Bethlehem: A Subjective Travelogue

by Miki Kashtan

I’ve heard of love at first sight many times. Friendship at first sight was an unimagined occurrence, and yet it happened to me with Sami Awad, Palestinian nonviolence visionary and founder of the Holy Land Trust, when we met in December 2013. Sami was translating a four-day workshop on Convergent Facilitation I was conducting for Israelis and Palestinians in Beit Jala on the West Bank. Ever since then, we’ve kept in touch, dreaming of working together on some project or another, in awe at the alignment of our visions, despite all indoctrination to make us enemies. (If you want to read more about that encounter and that training, it’s called Israel, Palestine, Home, Me.)

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Miki Kashtan and Sami Awad, Bethlehem, April 2015

So when I made plans to go to Israel to be with my one remaining sister, Arnina, for a month this April, Sami and I began to cook up plans. We called it “Creating a Collaborative Organization.” Sami and his staff invited people for what we all thought would be an intensive two-day training that would support Palestinian organizations in becoming more effective through better collaboration. As the day of the training approached, registrations remained near zero. Undaunted by this unexpected and disappointing outcome, Sami and I decided to proceed. If nothing else, most of the staff of the Holy Land Trust (HLT) was going to be present.

As it turned out, only two non-HLT members were present at the event. Instead of a training, my work became an intensive focus on supporting HLT’s organizational function. Some time soon I plan on writing about some of what unfolded. The short version, for now: Several people spoke who had not said much before, expressing deep-seated sentiments which provided significant feedback and input into organizational decisions. A process for creating systemic change, especially in decision-making and management systems, was put into place. And some moving personal opening happened for some people that gave others a surge of hope that was palpable as we were winding down our work.

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Sami and HLT staff, two others, and Miki, Bethlehem, April 2015.

Also, before returning to my own personal experience in Bethlehem, I wanted to say that, as we sat in the circle doing the work, with only two paying participants, I felt a sense of the enormity of responsibility Sami and his team were holding. My heart refused to consider taking any money from them. I was clear they needed it for the sacred work they are doing, paving the way for deep processes of peace in the region. I then offered the two days of intensive focus on their organizational function as a gift to them. The offer was accepted, something I always find so moving and joyful. I thrive on giving what I do away. May the day come when enough people support my work to do all of it as a gift to the world.

Moving between Worlds

Early on the morning of the training, I called for a taxi to take me to a bus station just outside Ramat Gan to get a bus to Jerusalem. In the rush, while aiming to be super quiet so Arnina could sleep before a day of filming, I left behind my regular glasses and took only my computer glasses. For the next three days, I only saw at 92% capacity, almost well enough, always a bit compromised, searching my environment more intently than usual.

Jerusalem always invokes many feelings for me. As a teenager, I used to escape Tel Aviv and take a trip to Jerusalem, stay in youth hostels with a friend I still have, walk the still-magical streets, both East and West, absorbing the unique light, the smells, the multiple cultures, the special hue of the Jerusalem stone that all buildings are made of. That Jerusalem is gone. Small streets were expanded, wild areas in the hills have been carved to make for new roads, housing projects tear the landscape, having learned nothing from the Arab residents who lovingly co-mingle with the terrain, building houses that hug rather than tower over the hills. Modernity took away what I loved about Jerusalem, and what remains is contaminated by social intensities, extremist narratives and actions, and a permanent air of tension. All this, without even mentioning or entering East Jerusalem, populated by people who are permanent residents of a state that annexed them, only 5% of whom have Israeli citizenship. It’s no wonder to me that everyone knows that no peace process can proceed without addressing the woes of Jerusalem.

Outside the bus station I walked downhill to the gas station that greets whoever comes from the coast to Jerusalem. That’s where I would be picked up by a driver from Bethlehem, leaving the privileged world of the state of Israel and entering the Palestinian Authority, where by Israeli law I am prohibited from entering.

Israel West Bank map detailI doubt anyone who hasn’t been here can grasp how tightly together everything is and how profoundly separated. The aerial distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is only 5.5 miles. Google declines to calculate driving directions. The drive took us only about 25 minutes on windy roads and through a checkpoint with soldiers who just wave us through.

