'Chips for Breakfast!'
I look in astonishment at Anne and then check it out for myself - maybe not such a good idea in the morning! I resort to less 'exotic' fare. After a fairly rapid breakfast we set off, on foot, for the Church of the Nativity where we are to celebrate mass at 9.00am.
The morning is bright with a blue cloudless sky, though considerably cooler than we have been used to - not surprising when you consider we are nearly 3500 feet higher than we were yesterday! The route into the old centre of Bethlehem lies along marble paved and slabbed roads, intriguing alleyways leading off to left and right, past small artisan shops, open for business.
We emerge into Manger Square and make our way over to the Church of the Nativity and through the small doorway. It is easy to see in the light of day that the original door was much bigger. Usama tells us that the doorway was made smaller to prevent horsemen riding into the church to loot it or they also tied ropes round the pillars to pull them down, thus demolishing the church. It is also known as the Door of Humility. We work our way through the scaffolding and through a doorway into the cloisters outside the entrance to St Catherine's, then, in the church, down steep steps to the chapel of St Joseph, where we are to have mass.
The chapel is part of a series of caves and catacombs that form the underlying basis for the whole of the site. The altar is elevated above the main part of the chapel. The walls are of bare rock or stone blocks, some of which have had phrases cut into them. The overall effect is one of simplicity, in keeping with the nature of the birth of Our Lord. It is quite cramped and also quite chilly too! For much of the mass I find myself pondering how the birth of this little child in such a simple place has impacted on the lives of so many.
There is a moment of humour after mass as Fr Paul (the Elder) poses for photos in his vestments which have lovely embroidery of the Holy Family on the front. After mass, filming is taking place in the Tomb of Eusebius next door to our chapel, so we have to make a rapid exit up into the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria.
St Catherine's is the parish church for the Catholics of Bethlehem and is a relatively modern building with a towering nave, the roof of which is supported with gold coloured cross-beams. Sunlight filters through the stained glass scene of the Nativity above the altar, filling the church with light and colour. Above the entrance is another window of the Visit of the Magi. Passing outside we re-enter the cloister we had crossed earlier and in which there is a stone pillar of St Hieronymus or Jerome as he is also known. It was he who was responsible for the first translation of the Bible directly from Hebrew into Latin. This version, known as the Vulgate was in use up until the 20th century. St Jerome had also established a monastery in Bethlehem and St Catherine's church is built over the remains of this and the later remains of a Crusader church.
Leaving the complex we are introduced to one of Ann's innumerable friends in the Holy Land who is one of the door keepers and a Muslim. It has been explained to us that there is a constant controversy within the Church of the Nativity between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church. Each group jealously guards its right to maintain certain areas of the church which they have traditionally cared for. Sadly this has led to delays in getting certain necessary works done. It is only since the Palestinian Authorities have stepped in to direct and negotiate between their differences that the current level of restoration has been able to take place.
Back in Manger Square we stop for a group photo which we are assured will be ready for us by that afternoon. Turning the corner, we walk up Milk Grotto Street to the Chapel of the same name, passing the Blessings Gift Shop en route which we will return to later.
The grotto is busy with tourists making a whistle-stop tour of Bethlehem. The steps lead in to a smallish cavern formed of soft white rock. It is here that legend has it that Mary stopped to feed Jesus during their flight to Egypt. Milk drops fell onto the stone giving it its white colour. Today it is a shrine to which both Christians and Muslims come to venerate, in particular young mothers or those trying to conceive. I am slightly bemused by the place until I think of my own daughter, herself a mother with a young child who loves his food. The love and bonding that is present at feeding times is palpable and so crucial to the well-being of both mother and child.
Following a ramped slope I find myself in a peaceful area containing a chapel enclosed with glass, the walls coloured with light shining through modern stained glass windows. Within is a nun in silent contemplative prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I pause to pray for my daughter and grandson and all nursing mothers, then make my way back up to the main grotto area - still full of people. I leave and make my way to Bassem's shop.
The shop has been in the Giacaman family for at least 3 generations. Outside are off-cuts which Bassem offers to us free of charge. To the side is a workshop where many of the things available in the shop are produced. Entering the workshop, the air is full of dust and everything has a grey look about it. A young man works at a workbench using a rotary saw to create the basic outline of various shapes - a star, a palm tree, a crucifix. There are no guards on the machine and he doesn't wear a face mask to protect himself from the dust. Another man is similarly occupied at another workbench cutting narrow strips of wood and nonchalantly using a third piece to prise the cut piece out from the narrow space between blade and side of the machine. I mentally cringe at the thought of what one slip could do to him. Bizarrely there are several cages with parrots and cockatiels in them - perhaps to cheer up the drabness of the place.
