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Part I: The road to Bethlehem

BBC correspondent Aleem Maqbool keeps an online diary in text and video as he walks from Nazareth to Bethlehem, retracing a journey made by Joseph and Mary in the Christmas story told by Luke in the New Testament.

EVENING, WEDNESDAY, 17 DECEMBER: ZABABDEH
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Aleem Maqbool rides his trusty steed to the village of Burqin

"Why are you standing there with a donkey?" said an old Palestinian man.

"This is a nice modern city, and you're standing there with a donkey! What are you trying to say? What's wrong with you?"

Clearly, not everyone was as happy as I was to meet my new travelling companion in the centre of the city of Jenin.

The old man thought I was trying to show Jenin as a backward place. He refused to accept the nativity explanation, and went on his way muttering about how deceptive the foreign media is.

It is no wonder people here are sensitive about their city. Jenin is fortunate enough to be at the heart of some of the most fertile agricultural land in the region, and had been developing in the 90s.

But since then, it has been a rough ride for the city.

Meet the donkeys who have accompanied Aleem on his journey

In recent years, frequent raids by the Israeli army to kill suspected militants (like the one I wrote of yesterday), and a new barrier, which separates it from towns such as Nazareth in northern Israel, have left Jenin bruised, and with an economy in tatters.

But the Palestinian government insists some things are improving here, especially in terms of security.

I could not go to a better place to see if that was true than the next stop on my route, Jenin's large refugee camp, just west of the city.

Until recently, it was a militant stronghold, even after large parts of the camp were destroyed in an Israeli invasion six years ago. It is where our satellite van waited to meet me with some radio equipment that I needed.

"You are lucky the gunmen did not shoot at you," said a young man walking towards us when I reached the camp.

"I called them to say you were journalists and not the Israeli army. That van of yours looks exactly like the one the Israeli forces came in yesterday when they killed Jihad.

"Somebody up the road called the gunmen in the hills to warn them you were coming."

Aleem Maqbool and his (third) donkey, 17 December 2008
The third donkey was impeccably behaved on Wednesday

We quickly decided the van should leave as soon as possible. I continued on my way too, donkey by my side.

Once we were out of the camp and into the countryside, I felt the time was right to actually try riding on my donkey's back.

All three donkeys I have had during the trek are riding-donkeys, but the first two were so unpredictable, I did not even think about getting into the saddle (to the amusement of their owners).

But this one had been impeccably behaved all morning.

Sameh, the owner of my current animal - which I have decided not to name until she has been with me at least a full 24 hours - had informed me that tongue clicks meant "walk," and "sssshhhhht" meant "stop".

I clambered on her back, clicked my tongue, and by some minor miracle, she gently moved forward.

"Ssssshhhhht," I said, and without even the slightest tug on her reins, she gracefully eased to a stop.

I had a magic donkey.

We started again, and I leaned back and enjoyed the stunning scenery for a while, before deciding I quite preferred my feet on the ground in any case.

We climbed together to the hilltop village of Burqin and its church, thought to be the third oldest in the world.

Inside the church at Burqin, 17 December 2008
The church at Burqin is thought to be the third oldest in the world

It is built on the site where the Bible story of Jesus' curing of the lepers is believed to have taken place.

In the cave where the miracle was meant to have happened, I wondered whether pilgrims would venture to this beautiful place more in the future. The church warden, Um George, said she had faith they would.

A few kilometres south, between villages, where two quiet roads crossed, was a lone food seller.

In the late afternoon, I sat on the grass and shared corn on the cob with the donkey. She did not say so, but I think we are friends.

The day ended with the most beautiful scenery of the trek so far. The hostel I am writing from is nestled on a hilltop, with rolling olive groves in every direction, under a clear starry sky.

I am looking forward to the dawn here.

WEDNESDAY, 17 DECEMBER: JENIN
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Aleem and donkey number three arrive in Jenin

EVENING, TUESDAY, 16 DECEMBER: JENIN

It is now two full walking days since I left Nazareth, and I am happy with the progress south that has been made, with or without a donkey.

The road to Jenin from the West Bank's border with Israel began as quite a desolate walk this afternoon. Once, this was a busy area of trade, but the shops were all destroyed in an Israeli invasion six years ago.

