24 May Travel Journal : A Caricature of Palestine
We crept through rush hour traffic, crowded tunnels, and countless stops before we were finally let off next to a faded metal sign in a nondescript intersection. I grabbed my bag and paused for a moment while I tried to make the mental switch from sleepy passenger on a quiet bus to someone that was about to step foot in Palestine for the first time. I didn’t know what I would find outside of the folding door that separated me from every terrifying headline and news story I’d read. My husband, Aaron, nudged me forward, eager as always to navigate a new place. I stepped down onto a narrow sidewalk of broken cement and a quick breeze whipped around me. It was much cooler here than it had been that morning at the Dead Sea.
The sun had retreated for the evening and there was a thin veil of dust in the air. The street was quiet but still busy. A bearded man was standing against the chainlink fence a few feet to our left. His eyes quickly scanned the crowd of people pouring off the bus. He was looking for fresh faces, for tourists. Before we had the chance to gather our thoughts we were approached. He rushed over and greeted us like old friends. Wasting no time at all, he asked where we were headed. As seasoned travelers, we know that you shouldn’t reveal sensitive information so early in a conversation. We also needed information, so we grudgingly told him we were on our way to a homestay in the Dheisheh refugee camp. The family we were staying with gave us simple instructions prior to our arrival : call them once we were off the bus and they would pick us up. In a series of unfortunate events, both of our cell phones died that morning during the desolate drive to the Dead Sea.
Coincidentally, our new acquaintance was a local taxi driver and assured us he could deliver us to our destination. We know this routine all too well, so we declined his offer. We explained our situation and kindly asked him to call our host. A small service we were happy to pay for. He agreed with a smile. We handed him the phone number printed on our reservation and he immediately handed it back to us. Apparently it was illegible, so he couldn’t make the call. Nonetheless, he kept assuring us that he could take us where we needed to go. My urge to argue was growing weak and so was my sense of adventure. I could feel myself slowly starting to shut down.
Since buildings in the refugee camp aren’t marked with traditional addresses, there isn’t an easy way to tell someone where you’re going; especially having never been there. I kept telling myself that we weren’t supposed to be in this situation. We were getting picked up, we didn’t prepare to navigate this foreign land. Cars were buzzing past us, neon lights glared dramatically in the background, everyone was speaking a language I was unfamiliar with, and my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the glare and haze in the air. The corner we had inadvertently gathered on didn’t offer any predictable escapes. There were no cafés or shops to retreat into. The cab driver, sensing our unease and desperately not wanting to lose a fare, asked who we were staying with. I could only manage to recall the first name of Aya, the wife I was communicating with prior to our arrival.
“Oh, she’s the wife of Ibrahim. I know where they live, I’ll take you.” We saw an opportunity, so we asked again. “If you know them, surely you can call them and tell them we are here.” The man was quick with this response. “Ibrahim is my friend, my brother. I’ll take you.”
We went back and forth on the side of the road for a few exhausting and futile minutes before we finally gave in. “Fine, just take us.” It was late, we were tired, and we had unintentionally ran out of options. By this time, the rest of the crowd has dispersed, taking with them the remaining taxi drivers. We negotiated a price that was still too high. All part of the new tourist, eager taxi driver hustle that is inevitable in new places. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We lost this one and ended up paying the self-imposed tourist tax. Reluctantly, we threw our bags in the backseat and climbed in behind them.
The driver’s English quickly deteriorated once he began driving. We tried to ask questions about the neighborhood and Ibrahim. He didn’t understand. Odd considering his English was perfect while haggling on the corner. A few awkward minutes later, we were turning off the main road onto a poorly lit and dusty street. Concrete homes were piled on top of each other, 3 or 4 stories high on all sides of us. The driver wound his way through the concrete neighborhood, orange dirt blowing up behind the car. We drove past concrete shells of homes that had been abandoned, long pieces of rebar jutting out of walls and roofs, massive piles of rubbish and discarded belongings gathered in the corners of alleys. It was dark and uncomfortably quiet. Our driver came to a quick stop. We lurched forward in the backseat. I looked around. To our left, a chain link fence sat in front of an empty field and a mound of garbage had collected behind it. To our right, another dark, littered road. Is this it? I asked myself.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to a refugee camp in Palestine. My only preparation were images from the news. I knew that we were going for a cultural experience. I knew it would be rough around the edges, but was this it?
