For most people, Palestine is a bit of a mystery and knowledge of it comes directly from what the media shows them. Any good traveller has learned that a healthy serving of skepticism is good when dealing with media portrayals of a place. It’s always better to find out what a place is like for yourself. With that in mind, I started on my way to find out what it is really like in Palestine.
Introduction to Area A of the Occupied Palestinian Territories
The official UN label for the area, including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem has been the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) since 1999. My journey started in Jerusalem, where I caught a public bus to the bus stop closest to an Area A border. Area A consists of pockets of land throughout the West Bank that include the cities of Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and parts of Hebron. It is the only part of the West Bank that is under full Palestinian control, yet it accounts for less than 20% of the area of the West Bank. I was crossing over close to the Palestinian capital of Ramallah.
Upon entering the border area, things started to feel very ominous. It was like all development had stopped at an imaginary line several hundred metres before the border. The area was desolate until a huge watchtower came into view. I could see a large red sign with writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English;
This road leads to Area ‘A’ under the Palestinian Authority The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law
I was expecting to get my passport checked as I walked past the tower. No one asked to see it. There was a security guard stationed near the gate size hole in the wire fence behind the tower, but he was not stopping anyone going through. That fence seemed to mark the start of a kind of no man’s land that ran until a five metre high concrete wall with another watchtower. That is where I entered Palestine.
What it is Really Like in Palestine – Getting to the Capital, Ramallah
To say that things were crazy on the other side of that wall would be a massive understatement. This was especially noticeable after spending minutes walking across a desolate space between fences. There were cars and people everywhere. I really had no idea where to go next, so I just started walking up the road. A local by the name of Ramek approached me. His English wasn’t too good, but he was eager to assist me. He helped me find a shared taxi, or ‘servees’ heading to Ramallah, where he also happened to be going.
Shared taxis in Palestine are actually minivans that seat around 16 people. In the van, Ramek tried to talk to me but it was very hard for us to understand each other. He did give me his phone number in case I needed anything while I was in Ramallah. I was surprised at how empty Ramallah seemed, but that could’ve been because it was afternoon during Ramadan. And also because it was fairly hot.
I was quite surprised to find that many take away food places appeared to be open, even though it was day time during Ramadan. Maybe they stayed open in case people wanted to buy food for the ‘break fast’ meal in the evening. During my wanderings, I found a street lined with carts. Like old-timey wooden carts. The carts were mostly full of fruits that vendors were trying to sell. Almost every vendor said, “Hello, welcome to Palestine!”, as I walked past.
A few of them also enquired as to where I was from and asked if I would like to buy their fruit. I think they wanted to talk to me more than they wanted to sell me fruit. As soon as I stopped to talk to them, there was no further mention of buying goods from them. They seemed more interested in how much I liked Palestine. In less than a few hours in Palestine, I had come to the conclusion that Palestinians were very friendly and curious people.
Stars and Bucks
While walking near the town centre, I thought I saw a Starbucks logo. I had to do a double-take as I was sure that Palestine did not have Starbucks. Or many of the big chains like McDonald’s. Unfortunately, McDonald’s opened in Palestine several months after I was there. Which is crazy because they have so much good food there that I can’t understand why they would want to eat that rubbish. Anyway, back to the fake Starbucks.
It seems that lack of access to some foreign brands has prompted Palestinians to come up with their own, better versions. Yes, better! Stars and Bucks is a chain in the country that could almost be mistaken for Starbucks if you’re not paying attention. Upon closer inspection, it is more of a sit-down-and-eat kind of cafe, as opposed to Starbucks’ focus on drinks. They even sell Starbucks-esk merchandise such as tumblers and mugs.
When in the planning stages of my trip to Palestine, I had started speaking to a local by the name of Moe. As he explained to me later, his name was actually Muhammed and one of his brothers was also called Muhammed, due to the naming conventions in the area. That is why he chose to go by Moe. Moe had invited me to meet him at the hostel that he worked at, Area D Hostel. This is a reference to the administrative areas that the West Bank has been divided into. I mentioned earlier that Area A is completely under Palestinian control. Area B is effectively Palestinian land under Israeli security control and Area C, which accounts for most of the West Bank, is completely under Israeli control.
Meeting Some Locals
The idea is that Area D is a safe place outside of all of the political division that can be used as a base for exploration of the real Palestine. I was planning to check in to the hostel on arrival, but Moe said we could organise that later. It was time for tea and a chat first. Who was I to argue? Moe introduced me to an interesting group of people. One of them was a Dutch woman who also worked at the hostel. She had visited Palestine a year beforehand and loved the locals so much that she decided to return and live there.