To the side of the workshop a flight of steep steps leads up to a panoramic viewpoint. I make my way up the narrow stairway and across a flat roof to another set of steps, emerging on to the roof of the storeroom. Much of Bethlehem is laid out before me. A solitary crane towers over the church of the Nativity, evidencing the work being done. Beyond, the minarets of the mosque gleam in the bright sunshine. To my right the flat roofs and modern architecture of the new chapel and convent at the Milk Grotto can be seen. Some panoramas identifying the different landmarks are on display on the roof top. Looking at these and comparing the view in front of me, it is evident that several settlements have been built in close proximity to the walls of Bethlehem, almost boxing in the town. In the distance the grey wall of separation looms metres above the streets of the town, graffiti proclaiming the Palestinians feelings about Israeli encroachment. I descend the stairs gingerly and enter the main shop.
There are a wide variety of souvenirs on display inside ranging from top of the range olive oil soap products down to tiny olive wood carvings. I spend time selecting a variety of objects for my family. Most of the group are similarly engaged. Ann's calls occasionally rings out 'How much for this Bassem?' The prices seem very reasonable and with the selection available most people find something to buy. Bassem agrees to store some of our purchases and bring them along to the hotel that evening. Later, Ann tells me that the money spent by our group today will go a long way towards supporting Bassem and his family for the next six months. What can seem a paltry amount to us can make such a vast difference to others less fortunate than ourselves............As we walk back down the street to the Church of the Nativity, shop sellers try their hardest to get us to buy their goods too. Each person in this town is desperate for what little they can get and the current lack of tourists makes their plight even worse.
As midday approaches the call of the muezzin can be heard calling from the mosque. Young men lean against the walls to the side of the square, intent on the words of the mullah pouring forth from the loudspeakers. His voice sounds angry and we look at each other apprehensively before turning again into the Church of the Nativity.
Inside it is packed with tourists, each group gathering round its leader, making it difficult to find a way through the throng. We squeeze between packed bodies and scaffolding and find ourselves at the end of a queue waiting to go into the grotto area. Waiting in line gives me a better chance to look at the decorations of the church, which seem to mainly consist of large incense burners strung from the rafters. Many of them have coloured glass baubles on them which reminds me unmistakably of Christmas tree decorations - perhaps this is where the idea originated?? We slowly shuffle forward and precariously descend the steep, stone steps, aware of the build up of people behind and to the side, all eager to make the same journey. This time my visit to the grotto is short and sweet before emerging into the relative peace and quiet of St Catherine's and the cloister beyond, where a few of us gather in the sunshine, warming ourselves in the enclosed space.
Lunchtime approaches and I meet up with Ann again and we go in search of Des. He and the Fathers Paul emerge from the Mosque into which they had been invited by the Mullah, respectful of men of the cloth even if the religion differs. In answer to a question from them it had been explained that the exhortations of the Mullah during prayer had been to remind the young men that Islam is a peaceful religion and that violence under any form is not acceptable.
It must be really difficult for the Palestinians to remain peaceful in the face of such oppression. They and their leaders are to be admired for trying to maintain a peaceful environment. The presence of the Peace Centre in Manger Square is testimony to the efforts being made to promote peace, democracy, religious tolerance and cultural diversity. Sadly there are some extremists, on both sides, who feel that violence is the only answer to the problems in the land and when the opposing sides clash the result is bloodshed and terror.
After a generous lunch in one of the local restaurants surrounding the square, Ann and I return to Bassem's shop. En route, we pick up the photographs ordered that morning and then meet yet another of Ann's friends - a young lad with a licence to sell bags on the street. As we approach, Ann explains that the area he can tout for business is restricted to the area in front of the shop, where he stands, and a strip of the same width across the road and partially up the opposite street - just a few metres in which to make a living. The guy who has given him his licence comes out of his shop for a quick chat and gives us a thick, chocolate, Christmas tree decoration.
Back at Bassem's shop, Ann has been given free rein in the store room above the shop to look for pieces which she can buy to take back home and sell in her own gift shop. We spend a couple of dusty hours searching through boxes, valiantly lifted down from the top shelves by one of the shop workers. Ann tells me that this particular lad is in his late teens and his father had begged Bassem to employ him. The boy had had very little education as his family could not afford to send him to school and there is no state funded education. As a result his literacy and numeracy skills are non-existent. Bassem had tried to teach him the basics during the time he had been working, but the lad was unable to grasp the basic concepts required to learn. Even counting was a struggle as he had to use the calculator on his phone and frequently switched digits round. His work therefore involved lifting and carrying things most of the time. The rest of his family are dependent on his wage to supplement the small income they already had. Prospects for this young man do not look good.
