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Our trip to Bethlehem 0

Dear Bradshaw,

We wanted to go to Bethlehem, and when I asked at the front desk of our Jerusalem hotel about driving there in our rental car the concierge shook his head while waving some guy over. The guy’s name was Menachem. He was a taxi driver, apparently associated with the hotel, and we arranged to meet him the following morning at nine for a ride and tour of Bethlehem. The cost would be 350 shekels (about $100).

Hours later, after dining at the hotel, Yosef (the hotel’s restaurant manager) stopped us as we were leaving the dining room. He said he knew we were going to Bethlehem in the morning and that if we came back to talk to him later he had a special proposal for us.

I wondered how he knew about our trip to Bethlehem, why he cared, and since I didn’t want to return later I asked, “What proposal?”

He smiled and said, “Come back later.”

Something was fishy, and I was dying to know what it was, so later we went down to the hotel bar and ordered a glass of wine intending to share it but Yosef served us two glasses. Then he explained the deal: he (a Palestinian) loathed the fact that the hotel’s taxi guy (Israeli) had requested 350 shekels to take us to Bethlehem. The drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was only ten minutes. Also, being Israeli, Menachem was not allowed in the West Bank so couldn’t accompany us into the city as he said he was going to. He’d drive us as far as he could, then transfer us to another car and driver, and wait to drive us back to Jerusalem. Instead, Yosef’s cousin Nabil could drive us to Bethlehem for 270 shekels, and Nabil would also guide us around the city.

Francesca liked the idea. “But we’ve already arranged to meet Menachem in the lobby at 9am,” she said.

“That’s not a problem,” Yosef said. “You just go to the front desk now and tell them you’ve changed your mind.”

I got up, went to the front desk, and asked to cancel the trip. The concierge grabbed a folder and flipped back and forth through its pages. “You’re not on the list,” he said. “Are you sure you have a reservation with us?”

“I’m positive,” I said. “We’re supposed to meet Menachem at nine tomorrow morning.”

“Menachem? Not Tommer?”

“Definitely Menachem.”

“Fine, I’ll call him at home and cancel your reservation.”

Returned to Yosef, I told him to notify his cousin, and then asked to pay for the wine.

“No charge,” he said with a big smile. “It’s on the house.”

The next morning, as we were leaving the dining room after breakfast, Yosef stopped us in the corridor and, whispering, said, “Menachem is here. When you are ready to meet my cousin, go down the stairs, turn left instead of right, and then go out the side door. Nabil will be waiting for you there. You’ll recognize him by his cowboy hat.”

When we exited the side door, Nabil and his cowboy hat were there. We jumped into his cab, and he told us to duck down while we passed the hotel’s entrance.

“No problem,” he said. “If anyone asks, you say I picked you up at Jaffa gate.”

He was energetic, comical, and spoke with a thick, Arabic accent. He started talking about Bethlehem, telling us about its history, but after a few minutes he indicated some Israeli girls crossing the street and said, “You see them? Jewish girls. They expire after two or three years. You marry one, and then she blows up like a balloon.”

He asked Francesca where she was from and when she said Italy, Nabil got excited. He told me I was a lucky man. Italian women were the best in the world. They were faithful, honest, wonderful cooks, and authentic. The Roman Empire was the first and greatest empire on the earth.

“What about the Egyptian Empire?” I asked.

“The Egyptian Empire is of no account,” he said. “All it did was spread fleas and epidemic. Egyptians are wayward and weak-willed, and they are all liars. They’re also lazy, stupid and dishonest.”

I wondered what he’d have said if I’d informed him that Francesca was half-Egyptian, that her mother was born and raised in Alessandria. But I was beginning to question our choice of drivers to Bethlehem, and besides, there was no point in arguing with an idiot. As the saying goes, they bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

Stopped at a red light, he pointed to some orthodox Jews in a car next to us, and said, “See those freaks? With their curly cues and flying saucers covering their heads? They are like Mickey Mouse. You know Mickey Mouse? That’s what they are. Animated mice!”

He laughed out loud, smacked his palm on the steering wheel, and then offered us a deal. If we could answer three questions correctly, the whole tour would be free.

“First question,” he said, “Jews and Bedouins shower only once a year. When?”

I knew it was a joke, and as I thought about it he told me to take my time. I figured “shower equals water and water equals rain”. We were in Israel where it doesn’t rain much, more than one day a year for sure but still, it was my best guess. After about thirty seconds I chanced my answer. “When it rains.”

Nabil glanced at me in the rearview mirror, squinted his eyes and then shook a finger at Francesca and said, “You married a smart man. Watch out for men like him. Good looking and smart, it’s a dangerous combination. Okay, question two. Why do Jews have big noses?”

