An Unusual Visit to Bethelehem

Nablus became my second home in Palestine. Sam lives on his own but the house is always full by his younger brothers and his friends who come to eat, to work, to talk, to hang out. There is not much Palestinian boys can actually do to have fun. They smoke Shisha, play football, play cards, talk. They do not go out dancing, or meet girls, or do much of the things we do in the west. As a result of a combination of factors I ended up spending a lot of time with these boys. They are a gate into a secret world to me as they do not hesitate on answering anything I ask them about. They do not try to impress me they seem to say whatever comes to mind even if it might be something that I might find absurd. They take care of me. So when I decided to leave and  come to Bethlehem Sam told me I could take a ride with Yahya his brother ( the one I had the sex conversation with), and his friend Jaafar and Sami.

 

They came to pick me up the following morning, I thought they would give me a ride to the bus station. No they explained they would give me a ride to Bethlehem. I asked if they were already going there and they said yes. So I thanked them for the ride and started what turned out to be probably the most emotional day in my trip so far.

 

We drove through the beautiful mountains of Palestine. I did not know Sami and Jaafar yet so we talked a lot. Eventually we reached our first check point. An Israeli soldier stood outside with a weapon and asked us for papers. We gave our passports, he was surprised at seeing me there. Asked me what I was doing, I told him I was travelling, he asked me whether I was enjoying my trip, I told him I was. He smiled and wished me a safe journey. He was not abusive at all. I don’t know if it was as a result of me being there. I asked the boys. They said when you are in a car is easier then when you are in a bus.

 

We kept driving had to show our passport in a few other occasions. Suddenly they entered a place. A supermarket. I asked why we had to show passports to drive into the supermarket and they explained to me it was because the people there were Jewish. I looked at them a little puzzled  “are we in a settlement supermarket ?” we were.  I asked them how they felt about it and they explained to me they did not dislike Jews, they disliked the soldiers.  I asked them about the Bedouins and the Druzes. And they explained to me the Druzes were the worse people there was. °The Israelis when we volunteer in hospital boss us around, but the Druze kick us. THey are mother fuckers. They always kick us.”

 

We came outside and entered a completely full supermarket where Jews were shopping for Passover. It was crowded beyond belief. We walked around and when it was time to pay I thought we would have to stay h ours. I had few things on my hand and very soon a lady offered to let me go before her. It was strange. I did not feel any antagonism from the people. When we needed an info and I asked a soldier, the boys with me talked to them friendly.

 

We kept driving. And as I noticed they had no idea how to drive to Bethlehem I discovered they did actually not have to go. They were driving me there! I asked them and they said “no, we were travelling there nonetheless”.  I knew it was a lie to make me feel better, I felt thankful once again. Once we got here, and I called my Italian friend they asked me if they could hang out with us. I said that of course they could and so we started our tourist day. We had coffee, went into the nativity church. Lorenzo, who is from Italy and was baptised by John Pope the II himself kept making jokes. As someone who is an atheist and despises religion he joked around. I asked him not to do so. I do not particularly care for the church, but I do for the people in it.  My friends who were Muslims,  were respectful of the Church and the people inside. They showed me every corner, took pictures of me, of them, of the Church.

 

We left and wandered the streets. Lorenzo suggested seeing the wall. The wall that separates Israel from Palestine. We drove there. We parked and I was first happy to recognise the posters that JR the last TED talk prize winner had put in there (http://www.ted.com/talks/jr_s_ted_prize_wish_use_art_to_turn_the_world_inside_out.html ). JR printed pictures of Palestinians and Jewish doing the same jobs. Made enormous posters and glued them on the wall. Who is Who kind of thing. Two years later after the pictures remained there. We walked along the wall. The wall that separated us from Israel. My friend here from my friends there. As I walked and looked at drawings that ranged from messages of hope to messages of anger I felt dead silent inside of me. I suddenly could not take it. All came together in that moment in that wall. I walked in silence my eyes filled with tears. My Palestinian friends walked in silence. Lorenzo kept talking as if it was a tour. I did not know how my friends felt. I did not want to be the one crying. I could not stop myself. Tears ran through my face. I could not even think exactly why. we walked and walked till we reached the check point.

