When the Caged Bird Sings

Let me preface this story by telling you about my roommate, Ryan.  Ryan is one of the top five kindest people I have ever met in my life; a 24-year-old Australian with all intentions to move to the Middle East in the next year, to the dismay of his partner of six years.  I share the basement of our host family’s home with Ryan, and we share many of our experiences together, while he teaches me so much – how to adjust the metering and ISO levels on our Nikon cameras, to the affects of the civil war in Lebanon on the Israeli apartheid.

So what does a wonderful day in Palestine look like?

Well, we started today in Ramallah, the headquarters for the Palestinian Authority and a city that has seen a massive boom (no pun intended) of investment in the last five years.  Our tour group was staying last night at a plush hotel, and then we were planning to go from Ramallah to Nablus to see sites in Nablus for the day (I say tour group, but I mean all of the people who have been volunteering.  At times I feel like these individuals want to do meaningful work in Palestine while we are here; but other times they act like 20 year-old college kids and want to do nothing but hook up and drink – endeavors which don’t fly with the majority of Muslims).

So, for the first time in the three weeks that I have been here, I, along with Ryan, left the group of twenty-five Americans, and we chose to trek out into Ramallah on our own.  Our host family had asked that we be back home by four o’clock so that we could all go out on a picnic; the bus from Nablus wasn’t going to make it back to Bethlehem by four, so we had to make it to Bethlehem on our own.  For the sake of being slightly more adventurous and not tagging along for another tour, we chose to not go to Nablus entirely, and instead we walked to the bus station in Ramallah, caught the first bus to Jerusalem, then transferred buses in Jerusalem to get to the check point to Bethlehem.

If you have an international passport, or are a Palestinian in East Jerusalem, you can get from Ramallah to Bethlehem in 25 minutes.  If you’re a Palestinian from the West Bank, you must take the 90 minutes drive around Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  This is because the majority of Palestinians (my host family members being among them) are not allowed into Jerusalem, and they are not allowed to use a number of Israeli-only roads.

“Let me put away my literature,” Ryan said, as he tucked away his three books: “Palestine Monitor: the Story of the Gaza Invasion,” “Jerusalem Arabic for English Speakers,” and “My Father was a Freedom Fighter.”  Any literature that hints at sympathy for the Palestinians is immediately suspect when Israeli soldiers search through your things, so we didn’t want to take our chances.  Fortunately, when the soldier came onto our bus with his M-16 Assault Rifle, he only glanced at the passports of all of the internationals on board the bus, checking their faces and ensuring that they had Israeli visas.  We didn’t need to give them an elaborate story for why we might be in Ramallah.

Once in Jerusalem, Ryan showed me an amazing bookstore near the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.  There were about thirty bookshelves full of literature on the Israeli apartheid, including fiction, poetry, historical background, and sociological, religious, photographic, and philosophical analyses – all in English.  I’ll be going back there this week, at least once, to sit down, have a cool lemonade, and read for hours on end.

We went from the bookstore to the bus station, where we took a local bus to the checkpoint into Bethlehem.  Only some vehicles – those with Israeli license plates – are allowed to enter the West Bank through check points (this way Israel can control what the West Bank imports and exports, and what products they buy).  These buses only took us to the check point, at which time we had to get off the bus and walk through a maze of gates and barbed wire under the gaze of soldiers behind bullet-proof glass, there to inspect our passports.  From the check point, we walked to our refugee camp, al Azzeh Camp.

Our host family was struggling with a pump to get water to the house.  All of the other families in the camp had running water, but for some odd reason, there was no water pressure getting the water into our home.  So they were not in the highest of spirits when we arrived, and in fact Ryan and I crashed from exhaustion for an hour or two while they tried to get water into their home for the first time in ten days.

It’s points like this when I feel absolutely helpless: when the locals are struggling with something like getting the water running, but I don’t speak the language, don’t know how a water pump would get water going in their system, and don’t know the necessary tools to fix the problem.  So Ryan and I rested.

Around five P.M., my host father, Muhammad, my host sister, Shada, Ryan, and I piled into a taxi that took us to a small stone home overlooking terraced cliffs of fruit trees.  We met Muhammad’s friend, Aref, and his family there; soon after, the three other host sisters, Sarah, Moodi, and Rahed, and the two host brothers, Najati and Saddam, arrived with our host mother.

What followed was nothing short of amazing.  Ryan and Najati wandered off while everybody else scavenged up and down the mountainside, raiding the trees and vines for fruit.  Take one pear, put it in the bucket.  Take another, put it in your mouth.  Take two prunes, put them in the bucket, take another and put it in your mouth.  Take a bundle of grapes, and just eat the whole thing while climbing down the terrace to the next almond tree (the fresh almonds are SO good!).  We scavenged up and down the terrace for about two hours, filling our bellies and horsing around.  Ryan and Najati finally returned after trekking over the hillside.  Najati had seen a gazelle galloping over the hillside, and so they had chased after it.

We had running water and open space at this old stone house.  It was everything that we don’t have in the camp, and so much more.  The neighbors’ home is literally 3 feet away from my host family’s front door.  Their home only goes up, and the only soil or greenery is in the buckets and bathtub that line the staircase and rooftop in the refugee camp.  So today, we had kilometers of terraced, rolling hills, fruit and olive trees, fresh air, and an unobstructed sunset.  All in all, it was some peace that I think we’ve all been looking for in a country where free spaces are all too rare.

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