[I can write whole essays about these two cities and this one country, but I tried my best not to]
“You will find lots of people in Jericho who have African backgrounds and will look like you, so don’t worry!”
A Palestinian named Salah, whose father is Black–although Salah looks white, said the above quote to me before I left EcoMe to head the five kilometers to Jericho. It was sunny, hot, and Friday, which is the weekend in this region, so a great day to visit one of the oldest cities in the world. In 2010 Jericho celebrated it’s 10,000 year anniversary. Despite it being a city that is like a museum, it is still a city where people have been living and working for all these centuries. It is also a place where many Palestinian refugee families fled. Upon entering the road to Jericho there is a big red sign saying that Jericho is Area A, which means Israelis can’t enter for security reasons.
On the main road heading into Jericho, every 100km or so there is a U.S. Aid sign saying that a particular street or housing development was “a gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.” While the U.S. government is an important ally to Israel’s government and in many ways supporting the occupation of Palestine, U.S. Aid is giving development aid to Palestine. It’s almost as if without the problematic foreign policy of the U.S. government, U.S. Aid would have no meaningful projects to do in Palestine.
Walking through the streets of Jericho I almost only saw men; all of whom were very friendly telling me “Welcome” and asking where in Africa I was from. Little boys riding on bikes would ride pass me yelling “Hi, Hello, Thank you!” and any other English words they knew.
An oasis in the desert, the city is filled with trees and surrounded by barren hills. Seeing this historic city is like stepping back in time.Simultaneously the hustle of the city center, men selling falafel, shops selling everything and anything one could need is a reminder that history is not in the past. Still mesmerized by the call to prayer which reaches every edge of the city, I pass by an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Russian museum, which was a gift from the president of Russia along with a couple other projects in Jericho. There are Arabic banks, men shuffling to the mosque for the mid afternoon prayer, and the Dead Sea near by. Jericho is truly the gem of Palestine with a history unparalleled. That evening Alice came to pick me up and take me to Jerusalem–another very old, holy city.
“We say Shalom, you know: Peace, but we might as well say ‘cabbage.’ This should be the most peaceful place on earth, but it’s not.”
I met Alice at the Sulha. She is a wonderful, hospitable woman who welcomed me into her home, took me around Jerusalem, and generally took good care of me. Alice is a Hungarian (half Jewish/half Christian) raised in Romania and living in Jerusalem for 27 years now. Alice left Romania in August 1989 when it was communist, four months before they got rid of Nicolae Ceaușescu along with 42 years of communism. Israel accepted her application for asylum even though she is Jewish on her father’s side and normally Jewish heritage is valid through your mother’s side. She was and still is so surprised at the hatred and fear she sees in Jerusalem, such a holy city and the center of civilization. She believes based on its history it should be so peaceful and yet it is not. Still she is grateful to be in Israel. Alice, her sister in law, and I got to Jerusalem Friday evening during Shabbat. We saw the Orthodox Jewish families leaving church in groups of ten or more and heading to their family dinners. Everything was closed and everyone is off, including the police, so in many neighborhoods people take the opportunity to park wherever they want.
During my short stay in Jerusalem I had many conversations about the conflict with people living there. What was clear from my limited experience is that many Jewish people feel tired and exhausted talking about it, at least the ones who are willing to talk about it. There also seems to be an air of hopelessness, which frustrated me because in the grand scheme of history the conflict has not been going on for so long. From a historical perspective, in my opinion, it is far too soon to give up hope about solutions and resolutions. One Jewish woman from Canada I spoke about it with talked about the role of British colonialism in creating the situation that exists now. The British were instrumental in granting Jews a homeland and literally giving them pieces of what would become independent Palestine, and was historically Palestine. This point is valid and should not be forgotten. Still, my belief is that we should work from the circumstances that exist now despite the details and politics that have caused it. How can we move forward from here and support Palestinians and Israelis to come to some semblance of a just, peaceful solution?
