A Heavily Conflicted and Ancient Land

A warm Palestinian family welcomeViolence, conflict, displacement and political unrest are just a few of the words that rush to mind when Palestine is mentioned. Terrorism, imprisonment and land partitions are a few more. Even if I knew where to stand on the Arab/Israeli conflict, I could not in good conscience use this travel site to toot a political horn; that's not what it was designed for. Rather, I'd like to share an intimate experience with a family I encountered while wandering about through the heavily conflicted and ancient land of Palestine.

I left Jerusalem after four solid days of world class exploration to venture onwards to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. For Christians, naturally, Bethlehem is of great historic and religious importance. After visiting the Church of Nativity, so called for the presumption of many as the location of Christ's birth, I wandered the ancient streets and alleyways, enjoying the call of fruit vendors in the market and the occasional "hello" tossed my way. As I sat to have coffee on a veranda over the bustling marketplace, I was engaged in conversation by three different people in the span of a few moments time. Having been in Jerusalem for the last four days and having sparse conversation at best, I knew immediately that Palestine would be different. I finished my coffee, politely excused myself and headed for the shared taxi station. Those few conversations in the cafe were the boosting motivation I needed to build some excitement for my West Bank journey. I hopped in a taxi with a group of strangers bound for Ramallah, the central locale of governance in Palestine which served as the home of the country's most familiar though former face: the late Yasser Arafat.

Along the road to Ramallah, our taxi skirted through barren hillsides, past dusty towns and through sluggish military checkpoints. Halfway there, the driver requested fare for the passage. Since I was clueless as to the cost and my Arabic is virtually non-existent, the girl sitting next to me leaned over to interpret. I introduced myself and learned her name was Rana, and we happened into a seamless conversation that focused on her English studies at An-Najah University and my travel plans. Slightly disturbed that I was by myself and had been for the last few months, Rana questioned me on what I was planning to do next.

When I told her I'd be traveling to Nablus in the heart of the West Bank to try to soak up the most authentic picture of the Palestinian people I could manage, she said something that would forever change my perception of the people from this region. "I'm going to Nablus, too," she said. "And tomorrow I will show you all around. We will go to the market, the university, the museum and then you will come to my house in our village to stay. My mother will cook you delicious Palestinian food and you can sleep in our house.” 

The weary traveler and my inner self were bursting with delight at the thought, but my outer voice customarily declined. My rebuttal proved completely unacceptable in her book and after a bit of back and forth, it was decided: I would go the next day to this stranger's village, meet her family, eat her food and sleep in her home. With the flickering flutter of the tongue, I’d found a transient home in which to rest my body, intrigue my mind and fascinate my wanderlust for a few days time: the West Bank of Palestine.

The next morning, we met at my hotel in Nablus. As we walked through the weaving cobblestone streets and under stone archways, Rana explained the history of conflict in Nablus, which has served a hotbed for political unrest for many years. She discussed the posters and pictures of fallen Palestinians that adorned the walls of buildings and shared here feelings about the intifadas that took place in 1948 and 1987. She told sobering stories of the Israeli/Palestinian clashes, pointed out bullet holes in the window of a hotel and gestured to restricted areas that I was allowed to visit but she wasn't. "Because I'm Palestinian," she said. Here words were packed with sadness and hardship at times, and the more she spoke, the more my heart began to ache. These words and stories were not from the notepad of a journalist at CNN or BBC news tweets; they were thoughts, feelings and fears, simple yet powerful, that reflected life in an occupied territory with afflictions that were very, very real.

The rest of the day was spent as planned: we wandered and shopped along the meandering walkways of the market; we drank cardamom infused coffee and sampled delectable sweets endemic to the region; we traveled to the university where I met her professors and toured the campus; we carefully studied political art displayed by students that portrayed their daily hardships, their desires for political independence and their longing for national unity; and, we explored aisles of the library where Rana told me the names and books of famous Palestinian poets for me to read in the future. I began to devour every word she spoke about Palestine. From the atrocities that had taken place to the beautiful aspects of her society, I was riveted. Rarely if ever, have I been afforded the opportunity to have such an intimate look into another culture in such a short period of time.

