I was only going to be in Israel for two more days. I had heard that the US government was going to make an announcement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the local Israelis I spoke with said that they expected violent backlash in response to the decision. I decided to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem the day before the announcement, rather than wait.
My hotel concierge asked me if I would like Tour Guide Barry again, the tour guide I’d had the day before. I said yes, and when he greeted me after breakfast that day, he held his arms out and said, “I am so glad we get to spend the day together again!”
We drove up the hills to Jerusalem, and arrived in East Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives. I met a camel (whom I instantly adored since he reminded me of a patient dog) and I gave him some good scratches under his harness. He leaned his heavy head into me and gave me a low groan when he did it. My hands smelled like camel for the rest of the day, a sweet reminder of the gentle and affectionate exchange. I rode him around the square (the only frightening part was when he stood up) and then thanked him, telling him he was beautiful and important.
From where we stood, we had a view of the Old City of Jerusalem where holy sites and sections for Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths are juxtaposed and even overlap in places. The sections of the city are seamless, but for the varying architecture. Having such close and overlapping sacred sites clarified to me why the area is prone to violence by extremists. A Jewish cemetery was directly in front of us on the hillside.
We stopped at the Church of the Ascension-Mosque of the Ascension where there is was once a Christian church and then later an Islamic mosque. A block of stone that is believed to have the footprint of Jesus on them prior to his ascension to heaven. Tour Guide Barry explained to me that there is a 250 year old Status Quo tradition applied to some specific disputed Holy Land sites that are deemed to be sacred by more than one religion. This site is one of them. In order to keep peace, the sites are deemed to be held in common possession among those who claim religious significance and nothing about the site can be changed without agreement from all parties. This often results in the sites falling into disrepair but because of the sensitivity, it is an accepted resolution.
We next stopped at the Pater Noster Church, a Catholic Church in East Jerusalem that has the famous Christian prayer of Pater Noster (or “Our Father”) inscribed in 174 different languages on the walls of the courtyard. Many people were there touching the prayer stones of different languages, including a small group of nuns.
Old City Jerusalem
The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Armenian quarter (which has blurred into the Christian quarter over time), the Christian quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Muslim quarter. There is a wall around the Old City, a rebuilt wall from the 1500s when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire.
Our first stop in the Old City was at Mount Zion at the Church of the Holy Selpulchre. This church is believed to sit at Calvary, the location where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and also holds the tomb believed to be where he was resurrected. People were bowed down at the site, kissing it and crying.
The tomb believed to have held the body of Jesus was located in the back of the church, off a small room. Tour Guide Barry pointed to a dark, cave-like entrance and said the tomb was in there. He told me to go inside. “There is no light?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Then you go first,” I said. He smiled and stepped down into darkness. He turned on the flashlight from his phone and held it over the tomb. The tomb itself was remarkably small, maybe three feet tall and five feet deep.
Tour Guide Barry told me that his father was a well-known rabbi (who is buried on the outskirts of Jerusalem- it is a very prestigious thing to be buried in Jerusalem), but Barry himself no longer practices the Jewish faith and is considered a secular Jewish person. I asked him what his parents thought of that decision given his father’s prominent role in the Jewish community and he said, “They were disappointed, of course. My mother cried when I told her. She was very sad. But I had to be true to who I am.”
We walked a short distance over to King David’s Tomb and the “Upper Room” or Cenacle, where it is believed that the Last Supper of Christ occurred. Interestingly, as with most places in Israel, the Upper Room was not only a Christian sacred site, but also had vestiges of Jewish and Muslim religions as well (stained glass windows in and outside the Cenacle). It is remarkable to stand at this place in time and look back at the remnants of what history has brought in the overlap and juxtaposition of the major world religions in these common places.
We passed through the markets of the Old City from the Christian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter. It was late morning, and the shops were just beginning to open.
We next walked through the Roman Cardo, the ancient Main Street of the Old City. There was a group of school children gathered there.
We came around the corner to overlook the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Tour Guide Barry clearly had a strong devotion to the Old City. As we stood for a few minutes overlooking the Western Wall, he swept his arms wide and dramatically and said sincerely, “This is the most beautiful city in the world!”
We walked down a set of stone stairs to the Western Wall below, and passed through a security check point with a metal detector before we reached the courtyard before the wall. The wall was divided into sections–one side for men and one side for women, and there were fountains with pitchers for water that people to poured over their hands. Tour Guide Barry said that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all come to the wall to pray. He said people write prayers, worries, or wishes on small pieces of paper and leave them at the wall as messages to the Divine. I asked him if the paper doesn’t fall from the wall, and what that symbolizes. He shook his head at me and said, “They just sweep them up when they fall, but of course a prayer doesn’t need to be written down to be heard.”
