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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

page 6

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.

The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is seven miles, and a very good road, either for driving or riding, winds in leisurely fashion among the mountains up to the town of the Nativity. Upon leaving Jerusalem, the first landmark of deep interest one sees is the old Greek Church of Mar Elias. or St. Elias. This marks the spot where Elijah rested when on his way to the Brook Cheroth. Two or more miles further on, just before the road branches off to Bethlehem, stands a solitary tomb, sacred alike to Jew and Gentile. Not a tree or house is near to relieve the loneliness. Four small arches supported by a domed roof are all that mark a tragedy which occurred over 3,000 years ago, for it was here that Jacob buried Rachel, leaving her in a desolate wilderness by the roadside, and proceeding on his sad journey to Hebron. At the entrance to the town is the historical
Married Woman.

Married Woman.

''Well of Bethlehem," for whose water David longed when hiding from Saul in the Cave of Abdullam, yet when some was brought to him, he would not drink it, but "poured it out unto the Lord," To him it was "the blood of the three mighty men of valour who brake through the enemy in jeopardy of their lives" to get it for him. Down below Bethlehem, at the foot of the mountain in the plain, stretch "The Pastures of the Wilderness'' where David kept his sheep, the same "pastures" he sang about in the 23rd Psalm. These became, in later years, the "Shepherd's Fields" over which the voices of a great multitude of the heavenly host sang "Glory to God in the Highest" on the night when Bethlehem reached the culmination of its sacred career. On the slopes leading up to the town are the corn fields where Ruth gleaned.
From Bethlehem looking eastward the view, with the Dead Sea in the distant foreground and the mountains of Moab beyond, is superb. Solomon's Pools supply the town with water, which is conveyed by an ancient aqueduct that passes through Emmaus into the centre of the town. Bethlehem is built on two hills, and like every other Eastern hill town, has narrow, cobble-stone streets, that run up and down at very steep angles in some places. The costumes of the people are quaint and attractive, especially the women's headdress, which catches the eye at once. The unmarried woman wear a
Street in Bethlehem.

Street in Bethlehem.

low close cap, a thick white veil covers this and hangs gracefully over the shoulders and down the back. It is pinned together under the chin and forms a sort of white halo round the fair, rosy faces of young girls, most of whom are very pretty. The married women wear a tall headdress, something like a man's top hat without the brim, made of red cloth thickly embroidered on the sides; the front is covered with rows of gold and silver coins, the wearer's dowry; no one can touch that money but she, and then only if she wishes something personal which her husband will not. or cannot, provide for her. When she dies her "shuttwi," as the headdress is called, is handed down to her daughter-in-law (so that the dowry may stay in the family) who then takes the coins off and affixes them to her own "shuttwi".

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 birth of a daughter is kept as secret as possible. I have even known cases where husbands have actually beaten their wives when a daughter was born instead of a son. But when a man becomes the proud possessor of a son, then the jubilation and feasting begins, and the special drink commemorative of the great event is passed around. This is bowls of cinnamon-tea, sweetened, and with nuts, almonds and raisins floating on it. Very often a lamb or sheep is killed, and a seven days' feast started, wherein all the friends and relations join, and singing and dancing goes on till dawn. The child is always wrapped in swaddling clothes so tightly that it looks just like a mummy, and
Fruit Seller.

Fruit Seller.

—a quaint idea—if the parents are Christians, it is invariably laid in a basket of straw, the idea being that we are not worthy to have a better bed than the kind our Lord slept in.

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.