 

Lorenzo said he wanted me to see it. I refused it was enough. I had seen enough. He said it was important. So we walked inside of a corridor or Iron bars, feeling like in a cage, next to my friends. I asked over and over. Do you guys want to do that ? they said it was ok. I knew it was not. I did not want to take this tour. I was mad at the insensibility of Lorenzo. This is not just a tour! But we kept walking tears streaming down my face. we reached the end, saw where passports are shown. Where everyday Palestinians go at 3 am to wait for 3 hours to have the right to cross to the other side to work in construction work. Only to return the same day.

 

We made our way back through the cage. I cried in total silence. My friends contorted me. Jules it is ok. It is our life. I asked each one of them how they felt. Yahyah had never seen the wall. He was just as shaken as me. ” I feel bad. Not for the wall, but because we cant resolve this”. Jaafar told me ” We are the same people some day we will live together. I just don’t understand some people in both sides don’t want that”. I cried even more. Knowing fully well that I loved my friends in both side of the wall. Knowing they are good people. Good people who sometimes misunderstand each other. Knowing that Kosta could be Jaafar s friend in another world. They really would. They have the same gentle soul. They work in the same field. They took care of me to the same extent.

 

I looked at JR pictures thinking I could not separate one from the other. Just as I cant with my friends. And I hated the wall. I really did. I hated all that allows us from believing people are different as a result of culture. We are not. We say different things. We represent the world somehow differently. But even these dissipate at a closer look.

 

I did not know what to do. What could we do now? I suggested Ice Cream. Just because I had not idea what to say. They all took on to the idea. So we drove to the  Italian ice cream shop in Bethlehem. We asked colourful ice creams and sat under the sun. We sat for long enough to let go.

 

And so we decided to go back to the centre. In the centre we were invited by some activist to seat in the memorial of Victorio the Italian who had been killed in Gaza.  I thought that maybe my friends would not want to do that. It was too much. First to have an Italian make them walk inside the fenced corridor, the symbol of the oppression. Then to seat for an Italian who might or not have been killed by Islamists. I did not want to do the ” us x them” thing. But in their enormous generosity they said “Jules lets seat at least for 5 minutes”. I agreed. “Let s seat for peace”. So we did. We sat on a circle in memory of an activist who was supposedly killed by Islamists in Gaza. We sat, foreigners and Palestinians in a circle. In front of the Nativity church where supposedly was born the man that preached love to everyone.

What people say and what people think

I actually do not know where to start this post from. I am still in Nablus. I should probably start by explaining that It is in Nablus that most Israelis told me not to come to if I was to come back alive. It is in Nablus that all finishes at midnight as the Israeli soldiers might spend the night in the streets. I have not seen a single Israeli soldier yet but I also have never been to the streets pass 10pm.

 

What I have seen of Nablus is entirely different than what I was told about. I walked last night through the streets with Lorna a young English couch surfer without ever feeling scared, or ever anyone coming to bother us. I walked the old city with Sam my host and was greeted by incredibly friendly people. As there are not that many tourists walking through the markets in the old city is just easy and lovely.  The city is thousands of years old. No one hassles you, there is no bargaining and as I am being chaperoned by either Sam or his brothers I never have any hassle at all. People are incredibly politicised here. They always want to tell you about about the occupation. I ask them about Israelis and they say they do not like the army, but do not dislike the Jews. They often ask me about Chavez, most people I encounter in the streets can carry out a conversation in English and seem to know a lot about the world.

 

Sam, my host,  lived in the US for 11 years, and his story deserves a book so I won’t do  the injustice of summarising it here. He is a generous man, with enormous ideals of creating hope and opportunities for the new generation of Palestinians. He took the time to take me to walk the city, the old city, have breakfast in the most special place. Because of him I saw every hidden little place of Nablus. I saw the spices shops, and the hidden rooms in the back where laid the treasure collected by Bedouins. I saw the shop that sold pistachios, and other nuts and seeds, and the back rooms where the old ovens roast them. I saw where arabic coffee is breed and was shown its secret ingredient: cardamon! I visited the oldest turkish bath, established 130 years before jesus, I saw where the Intifada first started, I saw where was the “interrogation room” for traitors in the middle of the old city, i drank teas, and coffees, and tried all kinds of spices.

 

When Sam had to go to to work, and Lorna left to Ramallah I was passed to Sam’s brothers and his friends. We went for a walk at night and then to a coffee shop. In the coffee shop I started a conversation that turned out to be way more controversial than the Palestinian and Israeli conflict: sex!

