Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Part II: The road to Bethlehem

Aleem Maqbool is walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem, retracing a journey made by Joseph and Mary in the New Testament story of Jesus' birth. Part two of his diary begins in a Palestinian refugee camp and ends in an Israeli settlement.

Aleem Maqbool with donkey
Aleem rested donkey number three after some tough walking

I decided today had to be the day that donkey number three and I would part ways. The last few legs of the trail had provided wonderful scenery, but there had been some tough climbs through the hills on the way.

The donkey was also now in unfamiliar territory and would have to walk close to busy highways, something she was not used to. Our final morning together would take us south, through one of the most notorious military checkpoints in the West Bank.

Hawara checkpoint is one of a handful of routes out of Nablus that Palestinians must pass through if they want to go to West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. Travelling through by car can frequently mean a wait of an hour, maybe two, sometimes even more. To pass by foot also takes time, as people (men on one side, women on the other) queue under a large iron shelter.

After our experience at the first Israeli checkpoint on Day Two, the army press office had been keen to know our route and schedule so they could try make our passage through checkpoints easier.

Having a foreign passport, Israeli government press card and hotline to the army are privileges that make it difficult to totally understand how living without them would affect life here

As cars, and dozens of people, waited, we were pulled to one side and questioned briefly by the armed soldiers. Once our permission to pass had been confirmed from the army base, we (donkey and I) were allowed to pass with little trouble.

Having a foreign passport, Israeli government press card and hotline to the army are privileges that make it difficult to totally understand how living without them would affect life here.

Dr Ghassan Hamad is head of the Medical Relief Committee in Nablus and met us at Hawara. He told us that Palestinian doctors, ambulances and patients were frequently held up at checkpoints around the city.

He said there had been numerous cases of women giving birth as they waited to be allowed through, including a case six weeks ago when the newborn baby died at Hawara.

The Israeli army says the checkpoints (there are dozens across the West Bank) are necessary to foil attempts to attack Israeli civilians, and say they often catch potential attackers (with pipe bombs, for example) trying to get through Hawara.

Dr Hamad's response, when I put that to him, was that there was no justification for checkpoints in the middle of the West Bank, and he repeated the Palestinian view I had heard often that the checkpoints were there to make life difficult and make them want to leave the country for an easier life.

It was time to say goodbye to my travelling companion, the best so far, and continue south on my own.

About an hour later, I hit another checkpoint, one where I had been told nobody was usually allowed through on foot. From a distance a soldier shouted at me and I held up my passport (my cameraman had already gone ahead by car and warned them of my imminent arrival, worrying that, with a rucksack on my back I might look like an attacker and get shot).

I was beckoned forward by a young, stern looking soldier. "Nobody passes here except in a car, it never happens," he said harshly. I explained the whole story (to a few bemused looks on the faces of other troops who had now come across) and the soldier told me to wait for confirmation from the army base again.

Hawara checkpoint 8 December
Crossing checkpoints is part of life for West Bank Palestinians

We stood there in silence for a while as the soldier leafed through my passport.

"Where in Britain are you from?" he said.

"Nottingham. Why, have you been to the UK?"

"I went to London a few times, but I really want to go to Liverpool."

"What for?" I asked.

"Liverpool FC of course."

And so, as we waited for the okay for me to pass, the soldier's tone softened, and we had a pleasant chat about football, the trek I was on, life, money and so on.

It was a reminder that at the checkpoints I go through almost daily - behind the uniforms, the shouted orders in Hebrew, and the guns - are many personable young people, doing the job they are told to do.

Having been allowed to pass, I went up the hill to the Jewish settlement of Shilo. Aside from Israel, the rest of the world considers places like this, up and down the West Bank, illegal, as they are built on occupied Palestinian land. However, this is where I would be spending the night.

I got to the settlement's security gate. "You BBC?" said the guard, and I nodded. "Where's your donkey then?" he said looking a bit disappointed.

