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The road to Bethlehem



Aleem Maqbool walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, retracing a journey made by Joseph and Mary in the New Testament story of Jesus' birth.

Part three of his diary began in al-Bireh, near Ramallah, and took him through Jerusalem to Bethlehem in time for Christmas.

AFTERNOON , 25 DECEMBER: JOURNEY'S END

"You know this walk is going to change you, don't you?" Father Louis, the parish priest in Nazareth had said, before I set off.

"It won't be just a physical journey that you take, but a spiritual one too." I smiled, politely, but did not believe him.

Aleem Maqbool and his donkey in Bethlehem
Aleem Maqbool reflects on the complex region he has journeyed through

Maybe it is just my exhaustion, and maybe it will seem ridiculous and romantic in a few days time, but now, at the end of the trek, I do feel uplifted by the last 10 days.

If you want to call that "spiritual", then perhaps Father Louis was right.

I certainly feel I have learned a great deal from the people I have met and stayed with along the way from Nazareth. And not just about the conflict or religion.

Some conversations will linger for a while.

Those with Nedal, my guide through the hills of the northern West Bank, and the nearest thing to an "Ent" from Tolkien's Middle-Earth as I was ever likely to meet in person.

He talked of the flora and fauna as if they were family.

Chatting with the 1970s wrestling champion, Hazem, in the bath-house in Nablus, and hearing his disappointment that young people were losing interest in "noble" sporting pursuits like his.

And then there was the young Israeli soldier at a West Bank checkpoint, who talked of a love of football, and defended me when his colleagues said they really could not understand why I couldn't just get in a car and drive the rest of the way to Bethlehem.

Much of the trip was a reminder that, however obvious this sounds, people in a conflict zone are as three-dimensional as those anywhere else.

There were, of course, sad indications of the tensions here.

There was the silence of hundreds of people as they buried a 22-year-old militant in the village of Yamoon, after an Israeli army raid.

A sense of how far apart the worlds of Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers were, how little interaction there was between the two and how entrenched their views are.

And then there was the military checkpoint that greets visitors entering Bethlehem.

But people along the way did speak of hope - though not necessarily expectation - that things would get better one day.

I want to say a quick word about the donkeys. All five are now back with, and being cared for by, their respective owners.

At the risk of upsetting the others (though I have a feeling they won't care), number three remains a firm favourite - a loyal and worthy travelling companion, with whom I shared walks through some of the finest landscapes of the trail.

Almost at the moment it turned Christmas Day in Bethlehem, it began to rain.

The initial recitations of the Latin Patriarch, in the Church of the Nativity, fought with the bad weather, and won - to be heard outside, in Manger Square.

But the Patriarch's traditional Christmas message, of peace and goodwill, has a much tougher battle to fight.

Even as midnight mass was being conducted, there was news of more conflict elsewhere in the region.

But throughout history, change in this part of the world has often come unexpectedly and in dramatic fashion.

According to the Bible, a journey here made by a man, a heavily-pregnant woman and a donkey changed the world in an instant.

Around two millennia on, their story still impacts on the lives of hundreds of millions of people.


AFTERNOON , 24 DECEMBER: INTO BETHLEHEM

The final day of our trek began in the peaceful surroundings of Shepherds' Fields, close to the caves it is thought the shepherds used for shelter.

But the closer we got to what is the focal point of Christmas celebrations around the world, the higher the noise levels and the more feverish the atmosphere around us became.

Bagpipers play in front of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, 24 December 2008
Bands were marching outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity

More than anything else, climbing the last cobbled street into the centre of Bethlehem was a moment of considerable relief.

Sada (donkey number five) and I squeezed past boy scout marching bands and bagpipers. The plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity opened up to our left, with Manger Square to our right.

We were a matter of metres away from the spot where, after Mary and Joseph's long journey, it is believed their baby Jesus was laid in a manger.

Hundreds of pilgrims have been pouring here in recent hours ahead of midnight mass - the climax of proceedings here and the moment when I will consider my journey complete.

EVENING , 23 DECEMBER: BEIT SAHOUR

"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them and they were greatly afraid."

I am in the village of Beit Sahour (where the above episode from Luke's Gospel is thought to have happened), just a short walk from Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Excited as I am about nearly reaching the journey's goal, tiredness has been the overriding emotion today.

Church of the Nativity
Thousands of pilgrims descend on Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity

And as I traipsed the tough Jerusalem stone pavements that jarred my bones, I tried to conjure up the feeling of walking through those olive groves just a few days ago. As I stood in a long queue to get through the turnstiles of the final Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem, I scrolled through photos on my camera, of beautiful hills and hamlets, taken during the trek.

