Friday, May 9, 2008

JERUSALEM - #4 - The Bethlehem Incident

The Bethlehem incident happened this way.

Lauren and I arranged a half-day tour of Bethlehem with Alternative Tours, a Palistinian outfit. Alternative Tours is relatively cheap; they basically provide transportation, no tour guide to speak of. This was fine with us. One could easily take a taxi or bus to the Bethlehem border, but we'd been warned that once you got into the West Bank side, the hawkers and taxi drivers were very aggressive as to be threatening. My friend Marichi warned that taxi drivers will take your money, then abandon you when you are in church; or they will jack up prices even if previously negotiated. We didn't want to deal with this hassle and therefore arranged for the tour. Alternative Tours could accompany you to Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem.

Anton picked us up at the Jerusalem hotel. There were four young Americans in the group - one man, three women, one of them a Muslim-American wearing a veil. The young man was from Utah, the Muslim-American was from Florida, and I forget where the other two came from. They were graduates from Harvard, Brown, and the University of Miami, now studying Middle East Policies in the University of Cairo. They all spoke Arabic. They had taken a bus from Cairo through the Sinai, via Taba, a 15 hour trip.

In the van, we small-talked about Egypt and Israel and looked forward to seeing Bethlehem. The tour included a visit to the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, and the Bazaar.

Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem and in around 30 minutes we were at the border. We thought it'd be cursory check. We handed our passports to the border guard, a young woman in her early 20s who peered into the van window. She took the passports, scrutinized the pictures on the passports, matching these with our faces. Then she riffled through the passport pages, studying each and every stamp. Then, there was a problem. She spoke in Hebrew to the driver who answered, and I caught something like "Americain," explaining that we were all Americans. There was still a problem, and she continued talking. The driver answered her. Then the border guard returned to her kiosk and called someone. We asked Anton what the problem was, and he said one passport did not have an entry stamp - it was Sahara's the Muslim American woman from Miami.

We waited, remaining unruffled. After all, we held American passports. Sahara, who was born and raised in Miami of Bangladesh background, was very calm, sweet, and composed. While waiting, we looked at the wall separating Bethlehem from Israel - tall, gray, looking like concrete slabs.

Two military men with uzis showed up, peered into the van to study all of us, their eyes zeroing in on Sahara's little sweet face covered with the veil. More Hebrew between them and the driver. They asked why Sahara did not have an entry stamp. The students explained that they had traveled by bus, and they had a separate piece of paper that had the entry stamp. The military police said he had the three documents, but where was Sahara's? She said someone took it away from her. Back and forth this went, and just when I was feeling they would pull her out of the van, one of the military police shoved his head into the window and said, "Where are your visas?" In unison, we said, "We don't need visas!" Our driver said something like, "They are Americans. They do not need visas here." The police had an embarrassed look, and he straightened himself and waved us off.

Israel and the West Bank look the same - the same hills, the same olive trees, the same sheep gnawing on the grass; it's just the wall and man's minds that have separated the two places.

In any case, when we got to the Church of the Nativity, Anton turned us over to a West Bank Palistinian tour guide. He led us into the church where Christ was born. Bypassing the long line of tourists, he led us to the Exit side, and instructed us to slip in two by two into the lower area where the Nativity site was. He had made arrangements with the church to do this, otherwise we'd have to stand in line for 2 hours. I was still nervous from that border experience, and add to that having to sneak into the Exit door where another Tour Guide shouted, "This is exit only!" and an Orthodox priest saying the same - I was somewhat fuzzy when I first saw the Nativity site. Fortunately I was able to visit it a second time. Click here for a site about the Church of the Nativity.The actual site where Jesus was born is marked by a silver star, which visitors kiss. Above this is a recess containing an altar, and hanging oil lamps. There are the Manger Chapel and Altar of the Three Kings in the area, which in my haste, failed to visit.

The rest of the tour included a visit to the adjoining St. Catherine's church with St. Jerome's relics and the Milk Grotto Chapel. We did a bit of shopping - Bethlehem makes olive wood products, rosaries, Crosses, statues. We walked down the Bazaar and through Manger Squre. It was very clear that the economy in Bethlehem was in bad shape. Numerous souvenir shops were closed. Children were begging. People seemed more hardup than in Jerusalem. In the bazaar area, we saw a poster of a recent Hamas martyr. Our guide said many Christians have left Bethlehem.

Returning to Jerusalem, I worried that we'd have the same problems as we did earlier, but fortunately nothing eventful happened. But what lingered was the feeling of fear. I thought to myself that if this kind of interrogation and intimidation could happen to US citizens, how much worse could it be to Palistinians. I had the feeling that someone like Sahara could have been whisked off somewhere and possibly never seen again. That was how I felt.

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