Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Palestine, Travel

The Other Side of Israel – The World Within the Wall – Part 2

Hebron is about 30 minutes by car from Bethlehem and a known hotspot for Palestinian and Israeli tension. We decide to begin our day with a visit. Yousef picks us up and during the drive we see a big security checkpoint on the opposite side of the road. I see Yousef tense up. He explains to us that the registration on his car expires the following day, but he can’t renew it due to the festival. He fears he’ll get a ticket if he’s stopped by a soldier.

We arrive in Hebron and park in a public lot. The day before, Yousef had told us how much the apparently “illegal” Jewish settlements are expanding. In some cases, the entrances to Palestinian peoples’ homes have been blocked, causing them to have to enter and exit through windows on the back side of their houses. As we park, we see a man crawling out of a window and down a ladder to the street. He comes over to Yousef to say hello and tells him in Arabic that he’s just been visiting his family. He doesn’t speak English and for a moment I’m thankful, because I’m at a loss for words.
We walk over to Ibrahim Mosque, through a security check and then up to the entrance for another security check. This is the place, where in 1994 a Jewish settler opened fire inside the mosque, killing 29 Muslims. Abraham is believed to be buried here, so the sight is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Sadly enough, the entrance is divided so worshippers can enter on the appropriate side- Muslims to the left, Jews to the right.
After touring the mosque, we walk down the path to a shop run by Yousef’s friend, Abbot. We spend some time visiting with him, sipping sweet spearmint tea. Apparently the entire street used to be lined with Palestinian shops. Now they are all boarded up and closed. This area has now been deemed a Jewish settlement area and shop owners have been forced to shut down. As we sip tea, we watch two Israeli soldiers patrol a checkpoint, checking ID’s of each person who passes, making sure they are allowed to be in the area they are in. A Jewish man walks by carrying an automatic weapon. Despite being one of the 800 Jewish people protected by 4,000 Israeli soldiers, he still feels the need to carry his own weapon and is allowed to do so. I ask Yousef if Palestinian people are allowed to carry weapons, and he looks at me as if I have two heads. He said, if a Palestinian man were to carry a weapon, his own people would most likely turn on him.
From here, we walk through the main market of Hebron- which basically sits under a Jewish settlement. A wire roof has been built across the top of the shop roofs to catch the garbage that is thrown at them – this often includes human excrement. The wire roof is covered with trash. Israeli soldiers patrol each end of the market. We visit a few shops and walk back through the market to the mosque and queue in a long security line, something that is just a part of daily life for the people living here.
We head back to the car and back to Bethlehem. Five minutes into the drive, Yousef pulls over and asks a driver stopped at a traffic light on the other side of the road about the security checkpoint we saw earlier. We have the all clear to head back the way we came.
Yousef drops us at Manger Square in Bethlehem as we need an hour or so to see the Nativity Church and the Milk Grotto before heading back to his house for dinner. We have no gumption. Hebron has left us feeling flattened and emotionally and mentally exhausted – possibly with more questions in our head than we began with.
We sit down for a coffee and then force ourselves to see the sights. We’re then on a hunt for sweets to take to Yousef’s house. We find nothing that’s good enough, so when he comes to collect us we insist that we stop by his favorite sweet shop on the way to his home, no questions asked. He reluctantly agrees and takes us to buy $30 worth of kunafah, enough to feed the 13 of us that will be there.
Yousef is a gracious host and throughout the first few minutes, we begin to meet the five of his seven sons who are home. We then meet his wife, and when he returns from performing the formal call to prayer, we meet his father. We sit in the formal living room and Yousef breaks out a family photo album that includes all of his son’s school photos, graduation pictures, baby pictures, trips to Arafat’s tomb and in earlier days, trips to Jerusalem.
Not too long after we arrive, a massive plate of rice, chicken and vegetables is brought out and it’s enough to feed everyone, but we eat with just Yousef and two of his students from South Korea. Yousef also teaches Arabic. He insists we eat more, asking us why we don’t like the food, and then only stops insisting when he realizes we are in physical pain. After too much food, the plates are cleared and Yousef’s wife, Ramosa joins us, and one by one, the sons join too. It’s time for kunafah and this is a family affair. Ramosa prepares spearmint tea and we share stories and communicate in broken English and Arabic. The second to eldest son studies pharmacy in English, so he helps translate while Yousef leaves to pray.
Ramosa enjoys having guests and putting her sons to work for her – something which probably isn’t a common occurrence. It’s up to the woman to run the house, and she is up daily at 4:30 to take care of everyone before the first call to prayer.
The conversation turns to marriage and dating and Yousef tells us he struggles with the western world’s views on dating today. He explains how it works in Palestine. Say his son is interested in a girl. Yousef will take it upon himself to learn all he can about that girl’s family through asking the village people. If he feels she is a good person, Yousef will then approach the family and show interest in the daughter. Then the girl’s family will do the same sort of background check on Yousef and his family. If they are in agreement, the two can start to see each other, only in supervised settings at first. Four to six months later, Yousef will ask his son if he wants to continue seeing the girl. If so, the visits can now be unsupervised now and plans for an engagement and wedding (which all fall financially on Yousef) can be made. We shared stories of our traditions and Yousef made us promise that we would not only return for his first son’s wedding, but that we would stay in his home. The Arab hospitality puts many others to shame.
Grandpa is still with us at this time and something is said in Arabic that causes an uproar of laughter. You can tell the boys are encouraging Yousef to tell us something. He says to us, “How old do you think my father was when he married?” Anita and I look each other and don’t know where to start. So, I throw out the number 14 and one of Yousef’s sons pushes his hand down as if to say “younger.” We begin counting down until we get to 9. Apparently the two families wanted this couple to wed, so it was arranged. Yousef’s father was 9 and his bride was 14. Yousef looked at us and said, “You always hear of the groom carrying his bride to bed, but never of the groom having to be put to bed by his bride.”
Yousef and his boys have a good laugh, and grandpa sort of shrugs and looks at his watch as if it’s time to go. It was time for us to go too, but we were reluctant to see the night end. We piled into Yousef’s car- Anita, Ramosa and me in the back, Yousef in the front passenger seat with his 6-year-old son Mantes and Ahmed at the wheel. He tells us not to worry, that he has a license, and Yousef said it was good for him to remember what it’s like to be driven around.
They drop us back at Ibda and we say a heartfelt goodbye. Ramosa squeezed our hands for so long, it was like we were saying goodbye to a lifelong friend. We thanked Yousef profusely. Hebron had been a difficult way to start the day, but spending time with Yousef’s family was a testament to optimism and hope and shows that sometimes in bleak conditions, you find reassurance and happiness in the compassion between family and friends, and in what you value and believe in. It had been a day of rich experiences.
We checked out of Idba the following morning and headed to the bus station for public bus 21. We had heard that this was an easy checkpoint and that travel would be more straightforward. As we boarded the bus, we saw Yousef across the street and called out to him. He knew we would be there, and we had the chance for a final goodbye. We had no problems crossing back into Israel, and no more than 20 minutes later we were back at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. It was hard to believe that less than 5 miles away a wall contained such a different world, and here we could come and go so freely, while some people within will never get to see Jerusalem. As the man we had shared a taxi with earlier said, “We live in a very big prison.” My initial impression had been an accurate and lasting one.
I hoped that I would continue my time in Israel with an open mind, but I knew it would be difficult to push this experience to the back of my mind. My time in Palestine would come up in conversation again and again throughout my trip, with other travelers and Palestinians. I hoped too that it would be part of conversations with Israelis as well. I had so many burning questions in my mind and needed to feel like there was another side to this story.
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