Saturday, October 1, 2011

10/1/11: The World On The Other Side Of The Separation Wall: The West Bank

Old Ramallah

Business buildings outside of Ramallah

Today I FINALLY had the pleasure of visiting the West Bank, and it will go down as one of my favorite experiences of my Middle East journey thus far. Getting to the West Bank from Jerusalem was not difficult at all. I met up with Molly and Victoria (the other interns from the Palestine-Israel Journal) near Damascus Gate of the Old City where we walked up the street to a bus stop that provides busses to various West Bank cities. It is not an Israeli company that provides these busses, so this was my first experience with Arab public transportation.

Arab bus station 

After we got on the bus and paid our 6.50 shekels, we were off to Ramallah! It was so surreal driving to the West Bank and seeing all of the places that constantly fill our news papers and news stations; the separation wall, the checkpoints, the soldiers, etc. We arrived at the checkpoint and were waved right through into old town Ramallah. As we were driving to get to Ramallah, I couldn't help but notice how all of my pre conceived notions of the West Bank were completely off base. I was almost sure that I would cross the checkpoint and enter a war torn, poverty stricken, destitute region, where people were on the streets suffering, begging for money, and so on. I couldn't have been more wrong. Ramallah is a beautiful city that has areas nicer than some upscale places in Israel. While I'm sure there are very poor and poverty stricken areas in the West Bank, like there are in virtually any country, I was not exposed to them.

All throughout our drive to Ramallah we could see huge posters of Abu Mazen (Abbas) lining most billboards and buildings. His speech at the UN brought a serge of unity and patriotism to the Palestinian territories, and between the Palestinian flags waving from almost every window, and Abu Mazen posters hanging from the light posts and buildings, you could feel the love and pride the people have for their land. I compare it to walking through Jerusalem and seeing the Israeli flag waving from the balconies of homes, and swinging, proudly, from buildings. For two people that dislike each other so much, they have so much in common, including the passion they feel for their land (which is one of the main issues of this conflict; overlapping territories that are important to both people).

Abu Mazen poster hanging

Abu Mazen banner

When we finally arrived in Ramallah we had to catch another bus to take us to Taybeh, which is about 12km outside of Ramallah proper. Taybeh is a Christian village in the, primarily Muslim, West Bank, and it's big tourist attraction is the beer that they brew there. Every year they host Taybeh Oktoberfest, where tourists come from all over the world to try their beer, buy their home made products, enjoy live entertainment, and so on. Lucky for us it was a bit overcast so it wasn't too hot, and we were very comfortable walking around outside covered in our long clothing.

Walking into Oktoberfest

Ahlan W Sahlan :-)

When we entered the area of the festival we were greeted by Palestinian policemen, men at their booths selling products, and a handful of tourists. Music was playing, people were giving speeches, beer and food was being served, and everyone was having a fantastic time. We decided to have some lunch first, and bought wonderful chicken wraps filled with spiced chicken, Arab salad, onions, a pesto-ish sauce, pickles, and red cabbage; it was divine! After we ate our wraps and had our beer, we went inside to see what all the locals had to offer. There were booths with shirts, mugs, bags, and other various Taybeh souvenirs, places where they were selling hand needlepointed wallets, bags, purses, and pillowcases, and, my personal favorite, the honey/bees wax candle station. When I first walked into the shop area I noticed a good amount of people around a booth that was serving honey. Being quite the honey fan myself, I decided to check it out. I looked at all of the various home made, organic, jars of honey they have, and then noticed that the makers of the honey were right beside me! A huge, glass case filled with bees was right next to me. If I were less in control of my reflexes I probably would have knocked it over upon first seeing it (I am very afraid of bees), but instead I just jumped a bit. I bought a jar of delicious, organic honey, and then we were on our way to explore the town.

Honey stand at Oktoberfest

We walked around old town Taybeh for a little while after we were done with the festival, and saw some beautiful sights; There was the old Greek Orthodox Church, which naturally reminded me of one of my best friends Stephanie, beautiful shops with Christian souvenirs, and gorgeous, rooftop views of the West Bank. It was simply stunning.