After a while though, the view of green slopes and distant hilltop villages eased a bit of the tension of events earlier in the day and I quickened my pace.

Aleem and cafe owner Abu Ghassan
Abu Ghassan owns Jenin's oldest cafe, Al Nabatat

Beginning the gentle climb up to Jenin, I convinced myself that if Mary and Joseph did make their trek to Bethlehem as the Bible says, they must have come this way. The landscape just seemed to nudge me in the direction of the town, called En Gannim in the Bible.

It was dusk when I reached the town's centre, which judging by the amount of litter being swept up, was just winding down from what had been a busy market day.

A friend had advised I grab a Turkish coffee at Jenin's oldest cafe, Al Nabatat, "The Plants". It was not much more than groups of red and white plastic chairs around a small breeze-block building.

Younger men were sitting closest to the entrance, chatting and laughing, while older men sat each in what I imagined to be their favourite chairs towards the back, drinking tea and playing backgammon. Shishas all round.

Every time we think we have taken one step forward, we take a hundred steps back
Abu Ghassan

I got chatting with the owner, Abu Ghassan, a man I would guess was in his late forties.

"Terrible what happened in Yamoon," he said, referring to the Israeli army raid in the morning, "but, to be honest, the killing is not as bad here as it was four or five years ago".

When I asked him if that meant he thought things could continue to get better, and that maybe there was some prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he laughed.

"They are always talking about a peace process," he said. "But every time we think we have taken one step forward, we take 100 steps back. Still, we hope."

I left Al Nabatat to get an early night, looking forward to meeting donkey number three in the morning, and hoping he or she lasts at least a bit longer than the first two.


MIDDAY, TUESDAY, 16 DECEMBER: MOKEBLE

The journey ends sooner than expected for Aleem's donkey

The morning began with a beautiful walk, but ended with a stark reminder that this trail takes us through what remains a conflict zone that impacts on people's lives every day.

The final few kilometres to the checkpoint took us past small communities, again, divided into those which were predominantly Jewish, and those that had a mix of Christians and Muslims, like the village of Mokeble, the last stop before the barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank.


Two donkeys down, I crossed into the West Bank alone
There, I got talking to Adala, a teacher, who was keen to show off the Christmas tree in her school hall. She said that since the barrier had been put up, her husband had been separated from his brothers and sisters who were in a village a few hundred metres on the Palestinian side.

She said they could no longer come to visit him, but that her and her husband, as Israeli ID card holders, could sometimes cross the other way into the West Bank if the checkpoint was open.

After a wait at the checkpoint, I was happy to be told that I would be allowed to pass. However, the Israeli authorities informed us that our donkey did not have the correct paperwork. Donkey number two would have to be left behind.

I would like to think her stubborn resistance to getting into the animal trailer was because she wanted to stay with me. However, I have a feeling it was more the prospect of a bumpy ride home.

For those Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who have land on the "wrong side" of the barrier (in many places it runs well inside West Bank, leaving Palestinian land outside), such bureaucracy can really impact on working life. Many farmers have given up tending their land in these circumstances.

Two donkeys down, I crossed into the West Bank alone.

The Israeli government says the barrier, and the checkpoints, are necessary for the security of its citizens - to keep potential Palestinian bombers out. It is one of the main reasons given for the massive decrease in the number of suicide bombings in Israel.

But the Israeli army has also arrested and killed hundreds of people it suspects of militancy, in regular raids on West Bank towns and cities.

Funeral for a Palestinian man allegedly killed in an Israeli raid

On the news of one such raid, on a village close to the border crossing, I decided to take a detour.

The raid was over, and the army had gone. They had killed a 22-year-old man, Jihad Nawahda. We were told he was a local leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group and had been wanted by the Israeli army for some time.

Funeral prayers had already been carried out, and by the time I arrived, hundreds of men escorted the body to the cemetery for immediate burial, in accordance with Muslim tradition. A few black and yellow Islamic Jihad flags were carried in silence by the mourners.

I headed back to continue on my way to Jenin.

EVENING, MONDAY, 15 DECEMBER: AFULA

This was never supposed to be about the donkey, but it dictated the first leg of this journey to such an extent that I cannot start my diary anywhere else.

