I love this quote from the late Anthony Bourdain, the ballsy travel presenter who told it how it is. Why? Because I believe we’ve lost one half of the art of travel: the half that hurts.
Today’s travel scene has digressed into picture perfect and is at risk of being fake. We want tropical islands on sunny days when seas are sparkling, instead of when they’re whipped by storms that create the landscapes we love. We consume places through smartphone pixels rather than presence. We move through landscapes not to be touched but to tout them online. Another wide brim hat exploring a Tuscan town, a glistening wine glass perched on a white wall in Santorini: #MyPerfectLife. When we think about #travelinspo, we sweep under the rug destinations that stretch, anger, compel and even confuse us – exactly what I found in Palestine.
Palestine broke my heart and seduced it in the same beat. It’s a fascinating place with colourful culture, ancient history, and sincere hospitality set upon the world’s most controversial conflict – an intractable argument that rages over a land deeply sacred to three of the world’s largest religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The controversial bit
Before I left, I had no real grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I saw it in newspapers it was like picking up a complicated novel half way through; trying to understand an intricate plot without the context of the opening act.
Now, having been there, I understand more but acknowledge I still don’t know much. I’m not religious and I only went to Palestine, not greater Israel, therefore only got one side of the story. Nonetheless, here is my impression.
Palestine is a small region of land in the Middle East, roughly 6,220 sqm with a population of 4.8 million. Violent attempts to control the land have defined much of its history. Arab people who call this territory home are known as Palestinians. They have a strong desire for sovereignty and to create a free and independent state from the Jewish nation of Israel.
In the religion of Judaism, God promises Abraham and his descendants a ‘Promised Land’ flowing with milk and honey and it’s this divine homeland that is central to the religion.
Settled by the Ancient Jews, the area was conquered by the Romans in 135 AD and passed through the dominion of many empires until it was absorbed into the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1517. The Turks ruled it as a majority Muslim land for 400 years until World War I (WWI) when the Empire collapsed and it was divided between Britain, France and Greece. In the fall out, Britain was given governance of Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate.
For most of this period, a mix of people lived in the area, the minority were Jewish, followed by Christians, and Muslims held the majority. In 1915 during WWI, local Arabs joined forces with the British (The McMahon Agreement) to help them defeat their Turk overlords in exchange for the creation of an independent Arabia. However, in 1917 the Brits also promised the same area of land to the Jews (The Balfour Declaration) supporting establishment of a ‘national home’ for Jewish people in Palestine. For Zionist Jews, this aligned with the biblical concept that this Holy Land was promised to them by God.
Following Balfour, many European and Zionist Jews immigrated to Palestine, however their growing population created tension with local Arabs. In 1947 the United Nations proposed a plan to partition the area into independent states; one for the Jews (Israel) and one for the Arabs (Palestine) with Jerusalem as internationalized territory. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, but the Arabs opposed it. They felt that given they were the majority, they should be granted more territory.
In May 1948, the British withdrew from the region and Zionist leaders declared Israel an independent nation. Around 700-900 thousand Palestinians lost homes, farms, businesses, towns, and cities as Jewish militia drove them out. Newly created Israel immediately moved their citizens into emptied Palestinian homes. To the Palestinians, this event is known as an-Nakba or ‘The Catastrophe’ and many refugees still hold keys to their lost homes in the hope of someday returning.
In 1967 Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a war that lasted six days but resulted in major land gains for Israel. Since then, Israel has maintained military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians still fight for independence while large populations of Israelis continue to reside in what many consider illegal settlements. Contentiously, there is a dual system of law whereby Israeli settlers are accorded full rights of citizenship and are governed under Israeli civil law. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the same area are subject to Israeli military law (with a 99% conviction rate), unequal access to water, electricity, schools and other state services, and restricted movement within territories. The situation is widely criticised by the international community as an apartheid system.
So Why Go?
With all the conflict and angst, why not strike it off the bucket list? Because it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever seen. Walking back in time and experiencing the Holy Land first hand is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are over 6,500 archaeological sites, delicious fresh food, the best falafel of your life, and warm people who desperately want to share their story with you.
THINGS TO DO
1. Visit Jerusalem
I was particularly motivated to see the Old City of Jerusalem. While I’m not religious, it’s difficult to deny the spiritual magnetism of seeing a World Heritage site first hand.
