I couldn’t tell whether they were Israelis on a gloat tour – sometimes they come to espy the land in the valley, possibly to size up what they might hope to be the next land-acquisition – or whether they were Europeans on a conflict tour – groups touring Palestine to visit the conflict hotspots. Either way, they had a purpose, for if you wanted a pleasant hike you’d walk somewhere else, such as along the top of the hill. The only non-political reason for walking alongside the wall would be lizard- or ant-spotting, since the area adjacent to the wall serves only as an unintended nature reserve. This world, and this Holy Land, is run mostly according to the law of unintended consequences, if only we could acknowledge it.
Just a few weeks ago, the land just over the wall from the school was designated for settlement-expansion – houses will presumably be built in the next couple of years. Our land on this side of the wall is, I suspect, next on the list. This, I think, is one of the reasons the wall has not been completed over the valley, in order not to fix the border. Though, some years ago, the Israeli government stated that the wall would not constitute a border – I guess they really meant they intended Palestine not to exist as a nation – it does establish facts on the ground, no matter what the international community might say about its legality or acceptability. But then the Israelis aren’t exempt from the law of unintended consequences either.
Anyway, I didn’t have time to pursue the matter further, and perhaps it was harmless. Ismael was coming to pick me up at 9.30. I was on my way to the village of Al Aqabah in the northern West Bank, and it would be a three hour journey, inshallah. But first I had to go into Bethlehem to confront a classic problem. More unintended consequences!
I had asked for an embroidered coat to be made for me and the price had sky-rocketed. I had anticipated this and set a price above which I was not prepared to go. The shopkeeper arranging it with two ladies living in a village close to his own, south of Bethlehem, had rung me to ask for a second down-payment to help the ladies pay their bills. Okay, fair enough. Then he added in passing that the price had nearly doubled. He insisted that very special work was being done, and the ladies were working very hard. Well, okay, that might be true but I wasn’t happy about this and told him so, in my firmly diplomatic way. I didn’t want to sour or stall the project, but I needed to speak my truth. He didn’t get it. It was a delicate situation: one must never cause shame in a Palestinian. I needed to speak to him about it some more.
This highlights a classic Palestinian problem in interacting with the rest of the world. The idea of working to an arrangement and to a budget is alien to them. What they tend to believe is that, if they do a good job, the buyer is almost honour-bound to pay for it – not least if they’re a ‘rich Westerner’. What matters to Westerners is to make an arrangement and stick to it – or to negotiate in advance if there is to be a change. I had been clear with him but he hadn’t understood. He didn’t want to understand. Westerners are walking ATMs, and it’s the deservingness of Palestinians which matters most. Well, the problem is that this kills future business, and Palestinians then wonder why Westerners give up and walk away.
I arrived in town and my friend the shopkeeper wasn’t there – his brother was standing in for him. I presented my case carefully and he looked unsettled, defensive. I had to turn the tables round, to help him understand. “Look”, I said, “If you order a Volkswagen for a certain price and the man comes along with a Mercedes at double the price, telling you it’s a better car and you’d better pay for it even though you don’t want it, you won’t be happy, will you?”. He got the point. I spoke on the phone to his brother the shopkeeper. He understood, but I have a feeling it’s too late. This is going to be an expensive culture-clash. I’m hoping the coat will end up being worth it.
Off to the north. I walked through Bethlehem’s Christian Quarter to the service (pronounced ‘serrveese’) taxi station and took a service to Ramallah. Off we went along the dramatic main road to Ramallah, swirling, dipping and rising along through the Judaean hills and valleys for an hour. Ramallah means ‘Hill of God’, though frankly this town is probably the most profane of all Palestinian towns, being the PA capital and the main sink-hole for foreign funding and influence.
Nevertheless, when I got out the Friday prayers were in full swing, with a full-scale sermon going on in the nearby mosque, which was packed out. Hundreds of men were crowded around in the streets outside too, listening to the sermon blasting out over the town through the mosque’s loud speakers. It’s moving to see hundreds of men in the street praying together, and listening intently to the sermon. I’d have loved to have photographed them, but there are some things it is disrespectful to photograph, so I didn’t.
Eventually I found a service to Nablus, ready to go. I sat in the wrong seat. A service taxi has two front seats, one of them for the driver, then a middle and a back row of seats for three people each, and the guy in the middle row by the sliding door has to get out every time someone else wants to get in or out. The seat I was sitting on pulled up to let people out from the back row. Oh well, good exercise, and I performed it at As Suwaya, Huwwara and two spots in Nablus.
The scenery north of Ramallah – the region called Samaria by Israelis – is lovely, and this time of year it is relatively green. The hills are high, the valleys deep, and the ancient terracing on the hillsides speaks of centuries of occupation and farming. I can see why the Israelis want Samaria – not only do they see it as a Jewish heartland from 2-3 millennia ago, but it is far more scenic and lovable than lowland ‘Israel proper’, which is relatively flat, urbanised and unexciting. Except Samaria is the Palestinians’ home, and they still form the majority there.
