Day 9 - Across the wall and into Bethlehem
We wake to this text:
0845 hrs, ongoing clashes between Palestinians and ISF at Lions Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. All advised to avoid mentioned area until further notice. UNDSS/JSCO
Throughout the day, we receive text messages about more riots in the Old City and various refugee camps. On the way to Bethlehem, our driver tells us that from now till end of Saturday, it's the Jewish New Year. A lot of Jewish-related sights and areas may be closed for the holidays so its best to stick with "Arab" sights during that time.
To get to Bethlehem, we have to go through the West Bank barrier. I'm clutching our passports as we near the checkpoint. But honestly, the guy in the booth couldn't care less. We sail straight through. The Wall is...a wall. Graffitied, trash strewn everywhere.
The church is vast and gloomy. There's scaffolding everywhere, marring the experience somewhat. I'd love to see it without all the scaffolding scaling the walls. To the right, there is an enormous line. Defeated, I stand at the end only to be told that's only for tour groups and actually, we can go see the grotto in a faster way. The guy who's followed us in tell us this. I'm suspicious. I ask, "How much?" The answer is free. Really? There's no such thing as free around these tourist areas.
I really, really want to avoid that line though, so we cross the nave and sure enough, there's an opening into the grotto with only an elderly woman being helped down the steep steps by her family. There's a crush into the small space where the Baby Jesus was born and his manger laid to rest. A large Filipino tour group is in there. The guide sees me, looks defeated and says, "How many of you are there?" I relieve him a little by letting him know we're not with them. He's shouting over the crowds, "Two by two please! Two by two!"
There's beads of sweat on people's brows. The singing starts. There's that religious fervour and emotion I'm getting more and more familiar with. People get on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. I just take photos. I can hear the guide shouting, "YOU! YOU! You've already been here. Move on and give people a chance." People are shoving each other. I hear one person say plaintively, "I stood two hours in line for this." Things are getting Hillsborough-Disaster up in here.
Emerging from the grotto is like coming up for air. I'm strangely exhilarated from the experience. Again, it's not the site but the people that made it interesting. People crowd round to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre but they're there because guidebooks have told them they should see it. They take their photos, chatter a little and leave. At the religious sites in Jerusalem, people are mostly here because these sites have defined their lives, their ways of living, how they see the world, and what they believe in. Yes, they take pictures. But mostly, they come for a chance to be as close to the living embodiments of their faith. It produces a maelstrom of emotion; a different way of seeing.
We get out of the church. The guide is waiting for us. He says he'll give us a free guided trip. I'm on red alert. "But, the only thing I ask of you is that you come and visit my shop. There is olive wood carvings. Lovely things." There's the catch. We tell him thanks but no thanks. Being from New Zealand, we wouldn't risk bringing that stuff in anyway.
We go to the Milk Grotto just up the road. It's where the Holy Family stayed for a couple of nights before leaving Bethlehem. You don't know what's original in the building and what's new. Clearly it's just a cave but it's been tricked out and expanded into a small church. Our driver points to columns, "That's Roman." Rob points to the colourful mosaic on the floor, "This too?" Our driver laughs, "No. That's from the sixties. We had those in my house growing up."
We stop in front of a small stylised statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. There's money of all currencies and slips of paper with prayers on it at its feet. Our driver shakes his head, "I don't understand this," he says. "Does Jesus want money? Why do they write their prayers? You just ask for it and he will hear." These are all good rational points he's making. I think people just want to mark their places here, however fleeting. The money and the prayers say I've been here. Don't forget me.
After the church and the grotto, we don't find much else in Bethlehem to keep us there. We're hungry though and our driver promises us the best chicken in town. "People order all the way from Jerusalem from this place," he says. Unfortunately, he can't remember where it is or the name of the place. For 45 minutes, we circle round and round Bethlehem and surrounding suburbs. When he sees a person, he rolls down the window and yells across the road to them in thick, expressive Arabic. "I'm asking them for directions," he explains. Later, Rob describes him as yelling at people for directions. He smirks and pretends he's offended, "OH no! I was not yelling. I was raising my voice. They won't hear me above the traffic. I don't yell."
Finally, an old man clutching plastic bags of groceries leads us to the right place and tells us the name of the Blessed Church of Holy Charcoal Chicken. The name is Qabar and later on, I find it online described as Ariel Sharon's fave chicken joint. And it was worth the 45 minute circling and yelling around town. The grill is outside and there are cooked chickens strewn about. Thick paper is laid down on the table. We're given a leaning tower of pita, tahini, salad, olives, hummus, the best garlic yoghurt I've ever tasted in my entire life, green chilli, and half a chicken each. Honestly. Words can't describe the charcoal goodness.
I'm sitting in the car putting lipstick on while Rob and the driver are hanging out on the pavement. Through the window, I see a young guy approach them. He's holding meat in a plastic bag. He embraces them both and gives them one kiss on each cheek. I'm laughing and laughing at the sight. Both guys hightail it back into the car. "That guy is not normal," grumbles our driver. I'm still laughing.
We drive through a landscape of stony desert terraces peppered with olive and fig trees. There is rubbish on the verge of the road. In the horizon, there are Jewish settlements, brand spanking white and new. We take pictures but our driver is nervous. He tell us we're coming up to a checkpoint and we should put the camera away. "They'll think you're spying on the settlements," he tells us.
The car in front of us gets thoroughly searched at the checkpoint. I'm clutching my passports yet again. They get to us, take one look inside the car, and boredly wave us on. "Why did the guy in front of us get searched and we didn't?" I ask. "We don't look Palestinian," Rob says.
For the rest of the afternoon, we're back in the Old City, this time entering through Jaffa Gate. We can't get enough of this place.
Inside, we drink almond milk and fresh lemonade with mint. There aren't as many people about. We think it might be because of the riots earlier on. People are giving the Old City a wide berth at the moment.
For the third time, we try to get into the grounds around the Dome of the Rock. For the third time, the guards says no. Rob asks if he can take a picture at least. It's right there, only a couple hundred metres away. Its blue and gold mosaic exterior and gold dome is stunning even from far away. I'm desperate to get closer but it's not meant to be. We take our picture and go. As I write this blog, I find this video of what went on in those grounds this morning.
Around 3.30, we're in Beit Hanina eating kanafeh at Jafar Sweets. The guy gives us huge slabs of it. Rob sweats through his and gives up halfway. I plow through three quarters of mine and then stop. It tastes like grilled mozarella rolled in crunchy wheat and pistachios topped with sugar syrup. So cheese and sugar then. "Do you know what would make this better," I say to Rob. "Pastry."