Adventure Travel

Living On The Outside: My Palestinian Travel Diary

By Natalie Malan

It’s the trip we make every few years to visit my grandmother in the town of Bethlehem and cousins in Ramallah. Ever since I was 6 months old, I’ve been visiting my grandmother in the town of Bethlehem and my cousins in Ramallah every few years. Both towns are situated in the West Bank, the occupied territory that lies behind the Israeli-built wall of apartheid that separates Israel and Palestine. It’s a trip I look forward to every time, as I’m very close to my family. But I felt the need to share a bit of first hand information to dispel any negative images of Palestine, and to describe the kind of treatment that tourists like me are subject to from the state of Israel.

Palestinian Travel Diary: Day 1

I fly into Tel Aviv and am interrogated for a full two hours by multiple soldiers, who could be mistaken to be a group of aspiring fraternity brothers due to their jock-like mannerisms and youth. I sit in an office and admire the world map above the desk. Further inspection reveals that Israel is directly situated beside Jordan; there is literally zero reference to Palestine in any capacity.

As the soldier goes on, question after question, I don’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted at the depth of interest she seems to show about my life. I am asked about my grandfather’s name and town of birth (I have no idea)   why and when I moved to the many places I have lived around the world and more. I laugh, trying to bring humanity into the situation whilst apologizing for my complicated ‘global gypsy’ story, aware that she is just doing her job. However, she is not at all amused, and I wonder how someone could be so dedicated to really caring so much about asking such useless, minute questions.

She continues, increasingly rude, and testing the limits of my patience with her condescending questions: ”Where in Israel was your father born?” (Um, my father was born in Palestine). “Why did he leave Israel?” (yeah…he was never in Israel!). It finally ends, and I feel the freedom and respect I enjoy in my London life slip through my fingers by virtue of my father’s bloodline. My mother is Russian, and I do not look Arabic, nor do I even speak the language.

The taxi drives us through Jerusalem and across the wall into Bethlehem. It is winter, and my Aunt’s house is made of stone, so the cold is chilling to the bone. I wonder why the heaters aren’t working and she confirms that there is some problem with the electricity – something related to its control by the Israelis.

Day 2

The smell of coffee with cardamom, the sound of Arabic radio, plates of fresh falafel and hummus, and my grandmother “Teta” watching Turkish soap operas at full volume are the typical morning scenes.  

My late grandfather used to be one of the guards at the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, the church where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Today is the 6th of January – and Orthodox Christmas Day. Many tourists and festivities are abound, though less than usual as Trump’s recent announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel left an air of fear and has affected tourism to the holy town.

My father takes me through the church, telling me stories of all the mischief of his younger days, like running up the bell tower looking over of what he claims is the best view of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. As we enter the grotto where Jesus was born, there is a heaviness in the air; the small space is filled with weeping Eastern Europeans and emotional Africans. It is a moment they have probably looked forward to their whole life, seeing the birthplace of Jesus.

In the streets, we watch as a diplomatic car speeds by. Apparently, the local head of the church is arriving   for the festivities. He had sold Palestinian land to the Israelis, and is consequently not at all popular here. I look to my right and notice a mosque as the call to prayer begins, no more than 100m away from the Church of Nativity. I ponder the ironies. In the distance, we hear the marching bands, an annual tradition during Christmas.

That evening, our family joins us from Ramallah for a family gathering at my grandmother’s house in Bethlehem. We exchange gifts, we laugh at who has gained or lost weight, and we eat together informally in the kitchen. I feel like life has been tough on them. Not only has there been some serious family illnesses, but there is not that same sense of progress that we, the visiting family, experience in our “western” lives. On the contrary, their lives seem to be fully controlled by the decisions of the Israelis: what permits are now allowed, where and when they can travel. Most recently, they have been prohibited from visiting Jerusalem, a “freedom” they previously enjoyed.

