Bethlehem via Valley of Fire

O Palestine, you of breathtaking beauty and burning trash.  Of indomitable strength and dire need.  As an acquaintance of mine (an incredibly talented photojournalist working here and in Gaza) has said, there is a “spirit and elegance that prevails. Life continues, and so do the traditions and self-respect–a resistance to letting suffering be the standard definition.”

Any tourist can tell you about their trip to Bethlehem.  Every year thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage to the place where Jesus was born and all of us have pictures of the gorgeous old stone Church of the Nativity and some may also have pictures of the Mosque of ‘Umar across the street from the C of N.  To some their nearness is a symbol that Christianity and Islam coexist peacefully in the Holy Land.

What I want to show you is the story of going to Bethlehem.  It’s not simple.  Nothing in Palestine is as simple as it should be.  The Israeli military occupation has turned those roughly 15 miles that separate Bethlehem and Ramallah into nearly 50 miles.

50 winding, narrow miles on a road through an area called Wadi Nar (Valley of Fire) and somewhat shocking glimpses of life in Palestine outside the Ramallah bubble.    On a gorgeous late summer morning I packed my 2 small children and husband up in our car and hit the road for Bethlehem.

Leaving Ramallah we traveled through a part of town I have mentioned before that is a no man’s land. Residents pay Israeli taxes and receive no municipal services and Palestinian municipal services are forbidden.  The result is total chaos:  trash, no building codes, trash, vacant buildings with gaping holes.

This no-man’s land area is also where Qalandia Refugee Camp is and has been since 1949 (outside of the camp pictured below).

As you leave this strange area, you near the infamous Qalandia checkpoint and the separation wall dominates the view.  It is massive.

The road to Bethlehem itself is a story:  Palestinians are forced to take this circuitous, lengthy road because Israel has rerouted Palestinian cars and passengers around it’s illegal settlements.

Not only this but to get to Bethlehem we must pass through at least one checkpoint where bored young soldiers glare at us through their Ray Bans, hands on guns, stopping those who look “suspicious”.  As another expat told me, her obvious ajnabiyeh (foreigner) status comes in handy for checkpoints.  Sit up front, let down your white girl hair and smile with your blue eyes.  You won’t get stopped.  Oh, and DEFINITELY put the camera DOWN near the checkpoint.

As a rule checkpoints make me nervous, just as they are meant to.  And we were unsure of our route, which was even more scary to me.  It is totally possible to get lost and end up on a road you are NOT SUPPOSED TO BE ON headed into a checkpoint that you have no business approaching.   The consequences for such a mistake are arbitrary and ride on whatever the tone of the interaction between you and the Israeli soldier who stops you is, and what kind of day he/she is having.  Our first checkpoint was simple:  it appeared on the road suddenly, looking like 2 toll booths sitting alone in the middle of the road, one for traffic going each direction and each housing a guard behind glass.   Other guards with machine guns dangling from their necks stood nearby (I do mean machine guns, and I do mean dangling).  All were quite young looking.  All faces were bored and blank behind their sunglasses.   They stared into our car but didn’t stop or even slow us down.  I followed my fellow expat’s advice, and I suppose having 2 babies in tow is a clue that we are a non-threat.

Somewhere along the way to Bethlehem the Isolation/Apartheid wall appeared again and ran along a hilltop for much of our trip.  There were ugly guard towers with narrow, anxious little windows looking down on roads to and from settlements everywhere.

There were Bedouins living in sheet metal tents who are nomadic when they are forced to be but until something makes them leave they live semi-permanently in the rocky wadi away from any amenities with their goats roaming and laundry flapping in the dusty breeze.

2 different Bedouin camps

There were strange military looking camps that appeared to be Israeli.   There was a huge fire way out in the middle of nowhere (fires are common in Palestine because lacking land for landfill or municipal funds and organization people burn their trash).  And everywhere taxis (cars are very expensive to own here).

(Below a presumably Bedouin woman with a Bedouin camp behind her hails a taxi)

Then on our way home from Bethlehem, the inevitable:  tired and new to the area, we made a wrong turn.  It was eery the way the taxis disappeared and the road became smooth and all the cars around us were suddenly sporting yellow license plates.  Oh, crap.  I felt a cold panic in my belly.  We were obviously on the wrong road.  There was surely a checkpoint ahead.  My husband was trying to sound calm as we frantically scanned the road for a turnoff.  No turnoff.  Sure enough, awaiting us on the horizon was a big checkpoint.  I was actually pretty scared, and I could not believe we could inadvertently turn onto a checkpoint road with no way out.  I mean, how ridiculous!  If Israel is so big on security, how did we get on the one way road in the first place?  So strange. I put the camera down at the last second, forgetting it was in my hand as we pulled up to a female guard wearing a huge gun, mirrored sunglasses and a “WTF? You must be total idiots” look on her face.   Faris rolled down his window to explain that we were lost as I smiled and chattered to our children in an attempt to appear as milquetoast as possible.  I must have sounded really inane because Sufyan was giving me a “What is going on, mama?” look and Laila was silent.  The guard called to another guard, who managed to convey in Hebrew that we should pull into a side lot where an Arabic speaking guard appeared.  The guards were rolling their eyes whenever Faris spoke, but told us we would be let out a side gate to a turn around road.  It seemed like everyone was talking at once and we were confused but got the impression (correct it turned out) that we could go now.  We went through their back gate and met yet another booth of guards who had no idea why we were there and came up to my window all puffed up and holding their machine guns.  We explained, and they nodded and we drove off.   In case you are wondering why they all knew we should not be there before we had even rolled down our windows, its the license plate.  Ours is white and to enter Israel all cars have a yellow plate.  I took a couple of quick pictures out the back windows as we drove away…