Before departing for her village that afternoon, I bought some kunafeh (Palestinian dessert) and a small bottle of locally mixed perfume for her mother, as thanks and appreciation for their hospitality. When we arrived at her home, I noticed a yard full of olive, tangerine, lemon and fig trees, as well as a few winding grapevines, all growing around a modest, two story concrete home. Walking into Rana's home, I met her two younger brothers, her younger sister and her mother. Her father was at work as a window washer in Tel Aviv and would be gone for the week. Her other brother, closest in age to her, had been in an Israeli jail for the last 17 months and would be there for the next two as well; I didn't ask why. Hanging with the boys

After a few minutes of joking with her siblings, her mother called us to the table for an array of Palestinian delights. Seasoned chunks of chicken were placed over large pieces of flatbread, lightly drizzled with local olive oil and adorned with ground up zaatar (thyme, sesame seeds and herbs). Roasted almond slivers rested gently upon the surface herbs, beckoning our taste buds to indulge in their mighty earthen flavors. Bowls of mysteriously smooth yogurt dressed the edges of the table and balanced the flavors on our palates. When was my last home cooked meal? India two months before?  Even before that?  Mongolia four months previous? I couldn’t remember, but could only feel how wonderful to be sitting with a family again!  We ate with our hands from collective dishes and shared in mutual delight. This proved to be an example of traditional Palestinian food that would otherwise have been completely inaccessible to a lonesome traveler, such as myself. When we finished the meal and excused ourselves from the table, Rana and her brothers took me for a twilight walk through a neighboring olive grove and up a hillside to see their village from up high. As we walked, Rana explained to me that she often came here to study and daydream in the shade of the olive trees. When I inquired into the content of her dreams, she said laughed, "I dream about the sky, about being a bird and flying away."

Looking out across the hillside we could see the lights of their mosque hovering gently above the town like a Klieg light. In the other direction, the three siblings pointed out the lights of the Jewish settlement camps that were equidistant from our spot. These camps have been a major point of contention in the prospect for peace in this region. It amazed me that I was seeing one so close in a territory that I thought was completely Palestinian; below  the camps was a large concrete partition that helped to keep the restricted area just that. We turned back toward the village and watched the sky while the last bits of the sun dipped quietly into the horizon behind.

The rest of the night was spent laughing, watching Bollywood films, discussing the Qur'an and giving me gifts. Every hour or so, Rana would approach me with a new gift for me or for my family. Her only moment of reproach was when she noticed that my bag was too full to receive any more. I, on the other hand, had little to offer her in return, since I had been living out of a backpack for the last four months, though she, of course, expected nothing. I settled on giving her a bandanas, of which I had two. Although it was only a two dollar item, I explained its importance to me and she accepted with gratitude. We spoke of a day when I might meet her brother, whom her mother said I resembled. Rana said he would enjoy taking me many places in Palestine and that a return visit was necessary.

The next morning, we shared a phenomenal breakfast of fresh pita rounds, richly flavored hummus, local tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, zaatar, two types of cheese and locally pressed olive oil. I stuffed myself silly, knowing full well that my day to come would be long and arduous. We exchanged contact info, said our goodbyes and just as I came, I left, on my own to travel the country. I caught a taxi to Jenin and then to the northerly most point of the West Bank, before spending an hour crossing a prison-like checkpoint on foot. I then spent the next few hours hitchhiking to Nazareth in the Galilee.

While standing by the empty roadside waiting for a ride, I couldn't help thinking about my family and friends that I missed so much. While on the road, days or weeks can sometimes pass before you meet anyone that can remotely resemble something like a true friend. At times it weighs heavy on your shoulders and at others it doesn't. But in those last two days, I was given comfort from a stranger and her family that immediately turned into friendship. Whenever I hear a report about Palestine in the news, it will no longer be about faceless people, their daily hardships and a conflict zone. It will be about Rana, her family, her home and her country. Palestine will no longer exclusively be a point of political discussion in my world; it now wears a face, bears a flavor, displays an intellect and pulses with a heartbeat I can hear.

I owe it to her to listen.

About the Author

With family support and encouraging friends, John has travelled to over 50 nations and counting. Using his experience in education to fuel the costs, he’s taught abroad and in New York for almost five years. John continues to pen his travels, while living and working as an educational consultant in New York City.

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 Current name: Palestinian Territories

 Population of the West Bank : 2.57 million  (excluding Israeli settlers)

 Population of the Gaza Strip: 1.604 million

 Area: 1.285 million (496,225 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Arabic, Hebrew and  English

 Major religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity

 Monetary unit: Israeli Shekel

 GDP per capita: unknown

 Internet domain: .ps

 International dialling code: +970

 Source: CIA World Factbook and  Wikipedia