Rooftop view of the West Bank

Greek Orthodox Church

Palestinian Christian church 

Once we felt we did all we could in Taybeh, we headed back to the beginning of town to catch a cab back to Ramallah. We got a cab with a man who spoke no English, but between Molly and me (mostly Molly) we managed just fine. Molly spent a year studying in Jordan so her Arabic is quite decent. As we were driving, all of a sudden, we noticed three donkeys running through the street. We were in a very rural area of the West Bank so I assume this is normal, but I had never seen anything like it.

Donkey in the middle of the road

When the shock of the running donkeys wore off, and it was more a shock and fear that the driver would run them over, a HUGE heard of sheep decided to venture into the road as well. Minus the fact that I was riding in a vehicle, I felt like I was back in biblical times, where animals roamed freely, young men tended their flocks, and so on. The young man with this flock of sheep was probably only 10 years old. It was a very colorful ride. Along with the two animal experiences, our driver decided to fall asleep while we were stuck in traffic. We had to figure out a way to wake him up without being to rude, but we couldn't help laughing hysterically when the car wasn't moving and we realized it was because he was out cold!

Heard of sheep crossing the road

Luckily we made it back to Ramallah safe and sound! As we were walking around I couldn't help but notice beautiful, modern buildings, cafes, shops, and gorgeous scenery. I almost felt like I was in Europe. Some of the areas were nicer than most places in Israel, and it was so different than what I originally thought the West Bank would be. We found a lovely, little pastry shop where we bought pounds of pastries for all of, maybe, 2 dollars USA, and then we went to a fantastic cafe to sit for a bit, and get some coffee and food.  We had a very relaxing time at the cafe, and then headed back into town to buy some music, and catch the bus back to Jerusalem. It had been a very full day and we were all ready to get home. Seeing as I couldn't leave without some music, I jumped into a small shop, asked for a new CD,  that I don't even think is out yet, and got it for only 15 shekels! I was a very happy camper :-)

Modern apartment building outside Ramallah

It was starting to get late, we were getting very hungry, and we all decided it was time to head back to Jerusalem. When we got on the bus I sat next to a very nice old man who talked with me in Arabic. He was a bit annoyed because he wanted to get home and we had a checkpoint to go through, but it was so fun talking to him and being able to practice my Arabic. The checkpoint was an experience unto itself. When the bus pulled up to the border between the West Bank and Jerusalem, all of the passengers had to evacuate (except for the elderly). We all went into a line where the Israeli soldiers would let a few people  through at a time, put all of our belongings on a conveyer to be scanned, walked through a body scanner, and then showed our visas. I had no problems since I had a foreign passport and a student visa, but there were many Palestinians who had a very hard time getting through. Travel is not fun under the best of circumstances, so I can understand the frustration with the checkpoints. Unfortunately, I see both sides to this story. On one hand, the checkpoints are a pain in the ass and make you fell like you are in prison, but on the other hand, Israel's security depends on things like these checkpoints, and I can understand completely why they are necessary; you can't be too careful when it comes to the security of your home, but at the same time, Jerusalem is also their homes too... It is very tough for me to feel connected to both sides... very, very tough, but I am glad I could see what goes on from the other side. It was an amazing experience, and one that I hope to repeat often. I know that I will be bringing everyone I know to Ramallah!!

When we arrived back in Jerusalem, the girls and I went into West Jerusalem for some sushi, and then I caught a taxi back to my apartment. Just my luck, I jump into a cab owned by a Jewish man who refused to take me home because he wouldn't come into East Jerusalem at night. He would only take me to Jaffa gate of the Old City, where I then had to catch another cab to my house. That is how you know I am very deep in East Jerusalem; when Jewish cabs won't go there at night! Luckily I made it home safe and sound, and will use my day off tomorrow to rest up from today, do a little shopping, and get ready for my week ahead. Yom Kippur is this weekend so I plan on going back to Tel Aviv on Thursday so that I can observe Yom Kippur at home instead of in East Jerusalem.

Stay tuned :-) and Tisba7 3ala khier!!

So much love,
Jordana Simone 

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