One year ago today, I went to Bethlehem for the first time and saw the wall up close. I wish that I had more time to explore it at my own pace, in addition to being whisked around by my enthusiastic taxi driver. Yousef was wonderful, but it would have been fascinating to get a closer look at the graffiti on the wall there. From what I did see, a lot of it was in English, Arabic a close second. Some of it was peaceful, some of it was angry. It felt immediate, important, and unsettling.
The settlement of Har Gilo is creeping steadily onto Palestinian land and so the wall is still under construction in Walajeh, a tiny village just west of Bethlehem. I’m hoping to go back again before I leave, but here are a few pictures of the wall there. It’s so odd to see it half-built. There was nothing to stop me from walking on both sides save a 6-inch concrete block that foreshadows the arrival of its bigger incarnation.
When I stepped off the bus in Bethlehem, I was immediately swarmed by taxi drivers looking for work. Slightly overwhelmed, I tried to wave off a few of them and walk down the street, but I ended up talking to one of them who offered to show me the wall, and I decided to take him up on it. For the next several hours, Yousef drove me around the city to see the sights, told me about the city’s recent history, and shared his perspective. It was invaluable, and I know I made the right call in hiring him.
Yousef smoked out the window of the cab as he told me about his seven sons, who are between the ages of 7 and 25. He’s sending them all to university, somehow, with his meager salary working two jobs, and some family help. In the mornings, he is an Arabic teacher at a local high school, which, apparently, is a persona he cannot shake in the afternoons. He tried his best to teach me a few words in Arabic, and quizzed me on what I’d recited at unexpected moments, like when I had just gotten back in the cab. In the end, only a few things stuck after I finally had the sense to break out my notepad and jot down phonetic notes and translations.
After seeing the city and stopping for prayer and postcards in Manger Square, we drove a ways out of town to a hill where I had a view of everything from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. From there, the landscape looked rugged, unforgiving, unimaginably ancient. We could pick out Jewish settlers’ communities by their red tile roofs. They seemed more numerous than the Palestinian housing. A small Israeli military base kept watch near the road, ensconced in barbed wire. Yousef told me that if he were president, he would institute a one-state solution (with a presidency that rotated between Israelis and Palestinians) which was something I hadn’t heard before. When I mentioned it to Jesse later, he told me it was actually a pretty common idea among Palestinians.
After our excursion to the hill, Yousef invited me back to his home for tea. This is a very common gesture of hospitality and I was thrilled to accept. He taught me a few Arabic greetings for his family members and I managed to remember them during the short drive to his village. At the house, I got to meet 4 of his sons, and his wife, who prepared a delicious, traditional Palestinian soup in addition to mint tea. They were so welcoming and generous and I felt very comfortable in their home. Their youngest son, Akram, took this picture of myself, Yousef, and his wife using my camera. He was a pretty good photographer after a few tries and a quick lens change to account for the dim living room.
We headed back to the Bethlehem bus stop and parted ways. I was a little nervous about the checkpoint but didn’t have any trouble at all, but several other passengers were checked outside the bus. It was astonishing to see the security installations around the road to Bethlehem. Consisting of a tunnel, walls around the highway, numerous watchtowers, and a 5-lane checkpoint, the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is essentially a military fortress. These installations and accompanying laws have prevented Yousef from visiting the City of David since 2001 despite its proximity. Unfortunately this is a very, very common situation for Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Here’s a quick photo from Bethlehem. More soon.
This day has been incredible. I just got back from an open mic where everyone was amazingly talented. Picked up a CD from a spoken word poet. Lots of song, performance, generally mind-blowing people and ideas. Lots of commentary on Jewish identity, some of which I understood, more of which I wish I did. Young Jerusalem expats are the best. I’m just too exhausted to say more now, but might lay awake thinking about everything for hours. Everything here is so intense, the pace of life is astonishing.
I walked today, expecting to hit a wall. Literally.
Starting from the center of Jerusalem, I traveled south by foot and bus, towards the barrier. My borrowed map was nearly falling apart, but with a little help from my trusty compass, it was good enough to get me to the zoo, my first destination. Here, the ground fell away into a steep valley where train tracks ran amid construction. A road lay parallel to the tracks, and then the ground rose again sharply, mimicking the undulating landscape around the city. Somewhere between the tracks and the hill was the Green Line, but there was nothing to suggest it, save this sign.
I continued with the main road toward the east, hoping to find a checkpoint nearby. Before too long, an empty Egged bus pulled over and opened its doors. The driver shouted at me in Hebrew, I tried to wave him away and explain I couldn’t understand him, but he wasn’t having it and motioned for me to come closer and talk with him in simple English. He ended up giving me a free ride to the next intersection, which was pretty cool. He also didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I was just ‘out for a walk.’
After a delay at the Mall, for public bathrooms, free wifi, and pudding, I continued East, now eager to reach Beit Safafa, a neighborhood that was awkwardly bisected by the Green Line, leading to residents receiving different forms of Jerusalem ID and hence very different privileges. On my way, I passed these Palestinian boys perched on the side of a hill:
I ended up not actually venturing into Beit Safafa today in favor of continuing south toward Bethlehem in hopes of reaching the wall, or at least getting a glimpse of it. For the next half hour, I climbed a huge hill toward Gilo, a neighborhood on the very southern outskirts of Jerusalem. I crossed the Green Line and didn’t notice it until I got back and looked at a map.
I had a spectacular view of Jerusalem during my climb, looking back on the city as the sun got low, and panting slightly from the climb. I kept my eyes peeled for a checkpoint on the crest of the hill, and I thought I had a likely candidate picked out, but when I got to the top, I was disappointed to see it was just a lonely petrol station. I scrambled up a steep rise and through a quiet neighborhood. I found an alleyway with steps that faced south and drew in a sharp breath when I turned the corner.
My first glimpse of the wall. It was actually shocking to see in person, even after reading about it, looking at pictures, thinking about it, for months. Two girls sat casually in a park behind me. Everything seemed so normal. But here it was. Massive, unyielding. This is no memorial or history like what is left in Germany. This is now and real.
I didn’t make it any closer today because the sun was getting low and I wasn’t entirely sure how I was getting back. So I turned my back on the wall, for now, and descended the hill. I caught bus 32 which careened through rush-hour traffic into the city center. At King George Street, there was a huge traffic jam created by a crowd of people in the street, completely blocking traffic. They had anti-racist signs and were jumping energetically, positioned squarely in front of a bus. The bus driver finally navigated a corner and started shouting in Hebrew and opened the doors. About half the people on the bus disembarked. Confused, I decided to stay on the bus and stick it out. I shortly realized that he was likely informing us of an impromptu route change, because we didn’t end up where I expected we would. Nevertheless, I navigated back to Nachlaot without incident and collapsed on the couch, stiff and sore from nearly 9 miles of walking. We had an awesome pasta dinner, and some nice company. Tomorrow, I’m heading to Bethlehem to continue the walk up-close and in-person.