Bethlehem (8 May 2013)
Bethlehem is no more than 10 km away from Jerusalem. It is also the birthplace of Jesus. There was no reason for me not to go there while I was in Jerusalem.
The short trip to Bethlehem was really quite an exciting one. It started with getting onto bus number 21 from the Arab bus station outside Damascus Gate. It was a bit unnerving at first when I was the only foreigner on the bus. And then two Caucasian ladies got on and I felt a bit more relaxed. At least if I should get lost, I would not be the only one.
Just as the bus was passing by the Jafar Gate, it got stopped by a couple of security officers. I had thought that we would only get checked at the border.
Two lady officers boarded the bus and started checking everyone’s ID. When they got to this teenager however, a little commotion ensued. There was a lot of talking between the officers, the teenager and a man who looked like his father and then the teenager was led down the bus. I wish I could understand what they were saying! They should have provided an interpreter for tourists in situations like this!
When we arrived in Bethlehem, everyone on the bus got off at this bus stop along a street that did not look anywhere near the Church of the Nativity. I had asked the guy seated next to me on the bus which way I should walk to get to the church. He gave me an answer but I was still not very sure, especially since we could not understand each other at all when he had tried to make conversation with me on the bus.
So that I would not get lost alone, I decided that the best thing to do would be to tag along the two Caucasian ladies who were on the bus. And a good thing I did too. Waiting at the bus stop for tourists was a bunch of taxi drivers and their eagerness to earn our fare was to me bordering on harassment. I had from research expected this but it was still unpleasant. There is strength in numbers and being with the two ladies did helo somewhat with tiding over the situation.
It did not help at all that we did not really know which way to go. One of the taxi drivers was actually kind enough to steer us in the right direction. But it was difficult to know whom to believe. Some of the drivers actually told us that the church was very far away and we needed a ride. Eventually though, we did follow the correct advice and were on our way.
The Church of the Nativity is a plain looking building with a very low door for its entrance. This “Door of Humility” forces all who enter to bow their heads low in humility.
The interior of the church is simple, and as with all other holy sites of some significance in the region, crowded.
There was already quite a long queue to enter the Grotto of the Nativity when I arrived. J, one of the ladies I had tagged along, had found a spot in the queue and invited me to join her. I have no idea how she had managed to find that spot, especially since she seemed to be right in the middle of a group of Russian (they looked and sounded Russian) tourists/pilgrims queueing up to get in. But who was I to decline her invitation?
A lady who looked like the tour guide was not too pleased with me. I was obviously not one of the group and she did not like it that I was cutting queue. She kept telling me to get behind her group but I totally ignored her. Did she not realise that J was not one of hers too? Fortunately she did not attack me.
I realised that day that even though I hate being associated with PRCs, there are occasions when I do not mind being mistaken for a PRC. Such occasions generally involve me doing rude or antisocial things, like cutting queue. So if the tour guide had asked me where I was from, I would have said that I was from China.
Or alternatively Malaysia, depending on my mood.
I joined the ladies for lunch at this restaurant at Manger Square. We each had a rice dish and mine tasted like briyani. It was quite lovely.
S, the other lady, was in Bethlehem to speak with the locals. She strongly believes that the land was wrongfully taken from the Palestinians. Israel was to her quite plainly occupied Palestinian territory. It was fortuitous that I should meet her since this trip served to some extent as a trigger to start me thinking on the subject.
Based on S’s conversations with some of the locals, the older Palestinians seemed much less hopeful than the younger ones that the situation could improve. It did seem abysmal to me that many of these Palestinians might never see a peaceful Palestine in their lifetime. These were mostly ordinary people who try to get on like everyone else in other more peaceful parts of the world. There is no reason why they cannot be happy too.
J also told me a little about the plight of the Christians in the region. She knew an Arab Christian family originally from Palestine I think and so she got first hand information. Apparently the Christians are stuck in between the two main feuding parties and no one seems to care much about their rights. The Jews see them as Arabs and therefore probably enemies. The Muslims on the other hand do not accept them either even though they are Arabs since they are not of the same religion. The Christians do sound like mere collateral damage in this battle for supremacy. In fact, it is almost as if they do not exist.
After lunch, it was time to head back to Jerusalem. The bus back was not parked along the same road that we had got off and we were lucky to spot it. We were stopped at the checkpoint outside the city for ID checks. The officer was not very interested in my passport and only took a token glance at it. Maybe female officers are more conscientious.
It had been a nice half day trip with really good unexpected company.