I’m not exactly sure why I chose to go to Palestine. Maybe it was because of the Palestinians I’ve met in the last few years. Or because of the rich history and heavy religious heritage. Maybe I just wanted to try Palestinian food. Or maybe I’m drawn to places that are on the troubled end of the social or political spectrum. Probably it’s because of all these reasons. But I found my favorite country in the Middle East.
The first Palestinian I met on the trip was Ahmed, the young expat visiting his family in Amman. He sat next to me on the bus trip from Amman airport to the city center. Before we parted ways, he made sure I got a decent price for the shared taxi to the border crossing.
I shared the taxi with Saleh, a carpet trader who spoke about his country with carefully measured words but with pain in his eyes. He was returning home to Quilquilia and, before we each went our own way, he gave me his phone number and invited me for lunch at his house.
Right after crossing the border, Omar, a short, fast-speaking man approached me. He asked me to carry for him a plastic bag with some cigarette packs and shisha tobacco on the bus ride to Jericho. After my original reaction (“No way, dude”), I checked the bag: it contained what he said. I looked around: my fellow travelers confirmed that it was normal practice for Palestinians to sneak in more tobacco than the allowed quota as it is cheaper in Jordan. Sometimes the Palestinian authorities would check the bus coming from the border, but as a foreigner, they wouldn’t bother me. I accepted.
And the chatty Omar sat next to me on the bus and proceeded to explain why I should definitely visit Bethlehem where I can stay for free in his house, eat Palestinian food cooked by his wife, and, on top of all that, I’d get dates and homemade olive oil.
Not even one hour in the country and I’ve been on the receiving end of the Palestinian hospitality from three different strangers. It continued with the fruit vendor who offered me an apple, the hotel receptionist who invited me to join him for lunch, the grandpa that didn’t speak English but wanted to chat with me and taught me a few words in Arabic (which I forgot the same day), the coffee vendor, and pretty much everyone else that I spoke to.
For centuries, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Arabs shared bread on these lands. It was a relatively peaceful coexistence and, to this day, the Arab-Christian and (the smaller) Arab-Jewish minorities live peacefully in Palestine and in Jerusalem.
Young and old, the locals I spoke to were open about their struggles with the occupation and eager to see an end to the conflict, whatever that might be. They all spoke with sadness in their eyes and resignation in their voices, but their words were springing from a deep (albeit wilting) hope for peace.
The conflict was politically-created decades ago and religiously-fueled thereafter. In the last seventy years, generations of Arabs found themselves forced to find new homes. Some fled across the border, to Jordan, some crossed seas or oceans. They lost their properties and, maybe, even family members. But as a society, they lost trust in their leaders who constantly failed them, as well as the hope that the world will eventually step in to stop the injustice.
Even to the untrained eye, the inequality is obvious. On one side, there were the abandoned buildings, the modest shops, the somber clothing. On the other – the carefully landscaped neighborhoods, the perfect American accent of the shop attendants, the proud (and arrogant) young soldiers walking around heavily armed. It doesn’t take long to figure out on what side of the wall one would live a life with more opportunities and comfort.
The Memories of the Past
But just as I listened to Palestinians’ hopes for peace, I wished to hear opinions from the Israelis too. That proved to be a lot more difficult. My attempts at bringing Palestine into the conversation were met with diplomatic redirection of the discussion. It was obvious that the subject of the occupation should not be discussed.
So I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, convinced I would find the proof that Israel understands abuse, discrimination, and the destructive power of hate.
I found historical facts explaining context and events. It did a great job to showcase the suffering of the people of Israel. But it failed to even mention the millions of victims that were not Jews. 11 million people were killed because they were Slavs, Roma, disabled or homosexual. And Yad Vashem did not even acknowledge their existence. I saw the same principles of propaganda I’ve seen in communist Romania, only this time it was a Zionist narrative.
Don’t get me wrong. The Yad Vashem is an extremely sad place. Just like the Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda, it shows what happens when humanity forgets about morals, kindness, or respect. And what happened during the Holocaust is indescribable and beyond what healthy minds can imagine. But what is stunning to me is that the very same victims of those atrocities are now oppressors. Israelis are laying the foundations of another genocide. It won’t happen this year, maybe not in 10 years. But if the world continues to look the other way – it will happen.
Hopes for the Future
Palestinians are tough cookies. And most interestingly, wherever they are born, wherever they live their lives, they keep being Palestinians above all. Yes, some are violently fighting for their cause. But most are using their belief to guide them through a life that is not always kind to them.
In hindsight, I should have taken chatty Omar’s offer. Palestinian food as authentic as it gets and homemade olive oil is not something that you stumble upon every day, let alone Palestinian hospitality.