Through the Old City, around the endless honeycomb of market stalls, out of the Damascus Gate, there is a bus stop. The 231 is a route that departs from East Jerusalem every hour, or whenever the bus is full enough to justify the trip. Timetables are more of a suggestion here. The ride goes in fits and starts, winding through two-lane sun-bleached highways in the desert, wrapping around the sides of fortified Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Rolling hills give way to rocky slopes, and the commotion of Jerusalem gives way to the small-town bustle of Bethlehem.
The streets of Bethlehem are paved with pilgrims. Christians from the world over come to Bethlehem to pay respects to the Biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both mention Joseph and Mary sleeping in Bethlehem while traveling to Jerusalem for the census, during the reign of Herod the Great. In the one day I spent walking through the souks and alleys of Bethlehem, I saw Armenians, Russians, Ethiopians, and even a group of Japanese pilgrims, looking to pray at the Church of the Nativity.
Rather than go along with a group, or pay someone to drive me around for the day, I opted to walk the city by myself. I’m not a pilgrim, and have no desire to pray at historic sites. I identify as an Episcopalian agnostic, leaning toward all-out atheist. Despite my lack of faith, the Levant is a region I’ve found captivating since I was a teenager. The Eastern edge of the Mediterranean is where civilization itself began, and the history here runs deep. Bethlehem is one of the towns I simply couldn’t pass up seeing during my trip to the Middle East.
After seeing the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, and an unbelievable lunch in Manger Square, I ventured into the neighborhoods that surround the holy sites. Nothing on my route was a tourist attraction– that afternoon, all I walked were residential streets, the crooked avenues that wrap the backs of markets into multi-family buildings. On one such street, in the middle of the afternoon, I smelled something familiar, but remarkably out-of-place: sawdust. I’ve worked in guitar repair shops for a solid chunk of my life, and I know a workshop when I smell one. Rounding the corner, I came to the doorway of the Blessings Gift Shop and Olive Wood Factory.
The shop was busy with customers poring over the hand-made crafts, the owner explaining the woodworking methods to curious travelers, the owner’s nephew running to get tourists cups of water from the cooler, all while bandsaws and belt sanders fired away in the back of the shop. While the workshop was certainly more lively than a museum, and less somber than a holy site, there was an uncanny gravity to the scene; with every carving, the men who were hard at work on their pieces are helping to preserve and carry forward a craft that goes back thousands of years.
Olive trees grow all over the Mediterranean. They’re a robust species of evergreen, loosely classified as an “ironwood,” a reference to the wood’s hardness and durability. Olive trees were among the first to be harvested by humans for their wood. The process of working with olive wood is challenging, especially when compared to other forms of woodworking. Some of the trees in the Levant go back a couple thousand years, getting denser and harder with every year. Rather than cut the whole tree down, woodcarvers from the region chop off fifty-year-old branches, and use every last bit of the branch before cutting another. Even the sapwood (the soft outer-layer of wood, which surrounds the heartwood), normally considered refuse, is turned into rosary beads and Christmas ornaments.
The shop shows off equal quantities of religious iconography as it does functional, everyday pieces. The owner, Jiries Giacaman, tells me there is no better wood for a cutting board than olive wood. The shop also boasts a panoramic view of the city of Bethlehem from its roof. Giacaman waves his guests toward the back door of the shop, saying, “Please! Please, walk upstairs and have a look! You don’t have to buy anything downstairs– just have a look at the city from the roof. Take lots of pictures!” The staff of carvers were among the kindest individuals I met on my trip. As if their hospitality and generosity were not enough, they began asking me questions about some of the wood I’ve worked with. I explained that I’m more of a repair tech than a builder, but they told me to come back if I ever want to start building guitars out of olive wood.
I left the shop, and walked through Manger Square, slowly making my way back to the bus. I found out upon arriving to the bus stop that I had missed the last bus of the day from that stop. Instead, I would have to catch another bus, which travels the same route, but only picks up passengers from the opposite side of the checkpoint. It was the festival of Eid, which meant hundreds of Muslim Palestinians were heading in exactly the same direction, breaking their fasts, and celebrating the end of Ramadan in Jerusalem. Old men with canes, young women giggling in groups of five or eight, mothers with a baby on either hip, fathers fumbling for papers and travel documents, all of them, just trying to get from one side of the fence to the other in peace.
Shuffling through the cramped, narrow, almost suffocating cattle pen of a checkpoint, and getting waved ahead or told to stop by machine-gun wielding IDF border control officers, I could not help but remember that Joseph and Mary, had they existed in the circumstances the Gospels would suggest, would have been in similar circumstances. The story of Christmas, as we know it, is a story of a Middle-Eastern family of refugees, seeking shelter.