I met Yisrael Medad at the synagogue. With his New York accent (he was born and brought up there), he peppered his talk with self-effacing jokes and seemed immediately likeable.

It is with Yisrael and his wife that I am staying. The talk of politics will inevitably come later.

Aleem Maqbool leads his donkey

This was the most physically gruelling day we are likely to face during the whole trek. However, I am happy to report that we (donkey and I) safely negotiated what locals reassuringly call "The Journey of Death". I then celebrated, by allowing myself to get attacked by a wrestler.

But that's for later.

The day began with a terrific breakfast spread at the home of my guide, Nedal, in the al-Fara Refugee Camp. Everything we ate - fava beans, hoummous, thyme, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs - had all come from farms nearby.

Nedal talked of his day job as co-ordinator for a centre for the disabled.

"In this part of the world many people are still ashamed if their child is disabled," he said.

"Five or six years ago, when we started this project in al-Fara, people would not even admit they had a disabled child when we knew that they did. "They would not let anybody see the child. Thank God, we have educated people here and things are changing, but we have little support."

After breakfast, Nedal's son, Abed, joined us as we set out to climb into the hills, heading towards Nablus. Our first stop, a couple of hours into the walk, was the village of al-Badhan, where I had been told there was a mountain spring and a beautiful waterfall.

My cameraman, Jimmy, used to visit the spring as a child with his family (from Bethlehem), and came to meet up with us there. His disappointment was very apparent when we saw the spring had been reduced to a trickle, and no waterfall.

We were invited to join one of the villagers, Abu Reyad, for coffee on his terrace.

Abu Reyad
Abu Reyad spoke of water shortages

As idyllic as this area looked, water shortages had become a huge problem, particularly affecting the main source of income here, agriculture.

Abu Reyad and his brother-in-law Abu Hafiz, had lived here all their lives and told us that low rainfall and mismanagement of resources had led to their troubles.

They also complained that Israel, as the occupying power, controlled most of the Palestinian water resources, and took the vast majority of the water.

It was a reminder that water is one of the core issues in this conflict, and is likely to become more so if current climatic trends in the region continue, as Israel has few water resources of its own.

From al-Badhan, the "Journey of Death" trail started.

It is called that, not just for its long, steep, rocky climbs, or the fact that Israeli snipers frequently use the mountain tops (Nedal said that a few years ago, one of his friends, a driver called Zachariya, had been shot and killed here by a sniper when he stopped to get out of his bus on the road at the base of the biggest mountain), but also for historical reasons.

The trail along the mountain ridge led us past an extraordinary white rock that jutted out from the hillside, looking like a huge, triangular, diving platform.

Under Ottoman rule, it is believed this rock was used to execute people - marching them to the end of the platform, then pushing them off to meet their grizzly death on the rocks of the valley far below.

It was dusk when we finally trudged into Nablus, one of the West Bank's biggest cities - and one of the world's oldest, called Shechem in the Bible.

We soon passed a damaged, burned-out, grey stone shrine, the cause of much tension even today. This is what Jews - but not most Christians and Muslims here - believe to be the burial site of the Prophet Joseph.

In the mid-1990s, there was local consternation that Israel still controlled access to the area even after Nablus was handed over to Palestinian Authority control.

In 2000, Palestinian youths used the site as a focus for demonstrations against Israeli occupation, which led to clashes with Israeli troops there. In October of that year, in an infamous episode, 17 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed.

Soon after, the army pulled out and stopped having a permanent presence at the site, which a group of Palestinians then burned and ransacked.

With a torch, I could see candle wax on the small pillars close to the centre of the tomb. The Israeli army still regularly escorts Jewish pilgrims here in the dead of night.

Nedal the guide
Nedal guided Aleem for two days

Nedal looked uncomfortable being here and we left. It was here I said goodbye to him. He had been a terrific guide across the hilly treks of the previous two days.

