Category Archives: Travel

The Golan Heights

…feeling it very sorrowful and strange that this first night of my bright fortunes should be the loneliest I had ever known. Great Expectations

Two days ago, some friends and I had planned to go to the Golan Heights. It was my last weekend before my mom arrives (tomorrow!!!) so this was really cutting it close to the wire, as far as I was concerned. The Golan is someplace I’ve been wanting to go for months and months and when my two friends offered to take me, one of them knowing his way well around the north, I was thrilled. The plan was to leave around 7am, since it takes about 3-4 hours to drive up there.

Well, at 7:30 we’re calling my friend whose phones are all turned off… At 8 the three of us who were awake and just waiting decide to grab coffee together while we wait. While we’re walking to meet up, our sleepy friend wakes up and calls us to say he’s on his way. Around 9am, the two show up, but decide they need some coffee. At 10am we’re finally on our way!

The Golan Heights is internationally recognized as Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. It borders Syria and Lebanon. We drove first to the Lebanese border:

Lebanon on the other side of the fence.

It’s almost indescribable how beautiful this part of the country is. It’s so different from anything else I’ve seen here, such beautiful rolling hills (mountains?!), green, lush, breathtaking.

Then you come across this and you’re reminded where you are:

Closed Military Area

We stopped for a photo shoot on this overlook area, which was so much fun, I think we were a little giddy from being in the car for such a long time and then finally arriving! Plus, the fresh air and the view just made me feel alive again.

Lebanon in the background

After a billion photos taken, we drove to Kfar Blum to go kayaking! It was ridiculously fun, all 5 of us piled into one ‘family-sized’ kayak, the boys taking control of the oars, which meant a lot of water fights and an intense rowing experience. What normally takes 2 hours, according to the guides at the beginning, I think took us less than an hour! We also ziplined into the river (SO much fun!). Of course, I got stuck halfway down because the other rope was tangled or something, haha. But then it worked smoothly. There was also a ropes course, which looked really lame from the ground, but was actually intense and a lot of fun!

After we changed from our soaked clothes, we got back in the car and drove south to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful drive, once again.

It was hard to capture from a moving car!

And then we could see the Sea of Galilee. Beauuuuutiful.

From the road, the first glimpses

Beautiful

Then we arrived in Tiberias to eat dinner and walk around a bit.

A park in Tiberias

Taken from our dinner spot. The Sea of Galilee.

We had a scrumptious dinner of grilled local fish and some salads. We walked around a bit, sat on the beach for a bit, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

After nightfall, we decided we wanted some knaffeh – the cheese dessert thing that Nablus is famous for – but since we were so far north anyway, Nazareth is also famous for its version of knaffeh. So we thought, why not stop there on the way back? So at 10:45 pm we arrive in Nazareth and stop at what had been recommended as the best place in Nazareth for knaffeh. It was delicious and a perfect nightcap for a great, ridiculous, seemingly impossible day.

We had another two hours to drive home, but when I finally got home at 1am, I was still so content from such a great day. There are still plenty of places in the Golan Heights that we didn’t get to see, so I’ll save that for next time!

It’s May?!

Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes. The Picture of Dorian Gray

Today is May 1. This means, my mom arrives in 10 days (!!!!), we leave Palestine for good (eeeek) to Istanbul in 16 days (!!!!), and I’m back on American soil for the first time in 10 months in 20 days (!!!!!!!!!!!!). I have such mixed feelings right now, it’s pretty ridiculous. I was talking with the other Boren fellow here last night about how much neither of us wants to leave here. This is really the most ridiculous, chaotic, wonderful place I could ever imagine – and it sucks you in like you wouldn’t believe.

So in this past week, I’ve spent a lot of time with friends, in places that I’m going to miss. I also went to Jericho for the first time ever last Monday. It’s a beautiful place, situated welllll below sea level. It’s the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth and is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Remains of more than 20 successive settlements in Jericho have been unearthed, the oldest dating back 11,000 years (9,000 BCE).

On the way to Jericho, we stopped at the “Sea Level” sign.

When we got to Jericho, we stopped at the Zacchaeus tree – the sycamore tree which Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed up in order to see Jesus walk through Jericho. Jesus called up to Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree to come down for he was to eat at his house. So here it is:

The Zacchaeus Tree!

Then we took the cable car up to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and meditating. There is a Greek Orthodox monastery carved into the mountain at the top, which is beautiful. Plus you have panoramic views of the city of Jericho below.

Looking down at Jericho while in the cable car!

