When you grow up in America, you aren't use to people asking you about religion or politics. Bringing up either of those topics is considered taboo in just about every social setting. So combining both is something I just wasn't prepared for when I started my tumultuous tour of the Middle East. I went to church youth group as a kid because believe it or not, that was the cool thing to do where I grew up. But I wasn't there to bro down with Jesus, I was there to flirt with the preppy boys who would eventually lie to their parents about dating me. And while everyone else was studying bible verses, I was checking the church retreat sign up sheet to figure out whose parents would be out of town and then convincing that kid to have a house party. (I know, I was the worst.) So you can imagine how strange it is for me to have people assume I'm Christian just because I'm from the states.
The interaction goes something like this: A random person asks you your last name, then they ask what religion it is. The first few times I was puzzled and would try to explain that it wasn't a religion, it was just a name, but that seemed to cause more confusion. Which brings me to the start of my non religious persecution; when I was detained at the Israeli border and questioned for three hours. I took a bus from Amman, Jordan to Nazareth, Israel. We were crossing the Jordan river into Israel when my journey came to a sudden stop. Everyone on the bus passed through passport control with no problem, except me. After taking literally everything out of my bag, Israeli soldiers told me to re-pack it and follow them. They asked me a series of questions, sometimes repeating the same ones to see if my answer would change. I thought it might be over when the bus driver came in looking for me. He told them we had to go and I stood up, thinking I was leaving. Nope. They told him I wouldn't be going anywhere. He headed for the door and paused, probably remembering the very stern warning he got from my dad's sister before I got on the bus. "Don't let anything happen to her. She's my family." He turned and sheepishly waved to me from behind the glass before abandoning me in the desert in the middle of the night.
A few hours passed and they finally let me go. One of the soldiers got chatty with me toward the end of his shift and said they were told to be extra careful with young Western women who were traveling alone because of the recruitment of wives for the ISIS fighters. I wish he told me that when they first started questioning me. I might have adjusted the following statements; Border Agent: "Are you planning on going to Syria?" Idiot me: "I think the weather is better in the summer, besides... I'm not really the marrying kind." Border Agent: "What about Gaza?" Even more idiotic me: "Depends on how much time I have." That, boys and girls is how to get yourself locked in a small room with no windows at the border. But to be fair, my new buddy with the automatic weapon hanging by his side told me I checked too many of the red flag boxes for them to let me go without questioning, regardless of my smart ass answers. There were no more busses so I took a $100 cab ride to Nazareth. The holy land offered no border detention discount.
Nazareth was a one and done kind of place. A lot of churches and Jesusy things but when you aren't into religion, it kind of falls flat. But the term, "Holy Shit!" has never been more appropriate to describe Jerusalem. The holy city was in the middle of a shit storm when I was there, complete with shootings and riots. Exploring the old city the day I arrived was impossible. The government had just closed Temple Mount (which is one of the most holy places for Muslims) following the attempted assassination of a Jewish activist by a suspected member of a Palestinian militant group. Tensions were high to say the least and you could hear the gunfire from across town. Rather than sit around, confined to the new city, I decided it would be a good day to go to Bethlehem. (Only a few miles from Jerusalem) I'll admit that prior to going to the Middle East, I didn't know Bethlehem was in Palestine. I thought all the Jewy and Christiany things were in Israel, but Bethlehem was a major oversight on my part. But no matter... So it's in Palestine, what's the big deal? I'll just pop over and have a look. Right? So. Very. Wrong.
When there's military activity in the old city that is particularly religiously based, like the closing of Temple Mount, the tour busses stop running for the most part. It's usually bad for business when tourists get shot or the bus is hit with a Molotov cocktail. So fine, no bus. I got dropped off at the border and walked in, like a complete lunatic. Not only was I the only tourist, I was the only woman. I walked with the men through a maze of concrete walls topped with barbed wire. We walked silently, staring forward, waiting for the go ahead from the border agents. One waved me through. Then another. I was getting closer to the opening into the city. It was about 4pm. Nearly dusk this time of year and I could see the light from the setting sun reflecting off the gray stone walls as I came around the final turn. But it wasn't the sun. It was a fire. My eyes were just starting to adjust after coming out of the dimly lit tunnel. I must have frozen because someone pushed me from behind and a border agent grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. He was shouting at me in arabic. He said the same thing over and over, "where's your group?!?!" I was just staring at him trying to figure out what to do when I pointed at the exit into Bethlehem. Toward the fire. Still holding my arm, he guided me through the crowd and the smoke, I could feel the heat on my skin from the blaze as we walked into the city. I managed a muffled "Shukran," (thank you) and I was on my own. Alone, in a crowd of demonstrators that were shooting bullets into the air and setting fires.
Everyone I passed on the street stared at me, most looked worried. Finally, a woman wearing a head covering walked over to me and said I needed to find my group, thinking I got separated from a guided tour. When I told her I was there alone, she just said "no" and walked me to a taxi. She said something to the driver and he floored it. I was too nervous to speak. We drove through the city, past burning trash cans and more demonstrations. Then he stopped the car, turned around to face me and said, "get in the front seat." This was a very stern talking to. He told me I shouldn't be there and I was in danger and basically said I was crazy for walking in alone, but he said walking back in daylight wasn't an option. I needed to wait until it was dark. That was the first time I was actually scared.
The locals were mad. The closing of Temple Mount was the breaking point. They had developed a mob mentality and were out for blood. The only problem? There was no one to fight. They were mad at the Israelis but there weren't any to confront in Palestine. The next best thing? Western Tourists. That's why the busses stopped running. No tour company wants to take the risk. The taxi driver suggested I post up in a coffee shop and wait until nightfall to flee, but I convinced him to drive me around and show me some of the city. He got nervous every time I got out of the car, and would swear at me in arabic when I got too far away. Since he already hated me, I figured it was as good a time as any to likely get myself kicked out of the cab... I told him I wanted to see the refugee camps.