In the midst of all this, Jerusalem is still an incredibly diverse city. I saw people who come from all corners of the world: Muslims, Jews, and Christians from countries all over. In the old city there is an Arab Quarter, a Jewish Quarter, even an Armenian Quarter. I saw Ethiopian Jews, Ghanaian christians, Filipino Catholics, and Somalian muslims. For all three of these major religions Jerusalem is one of the holiest places on earth. Whether we went to the Western Wall of the Old City or any church there were people praying. As we sat at the Austrian Hospice listening to classical music we could hear the call to prayer in the background. In this Jerusalem it seems like everyone is able to live together rather peacefully.
At the same time we can’t forget the huge wall cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank.
Once the sunset in Jerusalem, Shabbat came to an end. I got on a bus to Eilat, the very south of Israel where I would cross the border to Jordan and continue my exploration of the present reality of some of the oldest places in the world. Every country in this region feels the ripples of the conflict and Jordan is no exception. It has a unique position of offering lovely historical expensive trips to tourists who are visiting Israel, and being the only place where Palestinians can catch a flight out of the region since they are not allowed to use the airports in Israel and have no airports of their own.
“Why you only stay Jordan for one day, they give visa for one month, don’t you want to stay?”
I fell in-love with Jordan as soon as I got to the border. Although the border crossing between Israel and Jordan is normally tedious and complicated it was quite lovely for me. All the guards and customs officers were very kind to me, I was even brought tea while waiting in line to get my passport stamped. The other people going to Jordan didn’t seem to have such a great time crossing the border, but for me it was good. We began driving through the desert and learning about the history and current Jordanian system. Jordan is one of the lands Moses was said to have crossed on his way to Sinai, so it is a holy land to Muslims. 2/3rds of Jordan is barren dessert with a small part resembling the topology of Mediterranean countries.
In Jordan more than half of the population are refugees mainly from Syria and Iraq. Although most of the population is Sunni Muslim, there are Christians, Jews, and other denominations who have full rights. Education is free so this allows more people to access it though my guide, Ma’An, told me there’s still an issue with children going to and staying in school. The Kingdom of Jordan was founded in 1921 (the borders and nation created by the British) after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It was a British protectorate until 1946. Even though it is a monarchy and patriarchy there are more woman in the senate and House of Representatives than other countries in this region. Jordan is one of the most stable and diplomatically-minded countries in this region with, mostly, peaceful relationships with all its neighbors: Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Although in some cases the Jordanian government has colluded with Israel and the United States to create some of the issues in the Middle East, they currently remain one of the few safe and stable countries for people, and especially refugees, in this region.
The “Lost City” of Petra dates back to about 300 BCE. Petra is originally a Greek word meaning The Rock. Petra is more than 1,000 meters above sea level in the mountains in the south western part of Jordan’s desert. It is by far the best archaeological historic site I have seen. It was chosen as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2000. It is one of those places where one can see the true potential of human feats in tandem with the amazing formations of nature and ruins. It was once a prosperous thriving city as a result of its beneficial position as a trade route through the Red Sea. Petra has a very rich history including having been a site for early humans about 20,000 years ago, being one of the places tribes from the Arabian Sea settled, being captured by the Romans (after they tried for a very long time), and suffering a massive earthquake making it a ruin and lost city. Even the pictures don’t do it justice. (While we were there a Bollywood movie was being filmed–as the site is so beautiful and amazing)
I also visited the only port city in Jordan, Aqaba, and Wadi Mousa (Moses Valley) the town next to Petra. In every place in Jordan I went I was treated wonderfully and received so much hospitality. A Bedouin man invited me into his cave, where he lives, gave me tea; we talked about Bob Marley and a little bit about Bedouin poverty.
My guide and I talked a lot about Jordan, the politics in the region and Western interventions in the Middle East. I hope to visit Jordan again. The short trip across the border expanded my perspective about this region.
One of my favorite quotes from a Jordanian man passing me while riding a donkey, in the little English he knows: “I love the Black! Once Black, you can never back!”
I had some issues crossing the border back into Israel because they were very concerned about the time I spent in Palestine (the West Bank). After a long time being interviewed and asked to recall what I did everyday and every hour of my day while in Palestine, they let me back into the country with a warning about spending time and doing projects in the West Bank. As my trip comes to a close I’m grateful to all the people I met who allowed me to have experiences and see things that I didn’t think of or plan. I have a couple more days to take it all in before heading back to Europe and some semblance of normalcy.