A few weeks ago I was asked to write a travel narrative for one of my graduate courses. The only requirement was to share a true story of travel. I can think of no experience more worthy of words than this one. With the recent events in Israel and Gaza, it seemed a timely story to share.
Sorry for the length.
I hope you enjoy.
As the plane prepares for landing I can feel the rhythmic pulsing within my chest. Before I have set foot upon the holy ground, I know that my life will somehow be changed after having travelled to this place. I can feel as gravity gently tugs the plane back to earth and it occurs to me that it was only a mere six months since I discovered the world in which I live is not as it appears. Or perhaps it is exactly as it appears, but now I see it clearly. Six months ago my eyes were opened and the shadows of a forgotten people were thrust into the light. Like a good education so often does, my Middle Eastern History and Politics course had driven a desire to see the images of my textbooks brought to life. Breathing. Moving. The things that I had studied so shook my soul I felt I had no choice but to see the awful truths in action. After all, seeing is believing, right? My arms reach for my luggage as my mind reviews the troubling statistics. 3.15 billion given by the US in military aid each year. Over 20% of the general population imprisoned without a trial. Over 40% of the male population imprisoned without a trial. More than 3,000 homes illegally demolished. The statistics were staggering.
“We’re finally here,” my friend Kristin* sighs. My eyes scan over her 5 and a half foot frame. Her tan legs moved beneath her cutoff jean shorts as she rose from her seat. I had convinced her to come with me because she was the only one of my friends who I knew loved to travel as much as I did. It didn’t matter that she had hardly ever heard of this country before, that she wasn’t even aware of the crimes committed on a daily basis here, that she didn’t fully understand the danger. It didn’t matter to her because, like me, she had a thirst for excitement. When I asked if she would be willing to sneak into a warzone with me to work with a peace group for three weeks, she readily accepted, and we booked our flight.
We gather our things, more than ready to escape the confines of the narrow plane, yet hesitant to enter the land in which we find ourselves. Aside from the dozens of female guards carrying high-powered semi-automatic weapons, the scene is surprisingly normal. The terminal is mostly glass with sleek metal accents and illuminated blue signs that read “Welcome to Israel.” The modernity of it all takes me off-guard. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I assume that in one way or another an image from some biblical film was in my mind and the sleek décor and cutting-edge technology caught me aback.
After collecting our luggage we walk past at least a dozen more female security officers carrying semi-automatic weapons. I wonder why they are all women? I think as I make my way to customs to gain entry into Israel. We are not staying in Israel, rather we will make our way across the small country to the West Bank, one of the two partitioned sections that make up the nation of Palestine. Our group leader, Alice, had prepared us for the intense rounds of questioning we would encounter at the airport and we had been explicitly instructed not to tell them of our plans. We were told that if it was discovered that we intended to visit the occupied territories we would be detained, deported, and our entry to Israel would be revoked permanently. The website of the State Department confirmed this. Instead, we were to have a hotel name prepared and even a list of tourist sites that we would likely be visiting on our trip.
The presence of so many weapons makes me nervous. The icy stares of the security officers make it worse. As we near the counter a trim brunette stands waiting. Her chestnut hair is pulled back into a bun so tight that the skin near her hairline seems uncomfortably taut. She offers no greeting as we approach her booth. I smile. She frowns.
“Passport,” she demands curtly.
“Purpose for visit?” she barks.
“Tourism,” I reply, nervous that she will somehow see right through me. Do I look like an activist, someone that understands what really happens here? I think as I wait for her response. My eyes scour the scene around me. Dozens of people stand in half as many lines waiting to gain entry to the country. Do I stand out as different than them? I wonder. My heartbeat quickens once again as she examines my passport.
“Where are you staying?” she questions, pursing her lips as she waits for my answer.
“Hotel Montefiore,” I reply, proud that I have an answer ready.
The questioning continues for a few more moments until, after looking me up and down, she boorishly stamps my passport and says, “Welcome to Israel.”
As a member of a Christian church and an American citizen I have always been taught that Israel is our friend, that they are a lone country amidst a sea of evil tyrants that only wishes to destroy them. While this is, in some ways, true, my teachers must have forgotten to tell me that the popular Zionist slogan of “Land without a people for a people without a land” wasn’t exactly accurate. They must have forgotten to mention that over 726,000 Arabs were expelled from their homes in an event known in the Arab world as Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948 when the nation of Israel was founded. They must have forgotten to tell me that western guilt over the atrocities committed in Germany during the Holocaust lead us to look the other way as men, women, and children were driven from their homes in order to found a Jewish state. They must have forgotten to tell me that this expulsion of Arabs from their homes is now widely understood by historians to have been ethnic cleansing.
