- Right/Rite of Passage
Feet shuffled on the concrete floor as three men waited for the light above the iron bars of the revolving gate to change from red to green. Fifteen feet away the soldier behind the glass partition of the security booth, a pink-faced adolescent, gestured for the men to be patient and picked up a phone. A man in jeans and a white oxford shirt with a Christian cross hanging from his neck pushed on the bars, but the gate would not budge and the light [End Page 655] remained stubbornly red. He shook the bars to get the guard’s attention, but the guard, locked in a bulletproof security booth, could not hear or was distracted by the instructions he was being given on the phone. Minutes passed, but the light refused to turn green.
Getting in to Bethlehem proved much easier than getting out. Passage in the West Bank is always an uncertain proposition—just ask any Palestinian trying to travel Hebron to Ramallah—but this was noteworthy for how easy it was going in one direction and how difficult in the other. Leaving East Jerusalem, I found the number twenty-two bus at the terminal near the Damascus Gate, paid the five-shekel fare, and settled back as the mini-van wound around the Old City and then trundled along the Hebron Road through the rolling hills of south Jerusalem.
“Remember to take your passport,” the manager of the hotel had reminded me, and I did.
“It’s like going to another country,” he had said, and it was.
I had been to Jerusalem once before, twelve years ago, when I was teaching at the American University in Cairo. It was Christmas weekend, and a trip to the birthplace of Christianity seemed the best way to spend it. That time I boarded the bus before dawn in front of what was then the Cairo Sheraton and watched the sun rise in the Egyptian desert before crossing into Israel at the Kerem Shalom border post. The journey came off without a hitch, except that we were delayed for about two hours at the border for reasons that were never explained (and never would be—two hours hardly rating as a delay in Middle Eastern travel).
This time I started in Dubai, where I was teaching at another university in a part of the Arab world, until recently, free of the problems afflicting the rest of the Middle East. There are no direct flights from Dubai to Jerusalem, so I flew to Amman, Jordan, and walked into the country after paying the fifteen-dollar visa fee. The next day I caught a service taxi to the King Hussein Bridge and gateway to the West Bank. Then things got touchy. At the bridge I waited two hours as my passport was scanned and recorded, first by the Jordanian officials and then by the Israelis, after I handed my bag over to the customs officials to have it X-rayed before I could collect it on the other side. The process assumed I would pass free and clear through the Israeli border control, but then things got touchier. A few visa stamps in my passport prompted scrutiny by the Israeli official, who peppered me with questions as she brushed a wave of blonde hair off her forehead: Why had I gone to Lebanon? Could I prove that I taught at a university in the United Arab Emirates? How long had I lived in the uae? What was my purpose in visiting Jordan? Why had I gone back a second time in six months? Could I show my return ticket out of Jordan? At what hotel did I have a reservation? Did I have the phone number? I gave her the number, and she disappeared [End Page 656] into an inner office. A few minutes later she came out, pounded my passport with an arrival stamp, and I was allowed to pass.
I was confronted with none of those questions at the crossing between the remote suburbs of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but then I was leaving Israel (or Israel as it is legally designated), and...