Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Little Town of Bethlehem

On Christmas Eve C and I decided to venture to Bethlehem to experience Manger Square, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Christ, on this holy of holy Christian nights.

We asked the woman that worked at the hotel desk the best way to get there. Our hotel being in West Jerusalem (the 'Jewish side') she advised us to go to Jaffa Gate outside the old city and ask a cab driver who was Arab where to get the Sherut (private bus taxi) to Bethlehem. I inquired further and was told that she didn't know how to get to Bethlehem as "the Jews don't go there". She herself, she told me, hadn't been to Bethlehem for many years.

We thus walked to Jaffa Gate and were promptly directed to a Sherut a few metres away. We waited for other passengers and then the six of us in the mini bus drove about two or three kilometres down tailored US size highways and were dropped off at a huge complex that looked like a cross between Fulsom prison and the world's largest "Home Depot".

This was the entrance to the West Bank and there behind fencing and barriers was the famous security wall that Israel had been building over the last few years.

We had to go through a lengthy walkway, which was encased in wire and fencing finally to emerge at a huge floodlit, empty space which looked like an abandoned parking lot. Then came more walkways, with full body turnstile after turnstile. We finally arrived after some minutes at an enormous tin barn like building the inside of which was bathed in florescent light. We lined up and showed our passports to a bored Israeli soldier encased behind inches of bullet-proof glass and were waived on in perfuntory fashion down another series of turnstiles leading into another fenced metal corridor.

On one side of the walkway was a huge concrete wall 18 metres in height. You are now on the "Palestinian side". The wall was was covered with graffiti which decryed the wall: "Don't Wall Us In!", "Build Bridges Not Walls", "Peace Not Walls", "We Are People Not Animals", "Walls Build Enemies". Some of the graffiti was in English though a great deal of Arab script covered the thing as well as pictures and art grafitti.

Peering from above the wall were watchtowers wherein stood armed soldiers who looked down on you.

When we got out of the "security zone" we were greeted by countless yellow taxis fighting for our fare. Money is hard to come by in the West Bank due to the barrier and limited economic activity. Finding a tourist to drive into Bethlehem was a lucrative venture. We joined in with three Americans to share fare to the town.

One of the Americans who was studying at the American University in Cairo directed our driver in broken Arabic interspersed with English to Manger Square. We arrived at a large concrete impass; the driver said he had to go a 'long way around' to avoid the checkpoint. The US student argued with him about the fare: "you told us it was this much and now you are just taking a long way to charge us more money". The driver protested: "No, I have no license, I must go different way. Not allowed to drive".

He dropped us off at a bottom of a steep hill. Hundreds of people were ascending the road while Palestinian Authority police stood on either side of the lung busting incline.

We arrived at Manger Square and joined a huge throng of thousands and thousands of people. Most of them were young Palestinian men ranging from 13 years of age to their late 20s. They were super keyed up. Every now and then, maybe at a ratio of 7 to 1, were groups of families: a mother and father with small children in tow. Nary a single woman or even groups of women was to be seen.

It was surreal to be in a space that was so completely male and so youthful. It had the feeling of Yonge Street after the Argos won the Grey Cup.

Hanging from the spanking new Palestinian Authority building was a giant drapery sign with Yassar Arafat's photo prominently displayed. It announced in English: "FATAH WELCOMES YOU TO BETHLEHEM", a clear advisory that the more secular Fatah party was in control of the West Bank after the civil war with Hamas the past summer.

The mobs of young guys were jumping around and yelling excitedly: "Hello, hello, welcome!!!" in English. Many of them were wearing the traditional kiffeyeh, the Palestinian scarf that always adorned Arafat's head.

On every rooftop surrounding the square, stood Palestinian Authority snipers, training their guns on melee below. In and around the square stood more Palestinian Authority police, their arms varying from old rifles, AK-47s to broomstick handles cut in half with string hanging from a drilled hole: a poor man's version of a truncheon.

Meanwhile a crowd of Palestinian Christian children, teens and adults stood on the stage erected before the church and sang Christmas carols in Arabic, their songs almost drowned out by the cacaphony of the excited crowd.

C and I walked up away from Manger Square and into the centre of the old town. Left and right of us, plastered across the walls of the town, or pasted onto doorways were 'martyr posters'. These are posters of young men who had elected to die in a suicide bombing and took with them civilians or soldiers. We would have breakfast in cafe each morning in Jerusalem, where one such boy had killed himself and nine people a few years before. Or they may be a young man who died "in battle" with the Israeli Defense Forces. Their faces look at you blankly. They invariably hold an AK-47. Sometimes Mecca is imposed as a background, but mostly the background is Arabic writing coloured green, which extolls their deeds. Sometimes their mother is shown looking up at them as if they are now in paradise.

C and I left. As we walked back down the steep hill large groups of Christian pilgrims of every race, complete with staffs, were ascending past us singing praises and songs of Christ.

We grabbed a cab back to the Security Gate to Jerusalem. This was the gateway back to Israel.

Two days after we went to Bethlehem we talked to two NYU law students who blithely informed us that they were waived through the "security gate" going back into Jerusalem at 3am after religious servcies were over. They told us that the only Arab that got yelled at 'really deserved it, because she was so totally stupid'.

We were not so lucky.

