When I was 20 years old I spent the summer in Spain. One week a friend and I took the ferry across Gibraltar to the port town of Tangiers in Morocco. When we disembarked there was a hoard of men waiting to descend upon the fresh faced backpackers on board. They screamed at us, “You’re not in Europe anymore! This is AFRICA!”
And I was scared.
I felt very similarly as I took the bus to the Israeli border and walked up to the imposing 26 foot high security wall, continued through the intricate set of turnstiles and down a chain-link fence alley way into Palestine with nary a security check or someone at the border to approve my passage.
In my mind I was thinking, “You’re not in Israel anymore. This is PALESTINE!”
But instead of PALESTINE! I found Bethlehem, a quiet little town surviving from the trickle of tourists that make it across the border. Tour buses of people come to visit the site of Christ’s birth, to kiss his star and absorb some of the holiness that might still lingering in the air. I did this too but after saying my respects to baby Jesus, I wandered around the city streets looking for signs of PALESTINE.
Instead I found love, peace and Banksy!
Bethleham is just too small, I reasoned. It’s not the “real” Palestine. It’s not the place of malcontents and keffiyeh wearing radicals waiting for statehood. The next day I once again crossed the border, this time into the de-facto capital of the West Bank.
A young Israeli soldier with reflective glasses, heavy black boots and a large automatic weapon boarded the bus to check our papers. Seeing my passport, he studied me.
“This is the bus for Ramallah.”
“Yes,” I responded in my most polite, deferring to authority voice.
“You want to go to Ramallah?!”
“Yes,” with a little less certainty.
In a deep, serious voice he said,”Be very careful”
His words reinforced what I believed, that I am heading to a dangerous place. I am going to find PALESTINE!
I was mentally prepared. I imagined refugee camps, a smattering of chaperoned women with babies and angry men openly carrying guns wandering the rubble strewn streets. I fantasized that my blatant American accent would insight an Anti-American riot culminating with a chorus of bearded men shouting “ku-lu-lu-lu” and shooting machine guns into the air as I was shoved in a van and whisked away to be held for a ransom that was never to be paid. Or at the very least I would get some hostile looks.
So two things should be obvious: one, I clearly have an overactive imagination and two, none of this happened.
Instead of a poorly developed, poverty stricken town, Ramallah is a lively, bustling city overflowing with men, women and children. Ice cream parlors filled with families line the street and jam packed shawarma restaurants are busting at the seams with teenagers on cell phones. The foot traffic on the sidewalk swelled into the street where taxis, buses and the odd new model Audi struggle to move an inch.
There is no sign of rubble or collapsed buildings. Instead you see store upon store and the streets filled with things to buy. Outside the open air malls mannequins with headscarves and full-length grey trench coats stand next to piles of sneakers and lipstick. Nuts, dried fruit and gummy bears sit in huge barrels. It’s nearly impossible to resist the siren call of freshly roasted coffee that wafts from every other shop entrance.
Instead of a rowdy, unemployed youth and angry, radicalized machine-toting men, each and every person I met was unerringly polite. “You’re from America?” they repeated after learning my homeland. This was quickly followed with “You are welcome here!” or “Welcome to Palestine!”
I walked through the refugee neighborhoods and peered into the homes clearly equipped with the modern basics. I wandered the markets and lingered around the male dominated tea-and-hooka stalls. I searched high and low for assurance that I was indeed in that famous non-state, the center of conflict in the middle east. Instead I found myself in a peaceful, modern, and distinctly Arab city.
I was in Ramallah just days before Abbas headed to the UN to ask for statehood and when my own government was thwarting that effort. I am amazed at how Middle Easterners – from Jordan to Egypt – have separated the person from the politics.
It’s intimidating to break out of your comfort zone; no one wants to find out that their assumptions or their stereotypes are misguided. I’ve continued to confront the fact that ‘Arab’ doesn’t mean radical, the Middle East isn’t all bombs over Baghdad and perhaps what I’m sure I “know” is just something I heard on the news.
(My camera broke falling off of that bus to Ramallah so I borrowed the most accurate pics I could find of that city. Here are some shots of Bethlehem.)