The others were just passing through, but also commented on how much Palestine had surprised and impressed them. We all sat around chatting and sipping tea well into the early hours. At that point, Moe suggested that I needn’t bother checking in and should instead stay at his place. Ramallah felt very serene and peacful as we walked back to Moe’s place in the middle of the night.
Planning a Trip to Nablus
Once back at Moe’s place we chatted more over mint tea, made with mint that Moe grew in a pot on his balcony. I had thought until that point that I wasn’t a fan of mint, but it seems having it fresh makes a world of difference. During our chat, Moe has asked if I was interested in seeing Nablus, his home town. He advised me that he had a friend in the city and he would ask him to show me around the city. Considering that I’d only just met Moe, I felt super appreciative that he was going out of his way to make my stay in Palestine awesome.
What is it Really Like in Palestine – Nablus
Moe’s friend in Nablus said that he would be available after 11 am to show me the city. I got myself to the transport station near the town centre and got a servees to Nablus. Most of the driving was done in 30 minutes. Then we hit traffic coming into Nablus. For a relatively small city, it seemed to have a whole lot of traffic!
Moe had given me his friend Majed’s number to call when I got into the city. The servees driver called him for me. He told Majed exactly where he was dropping me off so he knew where to meet me. In Palestine, you can just ask any random person on the street to call someone for you and they will do it. How lovely is that?
I was a little overwhelmed by the massive amounts of noise coming from the traffic and wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was meeting Majed. Luckily, as a confused looking foreigner, I stood out a bit and Majed was able to spot me fairly quickly. He greeted me with, “Welcome to Nablus!”, and it was clear to me that he was very proud of his town. As we moved away from the busy main street, I was surprised at how quickly things became more spaced out and quiet. It wasn’t long before we were in the old town.
Wandering the City
Majed advised that Nablus was one of the oldest cities in the world. He believed that it could have been settled nearly 10,000 years ago. It certainly felt very old while walking through it. Majed also said that the city was often reffered to as the Damascus of Palestine. What was amazing about the town was that despite the extreme heat of the day, the covered alleyways were quite cool. As we walked around, it felt like Majed knew almost all of the shop keepers.
He stopped for a small chat at quite a few of them and almost every one of them gave me a little treat from their shop. Some of them even wanted photos.
After the walk around town, Majed took me back to his place where I met his mother, sister and six year old niece, Aya. Aya took an instant shine to me and was excited to practice her English. She proudly said, “How are you?”. Then we munched on an insanely delicious Palestinian sweet called Knafeh Nabulsieh. Yes, it was during Ramadan, but children and non-muslims are not required to fast for Ramadan. As long they don’t eat in front of someone who is fasting, it’s all good.
From what I could gather, it’s made with white cheese, pastry and sugar syrup. Majed assured me that the Nablus version of sweet was the best. In fact, Nablus is where the sweet originated. Majed later told me that Aya had asked if I could join the family for their ‘break fast’ feast that night.
Ramadan ‘Break Fast’ Feast
We walked to Majed’s sister’s house on the other side of town for the meal. It was around sunset time and Nablus is in a valley between two hills. That made the view quite striking.
Aya rushed up and hugged me as I walked in the door. She then spent the time before dinner pointing out each new relation as they walked in the door. Unfortuantely she didn’t quite know the English words for all of them, so I had to help her out. She would then tell me the Arabic equivalent of the word.
Majed’s mum and sister were constantly trying to stuff me with food and drink. They relayed, through Majed, that they wanted to make sure that I was looked after as their guest. I was so looked after that I’d probably gone up a clothes size!
On my way out of Palestine, I had decided to make a short stop to try to procure a mini Palestinian flag. I was close to giving up because all the shops I’d tried only had full size flags. I finally came upon a shop that had a whole display full of the exact flag that I wanted.
When I asked the shopkeeper how much it was, he asked me why I wanted it. When I told him that I try to grab a small flag in each country that I visit, his face lit up and said, “For you, it’s free”. He also offered me some tea, but I had to continue moving.
One Last Palestinian Adventure
My last adventure in Palestine actually started in Jerusalem. A friendly Palestinian/Israeli local who owned an ATV had offered to take me ATVing. After going up and down some hills in Israeli controlled Area C of the West Bank, we ended up on the top of a hill overlooking the little town of Bethlehem at night.
They say that it’s people that make a place worthwhile. With all the Palestinians that offered me help and made me fell more than welcome while I was in their country, Palestine quickly became one of my favourite countries in the world. It’s sad that it’s so misunderstood. I think everyone needs to visit to find out what it is really like in Palestine for themselves.
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