Tourist in Bethlehem

Photo: Donna Schatz

I’m reluctant to enter but my companion generously springs for the 20 shekel admission. I walk past the bellhop, a chimp statue in red, and go in, suspicious from the start, admittedly a closed frame of mind. The town I’m in has changed.

It’s a year ago and we’re at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, touted by creator Banksy as the hotel with the worst view in the world. Catchy but obviously the British traveler and graffiti artist has not overnighted at a chain, say Holiday Inn Express, across a strip mall parking lot, lit and empty, at the edge of a minor American city.

The lobby here ─  British colonial retro ─ is cluttered and charming, the staff friendly and correct. The layout is explained. First we could walk through the museum which tells the history of Palestine, then upstairs visit the art gallery, no photos allowed. We heed directions and are immediately greeted by Lord Arthur Balfour, life-size and seated at a desk signing his Declaration, the tone set. We continue on, chronologically learning the story of Palestine. Miniature IDF materiel (military pornography, re. hotel website), testimonies and photographs add to the narrative.

On video a long-bearded rabbi I think I’ve seen before when the stereotype needs trotting out, condemns the occupation and a group of gay activists around the bend, bearing a rainbow flag, do so as well. It’s a curious photo for a society that criminalizes gays and of course for the proud supporters, undoubtedly not waving their banner here in Bethlehem.

Hesitant to see more but since there, I follow the history of the region and learn in 1948 when Israel was declared a State, war broke out. It’s left at that, no other info offered.

Done looking at last and art gallery with large resistance paintings viewed, we leave the boutique hotel. We only have a day in town and I want to see more of the wall which hit us smack in the face soon after exiting checkpoint 300, Rachel’s Tomb crossing.

We take some standard snaps in front of the wall making sure clever phrases are in frame. An actual photo shoot is going on, the photographer posing his subject, in skinny jeans, peeking between slabs of wall. We get out of the way.

After wandering aimlessly through a ramshackle Muslim cemetery, gravestones sadly askew and cats roaming, we see the colossal key announcing the entrance to Aida refugee camp. Lanes are rutted and air tense. We go by a huge mural of Al Aqsa Mosque just below the barred kitchen window of a cement housing block. Hardly a resident is out but a boy does bike tricks for us in front of another wall painting, this with the name of the camp and 1948. I get a good shot. I’m glad to finish the walk through.

Hungry, we search for an open restaurant on what seems the main drag. The road is crowded, slow moving vehicles, drivers men and women, looking cramped and in a bad mood. The only woman without a hijab I see is a Nordic type, strutting by, tall and confident.

We find an eatery ─ great salad and the best fresh squeezed carrot juice, large and only a few shekels. I’ll carry it back to Jerusalem. At the register the server won’t take a tip.

Refreshed, we go back down the hilly route and finally reach the checkpoint. It’s night and the bright lights of a Chinese restaurant opposite the wall are tempting but we’ve just eaten. I wonder how authentic the cuisine is and if the place predates the wall. Beyond the barrier and barbed wire the lights of Jerusalem make a pretty picture.

It’s time to take leave of Bethlehem and we go through the turnstile, the sign above, Rachel’s Tomb crossing and a greeting. We’re in the tunnel where earlier in the day at the other end, men, heads lowered, hurried into Israel. A pair heading the other way carted an industrial vacuum. On the concrete walls travel posters welcome us to Israel. I see one of the Kinneret.

In the end, we never did make it to Manger Square where at the Millennium ─ Bethlehem 2000 ─ the rooftops were crowded with Palestinians, Israelis and news crews, excited together. Fireworks exploded at midnight as well as Christmas and doves were freed from their cages. An illuminated mosque stood just outside the festivities, the muezzin a sobering sound. In daytime I’d bought newly minted Palestinian postage stamps.

We’d only been a short walk from the Bethlehem I remembered but my companions had been in no rush to see the Christian sights and I was too tired and dazed by the Bethlehem I was trudging through to sell the idea. My images of then were clearly dated.

About the Author
Donna Schatz is an Israeli-American photographer, documentary producer and former TV camerawoman who worked in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon as well as Bosnia and the US.
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