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Christmas in Bethlehem: My Six-Day War with Words

December 31, 2018: It has taken me six days to sit down to write a blog about spending Christmas in Bethlehem. And it will take more days to post it, I’m sure.

Call it my six-day war with words, trying to reconcile the range of emotions I experienced during my 72 hours in the holy city where Christianity was literally birthed.

photo credit: Flash90

When I first sat down to write a quick little travel blog about my trip, I thought it would be short and sweet. The birthplace of Jesus, right? A manger here, a Christmas tree there. Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie?

Well, if things were only that easy.

You’re not going to believe this, but my struggle with words has been this: Jesus or Banksy, Banksy or Jesus? Who has had a greater impact on Bethlehem? And what, exactly, was the source of the goosebumps I so frequently felt as I walked the narrow streets of Bethlehem — was I feeling the Holy Spirit’s embrace of this card-carrying Christian pilgrim? Or was it the searing brush strokes (spray strokes) I saw of Banksy’s art and the spotlight it shines on the chilling reality of today’s Bethlehem?

Was Bethlehem the city of The Prayer or The Sprayer?

“Who The Hell is Banksy?”

I didn’t know who Banksy was until a buddy of mine told me about him just a few weeks before I left for Israel and Palestine.

“Cool trip,” he said. “You have to check out Banksy’s wall while you’re there.” He didn’t say, check out the Wailing Wall or Jesus’ tomb or the bar scene on Jaffa Street. No, the first suggestion he made was to go see Banksy.

I nodded, like, “Duh, of course I will.” Then about three nods into it, the nod became a shake. I came clean.

“Who the hell is Banksy?” I asked. I had no idea.

Steve, my artist friend, covered his face with his hands.

“You’re pathetic,” I heard him mumble.

For those of you who have never heard of Banksy — those of you who Steve would also find pathetic — Google him (Banksy, not Steve), as there is too much about Banksy to cover here. But suffice it to say he is a street artist from London renowned for being talented…and anonymous. That’s right. No one knows who he is.

And if you’re thinking, “street art = graffiti = vandal,” well Banksy’s worth about $20 million by some reports, so call me a vandal any time you want!

photo credit: Flash90

Banksy’s art bites, satirically and politically. From his first few paintings in 2005 on the Bethlehem side of the Separation Wall with Israel, to the 2017 opening of the Walled Off Hotel, Banksy has transformed this city from the “place of Jesus’ birth” to the “place of Jesus’ birth and Banksy’s art.” To many, maybe even the other way around.

That’s right. Banksy gets equal billing with Jesus in Bethlehem.

Jesus’ Kick-Starter Campaign

Jesus kick-started Bethlehem’s tourist economy over 2,018 years ago — if you consider the Three Wise Men to be tourists, that is, which in a way they were. Jesus even drew in a crowd from nearby Shepherd’s Field, though the shepherds reportedly didn’t put too much back into the local economy.

Come to think of, Jesus may have started the controversial travel trend called “Conflict Tourism.” But I digress.

Today, 2,018 years later, Jesus is still the economic engine of Bethlehem for one month out of the year. He fills hotel rooms, packs restaurants, and sells trinkets and falafels and ceramics (and now, selfie sticks) to thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit each Christmas.

So how is business this year?

“Terrible,” said Adnan Suboh, the owner of a gift shop right off Manger Square that sells leather bags and cashmere scarves. “There are a lot of people here, but no one buys.”

He explained to me that the big tour group companies have deals with the large souvenir shops on the fringes of town. The shops give tourists a group discount, but more importantly give the tour operator a kick-back on the total sale. Around 20% - 30% according to Adnan. The tour operator decides where to stop, and they don’t stop at Adnan’s.

“So we sell nothing. They look here, buy there. I don’t know how long I can stay in business,” he said. This was his father’s business before his, and he plans to pass it on to his sons, two of whom were working that day. His daughter is in law school.

The boys’ job today was to go “fishing” for tourists. The lines Adnan and his sons use are the same lines used by all the other shopkeepers.

“Where are you from? Ah, good. I thought so by your accent. Come, here, take a look at what I have. Come, take just a second. Want some tea? Coffee? Come in, look only.”

Adnan was such a nice guy I bought a cashmere scarf, not even bothering to haggle. I hung out on his front step drinking the coffee he had stuck in my hand. I even tried to reel in some fish.

“Hey, need a scarf?” I called out to a group of women passing by. “He has great deals,” pointing to Adnan. “Come, look.” No luck. I was always terrible at fishing. Adnan shook his head and laughed.

Jacob, on the other hand, can really reel them in.

Jacob, The Fisher of Tourists

When I first came through the checkpoint into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Jacob was the first cab driver to approach me.

“Taxi! Taxi, mister? Hey, you need taxi?”

