Category Archives: Middle East

Palestine: Day 2, Part 2: Bethlehem and Hebron

Great lunch in Bethlehem followed by a visit to Hebron, an experience in sorrow.

A button expressing my hope for the future.
A button expressing my hope for the future.

Travelers  can find joy and sorrow on the West Bank.

Bethlehem

We visited the International Cultural Center, a youth and cultural center offering education, enrichment, opportunities to build skills the arts, community support and health services to young people, plus a small guesthouse. The complex is one of the hopeful signs of better, more tranquil times to come.

Then we made our way through the old city, which has been significantly restored, for lunch at a restaurant called Afeem, down a little street near Manger Square in Bethlehem. Under vaulted stone ceilings, the staff brought out wonderful renditions of Middle Eastern specialties that we’d had before and would have again. Everything came out family-style, so the narrow table was packed with plates and bowls. The hummus was the best I’ve ever eaten. But the real discovery was lemonade mixed with finely chopped mint. A champion in the thirst-quencher competition.

Hebron

From Bethlehem, we drove to Hebron, a city that was an early hotbed of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of their territory and unprecedented retaliation on the part of the Israeli government, whose army has the big guns in this conflict. The city center is busy and lively, but pairs of armed soldiers stand around, and scores of checkpoints require Palestinians to show identification on demand when traveling around their own city. Palestinians, especially men, are constantly hassled and sometimes jailed for no reason other than the Israeli Army can detain anyone without cause.

Most controversial and provocative are the Jewish settlements plunked in the middle of old city, not on the outskirts as elsewhere. Palestinians have been displaced to make way for these in-town settlements, each surrounded by a high fence or wall and armed soldiers. The population of the three settlements is reportedly somewhere between 300 and 500, with something like 1,000 soldiers to “protect” them. Streets and alleyways that used to go through to and from the market are now blocked off, and hundreds of shops in the old souk have closed, either their metal doors welded shut by the Israelis or abandoned by shopkeepers who no longer had enough business in this tense place.

One of the settlements looms above the centuries-old market. The settlers, fanatics by anyone’s standards, took to throwing trash down on the narrow market paths below. Nets and fencing suspended over the streets (below) now prevent this detritus from hitting passersby. Hebron authorities are so eager to repopulate the old city that they are offering free housing, free schooling and free medical care as incentives to Palestinian families to return to the heart of the old city. It would take that for people to be willing to endure the inconvenience and even humiliation literally and figuratively heaped up them by the small minority of settlers in their midst.

Visitors get an eyeful as they walk through the market, passing many forever-closed shops, en route to Harem el-Kahlil Mosque. It should be sacred to all three major monotheistic religions. It holds the red and white striped Tombs of the Patriarchs — where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and other members of the Biblical family are buried. They are revered by Arabs, Christians and Jews and should be sacred to all.

But it was the site of one of the West Bank’s worst incidents — and there have been a lot of incidents. In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli physician with undisputed credentials as a fanatic, donned his Army reserve uniform, entered to mosque and threw a grenade, killing 29 people and wounding 125. The tragic incident made headlines around the world and has kept tension high for years.

I was very disheartened when we left the mosque and again passed through a floor-to-ceiling metal turnstile watched by an armed soldier and then walked down the net-covered byways and shuttered market stalls, I bought a beaded bracelet in the colors of the Palestinian flag from one of the young street vendors.

It was a sad and sobering afternoon. There are many Israelis and non-Israeli Jews who favor peace talks and peace. But the Israeli government, with its own ideology and many restrictions, makes such talks difficult. I hope something clicks in, that the conservatives and fanatics on both sides lose power and influence, and that future generations will be able to live in harmony and peace. Having spent even a short time in Hebron, it’s not really expectation on my part, but a hoping.

En route out of town, we stopped at a glass and ceramics shop (three photos just below) with one traditional glass-blower showing off his craft for visitors’ camera. Then we briefly visited the Pools of Solomon, an ingenious water storage and delivery system from antiquity. The pools are located in a shaded area that is currently roped off (bottom) while workmen do some restoration or repairs. Across the street is is a newer resort and conference center. Who will visit?, I wonder.

Back to Bethlehem 
In the evening, we had dinner with Palestinian tourism VIPs at the Tent Restaurant back in Bethlehem. I had to make myself chat and socialize, enjoy the group of young dancers and tasty food.
Everything was good, but in truth, I continued to be haunted by what I had seen in Hebron and had trouble focusing on the feast.

West Bank Travels: Day 2, Part 1

Holy sites beckon the faithful — and their digital cameras

We started the morning at Shepherd’s Fields (top image, below), where — according to the New Testament — the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to tell them of Jesus’ birth. Two millennia ago, the shepherds and also their animals spent their nights underground in caves and grottos in the soft limestone. The manger as it is usually depicted is therefore a much later European interpretation of where animals were kept. A hole in the ceiling let air and light in, and smoke out. A metal walkway down the side of the valley enables visitors to see some of these ancient grottos, many with tiny rooms that are now used as chapels for small groups of the faithful to pray or sing. Benches and altars (middle image) have been set up for these groups. On the valley rim is a domed church that we did not have time to visit.