The driver threw the car in reverse and slammed on the gas. We went flying backwards down the street. A few seconds later he turned left, then stopped again. “I don’t remember which one it is.” He mumbled in perfect English.
Aaron and I looked at each other. We had no idea which one it was. We didn’t even know if we were in the right camp. Did this taxi driver even know where he was going? All we had given him was the name Aya. In a city of over 15,000 people, all he had was a first name. He could be taking us anywhere.
We were already on high alert, our nerves were shot from the obstacles we survived that morning. Now, we were in another foreign territory. Everything was new; the language, the landscape, the lifestyle. We had been battered with warnings and concern prior to this trip. Arriving at night made it difficult to assess the area. I tried to push the negative thoughts from my mind. Reminding myself that the media sensationalizes fear and drama. That all of the horror stories were just that, stories. This was real life, and bad things don’t happen to good people in real life.
We started moving again, a right, then a left, then a quick stop. Without a word, the taxi driver opened his door and jumped out of the car that was still running. Another car pulled up on the left of us, boxing us in. My door was so close to the concrete wall on my right that it never would have opened. We were under a flickering street light, but couldn’t see much except for the dusty concrete walls towering up around us. Painted on the walls were violent scenes of conflict and war, bombs and fire. Next to those were children’s faces painted under scriptures and memorials of lost lives. While most of them are in remembrance of an important event or advocating peace, it’s nearly impossible to figure that out beneath the harsh shadows of moon light.
Aaron and I looked at each other. The desperate look of concern was plastered across both of our faces. Questioning our decision to trust this taxi driver with our lives, Aaron repositioned our bags and made sure his door was unlocked if we needed to make a quick exit. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I wanted to shut down, to sit down and not worry about anything else. To breathe out that sigh of relief that comes with familiar surroundings. But this was not the time to relax, I needed to stay alert and somehow, optimistic.
The car beside us eventually pulled away then a few seconds later our driver returned. He pointed at two little boys standing in the distance and said sternly, “Go.”
We slid our tired bodies out of the car and put our bags on our backs. Unsure of who these boys were and where they were taking us, we slowly walked toward them. They stood just outside of the street light and we could barely make out their faces. As we moved closer they both started laughing then abruptly turned around and ran behind a dark building.
This was the scene from a horror movie. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a murder-mystery like this before, the children cast for the role of adding an unsettling level of creepiness to the scene.
The taxi driver had backed-up, turned, and was now out of sight. I breathed in the cool night air and as much confidence as I could muster and we followed the two young boys toward the dark building. One of them reappeared from around the corner and motioned for us to follow. No words, no light, just a young boy in tattered clothes waving us to follow him down a dark path. Trying desperately to find some way to ease the tension, Aaron shouted ahead, “Where are we going buddy?” No response. He was gone.
The level of unease was palpable. Had we finally found a situation we couldn’t navigate our way out of? Was this going to be the trip that stomped out our unwavering optimism, the trip that would leave us broken and fearful? Would this be the trip that ruins our trust in strangers? We were alone on a dusty street in a refugee camp in the middle of one of the most unstable and fought-over lands in the world. There were no cell phones, no people on the streets, no main roads with possible reprieves. We had successfully detached ourselves from everything we were familiar with.
Swallowing our fear, we walked forward. Eventually we made it to the edge of the building and in what I’m sure played out in slow motion, we turned the corner. An unlit driveway ran between two cement walls. We stopped to look back at the road we had just walked. Dirt and dust still settling from the commotion and no sign of life in either direction. There were no sounds, no car horns or music playing from windows. None of the familiar garnishes that would have made the moment slightly more relatable. Nothing we could use to soften the harsh edges of the concrete slabs and the dark alleys.
