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May 05

Bethlehem – Last Stop Middle East

by Tony in Bethlehem, Israel & Palestine

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

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

The Manger Site

The Bandak Family

It was around 7pm when we parked on Manger Square. We were quickly informed by a local policeman that the Church of the Nativity closed at 7.30pm so we headed straight there, stooping low to enter through the Door of Humility. We found our guide, Faraj, at the entrance and quickly agreed a fee of 50% of his asking price for a quick tour. To the right of the Greek Orthodox church, there was a queue around 100 deep of pilgrims waiting to visit the site of the Nativity. Faraj guided us along the left-hand side, explaining the history of the site as we walked. At the altar, he exchanged a few whispers with the security guard and ushered us through the uncrowded entry and down to the manger (apparently this is legitimate queue-skipping reserved only for parties of two). The site itself is small and serene. It’s difficult to be sure of the precise accuracy of the location of all the religious sites in the Holy Land, but even to be in the vicinity of what once was is a special feeling.

Women?! Working at a market in the Middle East?!

Bethlehem's Proudest Knife-Owner

Faraj turned out to be good value for 50% of his asking price, when he joyously responded to the revelation of Ninfa’s Palestinian ancestry by calling another guide, Khaled Bandak, who turns out to be one of Ninfa’s relatives. Khaled came to meet us on Manger Square with his wife, Manal, son Fouad, and daughter Hind. Khaled proceeded to introduce us to his relatives, some of whom had lived previously in Honduras, and Ninfa talked to more relatives by phone, including Ofelia who knew a lot about Ninfa’s family. It was a wonderful feeling for Ninfa to be so far from home, but to receive a warm welcome of family. That night we stayed in the family hotel, the Grand Hotel Bandak in central Bethlehem.

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.

Souq Surprises

Friendly Locals, Friendly Tourist

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.

Two Leaders of the Palestinian National Authority ... flanked by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas

My New Premises in Bethlehem

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.

Palestinian Postal Service

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.

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4 Responses to “Bethlehem – Last Stop Middle East”

  1. From Edel:

    Just so interesting to hear what everyday life is like for the Palestinian people, the basic rights and freedoms we take for granted, denied to so many.

    Posted on 05. May, 2010 at 8:58 am #
  2. From Anne:

    I’m sure it was very special for Ninfa to meet up with relatives so far away from home.

    Posted on 05. May, 2010 at 11:05 am #
  3. From Edel:

    Tony and Ninfa, the boys were thrilled to receive your postard today and then the scarves. Michael is wearing his since he got it and Jack said “now we’ll be dressed right when we’re shepherds in the next Christmas play!”
    Thanks again,
    Edel x

    Posted on 05. May, 2010 at 9:31 pm #
  4. From Olive:

    Hi Ninfa and Tony,
    Enjoying very much you descriptions of all the wonderful places you are visiting.
    Just hoping that when your birthday comes around Tony, you will be able to source someone to make roast chicken with roast potatoes, Anne’s stuffing, broccoli, carrots, and gravy.Bet that is making you mouth water.xx

    Posted on 07. May, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

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