It’s been one of the most surreal experiences in my life; an exchange of elements which otherwise wouldn’t take place at the same time. In any way in which you would see it, it was nothing more than the typical discourse of mankind defending their ideals: on the one hand, strongly armed Arab men overlooking Bethlehem’s main square. On the other hand, thousands of believers from all around the world, moved by the strength of their faith. Both mixed in the same place on Christmas. Both defending their right to exist. And their right to believe.
Its easy to fall in the trap of believing that we are already used to the idea of borders. Those imaginary lines which dictate not only the way we are supposed to live, but also the way in which we perceive the world. And is this rather subjective optic and lack of exposure to the outside what gives us the illusion that we live in a small world. OUR would. But in Israel, this blurry line becomes as clear a difference as day and night.
We departed Jerusalem old city on December 24 at 02:00 pm with one goal in our heads: to reach Bethlehem Birth church. We knew it wouldn’t be a smooth ride, but an experience totally worth the try. After waiting an hour for Jerusalem’s free shuttle service, and being both extremely nervous and excited, we violently cramped into an old wagon driven by an Arab guy who spoke no English at all; and pushing and being pushed by Italians, polish, Americans, Hindis, and frenchs, we drove through the disputed territories into a land beyond our understanding.
Everybody was a little nervous. Some of us had already crossed a nearby border between Jordan and Israel, and although it had been a very bureaucratic process, it was very peaceful and unproblematic. However, we knew that this particular border was different due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that this day was specially a really good target to make a point. An ideological one. There was no guarantee. Nevertheless, we were being driven by something bigger than ourselves: maybe it was faith, or maybe pure curiosity. In my case, the border between them became blurry as well, a long time ago.
The yellow houses and tall-modern buildings became scarcer as time went by, until after only 20 min. We then saw a huge Israeli flag, and all of a sudden, we could no longer read or understand the plates on the cars. The stores along the road were written only in Arabic language, some women were covered from head to toe and Palestinian flags waved proudly everywhere. A more chaotic atmosphere surrounded us, and only then we realized we had already crossed the checkpoint.
The chauffer dropped us at the bus station, near the main street, and we somehow managed to understand that he would be traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at intervals of 1 hour, until 2 am of the next day. After that, no shuttle would come back for us, and we would be on our own.
The main street in Bethlehem leading to the Birth church was full of people, as was the church itself. And the incredible diversity and irony we saw along our way to the church can barely be described with words: Muslims selling Christian souvenirs, Christians from India buying postcards, woman in burkas inside the church admiring the paintings, a group of Chinese and Nigerians taking pictures inside the church in total astonishment, Russians admiring the simple but harmonic wooden roof, and atheists from Europe waiting to see the birthplace of Jesus Christ… and there were us. A non-believer catholic and a Jew, more impressed by all the different people a single person had achieved to gather and unite, than by the church itself. Maybe the only thing easier to describe is the hundreds of armed man scattered all over the main street and the main square. Yet somehow, in spite of the sight of these long weapons and strong men, the atmosphere was very spiritual and that Christmas feeling, which tastes like cinnamon and smells of nutmeg, surrounded us in that very same church.
The church itself is not a marvelous piece of art. There are some walls with old byzantine art and some tiles on the floor from the original construction. It’s a very simple structure, but the elements, such as the marble columns and the beautiful wooden roof from where chandeliers hang, make it very pleasant. It made me think that every believer, every single person with power enough, tried to contribute in certain way to that church, and it was all pieced with relics from so different times. So many people pass through that holy spot, so many believers from perhaps every single country and every single day of the year. So many stories, and all in all, the complete story of human kind, passing through that single spot.
We left the main building, where Jesus is said to be born, feeling Enlighted. Seeing so many people together, in such a chaotic place and in a land which has seen so much suffering from all sides, gave us hope. There’s a current wave of separatism all over the world: nationalism, racism, discrimination, xenophobia, right and leftists, liberals and conservatives… it is pretty clear that is a natural tendency to separate or differentiate groups, but the less primitive thing (or more human, I’d call it) is understanding. And being there, amid so many different groups and so many nationalities, made me believe that humankind still has many reasons to be together and leave all differences behind, when they believe in the right common denominator. The one which makes us believe and feel that we are stronger individuals within a group, not necessarily above others.
We walked further to the Milk Grotto, where the Virgin Mary and Joseph supposedly hide when Herod the Great order the Massacre of the Innocents. At that very same Grotto, a drop of milk from the Virgin fell to the floor and changed its color to white. There, as well as in the birth church, you can breath and atmosphere of faith. Again, it made me think about all the couples which haven’t been able to conceive and traveled from all around the world, in hopes of being heard by a power they can’t fully understand.
After a breathtaking overview of the Palestinian territories from the mountain where the Grotto rests, we went back to the main square, where the atmosphere was beautifully Christmassy. In the center, Christmas songs were being played and sang in English, and on the streets officers, nuns and tourists sang along. White lights decorated everything around, as well as the huge pine tree in the center of the square. Different aromas floated on the air: street food, both spicy and sweet, incidence, wood and sandal. We sat on a restaurant in front of the main square, and submerged into that beautiful small universe created around a single person. We became a part of that wonderful landscape of hope, and unity, and spirituality, and forgot about all the problems in the world.
But then, it was time for us to go back to Jerusalem. We head back to the bus station where we found some of the people we were traveling with. It was a relief, not to be all alone. But half an hour went by, and then one, and then two, and there was no signal of the shuttle. No one came to pick us up. In the heavy traffic of the main street, no shuttle bus was on sight.
We were getting very anxious, waiting at many different points from the station and the street, when we found a very long line of people waiting for the shuttle, for already more than 3 hours. There were a lot of women, babies and kids, and in their desperation, they took a taxi to the border, and from their they would cross by foot, and take another taxi in Jerusalem, maybe. But we still had hope.
After walking one km further, a girl from USA who was also on our group, came running to us, saying that the shuttle had arrive, another km further from where we were. We ran as fast as we could, hoping that the shuttle had still sits for us and was there. And many km away from the bus station, there it was: The old wagon which had dropped us. We boarded it, and then understood why it wouldn’t picked us up earlier: The driver was too impatient to drive all the way to the bus station in the middle of the heavy traffic, so many km before, he would make a turn and go back to Jerusalem. This, of course, nobody knew, and until 2 am, not many tourist would be as lucky as we were, and find this out.
Nevertheless, the people in the minivan were very happy. They started singing Jingle bells and other Christmas songs on the way back, and I too, was very happy to be able to have being a part of something wonderful, something bigger than our individualism, something which id always carry with me and that had given me hope when I needed it the most.