My visit to the West Bank was rather spontaneous. One of the girls in our apartment was telling us about the tour she would be taking the following day and when she invited me, I declined at first. I was definitely interested in going but I figured I could plan a trip later on when I had more time. Yet, for some reason, delaying it did not feel right and I found myself thinking, why not now? How would going another day be any different? Unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, I changed my mind and with “no time like the present” as my mantra, I happily joined her.
The next morning, a cab drove us from downtown Jerusalem to the Bethlehem checkpoint at the Separation Wall. Having spent the past few days surrounded by beautiful ancient sites and stone buildings, the grey cement barrier seemed stunningly out of place in comparison. As we drew closer to it in the queue, I remember thinking how sad it was that such a structure, designed for exclusion, existed in the Holy Land. Upon passing through, we were greeted by a lively Palestinian guide and began our tour in a small group after literally stopping to smell the flowers nearby; they were jasmines.
Walking along the Wall on this side was quite interesting because of the graffiti that covered it. The artwork created by Banksy in particular was simple yet always thought provoking; my favourites were the protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers and the girl being lifted by balloons. Meanwhile, our guide explained the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on everyday life in the West Bank and the Asian ladies in our group made everyone laugh by repeating yalla now and again.
Our path soon brought us to Aida Refugee Camp and in one of the alleys, we came across some of the cutest children playing together. Through our guide, we were able to ask them for pictures but standing beside them, I felt a mixture of happiness and sadness. Although their joy was very infectious, the thought of them spending childhood in such circumstances was troubling. I wondered what their life would be like when they grew up. Would they still be happy? I do not know. After stopping at a shop that sold an assortment of handmade items and displayed old keys to buildings that perhaps no longer exist, we saw some of the youth in the Camp. There was also a small exhibit in one of the rooms where a quote by a sixteen-year old girl read, “my dream is to succeed in, and complete my studies.”
During the rest of the tour, we went to the lovely Church of the Nativity—I took a great photo with a Greek Orthodox priest who wore a stern expression in contrast to my amused one—and the Church of St. Catharine beside it. We then had an amazing lunch before heading to Ramallah. On the road, we drove past settlements, our guide sang “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and bought us carob juice from a brilliantly dressed vendor. Being in Ramallah felt a little different than Bethlehem in that Ramallah has more of a city vibe. Arguably, one of the best places around is a cafe called Stars and Bucks that deserves a visit for the title alone. Over a very sweet but much needed frappucino, I looked out the window at the busy road below and found myself once again marvelling at Middle Eastern traffic norms.
Seeing the West Bank was a great experience for many reasons but foremost, I began to gain a deeper understanding of the human side of the conflict which is very important because we tend to forget that there are people who have to live in it every day on both sides of the Wall.