Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Christmas in Bethlehem and Palestine

Well, our group has returned to Cairo from Israel and Palestine, and what a trip it was. From the Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity to Climbing the Mount of Olives, I have a lot of stories to share with you. I have so much to tell about the last week I am planning on writing three journal entries. The first will be about our time in Bethlehem and Palestine, the second will be about out day trip to Galilee, and the third will be about our time in Jerusalem.

We began our trip at a bus station in Abbasaya, a neighborhood of Cairo. We loaded all our bags onto a bus and took an overnight trip to Taba, the Egyptian town on the border with Israel. We left at about 11PM. The bus was not heated and the door was broken so there was a frigid breeze wafting across all of our faces. Despite the brightly lit “No Smoking” sign, the bus driver himself lit up cigarette after cigarette and we all had to endure them. Most of us barely got any sleep. The bus did have a television and the bus driver played a tape of an Egyptian movie. I fell asleep during the middle of it and woke to see a B-grade American movie about shark attacks. It was an odd choice for people who are trying to sleep through the night. There’s nothing like hearing screams and seeing blood splatters while trying to get a night’s rest.

At around six in the morning the bus driver kindly dropped us off at the border instead of the bus station, which is a full kilometer away. We drearily shuffled along like zombies to the Egyptian border guards, showed our passports, paid two Egyptian Pounds each to leave the country, and then entered the exit plaza. The exit plaza, like many buildings in Egypt was grungy, and smelled like an ashtray. Several of the guards were smoking and there was no air circulation system. Fluorescent light assaulted our eyes from all directions. We put our bags through x-ray machines and walked through metal detectors. Then we waited for about an hour for the border crossing personnel to show up. There was a lot of confusion because, like any official Egyptian process, nobody knew what was going on… including the border officials. You’d think that by doing this day after day that they would have formed some kind of pattern, but no. A guard came up to our group, collected half of our passports (Why didn’t he get them all? Who knows.) and returned half an hour later with them stamped with departure stamps. Then he told the rest of us to follow him to the arrival side of the building to get our departure stamps. Confused yet? That took another half hour. Finally we were allowed to exit the building after flashing our departure stamps to yet another guard.

In between the departure building in Egypt and the arrival building in Israel is a several hundred-foot stretch of road in a narrow valley with guard towers and barbwire on either side. Craggy, barren mountains flank the road. We covered the distance in a few minutes and then entered the Israeli arrival building.

The building was a stark contrast to the building we had just left in Egypt. The air smelled sweet, nobody was smoking, and the light was soft and inviting. It felt like a food court at a mall in America, and sure enough there was indeed a snack stand across the room, just outside the inspection area.

A teenage, female security guard with a sullen face was waiting for us just behind a counter at the door. She asked us where we were coming from, where we were going, what we had been doing in Cairo, and various other questions before allowing us to pass along to the x-ray machines and metal detectors. The whole time she bore a face of suspicion.

My large backpack passed through the x-ray machine and then another young female guard searched it thoroughly. She used a wand with a small sheet of fabric on the end and swiped it across the handles, and in every zippered opening. When she finished, she fed the fabric into a machine, which probably searched for traces of bomb chemicals. If you fly often, you have probably seen this type of device at the airport. Apparently I checked out because she told me to continue with the process.

Then we waited in line at two kiosks. Two teenage, female security guards sat inside the kiosks and interviewed us one at a time, asking the same questions we had heard before. Where are you going? What are you doing there? Where did you come from? When they seemed satisfied they stamped our passports with Israeli entry stamps. Teri got held up for close to an hour because she had stamps from Syria and Lebanon in her passport from her trip through the Middle East over a year ago. They did more extensive background checks on her. They asked for home phone numbers, addresses and other specific information.

I knew before I went to Israel that all Israelis are required to perform some sort of military service at the age of eighteen. I still think I wasn’t prepared for how young these ladies were that were guarding the border. And they were all surely armed.

