Thursday, February 21

Transjordan, Day Seven: Away In A Manger

After yesterday's stress we were glad to finally be back on the regular tourist trail.

The first stop for today was Bethlehem, birthplace of the prophet Jesus. It was a bit surreal being in Manger Square - the first time I had seen the place was when it hit the news way back in 2002 and realised that some things from Christmas carols still existed today; we were even shown the bullet holes from that siege too. We checked out the actual Church of the Nativity too as well as the miraculous Milky Grotto.

On the way to our next stop we were also given the chance to check out the security fence up close. More of a concrete barrier, this is used to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel, supposedly to keep the bad people on the one side of it. Don't be mistaken by the temporary look of it - it's definitely been built to last and when I first saw it I suddenly realised the clear and obvious significance of this and other similar structures like the wall in Berlin. The most interesting thing about the wall was its decoration: it had some of the most amusing, intelligent and insightful graffiti I've ever seen.

We made a stop at the refugee camp at Dheisheh. Although it wasn't quite made up of the banks of tents I had pictured in my head, it was teeming with the misfortune of its residents. We got to speak to two separate families - my Arabic was still not up to scratch so it would have been even more difficult without the help of our driver. We got a good idea of their lives though, and how they are just forced to get by in a situation getting worse as their usual sources of funding become more and more restricted. We were shocked to discover that there were eleven thousand people living in the camp, which offered an area of around one square kilometre. I'm still not sure how that is possible.

We tried to visit a local school but were turned away by the Palestinian head teacher; we needed official permission from the UNRWA and her hands were tied by this shoddy case of bureaucracy. I began to understand that it isn't the violence or a lack of finances that was causing the most problems, but the lack of freedom to do basic things like move or think.

Our final stop was in Hebron, location of the Mosque of Ibrahim, site of where the prophet used to live and is said to be buried alongside his wife Sarah and descendants Issac and Jacob and their respective wives. We were told about the massacre in 1994 when 29 members of the local Muslim community were shot dead while praying in the mosque; since that time the site has been split into two with the other half acting as a synagogue. Security was also tight, with us all requiring two scans before being allowed in.

After some market shopping in Hebron we headed back to Jerusalem in order to catch the evening and night prayers.