I’m really tired tonight, which is ironic as I have spent most of the day at on the bus as we transferred from Bethlehem to Tiberias. We’ve formally left Palestine behind (only just…read on) and moved into Israel.
I decided first thing this morning my blog would most likely be titled ‘hospitality’ simply because of how utterly lovely the guest house in Bethlehem has been and all the people we have met so far.
Hardly any groups choose to stay overnight in Bethlehem, most just pass through and don’t get off the bus. Some stay one night – at least three groups used our guest house as a one night stop. We stayed six. No, we didn’t go out at night and wander round the town, like I’ve just done in Tiberias, but we were made extremely welcome thanked for choosing to live with and in the community for nearly a week.
I’ve written already about the church we visited, the wandering through the market, meeting Claire and her family. Bethlehem is a poor, troubled town and I encourage you all strongly to come as soon as you can.
The drive to Nablus, reportedly the 3rd oldest city in the world, was diverse. Jerusalem traffic is quite something, mainly because Jerusalem drivers seem to be a law unto themselves. Not knocking my colleague Neil’s driving but I’m not looking forward to negotiating it next week in a little hire car – our bus lifts me up and cars would bounce off it! We passed through lots of roadworks – mostly linked to settlement building and back into the West Bank. I’m not going to geology-up again, but the limestone valleys are heart-stoppingly beautiful.
We eventually reached Nablus and visiteda church commemorating Jacob’s well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman. We were early (shockingly) and the welcomer had to leg it down to meet us and was lovely about it.
We then went on to an Anglican Episcopalian church and met Sami, one of the elders, who showed us round the ancient site. There are less than 1000 Christians in Nablus, made up of 4 different denominations and he told of how they all work together to serve the community. They hold a weekly kids group at the church – about 120 attend. Sami said: “All the churches work together here; some Muslim kids come along too. Our door is always open. Our kindergarten welcomes 50 kids from across the city.”
He showed us the old wells that he believes were there in the time of St Philip and the church hall which he thinks was once the church building: “We are really happy to welcome visitors. We can feel really alone in the Middle East and you coming here, it really encourages us. To know we have brothers and sisters in Christ, we welcome you.”
These guys really get it. They know how to do multi-faith loving without conversion ministry. They know how to find a simple way to serve ‘the other’ because they don’t particularly see them as the other. The mosque that stands next door to the church is actually on land still owned by the church. The Christian leaders meet all the time with the Imams and figure out how they can all best serve the town. “We don’t talk theology,” Sami says. “We talk about how to build bridges, live together and find our way back to living peacefully together.”
They really get it. They have to. There’s no converting people here, people stay the faith they were born with, or are secular. It’s a totally alien concept to a lot of us, particularly those ocming from an ‘Alpha’ tradition. All their energies and resources go on serving the needs of the community.
Then we were off for lunch, to a small café Sami recommended (and phoned to ask if it was ok for 29 of us to descend unannounced). I think we made their month. The chef even asked if he could have his picture taken in front of the group so he could remember our visit. I probably committed a cultural faux pas by agreeing but only if I could sling my arm round his shoulder and give big thumbs up too! I don’t have a picture of that in my camera, but it’s in my mind! We were sent away with handshakes and free thyme tea. Seriously, when was the last time you got anything for free in a British eatery?
Next stop was a random little deli by the side of the road as our guide (and Neil) were not going to let us out of Nablus without trying kunafeh, the local cheese, syrup weird pudding thing. Again, we probably made the shopkeeper’s month and this time we were rewarded again with hugs and handshakes and free Turkish coffee.
We left Nablus feeling very welcome and loved. I suspect some of you at this point are thinking I’m a sap or a mug or both. But it’s doesn’t feel the same as when you stroll along the Costa del Sol and those chaps ask you “lady, lovely, British? Dinner?” maybe even through Covent Garden. Tourists matter to Palestinians because no matter how they despair, how they lack hope, they actually care deeply about seeing people here and sharing the beauty of their culture, and culinary skills. Again, I ask you to visit.
Hospitality isn’t just about welcoming people; it is about what the visitor brings to the host.
And don’t let the next bit put you off. Because we finally experienced some of the dark side of this conflict for ourselves. A minor event on the scale of things, but one that drove home to a lot of people that what we’ve been hearing about isn’t rhetoric or uncommon.
As we left Nablus to join the road down to the Jordan Valley before heading north, we encountered a ‘flying checkpoint’. These are laybys and towers that are usually unmanned but every now and again the IDF shut the road. Our bus crawled up to the checkpoint as car after Palestinian car trying to leave Nablus was turned back. Given our northern destination, the only alternative would have been a very round trip so Neil, got off the bus and in his best Arabic (which is very good) explained to the border guards that we are English tourists and would they please let us through. He was turned away brusquely. He told me later he was surprised because usually they let tourists through easily. (ETA Neil clarified with me that bus loads usually get let through, had it been just the two of us in a car like it will be next week we’d have been stuffed.)
Our Palestinian tour guide eventually managed to get them to agree to let us through, but they said we would have to wait, and we did, for no discernible reason.
The event in itself was a blip. People are held at checkpoints for hours, they can be closed by the will of the IDF for days.
What I will remember is the youth of the IDF soldiers, who were very, very young and how nervous they looked. They were tense. I can imagine how, if not handled well, these events can easily escalate. I’ll remember the pointlessness of it all. When we passed through, a few mites up the road a stream of traffic joined us from a side track. Beshara explained that those who turned back simply drive an alternative route – 20 minutes detour, and then there is no checkpoint.
Defence, checking for terrorists, simply cannot be a reason for the flying checkpoint when a slight diversion means no one’s permit or car is checked. It’s about control, it’s about disruption, it’s about despair. Someone said to me, they want the Palestinians to get used to having to use the alternative route so eventually they just give up trying to go the easier way and the Israelis can have it for themselves. The dirt route is often impassable in the rains. I was told that’s what it is about, incremental control, expansion and behaviour modification. I was told Israel is creating a long game.
So I felt angry, I felt tired and this is me, privileged me to whom it doesn’t matter if we’re half an hour late for the next hotel check in.
We were also held for a few minutes at the next checkpoint as armed soldiers hopped on the bus and had a good look at us all. It was heartening to hear the guests say hello, smile and they got hellos and smiles back.
And I was moved to remember, these soldiers are doing their jobs. Some of them, like the young ones at the first point, do not look like they want to be there. They don’t have that look of pride and determination in their work. They just don’t. But they have a sense of duty. I don’t know their hearts, I don’t know their feelings and struggles.
I want to shout at someone about something but I don’t think that will help.
And so we passed onwards, into Israel, with the annexed Golan Heights on our right, lush cultivated crop fields and glimpses of the River Jordan and Christians in the waters renewing their vows of baptism. We arrived in Tiberias, our base until Sunday, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee which tonight was surely a simple pool of burnished mercury, so still, flat and silver. I can’t wait to see it again tomorrow.
The hotel is lush, I have a fridge, a double bed, a bath, a hairdryer. The contrast is stark.
I’m more than comfortable in my room, but not in my heart.