Eventually we were permitted to leave the arrival building, flash our passports to another teenage, female security guard, and then we were in Israel and the further contrasts to Egypt were mind-boggling. Taxi drivers with sleek, white Mercedes Benz’s outfitted with black leather were waiting just outside. This was quite a shock after riding in beat-up, twenty year old, nasty Fiats for four months. We were originally supposed to take a bus to Jerusalem, but Lynn, our new site-coordinator decided to hire a private van to take us to Jerusalem and then on to our hotel in Bethlehem. The taxi drivers took us to the nearest place we could hire one. Once we secured out private driver we drove north along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

We stopped at a rest station that claimed to be at the lowest point in the world, 394 meters below sea level. We resumed our drive and several hours later we arrived at a large concrete wall, about 20 feet tall. It was the infamous “apartheid wall” that has been making headlines for a long time now. It is the wall that the Israelis are building between themselves and the Palestinian Territories. Sadly they are building the wall quite a bit inside the internationally recognized border of Palestine, making it a very illegal land grab of Palestinian lands. There will be more on that later. Our driver showed his identification to the Israeli soldier at the guard post just outside the wall, got the “okay” to enter, and then we headed through. As we passed through the gate we entered Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian control.

I was quite surprised at how wonderful Palestine was. I expected Bethlehem to be a war ravaged place, but instead I found a very modernized city with clean streets (much cleaner than Cairo I can assure you), and friendly people just trying to go about their lives. Our driver dropped us off at our hotel, The Casa Nova. It is a nice hotel that is actually attached to The Church of the Nativity. The Roman Catholic Church runs the hotel. The rooms were austere, with just a bed, a window and a bathroom, but were very comfortable. The only decoration I remember was a small crucifix on the wall. They were exactly what a pilgrim needs, a place to rest without any distractions.

Jay, Stephen, Eric and I set off on foot once we dropped our bags off in our rooms. The weather was cold and the streets were wet from a recent rain. Light gray clouds obscured the sun and drizzled light rain on us as we walked. We were surprised at the vistas of rolling hills that the buildings of Bethlehem covered. The city stretched away into the distance as far as we could see. I have never seen a city that was built so densely on such a large number of close hills. We found a café and each had a cup of coffee. The Palestinians were extremely friendly. After a while we returned to the hotel and gathered with the rest to go to dinner.

That’s when Teri discovered that her purse was nowhere to be found. After an exhaustive search Teri realized she had left her purse in the van that brought us to Bethlehem. Unfortunately it contained her passport, credit cards, digital camera and all her cash. Fortunately Lynn had presence of mind to get the driver’s card before he left us so we did have a way to contact him. We called him and sure enough it was in his van. He said it was missing the cash and camera, but everything else was there. He claimed that he took a group of nine people from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border and that they must have stolen the cash and camera. He offered to bring the purse and its contents back to us that night for the low, low price of 150 dollars.

Lynn was meeting with our tour guide for the next day and they were wrapping up their discussion when all of this went down. Fortunately the guide, Nadil (NAH-dul) stuck around and spoke to the driver for us. He made the arrangements for the driver to come back, and once he got off the phone he contacted the police. He said the driver’s story wasn’t adding up and he suspected the driver had everything from the purse. The police arrived, made a report and told us to call again when the driver arrived.

In the mean time we went to dinner at Niveen’s house. Niveen is a Palestinian and recent graduate from Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. She knew that the Young Adult Volunteers were visiting Bethlehem, and invited us over to her family’s house for dinner. She said it had become a sort of tradition to invite the YAV’s over for a meal. Niveen lives with her mother and sister in a small, but cozy home. They served us an incredible meal of chicken, brown rice, and various traditional Palestinian dishes. They truly lavished us with incredible Middle Eastern hospitality. After dinner, we sat in the living room and chatted. Niveen explained to us that she had arranged for us to visit a nearby Palestinian refugee camp on Christmas Day. I have never quite understood the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis (and still don’t to be honest), so I was interested to learn more and looked forward to the tour of the camp.

