On a trip to Bethlehem to research her family history, London-based writer Liza Foreman confronts the troubling reality of life in the city today, as symbolized by the city's imposing border wall. The wall was also the inspiration behind graffiti artist Banksy's year-long art and hospitality project, The Walled Off Hotel and Museum.
BETHLEHEM — “Are there many ISIS fighters in this part of the Sinai?” I asked my taxi driver, as we sped through the South Sinai’s desolate, desert landscape towards the Israeli border and the more dangerous North Sinai region.
I was journeying from the Red Sea resort Sharm el Sheikh, the once popular tourist town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula that has been hungering for clients since 2015, when a Russian passenger plane crashed after takeoff from the local airport. I had been there as a jury member for the first Sharm el Sheikh Film Festival, spending mornings with the A-Z of the Egyptian film industry, snorkeling after lunch, and watching competition films at night. Now I was traveling across the border to Bethlehem to research a book I’m writing about my family from Bethlehem.
My taxi driver shook his head and declared that the ISIS factions fighting in the region could be found several hundred kilometers to the west, closer to the Gaza Strip. But a few weeks later, after I had returned home to London, ISIS claimed an attack at St. Catherine’s Monastery, a UNESCO world heritage site on our route that morning. Shortly thereafter, Israel shut its border to Israelis traveling south.
But on the morning I traveled, my only challenge consisted of worming my way to the front of the line of 20 busloads of Indonesian pilgrims who had arrived at the border just before me. After endless questions from Israeli border control, including whether I had any plans to visit Palestinian towns — the answer, unfortunately, always has be “no” to be allowed entry — I made my way to the bus station in Eilat. My journey would take me by bus to Jerusalem, then by taxi to a Bethlehem crossing point, then on foot through the hideous Rachel’s Tomb Checkpoint, which was built in response to the Palestinian uprising. Palestinians can only enter Israel if they have the proper permits, which are difficult to get. Workers who commute to Jerusalem can spend two hours waiting to have their IDs checked every morning, but I was easily waved through to my paternal family’s home town.
DISCOVERING MY ROOTS
Most people go to Bethlehem to visit key sights from the Christian religion, notably the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. The Church’s opulent interiors were getting a makeover while I was there, part of an ongoing restoration project, but its treasures remains open to visitors.
I was there, however, to collect a copy of my family records, which are kept in the parish office. While there, I saw fascinating church records that document local families dating back to the 17th century, when the pope declared that churches had to start keeping them. Ten Bethlehem families were recorded from that era.
The other family sites on my list included seeing the gravestones of my grandparents and other relatives that are buried at another popular tourist site, the nearby cemetery at the Church of the Milk Grotto, and finding the home of my grandparents and great-grandparents near the recently restored Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.
My great-grandfather, Girius Kattan, had been the governor of Bethlehem in the early 1910s. His house, which now bears his name on a placard, sits in the heart of the lovingly restored old town of Bethlehem on the other side of Manger Square. I found it with the help of a local shopkeeper who turned out to be a relative. He filled me in on more family history. The Kattan house overlooks a beautiful church next to the International Nativity Museum, a church that had been built by Matthias Kattan, another relative. My family, it seems, once owned much of this neighborhood. They also built half of Khartoum and were advisors to the Jordanian Royal Family, often living at their palace. Our people, he told me, were textile merchants and traders who lived and worked in far-flung places, from Kobe to Mumbai.
The historic sandstone buildings and cobbled streets of old town Bethlehem have been restored with contributions from dozens of organizations that have helped keep Bethlehem alive, despite ongoing troubles in the region. These include USAID, which put signs on buildings it has restored with the generous support of the American people.
This part of Bethlehem is beautiful. But in order to reach the city, visitors have to pass through ominous Israeli checkpoints that leave a powerfully negative first impression. Palestinians can’t travel through any of these to Jerusalem without proper documentation, and they’re not allowed to drive in Israel. Many unmarried men don’t qualify for papers, and thus have no way to go to Jerusalem, the closest big city, or beyond. But we all know the tragedy of the Palestinian situation: Millions lost their homes and were pushed to live in camps overseas to make room for Israelis who were settled in the area after the Holocaust, and the Palestinians who remained are now treated like third-class citizens on what had been their land.
Bethlehem, despite its distinctive place in history, and the fact that it is a destination for Christian pilgrims from all over the world, has an imposing fifteen-year-old border wall and creepy watchtower – and that was another reason I was visiting.