They must have forgotten.
We decide to wait for daylight before boarding our taxi to Jerusalem. As we sit in the rotunda of the airport people come and go, bustling by as they would in any other city in the world. A group of nearly 15 people wait nearby holding balloons and a sign written in Hebrew that I can’t understand. They shift their weight from side to side, talking quietly amongst one another. Nearly an hour passes before their faces break into wide grins and they welcome a boy, maybe 18 or so, into their arms. Their quiet chatter erupts into giddy excitement and they each rush to hug the son newly home.
It’s amazing the way we are the same. They love like I love. Those parents cling to that boy the same way my mother clung to me, the same way that a Palestinian mother clings to her son. I wonder if they realize. I wonder if any of us do. I slump back into the hard plastic chair, waiting for the sun to chase the darkness from the sky, and I wonder if we will ever chase it from the world.
Finally, the first rays of sun spill over the horizon, nudging us out of our seats. After hours in the airport, it is time to move. The most affordable way to cross the country to Jerusalem is by boarding a group taxi, a fancy name for a 10-passenger van. As we slide onto the warm, grey cloth we are joined by 4 other travellers. They talk amongst themselves in what I can only assume is Hebrew. I don’t understand a word. Occasionally they look in my direction, probably wondering what I am doing so far from home. Fatigued from hours of travel, I let my head fall against the warm glass of the window as my eyes skim the images racing by. Groups of young people walking to the beach wearing cut-off shorts and loose t-shirts, men driving their cars to work in crisp suits, mothers pushing new strollers on the way to the park at the corner. We rush past high-rise after high-rise and if I didn’t know better, I would have told you we were driving through a city in the United States.
The further we travel the more the scenery changes. In a mere 60 minutes we are entering the holy city, Jerusalem itself. I perk up at the sight. In place of buildings made of concrete, steel, and glass, my eyes are met with structures of faded limestone. Amidst a sea of cream stands the Dome of the Rock, its golden top shimmering in the sunlight, a beacon of hope and faith to millions right in front of my eyes. People walk slowly through the streets, in a much different way than the bustle of Tel Aviv. Even from within the taxi I can see that the pace of Jerusalem is slower than that of its more modern counterpart. The diversity seems to dissolve. Here men look alike, most wearing black pants, a crisp white shirt, and a rekel, a black overcoat made of wool. Even their hair is identical, each man wearing a black hat, under which their Pe’at, or long curled hair hanging in front of their ears, is clearly visible. Their dress identifies them as Hasidic Jews and it seems that all living in Jerusalem are of this order. I wonder if they’re hot? I think to myself. At 8:30 in the morning it was already a warm day.
“Where do you need go?” our taxi driver asks me through a thick accent, peeling me away from my thoughts.
“Damascus Gate,” I answer.
We are planning to meet our group leader at the entrance and from there we will enter the West Bank. As the van slows to a stop we pay our driver and step onto the street. The Damascus gate looms before us. It’s different than I imagined and I can’t help but walk toward it. I am drawn into the narrow corridor that stretches from the other side of the gate and am met with a flurry of activity. A variety of shops line the street—if you can call it that—it seems more like an alley to me. There is water running down the center and two young children race by giggling. Two old men, their faces weathered, sit on a bench, neither speaking. The air has a smell that I can’t quite put my finger on, but as we turn the corner I notice a spice shop. Large bins of cumin, turmeric, coriander and a plethora of other spices sit before me. I have travelled widely, but I have never been somewhere like this. The people are so different than me, yet so much the same. Tired of walking, we decide to return to the entrance and take a seat on a shaded bench while we wait for the arrival of the other volunteers.
One by one fellow travellers take their place at the entrance of the gate. Liam arrives first, a tan man in his mid-thirties with sandy brown hair from Nevada. Gertrude and Genevieve follow shortly after, two Swedish girls in their early twenties. We introduce ourselves to one another and after the rest of the group arrives we board a beat-up school bus that will carry us to the occupied territory of the West Bank. The road is rough, like driving on a washboard and it’s beginning to give me a headache.
“We will be staying at the Aida camp in Bethlehem,” Alice, our leader, informs us. She stands in the center aisle, giving instruction on what we can expect in the coming weeks. She is an older woman, around the age of 55 I would guess. Her once blonde hair has lightened to a shade of silver that is quite becoming. It lies loose, tickling the tops of her shoulders and dancing in the breeze that sweeps in through the bus window as we travel.
