Call me ignorant, but Bethlehem always evoked pastoral ideas, of secluded grottos – or shacks, depending on the version you liked the most – and of comets. What we found was (once we got on the Arab bus that no Jerusalem city map would show) a confused bundle of winding roads, neat tenements covered in the golden-white limestone so ubiquitous in these places and shops whose owners were clearly racing with each other to assess who’d chosen the most idiotic English name for their business. I was expecting, behind each corner, to stumble upon a Travelodge adorned with the slogan “Pregnant and without a confirmed booking? Come on in!”.
There is only one reason for people to visit Bethlehem, and that is the Nativity Church. Religious tourism is the only way for locals to earn some foreign cash, bar the usual international aid, and it seemed that they clung to it with the desperation of a shipwrecked sailor grasping at every possible piece of flotsam to avoid drowning.
Bethlehem was a return to the Arab world I was accustomed with, the sort of place where the equation “tourist = moving ATM” always holds true, but there was an additional sprinkling of desperation added to it. Cabbies, religious gimcrackery sellers and vagrant coffee makers: for them striking a deal with us it was all or nothing. There weren’t many other tourists around.
It wasn’t hard to understand but, nonetheless, also quite tough to sustain. Dad wasn’t there for buying a “Guns & Moses” T-shirt or a plastic Orthodox crucifix; Bethlehem was an important part of his pilgrimage, and having to constantly fend off undesired ‘deals’ wasn’t part of our plan.
We went inside the Nativity Church for more of the same. Part of the place was being restored, and panels explaining the works jostled – and often lost – for attention with other adverts magnifying Fatah’s leadership for making all this possible. “Guides” were there as well, ambushing the tourist and the faithful at any corner. I saw an Irishman, who had evidently come there to pray, kneel down in the nave, only to be tapped on the shoulder by a guide who offered a tour. I was too far to hear his reply, but I doubt it was align with the “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” commandment. Meanwhile, a posse of Orthodox priests took residence in the grotto where Jesus was born, getting amped up with a crescendo of chants and, effectively, shutting everyone else out.
Sitting in the cloister provided a bit of respite as we watched a group of clergymen, medieval in their robes, toddling up and down the scaffolding above the church. However I couldn’t shake a feeling of unease, for it had dawned on me that I played a pivotal role in the whole industry that had propped up out of Jesus’ birth, a business that veritably was the only mean, for many locals, to bring food to their tables: as a politician once said, it was the first time I felt the burden of privilege and responsibility, and I didn’t like it.
We hurriedly left Manger square, walking through the maze of the casbah, deserted on a Friday. Around us old posters hung from walls and doors: prints of Jesus, adverts, photos of Arafat and Abu Mazen, plus the faded images of young men, steely-gaze locked into the objective as they clutched rifles, the Dome of the Rock superimposed as a background. Who knows, perhaps even they were once trying – and failing – to make a living out of tourism.