I’m a Palestinian American who recently visited her place of birth after twenty four years and I‘m happy to report, it was a fantastic experience. Don’t make my mistake and wait so long before you visit. You can’t wait for a one, two or three state solution. The: ‘peace process industry‘ is just that, an industry. The ‘consultants, pundits, academics and journalists’ might as well offer us stock. Trust me, the food is great, the people are characters, and all those biblical historic sites, yeah they’re still there. This article is my travelogue, peppered with tips and observations. I might occasionally throw in an opinion or two.
Every year, twenty million travelers visit Israel. Only four percent of them visit the West Bank. Personally I love that. Purely for selfish reasons of course. It is an ancient and authentic place, largely untouched by foreign tourists. As much as I want to keep it a secret, I feel a responsibility to announce its awesomeness.
Recently the status of Palestine was elevated to a non-member observer state by the U.N. That might not sound like much, but it’s a big deal. I think we should reward their diplomacy with a visit.
Fact. The West Bank is safe.
I wouldn’t have gone with my five-year old child if it wasn’t. There is an unofficial peace, an economic peace. The biggest clue is in the fridge. If you open a fridge in a Palestinian home (believe me, my American son opened many), you will find Israeli bottled water, milk, hummus, and labaneh (Kefir yogurt). Another clue is in the market. I noticed that Israeli Arabs shopped for their raw goods (fruits, vegetables, grains) in the West Bank because they are cheaper. You can also find Palestinian beer in Israeli bars in Jerusalem. This is an ominous sign. The free movement of goods and tourists is proceeding the free movement of people.
Visa upon entry
All you need is a passport that is valid for at least six months. My son and I landed in Tel Aviv on a Saturday. The airport entry was pretty smooth. We got a three month visa upon entry. In fact, the female soldier was considerate enough to ask if I wanted our passports stamped because she noticed stamps from many trips to Pakistan, a country that doesn’t recognize Israel. We flew to Tel Aviv from Istanbul and before that we were visiting my husband’s family in Islamabad. We flew Turkish Airlines. My son was singing their anthem in the shower well after we came back home to New York City. “We are Globally yours”.
If you are alone, you won’t need a car. You can take private shuttles in between cities. Palestinians call them “Fordat” which is formal Arabic plural for “Ford”. Even as a woman alone, I felt safe in a van full of mostly men traveling between Palestinian towns. You just walk to the center of the town you are in, and every five minutes a shuttle will drive by and take you to the nearest town. Taxis are reasonably priced for short distances. Palestinian taxi drivers like Pakistani drivers in NYC are so informative. You can really check the stock price of the peace process from talking to them. If you are planning to go back and forth between the West Bank and Israel, your best bet is to rent a car with an Israeli license plate from the airport. The roads are clearly marked in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Where to Stay
Ramallah: In Ramallah, stay at the Grand Park or Moevenpick. Ramallah is my mother’s home town. She would not recognize it now. Ramallah went from a small town to a city in twenty years. My son’s only observation about Ramallah was that unlike New York City, no one walks their dogs.
Jericho: I am biased towards my place of birth, Jericho which remained a provincial small town. I wanted my son to be biased too so I made sure we stayed at a resort. You can stay at the Jericho Intercontinental or Resort Village for about a $100 a night. My son loved the resort but found it hard to make friends in the pool. Unlike other vacations we went on, where he could easily find another only child to play with, every Palestinian kid has an entourage of three siblings. I was told by total strangers patronizingly to have more kids. Arab hospitality comes with Arab opinions.
The cool thing about being from such a provincial place is that people remember you even after 24 years. I lived in San Jose, California for 15 years and no one remembers me. In America, you have to achieve something or make a sex tape in order to become famous. In Jericho, you just have to exist. But Jericho itself questions its existence, archaeologists keep digging and finding older Jericho’s. They have found 20 settlements so far, all indicating a wall as a defense against flood water. It’s 850 feet below sea level so if it rains more than 5 minutes, the town floods. Hurricane Sandy would have wiped Jericho off the map. I think this explains why the indigenous Jerichoaites (ree7awiyyeh) didn’t really participate in the Palestinian uprisings. They have always been a-political. They probably think: we have seen 20 civilizations come and go, we will wait this one out.
Relative size of the West Bank
In Jericho, Jamal Barham who has has a degree in English Literature and patience took us around my birthplace. He took us to my childhood home which has been resold to a family from Jerusalem who use it as a winter home. The house seemed so much bigger when I was a child, like the territories themselves. A trip to Jerusalem from Jericho was a big deal that needed planning and coordinating with family. Now that I see this place with grown up eyes, I realize how small it is. The entire area of Israel and the Palestinian territories is the size of greater Los Angeles.
Where to eat:
“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?’” -Lin Yutang.
Imagine going back home to your place of birth and finding the same mom and pop restaurants from your childhood. Not only are they still there, some have franchised and inspired competitors. I would give up a hundred Chase banks in NYC for just one Abu El Abed’s shawerma.
In general you can’t go wrong, there are no tourist traps. These is something for everyone. If you have kids, most sit down restaurants have a playground with a sand box. If you stay up past nine, head out to one of the late night bars.
The first place I wanted to eat was Abu Iskandar shawarma in Ramallah. Shawarma is the roast beef of the Middle East, except it is usually made with locally raised milk fed veal. Eating at Abu Skandar’s cramped upstairs diner brought back vivid memories of childhood when my dad would drive us to Ramallah from Jericho to visit his brother’s family. There was never a question that we were going to eat shawarma. It was the only reason we put up with visiting family. Since then, a meatier competitor surfaced, Abu el Abed Shawarma.