Lines had formed around her mouth and in the corners of her eyes, a sort of road map of her life experience. In spite of these attributes, she retains an air of youth from what I can only guess was a lifetime of adventure and passion. Never having married or had children, Alice has spent her life immersed in foreign cultures, gaining a global understanding to which I can only aspire. As we travel she tells us about her past travels to the West Bank, this trip was hardly her first.
“You should understand that your purpose in coming here is to hear a story. You will hear the story of a people without a voice. Be sure you’re listening,” she instructs.
A people without a voice. Coming from the United States, a land of democracy, I’m not sure that I know what that would be like. I’m not sure I understand the frustration and powerlessness one must feel in that type of life. I lay my head against the dirt-stained window and gaze out at the desert when I see it in the distance, weaving in and out, stealing the best land and leaving the leftovers for the people within: the separation wall.
Standing at 25 feet in height, the concrete barrier spans nearly 400 miles alongside and within the West Bank. Mostly a dingy gray color, the wall is massive and as we drive nearer I can see that it is peppered with graffiti, Arabic, and images of the Palestinian flag. Alongside the wall a young boy rides his bike. I wonder what he thinks about this life? This land? How strange that this is his best definition of normal.
Alice’s voice cuts into my thoughts. “Alright guys, here we go. Have your passports ready and don’t be nervous, the Israeli military will rarely give an American trouble once they’re inside the country.”
We shuffle out of the bus and onto the dirt, making our way through a gate that will grant us entry into the occupied territory. Lined with barbed wire, this is the first time since entering Israel that I really feel as though I’m entering a place of war. Israeli soldiers loiter as we pass, looking us up and down and speaking to one another in Hebrew. Once we reach the gate Alice exchanges some words with the soldier who takes a quick look at our passports as we pass.The soldier scoffs as he returns our documents, but we are in.
Looking back, this was the moment that my life began to change. This was the moment that Palestine wove its way into my heart and etched out a place there forever. That’s the power of this people. A people that start every conversation with a smile and a greeting of respect, a people who meet each visitor with a hot cup of mint tea and a sweet treat, a people who, though they have nothing, are willing to give everything.
The roads on this side of the wall are piled thick with dirt and poverty is everywhere. As we walk Marla, a volunteer from Denmark, begins to tell me of her last trip to the West Bank.
“Be ready to see some crazy things,” she warns. “Last year when I came it changed my life. On our day trip to Nablus one of the Palestinian boys, maybe 14 years old, came with us. We were stopped at a checkpoint and, like at all checkpoints, your ID is checked. You know, your passport or Palestinian ID card,” she explained. “The Israeli soldiers boarded the bus, checked our ID’s and, seeing this boy was the only Palestinian with a group of internationals asked him to get off the bus. When he did they just started beating him, kicking and punching. After about five minutes they stopped and let him back on the bus. I have never seen anything more heartbreaking than the shame in his eyes as he had to live with the knowledge we had seen this happen to him and he was powerless to stop it. The beating was nothing compared to seeing his shame.”
Her words linger in the hot air. There is nothing to say, nothing to do but listen. A people without a voice. Alice’s words echo in my mind.
Our first night in the camp we are met with a rambunctious group of Palestinian youth, all giddy with excitement that westerners are in their midst. They are all smiles and hugs, chatter and giggles. They show us their homes and their stories. They want to hear ours. We talk over tea, warm pita bread, and hummus. And I discover they are a lot like me.
As the hours wear on they begin to play instruments, flutes and drums mostly. We move onto the concrete patio as they begin to perform the traditional Palestinian dance of Dabke underneath the vast sky. I have never seen anything like this. I watch in amazement as they share a piece of their heritage with me, jumping and clapping in time with the music. They are all smiles and I don’t think that happens often in this land.
As they dance one of the Arab adults standing nearby begins to explain that in an attempt to keep the youth engaged, encouraged, and out of violence, Aida camp had begun teaching them traditional Palestinian traditions and educating them in history and literature, math and science.
“It is only through education, not violence, that the world will hear our cries,” he said.
Education in Palestine is not an easy feat. Because of the Israeli military occupation, Palestinians do not enjoy a freedom of movement. Their roads (I say their because the best roads are Israeli-only roads) are peppered with checkpoints dividing towns from one another. It can take hours to get through a checkpoint, so while you might live in Bethlehem, your school might be 5 miles and 1 check point away, making daily travel there virtually impossible.
The music grows louder and the dancing faster. Beads of sweat trickle down their cheeks and over their broad grins. Hand in hand they leap and shout, clap and twist. I sit among them in awe of their appreciation for their culture and their land when suddenly I find myself surrounded on all sides. Before I know it my chair is lifted up into the sky. I begin to laugh and clap along, reaching for the stars stretched above my head.
