Away in Amman-ger (part 2): This Time it’s Biblical

Who said blog posts had to be on time. It snowed. I was cold and accidentally flooded my flat. I even ran out of coffee at one point. More on that another time.

It was Christmas Eve and the three of us were sat atop a dirty beast heading for Bethlehem. I wish there was something I could compare it to. Ok, the dirty beast was a bus, but I did see a donkey in a distant field (I think, possibly), and also had some of my wisest thoughts of the year whilst staring out the window.

Qalandia checkpoint, just outside Jerusalem is famous for being a pain. But surprisingly we passed through in 5-10 minutes (changing buses on the way). At the actual point of checking a plain-clothed Israeli soldier sauntered on board, adorned with ray bans and a sculpted beard. He swung his rifle absent-mindedly, occasionally poking a passing shoulder or face. As he wandered lazily up and down the aisle, iPhone in one hand and gesturing with the other for Palestinians to present their passes. It was a delight to behold.

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#peaceout

In Israel you can’t move for teenagers on their national service. They tend to congregate at bus stations. It becomes natural to see a bushy-blond with pink finger nails strutting down a Tel-Aviv street in green military clothes and a larger-than-life rifle slung over her shoulder. This is only to balance the even-more-larger-than-life handbag hanging off her other shoulder.

To anyone who has experienced life in a school Combined Cadet Force (CCF), that’s you. Now go off to war.

We arrived in Bethlehem to an ambush of bustling taxi drivers. After painstakingly playing them all of against each other we agreed a rate and headed off to nearby Beit Sahour (where the Angel is supposed to have appeared to the Shepherds).

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One of the possible Shepherds’ Fields

A Palestinian family of Jehovahs Witnesses would be our host for the next few days. And so we collectively patted ourselves on the back for having found a christian family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

As the sun was setting we went a wandering down through the valley. Eventually coming across a small bunch of houses from which we were beckoned by a gaggle of children.

It turned out to be the dwelling of a family of shepherds and we had arrived just in time for the evening milking. Tea was offered and subsequently proffered. The girls were engulfed by a circle of their fans, wide-eyed in deep admiration. Whilst Duncan and I were herded into the barn to engage in serious man conversation on topics varying from ‘those bloody Israelis’ to ‘ha! What are sheep like! Who’d have ‘em’.

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…no sign of the baby jeeeeesus

At one point a lump of pungent cheese arrived on a plate. We proceeded to politely scratch and nibble at it.

There we were standing in a hilltop stable talking to shepherds about the goddam injustice of it all on Christmas Eve. It was almost too biblical, I had to take several deep breaths and go for a sit down outside. Although that could have been more to do with the awful smell of the sheep and cheese.

Not wanting to miss the celebrations amongst hundreds of pilgrims in Bethlehem, we parted company from this optimistic yet oppressed family on top of their idyllic valley, and set out for the Church of the Nativity.  (dropping the plate of cheese back at the our house first, they wouldn’t let us leave it, they just wouldn’t).

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Star Street

The night was eerily quiet, save for the odd screaming convey of police as we trudged our way up the aptly named ‘Star Street’ all the way up to Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Watching Christmas Eve midnight mass on a big screen outside the Church of the Nativity, beside an enormously fake tree and amongst crowds of Santa Claus hat-wearing Palestinians and foreigners, was, well, different. In retrospect I wish I had brushed up on my biblical latin and sense of religious sentimentality.

The square was full of reminders of the Palestinian struggle. With slogans like ‘all I want for Christmas is Justice’ and a tree packed full of grenades, dangling like apples. I certainly wished I was back sitting with the shepherds drinking tea, and picking at cheese, despite the smell.

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yay Christmas

At one point, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned up, was hurried inside to a front seat and promptly fell asleep. He then left towards the end in another flurry of shiny cars, muscly suits, dark glasses and secret ear pieces.

It was on passing by ‘Starbucks Bethelhem’ that it hit me: I don’t feel very festive and this ceremony is all a bit odd. It was a stark realisation of what Christmas actually means to me: barbecued turkey and bad jokes. Sorry Jesus and your Nazarene.

The previous few days had been freezing and so it was a pleasant surprise to wake up on Christmas day to bright sunshine and blue skies. Accompanied with a freshly made Palestinian-style breakfast. Consisting of fire-baked bread, salads, cheese, olive oil and zartar.

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there are mince pies somewhere here i know it…under the lettuce maybe

For want of Chicken Runs, Great Escapes, Queens speeches, crackers and board games, we spent a relaxing fake-summers day basking in the sun alternating between reading, stroking cats and skyping our families all over the globe.