Tour Guide Barry walked over to the water fountains, while I went forward to the women’s side of the wall. Women were facing the wall, their lips moving silently and their fingers touching prayer books. Some women were crying. Some women sat with their eyes closed. Some women had their hands gently against the wall while other women gripped the wall with rigid fingers. There were also school girls who held prayer books and looked around themselves, clearly trying to behave accordingly. I felt so close to these strangers, standing against the wall so raw and honest, these women who brought their fears and hopes and sadness to this sacred place. I would never know anything more about them except that we were all at this place on this day, bringing our deepest cares to a wall that brought us all comfort.
I found a small piece of paper in a book cart near the wall, and a short yellow pencil. I wrote a short prayer on the paper and tucked it under a stone in the wall, underneath another prayer. I liked that my prayer was both protected by and supporting another prayer of another woman whose name I’ll never know.
Coming away from the wall, I joined Tour Guide Barry near the water fountains. There were some school boys at the fountain, their school uniforms coming untucked as they teased each other just outside the solemnness of the wall. It was a joy to see them.
As we drove out of the Old City, Tour Guide Barry asked me what I thought of Jerusalem, and I answered honestly. I told him that I felt that the complex layer of stories and culture and religion of this city are palpable. It is a wise, old city with many scars and some un-healed wounds. To me, scars exude beauty and triumph, and command respect. Yet it is also the saddest city I’ve ever visited. He turned to me when I said this and told me his brother feels the same way. I said it felt to me like a place where people can never forget their sorrows, and that creates a very heavy life. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and nodded. It is a beautiful city, a sad city, a sacred city, and it is a city that has a strong soul.
From the Old City of Jerusalem, we drove toward Bethlehem in the West Bank which is part of Palestine. Tour Guide Barry was not allowed (by the Israeli government) to visit Bethlehem. Instead, he parked at the check point wall and called for someone to come and get me. I was told that the population of Bethlehem is about evenly split between Muslims and Christians. It is perfectly fine for Americans to visit Palestine. However, I was told not to mention my visit to the airport security when I left Israel as it was very sensitive and would result in greater scrutiny of my trip.
After a few more phone calls, Tour Guide Barry said someone was on his way to get me. I stood alone at the check point wall lined with barbed wire along the top and looked over at the Israeli guards with their automatic rifles. It was a little unnerving to stand there, waiting for someone I’d never met to take me behind the concrete and barbed wire wall.
Then, out of nowhere, a tall unsmiling man appeared from the gate and walked toward me, he signaled for Tour Guide Barry. Tour Guide Barry said something to him in Hebrew and the man approached me. He held out his hand and introduced himself as Muhammad. I waved to Tour Guide Barry as we crossed the street to enter Bethlehem.
“Have a good time!” Barry yelled a little tensely, as if he were sending a young child off to her first day of school. I waved back, and turned to Muhammad and smiled.
As soon as we entered the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine, Muhammad turned to me and said, “He always speaks Hebrew to me. I don’t speak Hebrew. I know only Arabic, Russian, and a little bit of English. Why doesn’t he just speak English?” I laughed and he smiled at me. I liked his frankness, and immediately trusted him.
The check point wall between Israel and Palestine at Bethlehem is an S-curved brick tunnel with high walls, a tin roof and barbed wire around the edges. We walked quickly through ankle deep trash. We emerged at a dead end street where a dozen men stood around a makeshift juice cart. They all looked at me and I instinctively moved closer to Muhammad, suddenly realizing in that moment that he was my best friend. I was deeply aware that as a solo woman crossing into Palestine, I felt completely alone and dependent on Muhammad (a man I had known for only a few minutes) for my safety.
He led me to a beat up white Toyota parked on the street. I got in the backseat. The handles had been pulled off the door in the backseat, so I had to slam the door through the open window. That made me laugh. Muhammad slammed on the accelerator and we took off toward the city center. Muhammad was making phone call after phone call and I was snapping pics of the wall art as we drove by. I couldn’t tell what it was, we were going so fast, but later I had a chance to read the political commentary.
It seemed odd to suddenly see Christmas trees in the middle of the desert. I hadn’t seen a single Christmas display or tree in Israel, not even at the Christian churches there. All of a sudden, Muhammad stopped talking on his phone and pointed out the window at the City Center building.”We have KFC!” he shouted. At first, I thought I had missed what he said in translation, but then I looked where he pointed and saw the red and white Colonel Sanders. I asked him if he likes to eat there and he said that it’s too expensive. At twelve dollars per meal, a whole family can eat for that if they make it themselves. Plus, he said the local chickens are better than those imported from KFC. I asked why and he smiled and looked at me in the rear view mirror, “Because this is the Holy Land, everything here is holy–including the chickens!” I laughed and he laughed, too.
