Saturday, September 10, 2005

House of Meat, Beit Lehem, Bethleham

In my first entry in this journal, I wrote about R, the friend of my family who ended up traveling with me from Jordan into the West Bank. R is Palestinian, but he lives and works in Kuwait and he was heading into the West Bank for his wedding. After our day of travel, he invited me to his wedding in Bethleham on Sept. 8 – of course it was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. Now, I wasn’t planning on attending any formal events during my time here, so on Wed I had to find something appropriate to wear to this wedding – that is a story in itself . . . So Thursday afternoon I began my travel to Beit Lehem. Now, Beit Lehem is not very far from Ramallah, but traveling in the West Bank is always an ordeal – the wedding was scheduled to start at 6pm (but apparently everyone shows up late) and I was told it could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes to travel to Beit Lehem depending on checkpoints etc . . . so I left Birzeit at 2:30 in the afternoon figuring that would give me plenty of time to get to Beit Lehem, find a hotel, and head to the wedding. Silly foreigner.

Traveling around here is a little complicated. First I caught a service (minivan that runs a regular route and much cheaper than a private taxi) to downtown Ramallah, then I walked a little ways down Jerusalem Road to find another service that would take me to the Kalandia checkpoint. Because I have an American passport, I was told it would be faster the travel though Jerusalem than to travel through the West Bank. Now, every Palestinian that I’ve met on this trip so far has been incredibly friendly and helpful, but this service driver was having a very bad day. When I opened the service door I hesitated because the way into the far back seat was blocked by a very large woman. So, the driver starts yelling at me in Arabic – I didn’t catch the words, but the gist of it was hurry up, stupid forgeiner. So I clamber into the back seat and the driver takes off, still muttering to himself.

Now, I’d never walked through the Kalandia checkpoint before. On my way into the West Bank, I’d been in a private taxi with Israeli tags, so we were able to just drive through without any difficulty. However, Palestinian vehicles are not allowed into Jerusalem, so I knew that I had to get out of the service at the checkpoint, walk across, and pick up another transport. Problem was, I wasn’t sure exactly where I was supposed to get off . . . So, when the last person climbed out of the service except for me, I asked the driver if this was where I was supposed to get out (no checkpoint in sight, mind you) and he starts yelling at me again, so I took that as my signal to exit, quickly.

Still not quite sure what I was doing, I just followed the other people on foot until I arrived at the Kalandia checkpoint, which is one of the ugliest manmade structures I’ve ever seen. When you walk up to it, there are four of five lines, separated by metal railings – kind of like amusement park ride lines, but not as nice. The men and women wait in separate lines, and the women move through much faster. So, when my turn came, I gave the Israeli soldier sitting behind his desk my passport and they let me through without any a trouble. I had to cut across the men’s line to follow the path through the checkpoint, then I hesitated because it looked like people were going in two different directions and I wasn’t sure which one I wanted.

A chubby Israeli soldier walks up to me, and seeing my American passport, says to me very politely while holding his large machine gun, “Do you need any help miss?” I pointed down what looked like a rat race path and asked him if that was the way I was supposed to go. He replied, still very polite, “Yes. Do you mind if I ask you what you were doing inside?”

Inside. Inside what? Hell? I just replied that I was studying and headed off towards the buses. At this point I needed to find the bus that would take into Jerusalem and then drop me at the bus station where I would pick up another service to Beit Lehem. Luckily, the first bus I picked was the right one, and the driver was very nice when I asked him in my terrible Arabic if I was headed in the right direction. So, I settled into my seat next to a young boy and we started driving. We reached another check point and the soldiers told the bus driver to pull over, then two soldiers came on board and collected all of the passenger’s passports. So we sat there for about 20 minutes while the soldiers cleared everyone’s travel papers. From my seat, I could see the soldiers kiosk, and they seemed to be doing a lot of laughing and not much else. Eventually, one of the soldier’s came back and then everyone had to sort through the pile of IDs to make sure everyone had theirs before we continued our travels.

As the bus drove through Jerusalem I was shocked by how different it looks from the West Bank. I’ve only been here for about a week, but I’ve already become accustomed to my new environment. It seemed very strange to drive past the ritzy Zion Hotel and to see all the men wearing shorts, women in sleeveless tops, and all the green grass. The West Bank sits on a resevior of water, but the Israeli’s control it, so there are water shortages in the West Bank every summer. In fact, we have to be very careful about the amount of water that we use in our apartment . . .

I arrived at the Jerusalem bus station and the driver explained to me where to find the service to Beit Lehem, which was fairly simple. The drive to Beit Lehem from Jerusalem is fairly short, and unenventful until we reached the checkpoint outside of Beit Lehem. Here, everyone had to climb off the bus because the road was closed and climb down a steep, dangerous path and stoop under a railing to get to the path to the checkpoint. There is a steep drop over the other side, and I was worried about the woman in front of me wearing heels and the little old woman who barely made it under the railing. I followed the path and ended up at a semi-permanent looking checkpoint. Apparently everyone lines up at the edge of the checkpoint and one by one people approach the desk with the soldiers to get permission to enter Beit Lehem. While I was waiting, I watched the soldiers yelling at the people to hurry up and to have their papers out and ready – I think that is what they were saying anyway, since they were speaking in Hebrew. When my turn came, I handed them my American passport and they got very excited. They were commenting on my name (which is Arabic) and decided that they had to call it in and have it checked out. So, I stood there for about 5 minutes while the line of Palestinians behind me continued to grow and the soldiers all sat around waiting for a response regarding my passport. Finally, I asked the soldier if she would like me to step aside so that the other people waiting to could pass. She looked surprised for a moment, and then said, “Oh. Well, I guess you could.”
So I moved, and the soldiers called for the Palestinians to come all together and to have their papers out. I sat on a bench and they offered me coffee or tea while I waited, which I refused. The woman soldier started yelling at one of the women that her papers were fake, and that she wouldn’t be able to enter Beit Lehem with them next time, and that the woman obviously knew they were fake. Then they started making fun of an older woman who was walking slowly and started yelling at her to hurry up.

