A Day in the West Bank
While travelling in Israel, with the help of two new friends from Australia and two remarkable young Palestinian women I was able to spend a day in the West Bank. We visited Nablus and Ramallah in what was the most challenging, painful, eye-opening, and delicious day of my trip. Without wanting to make a bunch of broad declarative statements about this incredibly sensitive place (see the previous article for some of those) I’ve decided recount my experiences of that day, mostly from what I wrote in my journal while in the West Bank.
On bus to Ramallah, having met Elham, one of our Palestinian guides, outside the Damascus Gate. She shares a mutual friend with Rose (one of the Aussies). The bus is run by an arab company and charges far less (7NIS) than any of the Israeli busses I have taken so far. A bus to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem costs 19 NIS.
Driving through East Jerusalem the city looks far less lively than the central neighbourhood I’ve been staying in. There are more fences, barbed wires, and rusted doorways. Far fewer pedestrians.
Talking to Elham about the black water tanks atop buildings in East Jerusalem (in the West they’re coloured white) she mentions that water is very scarce in the West Bank.
As we get closer to Ramallah poverty becomes more and more apparent. Open garbage containers sit along the roadside and litter is very present. We are driving alongside the wall. It is deeply unsettling to see.
We have just crossed the checkpoint, no meaningful stop going though. Elham says the stop will happen when we cross back across the green line. Graffiti is everywhere along the wall. Rounding a corner from the checkpoint I can see in English “Now I have seen I am responsible” written many times on the wall.
We arrive at the Ramallah bus stop. Elham says “welcome to the real middle east” as we run in front of a seemingly endless train of taxis and busses heading deeper into central Ramallah. We walk down the crowded street and stop into a corner store. As with the buses, prices are much lower here. Street traffic is incredibly disorderly. We head back to the bus stop waiting for Jamila, Elham’s friend from Ramallah, to join us on the bus to Nablus.
We are taking a mini bus. As we wait the driver repeatedly beckons us to board. Elham says these buses aren't on any kind of concrete schedule and simply go when they’re full. Jamila arrives, her bright red hair standing out sharply from the surrounding crowd. We board and set off North to Nablus, battling the dense Ramallah traffic.
On the bus Jamila and Elham mention their plans for Elham’s birthday the next day. They’re going to the beach, along the dead sea. We ask if they would go to the beach in Tel Aviv. Jamila mentions that because she doesn’t have an Israeli permit she’s not allowed to go there. For the first, and certainly not the last, time that day I feel an acute sense of my own privilege.
The scenery on the road is quite beautiful as we drive between steep hills and round-topped mountains. As we cross from Zone B to Zone A the whole bus straps themselves in, apparently the seatbelt laws are different in this Zone.
As we drive past another checkpoint, this one inside the West Bank, Jamila mentions trying to drive her father, who has a heart condition, to the hospital past a checkpoint. Apparently they were kept waiting over an hour with no apparent reason until a friend of theirs arrived and demanded the soldiers let them through, reminding them of the PR disaster that would occur if a Palestinian man died at a checkpoint on the way to a hospital. She mentions as well that because of the checks a two hour drive to her Grandparents’ house would sometimes take as long as eight.
We arrive in Nablus, another crowded, bustling city built in a valley surrounded by picturesque hills. Elham mentions that the area around the city is great for hiking. We make for the old city and the Nablus Shuk. Stopping at an antique store I begin taking pictures. When I walk over to the small restaurant next door and take a few photos I’m instantly handed a Tamireh, a folded crepe stuffed with an undisclosed sweet jelly deep fried to crispy perfection. When I try to pay the owner I am waved down as though the very suggestion of money is preposterous.
As we walk through the market we are greeted incredibly warmly. Regular cries of “Welcome!” “Where you from?” and “What is your name” are sent in our direction. A fruit vendor hands us each a persimmon and his partner insists we take a photo with him. The market is an attack on the senses. Bright coloured fruits are followed by pungent spices and teas, while vendors yell loudly at us, their patrons, and each other.
During a brief respite, while one of our company stops to buy something, I notice a pair of old men watching television. I see the TV is broadcasting a military assembly in a square, in the bottom right corner is a repeating graphic of a star of david being blown up. Though I speak no Arabic I can easily discern the word “Yehudi” (Jews) being used by the speaker. I find out from Elham that the broadcast is the initiation of a new class of Hamas fighters. I find myself trying to reconcile the incredible hospitality I had received in Nablus, as well as the clear poverty and difficulty of life there, with the violent tone of that broadcast. I am unable to find a clear answer.
