The Apartheid Wall of Bethlehem

The Apartheid Wall of Bethlehem

The little white taxi left the shining city of Jerusalem behind, and dove down through the dusty crags of the Palestinian Territories. It had only taken a moment for the Arab driver to get his passengers through the Israeli checkpoint on the edge of the city – he simply needed to mutter, “Shalom” to the impassive guard, jerk a thumb backward at his customers and say, “American.” Without moving a muscle in his face, the guard directed a second soldier to quickly glance through the car’s trunk, and then nodded. The gate ahead rose, and we had officially entered Palestine…or at least, what the Israelis have allowed the original Arab inhabitants to keep so far.

It was only a forty minutes to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and by this point the traveling of the past two weeks was sorely catching up with me. I nodded off a few times in the passengers seat of the taxi; all the weaves and curves lulling me to sleep before we’d go over one of the Arab world’s many speed bumps *WHAM* and I’d bounce awake again.

What are the West’s cultural and religious preconceptions about “Bethlehem”? I can’t speak for everyone, but as a child I thought of Bethlehem as a snowy, cold place that was just filled with hotels that all happened to be full whenever unfortunate pregnant women happened by. It’s impossible for a Christian to even think of the name without acknowledging the nativity, the shepherds, the Wise Men, and the whole set of wooden/plastic/ceramic figurines that they have somewhere in their house at the moment.

In the early 21st century, Bethlehem is…another Arab town in occupied Palestine. The name, when you break it down, is “Bayt Lehem” which is either “House of Bread” in Hebrew or “House of Meat” in Arabic. For me, it was like being in Irbid or in Eastern Amman…the same types of shops, quiet alleys, and people that I’ve come to know, trust, and befriend. I felt right at home again after the shoulder-rubbing tourism of Jerusalem. Our driver had no idea what I was talking about when I said “Rachel’s Tomb” but figured it out pretty quick when I said “Muqubar Raheel.” What I didn’t realize is that Rachel’s Tomb now sits behind the massive concrete walls that have become quite common has “protection” for Israel over the past decade. The driver took us to the edge of the wall, then asked a nearby gas station attendant for help. I cut in quickly and asked the attendant where the Bethlehem Bible College, al-Jamyeh al-Kitab Muqudas. It turned out we were only a minute away from it further down the street, and yes, thankfully…there was room at the inn. *cymbal crash*

My parents were feeling as tired as I was from all of the travel we’d been doing, but I was intrigued by the close proximity of the infamous wall that I’d heard of for years, and although it was nearly sunset, I retraced our path back to that gas station and the flickering, eerie green glow of the security lamps on the top of the wall high overhead. A thin, middle-aged man was walking nearby with a bag of groceries, shoulders slumped and head downcast. He glanced at me and my camera, and at the wall, but didn’t stop. He walked carefully and slowly along the gravel boundary of the wall, and vanished from sight around the corner.

I remembered why I joined the Campus Antiwar Network as I stood there with my camera, and I remembered why I wanted to come to the Middle East to work. There are so many injustices in this world, big and small, and although I was just one man with one camera and a blog, I was happy to have the honor to record the artful graffiti that other activists had left before me. It was easy for me to rage against the war, against Imperialism, while I was safe in America. But I know that over here, things are different. Protest doesn’t work the same way. There are brave men and women who come from the West specifically to fight against the Israeli oppressors, but I knew that now wasn’t the time for me to get tear-gassed and pelted with rubber bullets for doing something rash and impulsive.

Instead, I put my hands against the pitted, blasted gray pseudo-stone, bowed my head, and prayed. I don’t pray often; I usually feel uncomfortable doing it alone or without a pastor’s instruction. But here, in front of this monolith that for me represented sixty years of strife between two peoples that felt like the land we were standing on was their own, I simply asked Jesus to help his homeland out with wisdom, patience, and the ability to stop shouting and throwing things and just talk again…or at least to start out with his hometown. After a minute, I rose and walked back to the Bible College.

After enjoying an excellent breakfast from our British hosts, my parents and I struck out early the next morning to find the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem isn’t a big city, so after wandering a little bit and staring at the College-provided map (“Is this called Yasser Arafat Street or Children’s Street?”) for a few minutes, we got our bearings for the cutely-named “Star Street” and headed south.

Oh hey, it IS Yasser Arafat Street. Apparently the map was made to be slightly more PC than the street signs were.

Oh hey, it IS Yasser Arafat Street. Apparently the map was made to be slightly more PC than the street signs were.

It was early Monday morning and we were unmolested by vendors, who were probably still in bed at this point. After a 20 minute hike up a hill going south, we came to a large, but quiet souq market that would almost certainly be packed with souvenir vendors in a few short hours. Just beyond that was the dark, squat shape of the Church of the Nativity with its dark, tiny door that required you to squat in order to enter it…it all makes sense, somehow.

