Matthew Fleischer

Posted by on Nov 30, 2009 in Inspired by Dan

matthew-fleischerMatthew Fleischer is a freelance writer, world traveler and the winner of the 2005 Dan Eldon Overseas Press Club Award. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and has lived and traveled widely, from New Orleans to Beijing to Cairo to Quito. He is a 2002 graduate of Tulane University with a degree in English and Asian studies and is a current New York University graduate journalism student.

He is currently working on a series of articles devoted to veteran homelessness in New York City and has plans to travel to Afghanistan to observe the ongoing public health efforts to battle infant and maternal mortality.
matthew fleischer

The Remains of Bethlehem

“He is so old. I pray to God he drops dead,” Machmoud said casually as he steered his old battered Mercedes sedan through the tortuous streets of Bethlehem. “I just don’t want the Israelis to kill him.”

He was referring to Yassir Arafat, who at the time, in March of 2004, was still running the Palestinian Authority with an iron fist. As Machmoud continued ranting about Arafat, I hung on every sentence he uttered.

As a Jew who had spent his whole life believing in the Israeli cause, I wasn’t entirely sure what brought me to Bethlehem. It was becoming apparent that perhaps Machmoud could show me.

We were on our way to the Aida refugee camp, a haven of Hamas on the outskirts of the city. We were to see the former home of Ali Muneer Jaara, a Palestinian policeman who had killed 11 people including himself when he blew himself up on a crowded Jerusalem bus one month earlier.

Machmoud was a Palestinian Muslim who I met in Manger Square. He was dressed in clean, tan pants and a white collared shirt, the cuffs of which were frayed from use. His thick black mustache was neatly trimmed and he spoke perfect English with only the slightest hint of an accent. His flawless grooming helped hide the sad, dark circles that hung under his eyes.

He agreed to take me to Aida for a sum of fifty dollars. He would have done it for free he said, but business was slow. “Two years ago we used to have 4,000 people a day come to Bethlehem. Today you are the second,” he said.

As we neared Aida, the cobbled streets of Bethlehem degraded into asphalt and upon entering the camp the asphalt crumbled into dirt. The camp looked not unlike any number of poor Egyptian villages I had seen in previous travels, but compared to the splendor of old Bethlehem, it was ragged. Pale, two-story concrete apartments were stacked one on top of the next as they sprawled their way up and down the hilly terrain. Children in tattered clothes and bare feet ran next to the car as we drove.

After several minutes of driving and dozens of turns down a narrow labyrinth of alleyways, we stopped in front of a large pile of rubble in the center of the camp.

“This is it,” Machmoud informed me.

We got out and looked around.

A lone Palestinian flag flapped in the breeze from a pole planted at the top of the debris. Plastered throughout the area were posters of Jaara holding an AK-47 in front of the Al-Aqusa Mosque in Jerusalem.

“Those are the posters of a martyr,” Machmoud informed me.

“Do you think he was a martyr?” I asked.

“He was no martyr,” Machmoud said with anger, “he was a fool. Everyone knows that when you blow yourself up the Israelis bulldoze your house. He lived here with his whole family and they now have nothing because of him. His father is too old to work. His mother is sick. His sisters are too young to work. What is his family to do?”

“Did you know him?” I asked.

Machmoud’s anger faded and his hands fell to his sides in resignation. “He was my friend” he said exasperated. “I had no idea he would do something like this.”

Moments later we got back in the car in silence and drove off. Machmoud’s lingering emotion clung to me like wet clothes. In a country I thought painted black and white, I found grey in Bethlehem.