One of the boys was standing by a narrow staircase at the back of the building. He stared at us with the same amount of intrigue and concern that I could feel involuntarily displaying itself across my face. As we neared the boy he turned around and began climbing the cement stairs two at a time. We followed, unfamiliar, one stair at a time. We were barricaded in, surrounded on all sides by the concrete stairwell. Almost on cue, the other boy appeared from a dark corner, ran across the landing, then ducked inside the door of what I assume was his home. Our boy paused, intently watching us take in the whole scene. Then, using one hand, he motioned for us to keep following him. We silently climbed two more flights of stairs before he opened a door and ran inside. The door was barely cracked by the time we made it there.
The amount of mental exhaustion that comes with each obstacle like this one is crippling. The simplest task of entering this home became a whirlwind of what-ifs and how-to’s in my head. Should Aaron enter first? Should I go first so I am not left alone for any longer than necessary? Who was inside the home? Who were the boys? Was this the right house? Every moment of that taxi ride and the walk up to our temporary home was littered with irrational thoughts and mental obstacles. It’s difficult to silence them when you’ve been fighting them all day.
Aaron stepped inside and I followed very closely behind, slowly letting ourselves into the home. A woman who was very noticeably nine months pregnant was sitting on the couch with a smile and a cup of tea. Bad things don’t happen when people are drinking tea out of delicate cups. Right? Something about the way she held the small glass, how she sat on top of her crossed legs, or the young boy with big brown eyes that was already playing with a toy on the living room floor made my anxiety sink low in my stomach. It was still there, but it was no longer clogging my throat.
Aaron said hello, and we took another step toward the woman that hadn’t yet said a word. I imagine the situation was just as awkward for her. Two startled and exhausted foreigners covered in fear and sweat standing in her living room, just staring at her. Waiting for her to tell us everything is okay. To remind us that we were overreacting and letting our minds wander too far. This was her home, this was her life. This was all normal for her. We were the ones out of place.
A few seconds later Aya stood up and motioned us into a wood paneled bedroom. A queen bed with a thin mattress and two chunky dressers with gold knobs filled the room. This would be our home for the next two days. Aaron and I dropped our bags, shut the door, and stood there staring at each other in silence. Both of us trying to rationalize and analyze everything we had done that day. Everything was uncomfortable and overwhelming and then all of the sudden we were standing in a quiet room, alone with our thoughts for the first time. The ending was so abrupt.
I felt like we needed a transition, a precipice. We needed a conclusion. We showered and then joined the family on the couch for a cup of sweet mint tea and broken conversation. Ibrahim had returned from his second job as a taxi driver. Their two young boys sat next to us on the couch scribbling in coloring books, the youngest was four years old and just learning English. A sliding glass door opened to a small patio that Ibrahim used to point out and describe the different neighborhoods around us. Ibrahim was unique in that he was granted a special visa that allowed him to work in Israel, a rare privilege for Palestinians. This gave him the ability to move between borders during specific times. This also meant that his stories were a rare blend of the two territories. We discussed the struggles of Palestine’s borders, the complicated relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and how the media portrayed what was happening. After sharing unexpected conversation, lots of laughs, and a few pots of tea, we decided to reconvene in the morning. When I finally laid down that night, my mind grasped at the day’s events, trying to piece everything together.
I look back on this day and I can see that we let fear get the best of us. Maybe it was exhaustion, the constant change of scenery, or perhaps we absorbed too many horror stories. To us it had been one of our most demanding travel days. Everything that felt so foreign and out of place to us was just another day for the locals. There was a caricature of Palestine that we were plastered with in the news, the one we expected to see. Then there was the real Palestine, the one we experienced. The one we stayed and explored. We walked around local markets, carried on hilarious conversations with locals, took a few entertaining taxi rides, and stuffed our faces with falafel and traditional desserts. Once the harsh shadows of that first night faded, we could see the real Palestine that was there the entire time. We just needed to let our eyes focus.
*The people we met in Palestine were gracious, kind, and welcoming. Stay tuned for more stories on the people and culture of Palestine.
READ Part 1 of this story : Borders We Cross While Traveling