The monastery

Looking down at the city. Love the mix: desert, green, dead sea in the background

In the monastery

Apparently these caves were (are??) inhabited by monks since the early days of Christianity

Then, my friend just bought an apartment in a new community complex that is being developed just outside of Ramallah, called al-reehan. So he wanted to show us what it looked like, so we drove over there. This being Palestine, the overseer walked over to our car as we pulled up, my friend explained that he had bought this apartment and wanted to show us. The manager gave us each a hard hat and told us to ‘be careful.’

Then, we drive over to his building, which let me tell you is still being constructed, all wearing our hard hats. The real construction workers, of course, are not wearing hard hats and are laughing at us for wearing ours! We walk into the still-being-constructed building and walk up the still-being-constructed stairs all the way to the top, because my friend bought the roof apartment. It has the most amazing views:

The view. As you can see, the building is still under construction. Love Palestine

The view looking back toward Ramallah

The view on the other side. Beautiful.

Still under construction. Ha!

Then, the rest of this week, I’ve spent a lot of time outside, sitting at the park, reading, trying to get ready for my mom’s visit, and trying to see friends! This past Friday, we ended up by chance at the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, which was a fun afternoon of watching kids’ and young adults’ dance groups dance traditional Palestinian dances. I’ll post about that tomorrow!

Good Friday in the Holy Land

There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast it is all a sham. Black Beauty

Well, we braved the crowds and the weather to spend Good Friday in Jerusalem. My friend so graciously allowed me to spend Thursday night in her house in Beit Safafa, so that we could have an easygoing start to the Good Friday celebrations, since it is in Israeli territory – no checkpoints to cross to get to Jerusalem. This is Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood in south Jerusalem, on the outskirts of Bethlehem:

A house in Beit Safafa

Looking out on Beit Safafa and Jerusalem in the background

Remains of an old Palestinian house

Downtown Beit Safafa! Happening place..

Had a chill, relaxing evening on Thursday, and then got up on Friday recharged. There was to be a procession with Franciscan monks through the Stations of the Cross – walking the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked when he was carrying his cross to be crucified at Golgotha (the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre) – at 12:15pm. So we had a lazy morning getting ready, and then headed out to meet my friend at the Damascus Gate and then walk to the first station. Of course, it’s also Friday, so there were huge numbers of Muslims walking to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers. The IDF had closed down, with barriers and soldiers blocking the way, the easiest paths to both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the first station. My friend asked one of the soldiers why they were blocking it off and he answered, “The Crusades.” (Gotta love the aptitude of the IDF). She pushed him a little further, “You mean the Stations of the Cross?” to which he replied, “Yeah, the Crusades.”

Intriguing.

When she pushed him a little further, saying that we were here for .. the Crusades (?!), he said no one was allowed through. So we wound our way through the narrow paths and found our way to the first station, with time to spare still. But oh my goodness there were so many people. The ‘streets’ of the Old City are narrow. And the Via Dolorosa winds its way through the heart of the Old City. And there were thousands of people walking along this procession, with shopkeepers and other tourists lining the sides to take pictures of us walking along. It was chaos. It didn’t really feel like much of a religious experience, but it was definitely something.

The masses

The priests led the way, with one priest carrying a loudspeaker on his head (the poor guy), and reading the Stations of the Cross in English, Spanish, and Latin (I think?), and then some prayers along the way. It was sometimes difficult to hear, and so many people there speaking so many different languages, some groups were praying and singing along the whole way. It was fascinating. But also stifling at some points.

But maybe the coolest part of the whole day – so when Jesus died, there was supposedly a solar eclipse, and some crazy weather things happening (an earthquake, etc). Well, yesterday, the weather was ridiculous. When we were riding the bus around 11am, it started a downpour – within 5 minutes, it was over. Then it was cloudy and chilly while we were walking to the first station. Then as we waited for the procession to start, it was sunny and hot (as in, I was sweating). Then, we’re maybe halfway through the procession, and it just starts another downpour again! Without warning, just a crack and the rain started. Then it was sunny again. It seemed very fitting for Good Friday in Jerusalem.

The masses of people attempting to enter the Holy Sepulchre for the last Stations - we didn't make it in

A multitude of crosses


Nablus

In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. The Scarlet Letter

Nablus is a beautiful city in the northern West Bank. I’ve been before, but I’m beginning my final countdown of cities that I need to visit again before I leave. It’s a city that has a lot of pain and suffering from the two intifadas, and has a much different vibe than Ramallah, or really other West Bank cities.

