Some Ramallah and Jerusalem

The last two days I’ve been stuck in bed (well, to be more accurate, stuck on the amazingly comfortable couch in the living room) sick. Therefore, I have had time to sort through photos of my exceptionally eventful weekend and write a post before next Friday! First off, you will notice this post is tagged Palestine, even though I spent a significant amount of time in Jerusalem. This is because I stayed in East Jerusalem and spent almost all my time in the Old City in the Muslim and Christian quarters. Perhaps Jerusalem deserves its own tag and for the purposes of this blog it can be its own city-state, what think you?

Weekends here begin Thursday evening as the work week is Sunday – Thursday, a fact that never ceases to amuse one of my best friends. Therefore, on Thursday afternoon I met with the author of Lost in the Middle East and he and I caught a sherut (mini-van bus) to Jerusalem. On the sherut, my travel partner for the weekend began talking to a Palestinian man who then walked us to the buses heading to Ramallah in Jerusalem. It was very interesting. The man has a Masters degree in economics and yet is unable to find work in Palestine due to what he says is the corruption and nepotism of the current governmental system. As a result, he is forced to cross illegally into Israel and work as a construction worker to support his family. He invited us to come visit him at some point in his village for lunch.

Crossing into the West Bank was no problem, as usual. In Ramallah we were picked up by one of our hosts for the night, a Palestinian Christian man. He explained to us that they do not live in Ramallah proper because, as he holds Jerusalem ID, he must live in areas that are Israeli or else risk losing his Israeli residence. As a result, he and his wife live just outside of Ramallah and he continues to pay taxes to Israel (which – in the last month, has ceased to do any maintenance or work in the area. There were piles of trash accumulating in the neighbourhood because Israel had not sent anyone in to collect it). His wife does not have Jerusalem ID (it is important to remember that Palestinians with Jerusalem ID are not Israeli citizens and do not have citizens’ rights – their ID can be taken away very easily, and will be if they move into the West Bank) and though she has dual Palestinian-American citizenship, she is only allowed into Israel with a permit – which she can only get on Christian holidays. She cannot cross as an American citizen because she is also a Palestinian one.

Our lovely hosts took us out for a night on the town in Ramallah. It was amazing, not at all what I expected. Short dresses and skirts (me in one too – I had been told it was appropriate), tank tops, alcoholic drinks, crowds of people, beautiful spaces. We went to two places – a garden bar and restaurant called Sangria, where I had a bite to eat, and a very popular and “happening” place called Beit Aneeseh – a bar playing music in a converted house and garden in a residential neighbourhood. Both places were lovely and I would recommend them to anyone going to Ramallah.

The following morning, our hosts took us to the pharmacy where the wife works and brought in what is considered a typical Friday morning meal for Palestinians: baked eggs, hummus, ful, pickled salad and bread. Following this, the husband took us for a drive through Ramallah and to see Yasser Arafat’s tomb while his wife worked. It was really great – we saw a lot, but as I always feel when driving, missed out on a lot too. We did drive through a refugee camp in Ramallah and it’s amazing to see the difference in space just within 10 meters of entering – whereas outside there was space, it was absolutely crowded inside. Not so much with people, I didn’t see many people, but the buildings and everything were more crowded.

My travel-buddy and I then decided that we would like to walk about a little before our next drive and lunch/dinner, so we walked through the Old City of Ramallah. There was a mosque that the men sitting beneath told us to enter, which we happily did. We saw the different rooms in which men and women pray and the different bathrooms in which they perform their ablutions. The men had a beautiful, tiled bathroom – the women had a wooden structure on stilts in what looked like an underground parking lot. I asked if my buddy and I could climb up the minaret of the mosque and look at the view and, unfortunately, the Imam happily unlocked it for us. I say unfortunately because the walk up was disgusting – he said cleans the staircase every month but every month it fills up with the carcasses of dead pigeons which we had to step over. The view from the top, however, was phenomenal.