This, the main entry point into Bethlehem on foot, felt a world away. It meant walking past Israeli soldiers, through a door-shaped gap in a long section of high, grey, concrete wall. This is part of the barrier Israel has been building in recent years, it says to keep out suicide bombers and attackers. Palestinians see it as a means by which Israel can grab more land.

People in Bethlehem often talk of feeling suffocated, by a barrier that encircles parts of the town, and encroaches well inside its territory, and by the Jewish settlements that are being built on occupied Palestinian lands close by.

Late in the evening, I wound my way down to a field in Beit Sahour where not one, but a dozen donkeys were waiting for me. Actually, I was visiting a travelling clinic run by the only donkey sanctuary in the region. Villagers had brought their animals to be checked by an expert.

Manger Square, Bethlehem
In Manger Square preparations are underway for Christmas

Simon Lowe, from Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, talked of horrific cases of abuse he had come across in his time here (animals being beaten, or set alight or, more usually, just abandoned). But his sanctuary takes in such cases and keeps them for the rest of their lives.

Never in my life did I think I would be saying this, but I had missed having a donkey to walk with today. Dour, they may be, but their natural humility, mixed with the occasional spirited bout of stubbornness (usually, I thought, brought on with good reason), I found to be pretty admirable. Number five is ready to accompany me on the final leg tomorrow morning.


MORNING , 23 DECEMBER: JERUSALEM
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Aleem Maqbool reaches Jerusalem

Al-Bireh, just north of Ramallah, where I sipped my Turkish coffee, is where it is believed there was a caravan stop at the time of Mary and Joseph's nativity journey.

It is also thought to be where, on a trip 12 years later, according to the Bible, the couple realised they had accidentally left Jesus behind in Jerusalem.

The ruins of a Byzantine church stand there now, littered with plastic bottles and old newspapers. Beside the site is a mosque.

Luke's Gospel describes the spot as being "a day's journey" from Jerusalem, which was to be my next stop.

Palestinian woman walks past mannequins in Ramallah (21 December 2008)
Many Palestinians here, outwardly at least, seem determined not to concern themselves even with the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip

I headed south, with my elderly donkey, through territory I knew well. Ramallah is the city in which I have lived for more than a year-and-a-half.

Amid all the chaos and conflict in other parts of the Palestinian Territories, Ramallah tries hard to cocoon itself.

Three Palestinian refugee camps are incorporated into the city; Jewish settlements expand on the hills around it; access to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or parts of the northern West Bank has become difficult - yet the building work on new apartment blocks all over Ramallah points to the beginnings of economic progress.

Socially too, the city has tried to remain resilient.

An evening out in any number of fancy restaurants or bars hypnotises the wealthiest of Ramallah's residents into thinking that all is well in the world.

Many Palestinians here, outwardly at least, seem determined not to concern themselves even with the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, for example.

Underneath, most acknowledge that Ramallah's future is still incredibly fragile.

Ramallah wall section
A large, new piece of graffiti is visible on the familiar grey wall near the Kalandia checkpoint

Approaching the Kalandia checkpoint, through which I needed to pass continue my journey, I noticed a large, new piece of graffiti on the familiar grey.

"ROMANTIK/POETIK," it said - the artist having started on the Israeli watchtower and continuing on to the high concrete wall that separates Ramallah from Jerusalem here.

I had to say goodbye to donkey number four.

We had been told by the Israeli authorities that we would need a licence for her if we were to film her in Jerusalem, which would take at least 30 days to come through.

I was not so sorry - well-behaved as she was, the donkey was far too slow. I would look to get a new one near Bethlehem.

I negotiated the queues, turnstiles and x-ray machines with few hold-ups, and headed through the crossing towards the centre of Jerusalem.

I was turned back at a subsequent, smaller, checkpoint, but it was a minor inconvenience as I knew a route around it.

Church spire in Jerusalem's Old City, with Dome of the Rock behind (file)
The Old City of Jerusalem has welcomed pilgrims for centuries

Mary and Joseph's nativity trail then took a small detour via my favourite hummus restaurant in the suburb of Beit Hanina.

But it was not too much later that I found myself at the gates of Jerusalem's Old City, that had welcomed pilgrims for centuries.

The narrow, stone streets of the ancient Christian Quarter (where I would spend the night), were decorated with coloured lights. It was impossible to stop smiling, in spite of the tiredness.

This morning, Santa Claus visited the Old City - he was even handing out free Christmas trees.

In fact, it was Issa, a well-known former basketball player, himself from the Old City, doing a good deed on behalf of the Jerusalem Municipality.

