By the end of my second week in the Village, the fear of Covid-19 (not yet given this official name) was starting to cast its shadow over Israeli tourism. Eight cases of the virus had been diagnosed in Bethlehem after the visit of a Korean tour group. The Village guides firmly forbade selfies with the villagers while permitting more standard, socially distanced photographs. The Israeli government was starting to encourage tour groups to end their visits and return early to their countries of origin.
Particularly in the afternoons, the tour groups were becoming widely spaced, and I could often simply sit on the grass under a tree or perch on a vineyard terrace wall and watch the Mediterranean clouds move effortlessly by. I could wander up to the weaver’s workshop and card wool with my friend Pauline or stand in the dark quiet of the building that housed the working olive press. Sometimes I would find lush weeds to feed the tethered donkey and be rewarded with the chance to rub her between the ears and be nuzzled in return. The slow speed and lack of comforts of Village life had its consolations!
I had been sent to work in the Village. Meanwhile, SERVE Nazareth, the volunteer service, negotiated with the Internal Medicine ward at the hospital about my placement with them as a hospital aide. Management was becoming very preoccupied with the looming Covid-19 threat and kept fobbing off approaches to finalise my placement as their ward had not hosted a volunteer before. SERVE wanted to add Medicine to the A&E and NICU placements they offered. By the time I began on the medical ward, the Village was keen to keep me – bless them. So, it was arranged that I would work three days a week at the hospital and continue in the Village on two days, each having my services for what was usually their busiest days.
I had picked up a little Arabic working with local staff and longer-standing volunteers in the Village, but really, very, very little. It was hard for me… and the effort would show on my face strongly as I concentrated on getting the singulars and plurals, and gender forms correct. On the medical ward, I quickly discovered that although most of the patients had less English than I did Arabic, if I spoke in English, conveying simple messages such as (while carrying a meal tray) “Good Morning! Would you like some breakfast?”- with eye contact and a wide smile, I was well-understood, and received a warm smile in return!
The local ward staff were very busy, and conversational exchanges with patients were often brisk to the point of brusque…. a smile and eye contact were often just what was needed! My illiteracy in Arabic & Hebrew meant that fetching articles from labelled shelves or unpacking stores into the correct places if a shelf was labelled but empty were not tasks I could carry out unless I was assisting a local… so I did a lot of assisting! It was a very steep learning curve and brought back memories of my experiences in the Mainland China of the 1980s, when I was a similar illiterate.
I did a lot of cleaning & sanitising with strong-smelling chlorine solutions. The ward was very hierarchically arranged, with the aides and nurses taking their breaks in a small tea room at the opposite end of the ward from the medical staff, who conferred, ate and entered computerised notes in their large quarters near the ward entrance. They would sally forth in groups several times a day, sometimes with Stephan, the Head Nurse, accompanying them to attend to patients. I had no contact with them at all. I had no input as to the patients’ diagnoses, and could not read patient names on their bed ends.
We, aides, might be despatched to “change Bed 4-2” (2nd bed in room 4) etc. With my own (never referred to) professional background, there were some things I could observe well enough for myself. Sometimes there were elderly patients with current medical illnesses but concurrent dementia calling out, as they do. When I could, I would gently touch the bare forearms of the callers and say, in English, quietly, “It’s all right. We are here. You are not alone.” And they would usually settle contentedly for quite some time.
I noted the distressed relatives in the corridor of some of our gasping respiratory patients or our terminal coma patients. On one occasion, I tried to comfort, in English, the visiting daughter of an elderly terminal patient. I received an intense, grateful torrent of Hebrew that I could do nothing with! I summoned a qualified nurse, one who I knew had enough English to understand me, and asked her if she could offer some comfort to the family member…
The chaplaincy service ran a non-denominational weekly chapel service for staff at 7.30 am on Wednesday mornings – in Arabic, with discrete simultaneous translation of the sermon for non-Arabic speakers. I was in the habit of attending that, and we were encouraged to worship with local churches on Sundays. I trotted down the hill, through the alleyways of the Old City, to the Anglican Christ Church congregation, which was meeting in the airy, modern chapel of the Catholic Sisters of Nazareth convent, on the same block as their own historic building, which was undergoing extensive earthquake strengthening and repairs.
It was an Arabic language Eucharist service, with the liturgy provided in an English book for those who wanted to follow and make the responses or sing the hymns in their own language… and so I muddled along, at times with the strong tenor alongside me of Rhys, a British senior medical student who was volunteering in the hospital’s A&E department as his final year elective.
I came to be in the habit of slipping down the hill, through those atmospheric alleyways past the souk, on some quiet days after work, to sit in the half-light on the step facing the grille at the entrance to the Grotto under the Basilica. The tour groups were gone by 5.30 pm, and the hush would be broken only by sometimes a distant drift of ecclesiastical music. Those steps… glimpsed past the colourful altar set up behind the grille – those steps – maybe a young Yeshua had skipped down those often on his way to visit Granny Annie? I could relate those steps to my travails in the Village… Oh yes…