Saturday, September 10, 2005

House of Meat, Return Trip

I returned to my hotel without any problems and in the morning I wandered downstairs to the “continental breakfast”. Luckily they had Nescafe because none of the food looked very appealing. While I was sitting there (alone because the tourism industry in Bethleham is pathetic right now) another woman walked in and sat down at the table beside me. We started talking, in Arabic, and it turns out she was from Haifa but traveled between Beit Lehem and Al-Quds quite often for business. I asked her if she knew the best way to travel from Beit Lehem back to Al-Quds (Jerusalem) on a Friday. She tried to explain a way, but I didn’t understand, then Yousef the employee got involved . . . he called a cab company who wanted to charge me an exorbitant rate, and then Clara said nevermind, she would drive me to Beit Hanin and it would be very easy for me to get to Kalandia from there. She said it was on her way since she was driving in that direction anyway.

I thanked her profusely, and we agreed to meet at the hotel at 2pm as she had some business to take care off – this worked out beautifully for me because I wanted to visit the Church of the Nativity and Milk Grotto while I was in Bethleham. So, after breakfast we went our separate ways, and I started walking from the hotel to the Main Street where I could pick up a cab to Manger Sq. As I’m walking a car beeps and pulls over; it is Clara telling me to get in and she’ll give me a ride to Manger Sq. I really can’t get over how friendly the people here are.

After she dropped me off I wandered over to the church, and a Palestinian man asked me in perfect English if I wanted a tour of the grounds. Now, I had my guide book with me and would have been perfectly happy to wander around on my own, but even I could see how crappy the tourist industry is at the moment, so I agreed to let him be my guide. So, we wandered around and he showed me all the important things and told me the stories and myths that surround the church compound (most of which I’d already read in my guidebook). I had to admit that although I like visiting old buildings and churches I’m not a particularly religious person. However, there is something to be said for the atmosphere in a place like the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know if there is some kind of spiritual presence there, or if it just the energy millions of believers concentrated over centuries in tears, blood and prayers but even I was moved by the church.

When we had finished the tour my guide invited me back to his family shop for tea. I should have said no, but I went along and ended up buying two crosses – one of which is for Heather, and the other is for my mother neither of whom are at all religious, but I thought they would appreciate a cross from Bethleham. He tried to get to spend more money, and got increasing outrageous in his compliments in the process. I managed to leave without spending any more money, even though he said if he wasn’t already married he would want to marry me . . .

Next I visited the Milk Grotto Church where it is said to be a cave where Mary breastfed Jesus. Supposedly some of her milk spilled on the ground and turned the interior of the cave a milky white color. Inside the church there are letters from women who had fertility problems and visited the church asking for blessings. The women who wrote letters enclose pictures of their newborn babies and thanked the church for their babies. Of course, there aren’t any letters from women who visited the church but still don’t have babies . . .

I decided to walk back to the hotel, a pretty long walk, but I had time to kill so I meandered along the road and took some pictures. I stopped at a little place for lunch and while I was waiting for my lunch a man came over, introduced himself as a pastor, and asked if he could join me. Of course I said yes, so he sat and asked me where I was from . . . once he heard my name he asked if I Muslim or Christian. I answered this question the way I usually do: My father is Muslim and my mother is Christian and I was raised in both faiths. This gives people the opportunity to interpret as they wish and saves me a lot of hassle. His response was, “So no one in your family has accepted Jesus as their savior?” I sighed and replied that my mother was Christian, again, at which point he dropped it. After giving me his email address he said he had to leave for an appointment. As he was leaving he said that he would pray for me to quit smoking because it is not healthy for me. I suppose in a weird way it is comforting to know that people can be as obnoxious about their religion here as they are in America – it almost made me feel at home.

Went to the hotel, met Clara, and rode back Beit Henin with her. Now, I had no idea where Beit Henin is, but apparently it is the closest Jerusalem neighborhood to the Kalandia checkpoint. I thought she was just going to drop me somewhere on a bus route to Al-Quds, but she ended up driving me most of the way. It was a strange trip though . . . we stopped before the checkpoint leaving Beit Lehem and waited for about 10 minutes until a man pulled up in a shiny new truck (an oddity in the Occupied Territories). Apparently she was waiting for him and the talked for several minutes before he handed her a wad of cash. Then we left, heading for Beit Henin . . . got through the checkpoint without any trouble because she is Israeli-Arab and her car has Israeli tags. I didn’t even have to show my passport.

We got into Jerusalem, then we made some turns I didn’t recognize and pulled over on the side of the road and a man hopped in. He started giving Clara directions, and she handed him the wad of cash. We drove into East Jerusalem, down some narrow, twisty roads and eventually pulled over. The man we had picked up hopped out, met another man on the street and handed him the money. Our man came back to our car and the other man got into a waiting car and drove off. Hhhhhhmmmmmmmmm. Just a little sketchy.

They dropped me at the Beit Hanin checkpoint, and I walked over to the Israeli guard shack to show them my passport. I figured they wouldn’t care who was going into the West Bank, but, as usual, I was wrong. The soldier was speaking a combination of Arabic, Hebrew and English asking me lots of questions:
Why I wanted to go to the West Bank. I said I was visiting Ramallah.
He wanted to know why. I said why not?
He wanted to know where my family was – I said in New York.
Where was I from? New York.
Didn’t I have family in Ramallah (damn Arab name giving me trouble again). I said no. Why was I traveling by myself? I said why not.
Then we repeated all the questions. Twice.

Finally he let me through. I was starting to get nervous because it had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t let me back into the West Bank. I didn’t dare say that I was studying Arabic at Birzeit, so I just lied and hoped that he would let me through. I caught a cab for the 3 minute ride to Kalandia, and walked through that checkpoint without any trouble. No one was even checking passports. It took me less than half the time to return to Ramallah than it took to travel to Bethleham because I was in an Israeli car for the return trip


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