After a second drive into the wealthier neighbourhoods of Ramallah, a look at an area where houses for the super-rich had been built but were left uninhabited because no one could afford them, and some lunch/dinner, our hostess drove my friend and I to Qalandiya checkpoint. Qalandiya is the busiest crossing into Israel from the West Bank and the most difficult to cross through. Because I had previously been in and out of the West Bank without a passport I didn’t think to bring one this time. However, you cannot enter through Qalandiya without one. My travel-buddy and I sat on a sherut that was to go through another crossing for about 20 minutes, but as it had no passengers we were told to find another way across. We decided to wing it and try to get me through Qalandiya without a passport – something which everyone I’ve spoken to since has been amazed was possible. I was asked for ID at the crossing and I pressed my Quebec Medicare card to the window. The soldier behind it shook her head and asked for my passport. When I said I was without, she told me I couldn’t get through. I insisted I had no way to get it as it was in Tel Aviv but that I lived there and had other forms of proof. “Why didn’t you bring your passport?” she asked. I mustered my most innocent look, “I didn’t know I needed it, no one asked me on my way in!” She looked astounded – “that’s because you were going in!” After calling my roommate to see if she could provide my passport number (she couldn’t, she wasn’t home) I told the soldier I had a Tel Aviv cell-phone number and bus pass and my travel buddy (who had his passport) said I was with him. The soldiers, effectively convinced that I was no threat and unwilling to deal with it, waved me through.

Side note: for Palestinians crossing Qalandiya, only members of the driver’s family can be in the car with him. Our hostess pointed out a very old man who could barely walk getting out of the car and doing the crossing on foot simply because he was not related to the driver. I cannot imagine what the reasoning behind such an arbitrary rule is.

Onto a bus we hopped, heading to Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah where we were greeted by another host. This time not a local, but an aid-worker. He took us to his house, served us supper, read tarot for us, and I promptly fell asleep. The part of Sheikh Jarrah we were in was absolutely beautiful. If you’re interested, it is also a very volatile neighbourhood in which weekly protests occur.

The following morning I headed out bright and early (8:30am) without my travel buddy – who was sleeping in – to see the Old City of Jerusalem. I had been told to get to al-Aqsa before 11am if I wanted to enter – so that was my destination. En route, I noticed a beautiful compound, that of St George’s Cathedral, and spent a good 45 minutes or hour wandering through its little gardens and courtyards, its diocese, residential grounds and hostel. It is absolutely stunning and it was at that moment that I realized I was in love with Jerusalem. This love was only compounded throughout the day.

When I realized it was 9:45, I rushed out and headed straight into the Old City through Damascus Gate, ignoring the various distractions along the way. Once inside, I followed some Orthodox Jewish men to the Western Wall where access to al-Aqsa for tourists starts. Just my luck – access was closed. Apparently Israel closes it to foreigners on Friday and Saturday, but this ruling is rather recent. I don’t know why. I sat in the square by the Wall for a while, upset and watching various tourists come and go (an Indonesian group with an Indonesian man wearing a kippah passed by!) and watching people pray, but because it was Shabbat no photos were allowed. Saddened by the fact that I was being denied of both access to al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and of the opportunity to take photos, I left and headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over the place where, according to some Christian groups, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Within it is Golgotha – the hill where Jesus was crucified – the tomb where Jesus was buried, and the stone on which Jesus was anointed after his death. The Church is also massive. I did not expect it to be so large and to contain such a diverse number of priests of different orders and Christian groups. I was lucky enough that on my second time there that day – when later reunited with my travel buddy – I witnessed some priests conducting some sort of ceremony in front of Golgotha. I spent a good hour wandering around alone, watching in awe the people stroking the rock on which Jesus was anointed – kissing it and placing every object in their bag on it – and looking at the beautiful mosaics on the floors, walls and ceilings. Then, driven by hunger, I headed out in search of an Armenian cafe my host had told me about.