BANKSY CONFRONTS THE WALL
I wanted to see elusive graffiti artist Banksy’s new project, The Walled Off Hotel and Wall Museum, which debuted the week I was there and will remain open throughout the year. The museum tells the story of the wall and of the difficulties (I’d call them horrors and atrocities) the Palestinians have faced. On display is a life-sized model of then-Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour at his desk, signing the Balfour Declaration, which declared British support for the formation of a national home for the Jewish people in what was then Palestine, an event that took place 100 years ago next month. The celebration dinner that scheduled to take place in London with Prime Minister Teresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to mark the anniversary of the declaration is already highly controversial. My grandfather resigned as governor when he learned of the declaration.
The nine-room hotel, a throwback to the 1920s, makes a powerful statement, with a full view of the border wall from the dining room and some bedrooms, and décor consisting of wall-building tools and ominous cameras. The hotel, which is extremely popular with visitors, is also a weird and wonderful place to sit and enjoy a salad and juice or afternoon tea. It is opulent, despite its paradoxical location at the foot of a terrifying wall covered in graffiti.
During my trip, the United Nations issued a report declaring the situation practiced by Israel against Palestinians to be “an apartheid state.” I was on the Arab bus that day, traveling back from East Jerusalem with a group of Palestinian day workers, heading towards the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint.
We crossed back through the ominous concrete space with its weird, dystopian path that descends back into Bethlehem with no problem. Showing the great spirit of the Palestinian people, my companion told me, “You should come here at 6 a.m. It takes two hours to get through. But we must be happy.”
We walked on together, passing Banksy’s swanky hotel, the lobby filled with foreign hipsters.
“Do you know what that is?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Well, it’s a museum about the wall, and it’s free to locals.”
Despite the sensational amount of global press the Banksy project had already received, my new friend was not the first local I met who didn’t know what the hotel was.
Then again, the things that I was shocked to learn at the museum – about the 100-plus passes Palestinians have to apply for to do anything, including work their own land or, for doctors, to get permission to travel in an ambulance with a patient — would not have been news to him. He lives it, day in, day out.
Bethlehem consists of several small towns, including Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, which is where I was staying. I had booked a room at Hosh-Al-Subbar, a family-run guest house that serves the most incredible homemade breakfasts, of aubergine and avocado salads and incredible sweet potato dishes. The house overlooks a scene of pastoral bliss from yesteryear. I soon got to know the locals. Every day, a neighbor who had lost his job at the House of Hope for the blind and children with special needs after overseas funding dried up, was my taxi driver uphill into town, at a rate of mere pennies.
On other days, I would walk the steep climb to Old Town Bethlehem, passing shepherds herding their sheep through the streets. When I finally made it to the Milk Grotto cemetery for my last family errand, two kindly guardians took me on a tour of the Kattan family graves.
I also spent a good part of the week eating cheesecake and drinking tea at a cafe next to the Church of the Nativity, finding solace from the fact that my local family, including my father, who lives in Bethlehem, want next to nothing to do with me. He disowned me at birth. But I am fascinated by my history and my connection to this town, which is why I was here learning more. On other days, I walked through town marveling at the work being done by governments and organizations, as evidenced by the placards I found on buildings announce initiatives and sponsorships of various kinds. Whatever it takes to keep Bethlehem going.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING IN BETHLEHEM
Visit the Church of the Nativity and marvel at the treasures that lie within its walls.
WHAT TO DO
Visit the Church of the Nativity
Wander around the old town of Bethlehem
Visit the beautifully restored old town of Beit Sahour.
Tour Banksy’s Wall Museum and have afternoon tea at the hotel.
Take a tour of key sites and meet locals through The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center.
Walk through the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint for a dystopian trip.
Visit the old town of Jerusalem.
WHERE TO STAY
Hosh-Al-Syrian boutique hotel
WHERE TO EAT
For street food, feast on any fresh falafel stands around Manger Square. The most beloved is Afteem.
For gourmet, Hosh-Al-Syrian is helmed by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
From Jerusalem, take the Arab bus to Rachel’s Tomb and walk through the checkpoint and get a taxi on the other side, or take the Arab bus 21 that goes all the way to Beit Jala from Damascus Gate. Tell the drivers who demand 200 or 400 Shekhel to go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to get lost! It’s a short drive. Note that the busses stop running around 7.30 pm. Or you can contact Kais, the local driver I liked in Bethlehem, at 00972-59-8991244
When to Go/Weather
Anytime is good time, but the swimming pools are all closed in winter.
What to Pack
Long-sleeved tops and trousers to get into religious sites.
Download maps.me because, according to Google, Palestine doesn’t exist, so their maps don't work there.
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