Caught in the Middle

The Middle East conflict is more than just bodies and numbers; it is about people like the Matars of Beit Jala.

by Father Charles Miller, S.M.

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When valedictorian Kristie Matar addressed her graduating class at St. Joseph’s High School in Bethlehem and quoted President Kennedy – “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – her father knew he had made the right decision in moving back home.

Born into the Matar clan in Beit Jala, a quiet village of 12,350 in the shadow of Bethlehem, George had migrated to the United States in 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War. There he worked for 20 years in construction and married a beautiful Bethlehem woman, Amy Daboub; they had four daughters. George and Amy dreamed of returning to Palestine to live among their extended family and friends, saving their money for a home in Beit Jala, where “the Matars have lived forever.” In 1989 George and Amy returned to their ancestral homeland, to the living Christian community around the holy places.

George and Amy built a new house, a comfortable two-floor home for their expanding family: two boys and another girl were born in Palestine; Grandma moved in later. Since George worked in maintenance and construction in the neighboring Jewish settlement of Gilo, he did the plastering, plumbing and electrical work himself. Seizing opportunities comes naturally to Amy as well as George, so an extra downstairs kitchen was designed for the pizza business she had planned.

With five of the seven children in school, Amy keeps in touch with their teachers, frequently participating in school and church events, both in their own Orthodox parish and among Catholics in Bethlehem.

Although George never attended high school, while in the States he realized the importance of education and vowed that his children would go to college. Kristie has completed two years at Bethlehem University. Dina, 18, and Tanya, 17, graduate this May from St. Joseph’s and are awaiting college acceptance letters. Eighth-grader Robin has her eyes on the stars and a career in astronomy. Nine-year-old Zachary and first-grader Priscilla attend the Rosary Sister’s school in Beit Jala. At home a sign on the wall reads, “English only spoken here.” The children are raised to cherish their Palestinian heritage, but also to understand the value of their knowledge of English, already three-year-old Mark’s mother tongue.

George himself is an intelligent and articulate man. Fluent in Hebrew due to his work with Jewish settlers in Gilo, he loves to read to his children the Old Testament in its original language.

Across the street is the home of George’s cousins, Nicola Matar and his brother Ra’ed. With them live the brother’s retired parents, Elias and Georgette. Georgette is known for her marvelous malateet, a traditional Beit Jala pastry served with cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee. In fact, there are so many Matar families in this Beit Jala neighborhood that the street is jokingly called “Matar Street.”

Nicola and wife Amal have a two-year-old, Selena. Ra’ed’s job in maintenance at Bethlehem University earned enough for him to marry Reem in September 2000. According to Palestinian custom, they have begun construction on a third-floor apartment above his parents and brother, taking out a substantial loan in order to do so.

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Tags: Palestine Bethlehem Occupation