We were uscathed but I had to consciously relax the big knot of ice in my stomach.  I was so relieved to see our shabby road full of white license plates and taxis that I almost cried.  I was never so glad to see the piles of trash that mark the road home.

Mom Thought for Today:  on laughter

I once read that if you make your child laugh a full belly laugh at least once every day, you’ve done your job.  And I love that because it puts enjoyment and fun in front of getting everything done and making sure everyone has the same color socks on.  Laughter is truly good medicine for a family.  We defused some tension with crazy laughing, dancing and playing the day we got back from Bethlehem and it helped us all relax back into our space.

Yoga Thought for Today:  on the emotional toll of checkpoints

As I practiced after the trip, I was not surprised to find that I was quite a bit more tense and tight than usual.  The long car ride, yes, but it was also the tension from being fearful of what might happen out on the road to Bethlehem and then what actually did happen.  And here is what I found that surprised me:  I had internalized those guards, those checkpoints, those guns that are being used to subjugate me and my husband and my children.  As I practiced I found a little pool of self-doubt and anger:  Didn’t I deserve it?  I must have done something wrong.  I felt vaguely guilty of something…something insinuated that I could not shake.  It must be like this when a person is found guilty of a crime she didn’t commit.  If the world treats you like a criminal, you may eventually begin to wonder if they are right.  It was a real moment of awareness for me.  If I could be made to feel deserving of the terrible treatment, the policy of apartheid and the guns, and of being banned from certain roads or interacting with certain people, what have people who were born and raised here been burdened with?

I was relieved that my practice helped me find this crap and release it (lots of backbends and twists) but I am still shocked at the powerful message of fear and being made to feel like human dirt.   All this even though “nothing” happened to us and I live a relatively protected life in Ramallah.   And now I am wondering, too, what do the Israeli youth forced into military service and fed the lie of the occupation all their lives hold onto deep within? What do you hold on to that you don’t even realize is there?


14 thoughts on “Bethlehem via Valley of Fire

  1. Ah, the things I hold on to. Too long a list. But I definitely have years of internalizing to work out yet.

    The pics are really amazing, touching. This may be a stupid question, but I realized I have no real understanding of the political situation there. Why are the settlements illegal? Is there a treatise or something defining the boundaries? Or is that where the issue lies?

  2. Amy, yes, there are borders. The settlements are kind of like Mexico deciding to set up an exclusive suburb in Texas and sending in the Mexican military to evict and Americans who may be in the way. The suburb would be inaccessible to any Americans as Mexico would consider the land belonging to them. Sometimes, if any Texans came too close to the suburb, settlers would shoot at them and nothing would be done about it. Can you imagine what the international community would have to say about that?

  3. Thanks, Tammy! That analogy really makes things clearer. And, no, I don’t think that the international community would tolerate that at all. I was reading up on the history of the conflict and it is a lot to wrap my head around. I had a vague sense of what was happening but realized I didn’t really understand all the political ins and outs. I still don’t (to be honest)! But I’m wondering if there are any more reliable resources for learning more about it. Considering the US is an Israeli ally, I doubt our news sources are without bias.

  4. Wow, just reading your account of the journey was a little gut wrenching for me! What an aptly named road to Bethlehem. The photos of Palestine outside of Ramallah are heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to live there in that kind of fear and denigration- even if I was born into it and it was all I ever knew.

      • I suppose with such a stark contrast, the despair and the pain really accentuate the beauty and loveliness. Reminds me of being a teenager in love- with the highest high feelings ever and the lowest lows I ever knew.

  5. Amy, the history of the place is VERY long. People have been fighting over the land forever. The most recent incarnation is the post WWII version.

  6. As an american tourist who was in Bethlehem last year for my son’s wedding to a Palestinian, your photos and writing are eriley familar and bring back memories. It is sad to a visitor that this story is not told on this side of the Atlantic. We pray for a day when all can live in real peace– not the tension and adversity we witnessed. And the drive up the road of Wadi Nar roard towards Beit Sahur took years off my life! Prayers are with you.

    • You are braver and better informed than many Americans who have never set foot in the Middle East, much less Palestine. Bravo for being open minded enough to go there and see Wadi Nar and see Beit Lehem. Thanks for the well wishes and I am sure you have found lots of food for (broader) thought about the world from your trip.

  7. Pingback: Yoga in Palestine « Piles of Laundry

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