The road winds and pitches tortuously along the valley-sides, and service-taxi drivers cannonade along in a most freestyle and artistic manner – they’re good drivers though. The taxis are powerful six-gear VW vans. When they’re driving along mixed Israeli-Palestinian roads they scare the hell out of some Israeli drivers – the conflict doesn’t always go in Israelis’ favour!
I had learned something from Aisha about these drivers a week ago: I had always wondered why most of these guys seemed to be around the same age, in their early forties. Her answer was that most of them were students around the time of the first intifada twenty-plus years ago. Their universities were closed by the Israelis (as hotbeds of revolt) and many of them got jobs in the then new business of service-taxi driving. As time went on they stayed in the trade – it’s a bit like being a boat skipper in a maritime nation, with some kudos attached. They get you to your destination fast too.
In an hour we arrived in Nablus. I was on my way to meet Morgan, the American who had visited me at the school just before Christmas, at Al Aqabah, where she works. I rang her from Nablus to check out the details of getting from Tubas to Al Aqaba. “I’m in Ramallah!”. “Aha.” “We’re coming up soon!” “Oh yeah? Who’s we?” “I’ve got some people who are couch-surfing at Al Aqabah tonight.” “Okay, so shall I wait for you in Nablus?” “Yeah, okay – see you soon!”.
So I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Nablus. I’ve never been here before, though the place has always tugged at me. It was founded as Neapolis in Roman times just west of an ancient Samaritan village, located in a deep valley between two ancient holy mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. The town is long and thin, with a population of 130,000.
Today’s city is less prosperous than Ramallah and Bethlehem, not least because it is frequently blockaded and roadblocked by Israel. Though religious Israelis claim it as an ancient Jewish birthright, there is no evidence of early Jewish settlement there – if anything it is historically more important to Christians, though few Christians now live there. Jews and Samaritans were quite numerous a thousand years ago.
However, Jews claim it as the site of the ancient Jewish city of Shechem, and two sites, Joseph’s Tomb and Jacob’s Well, crop up periodically in the news when army-backed settlers enter in coaches, officially to make their prayers. There’s a provocative aspect to it, including desecration of mosques. Perhaps this is retaliatory, since Nablus was a centre for militant actions in the second intifada, during which 522 residents were killed and 3,000 injured. In the last municipal elections in 2005, 13 out of 15 representatives were from Hamas, and only two from Fatah.
Nablus is quite unpretentious – it reminds me of Swansea in Wales – and it receives few foreign visitors. Yet its valley location, with buildings clinging to the edge of the mountains, makes it special, a city to remember and rather pleasantly unmodernised. One rather nice aspect of it is that foreigners are treated as objects of friendly surprise rather than as walking ATMs.
There’s a lovely Ottoman old city in the centre of town. I love Ottoman architecture. They were big developers, the Ottomans, whose 300 year rule ended during the First World War. What’s so nice about Ottoman urban areas is that they’re human-size, built for pedestrians. They have lovely arches, domes, courtyards, alleyways, buildings, nooks and crannies.
So I wandered around Nablus taking photos, having some food and enjoying the ambience of the place – helped partially by its being Friday (the equivalent of Sunday in the West). Then I rolled along to the service taxi station for services heading north, bought some Arabic sweets (small, sticky cakes) to take to Al Aqabah, went to a coffee stall where I received a lecture from the man about how bad Britain is – though he accepted that this was one reason I was here sitting with him in Nablus – and finally I sat at the bus station watching doves and waiting for Morgan & Co to arrive from Ramallah.
When they came we didn’t have to wait for the service taxi to fill up because we filled it! Morgan had four people with her, and the driver’s friend and I made a full complement. So off we went, screeching along the winding roads through the inspiring landscape of the northern West Bank, this time to Tubas. When we got there the driver asked where we were going and agreed to take us there for an extra five shekels each, and there we came. Al Aqaba is in inspiring hill landscape with a big gap to the east, where the land falls away into the Jordan valley, the lowest place on Earth.
|Photo by Morgan (not in the picture)|
We met the mayor of the village, Hajj Sami, a staunch campaigner if ever there was one – he’s in a wheelchair after having been shot in 1971, when he was young – and we had dinner with him. At least, the others did – it was chicken and rice. The usual looks of horror appeared on villagers’ faces when Morgan said I was vegetarian. I ended up eating just rice and salad. Well, I’m used to it.
I spent the evening with five lovely twentysomethings from Chile, Switzerland, USA, England and the Czech Republic, chattering, watching videos and playing cards. We watched an instructive video about Jews’ perception of anti-Semitism, called Defamation, by an Israeli called Yoav Shamir. To me, the most important statement in the video was an observation by a Jewish lady who definitely felt the world was against her and other Jews: she said that, since the Jews had suffered so much, the suffering of others was of less consequence. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Unfortunately, contrary to this lady’s belief, it justifies nothing in terms of the way Israelis now treat Palestinians.
More pictures of Nablus