Bob Marley, Snoop Dogg, Grease, a dessert made of orchids- Sahlab, honey drizzled Middle Eastern sweet treats, endless rolling hills and wheat amongst olive trees and cacti, critical street art and a local gallery featuring talented artists in various medium forms, Shepherd beer accompanied by shisha, empty streets with pale buildings and an array of colorful doors, historic religious buildings and the faithful, quiet moments and also others of heated discussion. . . THIS IS A SUMMARY OF WHAT I EXPERIENCED IN BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE DURING MY VISIT TO ISRAEL. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Now for more of an in depth look into what a day in Palestine could look like.
Many of us know that Jesus Christ was born in the HOLY CITY of Bethlehem a couple thousand years ago and today has followers from every corner of the world. Born in a time when there was no West Bank or giant separation Wall, yes he had humble beginnings and has since put Bethlehem on the map as one of the holiest Christian cities in the world, along with Jerusalem (click here for QU-EEN’s post), and Nazareth. For the Jews, Bethlehem is sacred because their great King David was born here. Jews and Muslims also honor Rachel an important Matriarch from their history with ties to this land. I’m not going to elaborate much further on the religious connotations of the city, not willing to visit a place solely for its history, but instead will give you a small window of Palestine today as seen from an outsider. That’s right, I have to mention this now. Bethlehem rests in disputed territory in the West Bank, walled off by the Israeli government and mainly inhabited by the Palestinians (mostly those of the Muslim faith, though a growing Christian population also calls this place home). Tensions of the more recent decades have in many ways made parts of this city a ghost town, local families just not able to capitalize on the floods of visitors each year to their historic city for lack of resources. This doesn’t mean tour buses/groups don’t flock here to see the Christian and Jewish sites, quite the opposite in fact. However, these visitors don’t contribute virtually any money to the local economy or to people living in this infamous city of present day Palestine. All the tours are Israeli and foreign-run, private transport from beyond the Wall to the guides they provide. Sad, but such is the case right now.
You could truly walk down several back streets in Bethlehem and not run into a single soul
Before I get going, let me back track and tell you how I got here as you might know it’s not so simple crossing the heavily militarized border. The short story is: my Israeli friend asked a favor of her friend to take us by car into the city from Jerusalem as a starting point. Her friend was Palestinian. Though living in Jerusalem, he had all the proper paperwork and car license plates to go into the West Bank without a problem. Although there was one problem: Me and the two Israelis walking around the city with him could have made trouble for him at any moment if anyone asked questions. I guess I didn’t know well enough the risk he was taking before we planned to cross over and see the city that is in a way, a symbol for the DIVISION of Israel and Palestine. Later when I realized how nervous he was at different times throughout the day, for instance if Hebrew was accidentally spoken amongst the group (he had warned us to speak in ENGLISH only) or when we crossed the border at night he worried that they might question each of us in the car, I felt both guilt and gratitude.
When crossing back into Israel, as long as they believed we were all tourists (from any country except Israel) there wouldn’t be a problem, but if they asked for proof, papers, origin, our whereabouts during the day, well then we’d all be in a bind, but mostly our host.
It is for this reason that I felt guilty and so so grateful he took the time to show us as much as we wanted to see. We started our day together in Bethlehem heading for the Church of the Nativity. I decided a FALAFEL was indeed in order before anything else, the smells having traveled to me from the food stall of their origin. There they were, frying them to perfection and serving them up fresh. I got all the fixings and couldn’t have been happier. Middle Eastern food is just so spectacular, a flavor-packed pita pocket. As I had been living in a region of Spain where street food is non-existent, I savored every single bite. My tongue couldn’t lie if it tried. I paid in Israeli Shekels, as you do everywhere here, because in Palestine there is no local currency at the moment.
We made the rounds of the Christian Church of the Nativity. It was almost overwhelming to see how many nooks, passageways, and corridors leading to different faith chapels and sections for homage, but I found it in me to appreciate what others were here for. For many, there is a true fulfillment to come to the place of Jesus’ birth. Some cried. Others lit candles. Many took selfies. Languages of World were spoken all around me. I could appreciate the pilgrimage they had made and still have my own experience outside the religious realm.
Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est / Here was born Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary
When we had seen enough crypts and corridors leading to altars and places of prayer, and of course the precise spot where Jesus was born, we ventured out to central Bethlehem, where the streets got quiet; compared to bustling Jerusalem, it was downright EMPTY OF TRAFFIC. As we walked further and further away from the Christian Church, if not for the occasional street vendor or a few locals passing by, I don’t think we would have seen anyone.
This is no coincidence. Tours are brought in from Israel and tourists off-loaded in front of the Church of the Nativity. Most are not willing to see more of the city, perhaps even on a tour that forbids it. They travel in, and out. See the Holy Site, and out. Well I couldn’t say I really minded how quiet the streets were in certain areas, but at what cost? If any of the tours do venture out to other parts of the city, for instance, to the Separation Wall, well then there’s the issue of BIAS. I’ll touch upon that later.
WALK A LITTLE FURTHER, YOU MIGHT LIKE WHAT YOU SEE
Indulge the senses here. They were offering coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a dessert called SAHLAB (or SALEP in Hebrew), a pudding made of Orchid flour, scented with rose and garnished with cinnamon powder and coconut. It was incredibly delicious, these unexpected flavors blending together. A treat for the palette.