 

Yahyah is 24, Ahmad 23, and Brahhim 22.  They joined me for coffee and what started as me asking about their daily lives, what they did to have fun, turned out on me asking about their girlfriends. Both Yahyah and Brahim had girlfriend for years. I asked what they did with them. And basically they did not do anything. I insisted on the question and was revealed to an enormous world of contradictions. They both had had sex before with married women but would never have sex with a woman if they loved her unless they married her. In a mixture of romanticism and Islamic fanaticism they explained to me that once married they would devote themselves to their wives. If a woman does all that for you you have to give her everything! they explained. When I asked how about if they would marry a woman that is not virgin they said no. Even worse quite without a problem they recognised that they would kill their daughter or sister if they were to have sex before marriage. I asked if it was a common practice and they said no because girls don’t have sex before marriage, and if they do they are married to the guy.

 

I was appalled. What? So you guys would kill me? They would not because I am not Muslim so I can do whatever I want. The conversation was truly fascinating. Their ideas of love, sex, respect are sooooooooooo different. What became even more insane was that once we came home and I told Sam  about their views he became furious. It became a discussion over the Koran. Sam saying that what they said had nothing to do with Koran but with their own hypocrisy as they were all not virgins either. He said they just used the Koran to say whatever they wanted but the Koran itself made it almost impossible for someone to be charged with sex crimes. Half of the talk was done in arabic. It became heated. They eventually agreed that if they loved a woman they would marry her. Ahmad would stand up for her, Yahyah move to another country.  They wanted to know my views on love. I told my views ” total freedom. if you love someone don’t constrain them”. They were amazed. The other boys who were in the house joined the discussion.

 

I asked then ” what if you were married to someone you had sex with out of respect, and then married realised you were friends, and then  fell in love with someone else”. They were completely taken by that thought. What would they do. Yahyah stooped thought about it and  said “if my wife was good to me i could never hurt her. I would just stay with her”. I insisted ” even if you loved totally someone else”. He was confused probably never thought of that before. He hesitated. ” If my wife had saved herself for me, and would be my wife I just could not leave her” he said.  In this mixture total absurd stealing of women’s sexuality these boys feel they respect women much more. Whoever is this girl they marry is their little princess.  Then they don’t  want them to work, or suffer. I pushed the limits i asked all and a bit more. I showed pictures of my gay friends. I said to them that were I came from no one would marry a virgin. It was absolutely fascinating. In a strange way I feel that women here are both constrained and protected. What a mysterious world.

 

Yet with me pushing it all, saying thins like ” I am whore to you all then, right?” they were always incredibly kind to me. Incredibly interested in finding out what was it that I thought? How about kids? How about love? How about Allah? Some do pray, most of them don’t. What fascinated me the most was their truthfulness. How they would just basically say whatever they thought. How passionate about the notion of love. How naive, crazy and sweet all at the same time. The English girl with me here had said the night before ” all over the world men want to have sex, here they want to marry.” It is incredible they actually really do.

 

These boys are just boys. They do not want to live like in the west. They think we don’t really value relationships. Yet they would like to have a club here where they could go out and dance. They go to  segregated schools. Never talk to a girl. Boys walk hand in hand and kiss each other cheeks when they meet. And even though Lorna, the english girl, and I stand for all that their religion does not they not only are very interested in learning about us, but also want to make sure that we understand they are not bad people. ”

 

 

Yahya I am shocked would u really kill your sister?” Sam furious screamed “our sister has had sex b4 marriage and who does he think he is!? I d kill him if he touched her!  ” Yahya looked at me exhausted and said “of course I would not. But that is what I am supposed to say”.

 

Nablus, The West Bank

So I am seating now in the living room of Sam my new host. I am in Nablus the city lots of Israelis told me not to come to if i were to return alive. So far things could not have been better. I took a communal taxi from Ramallah to Nablus. I drove through beautiful hills. To my left sat next to me an older man/ As soon as I sat down he started a conversation. It turned out  that he did his studies in England, and his PhD at the LSE in the 80s.  So we drove having a lovely conversation. On my right was a young boy. He worked in Jerusalem in the Christian quarter even though he was Muslim. He did not immediately speak to me, but instead spoke to the old man about me. I could tell, so i asked if he could speak english. ” Of course he said” He was a student of Economics in the University of Nablus where all to  my surprise was taught in English.

 

Zuhair, the older man, told me about the koran, about his experiences in England and told me I was divinely protected. Once I arrived in Nablus he did not leave until talking to my host, putting me in a cab, paying for it and insisting for me to visit him Hebron. I thanked him, and said I would definitely come. I was already planning to come to Hebron, and now having someone to show it to me, a fellow student from the LSE made it all even easier.