Muhammad dropped me off at a gift store, where I was met by Tour Guide Adnan. What I learned was that Muhammad has a visa to enter Israel outside the wall. He cannot drive his car out of Palestine but he can walk out. Adnan does not have such a visa, so he is not allowed beyond the check point from the inside. This is why I was in the tour guide relay being passed from one to the other.
Adnan took me to the Church of the Nativity and the Manger Square where we stopped for a selfie in front of the Christmas tree. There was a man walking behind us, and he called out to Adnan after we took our selfie. Adnan turned to me and said, “This guy and his friends are jealous because I am with a beautiful woman.”
I laughed and said I doubted that is what he said. Adnan shook his head and swept his hands broadly and said a little too loudly, “Look around you. All the other guides are with men or ugly women.” A few of the American women in the other tour groups turned around to look at us and Adnan took me by the arm and led me past them. I couldn’t help but giggle.
As we walked through the Church courtyard, we talked about our families. I asked him about the wall and how the rules were set as far as who gets to pass back and forth, still trying to understand Muhammad’s visa and Adnan’s lack of one. Adnan smiled and said that when he was very young, his father told him he should avoid women and politics if he wanted to be happy. Then he smiled and said, “But I could only stay away from one and not the other.” I smiled.
I told him I had only questions, no judgments. I then asked him if he is afraid of violence in the days to come, following the US announcement. he said no. Then he said, “The media sees only the most extreme three or four percent of people here who create violence. The rest of us just keep living.” I nodded. He said he hoped that I would stay in Bethlehem because the city needed strong women to solve its problems. He said he was born there and had lived his whole life there, and he wished that it could be a peaceful city. I asked him if Israelis are allowed to come into Bethlehem and he said no, they were at one time but not any longer. He said the people of Palestine want the Israelis to come into the city and shop–things were cheaper there than in Israel and it hurt the economy to lose the shoppers.
We stopped at a star on the floor of the Church of the Nativity, recognized as the location of the birth of Jesus Christ. People were bowing and touching the star. A few feet away was a gold grate that looked somewhat like a fancy fireplace. Adnan told me that this was the manger where the baby Jesus had been placed after his birth.
Following the tour of the Churches, I said my goodbye to Adnan, passed through a Christmas gift shop and Muhammad reappeared to take me back to Israel. He led me to his Toyota again, and as we took off out of the city center, he squealed the tires. We were behind a line of traffic and Muhammad cut into oncoming traffic while laying on his horn. I laughed and shrieked as a moving truck narrowly missed us and we hopped the curb onto the sidewalk.
“Welcome to Palestine!” Muhammad shouted back to me and I laughed again. As we darted across the streets of Bethlehem in the old Toyota, Muhammad asked me if I was married. “I’m divorced!” I shouted at him from the backseat. His face look puzzled, and he shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“I WAS married, but now I am not. I got divorced. I am no longer married,” I said. I asked him if he was married. He shook his head hard and said he never wanted to get married. It was too expensive. He said it would cost upwards of $50,000 in US dollars to get married. I asked if that was a Muslim wedding or a Christian wedding. He said it was Muslim, and Christian weddings cost at least $10,000 more. I asked why it was so expensive and he said it was because everything had to be brought in from Israel.
“Besides,” he said. “I only need a woman for ten minutes every night, then there is no need for her anymore. She just takes my money and sleeps with my friends.” I said I knew of people everywhere who felt that way. I asked him if he wanted to ever have children and he said no. “They cry all night. It would interfere with my job. I need to make money,” he said. He said he was born in Bethlehem and other than walking out to Israel, he had never left. He couldn’t, practically speaking. I felt incredibly privileged to be able to travel so much, and to travel to Bethlehem where he lives, while realizing in that moment that Muhammad would likely not ever travel to the US where I live.
Muhammad parked his car and we got out to cross the check point wall back to Israel. We had to pass through a metal detector and then on to a plexiglass booth where an armed Israeli guard sat. I was waved right through by showing him my American passport. Muhammad had his visa certificate but the guard stopped him and spoke to him in Hebrew, asking him questions. Muhammad stopped and shook his head. A man behind Muhammad took his visa document from him and read it to the guard.
At this point, the guard realized that I was still standing there and motioned for me to proceed. I shook my head and pointed at Muhammad. I realized that it was a bad idea to disobey an armed Israeli guard but I felt like it was a greater risk to move through the wall alone. When the guard realized that Muhammad was with me, he waved him to pass through the security check point. We walked through the S-curved tunnel in the dusty trash and back out to the parking lot where Tour Guide Barry was waiting for me. We stopped to take a selfie right outside the wall.