While wandering through the Old City looking for the cafe a young Arab man asked me if I needed help. Cautious, as always, because of my experiences in other countries with people offering to show you the way and then asking for a charge, I said no. “Do you know where you are going?” “Yes! That way!” 50 meters later I stopped to ask for directions and the same young man showed up again, “I told you you were lost! Where do you want to go?” Reluctantly, I gave into his pushing, but even with his help we couldn’t find the cafe (I later realised it was because I screwed up the names, I was looking for the Austrian Hospice, not the Armenian Hospice!). Instead, he tried to get me into the al-Aqsa compound via the way for Muslims. I covered up and covered my hair and tried to walk past the Israeli soldiers – but I’m not Muslim and when they asked I was too scared to lie. Even with my new friend’s pleas, I wasn’t allowed in.

We then met with my travel buddy and my new friend took us both up a church steeple where we had a view of the entire Old City. It was magnificent. He also pointed out various sites for us, including a new Jewish settlement. We then headed down and after a second trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which my travel buddy hadn’t seen yet) were led to lunch by my new friend through winding streets in the Muslim quarter. He sat us down in a small room with no ambiance, no tourists and no women and we ate delicious falafel and hummus and drank mint tea. An old man smoking nargila asked me, from across the room, where I was from and welcomed me to the city. When we were done, my travel-buddy and I parted ways and I went with my new friend, his best friend and his PE teacher to his school.

My new friend loves gymnastics and parkour and wanted very much to show me his “club” in his school where he practices. Because it was Shabbat, everything was closed but he managed to get his PE teacher to come down and let us in. After more winding streets through the Muslim quarter and somewhere still touristy but less so than the inner shuks, we reached his school. He unlocked the door and took me straight to a window which had the best view of the Dome of the Rock yet. He then opened up his gym which I was eager to see. A few weeks ago Haaretz did a week-long special on sports among Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians and on how under-funded they are, so I wanted very much to see the facilities, which were basic to say the least. However, he and his friend happily changed and started doing all sorts of flips and impressive handsprings before moving to parkour and his PE teacher showed me a video of a capoeira gathering that they had held in the past and to which a capoeira grand master from Tel Aviv had come.

As we opened the door to leave, I  saw about 30 + Orthodox Jewish men (and a few women) stream into the school grounds and head to that same window with the incredible view of the Dome of the Rock. I heard the three men I was with start saying things in Arabic, all I could understand was “Yehudi”, and we headed straight to the Orthodox Jews. My new friend marched right into the center of the group to talk with their leader and I stood on the outside of the circle with the other two men feeling very nervous. I know how volatile Jerusalem is, and I know how violent the Orthodox Jews in the area can get, so I was wondering what would happen next because we were 4 to their 30. They evidently weren’t leaving, and my friend’s PE teacher yelled something at him and we left, I was still completely befuddled. Then, as we headed to the door, they started to follow and walked out the gate. My friend told me that he had essentially told them to leave and they had said they were there “looking for information” (what information you would get in an empty high-school I do not know) so he told them “okay, there are only two keys to the school. We have one, the police have the other. We are leaving and we’re locking the door, you can call the police to let you out.” So they left.

My new friend then got me a drink and we headed to Jaffa Gate where we sat and talked (conversation was not always smooth as his English is imperfect and my Arabic/Hebrew is non-existent). I asked him if he had any Jewish friends and when he said no I said “now you have one.” Even though I don’t consider myself Jewish, I felt for some reason like I wanted to open the gates of understanding. His eyes almost popped out of his head, “you are Jewish?!” but all was fine. At 6, he took me back to Damascus Gate and we said goodbye. I had been apprehensive for that moment because in Bali and India a tip is often asked for and though I didn’t think he would do so, I couldn’t be entirely sure. He did not. I then met with my travel buddy and we headed back to Sheikh Jarrah, getting lost on the way and passing a Jewish tomb (which we didn’t have time to visit). We were then treated to conversation and supper with our host and some of his friends, one being a photographer working on football in Palestine for a book for FIFA next year. Interestingly, FIFA has willingly, and conscious of what it means, decided to recognize Palestine as a country with a football team.

What was also interesting was to hear, over the few days, stories about how the various hosts and their friends had been mistreated by Israeli border police in the name of security. One had been absolutely strip searched (down to his underpants) because he worked for the UNDP, the photographer had had her camera broken, my travel buddy had been interrogated. Of all the foreigners I met, I was the only one who had not been subject to harsh interrogation or worse.

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