A Muslim tragedy in the cradle of Christianity

“Do you know the significance of Bethlehem?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Who doesn’t know the significance of Bethlehem? Was he being serious?

His stern poker face as he focused on the road gave him away. My driver — a 41-year-old Kuwait native who considered the State of Palestine, what’s left of it, to be his home and homeland — definitely wasn’t making an attempt at Palestinian humor.

“Of course, I do,” I answered, as we headed towards Bethlehem’s reason for being for most visitors: the Church of the Nativity, an emblem of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim city.

“You have the face of this guy from New York who is my friend on Facebook,” he said, changing the subject, as if he was trying to put me at ease.

I gripped the edge of my shotgun seat, where I’d parked myself after he’d insisted I sit in front of the car instead of in back. I wasn’t sure where our conversation was going, but his mental route soon became as clear as the one he was driving.

“I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama,” he declared, before ranting about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.), which, in his eyes, went back to when the former U.S. President’s oil interests led him to launch the 1990 Gulf War to save the driver’s native country from the clutches of Iraq. So much for gratitude, I thought to myself, though I agreed with most of what he said.

After we arrived at the tourist information center across the parking lot from the Church of the Nativity, he launched a monologue about Israel v. Palestine while pointing to a map that showed how the State of Palestine had dwindled between 1948 and 1967. It was exhibits A through D (for the four periods represented on it).

By the time we reached the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I knew exactly what he’d meant when he’d mentioned “the significance of Bethlehem.” The Israeli West Bank barrier kept Palestinians out of their own capital city unless they procured special permission from the Israeli government to enter it.

Encircling and, in a sense, imprisoning residents of Bethlehem, it made the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to the driver, a symbol of the ongoing tension between Israel and Palestine, between the Western world and Islam.

I listened as he spent nearly one hour explaining to me why he was “a man without a country” (referring to his adopted homeland). He talked about how he couldn’t freely enter his own capital city (Jerusalem, considered to be the capital of Israel or the State of Palestine, depending on which you called home) and other key Palestinian cities like Hebron and Jericho.

He said he hoped he’d live to see the dawning of a “separate but equal” peace, one in which the two countries and two religions, Islam and Judaism, could co-exist harmoniously. He was waiting for the day when Palestinians would be able to travel freely between the State of Palestine’s cities without having to deal with checkpoints going in and out of the Israeli territory that practically engulfed the patches of remaining Palestinian land.

He name-dropped Nelson Mandela, comparing the plight of Palestinians to that of African blacks during South Africa’s Apartheid era. Then he shifted continents, calling the Israeli-built barrier their own Berlin Wall.

It was a lot to process, and I wanted to be sympathetic without completely letting Palestine off the hook. I’d been conditioned by the media and by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s actions in the ’70s and ’80s to think of the country as one that, as U.S. President Donald Trump would say, was truly “compromised by terrorism.” Though I wasn’t misguided enough to buy into the idea that Muslim equals terrorist, the truth was that I, like most Americans, didn’t know enough about the religion, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the end, my day in Bethlehem wouldn’t be all about politics. Walking through the old city solo was a highlight, if only for the fact that it all seemed so…ordinary — in the best possible way. Outsiders generally visit Bethlehem to cross the Church of the Nativity off of their bucket list. Moving away from ground zero for tourists and entering the actual city, I was confronted with everyday secular Palestinian reality.

I felt like the only foreigner in a sea of local authenticity as I strolled through the marketplace, watching middle-aged Muslim women checking out hoodies, some adorned with pictures of cats, others with the FOX logo (as in the American TV network). In an environment completely dominated by Arab life — from the music blaring out of speakers everywhere, to the CDs and DVDs on sale, to the language used in the menus of the eateries, to the sound of the holy prayer suddenly becoming audible from some unseen place — the FOX logo was the sole evidence of any awareness of Western pop culture.

I felt guilty taking photos, like an auspicious interloper, a tourism paparazzo. After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to experience the moment, live in it, rather than just document it.

The people brushing past me were no more completely defined by their religion — or what fanatic factions do in the name of it — than the non-holy rollers back home. They were also defined by their own deeds, by their own lives, by their own hearts. I was sure if I could have heard them beating, it would have sounded just like mine.