All the while remaining blissfully unaware of the lack of mulled wine and mince pies or decoratively flammable cakes.

We had our Christmas meal of course. You guessed it! Pasta and tomato sauce with the festering sheep cheese for desert.

And wound up the day wrapped in swaddling cloth-…blankets playing cards and listening to Christmas songs as the night faded away.

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Away in Amman-ger (part 1)

“Where do you plan on going in Israel?” asked the passport control lady at Tel Aviv airport.
“Um, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazar-”
“Ramallah, why?” she interrupted with an icy cold stare.
“‘It’s on the way to Bethlehem,” I said with doubt and the icy stare increased and lingered for a few seconds.
“Have a nice stay,” she said with all the emotion of lump of rock and returned our passports and entry permits.

poignant palestinian flag-polery
poignant palestinian flag-polery

Because of the late hour we had to spend a night at a hostel in Tel Aviv. But made a quick get away the next morning to rid ourselves of the try-hard trendiness of the place that hits you smack in the face with the full force of a waxed moustache and plastic-lens glasses.

We boarded the regular bus service for Jerusalem before catching a connecting bus to Ramallah. Ten miles north of Jerusalem it is the de-facto capital of the State of Palestine. Home to feminist movements (women-only cafe http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.569516), Quaker girls schools, various diplomatic missions, larger-than-life kebabs and a familiar sounding ‘Stars and Bucks’ cafe. Not to mention a handful of 24 hour bakeries that bang out fresh pizzas and pastries at all hours.

well, they were bloody huge in real life
well, they were bloody huge in the flesh

Whilst waiting for the bus in Jerusalem I caught the eye of a man carrying a dangerously full box of vegetables and a bulging plastic bag. Jessie and Duncan had gone on ahead to save seats and I was on bag stowing duty. This man (Mahmoud) and I helped each other with our things and then went and sat next to each other.

He ascertained with his first view questions that I was studying arabic and I that he was studying for a phD with mine. He proceeded to upturn his plastic bag on my lap which, it turned out, was full of a days photocopying at the library. Copies of historical works on the crusades in french, english and italian. So he was off home, he told me through a gleaming smile, to translate them all into arabic.

This from a man with more degrees than teeth. Then out of nowhere, the man in front turned round and blurted out in a south London accent: “I lived in Tooting for 14 years mate”, and went on to reel off the entirety of his former address including post code and phone number. I congratulated him on his memory and he resumed staring out of the window, reminiscing, I suppose, of all the good times at the lido.

This all seemed a bit strange, I thought, but then the great imposing West Bank Wall (in arabic it’s ‘the wall of the apartheid’, in hebrew it’s ‘the separation barrier’) came into view and thoughts of strangeness morphed into incredulity.

We stayed at Area D hostel, located in the centre and home to volunteers, backpackers, wandering diplomats and the odd French journalist who can be heard tapping away long into the night swearing under their breath.

IMG_1988A day of exploring Ramallah took us through the tinsel-lined streets, passed the enormous central christmas tree and the odd child dressed as santa ringing a bell at passers by. We ended up at the town museum where we met the director, he had just come back from a curator training course at the British Museum and was apologetic for the minimalist nature of the place. But took great pride in showing us the ‘history of light’ exhibition. From stick-on-fire, right the way up to electric bulb, it surely was an illuminating experience.

IMG_2035In the centre of the old town is the aptly named Old Town Cafe, frequented by hot-blooded shabab and veteran shabab alike for some serious coffee sipping and card playing. We got out our worn, and dog-eaten deck of cards and began shuffling for a game of hand (a game similar to rummy that is played all over Jordan and Palestine).

The owner took one look at our cards and refused to let us continue playing until we had accepted his offer of a fresh new pack. ‘I wouldn’t even let a dog play with those,’ he laughed disgustedly.

Whilst playing I noticed a young guy stood staring over my shoulder. I said hi, he said hi, I asked if he played cards, he played cards, i asked if he played well, he played very well, I asked if he wanted to join, he walked away. Such was our conversation.
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Before leaving Ramallah we felt it necessary to pay a cursory visit to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Guarded 24/7 it was the most immaculately clean place in Ramallah. Every detail about the tomb has its own symbolic meaning. Whether it is its distance from the gate (75m – Arafat died at age 75), or the size of the Mausoleum (11m by 11m – he died on November 11th).

That done, and with Christmas nearing it’s yearly outing we boarded the bus to Bethlehem.