A cold coming we had of it, or so T.S. Eliot wrote. He may have been right about our predecessors, but, I have to admit, our journey is not so difficult. I smile at the stewardess as she pours me another glass. A bearded ayatollah across the aisle frowns at me. A good Muslim should not be drinking alcohol. But then I am not a Muslim and, anyway, I am drinking water.
I ignore the Ayatollah. The last thing we need is to attract attention. All he sees, all anyone sees, are three middle-aged business men in not-quite-ill-fitting western-style grey suits; the sort that are knocked out in three hours in any one of a hundred shops in the back-streets of Tehran for half a million rial each or 50 US, if you have the currency.. We could be anyone. In a sense we are anyone.
Members of our order have made this journey every ten years since that first one come war, come famine, come marked indifference. This year the lot fell on me and on my companions. Call them Melchior and Gaspar if you wish; not their real names but it would make them smile. God knows, Gaspar needs to smile.
So here I sit on this Turkish Airlines airbus from Istanbul as it taxis into its stand at Ben Gurion airport wondering what this decade’s journey will bring and even whether this will be the final pilgrimage, for we know that all things end. Eventually the circle will join and the Age of Surprises will begin.
This year there are road blocks in many places. We are searched three times; the last below a wind-tattered peeling board proclaiming, You Are Now entering The Republic Of Palestine. We have no weapons, no explosives. “We are tourists,” we tell them. Many tourists take gold and frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem, though perhaps not in March. The guards snigger amongst themselves. We are simple, or maybe a touch mad, or perhaps someone has duped us. One grins and waves us through with the barrel of his Kalashnikov. How little they really know. I raise one eyebrow, but my companions are gazing out of the Mercedes’ window at the dust and the grime and the hopelessness.
Our driver makes no comment. He is being paid well and he has a family to feed. He sees nothing, he hears nothing.
First we must give gold. Our car pulls over opposite a grubby-windowed shop two blocks from the Church Of The Nativity. Hand-painted letters in flaking red proclaim: Items bought and sold. In the west it would be a pawn shop. Here in the occupied territories it is a life-line. Abdul, the shop’s owner, is expecting us, just like his father and grandfather before him. This is a family business, an old business. I wonder if Abdul has any idea just how old. Doubtless he would prefer to move to New York.
“Salaam alikum,” Abdul says. The greeting is warm, but he cannot hide his suspicions. Maybe we are agents of Mossad? Last time he saw men from our order he was an outspoken teenager, his bravery boosted by a Pakistan-made AK-47 copy. He is hoping we have forgotten his boasting, for now he too has a family.
“Alikum salaam,” I reply dispassionately.
Abdul takes the box of gold coins from Melchior with as little ceremony as possible, then ushers us behind a curtain into a back room where we squat on a fetid carpet between dog-eared magazines, a half-finished plate of couscous and an unlabelled bottle that smells as though it is best left untouched.
“I bring tea,” Abdul says in English. “The lady will arrive at noon.” He hurries off to a kitchen that is doubtless even grubbier and tattier than the room in which we sit to instruct his wife to prepare unwanted drinks he can ill-afford for strangers he does not trust. Such are the laws of hospitality.
The room is hot and stuffy. The fan is broken. The tea, when it arrives, contains too much mint and too much sugar and makes me wretch, but it would be a breach of protocol not to drink it. Tea has become part of the Tradition.
The girl is late. It is five minutes after one when an undernourished woman wearing a black burkha enters the shop. She has a curly-haired baby perhaps a year old in a push chair with a squeaky wheel.
Abdul greets her tersely. We remain hidden behind the curtain and merely observe. This is another part of the Tradition.
At first the girl thinks the gift is a trick. Her attitude changes when she sees the coins in the old wooden box. Gold is gold after all. I have often noticed it afflicts people in strange ways. It is bright, it is powerful, it is deceitful. But what good are old coins to her? She exchanges them for four thousand Israeli shekels in used notes. These she can use. These she trusts.
I smile. Thus it always happens. Every time without fail, even, so our records tell us, that very first occasion.
Abdul tears back the curtain as soon as the woman leaves. He thrusts the still open box at Melchior, who takes it and delicately closes the lid, for the box is a thing of surpassing age and more valuable of itself than the whole shop in which we sit and the coins it contains can only be found today even in the great museums of London, Paris or Washington.
