Holy Land

Everything here is holy, every mountain is named in the Bible. This is the promised land. I was warned that this place might not bring me any closer to religion, that it might wreck what I had instead of strengthening it as so many of the faithful hope for when they come to Israel and Palestine.

This weekend, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to an organic farm that sits precariously on the edge of Bethlehem. Comfortably and entirely in Area C which is under full Israeli control still. On Wednesday, my colleague told me about a farm where she said I could camp. As a girl who grew up in jungles and deserts and around campfires in every imaginable corner of the earth I was very interested. I adore my city with its hilly roads and bustling souk but I was ready to get out into nature. It’s a tricky thing with land so divided, settled and tightly controlled.
So, on Thursday I went into town to pick up a minivan-like inter-city taxi to take me to Ramallah. The drive there is lovely, winding and devoid of too many checkpoints. It is my favorite, probably because I can be so distracted by the scenery I don’t notice the countless close calls we have with oncoming traffic which is really something.

In Ramallah, I walked up to the taxi station only to find were about 5 times more people going to Beit Lahem than there were taxis. After 45 minutes of waiting, I talked my way into a car whose driver had just returned and was charging everyone all 5 shekels extra to make the trip. We grudgingly gave in, it would be evening soon and I wasn’t t trying to make this trip in the dark thankyouverymuch. The trip started out normally enough, but a sudden stop in traffic and an ominous message on the walkie-talkie and we were off-roading it. There was a checkpoint up ahead, so we careened precariously up above the highway on dirt roads. Occasionally the driver would jump out, cursing under his breath to move rocks or goats from the roadway.
This particular detour let out at the entrance to a settlement. We tried to blend in with the outgoing traffic which won’t be stopped by soldiers. Everyone stares, we were the only non-Israeli car on the road.

After another checkpoint, a spectacular wadi and an hour of driving we arrived in Bethlehem and I found a local cab to get me out to Area C and Hosh Yasmin. The sun was setting as we pulled up. I arrived just in time.

Hosh Yasmin is heaven on earth. It sits on a hill overlooking a valley and I could see a city in the distance, though I didn’t know whether it was Ramallah or Jerusalem. The farm feels like it’s a million miles from everything despite the fact that I can see the massive wall, and I noticed that I was, for the first time, on the Israeli side of it. The farm has been threatened by bulldozers multiple times but it dates back to before 1948 so Mazan, the owner has been able to preserve it and keep it open to both Israelis and Palestinians.
I dropped my backpack in my tent and ordered dinner- the food here is legendary. Farm to table is a common enough concept here, but Mazan takes the concept very seriously and I was excited to try it out. I ordered a lamb dish and hummus. The lamb reminded me of my mother’s pot roast. It tasted familiar but distinctly Levantine- the smokey lamb contrasting with fresh pomegranate and parsley and coriander leaves. It’s heaven.
After dinner, they bring me homemade Arak- a liquor common throughout the Levant, Turkey, and Greece in different forms and with different names.

The next morning I woke up at 6am and strapped on my backpack. I was determined to walk to the Church of the Nativity and get out of town before the crowds began to bear down on Bethelem. I walked for an hour and a half, though an Israeli neighborhood and past a massive sign warning me I was entering Area A and detailing the illegality of this crossing for Israeli citizens.

There is a wall here. It is a large, foreboding one. You know it, it’s a tourist destination in its own right. Great street artists have emblazoned it with their work alongside the rough spray paint scrawls of whoever gets close enough. I strolled past, stopping to take in its sheer size only for a minute before turning back to my mission.

After crossing the entire city of Bethlehem on foot, I arrived at the church. The church where Jesus Christ was born.  I didn’t know what  I’d feel, but at 8:30 in the morning I was in the church with a solitary Armenian nun. She didn’t speak English but we exchanged greetings in our less than perfect Arabic.
She led me down to the underbelly of the church to the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. A posse of Eastern Orthodox priests trailed in, one by one, preparing for a service. I slowly lowered myself to my knees in the back of the small, dark, stone room and prayed, it seemed like the only appropriate thing to do. I watched the service from my small corner and didn’t understand a thing. It was powerful in its sheer ancient-ness, these priests have shared the sacred sites of this land for generations. I think of the long history of battles for control, the complex patchwork of competing sects and faiths, conquerors and conquered who have shaped this place. It was beautiful and even among strangers and unfamiliar ritual it was exactly what I had been seeking.

 

On my way out of the church, the buses carrying tourists from Israel were arriving.
I let out a sigh of relief, I had made it just in time- before the magic would be shattered by the noise of tour operators and gawkers.

 

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