Although I had no specific expectations, what I encountered in Bethlehem was still unexpected. In my three days there, I didn’t see a single Israeli soldier. Although I saw many signs of poverty, of infrastructure neglect, and of limited resources, I didn’t see anything that would directly make visible that this is an occupied city. Sami tells me that the occupation, as brutal as it is, isn’t most Bethlehemites’ top issue that they complain about. Personal matters and economic struggles, amongst others, take precedence. I am told this is not so across the board in the West Bank. A friend described the high level of tension in Ramallah in terms I would have expected to find in Bethlehem as well. And yet this town appears peaceful, warm, pleasant to be in. The most striking feature, for me, was the juxtaposition of modernity and traditionalism. Its most visible form was women with the traditional Muslim head cover co-existing on their bodies with scant, unmistakably sexy clothing. Equally striking was the presence of merchandise clearly originating from or through Israel. At the same time as the two societies are segregated to an unimaginable degree, the power of the profit motive transcends even that, and goods find ways of traveling across the borders.

Arab society is world renowned for its hospitality. I remember reading that even during blood feuds, if a member of a warring tribe arrived in the territory of its enemy, full hospitality would be offered even while all knew that, later, they be aiming to kill that same person. In a town dependent on tourism for much of its income, hospitality becomes even more pronounced, a true necessity for survival. Like all others on the street, and especially when accompanied by Sami, who is well known in his town, I was warmly greeted and well served anywhere I went. I didn’t advertise anywhere the fact of my Israeli citizenship and upbringing, though I didn’t hide it when asked. Walking the streets, which I did in between and after teaching, I was wondering whether any of the warmth would be diminished had they known. I am inclined to believe it would stay the same.

I can’t say I exactly enjoyed my time in Bethlehem, because the knowledge of the oppression, the visual presence of the wall separating the two societies under the promise of security for Israelis (which I can’t believe it provides), and the evident signs of ongoing struggle break my heart. I can say I loved being there, meeting the people, eating local food — especially the most amazing dessert called kanafeh, with gooey sweet cheese and a crunchy crust –, walking up and down the hilly streets and alleys in this town that respects its surroundings and expects humans to do the hard work of up and down instead of flattening the land to accommodate the humans.

One evening I was taken to an organic restaurant in Beit Jala, just minutes from Bethlehem, overlooking a stunning slope now grown wild and previously the vegetable basket of the region. It was one of the moments I was most in this combination of grief and admiration, seeing how local people are managing to make life happen amidst such hardships. My love of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend all odds soared as I munched on a traditional oven-baked lamb dish. Across from me sat one of Holy Land Trust’s (HLT) core team members, telling me bits of his story of opening up to the vision that fuels the organization. As hard as it was to be there, it was also a tiny slice of what’s humanly possible.

My very last day in Bethlehem turned into one final meeting with some of the people at HLT, followed by a long walk in town with Sami. I was especially enamored by the market, or suk as it’s called in Arabic (or shuk in Hebrew). Once again, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of humans in difficult situations stood out to me. Bethlehem’s suk is neither a tourist scene nor a regular market serving the local population. In its own unique way, it is both. Vegetables are displayed alongside souvenirs, cheap merchandise from China, gadgets for every imaginable necessity in the house, right next to intricate artisanal religious items. This, like so many places in our current world in permanent transition, is a city of paradox and co-existing contradiction.

In the mid-afternoon, on a day that suddenly turned cold after significant heat earlier in the week, I was picked up again by the driver. This time he drove through a different path, mostly unpopulated, reminding me of the landscapes some part of me hasn’t quite let go of. Terraced hills were covered with the tenacious perennial plants of the arid climate and decorated with wild flowers in bloom. This is the end of the rainy season. It will get dryer as we move into the summer, and, for now, the air is unexpectedly cool, a friendly driver taking me back to the country that has been so committed to a kind of safety I cannot fathom wanting. Along the way we pass near one of the Israeli settlements, prominently perched on top of a small mountain, overlooking the lower hills where farmers used to work and no longer have access.

A short drive later, we reach Jerusalem, I am dropped off at the same gas station, waiting for a childhood friend to pick me up. My transition is complete. Friend and I sit, chat, laugh – as if that is all there is to life. From what I understand, talking about life in the West Bank is not something that most Israelis focus on most of the time, and this friend is no exception. After a while, we drive to Abu Gosh to eat a meal remarkably similar to what I ate in Bethlehem. My friend is a regular, coming weekly to enjoy the high quality food and friendly atmosphere in this restaurant. The kind of casual, simple relationship between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian would be a rare exception in Bethlehem given the hermetic separation between the two peoples. Here, in this small Arab town adjacent to Jerusalem, Hebrew and Arabic are both spoken, Arabs and Jews coexist, and I can see a glimpse of the future both Sami and I would like to see.

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