Onwards to the Separation Wall, also called Barrier, or Separation Barrier, or Wall of Apartheid if you are Palestinian. Our host knew we’d want to see the wall, known for its literal purpose, and also a symbol of criticism and resistance, Graffiti sprayed across it in large sections here in Bethlehem. Also, street artist Banksy had recently opened his hotel with front row windows to the Wall, not without its own critiques from Palestinians and Israelis alike. If there was one thing that was certain, it’s that I have never seen a wall so big, and so drab. It screamed prison to me. When we walked up close to it, it towered over us 6 times over. I took just a few photographs of the wall itself, and one particular one section with a colorful painted PEACE SIGN stood out to me more than anything. At least, some people believe there is hope for peace, or else I don’t believe they would have taken the time to paint something striking. The peace sign itself looks like it’s a stone wall, with barbed wire surrounding the rim. Walk a few more steps and you arrive at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, where you are met with more critical art of the Israeli military/government, evident in every inch of the lobby.
Angels with gas masks, military planes flying over the image of Jesus, and surveillance cameras lining the Wall were a few of the pieces that stood out to me. Thought provoking art in my opinion.
I do understand the criticism Banksy has faced though, since you have to carry a hefty wallet to stay the night in his hotel and let’s face it, what discourse is really being inspired by a stay here? My favorite part of the endeavor was the upstairs Art Gallery featuring Local Palestinian and Muslim Artists. Was a highlight in fact. Their art spoke to me, if even just trying to show a small part of the world that enters these doors that THEY ARE HERE, HERE TO STAY. Not even Israel just on the other side of that Wall can erase them.
SEPARATION WALL & BANKSY’S HOTEL
It could have all ended here, were it not for true hospitality. We were driven about 20 minutes away from the center of Bethlehem to a little paradise in the hills. I cannot stress enough how unexpected this place was, for it’s pure and natural location that transmitted peace through Wind, Sun, and Earth; again, the Elements playing their role, showing me that this place was HOLY. I forgot about time. I knew only the blessed present moment. I could FEEL the magic of this place and moment. A meal was ordered for us by the local who knew best, a meal of local delights served to our table. We had chicken grilled in spices, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini, rice, a fresh yogurt and another vegetable dish. All shared family-style. We sat on pillows instead of chairs and I reflected a lot on the day. I people watched. I nature watched. And when we were all finished, I wandered on the property and found a table playing some Bob Marley. The views alone filled my heart with PEACE, but so did the music and the atmosphere as a whole.
A MEAL TO REMEMBER
We were privileged to another local establishment on the other side of town maybe 20 minutes away, FOR MY FAVORITE MEAL: DESSERT. Yup. Dessert dripped in honey, filled with cheese, flavored with toasted sesame, topped with pistachio, take your pick. . . all finger-licking good. A variety of eats for all the foodie lovers of the world. Only locals here. . . and us. Try the Kanafeh, but I’m warning you it’s sweet. My favorite was the pastry looking square called KULLAJ, sweet but come on, stuffed with cheese that melted in my mouth, it’s a must (also slightly less sweet than the Kanafeh). I also took several other desserts to go, including different Backlava squares. Truly a family spot, we were surrounded by tables of families. I spotted many children with that YUMMY expression on their face that is universal.
SWEET PALESTINIAN TREATS TO TASTE
One last stop was in order: A local Wine Bar. Though wine was their specialty, they also had local Palestinian Beer. We had to get it. The brand was Shepherd Beer. It went down smoothly, but you know what didn’t, the SHISHA I attempted to smoke. If you know Middle Eastern culture, you’d know that shisha (hookah) is often shared among family or friends. I couldn’t really get it to go down properly, but hey I tried. We arrived earlier than the local crowd, but later on it began filling up and the pop music played included hits of the Snoop Dogg variety and also the theme song from the movie Grease. It was here, around a table with some beers in us that my friends started discussing Palestine and Israel.
Yes here they spoke passionately about history and the present political climate, about their concerns, about their doubts, and they exchanged ideas. Sometimes I could HEAR the emotion that evident in their tone, as they discussed topics that were not at all light-hearted. I don’t believe that by the end of the night anything was resolved per se, but these types of discussions need to happen. People on opposing sides of an argument need to come together to talk, to listen, to exchange, to work through a problem that exists at least at loud, each speaking and also listening. The fact that they were sitting at a table sharing a meal in the day, later sharing beers and discussing politics and the tangled and often one-sided history that has been passed down by family and their governing rulers IS A START TO REAL CHANGE IN MINDS AND HEARTS. Don’t think so? I do. I felt it this day. I felt that all the signs were pointing to a better discourse, more discourse, a more open-minded generation soon to have a real voice in the Fate of this part of the Middle East and a willingness to work for the change that both Nations need in this Holy Land.
If you have liked this post, check out my other posts in the ISRAEL SERIES by clicking here. I’ve got a few more stories to tell from Israel, this beautiful and soul enriching country that changed me, that inspired me to see more and to open up my heart for the Universe’s blessings.
QU-EEN is switching gears with ALL ICELAND posts from my summer in the land of Fire and Ice so stay tuned. All my <3
All photos taken APRIL 2017- ARIANA DEL RÍO