This one I knew, and I answered immediately, “Because air is free.”

After a long silence, Nabil glanced at me in the mirror again. I saw beads of sweat crowding his hairline. He raised his eyebrows, and then again told Francesca she had married a clever man. “I’ve been asking these questions for years,” he mumbled to himself, “and suddenly this guy’s two for two.”

He started the third question then stopped, pointing to another Israeli girl on the side of the street. She was waiting for the bus, and Nabil said, “See that? You might think she’s waiting for a bus but she’s not. She’s waiting for a husband who’s as big as a bus because after two or three children that’s how big she’ll be. Only an idiot would marry a thing like that. Jewish women are hyenas. They wait for you to die and then feast on your remains. Israeli women are good at only two things: making babies and gaining weight. They make babies, get fat, and then cause everyone problems. Israelis are the plague of the planet. Thanks to Jews we have mafia, war, drugs, disease, and pollution.”

This was no longer his sense of humor, and these were no longer jokes. Nabil was a bitter man, and by now we were deep into the West Bank, which is surrounded by a high, stretching, Israeli-government-built wall. Nabil pointed at the wall and said, “You see that? That’s Israel’s solution to what they call the Palestinian problem. I call it the chicken farm. That’s what they’ve left us with. They’ve boxed us in like chickens and we’ve accepted it. Nobody rises up. Nobody does anything about it. So that’s it. We’re chickens. Nothing to do but bak like the chickens we are. Bak bak!

I agreed with Nabil. The wall was an eyesore, and it did resemble a chicken coop. Nevertheless, I was starting to worry. As I understood it, Bethlehem was a ten-minute drive, but we’d been driving for twenty minutes or more. Did he know I was Jewish, and that Francesca was half-Egyptian? Had we walked into a deathtrap? I eyed the door next to me, imagining what I’d do if he suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and terrorists dragged us out of his cab.

While passing an image of Yasser Arafat that was spray-painted on the side of a brick building, Nabil spat out the window and said, “See that man? He sold our nation for nothing. He’s responsible for these chicken farms. He and Sadam Hussein. I despise those men more than the entire Egyptian nation, and Bedouins and Israelis and Jews.”

We arrived finally, or so it seemed. After all, we could have been anywhere. When we exited the taxi and Nabil whistled for another driver, saying he could go no further, I realized we’d been had. Nevertheless, we got in with the new driver and he drove us another five minutes, then pulled to the side of the road and told us to get out. We’d find the church up the stairs to the left, he said, the main square was to the right, and we should meet him in half an hour.

We got out, wandered around, and saw nothing special. Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem but neither he nor his disciples were there now.

Thirty minutes later the driver returned us to Nabil. It was 10:30am. I figured and hoped Nabil was done berating everybody and everything but while leaving Bethlehem, he again indicated the image of Arafat, and asked, “Do you know what Arafat died of?”

I thought a bit, wondering if it was another joke, and had no recollection of Arafat’s death.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“HIV. Can you believe that? Arafat was a faggot. A homo made deals with the Israelis and locked us into the chicken farm. He died in a French hospital. You know that? That was too good for him. He should have suffered the same fate as Sadam Hussein, hanging from the neck like a slab of meat.”

Nabil asked where we wanted him to drop us off. We were planning to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, but I’d thought better of it, so had examined our map of Jerusalem and found Mount Herzl nearby. I told him there was a good view of the city from there and on the way he launched his third question at me, dropping the offer about the tour being free if I answered correctly.

“The Jews wandered through the desert for forty years. You know why?”

Earlier, while wandering Bethlehem, Francesca had asked why Nabil obsessed with associating Jews with money, and I said, “Historically, Jews have been deprived of everything, property, possessions, rights, their religion. Anything that could be taken away was taken away. So money became the source of their survival because it was the only thing they could hide.”

So I answered, “Because they couldn’t remember where they’d hidden their money.”

“Good guess,” Nabil said, jerking his thumb at Francesca and saying yet again that I was clever and quick. “But you’re wrong. The right answer is that somebody had lost a shekel.”

When Nabil dropped us off at Mount Herzl and I saw the sign above the entrance, memories flooded back to me. Mount Herzl was the headquarters of the World Zionist Organization.

After we had paid and exited his taxi, he drove away saying, “Whatever you do, don’t go to Yad Vashem. It’s a bunch of bullshit propaganda.”

We waited a minute, and then turned the corner and headed toward our destination. Propaganda or not, Yad Vashem was one of the highlights of our trip.

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