After about 40 minutes they called me up to say that my passport had been cleared. They were very polite, and the woman soldier apologized and said they just needed to make sure that I was not one of the people who shouldn’t be allowed into Beit Lehem. The difference in the way the soldiers treated me compared to the Palestinians was horrendous. They acted as if the Palestinians weren’t even people, while I was one of them, just because of a passport. I can’t even describe how I felt when I walked out of the checkpoint – I guess a combination of angry, frustrated and relieved that I had been allowed in. Then I got my first look of the Wall in around Beit Lehem. It is heartbreakingly enormous and anyone who calls this a security fence is deluding themselves. The Israeli’s are build enormous ghettos, with American help. In fact, someone had spray painted, “American money, Israeli apartheid” on the wall, and I couldn’t have agreed more. It took me three hours to travel from Ramallah from Beit Lehem, a trip that would take 20 minutes without the checkpoints and if all the roads were accessible.

After I walked through the gap in the wall I asked for directions to the hotel where the wedding was being held. I only had about an hour before I was supposed to be there, but I knew that it was close enough to walk and I was already dirty and sweaty from traveling so I figured I might as well get a look at the city. I stopped in a small store to ask for directions, and the owner insisted on giving me a ride, which was very kind of him. So we talked in Arabic, and I tried to express how sorry I was for the situation in Bethleham and how terrible I thought the wall was. When we pulled up to the hotel I laughed out loud because it was a five star hotel, not something I was expecting after all the poverty I’ve seen in the West Bank, and certainly not a place I could afford to stay. I asked the man if he knew the name of a place that was cheaper where I could stay, thinking I’d hail a taxi and just be late to the wedding. Not only did he insist on driving me to the Beit Lehem hotel, but he also came inside with me and negotiated the price with the man at the desk . . . It is amazing how warm and hospitable the Palestinian people are considering the reality of the lives they live . . .

Once everything was settled at the hotel reception I ran up to my room and hopped into the shower, ironed my dress which had stuffed in my backpack for the last 4 hours and got ready to head to the wedding. I knew the wedding was Muslim, so I had been very careful about picking a dress that wasn’t low cut or too short. It was sleeveless, but I found a nice scarf in Ramallah to cover my arms . . . to be honest I was very proud of myself for finding such an acceptable outfit on short notice.

After putting on some makeup, I looked in the mirror to make sure I looked okay and noticed a big problem. The dress was white with a pink and tan floral design on it, and it had a slip built in underneath – but it was still transparent. I had even thought to bring white panties so that they wouldn’t show . . . but you could quit clearly see the outline of my underclothes . . . Big Problem. The only clothes that I had with me were the t-shirt and jeans that I had traveled in, some pjs and this dress. I figured the shawl would cover the top of my dress, but there wasn’t much I could do about the bottom. So, I did the only thing I could . . . I went to my first Mulsim wedding as an adult without any panties.

I arrived at the hotel just as the wedding party was arriving. R was wearing a tux, and his bride looked beautiful in a long white strapless wedding gown. Someoen was beating a drum and everyone was clapping so I joined in. R walked into the hotel, took his grandmother’s hand and started dancing with her, then his mother joined in – I couldn’t see where the bride had gone at that point. Then the wedding party moved towards the banquet hall with the guests trailing behind and clapping. Next, R and his bride disappeared to take pictures and everyone else entered the banquet hall. Now this was the most awkward part of the evening because I had no idea what the etiquette was for this sort of wedding, plus the language barrier, and the only person that I new at the wedding was the groom – and I was feeling very self conscious about the fact that I wasn’t properly dressed (no panties). So I walked over to a table with a youngish women and tried to explain that I was a friend of R’s from America and that I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to sit. She said I was in the right place (well I had already figured that part out) so I asked her if I could sit at her table where there were several empty seats, but she said it would be better if I found a different place.

So, I smiled and said thank you, took a deep breath and tried another table with some youngish looking girls, and this time I was more successful. Turns out I’d found one of R’s cousins who was very, very nice and invited me to sit with her and basically took me under her wing for the rest of the evening. After an awkward half-hour R and his bride appeared, and then the dancing began. It is funny how similar and different this wedding was to an American wedding. All of the same elements were present: bride in white, wedding party, bride’s and groom’s family seated separately, dancing, food and of course the wedding cake – and yet it was so different. The dancing was more enthusiastic – some of the men, including the groom, climbed onto the shoulders of other men and danced from up there. At one point the bride was lifted up on a chair to dance with R above the crowd. There was dubkeh (traditional Palestinian dance) and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The dancing lasted for about two hours, followed by food, then more dancing and cake. The bride and groom danced all night and the men at the wedding performed some pretty impressive dance moves. Another big difference was that the men all danced together very comfortably, whereas at home they would be concerned about looking gay. Overall I had a lovely time and was invited to several peoples homes, and given lots of phone numbers. It was great practice for my Arabic, although it only reminded me that I have a long way to go before I will truly be conversational in colloquial Arabic. I was invited to stay the night with several people, but I had already checking into and paid for my hotel (thank goodness) I had a headache from trying to speak and understand the Arabic and desperately wanted a cigarette by the end.


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