Later we said our goodbyes, returned to the hotel, and renewed our struggle to get Teri’s purse back. The driver was due to return to the hotel at 11:30PM and he arrived just about on time. The driver called the front desk to let us know he was on his way up, and since the hotel manager knew what was going on he immediately called the Palestinian police to let them know the driver had returned. Shortly after the driver came through the front door the Palestinian police arrived and began asking the driver questions. While that was going on I got my flashlight and decided I would take a little look in the guy’s van. I was hoping against hope that he had just left Teri’s stolen camera on the dashboard or on a seat. Sadly I looked through all the windows and did not find any incriminating evidence. I returned to the lobby to find the driver looking very awkward and unhappy to have been surprised with a visit from the police. The police interviewed him to get his side of the story, but told us later that they didn’t believe him, that there were holes in his story. For instance he could not describe even one person from the group of nine people that he supposedly took from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border. He didn’t even try.

The police dragged him off to the police station. They probably enjoyed being able to bully around an Israeli citizen, but in the long run they had no authority over him, and could not arrest him. All the while Dick, Lynn’s husband wanted to do the honorable thing and actually pay the guy for his trouble of actually bringing back the purse and its remaining contents, since that is what was agreed upon. The police said they didn’t know why he wanted to do that, but if he was going to do it, he shouldn’t give him any more than $35. Dick, Teri and I walked with the policemen to the police station and confronted the man. He was very unhappy. Dick ended up giving the guy about $70. This was incredibly generous since the police told us we should not have paid more than $150 for the drive from the border to Bethlehem. Lynn had paid $400. The driver took off the moment he had the cash in hand. Teri, Dick and I tried to negotiate with the police to try and get a police report. We wanted it because we might have gotten some kind of insurance coverage, but the police were being difficult on this point. Eventually Teri became very frustrated and stormed out of the police office, effectively ending the argument. It was not a happy night for any of the people involved, but at least we got Teri’s passport and credit cards back. I just hoped that we could start fresh on the next day. I do have a greater appreciation for the words “Palestinian Authority” after having been in one of their police stations late at night.

The next morning we woke up and began our morning by walking next door to The Church of the Nativity, the church that is built on the site where Jesus was born. To enter the church, we had to stoop through a low doorway. Originally it was a large gothic arched entryway, but sometime through the centuries it was bricked up leaving only a small opening. The thought was that you should enter the church humbly by bowing. The low doorway makes sure that you do that. Upon stepping through the small door I found myself in a large, spacious sanctuary, built out of stone blocks and columns. Sunbeams were visible as they shown through high windows and glowed in the faint smoke of incense. In the middle of the sanctuary several wooden planks had been removed to expose mosaic tiles from the sixth century. The side walls, columns, and the floor were rather plain with no decorations or paintings, but the front wall is decked out in the finest Greek Orthodox decorations eyes can see. Intricately carved wood, paintings of Mary and Jesus, shiny oil lamps, enormous chandeliers, and all kinds of knick-knacks made out of silver, gold and jewels all mashed together to make one big visual mess. I found most of the places we went to that were run by the Greek Orthodox were the same way. It’s almost as if they were thinking, “If we add all of this outrageous stuff surely people will think this is a holy place.”

The sanctuary widened at the front end. Our tour guide led us far to the right and then down some stone steps into a small door. The small stone chamber inside was the traditional site of the stable where Jesus was born. On the right, in a low alcove with yet more lavish decorations, a silver starburst glistened on the floor indicating the exact place Jesus was born. Directly opposite the starburst and down a few steps was another low, stone alcove, the manger Jesus was laid in. In western Christianity we have always seen representations of the manger as being made out of wood. In Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth mangers were made out of stone.

When we exited the chamber and returned to the sanctuary, our guide told us that in years passed a line had stretched all the way from the manger, through the sanctuary and out the front door of the church. People used to wait for hours to see what we had just seen. He said that aggressive Israeli actions had scared away tourists from Palestine and this was evident in our immediate access to the manger. This was good for us as tourists, but bad for the tourism industry of Bethlehem, which was once the largest industry in the city.

From there we proceeded to the next sanctuary. The church is an amazing complex of sanctuaries and worship spaces, each one under the care of a different church. The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the Armenian Orthodox each have their own sanctuaries within the Church of the Nativity. The Roman Catholic sanctuary is the newest sanctuary, built in the late eighteen hundreds, and is where the Christmas Eve mass is broadcast from. The television crews were already setting up cameras and cranes in anticipation of the service.