“No, shukran (thank you), I’m good,” I replied. I knew from my Lonely Planet travel guide that the Walled Off Hotel where I was staying was just a short walk away, so I decided to hoof it.

Jacob was disappointed he didn’t get a ride, I’m sure. It is his livelihood after all. But he was very nice nonetheless. He pointed me in the right direction, and even walked with me a short way, just to make sure I was good. He introduced himself as Jacob (certainly an anglicized version of his Arabic name) and gave me his card.

“If you want tour, I take you to Shepherd’s Field, Herodium, Church of Nativity…everywhere…500 shekels.” Jacob didn’t get the ride today, but he was already hustling for business tomorrow.

I made a mental note of Jacob’s offer, did a quick calculation (about $150), said “shukran,” nodded and walked off to the Walled Off.

Well, get this. The next day, Christmas Eve, I’m walking down the main street that leads to Manger Square when a cab pulls up along side me, stops and honks. Guess who?

Yep, it’s Jacob. I’ll skip the pleasantries, but I ended up jumping in his cab for a 50 shekel ride to Shepherd’s Field and then to visit an off-the-beaten-path shop he decided I needed to see. The exterior of the shop was a little sketchy, but the inside was larger and more legitimate than I expected — a regular retail store with wide aisles, stocked shelves and glass display cases.

The space is shared by a commune of 14 families, a retail/wholesale operation selling everything from Barbie-doll-sized olive wood sculptures of the Three Wise Men for $3,000 to hand-made jewelry featuring Mother of Pearl stone, a local delicacy, for $250. And trinkets. Lots and lots of Jesus-themed trinkets.

There is no way a tour bus could find this place. Even if the driver plugged in the GPS coordinates the bus would never make it down the narrow, winding roads Jacob had taken me down. And no way would I find this place walking around on my own. Shops like these use cab drivers to “fish” for people and give the cabbies a piece of the action.

Jacob, a fisher of tourists! To his credit, he hooked me. It took him two days, but he did it.

I walked around the store, politely looking at everything on display and asking questions about how things were made. Thinking I was a hot prospect, one of the workers invited me back stage to the wood shop. There, a guy in a wheelchair was cutting wood into religious crosses. Watching him skillfully wind the wood around the band saw, all I could think about was him losing some fingers, too. Jesus, that would be a double-whammy.

When I didn’t buy anything other than a $5 cross, Jacob directed me back to the cab for a very silent return trip to Manger Square. Once there, he not only asked for the 50 shekels we agreed to upfront, but also for a tip. He was mad that I didn’t buy a $1,500 wooden camel.

Sorry, Jacob. Maybe next time I’m in town.

I have to admit, the guy has hustle and I respect him for it. If you live in Bethlehem and don’t have a permit to visit Jerusalem, let alone work there, what are you going to do for a living, make falafels? Believe me, Bethlehem does not need another falafel maker.

Banksy The savior (small “s”)

Banksy brings tourist money to Bethlehem the 11 months of the year when Jesus isn’t so present.

While Jesus brings economic benefits to everyone in the month of December, and spiritual benefits to the 12% Christian minority the rest of the year, Banksy delivers a holy trinity of economic, political and spiritual hope (pride, sense of self-worth) to everyone there — regardless of religious affiliation — 52-weeks out of the year.

As a result, Banksy is very much adored by the locals, over 80% of whom are Muslim.

Banksy was inspired to visit Bethlehem in 2005 because of the plight of the Palestinians living behind the Separation Barrier, and because he thought the wall looked like it “could hold some paint.” In 2007 he organized a fundraiser, “Art For Hearts,” where he invited 14 internationally renowned street artists to set up pop-up shops to sell their work, with proceeds going to fund local charities. The event raised over 1 million pounds. Its primary objective, though, was to raise global awareness of the Palestinian situation in the OPT, the “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Year after year, Banksy and other artists — some famous, some just regular people with no talent whatsoever — have added to the wall, making it the spectacle of political commentary that it is today.

photo credit: Flash90 photo credit: Flash90

In 2017, Banksy opened the now world-famous Walled Off Hotel (a spoof on the Waldorf in case you missed the pun). Intended to be a short-term political stunt, the reception was so positive he kept it open.

photo credit: Flash90

Banksy’s boutique art hotel is walking distance from Checkpoint 300 separating Israel and Bethlehem, and sits just 20 feet from the 30-foot-high wall. The wall is so close, so smothering, that with a good can of spray paint you could sit on the front porch of the Walled Off drinking a cocktail, reach out and leave your mark, charging both the cocktail and can of paint to your room.

photo credit: Flash90 photo credit: Flash90

Inside, the hotel lobby is elegant and quaint, like a 1930’s British tea room — a doff of the cap to the British Mandate for Palestine, which basically started this political mess.