Nonetheless, together we are happy, and outside the walls of the house you wouldn’t know there is anything all that bad going on. In some ways, when you are this side of the apartheid wall, there are few reminders indeed that there is a long war waging. Life goes on.

Day 3

On this beautiful, sunny day we decide to visit Jericho, the oldest city in the world, and the lowest point on earth at 258m below sea level. Driving down the winding path in the valley, the rolling hills hold enclaves of Bedouins living in makeshift huts. Israeli soldiers stand stationed at several “checkpoints” through the journey, even though it is 100% on the Palestinian side of the wall. It forces a reminder upon us that we should be fearful and not forget where we are – an occupied state.

When we reach Jericho, with its palm trees and run-down streets, shops and cars What a Wonderful World  by Frank Sinatra blasts through the radio. The irony is not lost on me. Sat with my cousins, bored out of our minds due to lack of cellphone service (another commodity controlled by the Israelis) we play an impromptu game of “spot-the-most-ridiculous-shop-name”. We agree that the winner has to be “As You Like” cafe, finished with the Facebook “Like” button emoji. We assume it is translated from the Arabic “Isa Bidek” which sounds a bit better, but painful when translated.

After our delicious lunch at a “resort” in the valley, we decide to visit the local market. We joke that my aunts are buying enough food for the next two months. Jericho is famous for its fruits and vegetables, something to do with the climate of its location below sea level. On the drive back, we take a more scenic route, passing the Mount of Temptation where Jesus apparently stayed for 40 days with no food. The sun is setting over the valley.

That night, my cousin and I visit a cute little bar in Ramallah called Garage, in a space that literally used to be a garage. People are playing chess, foreign volunteers and workers are on their laptops, and locals are catching up. Wine, good food, and a real sense of community where owners greet every guest going from table to table exchanging kisses and niceties create the atmosphere. I only understand words such as inshallah, mashallah and other endearing Arabic terms of which there is no English equivalent. We continue on to a house party, where we listen to deep house sets and drink wine. I could be anywhere.

Day 4

The next day, hungover, the day starts late into the afternoon. We visit one of the Shisha cafes in Ramallah. My cousins stop and catch up with literally every table of guests; it seems everyone in the town knows each other. As we sit smoking our shisha, we discuss the latest gossip. We also talk about our own dramas, comforted in the similarities of these. The food is delicious, again, and the shisha perfectly made. I have yet to eat a meal that was anything but excellent in Palestine.

I take the minibus back to Bethlehem from a desolate car park in the centre of the old city of Ramallah. I sit in the front with the driver. He plays a CD of Fayrouz, one of the most famous Arab singers. Even though I don’t understand what she says, as we drive through the winding roads with the sun setting over the hills I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a lost time. The music takes me back to my childhood, when my father used to play it in the car on our way to pre-school.You can see illegal Israeli settlements in the distance, an unsettling notion.  

Halfway through the journey, the Palestinian police stop us and ask all the passengers for their ID. I notice one of the passengers behind me makes himself as small as possible, putting his hoody on. I wonder what is going on. It turns our for some reason or another he doesn’t have his Palestinian Identification with him. He is taken out of the minibus and ends up in a lengthy conversation with the police. The bus driver, feeling sorry for my foreign self, asks if I’d like some coffee from the shop across the road. I decline, nervous to get home.

Driving from Ramallah to Bethlehem is around 25km, but you can only go a re-routed way due to the conflict that makes it up to 2 hours, depending on how lenient the Israeli soldiers are feeling at the checkpoints throughout. This is fully intentional, in order to make life even more inconvenient for Palestinians. As we pass through the villages, most of which are visibly poorer than Ramallah and Bethlehem, I notice vertical streaks of smoke not too far ahead. The driver confirms this is tear gas. I notice soldiers, and a few men running away into the olive trees over the hills. No one reacts, and they laugh at my curiosity.

