Despite the headlines, Palestine is safe to visit – and its ancient cities and proud people make for fascinating travel, says Matthew Teller
"I love planes!”
Lights twinkled on wingtips overhead, glinting on the barbed-wire fence opposite and in Sami’s eyes beside me. A roar reached our ears, as the unseen aircraft continued its climb into cool blackness westwards towards the Med.
Sami chuckled. “But do you know what I love even more?” He tilted his beer bottle again. “Helicopters. Once I managed to get out and flew to see my cousin in Australia. Dubai-Singapore-Melbourne. Then I paid $100 for a ten-minute ride in a helicopter. Whoo!”
I grinned with him as he punched the air, remembering.
“We don’t have the opportunity for that in Palestine,” he laughed.
Yes, Palestine. Relax. Here, have a beer. Have some of Sami’s Japanese rice crackers. This is Wanderlust, not World’s Most Dangerous Hotspots. Palestine really is a viable travel destination.
First, some definitions. Palestine, for the purposes of this article, means the West Bank, a kidney-shaped chunk of hilly terrain stretching north and south of Jerusalem. (Gaza, the other bit of Palestine away on the Mediterranean coast, essentially remains off-limits to tourists.) I’ll spare you the history lesson, but the present-day reality is that the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation. International law calls the occupation illegal; Israel disputes that. What the occupation means for travellers is, in effect, two countries overlaid on top of each other.
Distances are small – barely 8km separate Jerusalem and Bethlehem, while Ramallah to Nablus is only 35km. But Israeli army checkpoints across every major route, and at the entrance to every Palestinian town, can lengthen travel times.
‘Settlers’ – that is, Israelis who reside in the West Bank – live entirely separately from Palestinians, supported by their government and guarded by their army. They have their own towns (or ‘settlements’) that are secured against outsiders, their own infrastructure of water and utilities, their own bus network and even their own roads, along which Palestinians may not drive.
Sami’s balcony – in Beit Sahour, on the edge of Bethlehem – gives an eagle-eye view over one of those settlements, a high-density cluster of identikit red-roofed new-builds. I’d seen the same place the night before, when I’d sat down for hummus and kebabs with George Rishmawi, coordinating guide for the Siraj Center, a non-profit organisation working in sustainable tourism. As we looked out over purple Beit Sahour, with its dim streetlights and patches of shadow, George pointed north to the settlement, floodlit yellow.
“Har Homa,” he said. “Built on our land. That hill has been called Jabal Abu Ghneim since...” He waved his hand. “Stolen.”
It was Har Homa that glowered opposite Sami’s balcony, too.
With the physique of a bodybuilder and a handshake to match, my homestay host Sami Khair turned out to be – would I make this up? – a carpenter in Bethlehem. Crafted wood filled his family’s modestly sized villa, from the sleek kitchen unit to the feather-light dining table and wall-hung crucifix.
While Sami showed me around, six-year-old Fernando consoled himself with a bout of American wrestling on the TV, gutted that the Premier League football stickers I’d brought from England didn’t include his namesake Fernando Torres.
Sami’s wife, Iman, a special-needs teacher, laid out a feast of chicken, salad, fresh bread and mint tea, and we chatted about travel, work, family – all refreshingly ordinary. Fernando took the insult of being kicked out of his room remarkably well, considering the sticker thing: he showed me his ninja moves, explained how the light worked and then scampered off to his sisters’ room, where he was extravagantly shushed while Sami and I watched planes.
My Bethlehem guide was Rafat Salsa – once a Communist, now, intriguingly, a factory owner. As we drove into town, he explained in detail how he was handling delicate negotiations that week with an Italian firm for a huge order of Christian religious artefacts and nativity scenes, carved in local olive wood and stamped ‘Made In Bethlehem’. “Every rosary I sell, 25 families benefit,” he said.
In Manger Square, Israeli tour buses were disgorging daytrippers onto the flagstones for what is many people’s one and only experience of Palestine – a visit to Bethlehem’s ancient, rambling Church of the Nativity, reputed site of Jesus’s birth. Rafat gave me a look. “The guides don’t even tell them they’re not in Israel anymore,” he said.
We waited our turn to duck through the Door of Humility, a chest-high opening that is now the church’s main entrance, after Crusaders and then Ottomans blocked the portal to halt cavalry charges.
But if Rafat had prepared some historical patter he didn’t let on: we were neither of us really in the mood to linger. I knew from previous visits that the time to see this magnificent church is early. Now, in the middle of the day, the altar steps leading down to the grotto where Jesus was born were like a Tube station on a strike day. Rafat had a word with the duty police officer, and motioned me to slip down the up stairs instead.
Among grappling shadows, I wedged my back into an airless corner to watch tides of individuals prostrate themselves – on knees, elbows, even full-length on the floor – before an 18th-century silver star, set within a low alcove at the supposed location of Christ’s birth. Candles sputtered, lips mumbled, hot sweat pooled in my collarbones. It was a claustrophobe’s agony.
Truth to tell, I was less engaged by the Holy Land’s standard tourist narrative of pilgrimage and history than by its contemporary vim. I enjoyed chitchatting with sellers of beachballs and cheap shoes in Bethlehem’s souk more than the church. It was the same in Jerusalem, where veteran guide Mohammed Barakat lifted a walk along the Via Dolorosa with tales of his family’s past among the Old City’s courtyards. And again an hour north in Ramallah, where the streets buzzed with commerce and a soldier raised his chin over Yasser Arafat’s kitschly sombre tomb.
Twenty kilometres south of Bethlehem sits Hebron. Within the city’s medieval souk (as beautiful as Jerusalem’s), settlers in fortified encampments on the rooftops have been known to toss dead rats and dirty nappies onto the heads of Palestinian passers-by.
