As the old story goes, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem on a donkey, and found no room at the inn. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, met his disciples in Galilee and breathed his last in Jerusalem. In modern-day Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph would have had to pass through a maximum-security checkpoint to get to Bethlehem, and Jesus, a Palestinian citizen, would have been refused passage to Jerusalem.
We were in Bethlehem for two reasons:
1.To visit the Church of the Nativity, ending our tour of religious sites at the beginning, and
2.Meet some descendants of Ninfa’s Bethlehem ancestry
During the course of the evening Khaled was able to give us first-hand accounts of what life is for a Palestinian in the West Bank, from restrictions on his movement despite the absence of a criminal record, being forbidden to drive his Palestinian registered car outside the West Bank therefore obliging him to use public transportation, and the unbelievable story of his adorable daughter Hind’s birth during the Israeli incursion during the second Intifada when tanks roamed the streets in Bethlehem and he and his family were under siege in their hotel, safe only for the presence of international reporters there. There is no doubt that the Palestinian people are oppressed, and denied basic human rights by Israel, and there is no justification of the measures employed by Israel – the measures are excessive. Blessed will be the peacemakers.But as Khaled stated, the Palestinians get on with the parts of their lives which are still free to them. Walking around Bethlehem the next morning, we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the busy souqs and streets of traders. Unique in our travels around the Middle East, we saw a great deal of women on both sides of the counter. Although still predominantly male, the balance was fairer than we had seen before. The people were very friendly and hospitable, with welcomes from all corners. Later in the day, we decided to visit the Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The camp is home to the displaced Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in 1948 during the first waves of forceful Israeli expansion in the region. Every move you make in the camp is under the scrutiny of the watch-towers along the Apartheid Wall, which itself towers over the camp. Along the Israeli side, the wall is an ugly but clean chain of concrete slabs. On the Palestinian side, it is covered in murals bearing political statements and imagery. It reminded me a little of Northern Ireland, although the murals we saw here did not show displays of support for any paramilitary organisations. My favourite graffiti was the slogan “Here is a wall at which to weep”, in reference to the Wailing Wall in nearby Jerusalem.
Ninfa’s visit to Bethlehem, or the Middle East even, would not have been complete if we had not eaten some Marmahon. Marmahon is a dish often eaten in Honduras, but a cuisine brought there from the Middle East. It is a dish of very small, rolled balls of dough, cooked in a stew; real home-cooking and never found in restaurants. So we had to use our man on the ground, Omar from the hotel, to get the word on the street. He found a lady who would cook us a Marmahon with chicken and deliver it to the hotel for 1 pm. We had the traditional Bethlehem recipe of a whole grilled chicken, served with a steaming stew of marmahon, courgettes and chickpeas in tomato sauce. There was so much that we couldn’t eat it all, and took what was left to eat in our hotel that evening, our last in the Middle East, before leaving for Russia. Overall, the Middle East left a great taste in the mouth; we’ll be back for more as time did not permit us to visit Lebanon, and it would be great to revisit some new friends and family and favourite places in Syria and Jordan.
PS Read more about Hind’s birth in this article from the BBC.
PPS No map on this post as Bethlehem does not exist on Google Maps for some strange reason.