School was teaching both old and young women to read. Grandmothers plodded through the alphabet beside their grand-daughter.' or girl daughters-in-law (many of the latter under 10). Then writing classes were started. The men of Bethlehem being great travelling merchants, there were many brothers, husbands and sons to be written to; but alas, the cut-and-dried Arabic formula for letters—one which dated back to the fall of the Tower of Babel—had to be strictly adhered to, at least, the pupils thought so. Suppose a woman were writing to her husband, no "Dearest Willie" or "Tommy" or anything so disrespectful would have been tolerated for a moment, instead, something like this:—
"The Honourable Abu Hassan, may his life be lengthened. After tendering you my deepest respects, and asking after your valuable health and peace, I state that the reason for my writing this was that our mind has been troubled about your welfare, also because of the scarcity of your letters. May God will that you are in possession of perfect health, which we hope may be perpetually yours. We here are in perfect health and happiness if you should be good enough to ask about us. Write to us and comfort our minds about your honourable estate. Give our salaams to any who are good enough to ask about us. May you ever remain. (From M. Hassan, Mother of Hassan)."
In the long run, however, the women gave in to our persuasions, and wrote more personal letters to their absent men folk.
Whenever a Bethlehemite refers to a pig, death, or a woman, he invariably adds "Far be it from thee",before continuing his sentence, out of respect to the person addressed. This degradation of womanhood influences all their social customs.
The Bethlehemite is superstitious about children. If a child—usually it is a boy upon whom any trouble is expended—is delicate or sickly, all sorts of queer means are resorted to for its welfare. Vows are made to some saint that the child shall be dressed as a monk until he is three, five, or seven years of age, as the case may be. The parents' great aim also is to deceive the Angel of Death if possible. To this end, the little boy is allowed to look like a girl until he is seven. His hair is not cut, and he is dressed in girl's clothes. Many a time has an anxious mother come to me to ask if I would buy her baby son; all she wanted was a piastre, and she would say he belonged to me, then the Angel of Death might not take him away in order to satisfy his grudge against her. Sometimes one would vow never to buy a single garment for her son until he was a certain age, but to beg or borrow all his requirements, pretending he was not her's. Moslems often ask Christians for charms to hang on their children's heads or round their necks. These charms are bits of alum, sacred bits of rag, or supposed relics of saints. The blue bead, however, is the most widely known and efficacious charm, not only in Bethlehem, but in all the East. It serves to keep away the evil eye.
No wife can be bought from Bethlehem for less than £50. Bethlehem girls are expensive, as they are considered clever, and are certainly handsome, strong, and of a very good stock. The Bethlehemites are really a superior race of people to those round about them. But often instead of purchasing a wife, a convenient exchange is made. Brothers exchange sisters, or cousins are exchanged. I knew a case where one man, Ali Mohammed, gave his daughter by his first wife, to a man in exchange for the latter's sister, a child of the same age as his daughter.