Besides being the birthplace of God Incarnate, the Church happens to be one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, namely because it escaped the much of the destruction wrought by conquerors by the incredibly lucky chance that the people who conquered it first were Persians. According to my mother’s guidebook, the squatting-generals of the Persian army looked up and saw the famous “Nativity” style painting that an artist had painted on the ceiling. They didn’t understand what they were seeing, but they recognized the garb of the 3 Wise Men as Persian…and decided to spare the church as a sign of respect. Or superstition, at least. So far, the oldest churches in the world, such as the Hagia Sofia in Turkey, the Apostolic Church in Armenia, and this one, were all built around the 3rd century. However, there may be an even more ancient one closer to home…

One thing that these ancient churches have is smoke damage. Those censors that the Catholic and Orthodox priests are fond of waving produce smoke – a lot of it. Which, over centuries, tends to built up to thick, ugly black coatings all over the walls and ceilings. In the first main alcove that would have contained that aforementioned lucky painting, the pillars were all blackened, and that painting was long since destroyed by the foulness of the air. In the very back of the church, accessible by a small set of stairs, the humble birthplace of Jesus is revealed, also entirely blackened by smoke. Historians are more likely to say these days that Mary and Joseph actually stayed that night in a cave, but western perceptions of a stable has resulted in popular portrayal of the nativity as being in a wooden, freestanding structure. This little room, carved from rock, small, and bare, was glorious in its simplicity, only slightly marred by the some denomination’s need to put a silver star in place to mark the exact place where the actual birth occurred.

Come on, folks; enough with the "exact" religious locations. Do you really think that Mary pulled out her GPS and added a geotag in the middle of labor?

Come on, folks; enough with the “exact” religious locations. Do you really think that Mary pulled out her GPS and added a geotag in the middle of labor?

As we examined the smokey painted interpretations of the nativity throughout the centuries, we kept company with a group of Italian Catholics who were holding a church service at a small alter near the birthplace. Their priest was speaking exclusively in Latin, but it was great when they all started singing a Latin hymn all together. It sounds hokey to say it, but it was a magical experience. I bought some Bethlehem-made Christmas tree ornaments, made from local olive tree. It was a great day.

We didn’t linger much more around the city, as we had reservations to keep back in Jordan and that dreaded border to cross back over one more time. We took the long way back to the Bible College; I think my parents were feeling a little sad because they knew that they were returning to America in just a few more days and wanted to see as much as they could. For me, it was just another Arab town with the same style of everything in Amman…but it just meant that I felt comfortable at home walking around and chatting with anyone who didn’t look like he was going to attempt to sell me fake Italian purses.

Utilizing our friendly contacts one last time at the Bible College (I can’t recommend that place highly enough) we got an extremely inexpensive taxi ride back to the border from a muscular young Arab Christian man named Issa (the Arabic word for Jesus). He was a loud, friendly man about my age who wore a tight muscle shirt with a huge gold cross swinging from his necklace. As an Arab, he explained to us that he was going to take us on “a small detour” in order to avoid the problems that the Israelis might give him. As we whipped around mountain corners at speeds approaching 100 km/h, my mother eventually stopped making strangled noises in her throat whenever it looked like an oncoming semi truck was about to shove us off the side of the cliff.

We bid the friendly Issa farewell at the edge of the security barrier (please ask me his phone number if you’re making journeys around the area; I highly recommend him) and met a decidedly less friendly Arab who would carry us the last 7 kilometers to the border and security station. He charged us $30 for that five minute ride, which had me fuming quietly…but of course there was nothing I could do about it. He was the only guy at the barrier, and Issa didn’t have a license to go any further. What else could we do but pay $6 a minute?

It wouldn’t be the last time we’d be ripped off in Israel. After our bags were unceremoniously hauled away from us again for (more) scanning, the bland Israeli child soldier-secretary girl informed us that the Allenby border crossing charged a $40 exit tax. Per person, ending up being $120 for the three of us. Once again, there was nothing that we could do (although I was tempted to shake her briskly by the beige polo shirt collar and tell her that our taxes paid her salary), and we waited for the bus that would return us to Jordan in silence, contemplating what we’d seen over the past 3 days. For my family, it really was a once-in-a-lifetime thing; the chances of them returning to the Holy Land are small. For me, I was already writing these past two blog entries in my head, thinking of what I’d seen and how it matched the years of news articles I’d read about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

The next time I enter Palestine/Israel, I’ll have a camera in my hand again…but will it be as a tourist, or as a activist to help, for example, the people of Bil’in repel the constant Israeli settlers’ attacks? Only time will tell.