As of course has been widely reported, travelling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem these days is by no means straightforward. Indeed, Mary and Joseph may have taken a little longer to get there from Nazareth but they are unlikely to have encountered any thirty-foot high concrete walls. But more of that a bit later. Suffice it to say, I had anticipated a lengthy journey. So imagine my surprise when my No 21 bus from the East Jerusalem bus station deposited me a 100 yards or so from Manger Square just 40 minutes later. Of course we’d seen the ‘fence’; it’s not just in one place, such are the complicated demographics south of Jerusalem. However as we approached the boarder crossing the bus driver executed a nifty u-turn and we were up and away over the hills. I haven’t the faintest idea where we went but there’s clearly an open road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem known to the No 21 bus driver and, I suspect, a few others. Either his command of English wasn’t too great or he just wasn’t letting on – the latter, I suspect – but I got no clear answer when I asked him if this is what happened every day. One other small detail is worth recording. Between the u-turn and our destination, there wasn’t a single word spoken by anyone on the bus. You could have heard a pin drop.
Getting back was more complicated. First a word of warning. I wouldn’t advise anyone vaguely resembling a tourist to go anywhere near the Bethlehem bus station/taxi rank. If there was one taxi in line there must have been 200. As previous posts have made it clear, I have over the past few days become accustomed to fending off souk traders and taxi drivers. But nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught at the Manger Street Bus Station. Business is not good in Bethlehem at the moment and the chance of actually picking up a fare was clearly sufficient to warrant a stampede in my direction. I did the only sensible thing and high tailed it back to Manager Square where it’s possible to get a pretty good lunch at the St George Restaurant. (No need to book. There were at least thirty empty tables even after a Polish tour group had arrived.)
After lunch as luck would have it (but maybe not), there was a taxi right outside so I jumped in thinking myself lucky to have escaped the bus station mob. But I was in for a slightly different surprise. When I asked the driver how much he’d charge to take me to the crossing, he simply said, ‘what you want.’ It was only when we got to the boarder that I twigged he had meant precisely what he’d said. With the disappearance of tens if not hundreds of thousands of visitors, the bottom has dropped out of the Bethlehem economy and here was one lucky taxi driver trying to make ends meet by appealing to my conscience. He seemed pleased with 50 shekels (about £7.00) for the five minute ride. He’d be doing all right if he could find another 20 such customers but I rather suspect I was the last one he’d see today.
I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the ‘fence’. As a child of the Cold War who crossed the iron curtain on many occasions, I’d hoped not to see another one. It’s worse than the pictures show, far worse. I really cannot remember the Berlin Wall being quite so awful. This one’s certainly higher and there are watch towers every so often just to reinforce one’s sense of déjà vue. But perhaps the most worrying thing I saw was the Jerusalem Stone cladding being added to the pillars supporting the horizontal lengths of concrete: all very decorative, but one doesn’t indulge in such architectural titivation of a temporary structure.