June 7, 2007

The Middle East's "Only Democracy?"

"Kaman," several gentleman begged me to drink another cup of thick Arabic coffee, but I had to go. I left the makeshift sidewalk café on a Ramallah side street and started towards my hotel.
I had spent almost two hours in their company after walking by the little place, they had invited me to join them. Although they spoke only broken English, they made me feel as welcome as possible; in Palestinian culture it was their duty and heartfelt privilege to treat guests this way.

I started to cross the street when a car careened around the corner. I jumped back, only to be reassured by a sidewalk vendor, packing his cart of bananas up for the night. He made little calming gestures with his hands saying "No problem, no problem." I smiled and started across the street again. Gunfire. Heavy caliber, close by. I flinched and ducked involuntarily.
Again the vendor made motioned for me to be calm and repeated "No problem, no problem." He was obviously used to the nightly barrages, but for a small-town American, it was rather disconcerting.

The next morning I was on my way back to Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers stopped our minibus when we were halfway there and removed a passenger. He went quietly. I asked the others what had happened and they informed me the man held West Bank identification and was prohibited from entering Jerusalem.

We arrived eventually at the Damascus Gate, just outside the walled city. I wanted to see Al-Aqsa Mosque, but was barred from entering by Israeli soldiers. They told me it was closed to tourists. I wondered who it was open for? It is also closed for Friday prayer if you’re a male between the ages of 15 and 40. So much for religious freedom in the Middle East’s "only democracy."

I wound through the labyrinth of narrow stone streets, past clothing stores, restaurants and fresh baked flatbread piled high on tables. Ahead, a group of robed Arab women scattered suddenly to either side of the corridor. An orthodox Jew on a bicycle, legs outstretched, came coasting down the incline at a high rate of speed. Never having a large stick when I really need one, I moved to the side, too.

Even with my unwieldy fold-out map, it was next to impossible to find the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Christ was entombed for three days. I ducked into a coffee shop, overhung with a thick haze of argeela smoke. The Palestinian proprietor rushed from behind the counter and asked if he could help me. I pointed to the Church on the map, expecting him to draw a few lines and point me in the right direction. He beckoned me to follow him. We walked for about five minutes, making a series of twists and turns that led us deeper into the Old City.

When we came to the massive edifice, I thanked the shopkeeper-turned-tour guide, reaching in my pocket to give him something for his trouble. By the time I looked up, all I saw was his retreating back disappearing into a crowd.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was perhaps more soul-stirring than the Church of the Nativity; gigantic mosaic murals depicting scenes from the crucifixion adorned the main sanctuary. Further inside, there was an opening in the floor where I reached through and touched the base of what is reported to be the actual Cross.

There are many different chapels representing the various divisions in Christendom: Armenian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian. Ironically, it is a Palestinian Muslim family who is entrusted with the keys to the Church due to in-fighting among these groups throughout the centuries.

The tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who begged Pilate for Jesus’s body is also located inside the Church. Close to the small chapel built over the exact site where Christ’s body was interred, there is a stone on display, rent in two during the upheaval following His death. I knelt in that chapel for several moments, unable to pray, say or think anything.

Outside in the gathering dusk, I bought a few souvenirs. There were gorgeous Bibles with mother-of-pearl covers and elaborate Nativity scenes and crosses carved from local olive wood. I regretted neither my budget nor my small backpack afforded me the opportunity to help the beleaguered shopkeepers more.

Backtracking through the maze of streets, I felt a tug on my hair. I turned around and saw a wide-eyed baby reaching out for another pull, the mother apologizing profusely. I laughed and played with the baby for a moment before continuing to the Damascus Gate.

Taxis, minivans and buses were all gathered; drivers were shouting their respective destinations as people scurried to and fro. I searched for an indication that one might be going the same direction as me; no takers. A minivan pulled alongside me and the young driver leaned forward. "Ramallah?" he asked.

"Gaza," I responded.

He looked like he had seen a ghost and asked me if I was all right.

For the next several minutes, we argued about it. He questioned my sanity, offering one excuse after another why I should not go to the Gaza Strip. It’s too expensive, there’s nothing to do there, you’ll be killed, etc. I turned to walk away, telling him that I would find information elsewhere on how to get there.

He looked exasperated, then resigned. "I can take you to Gaza."

No comments: