Julian wrote this piece about a period of time he spent in Old Town Bethlehem several years ago. In an example of unfortunate timing he sent it to us on July 18, the day Israel began its ground invasion into Gaza. We decided to hold it for a while. Rather than comment on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the piece pays homage to the West Bank for what it is: home to a lively Palestinian population that’s just as human as the rest of us.
It’s hard to decide whether Palestinians’ relationship with their car horns falls into the category of enthusiasm or fixation. Horns sound constantly in the streets at all hours of the day and night. The horn means ‘Get out of the way!’ or ‘Hurry up!’ but it also means: ‘Hello!’ ‘Goodbye!’ ‘Want a lift?’ (from cab drivers), ‘I have arrived!’ ‘Piss off!’ or simply: ‘Look everyone, here I am, driving in my car!’
It’s not even necessary to have a reason to sound your horn over here. I’ve seen cars toot with no one in sight—no pedestrians, no cats or dogs, no other vehicles on the road, not even nearby buildings. Are these people tooting to get the attention of people inside the car? Perhaps they are honking simply for the visceral pleasure of being able to make some noise? It’s possible that excitement over the arrival of the automobile in Palestine in the early 20th century was exceeded only by the discovery that each car had a horn in it.
If you don’t own a car, you walk. I have adapted to local custom in Old Town Bethlehem and I now walk on the road instead of the footpath. Why would I bother with the footpath? It’s inconsistent, sometimes narrow, sometimes blocked, sometimes nonexistent. Instead, like everyone else, I stroll comfortably and casually alongside the cars which are honking their horns mercilessly regardless of whether or not I’m on the road with them.
Nor do I limit myself to walking alongside the cars. Sometimes it is more convenient to drift across the road to where the hot sun is masked by a building, or walk directly down the centre of the road for a time if it’s a straighter line to where I want to go.
At roundabouts I join others in walking diagonally across them into oncoming traffic. There are so many car horns honking it’s not worth the mental exercise of figuring out exactly which ones might be directed at you. Cars slow down, avoid you or even come to a complete standstill. Sure, they might toot their horn, but they’d be punching out their staccato rhythm anyway to complain or to say hello or announce their presence whether you were in their way or not.
You just allow the honking symphony to blend in with the shouted greetings, the sellers yelling from the roadside and the calls to prayer coming from the loudspeakers on top of the mosques as you carry on trying to get to where you want to go.
Sometimes you can’t get where you want to go. There’s a rather large wall over here.
Julian Currin is a freelance editor for film and TV based in Auckland, New Zealand. Find him here. Photo by Tim Parsons.