My friend, who is from Jenin and spent time in Nablus during the second intifada, and has taken me around Nablus before, was able to join us again for the afternoon. When we first arrived, we went to this hidden restaurant that my friend had told me about – though he wagered that I wouldn’t be able to find it (stipulation: I was not allowed to ask anyone), and if they hadn’t actually recently posted a sign outside with the words “mud3am” or ‘restaurant’, I definitely would not have guessed where its location was. But, the food was delicious and cheaaaaaaaap and we ate a lot. My other friend who joined had never been to Nablus before, so after eating, we began the basic tour around the Old City, a labyrinth of alleyways and markets and houses and stores. We stopped at the hamaam, the Turkish bath, al-Shifa, which was built in 1624 to have some coffee and tea. We walked around, and as he had done for me before, he showed us the intricate alleyways that connect houses and apartments, a true maze of interconnectedness. This is one of the reasons the IDF wouldn’t enter the Old City of Nablus during its incursions during and after the second intifada, because the risk of getting lost or cornered was just too high. My friend, who lived in the Old City, said it took him 3-4 months to remember exactly how to find his house!

Then we grabbed a service taxi and went up to An-Najah University, the largest and (some argue) most prestigious university in Palestine. It was founded in 1918 as a school, then became a college, and then a university in 1977. Between 1988 and 1991 the Israeli military declared the university a ‘closed military zone’ and it was shut down. As with other Palestinian universities, when the Israeli military shuts them down for extended periods of time, the faculty and students meet for lectures and classes at homes and other private places.

It’s a beautiful campus – well, two campuses, actually, a new and old, to account for the massive number of students. There are over 16,500 students in 19 faculties.

view from An-Najah University over the beautiful countryside!

the view again. sigh.

The library - farrrr nicer than the one at my grad school!

We walked around, my friend had actually gone to university there so he knew his way around and, per usual in Palestine, all the security guards and faculty and administrative people (at least those who were there during his time there many years ago) remembered him and welcomed us warmly. Of course, we were quite a show for the actual students who were hanging around campus, two American girls taking in the sights! But it was fun, and a wonderful view of the mountains of Nablus, and it was great to see another Palestinian university to compare it to Birzeit, where I took classes.

the campus

Then of course we went back to the Old City and ate knaffeh. Having thoroughly stuffed ourselves, we hopped into the service back to Ramallah.

Back in Ramallah, one of my best friends here, a Palestinian, it was his last night before leaving for 6 weeks in the States on a cultural exchange program. Which, if you recall correctly, I will actually already be back in the States by the time he returns to Ramallah. It was really the first serious goodbye, and really very difficult to handle. I got home after saying hugging possibly for 5 minutes straight, and started thinking about all the good times we had together here, both just one-on-one time and also all the group times our friends had together, over the past 9 months or so. All of our weekly brunches at the same exact restaurant, all of our trips together, all of our movie-watching nights and hanging out at restaurant nights. Of the people here who made me feel less like a tourist, this guy is one of those who tops the list, though the list is blessedly long. I’m not really sure I’m going to be able to say goodbye to this place or these people.

TEDxRamallah

So does a whole world, with all its greatnesses and littlenesses, lie in a twinkling star. And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyze the manner of its composition, so, sublimer intelligences may read in the feeble shining of this earth of ours, every thought and act, every vice and virtue, of every responsible creature on it. A Tale of Two Cities

Well, Saturday was an exhausting day at TEDxRamallah, a day to inspire and educate and share ideas. So I got up at 6am, got ready to be at the bus by 7am, to take us to Bethlehem. Of course, this being Palestine, the buses didn’t leave until close to 7:20, and stopped twice in the first half hour to pick up people who were late to the original bus lot. Then, on the way, when we were close to Bethlehem, our giant bus pulled over to the side of the road, close to a monastery and a large hill… and waited. Our bus driver got out to smoke a cigarette, of course, and there were crowds of people standing outside from other buses/vans. But we couldn’t figure out if there was something significant about the site? And of course no one on the bus knew what was going on either. So after about 15 or 20 minutes of just chilling, our bus driver got back on the bus and we continued on our way.

The event website had stated that registration would close at 9:25 and the doors would close at 9:45 sharp in order to start the event on time at 10am. We arrived at 9:30 at the beautiful Convention Palace in Bethlehem to the longest line I could have imagined! Organization is not the strongest point of events here, so there was just one line for hundreds of people to pick up their badges and event bags from the poor 4 or 5 volunteers. So we waited… and waited… And finally got our badges and bags, and then went to get coffee and find seats for the event to start… an hour late.

