While visiting Bethlehem this past June, I posted a couple Facebook notes that I’d like to keep [slightly revised] here…
It’s gonna be a while to process this part of the trip: staying at both an embarrassingly upscale room one evening and in the much more low-rent "barracks" of the Banksy-affiliated Walled Off Hotel whose rooms justly boast the "worst view in the world" (a section of the 8-meter security/occupation barrier built after the Second Intifada); hearing a decidedly pro-Palestinian argument against the Two-State Solution by an Israeli Jew who could not cross over into Bethlehem with us; and, of course, meeting this fellow in a refugee camp from the 1948 Arab–Israeli War who, despite his threatening pose, was obviously just having some fun with us clueless tourists.
[Written on our departure] The word “surreal” begins to lose its meaning here. I’m writing this in an air conditioned bus, arranged to seat 17. Jenny and I are the only ones here. We paid dearly for this privilege in hopes of a smooth transfer out of the West Bank, but no amount of Shekels could safeguard us from the nearly hourlong wait at the guard-post separating Bethlehem from the Jerusalem suburbs. Hawkers walk up and down the line of wheezing cars offering bottled water and other sundries. We inch our way toward the border in fits and starts, annoyed at the sight of young dudes pushing their cars into the line from a side street. These small annoyances, each its own survivable frustration, add up.
Protected by our U.S. passports, Jenny and I know better than to complain. First, one hour is hardly that long, and eventually we will leave. Many of the people who live here, treated as potential criminals because of their names or family connections; cut off from family, jobs, hospitals, and religious sites just a few kilometers away; tired, hot, and frustrated; many of them have little hope for escape. In front of us, cars are inspected by soldiers in their late teens. Trunks are opened, passengers are sometimes called to exit their vehicles. But when we pull up to the checkpoint, the driver flashes his pass and one of the troops gives us a cursory look through the windows; we scoot right through.
Behind us, the eight-meter walls and guard towers recede into the background. Even so, the disciplinary apparatus designed to protect Israeli citizens, augmented by walled roads, tunnels, and heavily armed soldiers (and a few civilians), does not disappear; it just merges into a different sort of concrete reality. I am reminded of something that Mike Davis wrote: “Ramparts and battlements, reflective glass and elevated pedways, are tropes in an architectural language warning off the underclass Other. Although architectural critics are usually blind to this militarized syntax, urban pariah groups… read the signs immediately.”
Earlier today, another strange moment packed with tourist guilt: eating the tastiest shawarma I've ever had - in the Aida refugee camp. This morning, we visited without guides, and felt safe and welcome. In fact many children seemed delighted to practice their English (and, of course, guide us to shops run by family members). Walking the streets, photographing murals and stencil art, we were joined by a thin Palestinian dude who invited us into a shop packed with local folks waiting for their orders of sizzling meat (chicken, I suppose), drenched with hummus, cucumber, yogurt, chili sauce, and grilled onions.
We waited our turn in the stifling heat, grinning at folks who smiled at us, thanking them for their greetings, “Welcome!" and grateful to buy bottled water for Jenny and cold cans of apple soda for me. There are no tables in this joint, so we say our goodbyes and head back out into the heat in search of a stoop or stairs where we can eat. Before long we find our perch, near murals dedicated to people lost to the violence that sometimes sweeps this camp. Only later do I learn that some of the same artwork we came to photograph was shrouded by tear gas and pepper spray earlier this year.
Having not planned my attire with any precision, I am wearing the most obnoxious tourist garb, topped with a cheesy panama hat to block out some of the sun. I am nakedly, obviously, a fortunate interloper. But local folks are happy to see some currency flowing their way, so long as we don’t wave our privilege too odiously. As I have found in all my travels, a genuine smile and a constant inner refrain that I am traveling by or through someone’s home, melts many (but hardly all) barriers.