The Old City itself is tiny, only 0.9 sqm and roughly divided into four quarters. The Muslim Quarter (my favourite) is home to the Temple of the Mount, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock with its stunning mosaic ceiling. It’s only open to non-Muslims for a few hours per week so plan your visit. Ladies need to be completely covered and wear a headscarf while gents require long trousers. The Christian Quarter contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The Armenian Quarter boasts the Cathedral of Saint James. Finally, the Jewish Quarter, with its many synagogues and yeshivas, contains the Wailing Wall, the holiest place in Judaism. Wrapped amongst this religious reverie are colourful bazaars selling souvenirs, Arabic coffee, sweets, and groceries to hordes of passing pilgrims.
2. Eat Kanafeh
To recover from the sensory overload of Jerusalem, kick back with a sweet treat of Kanafeh, a cheese-based pastry soaked in sugar syrup that tastes more delicious than it sounds.
3. Try stretchy ice cream in Ramallah
If Kanafeh sounds too strange, how about stretchy ice cream? A shop in the Palestinian capital is so good that young Israelis allegedly sneak in just to get their hands on a cone. Made with mastic gum it has an elastic texture and is delicious. The best stuff can be found at Rukabs, who have been making stretchy ice cream since 1941.
4. Visit the Taybeh Brewery
Thirsty? Take the detour to the Taybeh Microbrewery. Drinking alcohol is still taboo in the majority of Muslim countries and yet Taybeh hosts the world’s most unlikely Oktoberfest. Every year, over 16,000 people flock to this tiny town to celebrate. Not only is it the only brewery in Palestine, their female brewer Madees Khoury knows how to make a fine pint! If beer isn’t your thing, they also have a winery with a surprisingly good drop.
5. Stay a night in a Bedouin camp
Need a change of pace? Transport yourself back in time to live with the indigenous nomads of the desert. World renowned for their hospitality, the lifestyle of the Bedouin hasn’t changed since biblical times. Enjoy sleeping beneath the stars in a traditional tent and hearing stories over a plate of Mansaf – a delectable local dish made of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt and served with rice. Relish in the peace and silence of the sand beneath you.
6. Hike the Masar Ibrahim Trail
An extraordinary thru-hike called the Masar Ibrahim Trail (or the Abraham Path) has just opened. At 330 km long, it passes through villages where you can experience legendary hospitality and a solid adventure. Don’t be deterred by the length, you can easily break it up into shorter day hikes (10-20 km) or tack a few together for a multi-day expedition. Footpaths, dirt roads and shepherd’s trail are the building blocks of the hike. While it’s well marked, you’ll still need a GPS and a trail map (available online).
7. Visit Hisham’s Palace in Jericho
Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and intriguingly the lowest. It was built 9000 years before Christ and 258 m below sea level on the Jordan River. Archaeologists have uncovered remains of more than 20 successive settlements here including the wonderful Hisham’s Palace. Built in the eighth century the palace boasts a breathtaking 827 sqm mosaic floor (the world’s largest) made from 38 different geometric and floral patterns in 21 colours. Breathtaking is the only word that will suffice. It’s often covered by hessian and sand to protect it from the elements until a roof can be built so check its open before you go.
8. Swim in the Dead Sea
With a 38% salt content you’ll bob and float in the world’s largest mineral spa. While it’s great for your skin, don’t get the water in your eyes – it stings like crazy!
Things to keep in mind
To get to Palestine, you will need to cross from Israel. At the border, it’s easier to say you are visiting the ‘Holy Land’ as it raises fewer questions.
Try to avoid having your passport stamped. Ideally get a separate card containing your tourist information (keep it safe as you may require it to enter the Palestinian West Bank). Why care? Israeli stamps in your passport may prevent future travel to several countries.
Visiting Palestine generally poses no threat to the respectful, aware and savvy traveller. Both Israel and Palestine want visitors.
Keep an open mind, your political opinions to yourself and avoid places with planned protests or local tensions.
It’s always a good idea to review government travel warnings (www.smartraveller.gov.au) and dress respectfully.
In the end
It would have been easier to give you the picture-perfect overview. To tell you of the glistening golden dome of a sacred mosque that shines so brightly it stuns the naked eye, or the feeling of reverie as pilgrims realise their dreams of devotion, or what it’s like to hear the joyful sound of bells toiling out across a land hazy with heat. But that’s just one half of a curated picture seen on Instagram.
