of tear gas, Banksy and Jesus.
Quaint churches with rising steeples, sacred tombs, holy mangers and besotted tourist-pilgrims, our trip to Bethlehem last weekend covered all the expected sights. Starting at Manger Square, the central hub, we took in the Church of the Nativity on one side and the Mosque of Omar on the other. Once inside the Nativity Church we visited the grotto where Mary gave birth to her son and saw the lantern-lit manger. We watched an open-topped coffin being carried past as mourners attended a funeral. We visited the Milk Grotto where a splash of breast milk is said to have turned the red stone a chalky white. And we climbed onto the roof of a traditional olive wood factory and marvelled at the beauty of the surroundings.
After lunch (falafel ofc) we went to see the other side of Bethlehem, literally; the Israeli West Bank Barrier. We had driven past it earlier in the day (being over 700km long it is hard not to do so), but wanted to see it up close and look at the famous graffiti along it. On approach you cannot mistake the sheer size and scale of the wall; endless concrete blocks in straight rows up to 8 metres high, it is domineering and unsightly, think Berlin only taller and longer, much longer.
Along the bottom however, also in stark similarity to the Berlin Wall, brightly coloured images, slogans and drawings immediately caught the eye; from the vast and recognisable work of Banksy, to a single scribbled word; ‘hope.’
Along the wall was a sign and an arrow, ‘Banksy shop 200m,’ of which we followed accordingly. However, as we drew closer, we heard shots being fired in the distance accompanied by a strong smell of what we thought to be petrol. Before we had a chance to react, a Palestinian man called out to us to come and wash our faces from an outdoor water pipe. We did so, but the smell had gotten into our noses and lungs and was starting to burn our eyes. We didn’t have time to panic before we were ushered across into a small shop, which our party filled completely. Inside we were offered cologne to inhale to get rid of the fumes, strong coffee and tissues (at this point I had make-up streaming down my face which added to the stinging in my eyes!).
Our ‘rescuers’ informed us that the Israelis had fired tear gas into a group of protesters on the other side of the wall. We were far from the intended targets, but the strong winds had carried the fumes across and into the civilian area. I do not wish to get political here but after experiencing the effects from at least 100 metres away, the idea of any report of tear gas used at close range on children makes me feel physically sick.
Palestinian spirit and deterministic nature is readily found, despite the hardships and tribulations its people face on a constant basis. In Bethlehem we heard stories of repression and suffering and found ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. But we also saw evidence of passion and dedication and experienced kindness and humility.
We covered all the expected sights, and some of the unexpected too.
As a final note;
This image (above) is an example of an olive wood carving. On the right hand side is the typical nativity scene featuring Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. On the left hand side are the wise men and their camels, bringing frankincense and myrrh.
However, in a wonderful irony, they are halted from reaching the stable due to the wall in between them.