Bethlehem blues

Travel diary, day 2 of 14

A huge red sign inviting Israelis to keep out. Monks, nuns, and churches of all kinds- Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, you name it. Extremely insistent taxi drivers, persistent curious ladies, overly friendly passers-by. A fairly weird museum. The reassuring sound of Arabic. Barbed wire, olive wood, mother of pearl, bright blue metal doors. Narrow pavements, men in prayer, super Christian Asian tourists, a strong Italian presence. Delicious smells.

Beit Elolahama, the house of bread also known as Afrata or fertile, could at first glance look like nothing more than a holy site: from the Nativity Church (under restoration until the end of 2017) claiming to include Jesus’ exact place of birth in its underground labyrinth, to Manger Street, to the Milk Grotto where Mary is said to have spilt some milk which turned rock into a luminous white stone, with a stop on a beautiful panoramic terrace, there’s enough to keep you distracted. If you don’t want to see any further, that is.

Walk for twenty minutes in the right direction and you’ll see the 8-metre-high wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Talk to the right people and you’ll learn stuff. For example, you may discover that this cute little city of 30,000 surrounded by villages that bring the total to around 300,000 Palestinians (info given by Bethlehem-born سعيد ) hosts a refugee camp for those who were illegally evicted to give space to Jewish settlements on top of the hill; or that the average Bethlehem-based Palestinian is only allowed into Jerusalem once every three or four months, and during daytime only, or will otherwise have to spend a month in prison and/or (I didn’t get that!) pay a fine of 10,000 sheqels i.e. approximately 2,000 USD or 2,500 euros. On the bright side, there are NGOs that work to get Palestinians exceptional permits; but it’s a very small consolation when, سعيد tells us, outside of the West Bank even health professionals discriminate based on ethnicity and religion.

The hierarchy is clear: American Jewish people at the top, Arab Muslims at the bottom, and a detailed ranking in between, starting from European Jews on the silver podium followed by Russian, East European, African and Arab Jews…

We keep chatting in the warm afternoon sun, as cats eye us suspiciously, tourist guides do their business, and UN cars go by. سعيد is on a roll. We learn that the best hospitals are in Israel, but that Palestinians have to pay three times as much as Israelis because they’re treated as foreigners. That twenty years ago, before the second intifada, you could obtain Israeli citizenship by marrying someone who had it – but now not anymore. That work is hard to find within the West Bank, but also hard to get outside of it: 700USD/month is the cost of a work permit for a Palestinian in Israeli land. “There is no future”, he says. “Fight is coming“.
Near the wall, covered in colourful graffitis for the entirely of its length, we find Wi’am, Palestinian conflict resolution/transformation centre. I quote from its informative leaflet:

Wi’am is a grassroots organization located in Bethlehem, Palestine, and has been in operation since 1994. Since its inception, Wi’am has been a place for conflict transformation, restorative justice and mediation. This type of mediation focuses on the Arab tradition of reconciliation, called Sulha … Wi’am is …also a community center for peace building, sustainable development, empowerment and hope. …

OUR CONTEXT – Economic depression: closure of Jerusalem and checkpoints, high unemployment, confiscation of land and economic deterioration. – Peace process stagnation: mistrust and misconceptions of the other. – Environmental degradation: building of the separation wall, deforestation, dumping of toxic chemicals and lack of water. – Domestic violence: increased tension within the family combined with dignity being assaulted on a daily basis. – Traumatized children: children have grown up with soldiers searching their hags, bombs exploding and relatives in prison. 80% of our children show signs of trauma. – General demoralization and factionalism: emigration trends, depression, and hopelessness. – Youth struggles: delinquency, drug abuse and unemployment.

All of these things are interrelated and create and increase in tension. In addition, our society is living in a constant state of uncertainty with always a risk of potential violence. We are living in a pressure cooker situation.

The wall. It has a strange shape, you know? And a strange mood to it, too, Banksy artworks and what not. It was started in 2004 and keeps growing. It arbitrarily reduced Bethlehem’s area and it is said that Israel wanted it to include a winemaking monastery, too, but found the Pope’s firm opposition.

Our Wi’am interlocutor answers other questions of ours, too: yes, there are Palestinian passports – but they are not valid for entry in Israel; yes, Palestine has a democratically elected President, but recently elections have been skipped because of the instability of the situation; yes, laws here are different from Israel’s, and actually also from Gaza’s; there are universities in the West Bank and many foundations including the Italian Franciscan foundation provide scholarships for Palestinians to study abroad.

Other questions, he has no answers for: why is Bethlehem spelled like “house of meat” in Arabic – is that really what it means?? Why did so many Christian Palestinians migrate to Chile, a few decades ago? Two questions we also do not dare to ask: how do Jewish men get their forelocks to be so perfectly curly? And what about those crazy big furry black hats we have seen around so much in Jerusalem?

We walk through the checkpoint at the end of the wall to get our bus back to Jerusalem: it looks like a slaughterhouse, yet on weekdays we know it to be much, much, much worse. Now the salmon pink and yellow rooms are empty, there’s barely any security and the guard doesn’t even look at our passports – he knows we’re foreigners and that’s all he wants to know. It’s sunset, the holy day of Shabbath has started; back in the city, just 9km away, we wander down King David Street and get to the Giant Christmas Bazaar at the local -magnificent- YMCA, with fake snow, the most amazing Christmas tree, joyful families and adorable arts and crafts. Once again I find the absurdity of the political, religious, and social situation of the few square kilometres around us appalling and nearly unspeakable, something I can’t really get to grips with.

We carry within us two light thoughts: the fun title of the book “Yo, Judas” spotted in our hostel’s library; and the epic question… who is Sally?!?

77 absolutely stunning pictures HERE 😉


Food of the day: “continental breakfast”; falafel sandwich; Nutella crèpe; Ethiopian veggies + meat +anjera meal.

5 thoughts on “Bethlehem blues

  1. Irene, Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. The irony of the “Little town of Bethlehem” we sing about this time of year as being a place of hope having little hope for those who live there now is haunting me. Especially here in the US, we are so isolated from other views of the world. It is refreshing, and sadly heart-breaking to hear your reports from the other side of the globe. Keep writing my friend and treasure your gift, (and it truly is) of being able to make the invisible visible to those of us who are not there. If you were closer, I know Elmer would want to recruit you as a journalist. You have the talent and sensibilities for it. Take Care. Until we meet again. Thea’s Mom

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww thank you SO much, “Thea’s mum” 😉 Your words are really important to me, I can’t stress how much. I’ll treasure them dearly and…if I ever plan on relocating to the US, I’ll make sure I get in touch with Elmer about work!! Hope to meet you again soon. You always have a home in Italy (and I always carry with me my cozy blanket from Buffalo)! Love xx


  2. Thanks Irene…You will always have a place here if you travels head you this way again, but be careful what you offer with the crazy election season here in the States you might find us on your doorstep in Italy some morning…. Sandi


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