With all the violence/ceasefire/more violence between Israel and Gaza in the past weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot of my 2009 trip to Israel and Palestine. For this Show and Tell Tuesday post, I thought I’d share with you a somewhat relevant essay from my World Nomads journal, which is made up entirely of (failed) travel scholarship applications from the past few years.
After studying abroad in Rome for a semester, three friends and I spent about two weeks in Egypt, Israel and Palestine. It was a life-changing trip that greatly influenced the lens through which I see the world. This essay was my first jab at travel writing and while I kind of cringe when I read it, I also reminisce and appreciate where I was in life during my trip and later, while writing the essay:
I tuck my blond hair even deeper into the scarf draped over my head. This is my feeble attempt to stand out a little less in this holiest of Holy Lands. Even traveling with three male friends, the constant presence of militiamen (and women) creates a sense of apprehension and desire to blend in.
We eagerly exit the mandatory checkpoint. Crisp, December wind whips through the eight-foot-high steel-bar fences on either side of us. Cigarette butts litter the concrete below as artificial light glints off razor-sharp barbed wire above. The eight-meter-high concrete Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall opposite the fence represents a canvas reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. We follow alongside, stopping periodically to survey the cries for peace and equality splashed across it in a hundred languages. I can already tell that this “little town” has come a long way from a stable and manger.
Upon exiting, two-dozen Palestinian taxi drivers voraciously compete for the emerging tourists. “I’ll drive all day for five [shekels],” proposes someone behind me, his English almost accent-less. Shocked by this low offer, equivalent to $1.20, I turn to a man no older than thirty, wearing jeans and a black hoodie. His olive skin is smooth but for dimpled cheeks that immediately communicate amicability. His smiling eyes ask, “What are you waiting for?” as he turns to his car, our taxi.
Having tea at your taxi driver’s home probably isn’t recommended in countries plagued by terrorism, but here we are, only hours after entering Palestine. Our driver Ahmed won us over with his honesty, charm and conversation, and after a tourism-filled day, invited us to his home. It was impossible to pass up.
Ahmed speaks of life as a Muslim Arab in Palestine. He talks matter-of-factly about Palestinians’ lack of education, jobs, and freedom. “We don’t care if you’re Jewish, Christian, whatever. We want peace.” He relays his dream to one-day see Paris and I cringe; I was recently there. I’m ashamed of the luxuries I take for granted: my opportunities, freedom, passport.
Ahmed’s modest house, situated atop a hill, overlooks the rise and fall of this ancient town’s landscape. Ice-cream-scoop clouds hang calmly beside the setting sun as our host situates pastel-colored plastic chairs on the patio. His mother, wearing a long abaya and rose-pink slippers, shuffles by quietly carrying a silver tray lined with glasses of honey-colored tea, snow-white sugar, and fresh spearmint. Although her gaze is low, she radiates the same gracious aura as her son.
I remove my scarf, letting my hair flutter freely as the late afternoon breeze cools our steaming chai. I gaze upon this truly historic city and realize that my perception of the world shifted in the past few hours. Palestine isn’t some real-life Narnia, nor is it solely a war-zone. It’s home to families who crave basic human freedoms. I reach for my chai and smile sympathetically at Ahmed, reminding myself to give him much more than five shekels and to keep his story alive.
Three years later, this essay doesn’t even touch upon the current Israel-Palestine conflicts. Luckily for everyone, the Washington Post recently published an article that answers 9 questions about Israel-Gaza you were too embarrassed to ask. I really recommend reading it — the writer condenses an incredibly complicated situation into a factual and comprehensible summary.
Although I was only in the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip, I still saw a glimpse of the daily struggles Palestinians face. Having tea that afternoon was truly a moment of growth — it opened my eyes and marked a turning point for me. Weeks after this trip, I would move to New York City, transfer to NYU, begin internships and jobs, and — with this experience in mind — build my degree/life/career around the idea of using my talents, time, energy and knowledge on projects of substance. What that means, exactly, I don’t know. I guess it means I decided I want to do more than just make movies. If nothing else, it was my first real inspiration to write about traveling.