This was my very first time visiting Palestine. I wasn’t completely sure of what to expect of my visit. However, I did know not to trust the Israeli / Western narrative that depicts the Palestinian people in, let’s say, a not very flattering manner. My encounter with Palestinians overseas has always been positive so I sort of expected “more of that”.
I wanted to visit Palestine for several reasons. First of all, having studied Modern Standard Arabic for two and a half years prior to my visit, I had a very strong desire to improve my spoken Arabic - in particular the Levantine dialect. Secondly, being a person with a strong sense of justice I felt drawn to the country that embodies the possibly strongest symbol of injustice in our world today. Thirdly, as a language teacher I wanted to offer my English skills to the many brilliant and eager Palestinian students at the Excellence Center. Last but not least, I wanted to experience the real Palestinian culture through my host family, colleagues, and new friends.
I had decided to travel through Jordan, as I also wanted to meet some friends living in Amman on my way to Palestine. The driver who picked me up from the airport turned out to be Palestinian from Hebron, and he thus made sure to tell me about all the wonderful foods I needed to try when I got to his hometown - especially the grapes! He also told me that I was very lucky to visit Palestine as he was denied entry and had not seen his country nor city in years.
At the hotel I furthermore befriended two young Palestinian guys. One from Jerusalem and one from Hebron. Even before they knew that I was traveling to Palestine they were already offering me nuts and sweets while we were sitting on the rooftop of the hotel. When they learned about my destination we obviously quickly bonded and they offered to show me around their cities and meet their families. They straight away expressed concern that I was going to travel through the checkpoint on my own, and made me promise to let them know when I had arrived at my destination safely.
Based on several firsthand accounts from friends and colleagues I expected the worst from the checkpoint (King Hussein Bridge). The Israelis were not as ruthless as I had expected however, I was questioned over and over again for about 5 hours between long waits. I was literally asked the same 3 questions again and again: “why are you here”, “where will you be staying”, and “for how long”. Not the type of questions you’d find out of the ordinary to be met with at a border except that the Israelis either didn’t believe what you said or didn’t like your response. In my case they did not particularly like my response. Especially the combination of me studying Arabic combined with the fact that I was staying in Hebron - and only for a week. After providing my story to about ten different IDF soldiers – some more accommodating than others – they finally let me into Palestine but limiting my visa to only give me access to Palestinian territories and only for exactly a week. So long visiting Jerusalem and al-Aqsa!! (not happy…)
After a short bus ride from the checkpoint to Jericho (and nearly forgetting my camera on the bus..), I was met my a swarm of taxi drivers who all wanted to take me to my destination. They were all very friendly however, it was a bit overwhelming having about 8-10 people all trying to communicate with you at once in Arabic. Now, although my formal Arabic was quite all right, my colloquial Arabic was weaker than 5 year-old native speaker so I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Suddenly, a young man who was sitting next to me on the bus (and who kindly reminded me to grab my camera when we disembarked) was standing next to me. He had overheard that I was going to Hebron. Apparently, he lived in Hebron and he insisted on taking me there. The discussion amongst the taxi drivers was getting a little bit too heated for my liking so I decided to accept his offer and drive with him and his family to Hebron (I should add here that I usually would never get into a car with strangers however in this case he turned out to know the manager of the center and also his family was there so I felt very safe). This gesture would be my first taste of the amazing hospitality of the Palestinian people and especially the good people of Hebron.
The drive from the checkpoint to Hebron did not take too long – perhaps just a couple of hours. During this ride it was interesting to see how the atmosphere in the car would change according to where we were driving. For example, the first stretch was patrolled by Israelis and thus we were all quiet, wearing seat belts and trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves. As soon as we entered a pure Palestinian area the seat belts came flying off, windows were rolled down, cigarettes were lit, music was played, and people started chatting and laughing.
When we arrived to Hebron I was invited to the young man’s family’s house. Here I was met and greeted by the entire family and provided with juice, tea, coffee, cake, fruits, and wonderful company. Mind you, this was not even my host family and they were still so excited about me being there.
After a while, the manager of the center, Rafat, came to fetch me and took me to the center, where I met a handful of the other internationals for a delicious dinner on the rooftop. After that I met my host family, a lovely young couple who recently had a little baby boy, and I got settled in to my room which, I shared with a young German girl.
Throughout the week I would usually be at the center between 9 and 10am. Rafat would bring us all breakfast which consisted of delicious local dishes such as hummus, foul, mutabbal, etc. After breakfast, I would spend most of the day assisting the local teachers in their classes, carrying out examinations of students, and helping out with different ad hoc tasks. I also received some one-on-one classes in the local dialect, which I found extremely nice – halwa ktir ktir! The staff were great, I bonded with everyone instantly and everyone was like a big family. I will be missing them all greatly until we meet again. My favorite part of the day was without a doubt teaching English to the kids (10-14 year olds). These kids were amazing! They were switched on, cheeky, and eager to learn. At the same time they were well mannered and disciplined. They possessed an amazing sense of humor and had big dreams for themselves, their people, and their country.
I would spend every evening in the company of either my host family or some of my many new friends – locals and internationals. It was strange that my friends and family overseas expressed a fair bit of concern, prior to my departure, about me traveling to Palestine. However, I had not at any time felt unsafe during my stay in Palestine in the hands of Palestinians. On the contrary, Palestine - or more specifically - Hebron is probably the one place in the world I have visited (and I’ve done a fair bit of traveling) where I’ve felt the safest! As a visitor you are constantly welcomed, looked after, and exposed to the overwhelming hospitality of the Palestinians.
I loved hanging out in the old city, exploring the old souq, and just getting lost in the sights and sounds of the city. Not so much for the shopping (although shopping was pretty good here I must say) but more to just absorb the buzzing atmosphere and to observe people as they carried out their daily activities. Perhaps I enjoyed watching Palestinians go about their day in spite of the tightened restrictions of the movement of Palestinians since the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994 that forced them to close their vegetable and meat markets, and banned Palestinian cars on Al-Shuhada Street. Moreover, perhaps I enjoyed seeing that injustice will never prevail and that life itself is a beautiful form of resistance to those who try to silence you as to diminish your existence. This resistance is among others manifested in the new generation’s desire to learn English. The desire to let their voices be heard, understood, and respected by the world. During the oral examination of a young university student I asked her to give me an example of a Palestinian success story. She replied: “To me, every Palestinian is a success story!”. I told her I couldn’t have put it better myself… Then I high-fived her!!
على هذه الأرض ما يستحقّ الحياة: على هذه الأرض سيدةُ”
الأرض، أمّ البدايات أمّ النهايات. كانت تسمى فلسطين. صارت
“تسمى فلسطين. سيدتي: أستحقّ، لأنك سيدتي، أستحقّ الحياة
“On this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth is the Lady of Earth, the mother of beginnings, the mother of endings. She was called Palestine. She came to be called Palestine. My lady: I am worthy, because you are my lady, I am worthy of life.”