Cynthia eating grass outside Nazareth
Cynthia's lack of commitment brought an end to her part in the journey
This morning, Cynthia, the animal I had met and tried to build trust with, decided she did not fancy walking a single step out of her village.

She may have been put off by the heavy traffic on the roads leading to the centre of Nazareth, so rather than force her, we opted for another donkey, with no name.

It soon became clear that, unlike towns in the Gaza Strip or northern West Bank, donkeys are no longer a common sight in Nazareth.

Children and adults alike were drawn to ours and came over to pet her, admire her and even, in one case, spend rather a long time chatting to her, as she happily munched on her sack of hay outside the Church of the Annunciation.

When we eventually began on our way south, cars slowed down as people shouted greetings through the window.

"You going to Bethlehem then," one woman joked in Arabic. It was impossible for me to reply as I tried to control an animal that was, at that stage, undoubtedly controlling me.

Here, there was relative peace, and just a hint of those biblical landscapes.

Progress was slow down the slopes of Nazareth, as my travelling companion felt the magnetic pull of anything green and leafy to chew on.

It was not until we reached Balfurya, an Israeli community named after the Earl of Balfour - who in 1917, as foreign secretary, declared British government backing to the idea of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine - that I felt the donkey and I finally reached an understanding.

It was thanks mainly to the sage words of the donkey's usual handler, Munder. "Walk as if you are strong and know where you are going and she will feel happy." It seemed to work.

However, by that stage, so much of the day had been spent learning to deal with these donkey dramas, that I had taken in little of my surroundings, spoken to few people, and was well behind schedule.

Leading the donkey through traffic
Donkeys are no longer a common sight in Nazareth
I am afraid I called Munder to take the still rather slow donkey off my hands for a few hours so I could walk to the Israel-West Bank border myself by nightfall.

Waking through the predominantly Jewish town of Afula, it was striking just how different it was from the heart of Nazareth, just 15km or so earlier.

I had heard Hebrew spoken in one, Arabic in the other; church bells and calls to prayer in one, neither in the other; and seen Israeli flags fluttering from houses of only one of them.

It was only after Afula, when I got to stride out over fields towards the border on my own, that I can say there was anything spiritual about Day One of this Mary and Joseph trek.

Here, there was relative peace, and just a hint of those biblical landscapes.

I am staying in a chalet next to a dairy farm overnight - now reunited with donkey - before heading to the Jalama military checkpoint a few kilometres away, in the morning, where we are hoping the Israeli army will let us into the West Bank.

MORNING, MONDAY, 15 DECEMBER: NAZARETH

The road to Bethlehem: Day one

I am due to start where tradition has it that Mary and Joseph started. Two thousand years ago, Nazareth is thought to have been a tiny agricultural hamlet.

Now, the remains of what many people believe to be Mary's home are enshrined in a massive basilica.

A little way up the hill, another church houses the excavated ruins of what was thought to be Joseph's carpentry workshop.

My guide, Najib, proudly told me that St Joseph's had always been his local church, and the place where he was baptised.

Nazareth is thought to have remained mainly Christian until 1948. Then it took in a massive influx of refugees, as people from surrounding Arabs towns (mainly Muslims) fled, or were forced out of their homes, when the state of Israel was created.

While a lot of the people that live here now are happy to be called "Arab Israelis", many of even the younger generations identify themselves as Palestinian.

People in a kebab shop on the main street told me that a lot of young people are choosing to move away.

Fitness concerns

Tourism to Nazareth, and employment here, suffered greatly in the early part of this decade, with an upsurge in the conflict.

News of the frequent bomb attacks around Israel, and retaliatory military action, caused many potential pilgrims to think twice about their trip.

Now, the suicide bombings have become relatively rare, and the tourism industry is slowly picking up again, but this remains, of course, an unpredictable region.

It is close to the Church of the Annunciation - where many Christians believe the angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary in her home - that I have arranged to meet Cynthia, the donkey.

From there, the two of us will head south (mainly downhill, thankfully) to the town of Afula, towards the Israeli checkpoint that I hope to cross into the West Bank, on Day Two.

I am worried about my fitness... 150km in 10 days suddenly seems like quite a lot.

However, I have a had a final read of Luke's Gospel (though it is thin on details about the journey), and have downloaded the rest of the New Testament onto my mp3 player, so feel ready to hit the road.



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