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On The Back Streets Of Bethlehem Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

25 December 2015

Whenever we come across a manger scene, whether it's in a church or on a lawn or under a Christmas tree, we can't help but compare it to the crypt we saw one afternoon in Bethlehem. The manger scenes are always simpler, even with their array of wise men, shepherds and livestock than what we found that day in Manger Square.

Instead of the straw crib on a dirt floor warmed by a few sleepy animals, the spot were Jesus is said to have been born is marked under an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into a marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps.

The Star. On the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.

And just as disjointedly, we remember that the way we pronounce Bethlehem in English is not the way it's pronounced in, well, Bethlehem itself. There it's pronounced Bet-lay'-hem, with no digraph 'th' and the accent on the second syllable.

That pronunciation was just the first of many differences we discovered the day we stood on the site of the original manger. But let's start at the beginning.

WE HAD GONE to the Arab bus station in Jerusalem earlier that day. The Arab buses were a lot different from the Egged buses we'd taken with our friend Dan on our way to Jerusalem from the Huliot Valley in the north where we'd worked on a kibbutz all summer.

The Egged buses, whose factory we had toured, were much like the Greyhounds at home that we rode up Highway 101 from school to go home for a holiday. Clean, comfortable, well-maintained and powerful, one just like the other. The drivers seemed to be airline pilots. The seats seemed designed for reclining in isolation.

The Arab buses, in contrast, did not even look mechanically sound. Each one was hand-painted differently from the next. A chaotic mix of color and design incomprehensible to tourists. But the tourists took tour buses from their hotels in Jerusalem to places like Bethlehem, which were in Arab-controlled territory.

And the drivers? They reminded us of our grandfather, who liked to punch the gas to show us how fast his new Dodge could go. Characters.

We rode the Arab bus to Bethlehem along the side of a hill, chickens squawking, children crying, women chatting, men sleeping. And somehow we all arrived, got off and went our separate ways, no one to greet us and show us the sites. It was, after all, just a local bus.

It was hard to miss the big church, though. We entered through a small door and found the Nativity Grotto. These things are always disappointing. Even Golgotha disappoints. They look more like carnival booths than the world stages on which history was made.

WE HAD MADE our pilgrimage. But we weren't ready to go back to the cafes and bazaars of Jerusalem. Instead, we wandered out of the square into the back streets of Bethlehem.

The buildings seemed a little newer and cleaner even than Jerusalem itself, we thought. A bit suburban, even. But they were also deserted.

We ran into a group of children kicking a worn out soccer ball around in the street. As we passed by, charmed to discover children played in the street here just as we had as a kid at home, they stopped to look at the stranger. We nodded hello and smiled.

They adopted us pretty quickly.

George was the oldest, about 10, and the only one who pretended to understand what we said when we told him we had come to see the manger. That impressed him. They were all Christian Arabs, after all.

The little one with him was his brother, he explained. And the tall boy with them was a friend of George's. They each nodded when he introduced them.

The three of us walked back to Manger Square and sat down on a high curbstone overlooking the red clay tile roofs of the buildings and the road on the side of the hill where you could see each tour bus as it approached the little town.

George only spoke Arabic. We didn't speak any Arabic at all. But that didn't stop us that afternoon. We managed to communicate with our hands and imaginations.

As a token of friendship he gave us 10 agorot and bought us a popsicle, refusing to let us pay. To top it off, he offered us his silver Israel ring, which his uncle makes to sell to tourists.

More friends joined us as we sat on the curb. There was Hador who sold postcards to the tourists, making about $20 a day, he bragged. And another boy, very tall, who smiled all the time. Then there was John (Hanna in Arabic, George said correctly), younger and chubby and full of fun.

We all shook hands vigorously, as boys do. Friends.

We had nothing with us. No camera. Not even a map. But they admired our old-fashioned pocket watch, which we had bought in Switzerland the year before. We told them our name, the only other thing we had to share, and they each practiced saying the oddly sounding name.

We sat on that curb and shot the breeze for an hour before another tour bus or three parked in the square and each boy scrambled to get to it first to offer to guide the tourists to the sites. As they ran off, though, they turned back and waved to us, yelling, "Mike!"

George took us back to the Nativity Grotto. He felt the native's obligation to show it to us himself, sure we hadn't done a good job of it alone.

George suggested we visit the famous Milk Grotto. We'd never heard of it, which he couldn't believe. He explained its importance.

On her way to the manger, Mary had nursed Jesus here. A drop of milk fell on the stone and turned it white. The soft stone of the place was said to perform miracles.

We picked up some of the stone in a small blue packet, unaware that the miracles were to induce pregnancies. George hadn't explained that to us.

By then it was time for us to return to Jerusalem.

George escorted us to the Arab bus stop, explaining it would cost us 40 agorot to get back to Jerusalem. He saw us off, waiting until the old bus grumbled out of the square and back to the winding road along the hillside. He waved goodbye the whole time.

It was the last we ever saw of him.

THE MEMORY of that afternoon has remained fresh in our mind for over 44 years.

We've only told the story a handful of times, though. But we were reminded of one of those times shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by Al Quaeda. A former co-worker whom we hadn't heard from in years, emailed us:

I was at a party over the weekend and of course the subject of the war came up. There was about six maybe seven people standing around trying to solve the issue at hand, the solution ... kill all the Afghanis.

It's funny how the strangest things trigger memories. I can't remember why you and I were talking about the Middle East so long ago but you told me then that there is more than one type of Muslim (I wasn't even clear on what a Muslim was) and perhaps my view was lacking a true understanding of the situation.

When this group of Pacific Northwest intellects reached the conclusion of killing the whole race I decided that it was time to find another conversation. As I worked my way back to the refrigerator I thought of you and a time when I probably sounded just like the folks that drove me to refresh my libation. It made me laugh.

George deserves the credit for that conversion. There are different kinds of Arabs, I must have been arguing before telling this story to drive the point home.

When we visited, George made us feel as if we had been given a tour of Bethlehem by Jesus himself. With kindness, grace and charm, he welcomed us to his town, showed us its treasures and saw us safely off. Forty-four years ago.

Where are you now, George?

It is painful to think about it. What could have happened to George, his little brother and his friends? George, Hador, Hanna, the tall one.

Did the people they love perish? Were they victims of the violence themselves?

Or did they escape somehow and work the tour buses, taking over the ring-making business and the popsicle stand?

Did they leave Bethlehem for Michigan or California? For a better life? Did they have families of their own? Did their children go to college? Are they grandparents now?

Perhaps it is better not to know. To go on remembering just one happy afternoon when language didn't stand in the way, when culture was a treasure to be shared, when curiosity and wonder were enough to make friends.

And when the wisest men were all children.

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