The following piece was originally published in Flagpole Magazine.
Before I went to Palestine and Israel – also known collectively as the “Holy Land” – I was partial to the Palestinians because of the suffering they endure under Israeli occupation. Soon I realized the error in this thinking: I only appreciated them for the circumstances they live in, not for who they actually are. So after supporting the Palestinians from afar for so long, I decided to live in the Palestinian city of Ramallah over the summer, partly to test myself. Would I actually like these people that I supposedly cared about so much?
In short: yes, I really did. Palestinians are some of the most caring, hospitable, curious people I have ever met. Many a time walking the streets of Ramallah or Nablus, I would get a hearty “Welcome!” from a person I had never met and would likely never see again. Whenever I sat down in a Palestinian home – whether it was a modern, well furnished structure or a dusty tent with mattresses for seats – I was invariably offered tea or coffee. Everyone seemed to have wanted to know my name and where I was from. And to think that I was told I’d be killed out here!
It was fitting that I was handed a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia during my stay there. At some point on the long bus ride from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I came across this passage: “A Spaniard's generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.” If the “Spaniard” was replaced with “Palestinian” in this passage, there’d be no truer description of the people that I had the good fortune of living amongst.
Their qualities rubbed off on me – for example, it was in Palestine that I learned to share. Having lived with unrelated roommates for the past six years, I was accustomed to having my own shelf of food from which I would prepare my own meals which I would eat on my own. Yet in Palestine it is borderline insulting to eat in front of somebody without offering them some of what you’re having - fruits, cookies, and crackers were regularly thrust in front of me by the natives. This kind of unconditional generosity, free of the soul-deadening rationalizations that we Americans are so used to performing, not only compelled me to change my own behavior but also restored some of my lost faith in humanity – cliché as that sounds. And judging by the fact that I saw not one homeless person in Palestine (compare this to Israel, a country with nearly ten times more per capita income than the West Bank - and also many more homeless people), I have a strong feeling that this culture of charity is not merely a gift reserved for foreigners, but a strong social glue that has allowed the Palestinians to persevere under occupation for so long.
Of course, there are less appealing things about Palestinian culture. Their curiosity is charming and endearing, but there are times when you just want to sit in the park without being bothered. Their caring and hospitality is touching, but can also be intrusive and even clingy – true privacy is rare in Palestine. And as much as I rag on Western culture, I never appreciated it more when I learned about how relationships work out here. If you’re a Palestinian man and the father of the girl you want to marry decides he doesn’t like you, it’s over - no matter how deeply in love you two (you and the girl, that is) really are. And you’ll probably never get to speak to her again. Want to have a woman stay overnight, even if she’s just a friend? Forget about it.
Yet despite these unsavory aspects of Palestinian culture, I still fell in love with the Palestinian people. In my eyes, they ceased to be an abstract victim and instead became a multitude of real people who not only weep and grieve, but laugh and sing and dance like you’ve never seen anybody dance before.
What about Israel? I was there, although not as often as I had planned. Surely I already knew that traveling between two hostile entities on a regular basis would be no piece of cake. But I soon learned that the political NGO I was volunteering with had mostly research-based work to offer me – not something I came halfway across the world to do -- so I largely abstained from going to their Jerusalem-based office, especially because the trip involved an arduous chain of bus rides and a trip through the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, which is like a more draconian version of airport security. Thus my trips into Israel became more of an occasional travel than a professional commute.
What I will say about Israel is that its own suffering is evident through the palpable fear and tension in the air. The amount of automatic weapons you’ll see on an average day in an average Israeli city is staggering – far more than I saw in any Palestinian city. Every bus station in Israel bristles with metal detectors; even going to a gay pride parade in Jerusalem or a shopping center in Tel Aviv required me to empty my pockets, spread my arms, and consent to being patted down by a security officer. And it doesn’t help that Israel’s leaders are always exaggerating their precarious position - when I arrived, I had just missed what the government had deemed “Doomsday Drills.”
Politically, my views changed only in that the solution to the conflict now seems more elusive than ever. The internationally agreed-upon solution is “two states for two people,” based on borders that existed before the Six Day War of 1967. But now, knowing the size, multitude and utter permanence of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as the strong Palestinian connection to many villages that now lie in Israel proper, I am inclined to think that one unified state would be the most just solution. But Israel and the Palestinian territories are so, so different that it boggles the mind to think of how this single state would actually work.
So if you asked me about my trip to Palestine, I would depress you with talk about borders or peace plans or statehood. Instead I would tell you about the Palestinian boys on the street hustling various cheap candies, or about the complexity of the Arabic language that is both maddening and alluring. I would talk about the gorgeous sunsets that overlooked gorgeous landscapes dotted with olive trees, the mouth-watering smell of a sizzling hunk of shawerma, the unmistakable scent of Turkish coffee, the marvelous texture of Dead Sea mud, the unappreciated beauty of the Golan Heights, the perfection of Mediterranean water, and on and on and on, until I reach the inevitable point of telling you that you should come with me the next time I go.