‘Tis the season for us to hear the word “Bethlehem” often. From Christmas cards and stories proclaimed, we commonly imagine a quaint “little town” surrounded by moonlit shepherds’ fields. This Fall, I spent three months living right next to Bethlehem, and walked its streets many times. I fell in love with it. Here is a description of my last day there that might explain why.
Before leaving my room, I needed to make sure I had my passport. That’s the first thing to know about Bethlehem today. It is in the Palestinian Territories or West Bank and is separated from Israel and nearby Jerusalem by a wall that Israel erected in 2004 to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and to stake its claim on more land that had belonged to Palestinian people. With my American passport, I could go in and out of Bethlehem. Most Bethlehem residents, however, cannot.
I enter Bethlehem through a 120-foot enclosed pathway that leads to two vertical turnstiles that extend from floor to ceiling. Emerging into daylight I am greeted by twenty or so taxi drivers eager and sometimes desperate for business. I love to walk, and try to find a way to refuse their offer without aggravating them. It’s not easy to do, and sometimes they follow me on foot demanding to know where I want to go. I learned that ignoring them is the worst thing to do, as one driver told me, “Why won’t you look at me? You disrespect us when you will not talk to us. You tourists come with money in your pockets and you don’t even notice the people around you.” I responded by apologizing and saying, “I do respect you, but I’m afraid that talking will make you think I want a taxi and I really don’t want a taxi.” After hearing me out, he said, “Thanks for talking to me; now I feel respected by you.” After that, I always said something, “La Shukran” (“no thank you”) or “Not today,” but honestly it never got easy and I was always relieved to get past them.
That day my destination was the L’Arche Community, which is close to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, about another forty minutes’ walk. At L’Arche, people with intellectual disabilities and people without those disabilities work together, making Christmas crafts out of wool from Bethlehem sheep. The first time I walked into their building, I was just looking to buy a gift or two. Instead, I was greeted by a worker who invited me to stay for lunch, and after lunch others invited me to stay and help make woolen nativity sets. I loved it; I went back about once a week.
The first stretch of the walk from the checkpoint to Manger Square and L’Arche is along the barrier wall. The Bethlehem side of this wall is covered with rather sophisticated graffiti, some satirizing world leaders unsympathetic to Palestinians and others glorifying Palestinians who have shown courage in the face of their oppression. On the wall are drawings of children jumping rope with barbed wire, a dove with an olive branch in its mouth and a bullet-proof vest around its torso. One drawing after the next expresses frustration with the way things are.
Getting closer to the center of town, I pass a gift shop owned by a good-hearted Bedouin man named Majdi. I bought a few things from him early on, but even when I do not he always welcomes me inside and pours me a small Dixie cup of Arabic coffee from his thermos. If he can, he offers to drive me where I’m going. Over the months, we became friends and I know I will miss him.
Leaving Majdi, I walk the “Pilgrim’s Road” to Manger Square, the path that tradition holds Mary and Joseph walked in their search for lodging, and which today thousands walk on Christmas Eve on their way to Midnight Mass. Often, I stop at a fruit stand to a buy a few pomegranates. An icon studio where I took classes and made friends is also on this road. Just before reaching Manger Square, I hear the sound of shopkeepers selling beautiful textiles and leather goods, and Arab treats like chicken shawarma, hummus, and desserts drenched in honey.
Before getting to L’Arche, I stop to visit the Church of the Nativity, where underneath the altar is a spot that marks the birthplace of Jesus. The line to touch this spot is, as usual, very long, so I just stand near the exit and watch people as they emerge from this holy place, some clearly touched by God and others looking unimpressed, like they were just leaving McDonalds.
I leave the church and walk through Manger Square, down the hill to the west. In five minutes, I am at L’Arche. I roll up my sleeves to work at a table with about five others. I wish so much that I had studied a little Arabic before coming so I could do more than smile and laugh and hum along to music. Somehow over the weeks, despite my language deficit, a connection was made. One person near me, Haddid, said something in Arabic and the assistant who knew some English told me, “She said that you seem really happy to be with us.” I was touched, and thought the same could be said of Jesus, after being born in Bethlehem.
It is my last day at L’Arche. I say good-bye and tears come to my eyes and theirs. I had loved them and been loved by them despite not being able to talk with them. Wet-cheeked, I walked back to Manger Square where they are testing the lights of the huge Christmas Tree they had set up outside the Church of the Nativity. As I was feeling both the sadness of good-byes and the love of Christmas, taxi drivers saw me and aggressively asked me where I was going. I was polite and tried to make it clear that I just wanted to be left alone, but they would not allow that. Eventually, I had to walk away from that beautiful space just to get away. The moment was gone.
And yet that moment revealed to me something of the essence of Bethlehem today, and why I fell in love with it. The people of Bethlehem suffer from their confinement. It pained me each time I walked out of the city knowing that those who had befriended me could not follow me. I felt compassion for the taxi drivers who can only drive so far, and for Majdi and the people of L’Arche whose spirits stay strong despite all the problems. In experiencing both the pure love at L’Arche and the badgering of desperate taxi drivers, I touched both the joy and the pain of Bethlehem, much like Jesus who was born into a family of pure love before walking into a world that had largely forgotten what love is.