"Peace to all mankind!" he said cheerfully while helping people select a fir that best suited them.

MORNING , 22 DECEMBER: AL-BIREH
Aleem and donkey number four

"If people think my views are extreme, then fine, I'm an extremist," said Batya Medad. "I have no problem with that."

Batya lives in the Jewish settlement of Shilo, in the middle of the "West Bank" (though Batya does not use that term, instead calling it by the Biblical regions it covers, Judea and Samaria).

Every country around the world, except for Israel, considers settlements like Batya's illegal, built on occupied Palestinian land. When I put that to her, she responded angrily.

"We (Jews) are the only ones with history here, we were here first and we should be here now. It's totally immoral to say we can't be," she says.

Batya Medad
Batya says she instantly felt at home when she moved from New York to Shilo
"I don't care what the world thinks. They didn't care when the Nazis started against the Jews and when Jews were murdered. So why should I care?"

Batya and her husband, Yisrael, were both born and raised in New York, but moved in 1970. She says she never had a feeling of belonging when she was in the United States, but that when she moved here, she instantly felt at home.

Israeli and Palestinian politicians, supported by the international community, are meant to be working towards an end to the Israeli occupation here and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

However, Batya says she thinks that the peace process will go nowhere, and that her future in Shilo is not under threat at all.

From Shilo, I continued south along a route through a valley it is believed Mary and Joseph, and indeed many prophets (including Abraham) before them, may have travelled.

Even in the past few decades, this landscape has changed considerably.

Shilo and valley below
Like many other Jewish settlements, Shilo occupies a hilltop

On many of the hilltops were the gleaming, red-roofed homes of Jewish settlements. Down below them, the more haphazard, organic-looking, Palestinian villages. There is almost no interaction between the two sets of communities, only tension.

It was an uncomfortable walk, as I received suspicious looks from both settlers and Palestinians.

The settlers I passed, one or two of them armed, seemed to assume I was Palestinian, and so, perhaps, a potential attacker. "Assalamo alaikum," one settler said as he approached me, in what I felt was a test. I decided a "hi" might be better than the traditional Muslim reply in these circumstances. He relaxed and walked away.

The Palestinians, who heard me speaking English on my phone, seemed to assume I was an immigrant settler. "Mustoutan, mustoutan" ("settler, settler"), I heard a young boy shout as he ran into his house after clocking me.

I decided to quicken my pace and walk close to the main road.

Donkey number four was waiting for me further down the trail. She was white from head to tail, except for a dark, rough patch on her right flank - I asked her owner what it was.

Meet the donkeys who have accompanied Aleem on his journey

He told me that the donkey came from the Kalandia Refugee Camp, close to Ramallah. A few years ago, he said, when there were frequent clashes between young people from the camp and Israeli soldiers, the donkey had brushed against a pile of burning tyres which set her hair alight. He said there had thankfully been no lasting damage.

The donkey seemed to be very well-behaved. It was only once I starting walking with my new companion that I realised that we did have a problem - she was extraordinarily slow. We called the owner again, who explained that she was now in her mid-twenties, so there was nothing we could do about her speed. I persevered.

By evening, I eventually reached the village of Bir Zeit where I was to stay with the Christian Kassis family (roughly half of the village is Muslim, the other half Christian).

Over the traditional Palestinian dish of Maklouba (which means "upside-down" and is wonderful mix of rice, meat and yoghurt), I spoke to Mrs Kassis and the older of her two sons (the other was out with university friends).

I was told that the family's former house, and the land around it had been confiscated by the Israeli army as it was next to the checkpoint to the north of the village (which I had entered earlier). There had been no compensation, they said.

Earlier this year, the younger son had been arrested by the army in a 3am raid on the house. His brother told me that he had been held without charge (something the Israeli authorities call "administrative detention") for six months before being released.

If it looks like we might miss Christmas in Bethlehem because of the donkey's slow pace, I will have to trade her in for a younger animal

While we were eating, there was a knock at the door. Mrs Kassis answered and then came back into the kitchen, beaming, with a piece of paper in her hand.

"It's my permit from Israel to travel to Jerusalem for Christmas," she said proudly. Her son was not so impressed.

"It's sad that we get excited about these little things while everything else is going wrong," he said.

I spent the night at the Kassis home and have made my way south to al-Bireh. I write this report from a coffee shop there, full of old men (some wearing the traditional Palestinian headscarf) playing cards and drinking tea.

The donkey waits outside. We will see how she does, but if it looks like we might, in fact, miss Christmas in Bethlehem because of her slow pace, I will have to trade her in for a younger animal.

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