Eventually we move back down into the shop and Ann starts to place the items she has purchased into boxes for ease of packing. During this time another of the workers starts to talk to me:
'How is your life?' I mishear.
'Fine, thank you. How is your life?' I respond - as you do without thinking sometimes.
He looks at me in strangely - I'm not sure if it's because I've offended him or if he's unused to someone asking him how he is.
'I have been living in a prison for over 30 years,' he finally replies.
What follows is a quiet, dignified expression of his frustration at the lack of opportunity for growth and advancement in his world, the shrinking of the walls of his life - growing ever smaller as the settlements take hold around his town. His hopes for the future crushed under the weight of oppression - an out-pouring of sorrow for shattered dreams.....
A group of tourists crowds in and round the shop, glancing briefly at the objects for sale, but more at their Smartphones as they use the free Wi-Fi connection to check their emails, take 'selfies' to post on social media or check out what's going on in their safe, online world.
The shop empties and Bassem and I are left alone.
'Ann says you've just become a father!' I enthuse.
His face falls, 'I don't know what I'm doing,' he says miserably, 'I can't even hold it...'
I listen as this young, tired, father, speaks of his concerns in trying to raise a family amidst the difficulties that face him in this conflicted place. His helpless, days-old baby is totally dependent on him for everything. The challenges which face him concerning the future of his child and family have suddenly become a reality. His responsibilities are almost overwhelming him. We talk some more, my heart going out to this generous, determined, young man. I hope and pray that the words I speak may help and support him in some small way......
Two of our group suddenly make an entrance. They have been 'brought' here by a local guide who has promised to show them an Olive Wood Factory. There is some amusement on our part as we realise what has happened, but the sobering reality is that the people of Bethlehem are so desperate to make some sort of living that they need to resort to taking tourists to shops in the hope that they will buy something and the guide in turn will get a cut - just a few shekels is the difference between food or no food.
There is a loose arrangement to meet up in the early evening for a time of prayer in front of the grotto. I take my leave of Bassem, with some quiet words of reassurance and we head off back to the grotto. The streets are much quieter now, most tourists nowadays will not stay overnight in Bethlehem but make a flying visit in just one day, consequently, the whole economy of this beleaguered town is teetering on the edge.
Within, the church has lost its hordes of people and we quickly make our way down to the grotto. A few of our group are in evidence, along with some Coptic Christians and a trickle of other pilgrims, who pass through the grotto area. We stand or perch ourselves on the stone blocks around the grotto or slide down to sit on the floor as we wait in prayerful silence.
We are waved back as acolytes appear at one stage to lower the racks of the incense burners in order to replace or trim the wicks and top up the oil within. The warm air is heady with the smell of incense.
The leader of the Coptic Christians opens his prayer book and starts to pray, his fellow believers responding quietly to his prayer. The rest of us sit in quiet contemplation.
I consider how fitting it is that we are here today, a group of strangers of different faiths, praying together at this shrine marking the birthplace of the Saviour of the World - the whole world, not just Bethlehem, or Israel, or Leigh....
I feel blessed to be here, where shepherds and magi, the high born and the low born, the famous and the unknown, men, women and children from all over the earth, over two millennia have come to kneel in silent adoration - a gathering of all nations.
We return to the hotel to find Bassem there with our bags and also with stamps for the postcards which some of us have written. These will have a Bethlehem stamp and a Bethlehem postmark on them. I have the chance to thank him for the generosity he has shown in all he has done for us, and to offer a few more words of encouragement.
After a quick dinner we wrap up warm to emerge into the cold night air for a return to Manger Square for some festive carol singing........ Ok, I know, it's February, but if this is not the place to sing carols then where is?
The words of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' rise into the night sky, the words somewhat poignant in the context of the current situation. And yet the everlasting light does still shine in these dark streets; people still bring their hopes and fears to this place to lay them before the Lord. And God does still impart the blessings of his heaven to the hearts of those who listen...........
I wander back to the hotel through the winding streets with that slightly intoxicated sense of excitement and joy that you get at the end of Midnight Mass.
From out of the shadows we still hear the occasional 'Welcome!' 'Thank you for coming!'
The thoughts and impressions stated are those of the writer only and may not reflect the feelings and opinions of others in the group.