By Erika & Roger Salmon
It was just days after the cease fire between Israel and Gaza war last November that we flew into Ben Gurion. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, normally crowded at this time of year, were empty. Since we had last visited Palestine in 2008 on a politically focused bus tour, Erika had been eager to get her “feet on the ground” and get some feel for the reality of life in this conflict ridden country. We were a little group of four with a great guide, Daniel.
The countryside is beautiful and when walking through the wadis (giant rocky red desert valleys that have occasional flash floods), one is continually aware of the history of this land: ruins here and abandoned buildings there, ancient terraces for agriculture (often abandoned or under-used), ancient beautiful olive trees, place names familiar from bible studies. Walking along, it was easy to imagine how over many centuries herders have driven their goats and sheep just as they are still doing now.
Daniel (a British historian currently living in Bethlehem and former employee of the Abraham Path Initiative) who would describe with great enthusiasm how this village or that mosque had been under the control of successive rulers from Rome and Greece through Ottomans and Islam (and had been successively a church, a mosque, a synagogue and then a church again).
We were inevitably faced with the political reality of the occupation and of suppression. The Wall can be seen from almost everywhere, dividing the land. The Wall and the associated travel restrictions on Palestinians isolate them from Israelis except for their one-sided contact with the army and the settlers. They also isolate the Israelis. There is minimal personal contact, no getting to know each other. Each community demonises the other. At turn-offs from the main roads, which go past Palestinian villages, you see government signs warning Israelis that it is dangerous to enter. Where Palestinians are allowed to drive on these main roads (often they are restricted to old country roads and farm tracks), you see them having to show papers at the frequent check points. Palestinians need permission to travel outside the West Bank and (except for the few who live there) are not allowed to visit Jerusalem. Palestinian land is regularly taken for settler use. The Israelis control all water supplies, drill wells for the settler farms, prohibit drilling by the Palestinians and, as we learned whilst we were there, often do not allow the Palestinians even to repair their old water pipes and aqueducts. The situation is not helped by statements from Hamas that their aim remains to drive Israel from the land, “inch by inch”, thus encouraging Israeli illegal annexations.
If only more people would walk and meet each other walking! When walking in Palestine you frequently meet an individual or a small group of Bedouin or Palestinian farmers. You are invariably invited to share a cup of tea and often freshly baked bread: hospitality and smiles and common humanity. We ate most evenings with local families and thus not only got a gourmet trip but also a real experience of how Palestinians live and raise their children in difficult circumstances.
The food was superb! Of all the wonderful meals we want to mention one in a Bedouin community. After an idyllic walk through a wadi ending by a beautiful spring, we got to the village where the mother of our local guide had prepared a huge meal for us. It was chicken on unleavened bread, the bread had been baked freshly on stones in the outdoor oven and had soaked up the juices of the meat and with them the glorious seasoning. Erika’s mouth still waters thinking about it. With it were local fresh vegetables (this was in the fertile Jordan Valley). Much later we learned that the guide had forgotten to tell his mother about our arrival until the afternoon! All the women of the community must have helped with the baking of bread and the cutting of vegetables.
We ate this meal sitting outside, with relations coming and going and joining in the conversation. Many men speak enough English to converse. We saw the women working away in the background and only the oldest generation joined us by sitting down with us.
Happy children were everywhere. Everywhere we went, the children were loved, played with, danced with and had a lot of adult interaction (as well as a developed system of slightly older children caring for slightly younger ones). However, we saw no toys. By contrast TV was everywhere, even in a very basic Bedouin tent deep in the desert (powered by solar panels) where water had to be brought in by small tankers.
In the villages most Muslim families have arranged marriages, intermarry and live together in wider-family communities. You can easily imagine both the positive cooperation and the deep stresses and strains this creates. Erika cannot imagine living this way as a woman. Even in liberal families the husband dominates and has the final say over what his wife does. In more urban environments the young girls may not want to follow these rules anymore, and we met several parents of teenagers who do not expect to dictate their children’s marriage partners. We were impressed by the sophistication, the good English and the high aims of many young women and teenagers with whom we spoke. Palestinians value education above everything. It is a way “out” for their children and many have sons and daughters who, awarded scholarships, now study abroad.
We were also with Christian families who are now very much in the minority (they have smaller families and more of them emigrate) and struggle to continue their way of life. Another day, in a refugee camp, we sat with an 81-year-old man who had left his village in 1948 with his young wife and baby and a herd of 150 goats. He then spent 7 years in a tent and is still in the camp where stone buildings now give it a feeling of permanence.
One woman’s day
Finally we spent three days with our dear young friend in her community (many of them family, including the local mayor) who could not have received us with greater welcome. Living with her in her village amongst her large and nuclear family (she now has five children), was a powerful experience. She works so hard. Up during the night with the baby. Up at 5:30 to prepare the main meal and breakfast. The children up and off to school at 7:30, she and her husband off to work at the same time, having dropped off the baby plus food etc with a local widow who cares for him.
Back from school, the family eats the main meal about 2:00 and then they might have a brief nap. Chores and work take up the afternoon and in the evening there is likely to be a large gathering in the big sitting room with the men playing cards (a form of rummy which Roger was delighted to be invited to join in) and the women chatting. Our friend will continue to be busy preparing tea and coffee and offering sweets whilst encouraging the children to do homework and running the household. And she is only 32 years old!
Our friend and her husband took time off work whilst we visited and a highlight was a trip into Hebron to visit the Mosque at the tomb of Abraham. It was a treat for them as well, as they would normally not expose themselves to harassment from settlers and soldiers; however they felt safe in the company of foreigners. To think about this situation makes us both angry and sad.
We will not attempt describe the spectacular monuments and souks we saw. You can get that better in guide books. But there was much to digest, much to think about.
We are grateful and happy that we were able to go, that the weather held and that Daniel was such a great guide who had tailor-made the trip with care and led us with expertise.
Our wish is that more people go and walk in Palestine, meet the people and let them know that they have not been forgotten.