 

The cab left me where Sam had told Zuhair to take me to, and as soon as I came out of the cab a cute young Palestinian boy came to me and said. ” Are we looking for you? Are you here for Sam?” I agreed so they walked me here. As I arrived I met another couchsurfer, a lovely English girl, Lorna,  who studies at UEL in London. I was immediately offered coffee, and then food, a computer, showed around. It felt great. The hospitality in this side of the world is just breathtaking.

 

We talked about politics, and psychology. Sam asked me about Lula, and Chavez. I spoke a lot as I usually do.  He explained the people here jews, and arabs are all the same. Delicious food was brought over and I decided to stop for a second just to write this message. I thanked Sam for hosting me. He said he likes having people coming to see how really this side of the world is. What else could I ask for? I feel so happy that I do get this chance to see once more how similar we are all over the world.

 

Ramallah, The West Bank

So I am here on the other side. Although Ramallah probably is not really Palestine. It is Probably a bit like tel aviv: a world apart. But those worlds apart are also worlds, and they are real in their surrealness I walked to Damascus gate in Jerusalem  carrying my backpack On my back,  my lonely planet in my hands…. So when i was lost I was easily identified as someone not from here. I asked a few ladies where to take the bus and after a few questions i managed to get to the bus stop. “Are you going to Ramallah ?” enquired some people, and when I said yes they greeted me and wished me a good journey.

I greeted the people, and entered the minivan. I arrived in the check point and watched the wall. There in front of me finally. And when i crossed it i felt totally peaceful. The day was beautiful. I got out of the bus in the middle of a crowded street in Ramallah. People walked

everywhere. Some women wore veils, some did not. In common they were all willing to help me out find the communal taxi to jawal. I walked the street filled with happiness. So much people, so much life. When i could not find my way a young boy decided to walk me to the stop. It was just a normal corner. he stopped the communal orange taxi for me and wish me to be welcome in Palestine. In fact his first question was “where

are you from.” and being from brazil changes it all. He was about 13 and loved football and walked me there.

I arrived in my stop and was met by Ahmad my host. He was incredibly friendly. Spoke perfect English as he is among other things a speaker that goes around the world explaining about he conflict. He brought me back to his house. Here i met anas, whose bday we were celebrating and Lorenzo an Italian who works in a palestinian NGO.

I felt immediately at home, the very famous Palestinian hospitality does not even begin to describe it. All they had they offered me. I felt bad for not bringing things with me. They made me feel welcomed. We ate food they cooked. Then we talked and talked and talked till it was time to celebrate anas bday.

We were picked up by two friends and taken to a club. The club was on the last floor of a building and it was an absolutely fantastic place. It reminded me of a place in. Turkey. We ate drank, sang happy bday and danced. Two Swiss girls also couch surfers showed up. In their gap year young and cute. I sat in front of two palestinian who did not talk to me . I thought they did not speak English. Eventually when one found out i was Brazilian he turned out to be a graduate from Chicago uni. He told me he loved Brazilians because we laugh and we have joy. He wished here was like that. It became so clear to me how where you come from affects what people tell you or not. It was like not having any connection with a imperial or colonial powers would allow me to venture lands the other europeans around could not. They were all from the NGO one voice.

I tried to remain as neutral as i could and suddenly Ahmad opened up. “The violence is not the same Jules !” I did not ask anything. H blurted. He told me about being in his friend’s house. The Israelis coming, and hearing shots. He went down and saw his best friend on the floor. The soldier told him “if you want to survive step on your friends chest “he did not. His friend who laid agonising grabbed his foot and put in his chest. He said with a pause, With tears in his eyes. I was just mute. Why is it that people tell me it all? How can you think anything when you get so emotionally involved in both sides. My eyes filled with tears. So did his. I asked ” why your friend? What did they say to legitimise it?”.  “Jules, they don’t have to legitimise they can do whatever they want to us.”

As he said that i thought of my friend Kosta who told me how the IDF is humane. How they don’t want to hurt anyone. How they are taught to respect people . I remembered the fear the jews feel, i felt the anger the Palestinians feel. I tried to say that. There are good people. Ahmad said “if they created an army here i wouldn’t join it. The premise of going on a battle is to think you can kill someone. This is just not acceptable.” I was quiet. I agree. I agree and I just can’t understand anything anymore. How can so many good people waste so many lives ….?

