Studying in Jordan, a majority Palestinian nation, compelled me to take a trip across Jordan’s western border to see the place from which so many Jordanian citizens originated. I also realized the chance to see one of the holiest places in the world may never again be so easily in reach. As a result, I decided to extend my stay a couple of days beyond the end of my study abroad program and visit Jerusalem, Ramallah, and (originally) Hebron, although we ended up going to Bethlehem instead of Hebron.
Jerusalem was beautiful, and despite my lack of religiosity I enjoyed visiting the various religious sites immensely. There is something amazing about being surrounded by so many overlapping, and sometimes competing, histories at once, and an almost-palpable sense of belonging among strangers solely connected by their shared religion. Having no religious affiliation, I experienced the religious sites through a historical lens and was able to appreciate them all equally. On the Temple Mount, we visited the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, but ran out of time before making it to Al Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount closes early during Ramadan). After the Temple Mount we walked up the Mount of Olives (from which, based on the biblical tradition, Jesus ascended to heaven). The resurrection is believed to begin here when the Messiah comes, so one face of the mountain is a Jewish cemetery of over 150,000 graves (and counting). The view of the old city from the Mount of Olives was hazy, but it was nice to have a bird’s eye view nonetheless. We also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church originally built in the 4th century AD within the old city walls and believed by many Catholic and Orthodox Christians to be the site of Jesus’ tomb. The church itself smelled like my Catholic school childhood, which I did not particularly enjoy, but I let my slight discomfort fade in favor of architecturally- and religiously-inspired awe. While I was there, a group of Russian Orthodox Christians was performing ceremonial acts which I did not understand but found interesting to watch. I am fond of religious symbolism, partially because it is so foreign to me, and partially because it feels a little bit like literature, which I also enjoy.
The next morning, without any plan other than our destination, we boarded a bus for Ramallah and made it there without much fanfare, thanks to the help of a Osam, a friendly young Palestinian man who we met on the way. We were dropped off at the border in Qalandia and ended up walking through, which was an interesting experience. There were fences and guards everywhere and long lines of Palestinians trying to get through to go to the mosque (it was Friday). Osam, who lives in Ramallah and works in Jerusalem, told us it sometimes takes him two hours to cross the border (the two cities are a 15 minute drive apart). Upon arrival in Ramallah, we were immediately uncomfortable. It was cold, windy, and foggy, and the city streets were totally empty, save for three young males and their dog who began following us as soon as we arrived. Looking vulnerable and very obviously lost, we decided to walk toward the main street and ask an amiable-looking man for directions to the only city landmark we knew of — Yasser Arafat’s tomb. He told us he was walking in that direction, and he would show us the way. As we walked together, he introduced himself as Sary, a 23.5 year old Palestinian from Ramallah, who makes a living selling coffee and tea from his street cart. He didn’t speak much English but was fluent in charades, so our level of communication was surprisingly sophisticated. He also knew almost everyone in the city (since they were everyday patrons of his business), and seemed universally loved and respected, so we trusted him. He not only convinced the guards to show us around the grounds of Yasser Arafat’s tomb and the Palestinian Authority Headquarters, even though it was technically closed, but also then proceeded to spend the rest of the day showing us around the city and explaining its history and people. He took us to the Ofer (a region of Ramallah) crossing and told us about all the fighting that goes on there. He showed us empty tear gas canisters, empty bullet casings (some non-lethal, some lethal), and rubber bullets used by the IDF (with which he has been shot numerous times). He showed us the remains of car tires that the Palestinians burn as a call for backup. He took us to the top of the hill from which we could see Ofer Prison, in which he was incarcerated for three months when he was 15 for throwing rocks at IDF trucks. Then we went back to the city and had lunch — Sary was fasting but insisted that we eat in front of him anyway, and then he took us to an olive oil factory where we learned how the oil is made and then purchased some olive oil and olive soap from the men working there. Then, Sary invited us back to his home for tea and coffee, and though we had to decline his invitation in order to catch our bus to Bethlehem, we exchanged contact information and plan to keep in touch with him.
We boarded a bus for Bethlehem around 1 PM and by that time we were all exhausted, so we stopped at a coffee shop in the city and had coffee and shisha to recharge. Our waiter gave us a huge bottle of water for free, which was really nice, and then we headed towards The Separation Wall which was our main destination in Bethlehem. The wall is about 26 feet high (three times the height of the Berlin wall) and completely surrounds Aida Refugee Camp, which is where we walked along it, though it also runs through several other areas of Bethlehem. My roommate and I were taking pictures and the locals (who were coming back from occupied territories they’re not allowed to visit, except during Ramadan) were asking us to take pictures of them together in front of the wall. At first, I was confused by this. Why would Palestinians want to smile and pose in front of a wall that represents such inequality of their own people? I decided it was because the art on the wall, not the wall itself, has become so famous as a symbol of activism, that people want to be seen in front of it. After that, I felt a little less conflicted about being seen smiling in front of it.
Getting back to Jerusalem was pretty easy, except for the fact that the border was basically empty and we struggled to figure out how we were supposed to proceed through the queue to security. The whole setup is very psychologically disturbing. There is no one to be seen to guide you through the process, but you know they’re there watching you behind cameras. The queues are set up behind metal fences that provoked in me feelings of both fear and guilt, even though I was not in danger and had nothing to hide. By the time we got back to Jerusalem, it was Shabat, so the city was sort of out of commission, but we were exhausted anyway, so we had some Greek food in the Christian quarter and headed back to the hostel.