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food / travel

Couchsurfing In Palestine, Part 2: Where Are You From?

On the road from Ramallah to Nablus
On the road from Ramallah to Nablus
Alex Correa

This is the second installment of a three-part series "Couchsurfing (And Keeping Secrets) In Palestine." Read Part 1 here.


We wake up at 9 a.m. "I need to go to work," Ehab tells us, implying that Samuel (the American who was sharing the room with us) and I also need to go. Quickly, we fill up our backpacks with a few belongings — cellphone, camera, notepad — and a few minutes later are sitting in a van, heading for Nablus, one of the West Bank"s biggest cities.

Traveling in Palestine isn't a problem. When buses don't reach their final destination, it's easy to find cheap shared cabs (vans, most of the time). Depending on the driver and the journey's length, it'll cost you between 4 and 20 shekels ($1 to $5). Luxury is in short supply, as can be expected in a country where the circumstances are and always have been rather difficult. Air conditioning is a rare experience and the chances your calves will be hit by a wave of hot air directly coming out of a car engine are high.

When we get off in Nablus, a touristic guide quickly comes over to us. "What would you like to know about the city?" he asks us, grabbing our hands and starting us off on a tour before we could even consent. We both know close to nothing about Nablus, so it seems like a good idea to continue our journey with Hassanein.

I visit my first Palestinian refugee camp with Samuel and Hassanein. Located just four kilometers from the city center, the Balata Camp is the biggest in the West Bank and one of the best built in the country. There, refugees have access to schools, drugstores, hospitals and a cultural center created by the UN. Hassanein lives in the camp and says the situation is deteriorating, with an ever smaller budget for medicine and doctors over the past few years.

Balata was established by the UN in 1950. Its purpose was to offer a new home to the refugees from Jaffa, an Arab city conquered by Israel during the previous year's war. A lot has changed since they first came to the camp. The tents were replaced by substandard concrete houses, the makeshift paths paved with clay or asphalt. But people in Balata still refuse to accept it as their final home, and most want to believe it's just a temporary camp.

Even the younger generations, born and raised here, take pride in saying they're from Jaffa, Akko or Haifa, cities that now belong to Israel. Between these hometowns of theirs and their current shelter stands a wall five times bigger than the Berlin Wall, with 780 kilometers of concrete and barbed wire.

Houses in Balata continue to be expanded. Small spaces are often turned into buildings of two or three stories to accommodate more people, friends and family. The extensions are visibly shaky. When possible, the ground floor is turned into a shop of some kind, allowing the family to have a source of income. Most of these shops are beauty salons, garages or mini-markets.

The posters on the walls bear the faces of martyrs and war prisoners, from suicide bombers to Hamas members. More than once, Hassanein calls our attention to these tributes. "See how they hold their weapons with pride, calling for the enemies." The age of the protagonists is more shocking than the explicit violence portrayed in the posters. Almost every portrait seems to represent minors.

Not going unnoticed

Hassanein's English is clear, despite his strong and comical accent. And given how loud he speaks, I wouldn't rule out a certain level of deafness. Most of the time, Samuel and I can have been able to roam the streets unnoticed: We both have relatively dark skin, wear a beard and have been punished by the scorching sun, all of which provide a level of camouflage. Next to our guide, however, it's hard to hide given how his explanations in English on the Ottoman invasion of the 19th century echo throughout the streets.

It doesn't take long for us to find out that being a foreigner in Palestine is like being a Beatle anywhere on the planet. Shopkeepers come out to bid us welcome. Children want to shake our hands and try to initiate conversations with what little English they know — "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?" Women at the market interrupt their shopping to listen, even when they don't seem to understand.

It's already late in the afternoon when we learn that there's a river located just a few kilometers from Nablus. It's extremely hot, so ending the day with a dip seems like the perfect idea. The valley there offers us one of the most impressive sights of our journeys so far. In just a few minutes, the dusty asphalt gives way to a baffling vegetation that contrasts sharply with the lack of green of the city: sumptuous olive and pine trees interspersed with more timid, yellowish trees that seem to struggle to survive the summer.

But the river doesn't look as exciting as we'd thought. "All the sewers in the West Bank go through here," one of the few Palestinians we meet on the way tells us. I hope it's a hyperbole.

Following a poorly kept path, we reach an oasis with colored Ferris wheels and meters-high slides. And water, loads of water. At the entrance of the swimming pool we're asked where we're from and what our religion is. Samuel is American and Jewish, which doesn't help, and I'm an atheist. We both say we're Catholic (I'm still wondering what's best in Palestine: to say you're an atheist or Catholic) and the workers ask to see our passports. That's unusual in public swimming pools, even here. They want to make sure we're not Israelis.

The Muslim women stay outside of the pool, in a sort of patio with small tubs for the feet and shanks. The men alternate between swims and sun baths. When they find out we're foreigners, the teenagers spend the rest of the afternoon around us: They want to talk about soccer and play volleyball, and their questions are rarely intelligible. From the other side of the pool, the lifeguard shouts something in Arabic. The outcome suggests he told the kids to leave us alone.

Trips to Tel Aviv

I meet Thawra, a law student who passionately talks about the war in Palestine, during dinner on my second night in Ramallah. The 28-year-old has a mysterious sort of beauty about her, a consequence of a multiethnic family — her ancestors are from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, if I remember correctly. Not many Palestinian girls go outside without a hijab. Even fewer wear visible piercings. But Thawra doesn't mind. Her name means "revolution" in Arabic and she seems to be doing her own with her clothes, makeup and ideas.

She's planning to cross the border to go to Tel Aviv, followed by cameras for a local television network, next week. But the plan eventually fails, somehow. When later on, I would send her a message to ask how it went, she'd reply that it's dangerous to explain over the Internet. Two weeks later, I would find out through Facebook that she's pregnant with her first baby.

Thawra has already escaped Palestine in the past. Last year, she spent two weeks at a friend's in Jaffa, a Tel Aviv suburb that used to belong to the Palestinians. She tells me she "loved everything about Tel Aviv."

"Everybody seems so happy all the time. Everything's so modern," she says. "It's very difficult to imagine that it's just 50 or 60 kilometers from here. It's another world." I ask her how she manages to cross. "We find our own way.," she replies.

Thawra's not scared of being found out. If she's caught once, she'll just be sent back to Palestine. But she's still a bit worried she might lose her authorization to work as a lawyer. She talks about Tel Aviv with a surprising enthusiasm, especially considering her repudiation of Israel.

She talks with the same energy, with the same shine in her eyes and the same smile on her face, about her hometown, Jenin, in northern Palestine. No doubt about it: Jenin will be my next stop.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at info@worldcrunch.com.

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