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