I stopped at a caged-in checkpoint. “Why are you here?” I asked the Israeli sentry.
He shifted his automatic weapon. “To protect life.”
“Whose life are you protecting?” I asked.
A second passed. “Mine,” he said.
I almost laughed. Then I nearly cried.
One morning in Bethlehem I took a walk to Israel’s infamous Separation Wall. Eight metres high, punctuated by blank-eyed watchtowers, it coils around the city’s northern extremity like a concrete garrotte, severing the road to Jerusalem. Here, as across the West Bank, the Israeli army controls Palestinians’ movement. Many people cannot enter Jerusalem at all. Israel calls it a security measure.
To offset the wall’s greyness, countless well-meaning hands have left acres of graffiti – glib images of freedom I knew I should like. Past a Banksy dove I approached refugee camp Aida – in effect, a cramped, poorly supplied, low-income housing estate – crunched tight up against the painted wall.
Built in 1950 for 500 refugees displaced from their homes in the new State of Israel, Aida now houses 5,000 people, two-thirds of them under 18. It isn’t the best-known of Bethlehem’s refugee camps – Deheishe, further south, has a café, shop and guesthouse – but I was keen to meet Abdelfattah Abusrour. A saturnine 40-something, biologist Abusrour gave up a university teaching position in France to launch Al Rowwad, a theatre project for Aida’s children. Under photos of Gandhi, Einstein, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, he explained his idea of ‘Beautiful Resistance’, bringing purpose to lives blighted by political uncertainty.
“We’re fed up of walking in the funerals of our children,” he said. “My intent is to make everybody here feel they can be a changemaker. Theatre can be one of the most powerful civilising forces of resistance.”
I started talking about the wall, which was visible through the office window – but Abusrour stopped my question with a tut. “Artists come and turn this wall into a museum. Then people admire it.” He shook his head. “The wall is illegal and ugly. It should remain illegal and ugly.”
Next day George Rishmawi took me on a long drive through the Jerusalem Wilderness – the Palestinian term for the deserts of Judea – on a looping route from leafy Beit Sahour down through an immense landscape of dimpled nakedness into Wadi Nar (the ‘Valley of Fire’). Low-impact tourism is just opening up here, centred on desert hikes and Bedouin-hosted camping in the Dead Sea hills.
I was interested in the Wadi Qelt Trail. This arduous 25km canyon hike drops from 640m above sea level near Jerusalem to 250m below sea level at Jericho. George proposed we tackle the final stage.
Our three-hour descent to Jericho began on the steep approach to St George’s Monastery, founded in the fourth century over a cave where Elijah was purportedly fed by ravens in the desert. (Though in Hebrew ‘ravens’ is virtually identical to ‘Arabs’ – was it a miracle, or just a spelling mistake?) Glued onto the canyon’s north face, the monastery’s sunlit steeples turned out to shelter only a couple of monkish sourpusses, who showed us the gloomy 19th-century chapel, the cold-water tap and the donations box.
Then it was just the serene crunch of bootsteps as the velvet heat deepened around us. A spooked dog sent barks ricocheting. Towards the end, Jericho’s palm trees – spread out on the floor of the Jordan Valley – appeared through salty lashes like cocktail umbrellas stuck into liquid heat-haze.
Midday in Jericho, virtually the lowest point on earth, was like being basted in cling-film. The sweat wouldn’t stop. I glistened as we sailed above banana plantations in a little cablecar, and I dripped onto the gorgeous early-Islamic mosaics at Hisham’s Palace.
Salvation came via the Tariq Al Mu’arrajat (‘Road of Curves’), perhaps Palestine’s most scenic drive, coiling from Jericho’s cuddly deserts for an hour or so up to the green lanes of Taybeh. George made straight for the most aromatic building in town.
Taybeh Beer, the Arab world’s one and only microbrewery, spreads a luscious scent – malty, yeasty, fruity, hoppy – over this highland village’s olive-laden slopes. Brewmaster Madees Khoury showed us round. Aged only 26, she came to work with her father at the brewery after graduating from Bir Zeit University nearby.
“We’re here to stay,” she grinned. “We’re making a quality product, using local spring water, following German purity laws. It’s 100% natural.”
Thirsty travellers toasted success.
Thirty kilometres north, across hills of figs and settlements, morning broke to birdsong in Nablus, a mountain-flanked city of 180,000. Bells chimed. Keys hit a lock. In the church at Jacob’s Well, a Spanish prayer group chanted as they drew water.
The day began with a speed-walk through the souk, peeking in a traditional olive-oil soap factory and scoffing plates of knafeh, a dessert of buttery semolina, goat cheese and sugar syrup. It ended at Sebastia, a Roman city crumbling atop hills, where shopowner Mahmoud Ghazal showed me shelves full of unsold millennium memorabilia.
Nobody had visited from 2000 until 2011, he said, pouring tea with a smile. Nobody. There’s a word in Arabic, sumud. It’s difficult to translate – take a look at its Wikipedia page for clues – but it means something like resilience, or steadfastness. Palestinians have sumud in spades. You see it everywhere, this quiet patience: this is the land of the long view.
Visiting Palestine isn’t about ticking off places and – perhaps contrary to expectation – it isn’t really about politics either. It’s about the cast of characters, and their sumud. My week in Palestine was full of people, of talking, exchanging stories, overturning preconceptions. Everybody had a tale to tell. Time was on our side.
It was good travel.
Matthew Teller is a travel writer specialising in the Middle East. He tweets @matthewteller and blogs at QuiteAlone.com. In the next issue of Wanderlust magazine, he’ll be crossing the border and writing from Israel