But once the event started, it was interesting to say the least. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting – from the tedxramallah website, it stated its purpose to showcase inspiring stories of Palestine. And there was a great speaker list – Steve Sosebee, the founder and CEO of the Palestine Children Relief Fund; Alice Walker, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize; Suad Amiry, architect and founder of Riwaq and author; Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and many others. Entertainment performers included Rim al Banna, DAM, and spoken word artist Mark Gonzales.

The videos are all online and there are plenty of blogs and tweets about each act, but a few highlights: Huwaida Arraf made everyone cry, I think, as she remembered Vittorio Arrigoni, someone she personally knew and worked with, the Italian activist who was just killed in Gaza. Mohammad al Dahshan is an Egyptian who blogged about the revolution from the beginning. He encouraged us to remember, from the big picture of the revolution, that it was made up of stories from each person who decided to participate. Julia Bacha, documentary filmmaker best known for the film “Budros” about the nonviolent movement in the village named Budros in Palestine against the separation wall, gave a wonderful talk about cognitive dissonance and the importance of being aware of when new information is trying to take hold in our minds given our preconceptions. Khaled Sabawi, president of MENA Geothermal, gave an entertaining presentation on geothermal processes for heating and cooling houses. Alice Walker spoke about her ordeal at the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, which is controlled by Israelis, and how she spoke to her Israeli soldier interrogator like she would to her son – “Do you know what you’re doing? This [occupation] isn’t good for you.”

It was a good day, I’m glad I went, and I hope next year’s is even better. If the goal of the event was to tell stories from Palestine or share the struggle of Palestine to the outside world, I’m not sure I would call it a success. Many of the speakers would say, “well, but you know about that already, as Palestinians, so I won’t talk about that,” whether they were speaking about the Wall, or the checkpoints, or the degradation or humiliation of the occupation… but most of the outside world who might have been streaming these videos don’t know about those things! But, I think there were inspiring stories and stories about success despite the hardship of the occupation and good ideas for the future. I wish there had been more time in between sessions or at lunch, because even though I ran into a few people I knew from outside my usual social circle, it would have been interesting to meet more people. Plus, we made our insanely large badges with our pictures and three key words for people to come talk to us about! Could have put those to good use.

Then, after the event ended an hour after it was supposed to, since it did begin an hour late, we hopped in the bus again and headed through the narrow and windy Wadi al-Nar (Valley of Fire) to get back to Ramallah, around 9:45pm. Exhausted, but having promised friends I would join to watch the Real Madrid-Barcelona game, I met some friends at a restaurant, pigged out on food because the TEDxRamallah conference food was so poor, and then sat sleepily through the game.

Not the best picture, but the only one I have from the conference!

Musings

Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself. Robinson Crusoe

Well, I have a little over a month left here, only 4 weekends until my mom gets here and we depart for Istanbul and then home. It’s a time to reflect, definitely, and think of what I’m going to say to people that I’m leaving here and people that I’ll be seeing back in the States; to think about what I’ve done here in my 9 months and what I still want to do in my last one. It’s ironic that as I have all this time on my hands, all of my friends here are busy with work, so I’m gearing up to do some trips on my own and with whoever I can wrangle into missing work!

Two trips that I have somewhat planned for two weekends are (1) the Golan Heights, and (2) the Negev desert.

I really want to see the Golan, I’ve heard it’s the most beautiful place, and there are tons of nature reserves and places to hike and sit and enjoy the scenery. I’m hoping to go next weekend, rent a car, get some friends, and enjoy the spring weather here! It’s quite far north – right along the borders with Syria and Lebanon, so we’ll rent a car and drive, it’s about 3 hours from Jerusalem and then most of the parks and sights are within 30 minutes of each other. So, hopefully this will work out! Fingers crossed.

It’s also the two days before Easter, which I hope to go to Jerusalem for, join the masses of crowds to walk the real Stations of the Cross, where Jesus walked before being crucified at the location where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now is. I can only imagine how ridiculously crowded it will be, though a friend told me, surprisingly, it’s usually not that crowded. We’ll see! I suppose with this Sunday being Palm Sunday I’ll also head to Jerusalem. Maybe I’ll ask around to get a feel for how Easter will be there.

I also really want to go to the Negev desert, there are supposedly some beautiful hiking trails and sights and flora and fauna (and no, I will probably not remember any of the names or be able to recognize any sort of plant that I see, but I can still appreciate its beauty, thank you very much!). That might have to be a trip on my own, because I haven’t heard too much interest from other friends on going, so we’ll see. But I find it hard to resist going to see something like this:

Makhtesh Ramon crater, photo from (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makhtesh_Ramon)

So we’ll see how that works out. I have some free time on my hands, in any case!

