Monday, November 20, 2017

Touring Middle East 12: The Walled Off Bethlehem

Of course, almost EVERY tourists who come to Jerusalem will spend at least half a day in Bethlehem, just a quick drive away from city center by distance. After all, this is the "little town" we sang about every Christmas (in whatever tunes you are familiar) with the video footage of the annual Christmas eve midnight mass at Basilica of Nativity being broadcast worldwide as the key event of Christmas celebration. This all traced back to Jesus Christ was born in this Judean town in a meager manger some 2000 years ago (Gospel of Luke 2:1-7), the event now known as "The Nativity of Jesus".

Nowadays, the site where that manger was thought to be (which was more like a rock cave rather than a straw hut as most nativity gift portrayed these days) has became a Basilica (first built in the 3rd century) where Christians and non-Christians came to celebrate during Christmas and became a tourist attraction all year long.

My mental image of this little quiet town under the starry night was dashed somewhat when we made a slow walk across town into the church. Today Bethlehem is a busy tourist town located inside West Bank occupied by Israel but administered by Palestinian Authority with a majority Muslim population. The streets outside the church ground were lined with souvenir shops and cafes and numerous street vendors and inside the ground, a major renovation/restoration project is happening so it's more like a construction site. There was a long line of visitors going down into the Grotto of Nativity - thought to be the very manger where Jesus was born - so we didn't go down, but instead enjoying a bit of quiet reflection time sitting inside the majestic Basilica (with my favorite hymn of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in my head)

But what struck me more after our brief stopover at Bethlehem was seeing in person the tall wall built to separate the West Bank (where Bethlehem is located) with the rest of Israel. The Israeli Government has contended that the 8-meter wall/barrier was a necessary self-defense measure against terrorism, while Palestinians called this the "apartheid wall" and restricted their freedom of movement against the law and their will. It's really hard to describe how I felt standing right in front of the concrete barrier so high that I had difficulty seeing the sky above the barbed wire on top of the wall with numerous surveillance cameras and watch post in between. For us living in a largely free society not threatened with violence or turmoil, it's hard to imagine living within the walls like a big prison. It did leave much to ponder about.

Over the years, many come to the wall and paint graffiti on it as an act of non-violence protest against it, with the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy being the more famous of all. He even opened a hotel - called "Walled Off Hotel" right next to the wall - complete with a café in the whimsically-designed lobby, rooms upstairs through the secretive door, a gallery and museum. It's not without irony that the grand-looking building (with the "worst view in the world" as their brochure described) which charges over US$100 a night for staying served as a stark contrast to the somewhat run-down West Bank neighborhood surrounding, but I guess it does serve the purpose of drawing attention to the world, that while the event happened here 2000 years ago gave much for us to rejoice for, we shouldn't simply turn a blind eye on events happening at this very moment in this no-so-little-and-peaceful town which Bethlehem once was. And on the practical side, the hotel does help the economy in this neighborhood suffered much by the blockade of the barrier.

Looking at the graffiti works (I particularly love the one with the image of the evil-looking Donald Trump saying "I am building you a brother", referring to the equally controversial wall project in the US-Mexico border) left me with grin on my face and tears in my eyes, and many visitors opted to add on their own message on the wall too - there's a paint shop available next to the hotel with the necessary tools - to add voices to this silent protest.

This off-itinerary stopover turned out to be the more memorable one at Bethlehem for me, and one that was eye-opening and definitely changed my perspective about politics, unjust and oppression, or at what price we are paying (or forcing others to pay) for so-called peace and security.

The Walled Off Hotel:

(Touring Middle East - Part 12)

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