I headed on to the old quarter of Nablus, and one of the oldest buildings - the bath-house.

Script over the door claims the place was established 150 years before the birth of Jesus.

What more appropriate place was there to mark the halfway point of the trek and rest tired legs than a bath-house and massage parlour, that might have been here at the time Mary and Joseph are believed to have made their journey south?

I tied up the donkey, and within minutes, was relaxing in a beautiful stone steam and bath room.

I pulled myself out of the plunge pool for my massage by Hazem, the man who had welcomed me with Arabic coffee when I came in. The massage was little more than five minutes, but in that time, with hands of lightning speed, this gentle looking old man managed to crack every joint in my spine, and induce pain from head to toe.

When I later had tea with my torturer, 61-year-old Hazem revealed he had been a champion wrestler, reaching his peak in 1970 when he fought across the Middle East representing "Palestine". We leafed through his scrapbooks of photos and newspaper clippings.

"Young people here don't care about sport any more," he said. "They don't realise sport can give you dignity in a situation when it is so difficult to be dignified. Sitting in coffee shops or on the streets achieves nothing."

By the time I walked out of the bath-house, Hazaem's magic spell had begun to work, and my muscles felt great.



Aleem reaches the half way point on his journey near the city of Nablus


Aleem answers questions sent in by website readers from around the world.

Q: We would like to ask you if you are going to get another donkey, after donkey number two was turned back at the checkpoint. Perhaps you could get a local donkey, like Jesus did on Palm Sunday? Good luck! We will be following you all the way!
Class 4S (8-9 years old) Frith Manor Primary School, North Finchley, London

Dear Class 4S,

Thanks for your suggestion! As you can see, I have already got myself a new donkey.

Meet the donkeys who have accompanied Aleem on his journey

She was from a village called Yabad, and in her normal life she works on a farm there.

It seems she's pretty special. I am told that she gets loaded up with fruit and vegetables at her farm, and then walks half an hour to the market all by herself, and when she gets there and all the produce is taken off her back, she walks back to the farm alone again! Hopefully she will get all the way to Bethlehem with me - let's see!

Q: As a Muslim (I think, looking at your name, apologies if I'm wrong) what does Christmas mean to you?
Mo, Luton, UK

Hi Mo,

Christmas has always been celebrated in my family. Tree, turkey, gifts (including santa socks) etc. Of course, Jesus is a pivotal figure in Islam. I read your question out to Nedal, my (Muslim) host this evening in Al Fara Refugee Camp. He said, for him, Christmas was about remembering a message of peace and the things we have in common.

Q: About how many miles a day are you travelling?
Susan, West Midlands, UK

Hi Susan,

It varies, but I generally plan to walk about 10-13 miles (16-21km) each day. On the first day, I got a bit carried away and did about 17 miles (over 27km), and regretted it the next day. Fortunately, the aches did not last too long, and all is well now. I am determined to walk (and very occasionally donkey-ride) every step, even if I need pain-killing injections on Christmas Eve!

Q: Are people being kind to you? Or do you feel hostile vibes anywhere?
Ryan Paul, Kenora, Canada

Hello Ryan,

On the whole, people along the way have been fantastic. Going through some of the very small villages, where foreign visitors are rare, I have had some curious looks, but people have generally been very welcoming once we get chatting. There was an isolated incident in Jenin where a man shouted at me, thinking it was my intention to portray his city as backward (because I had a donkey with me!). We also had a run-in with Israeli officials ahead of crossing into the West Bank which led to our donkey having to be left behind.

Q: Would Joseph and Mary recognise anything along the route in 2008?
Sally Dando, Norfolk, UK

Hi Sally,

That question has crossed my mind many times a day during the trek. In terms of man-made structures, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth contains what are believed to be the ruins of Mary's home, and the Church of St Joseph, the ruins of Joseph's carpentry workshop. Other than that, the Church in Burqin houses the cave where the Bible story of Jesus curing the lepers is thought to have taken place.