And of course some day trips back to Nablus and Jenin and I absolutely have to go to Jericho, since I’ve unfortunately never been in my 9 months here, which is practically a sin.

This Saturday, I’m heading to Bethlehem for the TEDxRamallah conference. If you’re familiar with TED talks, it’s this for Palestine – bringing together inspiring individuals on stage from within Palestine and beyond from at least 10 different disciplines to enlighten us with inspirational stories of Palestine. It should be a fascinating day, so I’m uber-excited. Check out the link above, like most TED talks, I think the speakers and performers will be posted online, plus the website has this interesting section called “Palestine Stories,” which is pretty self-explanatory. Enjoy!

Hebron

Under the yoke of our mornings
the sun crumbles
and in the darkness of our steps
our panting breath is on fire
these incomplete homelands
in which we appear to be
nothing more than prisoners of war
Ibrahim Muhawi

Two days ago, two friends (of Palestinian origin but both grew up outside Palestine) and I went to Hebron for the day. I’ve been before, it’s in the southern West Bank and is the largest city in the West Bank, home to around 165,000 Palestinians and over 500 Jewish settlers concentrated in the old city quarter. Hebron contains the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs and is a very holy city to all religions. This is the supposed site where Abraham buried his wife Sarah; Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were later buried in the cave as well. This is now the Ibrahimi Mosque on one side, and a synagogue on the other side.

To get to the mosque from the old city, you have to pass through a checkpoint. Hebron is a very depressing place. Because of the presence of 500 settlers, there are a bazillion Israeli soldiers around, and Palestinian movement is severely restricted. The city is divided into two sections – H1 and H2. The H1 sector holds about 120,000 Palestinians is under Palestinian Authority control. H2, which was home to 30,000 Palestinians stayed under Israeli military control to protect the settlers; a huge drop in Palestinian population in H2 occurred, due to extended curfews, strict restrictions on movement – there are sixteen (16!) checkpoints in H2 alone. But mostly, Palestinians moved out because of settler harassment. Just like all settlements in the West Bank, the Jewish settlers in Hebron are there illegally under the UN Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel disputes that Hebron is “occupied territory” and claims that because the Fourth Geneva Convention provides for retention of territory for security purposes, its settlements are legal. Right.

Regardless, it’s one of the saddest sights to see Palestinian restriction of movement like it is in Hebron. Palestinians are not allowed to use Shuhada Street, the principal thoroughfare. They’re not allowed. At all. In fact, the street right by the Ibrahimi mosque that leads to Shuhada Street, is divided by a large concrete barrier and manned by Israeli soldiers in watchtowers – because Palestinians are only allowed to walk on one side of the concrete barrier, which fits maybe 2-3 people side by side, and the Israelis (and foreigners) are the only ones allowed to use the actual street.

 

You can see two Palestinian women approaching Shuhada Street, where they are not allowed to walk

The Israeli organization B’Tselem has a more detailed analysis of Shuhada Street and Palestinian hardship there, click here for more information.

So, we got to the Ibrahimi mosque right at prayer time (of course!). This very nice Palestinian guy told us we just had to wait another 45 minutes or so, and he invited us to walk with him to his apartment building, near Shuhada Street, as it had a rooftop panoramic view of Hebron. He was so helpful and informative and pointed out as many checkpoints as we could see from his rooftop, and which streets were off-limits to Palestinians.

How many Israeli watchtowers can you spot?

This street is also closed off to Palestinians.

 

View of the Old City

The taller buildings across the street from the white roofs were historical Palestinian homes that are now occupied by settlers

Then, we met up with some friends (from Hebron) of my friend, and we walked to the mosque. You had to go through two metal detectors – manned by Israelis – to get to the inside. But it was beautiful inside.

 

Ceiling of the mosque

The burial place of Ibrahim (Abraham) - there was a tour group of young schoolage boys there so it was difficult to get a good picture!

After the mosque, we grabbed lunch and then headed over to the keffiyeh factory – Herbawi Textile – the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine. The keffiyeh is the internationally recognized symbol of the Palestinian national resistance, the checkered headscarf. I’ve been before to this factory, but my friends hadn’t and I wanted to buy yet another one, but an original this time.

Then, we headed back to Ramallah, after quite a tiring and interesting day, like most days here.