The part that hurts is what makes it real. The nerves at the border crossing, the traffic that stalls through spontaneous military checkpoints, tyre spikes flung haphazardly across the road, and fresh faced Israeli soldiers with assault rifles slung on their shoulders. That’s the part that awakens you to reality.
My most visceral memory is not the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem or the home cooked Palestinian feast I was invited to, but the deeply imposing, grey concrete massif that snakes 650 km to separate and cut off Palestine, known as the Israeli Separation Wall. While depressing and shocking in person, the Palestinians make the most of it. Street vendors find relief in its shade; artists make it their canvas by scrawling poignant, clever and funny political graffiti. My favourite: ‘Make Hummus, Not Walls’.
This land is a melting pot and will leave you conflicted and confused on one hand and inspired and moved on the other. I implore you to do the research and feel the stories for yourself. Your individual beliefs, religious persuasions and opinions are a lens through which you will see a story that makes sense to you. My story will not be yours, you need to seek it for yourself. It may hurt, but that’s real travel.
Images: Caroline Pemberton & Florie Thielin
Dear Siraj Team,
We are enjoying to stay in a family while learning spoken Arabic at Bethlehem University. For us the stay in a family increases our possibility to learn Arabic, and also to better understand how an ordinary life can be here.
The day to day conversations and interactions with family members challenges us to speak the language.
The outstanding service with meals served at breakfast and dinner gives us more time to study which is well-needed.
Jonas and Karin Bodin
Our trip in Palestine was as always very appreciated by the entire group.
The program allowed us to experience a deep understanding of the environment of the country, and gave us the opportunity for a real full immersion in the local lifestyle.
The whole group especially appreciated staying with local families. The night at Bedouin camp and the opportunity to meet locals on the way and at various local culture centers, such as Arab women unions, the boy scout group in the refugee camp of Fara'h, the Mosaic Center in Jericho, etc. We also enjoyed the local traditional Palestinian food.
Dar Ramot family in Neve Neeman
“We got to hear the prospective of the conflict from an Israeli family with a son in the army. We learned about why they felt safer with the wall being built and their perspective on whether peace can be achieved.”
“The narrow and labyrinth like streets in the Old City had merchants along the sides selling candy, fresh fruit, clothes, and jewelry. We were led by our tour guide to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and to the Wailing Wall (the Western Wall).”
This is my third time organizing a spring break trip for my Harvard classmates with the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, and I could not ask for a better partner to help share the Palestinian experience with my fellow students. I have taken over 200 Harvard graduate students to Palestine, and without the Siraj Center’s dedicated work, the three trips would not have been a success. Every year we have visited both the West Bank and Historic 1948 Palestine, going to cities and villages such as Al Khalil (Hebron), Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nabi Saleh, Al Walaja, Nablus, Nazareth, Haifa, Yaffa, and the Naqab Desert; we have even conducted a Skype call with activists and students in the Gaza Strip.
On Saturday December 28,our trip began in Tel Aviv as we exited the plane. The bus was waiting for us and then we headed towards the St. Vincent Guest House in Bethlehem. We were able to begin the next morning with Mass in Arabic at the Church of St. Catherine. The singing of the people and architecture of the church was beautiful. After Mass, we traveled to the excavation site at Herodium. We were able to see the tunnels, the cisterns, and the private burial ground of Herod. In addition, we saw Solomon’s Pools. After lunch at the Christmas Tree Restaurant, we drove to Shepherd’s Field. Walking through the park, we came to the small chapel with a cave showing the nativity scene.
In Nablus, we first visit a soap factory in the middle of the modern city. We are allowed to wrap some soap. Fascinating! Then we walk around the old city, a university lecturer, joins us, and we see more of the old city, including a wall of photos of local martyrs. We have coffee in a coffee shop recently opened in the old city; it is also a sort of local history museum. Lots of talking, including a fascinating political discussion about Palestine. Café is full of young people, although all in single sex groups. Visit the hammam; it is men’s day so Brigitta and I just see the main hall, a lovely old building.
Under this title IMBACH-REISEN in Lucerne, a pioneer of hiking holidays and tours, presented a new destination to their customers.