We got out of the cab and went back through the wall walkways and returned to the enormous hanger. In line before us were 7 or 8 Palestinians, including a woman with two toddlers. We stood freezing in cattle pen gates, eye busting florescent light illuminated the entire line-up. A small red light told the person waiting behind a body sized turnstile that the turnstile was unlocked so that they could go through.

We watched as Palestinian after Palestinian waited pushing at that locked gate, frustrated, until the light above finally turned green and the gate was unlocked. But you could see through the turnstile. Once through a disembodied voice belted out instructions in Hebrew, through a loud speaker, telling them to remove their shoes, belt bags etc... and to put it through the x-ray machine. They were then to walk through a metal detector. Then they were to have their documents inspected by someone behind thick glass.

The woman with the toddlers finally made it to the front of the line and was let through. The disembodied voice was this time a woman. She kept screaming and screaming at mother as she removed everything, her high healed boots, belt, hair pins, purse etc...and kept putting it in the x-ray machine over and over. Apparently she was doing something wrong. By now the mother was embarassed, I'm not sure if it was because of the screaming or because she was holding more people up.

Once she had cleared the x-ray she again caused some problem with the detector. The soldier voice yelled and yelled again and the mother had to walk through again and again and again and remove more clothes or jewelry.

She was poised, well dressed, and wouldn't look out of place in a secular dance bar.

I asked the English speaking Arab woman behind us, who was with German friends ,"Do you understand Hebrew? What is she (the solider) saying?" The woman replied: "She is screaming at her for her being stupid. They are so arrogant!" Then she huffed, rolled her eyes and she and the Germans munched away the time on dried fruit bought in the souk of Bethlehem.

After an hour of watching this we got through the turnstile, dutifully removed our shoes and began to remove belts etc... The Israeli disembodied voice called us to the glass, a male soldier, he smiled at us and our offering of Canadian passports and waived us through.

As we walked across the hanger, back to the fencing, back to Israel, we saw the Palestinians who had passed through initial screening earlier. They were lined up at the lone secondary screening booth which was open. They had to be interveiwed again, show and swipe their identity cards, and undergo a live fingerprinting scan.

We left the facility and boarded on one of the many Sheruts which were returning to Jerusalem.

Waiting on the little bus were two European couples. They like us, had elected to leave Bethlehem early and therefore were not wished a Merry Christmas and waived through with the mass of departing tourists. They too had been behind Arabs.

The look on their faces, which was the same as mine, told me this.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Guns! Guns! Guns!

"And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, And their spears to pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift sword against nation; Neither shall they learn war anymore." Isaiah, 2:4

In Israel, you may be taken aback, particularly if you are a Canadian, by the fact that everywhere and at all times everyone has a gun. Not just any gun, but big, big, guns. First off mandatory military service for all Israeli Jews, Druze and Circassians starts at 18. Interestingly enough, Arab Israelis are not required, nor I suspect, wanted to serve. Israeli men must serve 3 years and all women 2 years. Thus a huge proportion of the population is always in uniform. Everywhere you go, soldiers of the airforce, army or navy are lounging about bus stations, taking trains or just having coffee. As soldiers are considered to be "always on duty" an Israeli soldier almost always walks with his or her M-16, complete with scads of live ammunition, strapped to their back.

The first time I came across a sleepy young soldier dozing in a train I kept looking nervously at the M-16 I had to brush against to get past him to my seat. I was worried that he was worried why I kept staring at him. I finally said: "Sorry I am Canadian, I am not used to guns." He laughed and stretched his back and arms: "Yes it is for our protection, we are surrounded." and cradling his large weapon, went back to a happy sleep.

But soldiers are not the only gun-toting folk in Israel. Average civilians are allowed to carry anything they want. "Birthright Israel", a group that offers free trips to Israel to American Jewish teens in the hopes of getting them to emigrate, is always guarded in front and in back, by civvie clothed men, who look something like WWII partisans, sporting rifles and watching everyone one who approaches their flock like a hawk. At Masada I went near a group on a tour, sporting sunglasses for the desert glare and an "audioguide" strapped to my neck; a fierce and suspicious glance from "gun boy" was enough to send me away from my destination to daly at some boring stone 'mikvah' bath site rather than the Roman ramparts I longed to see.

Compare this vigilance with the strange youth hostel we stayed at, at the Dead Sea, close to the border of the West Bank. There, the night manager guy, a tranced out and clearly completely stoned young hippie dude, his long hair curled up by way of string in a fountain form, sported a huge Glock pistol stuffed in the belt of his quite faded fatigues. The contrast between the Glock and the "marijuana plant" emblem shirt and "ganja" smell he eminated was almost surreal. When I jokingly suggested he shoot the soccer ball the trillion unsupervised teens were repeatedly kicking against the outside wall of our room (they were using it as the 'goal-post') his faced turned a weird and angry lava lamp red: "I am here to protect them, why would I shoot their ball...?"

Then there is the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem. Over the walls are countless "martyr" posters. These are posters with photos of suicide bombers or other boys who threw themselves on civilians or Israeli positions simply to be blown into pieces and take others with them. They invariably show a very young man holding an AK-47 or other gun before a greenish background, sometimes showing Mecca, and othertimes showing some female relative looking up to them and their new beatitude, as many believe that once you die in such a way, you will ascend immediately to heaven. The writing which accompanies the poster exalts their deeds.

Guns, guns, guns.