Aleem Maqbool leads his donkey
The journey is a lesson in history and geography
The cave is said to have been totally enclosed except for a shaft down which food was lowered to the lepers, which you can still see today. Many here believe Jesus passed that way, and perhaps Mary and Joseph.

However, for me, it's the landscapes that perhaps offer the most tangible connection to history. The walk on Day Four, across rolling hills and olive groves from the Christian village of Zababdeh to a place called Al Far'a (when several hours passed without me seeing a car, or even a road), has been the best example, and a great experience.

Q: Can you see the stars at night? This is key to recreating that night with the Bethlehem Star, don't you think?
Jorge Enrique Telles Mosquera, Jauja, Perú (from BBC Mundo)

Hi Jorge,

I have been very lucky. The skies have been cloudless every night, and the stars clearly visible. You are absolutely right, it definitely adds to the experience. My astronomy is not great though, so I have no idea what I am looking at! Promise to find out.

Q: What are you most looking forward to? Afterwards please tell me what was most interesting.
Tom Rimmer, Virginia Water, UK

Hi Tom,

I was undoubtedly most looking forward to the two treks through the hills from Zababdeh to Nablus, via al-Fara and the small villages in between - no big towns or cities, no heavy traffic, no particular political obstacles to expect. The first didn't let me down, and I hope the second one doesn't. The walks get a bit more "scrappy" after Nablus. Hope to let you know about the second part of your question soon.

Aleem Maqbool with friends and donkey
Away from traffic, in swathes of tranquillity

Today was one of the legs of the trek I had been looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint.

As the village of Zababdeh started to come to life, I met two people who would accompany me and my donkey through the hills and valleys for the coming hours.

Nedal Sawalmeh would be my guide for two days. George Rishmawi is passionate about walking through the region and has done extensive research into biblical sites here: two Palestinian friends, united by a very apparent love of the land.

"We're following caravan routes from thousands of years ago," said George. "Walking here and speaking to people we meet on our way is the only way to understand this place."

So we did; an elderly shepherd leaning forward on his wooden stick as he sat on a rocky outcrop on a hilltop; the six boys from the refugee camp who had walked for miles to collect the potatoes left behind in the fields after the harvest; the old lady in traditional Palestinian dress, hanging her washing out, who was curious about the new faces going through her village.

In between were vast swathes of tranquil, seemingly untouched, countryside. There was a period during the day when we did not see a road, let alone a car, for well over three hours, something I had not been sure was possible in the West Bank.

Aleem Maqbool with donkey
Roll on, day five!
On one ridge, beside a pine forest, I am certain that, several times, the donkey paused and lifted its head high to admire the view.

Of course, we talked of the political situation and the conflict, but both Nedal and George would happily break off to talk extensively about unusual trees we passed, point out remnants of Canaanite villages, or explain why a farm was laid out in the way it was.

By late afternoon, we reached Nedal's home in al-Fara (where I would spend the night), and parted company with George.

Around 60 years ago, al-Fara camp started life as a collection of tents housing some of those Palestinians who had fled, or been forced out of their homes in the year Israel was created.

But as time has gone on, there is much more of an air of permanency about this, and all of the other refugee camps in the West Bank, which now look like slightly haphazard, squat, concrete towns.

Nedal's home is cosy, and brought to life by his six children.

If my diary entry is a bit late it is because I have been having an engaging (if unintelligible) conversation with a 13-month-old, while the entire contents of my radio recording and broadcasting kit have been systematically displayed around the living room by a seven and 10-year-old, who also demanded an explanation of each component.

Earlier, Nedal's eldest son, Abed, who is 15, thoughtfully gave me the gift of an mp3 file on my arrival. It is a song by a rapper from Jenin, Abu Hattah, called "Weyn Ehmaray?"….."Where's my Donkey?"

Roll on, day five.

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