Tuesday, December 05, 2006

West Bank: And Man, at War with Man, Hears Not

Because of dissertation work, the fact I spent three weeks in the Caucasus, and the amount of stuff there is to do in Jerusalem, I didn't make my first day trip out of the city until today. While I always expected I'd first head over to Tel Aviv, the fact we are now into Advent prompted me to instead saunter down to Bethlehem. Although part of the West Bank, Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem that in the U.S. is would have evolved into a suburb. You can get there by hopping on Arab bus 124 by the Old City's Damascus Gate and going down to an Israeli military checkpoint on the city's north side. Because that wasn't leaving for awhile, though, I took the 21 down to Bayt Jala, a small town near Bethlehem on the slopes of Mt. Gillo, home of King David's counselor Anhithophel. I wandered around town a bit, noting the many churches which dotted the skylines here in the heartland of Palestinian Christianity, grabbing a drink in a shop on Pope John Paul II Street before snagging a taxi over to Bethlehem.

The taxi dropped me off in a Manger Square largely empty except for a few locals sitting on white curb pillars around the edges talking and drinking tea. It was, as DV said yesterday in comments, a tourist town without any tourists. When a little later I walked down Milk Grotto Road about two hundred meters to a church where the Holy Family allegedly stopped for the night en route to Egypt (I guess they didn't make it far that first day), I found about 70% of the shop spaces closed up, and most of the rest devoid of customers. Other parts of town were similar.

Back on the square, however, it lent the setting an aura of peace and contemplation missing from the crush at Jerusalem sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Dominating the square to the north was the huge Bethlehem Peace Center, dedicated in 2000 to embody Bethlehem's slogan, "The City of Peace." Inside was a gallery with an exhibit where people could learn German, a bunch of tourist information, and a souvenir shop featuring an impressive collection of books on peace and intercultural understanding. On the west was the Mosque of Umar b. al-Khattab, named after the second of the rightly guided caliphs because of a visit he made to Bethlehem to pray at the place where the Prophet Jesus was born and during which he reputedly guaranteed that Christians would always have control of the Church of the Nativity under Muslim rule.

The church Umar visited was the same one that stands now on the square's east side. The oldest Christian church still in use, it was built under Constantine the Great in the early 4th century, and underwent a major revonation under Justinian during the 6th century. During the 1100's the Crusaders used it for coronations; they are responsible for much of the interior architectural adornment. Today it is patrolled by Palestinian police officers, though they have little to do except caution people against loud outbursts or cell phone rings within the church's confines. They are really among the friendliest security forces I've ever met.

The entrance to the church is less than four feet high. According the Lonely Planet, there used to be problems with people riding horses and donkeys into the building and causing a disturbance. The Ottomans decided to solve the problem by shrinking the doorway. Today it is called the "Door of Humility." Humbly, I bent over and entered into a long walkway flanked by two rows of red Roman columns, with a few trapdoors open in the floor to reveal Byzantine mosaics. The main altar was magnificent, with numerous icons and two huge chandeliers. To the right was an Armenian chapel, while to the left was a Roman Catholic one. Suddenly I heard chanting in Latin. A procession of Franciscan friars appeared from a side doorway, bearing candles and proceeding into the Chapel of the Grotto beneath. I'm not always affected by these holy sites, but like the Armenian choir that resonated through Geghard Monastery, this definitely moved me to reverential wonder.

Since they were holding a service in the Grotto, I headed back outside to take in the square itself in more detail. There were a lot of posters up with some guy's picture. I went for a closer looked, and saw they were Hamas posters honoring somone who had been killed by Israelis in Bethlehem last month, proclaiming him a martyr who was being rewarded in the afterlife. Israel claims he was an Islamic Jihad activist. My curiosity satisfied, I went to grab a shawarma sandwich by the city hall, during which I read a copy of the Palestine Times I had picked up at the Peace Center. At the center of the front page was an article about a man who had been killed in Tulkarm yesterday. It said eyewitnesses claimed he had died of wounds after the Israelis prevented ambulances from coming while they evacuated the undercover operatives who shot him while trying to capture an al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades activist in the same cafe. I had seen this mentioned in the Israeli media. Yesterday the Jerusalem Post has a story under the headline "Undercover IDF troops storm cafe, kill terrorist," claiming the dead man was with the Brigades. Today it had an updated story, mentioning a dead bystander while focusing on the effective capture of the militant in the cafe. I finished the last of my soda and did a bit of Christmas shopping.