Day 5

Walking with my father through the town in which he grew up, we stop at each house for Arabic coffee and biscuits and reminisce over whose uncle knew whose sister knew whose friend and where they ended up. We learn the story of an olive wood engraver whose father died in the very house we sat, from pieces of rubble that blew through the window after the bombings on Bethlehem in the 6 day war in 1967. His son who we now spoke to grew up with my father and was an athlete but is now dying of bone cancer. Today he sat on that exact couch just centimeters away from where his father had died 50 years ago.

We visit Banksy’s ‘Walled Off’ hotel, inspired by the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Leather couches, gold fixtures, and plenty of art meet the eye whilst jazz plays in the lobby. A mere 10m away, the   graffitied apartheid wall is visible, an intentionally disturbing site. Besides being a hotel, the Walled Off is also a work of art, in a way.

Today we ordered grilled sea bass from the local store for lunch caught that same morning. We ate this together with green fava beans, salads, tahini sauce, grilled eggplants and sweet potatoes. One of my favorite meals during my time here. Food continues to surprise.

Later that afternoon, we decide to visit the new development of Rawabi, a project funded by Qatar and wealthy Palestinian businessmen, over an hours’ drive out of Bethlehem. It has recently opened with stores such as Mango, the only one existing in the West Bank. Though still a ghost town, the future of this little city seems promising.

We drive back to Bethlehem and go to the local Knafeh store for the famed Palestinian desert of sweet cheese. Dessert is a big deal over here. My (mostly) plant-based, non-sugar eating self is holding up well, but I am tempted.

Day 6

We go for breakfast at Afteem, a famous falafel restaurant, and it must be the best I’ve tried. Afteem Al-Yawafi opened their restaurant in 1948, the year of the Palestinian Exodus, after finding refuge in Bethlehem, fleeing from their previous comfortable life in what is now called Israel.  

Later on, I am sitting in an empty cafe in the touristy area, writing on my laptop, when an elderly woman comes and sits at my table. She asks what I am writing about, I say an article about Palestine. We exchange names and where we come from, she seems happy I am half Palestinian. She proceeds to tell me, without hesitation, that she hates laptops and people typing away. I tell her it is for work; “what can I do?”. It turns out her family owns the restaurant, which explains the forwardness.

Back home, I continue writing in the dark. The power went out and we don’t know why. We wait for some time before it comes back.

In the evening we visit old friends in Beit Jala, a village not far from Bethlehem. We sit with them in their beautiful house on the top of a hill overlooking the well-developed highways across the wall on the Israeli side. A Christmas tree, fireplace and shots of Mastiha make for a homey feel. I talk with the husband of my Aunt’s best friend. He is a construction consultant and so I ask him why USAID funds infrastructure projects for water and sewage in Palestine, although US foreign policy is against support of the state of Palestine. Would it not be in their interest to suffocate the landlocked of the West Bank by means of resource starvation? He states that keeping the Palestinians at least a tiny bit satisfied is a means of keeping them less likely to rise up against Israeli oppression.

I post on Instagram, selective of what kind of experience I want to paint of my times here. I opt for beautiful scenery, and references to the beauty of the holy land, and shy away from presenting images of the wall, of the war, the tear gas, and the soldiers. Almost out of respect for the dignity of the experience and people I had the pleasure to be meet. There is no point to wallow, it feels. Though that’s easy to say as an outsider. I guess I see it all differently, I see the beauty and want to preserve it as such.

Day 7

Today we visit Jerusalem. We pass through the border control “Mahsoum” between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Israeli soldiers are apparently vastly irritated. They change the booth for the passport line several times, our line runs to each, frantically, ridiculously. We finally get through and catch the “service” bus to the old city with other Arabs. In the old city we enter through the Damascus gate, and into what appears to be the Arab quarters. We arrive at a security check before entering the Western wall, the Jewish quarter. I ask the security guard where the Western Wall is and I say it’s my first time here. He answers cheerfully, surprising me, almost singing “welcome to Israel!” followed by some textbook introduction, like a scout minus the hat and necktie.

