Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: BROKEN (12/06/18)
TITLE: Finding Peace
By Jude Harris
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Bethlehem was only a short ride from Jerusalem, but once through the Palestinian checkpoint, we were met with run-down buildings, broken windows, and mounds of trash. After parking in a grimy bus garage, our guide led us up a steep hill past many vacant buildings. Women in bright head scarfs walked by us. A man brewed coffee on a sidewalk flame. Outside one shop, a row of 70s manikins stared, startling us. None of this looked like the Bethlehem I’d imagined.
Our guide stopped our group at a souvenir shop and gave us instructions. “Now, you’re free to go to Bethlehem Square on your own. Just be sure that you are back here by noon. Our next stop is some distance away and we can’t wait for stragglers. And by the way, there’s going to be a Scout’s parade, so make sure you are not caught on the wrong side of the street when it starts.”
We walked further up the hill against the December winds to a security checkpoint. Groups of uniformed men huddled together surrounding the entry. Some wore black overcoats, some military garb, and others Palestinian militia uniforms. I noticed a man pouring coffee for a guard, the steam warming their faces. The guard caught my glance and offered me the coffee. I shrugged. He shrugged. Quickly I realized my faux pas, smiled and accepted the warm cup from his hand.
Bethlehem Square was only one block in perimeter. To enter this roped off area we had to pass through more security. Once inside, we felt watchful eyes following us from all directions, even from the rooftops. A huge Christmas tree and a life-size nativity dominated the square’s space. TV newscasters stood waiting while their crew set up cameras. Men rolled wooden carts through the crowd selling hot coffee and popcorn. Clusters of balloons bounced in the air. This felt like a circus, not a holy site.
Though the crowd was mostly adults, a few families brought young children. One mom smiled and nodded when we asked to photograph her toddler she’d dressed as Santa. Three female soldiers blushed and shyly posed for a photo. We found our cameras made it easy to connect with the local people.
I held on to Charlie’s jacket as we jostled through the crowds, but we got separated. When I found him, two plain-clothed security guards were searching his vest for hidden explosives. What irony! We were wary of others, but it was one of us they found suspicious!
Exhausting the square, we wandered down a quiet side street. One shop was open, an olive-wood craft shop. The owner introduced us to his beautiful daughter and told us how his ancestors immigrated to Israel from Italy 800 years ago. He then showed us a $7,000, five-foot-long carving of Noah’s ark, made from a single piece of wood! Reluctantly we left, but noting the time, we hurried back to the square.
Before we reached the square, we heard the drums. This meant we’d been caught on the wrong side of the street! Pressing into the crowds, we watched the youths stomp in formation. Drums thundered ominously, their pounding reverberating off the buildings of the narrow streets making our chests vibrate. We had expected a festive Christmas parade, but the fierce expressions on the young marcher’s faces alarmed us.
“Time to go!” Charlie mouthed, pointing to his watch. We searched for a way to cross the street but found none! Back at the gate, we explained our dilemma to the guards. They shrugged and shook their heads, unimpressed at our desperation. One street leading away from the square looked promising, but all its alleyways were dead ends. Finally, one winding stairwell led to a street below where we could see our guide. The parade was thinning here, so we zig-zagged in-between the marchers and made it to the other side.
Bethlehem had lost its quiet stillness. Yet in little gestures and shy smiles, in a cup of steaming coffee offered by a stranger, and in listening to a lonely shopkeeper, peace could still be found.
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