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November 25, 2011


The Three (un)Wise Men, Episode 4

by drivingfarce

Part 4 in the series recounting my trip to Israel & the West Bank in October 2005.  You can catch up to speed by checking out Episodes 1, 2, and 3.  It’s okay…we’ll wait for you.

After nearly half a night of much-needed sleep, I was awakened around 4:30 am by the Fajr call to prayer.  The PA systems employed by every mosque I’ve been to around the world all seem to have one thing in common:  all-out volume is far more important than what a full, even frequency response is.  As a result, the calls to prayer always seem to greet the listener with a piercing sound of a nasally AM transistor radio set at a volume best described as WAY TOO LOUD.  While not exactly soothing, it does practically guarantee that everyone will be awake for the prayer within the first five seconds of the broadcast, and—since there is no Snooze button—everyone will stay awake.  After only a short eternity, the PA system lining the streets clicked off, and I was allowed to fall back to sleep within milliseconds.  Thankfully, just over an hour later the PA clicked loudly again, and I knew what was coming:  the Sunrise Prayer.

Mark, Jefe, and I congregated in the kitchen of the flat and had bit of breakfast:  coffee, bread, and the most wonderful breakfast drink I have ever experienced:  lime juice.  We had to get some food into our bodies because we had yet another “big day ahead.”  We would be heading to Bethlehem.

We walked down to the bus terminal just outside Damascus Gate of the Old City and caught a ride to the border checkpoint south of Jerusalem.  Walking into the concrete block building, we got in line with our paperwork in hand.  Judging by the number of M-16 rifles shouldered to the guards, we decided against pushing our way to the front and instead waited patiently in line to increase our chances of crossing the border successfully and with the least mortality.

Safely on the Palestinian side of the wall, Mark searched around for a taxi to take us to Bethlehem.  The jackals descended on us as a half-dozen drivers started shouting out fares, each one under-bidding the next, until a unanimous absolute-lowest-fare-you’d-be-mad-to-ask-for-anything-lower price was offered by all the drivers.  Mark was shrewd and shook them off as he motioned for us to leave.  He had called their bluff.  Then one lone driver approached him, and they agreed on a rock-bottom price much lower than the others.

I could hear the other drivers seething in suppressed rage as we climbed into his taxi.  He fired his engine and leaned on his horn an uncomfortably long time.  I recognized the problem.  While he was the cheapest fare, his car was also buried at the very back of the long line of taxis, so each one of them that he had out-bid now had to move their cars for us.  I felt uneasy, but entertained as we inched and honked our way to freedom.

With Jefe and I in the back seat, Mark was in the front seat giving directions to the driver.  I heard him ask Mark, “How long have you lived in Palestine?”

“Two years,” was his reply.

“Because, uh, your Arabic… is very good.”  Mark’s eyebrows raised in disbelief, and he thanked him for his kind words.  We continued along the road in silence. About thirty seconds later, our driver offered Mark some clarification.  “Not good…….. I meant bad.  Your Arabic is very bad.”

Mark nodded.  I felt uneasy, but entertained.   I sensed a theme emerging.

We arrived in Bethlehem and toured the Church of the Nativity, built over the historical birthplace of Jesus.  The small cave was underneath the sanctuary and lined with all kinds of glass lanterns, whose purpose I did not understand.  An Orthodox priest sternly scolded a young girl for having the nerve to talk in the cave and he left in a huff.  I took in my surroundings and turned to leave, knocking one of the glass lanterns with my backpack and setting it wildly swinging about.  I quickly grabbed it, knocking it off its hook in the process.  Finally firmly in my hands, I sheepishly and carefully placed the lantern back onto its hook and retreated to relative safety upstairs.

Mark took us to a secluded section of houses built into the natural stone walls of the hilly city, where we met up with Tim, an old college friend of mine, and new friend of Mark’s.  Tim took us to the town of Hebron.

Rooftops of Hebron

I cannot put my finger on why, but Hebron immediately struck me as being a very dark place.  There was a heaviness to the air that could not be attributed to the rotting cabbage in the market alone.  No one seemed happy here.  We walked down one of the main streets that doubled as a marketplace, a ceiling of reinforced chicken wire over our heads.  There was garbage on the wire:  vegetables, trash, broken televisions and cinderblocks.  Tim explained that Hebron is co-inhabited by both Jews and Muslims.  The Jews lived above the street; the Muslims sold their goods in the market.  The standholders got tired of the constant rain of trash from above, and so they installed the wire-guard ceiling.  I pictured myself buying some cucumbers from a farmer and having a TV explode on impact, just inches above our heads.  There is a deeply-rooted hatred here.

Cenotaph of Isaac

We followed the street, and it eventually took us to the Cave of the Patriarchs.  This complex is best-known as the final resting place of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Joseph, Isaac, and Rebecca.  The building was built under Herod the Great’s rule and is a destination for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.  We went through yet another checkpoint and proceeded up the stone stairs and into the great hall.  We removed our shoes and reverently walked across the colorful rugs, while afternoon prayers were observed.  These walls, themselves dating back to the 30s BC, had seen so much history, so much conflict through the ages.  In what was supposed to be such a Holy Place to so many people of so many faiths, I felt the darkness even here.

I knew there was a deeply-rooted hatred here.  As a peaceful outside observer, I just didn’t expect to be caught in the middle of it quite so easily.

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