Returning to the Church of the Nativity, I again took in the chapels on the main level, before descending into the Chapel of the Grotto. Considering I had often heard the idea that Jesus was born in a cave presented as some recent theory produced by modern Bible scholars, I was amused to see that it was, in fact, a small cave. A short Polish woman whom I had earlier learned had been there five days sat in silent contemplation, while an elderly Russian man stood with head bowed. The altar was set over a small alcove draped in red fabric. The inside of the alcove was covered in icons, and a 14-pointed star with the Latin inscription "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est." Nearby is another alcove marking the site of the manger into which Jesus was laid. I confess that in all my years of Christmas contemplation I had never before pictured Jesus actually being born, as opposed to being a newborn. As the Incarnation is crucial to my own sense of spirituality, I remained there for a time, taking in the mood, before heading back upstairs and into a courtyard. In the courtyard was a stairway leading down into another cave complex where St. Jerome lived, wrote the first Latin translation of the Bible, and was buried, but it was locked and no one was around to open it. The same was true of St. Catherine's Church, site of the Roman Catholic midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Leaving the church, I decided to explore the city a bit before heading back north toward Jerusalem. To the south, along Qanah Street, I saw a bunch more posters. The most common had a young kid with phantom guns coming out of his ears pointing up in either direction, and two other men holding guns. This was an Islamic Jihad poster, and all three were identified as martyrs. As a pair of students from a nearby Christian girls' school darted by, I decided to head north, the direction I wanted to go anyway. I decided against following Shepherds Street to the alleged field where its namesakes had been keeping their flocks by night, and turned left onto Manger Street, hoping ultimately to reach Star Street which would take me where I wanted to go. As I passed through a residential neighborhood, I stopped to examine yet another poster that had begun appearing. This was a Fatah poster featuring pictures of the Church of the Nativity below a man holding a machine gun. A few kids perhaps aged 5-10 had come over to talk to the foreigner wandering through the neighborhood, all both exquisitely polite and excited as they asked about where I was from and the like. They were helpful, too: "These are pictures of our martyrs!" he said proudly as he noticed my interest in the posters.

Continuing on down the stone street, I found an archway with a plaque noting that it had been the site of the city gates since Canaanite times, and that everyone had to go through it, including, of course, Mary and Joseph. There were also stunning views of the city, which sprawled over most of a hillside with crosses poking up from churches everywhere. I was starting to feel ready to leave, though, and as I started passing upscale hotels and restaurants just wanted to reach the bus back to the Old City area on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, I ran into the problem in that the gate to the famous security barrier, which Israel calls a fence and Palestinians a wall, was shut. I turned back thinking of catching some transportation to Bayt Jala and going from there, but a couple of Palestinian cops who saw me wandering uncertainly told me there was an open checkpoint further down. I headed over there, only to get yelled at in Hebrew by a a woman manning it as I approached. I started to ask what I should do, but she just yelled again, and angrily gestured toward a line of vehicles. Although it seemed odd, I went to the back and got into the line of vehicles. The father of the family in a minivan behind me asked what I was doing, and after I explained, they said pedestrians go through all the time between these two stone markers he pointed out, and since a soldier was now standing there maybe I should try again.

I did this, and he told me that although that was the gate, since I was on foot I had to approach it from the side, between these two wire fences. I went back, the father saw me coming, and when I told him as I was passing what had happened, he suggested I just hop in the van and go across with them. I decided to tough it out, however, and found the pedestrian entrance a few hundred meters away. I walked through it all and was allowed past the fence into the checkpoint building. That place was a little insane, though fortunately the Palestinians around were all experienced at this, and a sense of community developed around the different nationalities as we all tried to figure out what precisely we were doing, since even not noticing a doorway light change from green to red earned you a dirty look. After getting through a passport check, I went through a metal detector, and the guy even made me remove my glasses. After I went through some further instructions were apparently directed at me in Hebrew as I groped blindly for my glasses. After some yelling, an IDF guy who spoke English asked to see my passport again, which passed inspection. I recovered my glasses when they proved to be under a woman's purse; one side piece went between the belt and the edge of the machine and they're now out of whack. After a third and final passport check, I was in the clear, and found the bus I wanted to head back to Jerusalem.

Looking back on it, it seemed an odd trip, like it didn't know whether to be a spiritual exploration of an important religious site or a depressing study of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The middle verse to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" seemed quite apt. The problem is, I'm not quite built for saying that one day this world will pass away and divine intervention will fix all the problems. What hope I do feel as I sit back in my apartment comes from remembering a brief conversation I had with a Palestinian guy and the Polish pilgrim I saw again in the Chapel of the Grotto. We were talking about holiness, and whether it was always to be found at holy sites like the ones here as opposed to in the world at large. The Palestinian seemed to have a personal spirituality deeply based in his proximity to the Nativity site. I had just come from seeing the Islamic Jihad poster and was en route to lunch, and cynically suggested that the atmosphere of conflict interfered with the city's religious benefits. The man had a quick answer - that yes, there is fighting, but the fighting comes and goes, and the church remains, and we remember and always go back to it. Pilgrims also come from all over and bring their values, especially when they come in groups. And perhaps that's the most important thing, after all, about holy places, or holy times such as Christmas. That though we wander, they are always there to remind us, and we are always there to help each other see.



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