Regardless of one’s religious preference, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem when it’s 30 minutes away. Knowing this, my roommate and I decided that, despite the murmurings of an Al Qaeda threat, we were going to have an Adventure Christmas. Eh, I said to myself, I’ve got the rest of my life to have nice quiet holidays with my family. I want to live up this adventure motif while I can.
So, in plummeting temperatures and torrential rain, Amanda and I set out for the church where we would be taken to the West Bank. I looked like a drowned rat within 2 minutes, despite the umbrella, rain coat and Nike dry-weave running apparel under my outer layer of clothing. (Note to the good people at Nike: now make this stuff waterproof.) Once we got there, we were bussed to the border, and once were in Bethlehem–called Beit Lechem in both Hebrew and Arabic–we piled out of the bus and into the rain. Our group wound through the back alleys away from the central courtyard where all the festivities were being held, and I started noticing posters of Arafat, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad-sponsored posters of suicide bombers. These posters, it should be noted, were nowhere to be seen in the more heavily-trafficked areas, but were all over the place in the alleys.
We stopped in front of a small door in a stone wall, which opened into an ancient-looking passageway into the Greek Orthodox church. After navigating the labrynth, we arrived in a small sanctuary in the Greek church where they were letting our group hold an Anglican service. (Yay for religious pluralism!) The 50 or so people in our group crammed into the tiny space, and Amanda and I were seated against the back wall–but since the space was so small, we sill had a good view. The service started, and suddenly a security entourage made their way into the crowd. In walked a man who appeared to be the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church in the West Bank; this caused a bit of a stir, but the service continued as I grew increasingly confused by why a guy who leads a small, peaceful religious minority required such a huge security detail. A few minutes later, the priest stands up and says “We’re pleased to have with us tonight the President of the…” No way, I thought to myself. No way is Mahmoud Abbas here. “Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”
Holy something I can’t say in church, Batman!
He then gave what I’m sure was an impressive speech, but I can’t recall a word of it–I was too busy trying to angle myself on my chair to get a good picture of him. I don’t care if standing on an ancient wooden chair in a church makes me a bad person, I reasoned to myself. I’m getting my pictures of Abbas. As Murphy’s Law would have it, my camera batteries ran out in the middle of his speech. Thankfully, I had back-ups–so there I was, fumbling to change the batteries with my fingers numb from the cold, determined to get pictures of this man if it’s the last thing I do. I managed to get a good angle, and tried to get as many pictures as possible. He left soon thereafter, and the service continued as though nothing had happened–but my head was spinning from excitement. “I can’t believe that just happened!” Amanda and I would hiss to each other in between songs. “We just saw Mahmoud Abbas!”
After the service, Amanda and I broke off from the group and decided to get some food and souveniers before shlepping towards the border again. I knew just what I wanted: shwarma. I’ve decided that this needs to be my official Middle East holiday tradition, if for no other reason than the novelty of eating shwarma on Christmas Eve. After practicing my Arabic and successfully getting said shwarma, we headed back towards the border checkpoint, expecting to go through the usual border-crossing process of presenting our passports, going through multiple metal detectors, and being questioned by the border police. Nope. No one even got up from their chairs. “Do you have passports?” asked the border police officer; before we could even get the word “yes” out of our mouths, she’d waved us through passport control.
We got home around midnight, and finished off the evening by opening the presents our families had sent us. Happily back in the warm, dry comfort of my room, I could only think to myself: adventure Christmas, indeed.