Our second day in Palestine is spent in Hebron, a small city southwest of Bethlehem. The United Nations Peacekeepers and the Christian Peacemaker Team meet us there. They explain that their primary job is to escort Palestinian elementary students to school each day. You see, on their way to school they have to pass by a Jewish settlement—a subsidized Jewish neighborhood in the West Bank. Each morning the Jewish settlers stand at the road and hurl threats at the children as they pass by. For some, those threats were transformed into violence. Settlers are known to throw rocks down at the children and, after the death of a 7-year-old-girl, the peacemaking teams were called to ensure their safety as they travelled.
Hebron is a broken city. Historically known for its glassware and pottery, it is a mere shadow of its formal glory. Everywhere I look I see Palestinian shops that have been driven out of business by Jewish settlers. I know that it is the work of the settlers by the blue Star of David they have spray painted on the now closed doors. Stray cats and dirty children wander the streets. We walk on towards the marketplace; a long corridor lined with open shops of all kinds and covered overhead by a net.
“Why is there a net lining the top of the street?” I ask the UN peacemaker as we walk.
“Above the shops are apartments often rented by Jewish settlers. They have a habit of throwing things out of their windows and onto the shoppers below. The net was placed there for their protection,” he answered.
As I walk my eyes can’t help but gaze towards the heavens, their view blocked by the net full of a variety of trash and rocks. Women fill the streets below, haggling over prices and carrying varieties of spices and goods from shop to shop. Children straggle behind them, occasionally eating a treat gifted to them by a generous shopkeeper. What kind of world is this that we live in? I wonder. What kind of world is it that allows children to live in a place with this much hate?
The days seem to slip through my fingers like sand. I beg them to stay, but they are stubborn in their elusiveness. As the morning call to prayer pierces the silence of the morning my eyes flutter open. After nearly two weeks, I have gotten used to the sound waking me each day. I pull myself off the thin mattress that rested on the tiled floor and begin preparing for the day. I have met many on my brief visit, and I am preparing to meet one final family today. She, like many of the others, lives in Aida camp. I reflect back on the stories I have heard in my time here as I eat my breakfast and begin the long walk to her home.
When I arrive I can see that her home, like most has been peppered with bullet holes over time. She can’t tell me why the bullets have been fired, just that occasionally, on quiet nights, soldiers will rain down showers of bullets on a sleeping Aida camp from their towers atop the separation wall. I am a living witness to this; it has happened in the time I have been here. Bullets bought and paid for, in large part, by the US government, as were the guns through which they were fired. She, with her husband and two children, welcomes me into their home with open arms. She wears the traditional Abaya, a black cloak that lay over her shoulders, and the hijab, which is a traditional Muslim head covering. In Palestine the choice to wear traditional clothing is personal and many women forego it altogether, others wear western clothing, but choose to keep the hijab as a sign of their religious devotion.
She leads me up her limestone staircase to the rooftop terrace. Light from the sun trickles through the grapevines that form a makeshift roof for the terrace. There, sitting before me, is the traditional hot cup of mint tea. I take my seat on a bench carved from olive wood as she and her family take theirs around me. As I sit there, under the cool shade of the grapevines, I listen.
In many ways her story is the same as every other woman’s in the West Bank. Her husband and sons had all been arrested. The Israeli military works at night, often waiting until the wee hours to break down the door and arrest Palestinian men. Her husband and sons were taken in that fashion, handcuffed out in the street, heads covered with burlap sacks. They were held for a time, some weeks, others years, and then released without a stated cause or formal charge. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and she was sure that it wouldn’t be the last.
“Israel doesn’t understand,” she says, “they think we teach our children to hate them, but we don’t have to. They learn it on their own. They see their fathers arrested without cause or beaten in the streets by a bored soldier. They see their mothers mocked and detained for hours just trying to go to the market and they hate. They bury their friends, 8, 9, 10 years old, friends shot and killed by a tank because they threw a stone. To hate this evil is to be human.”
She bends her cloaked head in sadness, tears filling her eyelids. “This isn’t the life I want for my son,” she says. As I sit across from her I can feel her pain wrapping its arms around my throat, choking me. I swallow and will my tears to stay within. This is not my pain, it is hers, and I do not feel worthy to partake of it.
She goes on to tell me many other stories that are much the same as every Palestinian woman, all of which are terrifying, but as our conversation nears its end she looks me square in the eyes and says, “why do Americans think we are all terrorists? Why do they think we are monsters? I wish they knew that terrorists kill my people just like they have killed yours. Terrorism is not Islam. I wish they could all come, could all see. Maybe then they would understand that we are suffering. Will you tell them?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply. It is the least that I can do.
*All names have been changed for privacy.