A friendly Palestinian guide took us to villages and refugee camps,at some distance Jewish settlements. Again and again we got in touch with the Bible and the Holy Land : Abraham and Jacob, miracles by Jesus, the woman at Jacobs well.
While we were walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we were able to observe the way of living of the people in Palestine, their hopes, their achievements, their sorrows. We experienced the smell and taste of the food, the smoothness and roughness of the soil under our feet crossing the fields, along the path, down the ravines. We touched and sipped the water in pools and wells. We drank Arabic coffee or tea, during our rests. We listened to stories of the places we traveled through, of the people who used to live there and of those who live there now.
Describing the beauty of the Palestinian landscape and its fascinating diversity, the privileged witness of timeless scenes, the shepherds driving their herds across thousand-year-old landscapes of cliffs, the Bedouins in their traditional daily life, would all be incomplete and inequitable toward those women and men met along the trail and who bring to this journey all its powerful humanity.
Abraham’s Path is as well, a rich encounter with each person involved in the project, the local guide who bridges the voyageur to his family, and the communities the voyageur will meet on the way.
The Abraham Trail in Palestine took our group of 8 through barren landscapes in Awarta, lush olive orchards between Awarta and Duma, scrubby desert-like terrain and fertile farms planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables in the terracing of the Aqraba hillsides. In Taybeh, we had a private tour of the only microbrewery in the Middle East! And we will never forget Nablus with its traditional soap factory and the delicious “kanafa”. But the best part was the people we met, conversed, laughed with and learned from.
A new place to walk, in the olive groves and wadis of Palestine. It was too late for wild flowers, but we caught the end of the olive harvest. It is a small and encircled place, with a wall and the Jordan river as its effective boundaries. But the people we met were kind and generous, both the guides who led us and the people in whose homes we stayed.
The Siraj Center helped organize a memorable tour of the Holy Land for seven Canadian citizens of varied backgrounds trying to make sense of their government’s policies toward Palestine/Israel. While we did expect to visit unique historical sights we were definitely not interested in a package from a glossy travel brochure. We hoped, rather, to see and experience the reality of the issues and hear informed points of view from all sides. Our hectic two week schedule certainly met and exceeded our most optimistic expectations.
Departing Jericho we had our final walk which was perhaps the most stunning of them all. We walked through an area so barren that it felt we really had been transported back to Biblical times. The only life we saw was a baby owl sleeping quietly in a crack in the rocks.
We completed our four-hour hike with an astonishing view across a canyon to the Mar Saba Monastery which is built into the rock and is simply one of the most impressive sights we have seen to date. Upon arriving in Jerusalem we headed straight to the Mount of Olives and took in the impressive view of East Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock taking centre stage.
I did a four day walk on the Abraham Path this April, starting in Nablus and ending in Taybeh with a side trip to Bethlehem at the end.
I absolutely would recommend it.
June 26th 2007
As you may or may not have heard I am in the most dangerous part of the world. I am a stranger in a strange land, sending out and SOS! to major Tom. We are is plunged into intrastate strife and hellfire, aliens, awaiting the apocalypse, shivering in the dark jungles of Guatamala with Mel Gibson and the whole damn crew of Tribulacion 99.
But no, actually I am deeply in love with the social work of painting and eating arabic food, as well as colloqual arabic classes here. The years I took Arabic at Princeton don't help me much on the streets of Palestine b/c that was standard/formal arabic. My teacher here is a fanatic from al-Quds (Jerusalem) and he's good at getting us to jive with the locals and their lingo.
I am at the halfway point in the one month programme and in a good position to reflect on the plethora of experiences here in the Bethlehem area. The overnight flight and subsequent four-hour wait in Israeli immigration at Tel Aviv airport now seems a distant memory, but an amusing one. Departure on Sunday and arrival on Monday merged into one and devoid of sleep Hisham made the bleary eyed 3-part journey to Bethlehem after reaching landside at 8am. First we got a taxi to Jerusalem along with a mix of Americans and, surprisingly, two guys from Northern Ireland. We took a short trip round to Damascus Gate where we tried to arrange travel to Bethlehem. Unable to call our taxi driver we fell back on Hisham’s father in England who somehow managed to have success despite calling from England. We made it, and just in time for our first Arabic lesson at Bethlehem University – any thoughts of bed were delayed by another two hours.