Pulling away from Bethlehem, Tour Guide Barry looked at me in the rear view mirror with a serious face and asked me what I thought. I asked him if he’d ever been to Bethlehem, and he said no. I said I felt bad about the walls. I felt privileged by virtue of where I was born, while the people I met today do not share that same privilege because of where they were born. He said, “We must protect ourselves from the violence. But I know what you mean. I bring tourists here all the time. As an Israeli and Jewish person, I must think that they bring it upon themselves by being tied to violent extremist groups. But as a human being who looks into the eyes of those living on the other side of the wall, it makes me feel terrible that there can be no peace.”
I said, “You know what else?” He looked at me again with expectation. I said, “My Bethlehem tour guide told me I was beautiful.” Tour Guide Barry’s eyes got wide and his mouth dropped open. “He said that?” came the reply. I laughed and nodded profusely. “So you better step up your game!” I said and we both laughed. He said, “When you are a beautiful woman and you travel everywhere alone, you must be used to such flattery.” I shook my head and said no, no one ever gets used to flattery and I am not flattered often. I also said that I don’t feel safe with men who flatter me when I travel alone, unless they are my tour guides. With that, we were on the road to the Dead Sea.
On the road to the Dead Sea, we passed by Jericho, a Palestinian city. There were several check points out of the city to drive onto the Israeli freeway. There are different colored license plates, too. Yellow license plates are Israeli plates, while white plates with green numbers are Palestinian. There are special stickers for Palestinians who have a visa to travel to Israel by car. Even with different license plates, everyone passing out of Jericho or other Palestinian cities must pass through various check points in order to enter the freeway.
I told Tour Guide Barry that I had only planned to stick my feet into the Dead Sea, since I didn’t have a swimsuit. He shook his head at me as we drove and said that I had to buy a swimsuit in the gift shop. He said the mud was therapeutic, and there was no point in going if I wasn’t going to go in the mud and water. He said he had brought his swimsuit, too, and would go in as well. I laughed and said that I was game.
We passed several Bedouin homes. The Bedouin people are nomadic Arabs who raise goats or sheep and live in rural areas that they have held in history.
We reached the Kalia beach of the Dead Sea, and I bought the only swimsuit available in the gift shop and met Tour Guide Barry down by the water. I slid and squished my way through the mud, which felt like the clay we used in 8th grade art class. Some British tourists were there smearing the thick mud on their legs and I joked that maybe it was camel dung, and we were all being duped. They agreed that the “health benefits” might instead be “entertainment benefits” for the locals to laugh at the tourists.
Tourists from all over the world slid around the squishy clay, rubbing mud all over themselves and each other. After getting mud all over, I waded into the water. There were giant crystals of sharp salt in the water, and several people were cutting their shins as they slid into the water. The water was so salty it burned my lips, but it was fun to float and do horizontal jumping jacks and spin around. I couldn’t stop laughing. I was able to scrub all the mud off except for my face. Tour Guide Barry warned me not to wash my face in the water because if I got it in my eyes, it would burn worse than I could imagine. There were beach showers for washing off the salt water and the extra mud.
On the way out, Tour Guide Barry started talking to a group of men visiting from Nigeria, whose guide had told them not to go in the water. They were sitting at the water’s edge with their jackets on, looking a little sullen watching everyone else laughing and slathering mud on themselves and each other. Tour Guide Barry (who by this point reminded me a bit of Robin Williams) told them to take off their coats and strip down to their underwear and get in the water. One of the men needed no further encouragement and started undressing. Another one of the men turned to me and asked me where I was from. I said, “Seattle,” and he asked where that was. Tour Guide Barry said, “America,” and the man said, “I want to go there!” A third man turned to me and said he would get in the water but first he wanted a selfie with me. I agreed but said I wanted one, too. We all laughed and wished each other safe travels as we said our goodbyes.
After getting cleaned up, we finally headed back toward Tel Aviv. There were old concrete buildings nearby where the Israeli military was running training exercises. It seemed disorienting seeing the soldiers running in the desert to the front and sides of the car, while looking backward at the gentle golden light of the sunset on the beach of the Dead Sea and reaching over to Jordan.
The sun had set by the time I returned to Tel Aviv. On the way back, Tour Guide Barry and I settled into a quiet conversation about our families, and our own personal stories of our lives. He said one of the things he likes about being a tour guide is getting to meet people from all over the world. I said that is one thing that I love about traveling. It was a long day to tour Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Dead Sea, and I was content to have been able to experience so many stories of this remarkable place, so steeped in history. The world is small, our lives are short, and history can never reveal the entirety of what has happened before us. All we have are the stories that we piece together as best we can.