Our tour guide took us back out into Manger Square where people were milling about, waiting for the eminent Christmas parade in which scout troops from all over Palestine march in to loud drum beats and the tunes of bagpipes. Our guide got permission for us to view the parade from a balcony where nobody else was allowed to go. We had a great vantage point to see the colorful uniforms and hear the celebratory Christmas carols played by marching bands. Young Arab men lined the street to see what all the commotion was about.

After the parade ended, our guide, Nadil led us to a public bus stop where we boarded a bus and rode to the site where three shepherds were visited by an angel and told to visit the baby Jesus. I don’t remember the name of the community where the field is, but Nadil told us a funny story about it. He said that the community is small and well known for its gossipy nature. He said the angel knew what it was doing by selecting shepherds from that community because the word of Jesus’ birth would certainly get around. We all got a nice laugh out of that. The site is on the side of a hill that looks down onto a field. It is just next to the rocky, barren Judean Desert. Tradition holds that the shepherds were sleeping in a cave when the angel visited them, and that cave has been converted into a worship space. On a nearby rise sat a chapel resembling a tent. An Italian architect who is famous for his designs all throughout the Holy Land designed it. Inside there were beautiful narrative paintings depicting scenes from the story of Jesus’ birth. The chapel had great acoustics so we all sang “Angels We Have Heard On High” and it sounded beautiful.

From there we returned to Manger Square to watch the Patriarch of Jerusalem enter The Church of the Nativity. It was a long wait with little payoff. I never even saw the patriarch.

We went to several nearby sites including the Milk Grotto. Supposedly Mary nursed Jesus there, and a drop of her milk hit the ground and turned the rock white. Unfortunately it is another ostentatious site run by the Greek Orthodox Church whose oil lamps have now coated the once-white rock with a disgusting black coating of crud. There were framed letters on the wall from men and women who were unable to have children, but later conceived after visiting the Milk Grotto. I regarded this site with more than a little skepticism.

In the evening we attended The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church for our first Christmas Eve service. It was cold and raining heavily as we walked to the church and once we got there, the sanctuary was already overflowing with cold, sopping wet congregants. High above the main aisle was a dome painted light blue with black Arabic written along the outer edge saying, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Jen and Teri managed to find two seats on a pew next to the main aisle, so I stood next to them with other people who were unable to find seats. The service was held variously in English, German and Arabic. The sermon was entirely in German, but we were able to get printed copies of it in English. My favorite part of the service was singing the Christmas carols. At that point language didn’t matter. We all knew the same carols, just with different words. It was a really neat experience to sing with people from all over the world, each singing in his or her own tongue. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.” As we sang “Silent Night,” the lights in the church were lowered and the ministers began lighting each of the congregants’ long, slender, white candles. Before long, the sanctuary was lit with nothing but candlelight, providing a very solemn, yet anticipatory end to the service. We shuffled out, bearing our candles into the world.

The church held a reception in its fellowship hall where Jay met a Palestinian man who was Roman Catholic, and owned his own hair salon. Jay jokingly said that the man should cut my hair since I was long overdue. Then the man said, “Well, we have a few hours before the midnight mass starts. Why don’t you come with me to my salon?” I immediately took him up on his offer. Jay looked stunned and amused that I seriously took him up on the offer but said he would go with me. Then Jen and Teri decided to come along too, out of sheer curiosity I am sure.

He led us a few blocks to his salon, which had four chairs and was colorfully painted. He told us he decorated the place himself with a theme of 18th century composers. It was cold and damp in the salon, but the man lit two gas heaters and the place was toasty warm in no time. Half an hour later he had completed my haircut, taking no direction from me. He insisted he was a professional and that whatever he did would be great. It didn’t bother me because I’m not picky about my hair. I just knew I needed a haircut. I settled up with him, thanked him, and then we rushed off to dinner.

After dinner our group joined the rest of the people from our hotel in the lobby, waiting for the moment that we could enter The Church of the Nativity. As I mentioned before, the hotel is attached to the church, and conveniently it has a back door into the church. Eventually we made our way through the door, and wound through a maze of hallways before coming once again to the Roman Catholic sanctuary. Again I was astounded by the amount of people that were present and awed by the thought of all the countries that were represented. The mass was held in Latin while the sermon was delivered in Arabic.