Elham and Jamila tell us that we are going for a special treat, something Nablus does better than the rest of the world: Kanafeh. Kanafeh is a sweet treat, a warm layering of pastry and gooey sweet cheese, topped with sugar and crushed nuts all drenched in sweet syrup. Two plates cost all of ten shekels. I’ve never been one for the overly sweet. Many of the Arabic desserts I’ve had so far have left something to be desired. Kanafeh, on the other hand, balances its sweetness beautifully, wedding three distinct textures in a kind of perfect dessert harmony. A few bites serve, very quickly, to quiet my troubled thoughts.
After a stop at a centuries-old soap factory, in which the proud proprietor shows us how his olive oil soaps are made, we head back to the buses. Before we do, the girls grab a few fruit ‘cocktails.’ Nearby charcoal grills are giving off the heavenly scent of kebab and I can’t help but order one. The pita wrapped kofteh, accompanied by perfectly grilled tomatoes and onions, explodes with flavour. It is the best kebab I have ever tasted. It, like so much else that day, demanded a quiet moment of reflection.
On the ride back to Ramallah we begin talking about the wider problem of Israel-Palestine. The clearly untenable situation in which Palestinians live today. We talk, as well, about the idea of a right of return, and the importance of Israel as a safe haven for the world’s Jews. We come to absolutely no meaningful conclusions, but also don’t end up with any deeply hurt feelings. Compared to most conversations I’ve had about the middle east at University in Canada this one was remarkably docile.
Back in Ramallah Jamila and Elham take us to their old high school, which was hosting the Palestinian Model UN that day. Entering the campus they’re immediately greeted with a big hug by their old economics teacher, a broad-shouldered man with a huge, warm smile. As an old MUN kid it’s great to catch the familiar site of high school kids in business attire draping themselves in the flags of their respective ‘countries.’
Elham decides it’s time for a meal, and that we would have a picnic at an old favourite spot of her’s and Jamila’s outside the city. We run through the streets of Ramallah, stopping in to various shops for juice, strawberries, kibbeh (a fritter stuffed with minced lamb and onion), hummus, oranges, and more kebab. In every stand and shop we hear the familiar sound of “welcome” “where you from?”
Dinner acquired, we make for a cab, five of us piling into a small Skoda. The driver takes us on the windiest and most undulating route yet, across the varied geography of Ramallah along switchback roads to a sudden steep incline. He leaves us at the top of that hill with his number for when we want to get back.
We clamber over a small ruined wall to get from the road to the hilltop. The view of seemingly endless rolling hills and steep valleys dotted with building complexes was heartbreakingly beautiful. After the noise and chaos of Ramallah and Nablus the hilltop is idyllic.
We make for a small abandoned structure and climb a flight of stairs within to a flat outer terrace area. The building was apparently a watchtower used in the first intifada, by which side none of us know. It is very hard to think of that place as torn apart by war.
We begin eating in an eerie quiet, reverent towards both the food and the setting. As we eat, devouring the soft, spicy kebab and crisp warm kibbeh, we start to talk and laugh, enjoying the simple pleasure of the picnic. After eating we walk down a small valley covered in olive trees to the next hill. We linger there for a few minutes before we notice the sun beginning to set and head back to the road. As we turn away we can hear the call to prayer echoing across the landscape.
Sitting on that hill, able to enjoy the food and company I was struck by the strongest sense of gratitude I have ever felt. I was suddenly aware of how lucky I was to be where and who I was at that moment.
On our way back to Jerusalem we stop at the checkpoint. As a Canadian I am given no trouble at all by the two soldiers entering our bus. Elham, along with a few other passengers, disembarked ahead of time to clear the check on foot. We wait for her on the other side of the check, watching young men in soccer attire and giggling women with shopping bags walk out of the checkpoint. After about fifteen minutes Elham emerges and we hop on the new bus we’re taking to Jerusalem. We realize that Elham, living in Jerusalem and going to school in Ramallah, had to go through this check every day.
I don’t know if I’ve managed to capture here everything I experienced that day. Nevertheless I think I have to end with one observation. While in Israel I’ve met a number of young people who carry themselves with remarkable maturity. I usually find out shortly after meeting them that they are at least two years younger than me. In Palestine, Elham and Jamila, who were so brave, knowledgable, and funny, were also only nineteen years old. This place, I think, makes all its children grow up very fast.