"Don’t shoot! There’s an American in the back!"
The frantic cry of my taxi driver pierced the air. Our vehicle had come to an abrupt halt as an Israeli soldier jumped from behind a piece of corrugated metal. His M-16 was leveled at the rear window, a few feet from my head.
"There’s an American in the back!" He checked his weapon and demanded my passport. Aloof, I handed it to him without making eye contact. I was too angry to be scared. He thumbed through it and returned it, motioning us to continue.
I wondered what might have happened if there hadn’t been an American in the back. "It wasn’t even a checkpoint," I muttered as I looked over the brown rocky hills surrounding Bethlehem. We continued to the ruins of Herodium, a palace/fortress built in 24 B.C. by King Herod. Each bend in the road introduced sweeping vistas of fields and more rolling hills stretching in every direction. I imagined this landscape hadn’t changed much since Jesus walked here. Too bad I was out of the mood for sightseeing.
Earlier in the day I had seen the place that really mattered: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The seven-mile trip from Jerusalem had taken the better part of an hour due to Israeli checkpoints. I had to take two different taxis because vehicles with West Bank license plates do not have access to all the roads those bearing Jerusalem identification enjoy.
Arriving at Manger Square, I tentatively stepped out of the taxi and glanced around. The place seemed deserted except for a few Asian tourists and some Palestinian Authority soldiers in blue and black camouflage.
October 2001 wasn’t a popular time to be visiting the Middle East. Three weeks after 9/11 and a year into the intifada, or uprising, sparked by Ariel Sharon’s unsolicited visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque with 1,000 armed men had scared off more sane travelers.
The soldiers stared curiously and smiled. I gave them thumbs up and entered the Church of the Nativity.
There was a service in progress, so I waited on the stone steps leading down to the small grotto where Christ was born. A few minutes later, a procession came down the stairs and I pressed myself against the wall as they passed; the priest led the way into another chamber, leaving behind a heavy aroma of incense.
I approached the silver star representing the spot where Baby Jesus’s manger once stood. Following the custom, I knelt to kiss it, pressing my lips against the cool metal. The moment was beyond comprehension; it would be fully appreciated only after some soul-searching and as a memory...if then.
More surprises were in store as I headed north to Ramallah later in the evening. There was another brutal checkpoint where I had to walk several hundred yards, joining the wave of humanity that was snaking around motionless vehicles. Horns were drowned out by sobbing babies, jostled along with bags of groceries that women were forced to balance as they made their way on foot to the other side of the checkpoint.
Arriving in Ramallah, I got off and joined the bustle of rush hour: people hurrying home from work or school; people buying fresh produce, meat and bread for dinner; people out window shopping.
I stopped at a large Internet Café, complete with a snack bar and a network of new computers. I approached the front desk and a young girl in Western attire greeted me in flawless English. I paid the minimal fee for an hour’s time after which she directed me to a computer and provided me with a city guide book at no extra charge.
I found the Hotel Wehdeh; there may have been two other guests in the whole building and the desk clerk (who doubled as bellman) still refused to take my tip.
A friend in the U.S. had given me a contact in Ramallah before leaving; I called her the following day and we set up a meeting.
I spent the morning walking around town, enjoying the open market, with its hawkers calling out prices of tomatoes, oranges, fresh baked flatbread and a variety of other produce.
I met my contact, a middle-aged lady named Maryam who took me to her apartment on the outskirts of town. She shared the place with her sister and elderly mother. They had prepared me a lavish dinner of whole roasted chicken, rice and abundant locally grown vegetables that are a staple of the Palestinian diet. Rana, a student at nearby Bir Zeit University had also been invited.
As we ate, Rana told of studying under Israeli occupation. Sometimes, there would be a "closure" or temporary sealing off of Ramallah so students could not get to class. Final exams were no excuse. In other universities, classes adhere to a syllabus and plan for each meeting.
"At Bir Zeit, we say ‘if’ we’re in class tomorrow,’" Rana sighed.
After dinner, we drank coffee out on the balcony. It was an upscale Christian neighborhood, so the bombed-out building less than a hundred yards away caught my attention. I commented that it was rather "close to home." Maryam rolled her eyes and threw her hands up. She told of frequent Israeli missile attacks in residential neighborhoods and lamented that she couldn’t even get to Jerusalem for Easter. The checkpoints were unbearable. The last time she had tried it was five years ago when she was detained. Protesting that she was a Christian, she showed the Israeli soldier her cross necklace.
"He spat on me," she whispered.