So as in tel aviv, we pushed the thoughts aside drank whatever we were drinking and dance the night away.

About to cross the Wall- Jerusalem

When I was in South East Asia, in Nong Khai border of Thailand with Laos it took me 15 days to cross the Mekong. Every day I planned going and somehow stayed. After checking out about 10 times and back in  what became my second home in Asia, Mut Mee guest house, I one day woke up before dawn, packed all my things, paid and left before I could see or meet anyone. The thing is: for someone who loves crossing borders I get too attached to the people I meet.

So as I finally made my way back to Jerusalem I suddenly could not understand what was I doing so long in Tel Aviv. Some people find Jerusalem heavy, political etc. I don’t. Jerusalem is as incoherent as a place can be. Old and young children, religious and atheist. jews, muslims christians, Armenians and tourist that come for every kind of reason. As a total incoherent person myself i feel here at ease. It does not disturb me to cover myself, or to walk slowly when many dressed alike tourist all take their cameras to take pictures.  I just feel quite bewildered. I always look at the marked stones and think about how many legs carried there existential quests, religious certainties, mundane thoughts.  The stones are so marked by steps.

I arrived here last night just to spend one night because today I am finally crossing to the other side: to palestine. It took me a while to do it. And just like in Laos I am not sure exactly why. As I am about to get my bag and walk to Damascus Gate to take a bus into Ramallah I decided to stop here to write this.

My phone rings and it is Ahmad my couch surfing host in Ramallah. I am invited for a birthday party. I cant really contain my joy. Am I really going to see this? He tells me to let him know when I reach the check point. “you cant miss it” he explains me. I am sure it will all going to change now. But you know the reason i probably do take a while is because I need to know well in myself when is it that I am ready for change. I guess it is now.

Beyond the Mountain- Israel

When I traveled south east asia I became very close friends with Maya. For those who remember she was the Israeli who convinced me to go on an Elephant ride 🙂 Since we last saw each other in Thailand many things happened. She moved in with her boyfriend and her mom who was sick at the time died. I remember being in Laos when she wrote me a very moving email saying her mother had had metastasis and that she was watching daily her mother disappear. What can one say to that? I wrote what I could as far away we cannot always afford to be in silence.

 

So we met here. She came to pick me up. I walked in the street towards her, and when I was able to recognise her from afar I became so moved. Wow! You just never know who you might see again and who you might not. In this life of crossing borders you just never really know. But when life allows you to reencounter someone you were once really close to it is just so moving.

 

I hugged her. We walked to the car as she explained me we were driving north. Lior, her boyfriend, and her where looking to start a family and for that needed a bigger place. When she told me we were going north I did not exactly know what it meant.. In truth it did not really matter, I just wanted to spend time with her. We drove and I watched the landscape change. In Israel nothing is too far, and for Israeli terms we drove a lot. It became mountainous and more green! So beautiful it reminded me of Croatia and Greece. We were looking for a plot of land. The first place we stopped in was a development. It was beautiful you could see lots of trees and far away the sea.

 

Then we drove to another place. We drove up a mountain and got out of the car in a place that looked a bit esoteric. It was very high in a mountain. We waited for the man who was going to show us around. I looked and thought the area looked so beautiful. He took us to see this plot of land where you could see far in the distance green trees, and hills. Next to the plot of land was a house being built, we decided to take a look at it. It was beautiful. It had three floors. We stood in the terrace on the third floor looking the view. Suddenly a lady arrived. She was the owner of the house and she started to talk to Maya. As I could not understand I just remained looking the view. Maya suddenly became a bit whiter than normal. She turned to me and said ” do you see that hill in front of us? just behind it is Lebanon”. I was silent. But the lady realising our concern added something else in Hebrew. She walked away. I turned to Maya and asked what had she said. She explained Maya that these plots are so close to Lebanon that it is safe as the rockets and missiles would  go above them. Maya said that, laughed nervously and said ” I guess if Hezbollah comes we should offer them tea”

 

I really did not know what to say. I could see the Golan Heights and how beautiful it looks. I could understand a young couple cant afford a house in the centre of Israel. And I def have no idea  of how long can “peace” last for in this contested borders. How long these lands will remain Israel or not. I knew nothing. All I knew was that Maya stood next to me and said she wondered how her mother would feel, what would she think of her moving to a war zone. I held her hand in silence. This time I could afford to be silent. As when you are close you don’t need that many words.