Abdul, just like his fathers, does not realise what immense wealth has passed though his fingers because he does not take the time to look. Instead he holds out his hand, impatient for his payment and for us to be gone for another year.
Slowly Melchior peels off eight thousand shekels; a fat profit, so he feels, for a few hours work. This is the way of things. As it always was, so shall it always be until the world breaks.
The dying are never hard to find, they walk among us. Our driver takes us to a café. At least the sign proclaims it a café, but the string of fat men in vests and jallabiyyas playing cards inside suggests there is an illicit still out back.
In front of the café are two red plastic tables which have been crammed into one corner to make the most of the shade from a dilapidated palm. Over the furthest table an old man bends half-asleep, a stick in one hand and a string of battered beads in the other, an empty coffee cup beside him.
Gaspar slides in beside the old man. He shouts for the proprietor to bring more coffee pointing at the cup. Gaspar is rewarded with a grin so wide that the old man’s one remaining tooth looks like a tombstone in the graveyard of his mouth.
Gaspar does not smile back, but looks at the old man in the way he does. I have seen that look and I do not care for it. It is the look on the face of death.
“What do you want?” the old man asks in Aramaic.
Gaspar pauses. Aramaic is not the language he expected, but no matter.
“Do you want to live forever?” Gaspar asks slowly, also in Aramaic.
The old man glances at the card players inside the café. They cannot help him out here. They cannot save him from madmen.
“No,” he says at last. “I do not want to live forever, one life is more than enough trouble for any man.”
I raise an eyebrow. Surprising. Ten years ago it had taken three days to find someone who understood.
Gaspar does not react. He reaches into a pocket and withdraws a brass tub perhaps ten centimetres in diameter, which he places on the table and then pushes across to the old man.
The old man strokes his chin where a few straggly white whiskers are all that remains of his beard. He places the beads on the table, then takes the tub, lifts the lid and takes out a single brown crystal which he places on his tongue. His eyes betray the bitter taste.
Gaspar nods. “Myrrh.”
“But I am not dead.”
“We are all dying,” Gaspar says, “from the moment we are born.” He gets up, throws a fifty shekel note onto the table for the coffee, then turns and leaves.
Seconds later the three of us are in the car. As we drive past I notice the old man has replaced the fifty shekel note with a few coins. The tub of myrrh remains open on the table. The old man is looking at it as though it is some sort of enemy. The café’s proprietor joins him and starts shouting. Surely the rich businessman left a bigger tip.
Now it is my turn.
There is an old stone building by a clump of juniper bushes about a kilometre south of Bethlehem on the road to Hebron. The records left by my colleague from the last Journey say that it was built by the Ottomans as a caravanserai, though its latest use was as a triage station during the worst days of the Second Interfada.
Our driver knows the place well. He calls it the hospital. It was where his children were born.
We pull off the road just before the building. There is even a sign calling it a hospital. Climbing roses are finding purchase in the bullet holes on the building’s façade. A blue and red striped tarpaulin has been hung over the entrance to provide some shade for a wooden table where a raven-haired white-coated woman sits smoking a cigarette.
I get out of the car and walk to the table. The woman looks up. Her eyes are tired. Surely I cannot be another patient?
“Doctor?” I ask hoping for the confirmation of the title as much as a name, but she is too weary to care and supplies both.
As the car drives off, I see the look of surprise on her face as she opens the gift. The cigarette drops into the juniper bushes and she has to stamp it out. She holds the gift up to the light; the unexpected gift freely given by a stranger. Cautiously she sniffs it. Yes. Perfume. All the way from Paris, not cheap moonshine that makes your skin peel. Cautiously she dabs some behind her ears. That is the last I see of her. I think it is a gift well given.
Back in Tel Aviv we check in for our return flights via Doha and Tehran. Another way; part of The Tradition and a wise precaution. There are believers and non-believers alike who would prefer that we do not exist. This is how it has always been. Our knowledge is dangerous they would say and they would be right. Sometimes I think our anonymity is wrong. But our secrets have been hidden away for too many years. If we told what we know, who would believe us? Roll on the Age of Surprises.
At the airport, the young girl doing national service who asks me security questions is puzzled that I did not visit the Church of the Nativity. She is a little suspicious.
“I came on business,” I tell her again. “I am a giver of gifts.”
“Is it easy?” she asks. Perhaps she is hoping to trap me with questions.
I look her in the eye.
“It is never easy to give a Gift,” I reply. “It costs me all I have.”