We had breakfast at the nearby Golden Peak Hotel — buffet and chance to meet with some Palestinians involved in various social justice and peace movementsa nd various good works, and also tourist promotion efforts to bring more visitors to Palestine and the West Bank. Nidal Abu Zuluf, who advocates for non-violence as inspired by anti-Apartheid actions in South Africa (and of course, Mahatma Ghani in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in the US) is most impressive. Karios Palestine is a Christian Palestinian document expressing that approach effecting change and bringing about social justice and equality.

The people, who harbor hopes for better times to come, are very different from images of Palestinians we see on our news programs, which tend to report on the violent and the negative. After a decade of military occupation by the Israeli army, the construction high walls all over the landscape to contain Palestinians and the imposition of Jewish settlements in their midst, it is remarkable that anyone can remain positive and try to help their people. But some — many, in fact — do.

The exterior of the Church of the Nativity is not beauitful, so don’t expect something like the grand cathedrals of Europe. The hulking, undorned Byzantine structure has suffered from centuries of abuse that included assasult, neglect and renovations that were often undertaken for defensive reasons. A large doorway, for instance, was made narrower and lower, so that a horse and rider could not enter and also so that men had to bend down to get through and there heads lobbed off if they were unwelcome.

Inside, the atmosphere is less reverential than I remember from a visit during the Society of American Travel Writers convention in Israel some 25 years ago. But that was before digital cameras, which cause people to travel around looking at the world through the image display. I am as guilty as anyone and do it too. People dress more casually now, talk more and more loudly, and are in a greater hurry than they were then. I’m not religious, but then, I lit a candle to honor my Aunt Margaret, the only church-goer in my family. This time, the group zipped through the side room when the candles are now sold and I could not light one in her memory.

I saw a few robed monks and priests and a couple of nuns — far fewer propotionally now than then. A quarter of a century ago, the church seemed like a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. This time, I’m afraid that it felt more like something most tourists cross off their bucket lists.

The main church is cavernous, largely devoid of ancient ornamention but with icons, lots of silver and abundant lights and lanterns that characterize Eastern rite churches.

Under the Byzantine-style Orthodox portion of the double church is a grotto where Mary is believed to have given birth to the Baby Jesus. The spot, a silk/satin-draped niche (below), is marked with a plaque on the floor. Many people get down on hands and knees to touch or kiss the plaque, resulting in many photos of many backsides. Again, small rooms accommodate groups of pilgrims who sit on plastic chairs, praying or singing. A quarter of a century ago, I seem to remember a lot of lit candles and quieter contemplation. Not now.

St. Catherine’s Church, the immediaely adjacent Catholic church built in the 19th century, is somewhat Gothic in inspiration. It has a vaulted ceiling, high clerestory windows and wooden pews, more closely resembling many a Catholic church around the world. Someone is refinishing wood right now, so people were walking through, photographing and even praying to the sound of an electric sander and the smell of varnish. Most people passed though it on their way underground to older grottos, caves and chapels. The upper church and Manger Square are the places from which Christmas Eve Mass is telecast around the world

Underneath is the grotto where St. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) lived and was entombed until the Crusaders stole his bones and moved them elsewhere. He is credited with translating the Bible into Latin. He was said to have been hermit, but he had a housekeeper and her son in the gotto, so he was a hermit wtih at least minimal companionship   — maybe companionship with privileges.

To be continued when I have time.

Palestine: Day 1, A Long Travel Day to Another World

Holy Land media visit starts with a long travel day

At Denver International Airport, I saw the controversial statue of Horus (below), a complicated ancient Egyptian god whose statue has been placed right outside the main terminal in honor of the upcoming King Tut exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. I’m missing the media preview this week because I am en route to Horus’s part of the world, very broadly speaking, to visit Palestine — the West Bank of the Jordan River under Israeli occupation for decades. The media trip is under the auspices of USAID to help promote religious travel to ancient Biblical sites. I am the token secular journalist in a group of faith-based journalists.

Easy flight to Newark, long layover and then comfy transatlantic flight. I used miles and money to upgrade to Continental’s Business/First for the long overnight flight to Tel Aviv.

Arrived in Tel Aviv, met group at airport and boarded bus driven by “Captain” Samr and listened to intro to the Palestinian Territories by Samir Bahbah (below) of the Arab Tour Guides Association. His story exemplifies the complexities of this area. He is a Catholic by religion, Palestinian by nationality and Arab by ethnicity. He grew up and lives in East Jerusalem, so he has a Jordanian passport yet is an Israeli citizen who cannot vote and does not have to serve in the Army.

Our bus traveled through the outskirts of Jerusalem and passed through the first of many security checkpoints, large and small, that we would encounter, directly into Bethlehem, and checked into the Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel (below, top image), a luxury hotel affixed to an opulent villa on the outskirts of the city.

My room (below, bottom) is comfortable but not lavish, yet the public spaces in the old mansion are exceptionally atmospheric. When I went to open my bag, the TSA-compliant lock was gone and the loop on the zipper pull where the lock fit through was broken. Too much time in Newark — or more likely something at the airport here, where enthsiastic Israeli security agents don’t bother with the device that opens TSA-complient locks? I’ll never know, but now, I guess that I’ll have to carry my netbook with me everywhere.

Light buffet dinner during this very low season. A few of us went for a short walk with no evidence of problems for tourists and then returned to the hotel. Room is fine. Bedside table holds a New Testament in three languages (German, English, French) and a Koran in Arabic (below). It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a hotel room with an ashtray! A liter of water was a nice consideration, because the tap water is not potable. Oh, how I wish they’d put a second bottle of water in my room.

And now, a good night.