Tuesday, October 22, 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem: A Place That Revolves Around the Two Things You Should Never Discuss

I crossed the Israeli-Palestinian border into Bethlehem expecting a religious experience, and what I ended up having was a surprisingly political one. When my driver -- a 41-year-old Kuwait native who now considers the State of Palestine, what's left of it, to be his home and homeland -- asked me if I knew about the significance of Bethlehem, I couldn't believe the question. Who doesn't know about the significance of Bethlehem?!

"Of course, I do," I answered, as we arrived at Bethlehem's reason for being for most tourists: the Church of the Nativity. To be frank, the Church's entire set-up seemed so arbitrary. How would anyone know that is the exact spot where Mary gave birth to baby Jesus, or that was where Mary and Joseph placed the manger, a few meters away?

I'm assuming that birth certificates weren't filed at the dawn of the first millennium, so no details about the birth of Jesus (from the date to the baby's weight) are indisputable. Unless someone at the birth scene was aware of baby Jesus's future significance, no X would have marked the spot where this and that happened. But I got it: It's more about what it represents than what may or may not have transpired there, hence the woman bawling right outside the birth area and the tourists caressing the overlay on the ground where Jesus supposedly entered the world.

As the church employee who had helped me avoid the long line of tour groups led me from the birth area to the exit, he was unconcerned with my impression of what I'd just seen. He was in a U.S. state of mind, expressing his appreciation of the American way as it encompasses two things: President Barack Obama and black people.

"Can I tell you something?" he asked, moving closer, as if he was about to tell me a deep, dark secret or commit the ultimate act of blasphemy and was afraid that God might hear.

"Of course," I answered, bracing myself for anything.

"I love people with skin like yours, but I hate white people. F**k the white people!" He continued on his up-with-blacks/down-with-whites tangent, throwing in words of praise for Barack Obama, as if I should consider his accomplishments to be my own, until we were outside, surrounded by the very people he was disparaging. I was too stunned to say anything, but I was as horrified by his pronouncements as I was by the fact that he had made them while we were in the holiest of places.

Alas, Barack Obama and black people would end up being the recurring theme of the day. Apparently, black is the new black, as both the color and the most prominent political representation of it since Nelson Mandela are high on the Palestinian "In" list. One of the first things my driver said to me after I revealed my nationality was that I reminded him of someone he knew.

"You have the face of this guy from New York who is my friend on Facebook." I cringed in my shotgun seat, where I'd parked myself after he insisted that I sit in front of his taxi instead of in the back. I knew what he meant. His Facebook friend wasn't my doppelganger, just another black guy. My driver seemed disappointed when I told him that I am not an athlete nor do I have any interest in sports, but he was nonetheless pleased to be in the company of an African-American. Let the politics begin!

"I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama," he said, before launching into a tirade about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.), which, in his eyes, went back to when what he perceives as the former U.S. President's oil interests led him to launch the 1990 Gulf War to save the driver's native country from the clutches of Iraq. So much for gratitude, I thought to myself, though I agreed with pretty much everything he said.

So, apparently, did the man who stopped me as I exited the Bethlehem University campus.

"Are you from the U.S.?"

"Yes."

"George Bush. [He made a thumbs-up gesture with one hand and a blow job one with the other.] Barack Obama [Two thumbs up]."

Got it. Clearly today was going to be all about politics. I knew it from the moment my driver and I arrived at the tourist information center across from the Church of Nativity, and he launched into a monologue about Israel vs. Palestine while using a map that showed how much the State of Palestine dwindled between 1948 and 1967 as exhibits A through D (for the four periods represented on it).

He left me alone for a couple of hours to ponder everything he'd said so far while I walked around Bethlehem's city center. By the time we got to the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I knew exactly what he'd meant when he had asked if I knew the significance of Bethlehem. Because of the Israeli-constructed barrier separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which keeps Palestinians out of the capital city unless they procure special permission from the Israeli government to enter it, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is also a symbol of the ongoing political tension between Israel and Palestine.

I listened intently as he spent nearly one hour explaining to me why he is a man without a country (referring to his adopted homeland), how he can't freely enter his own capital city (Jerusalem, considered to be the capital of Israel or the State of Palestine, depending on which country you're from) and other key Palestinian cities like Hebron and Jericho, and how he hopes to live to see the dawning of a separate-but-equal peace, one in which the two countries can co-exist harmoniously. He's waiting for the day when Palestinians can travel freely between the State of Palestine's cities without having to deal with checkpoints going in and out of the Israeli territory that separates the plots of remaining Palestinian land. He name-dropped Nelson Mandela, comparing the plight of Palestinians to that of African blacks during South Africa's Apartheid era, and called the Israeli-built barrier their own Berlin Wall.

It was a lot to process, and I wanted to be sympathetic without completely letting Palestine off the hook because I'd been conditioned by the media and by Palestine's own actions over the years to think of the country as one that approved of terrorism. The truth, though, is that, like most Americans, I don't know enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was happy to be learning more about it, but before drawing any conclusions, I wanted to hear the Israeli point of view, which, I imagined, likely would have described the wall as security insurance against Palestinian attacks. (Naturally, I kept this idea to myself, not wanting to offend my driver.) Not one person I'd met in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem had ever spoken of it, but for obvious reasons (I watched a man I presumed to be Palestinian being escorted off the bus on the way back into Jerusalem when the woman checking passports took issue with his), it seemed to be the hottest topic in Palestine.

Thankfully, my day in Bethlehem wasn't all about politics. Walking through the old city solo was a highlight of the time I've spent in the Holy Land, if only for the fact that it all seemed so real. Outsiders generally visit Bethlehem in tour groups to cross the Church of the Nativity off of their to-see list. So once you move away from the birthplace of Christ and enter the actual city, what you get is the flip-side of a place like Venice, 95 percent real life.

I felt like the only foreigner in a sea of local authenticity, walking through the marketplace, watching middle-aged Muslim women checking out hoodies with pictures of cats on them as well as the FOX logo (as in the American TV network). In an environment completely dominated by Arab life -- from the music coming out of speakers everywhere, to the CDs and DVDs on sale, to the language used in the menus in the eateries, to the holy prayers I heard coming from some unseen place -- it was the sole evidence of any awareness of U.S. pop culture beyond Obama.

I felt guilty taking photos, like an auspicious interloper, a tourism paparazzo. After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to enjoy the magic moment, experience it, appreciate it, and, most of all, live it.
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