†¨We get to the wall, we observe the kissing of the wall and praying into Torahs on the women’s side of what appears to be this open air synagogue. My friend clutches her Lonely Planet on “Israel and the Palestinian Territories”, the latter in subtext. She jokes that whilst their guiding force may be the Torah, hers is the Lonely Planet, and we laugh.

We want to see the mosque, which is now in sight, but it is not clear how to reach it. We end up at two different gates but apparently only “Muslims” can go through these, we must find the one for tourists. We try at both nonetheless, and say we are Muslim. We cover our hair with scarves and hoodies. That isn’t enough. The Israeli soldiers manning the gate ask us to recite “Al Fatah”, one of the most known verses in the Quran. I happen to know it, and proceed to recite it. I pass the checkpoint into the mosque but am greeted by Arab Israeli police who, again, ask me to recite it. They seem somewhat unsatisfied with my rendition and don’t let me through.

We continue on, eager to get to the Dome of the Rock. We spend an hour trying to locate the Moroccan Quarter where the entrance is. We end up passing through the same security check of the Western Wall, and the same guard that let us in before asked again where I was going, and I said the Moroccan Quarter. Seemingly disappointed and irritated about that answer he mumbles something and waves us ahead. He’s either really moody or just annoyed that we are not Jewish tourists.

After Jerusalem and a delicious meal of the standard falafel, humous, fava beans trio in the old city, we take the bus to Ramallah to meet some friends. At the border of Qalandiya, the Checkpoint Charlie of the Israel-Palestine dispute, an Israeli soldier gets on the bus and checks everyone’s papers. It seems he’s just taking the piss, being as cranky and as nasty as possible. I am starting to understand the instructions from the Israeli government are to never, ever treat an Arab with humanity, and to purposefully delay them in any way possible at all times.

Day 8

Today my Italian-Lebanese friend who is doing an Arabic language exchange in the nearby village of Nablus and I decide to go for a walk around Bethlehem. We sit in a famous ice-cream shop near the Church of Nativity with a great view of the settlements and the Palestinian villages. We drink coffee and talk about the ironies of the place. It’s a Friday, and we had just walked through the main square where hundreds of men stood, leaning on cars, against walls, and standing in the open air. They listened to the Friday prayers recited by the mu’addhin in the loudspeaker. We later learn that as the mosque is too small to house all the followers, they gather around the square. We were the only women in that space of what could have been around two hundred men.

Drinking our Americanos and tanning our shoulders, I mentioned that I felt so uncomfortable walking through the square while they gathered praying, and wished we could have known and avoided it. I felt that it was disrespectful, as if we were walking through their prayer. She, on the other hand, took surprise at this position, saying that it was clear we weren’t aware, asking why we should feel bad. She cited it as an example of co-existence in action. We debated the details of this for a while, concluding that it is a question of boundaries. There should be some courtesy displayed by either religion in respect for the practices of another, but a line could and should be drawn as to what constitutes invasive, rude or disrespectful, and what is acceptable. If only it were that simple.

Lunch is at home with the family. It is our last day so the tradition is Mansaf, a traditionally Jordanian dish eaten throughout the Levant consisting of lamb cooked in yoghurt. A heavy meal, and always a highlight of any trip to Palestine for me.

We sit in the living room with grandmother, aunts, uncles and children. We talk about old memories, we laugh, and make fun of each other.

Returning to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, it’s again like one big college town. Millennials are working the border patrols and the cafes – there’s a lot of dreadlocks, tattoos and flirtation. It sounds like fun, but I feel like a complete outsider. I don’t speak Hebrew and I’m not Jewish so I know I am completely unwelcome; a perennial outsider. Whilst they laugh and joke with each other, without a care in the world, I start to worry just how long it’s going to take for me to get through the border control and finally out of this place.  

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