About halfway through the mass, there was a commotion at the door. There was a light amount of applause from the back of the sanctuary, and a few seconds later the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas walked purposefully down the center aisle to the front row and sat down… about twenty feet from where I was standing. A few minutes later the sea of people in which I was standing was infiltrated by several brawny secret service agents, complete with clear, coiled earpieces, and wrist microphones. They began scanning the faces of the crowd and examining the building for anything, or anyone that might harm the president.

Abbas is most certainly a Muslim, so you might ask why he was attending a Roman Catholic Christmas Eve mass. Well, you might say relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestine are unique. Since the Israelis are oppressing both groups, I suppose they have found a kind of common goal… to free Palestine. From my limited exposure to the situation, I found that Muslims and Christians get along quite well in Palestine. I am sure that Abbas simply wanted to show solidarity with the Christians of Palestine.

The service ended at about 1:30AM and we made our way back to the hotel. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and then I went straight to bed because I was exhausted.

On Christmas Morning I woke up and didn’t feel very well. I had been developing a sore throat during recent days. I think it was brought on from the cigarette smoking bus driver on the ride from Cairo to Taba. Then the damp cold weather of Palestine exacerbated it. I just didn’t feel like getting out in the rain again, so I passed on the morning service the others were going to back at the Lutheran Christmas Church. I rested up throughout the day and then decided I should go to the Palestinian refugee camp even though it was still raining. It was something I knew I just shouldn’t pass on.

We met Niveen and her friend in the lobby of our hotel and took a bus taxi to the camp. Again I was surprised to find that the area was in better shape than I thought it would be. Niveen’s friend is a resident of the camp and he showed us around. He showed us some amazing graffiti paintings commemorating people who had been killed by the Israelis over the years. One was of a twelve year old boy who was shot down for throwing rocks. Imagine that. Heavily armed Israeli Defense Forces gunned down a child throwing rocks. Doesn’t sound like the boy was much of a match does it?

Niveen’s friend took us to his home where he and eleven of his family members live. His father recounted to us his childhood memories of being kicked out of his home in 1948, the year Israel was created. He said he had only been back to his hometown a few times since then and the place is now nothing but farmland. He insisted that he didn’t care who was in charge of his country, whether it was Palestinians or Israelis, he just wanted his home back. To this day he maintains hope that he will one day return to his hometown.

Then Niveen took us to an organization that has gotten substantial funding from foreign countries to help educate Palestinian children and maintain the memory of what the Israelis did to their people. They also spread the word about the difficulties the Palestinian people face. The organization works mainly through the arts, through a dance troop. The leader of the organization started out with a small group of middle school and high school aged kids, taught them how to dance, and wrote a show that explains the story of Palestinian struggle through dance. They have since taken the show all over the world and attracted all kinds of attention. The program has grown in leaps and bounds because of it. He said they had just returned from a tour through the United States.

The tour of the refugee camp wrapped up our last full day in Bethlehem. We returned once more to the hotel and slept one more night in the Casa Nova.

We woke early the next morning and met our new tour guide who was to take us to the sites around the Sea of Galilee. We climbed into his van and hit one more site before leaving the wall around Bethlehem: the wall itself. The wall is made of 20-foot high concrete slabs. It has already accumulated a good bit of Palestinian protest graffiti, condemning Israel and calling out something that you would think more people would notice. Some clever person made an analogy of the apartheid wall to the walls of the Warsaw ghetto, the place where Jewish refugees lived during the Nazi era before they were dispersed to concentration camps. An interesting perspective don’t you think?

In my next journal entry I will continue with our day trip to the Sea of Galilee.

Several weeks ago I wrote about a man that I work with at The Synod of the Nile named Anise. He was hit by a car while crossing the street just outside the Synod office and has been in a coma ever since. I received sad news today that he passed away on Friday. Anise was a very nice man and the Synod folks will miss him dearly. I only knew him for a short time, and even with a language barrier I could tell that he was an important part of God’s work in that place. He will truly be missed.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you as always for your prayers.

Yours in Christ,

No comments: