Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Travel Writing: the border crossing

We began our trip in a Moumayez taxi with a Bedouin driver who spoke of Jordan as a land of peace, and King Abdullah as a man of peace.

My father agreed. "If all Middle Eastern countries had rulers like King Hussein and King Abdullah, this region would be known for its reconciliation rather than its strife."

"Indeed," said our taxi driver.

At the Jordanian border our passports were stamped by a man who commanded us to smile.

"Why so angry?" he reprimanded our solemn faces, delighted by the picture of my grinning 17-year-old self and our occasional Arabic phrases.

On the Israeli side we were met with small-scale changes since our last time through -- a working restroom and a new system to sort the desirous from the unwanted. The key? Smile brightly, look innocent (there are some advantages, it would seem, to still looking like a high school teenager), and wave the blue passport that marks me as one of the unthinking loyal.

The girl at the high desk asked where we were going.

"Jerusalem," we say.

"To the West Bank?" she asks.

"Jerusalem," we chorus.

"Only Jerusalem?" she presses.

"Maybe Galilee," we answer.

She nods.

And I wonder, by staying silent are we consenting? To the truth of her assumptions, to the justice of her questions?

"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light." -Dylan Thomas

The first sight of David's city -- the church steeple peeking over the hill -- always feels a little like traveling back in time. Back to an age when the world was built in stone, and cities grew out of the earth with flowers and arches, and the land was bathed in dusty sunlight. This is the holy land -- the land of crusader knights and holy fathers -- of tragedy and ecstasy.

There is a secret code of sorts among those who visit Bethlehem -- a language learned of hms and hahs, evasion and misdirection.

"Where are you going?" asked the German girl in front of us at the border.

"Um, Jerusalem," was the reply.

She laughed.

"Ah, yes, Jerusalem. Smile and wink."

When asked the same question, she replied, "Oh, me too -- Jerusalem."

Asked where she was staying, she said she didn't know yet -- was planning to look around, see the sights.

Stepping off the bus, away from the scrutiny of Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles, her story changed.

"Do you know where to get the bus to Bethlehem?"

You'd think the soldiers would catch on.

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