The walls are filled with Banksy’s caustic art. A grand piano sits on a small platform underneath cherubs with gas masks dangling from the ceiling. Vintage security cameras are displayed like mounted animal heads in a taxidermist’s workshop. A framed picture of Jesus Christ hangs on a wall, a sniper rifle’s red dot adorning his forehead.

photo credit: Flash90 photo credit: Flash90 photo credit: Flash90

The hotel promotes itself as having “the worst view in the world”, which I can personally attest to.

The Worst View in the World

On Christmas morning I raced to the window and threw up the sash to a perfectly atrocious view of the Separation Barrier, active guard tower and barbed wire.

photo credit: Flash90

Beyond the wall, the sun rose softly on 5,000 families living in the Aida Refugee Camp, generations of whom have been stuck there since it was set up around 1950. The entry to the camp is marked by an arch over the road, on top of which is a wrought-iron key that symbolizes the Palestinian’s “right of return” to the homes they were thrown out of or fled in 1948 (the “Nakba”).

As if one rough view weren’t enough, I was fortunate to have a corner room — which means a second window to gaze out of. This view was of the wall itself zig-zagging around a dirt parking lot. That’s odd, I thought. The original wall was supposed to follow close to the “Green Line,” a boundary demarcated by the UN after the 1948 war to officially separate Israel from the Palestinian West Bank — basically the formal boundary for the two-state solution. What’s with the zig and the zag?

As it turns out, Rachel’s Tomb, a holy site just beyond the guard tower, didn’t have parking space where Jewish pilgrims felt safe when visiting the tomb (it being in Palestine and all). So in 2005, Israel decided to snake the wall further into Palestinian territory so that Israelis had a parking lot that didn’t intermingle with Palestinians. For “security reasons” is the official explanation.

Yea, that was my other view. A parking lot for Rachel’s Tomb built on Palestinian land for the exclusive use of Israelis.

Wanna Go Camping?

The Walled Off Hotel offers a guided walking tour of “Banksy’s Wall” and the nearby Aida Refugee Camp, a tour I went on with three other foreigners.

Our guide, Marwan Frarjeh, was a local Palestinian who knew every nook, cranny and painting of the wall and the stories behind them. Tamimi. Trump. Messi. Netanyahu. The Two Angels.

After walking the length of this gallery of graffiti, we cut through an Arab cemetery, a metaphoric shortcut to Aida. The cemetery was littered with trash, which Marwan explained was trash thrown from the guard towers above. (I have seen enough trash is Israel and the West Bank to question the source of the trash in the cemetery, but this cemetery was so sheltered by the wall itself, Marwan’s story is beyond plausible.)

photo credit: Flash90

The tour of Aida is a story unto itself. So I’m not going to give you a street-by-street, blow-by-blow, bullet-hole-by-bullet-hole review. But because this blog has a bit of an economic tilt to it, I’d like to share one story about the economic situation I encountered there. Which won’t take long because there is little, if any, economy to encounter in the camp.

During the tour we went into the small shop of an enterprising man who makes jewelry out of spent tear gas canisters and bullet casings that have been used on the camp. The man was not there, but his two young sons, about ages 14 and 8, were watching the shop.

Like Adnan’s sons on Manger Square, these boys were fishing. But unlike Adnan’s location, there was not a soul in sight. Aida was like a ghost town at the time we were there — or like the Dead Sea, devoid of fish.

So I can only assume our guide brought us, the fish, to the fisherman, as Jacob did. (Though I can assure you Marwan did it for the good of the family and not for a kick-back.)

One of my favorite pictures of this trip was, after having just met the boys, looking down off a nearby rooftop and spying the youngest sitting outside the shop. I whistled. He looked up and flashed me the peace sign.

photo credit: Flash90

Let that sink in.

A young boy selling jewelry made from spent tear gas canisters, living in refugee camp with very little hope of a positive future is basically telling me to stay positive, that things will be all right.

Marwan took us back toward the hotel to wrap things up. We stopped beneath Banksy’s last personal contribution to the wall — two angels with crow bars trying to tear down the wall.

photo credit: Flash90 photo credit: Flash90

I asked Marwan, as a local, what he thought of Banksy and the Walled Off Hotel. It was a good attraction, a good gig for him for sure, but hey, what did it really mean to Bethlehem?

Without skipping a beat he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think Banksy is a saint.

“I have never seen the man or met the man. I don’t know anyone who has,” he continued. “But this is a man who didn’t have to come here. He didn’t have to do this. He just showed up like an angel. He brought attention to us Palestinians. He gave us pride. And he didn’t shoot anyone. He’s like Ghandi. He’s like Jesus himself. No, I think he is better than Jesus and Ghandi.

“Banksy is a saint to us,” he said to me. His passion was real.

At the end of the tour I offered Marwan a tip. He declined it. Instead, he thanked me for walking with him and listening. In that, he tipped ME.

Unbelievable.

This place…Bethlehem, Aida, the West Bank, Palestine, Israel…is unbelievable.


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