In Beit Lehem, you must eat at Afteem Restaurant walking steps away from Manger square. It has been around since 1948 and it serves a unique spicy falafel, best I have ever had. I was struck by the small town feel of the West Bank. This guy in the picture below asked my cousin where we were from. She answered him, Beir Zeit. He continued to ask us about the reputation of a guy from Beir Zeit who asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. You can determine someone’s fate or you can just eat falafel. I decided on the latter.
My favorite meal that captured the Palestinian way of life was at Al Fallaha “The Peasant woman” in Ein Areik, one of Ramallah’s surrounding villages. It is located at the bottom of a hill with spacious outdoor seating. This restaurant serves one main dish, musakhan (chicken baked on onion whole wheat rustic bread).
I didn’t see Al Fallaha personally but I imagined her squatting by a hot coal fire. The onions are spiced with sumac, which is such a tangy versitile spice. It reigns supreme in my spice cabinet. Order all the mazza “small plates”, the jirjir “arugula”, parsley, Turkish salad, and parsley tahini salad. My son was lost in the sand box and the little playground while I enjoyed my double apple water pipe.
Al Fallaha alone is worth the ten hour flight from JFK to Tel Aviv.
In Jifna, a small hilly town near Beir Zeit, we hung out mostly at Deir el-Latin (the latin monastery). It was like a neighborhood community center with a tiny restaurant that served terrible food. I learned to order only tea and argeela in order to enjoy the people watching. My son enjoyed the huge playground built like a tree house. The local priest reminded me of Bill Clinton, so diplomatic and charming. He is a true community leader.
However, if watching families interact and listening to sexy priests is not enough to fill you up, you must go to Tabash Restaurant & Park. It has amazing BBQ kifta “ground meat patties”. At Tabash which has the standard spacious outdoor seating and the playground (I just can’t get over the playgrounds in restaurants), it didn’t feel like a hurried tourist meal. Palestinians really make you feel like you are home eating their mother’s home made food.
No matter where you get your protein, you have to go to a specialty shop for your desert. Alternate between Zalatimo Sweets and Rukab ice-cream. Zalatimo sweets originated in Jerusalem’s old city but now has a branch in Al Irsal. Al Irsal is a new and shiny area. It developed between Ramallah and Beir Zeit. It’s like a little Dubai in the West Bank. Try the Mutabbaq, thin layers of dough filled with cheese baked to a crisp using ghee and topped with powdered sugar. Its like a sweet Paratha done right. The main difference between having it in the old world in Jerusalem versus the new world of Al Irsaal is that in Jerusalem they still serve it in rickety aluminum trays that are left over from the Crusades. As for Rukab ice-cream, the main shop is in Ramallah but all the grocery stores in near by towns stock it daily. Also, during the summer, sellers walk around the towns with carts yelling “Rukaaab”. A competitor came up since my childhood days called Baladna which is equally yummy.
So you have put your kids or your parents to sleep, where do you go to spend an evening smoking argeela or to have a drink?
In Ramallah, there is Ziryaab which is owned by an artist. I found the candle lights there to be very special. They are made from letters of Palestinian prisoners. This prison art is seriously moving.
Another charming bar I liked in Ramallah is Al Maghara (the cave). Al Liwan Cafe in Nablus serves the most creative argeela I have ever had. I called it argeela carnival.
The best place to enjoy Palestinian beer, rabbit food such as turmus or faqous and great conversation is Al Ellieh in Beir Zeit. It’s in the old city. It has real old world charm. Great place to hang out among locals and French foreigners to discuss Hillary Clinton’s hair. Most of the waiters are students at the university so they happen to chime in on the conversation. Another cool daytime hangout in Beir Zeit where all the young camera friendly college students hang out is Zeina on the main road. This place is really old, you could see the Ottoman arches in the walls. My aunt told me that my father’s family lived in the building when they became internally displaced refugees.
People & Politics
Characters, you will meet plenty of interesting people. Most young people are secular nationalists and are currently more concerned with reclaiming their income. Everyone is flush with consumer debt thanks to Palestinian banks over lending since the end of the second Intifada in 2005. When I was growing up, all I heard were conspiracy theories even from kids. During my trip, I didn’t hear that many conspiracy theories. I heard equal complaints about the Palestinian authority as I did about Israeli settlement activity. In my humble opinion, people just want three things in life: jobs, good schools for their kids and healthcare. They don’t care which state provides them.
Note to single girls out there, I noticed one great quality about Palestinian dudes. They don’t have FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out] like single guys in the US. They also don’t take themselves too seriously. Reason being, it’s hard for them to get exit visas and few people come visit, so they are who they are and where they are. Nothing more, nothing less.
Need to know before you go
Know you dates. Palestinians pepper their conversations with years. If you don’t know key dates, you won’t get any jokes. Here is my free history lesson. In August 1947, the English divided up India and Pakistan in South Asia in order to carve out a separate state for Muslims. That same year, three months later, the British mandate of Palestine was split up and the Jewish state of Israel was created. 1947 was one busy year for ships and trains. Lots of people moved around to live according to religious zones. When the British left in May 1948, the Israeli state was proclaimed on May 15th. Palestinians mark the day as Yawm al-Nakba “Day of the Catastrophe”. Palestinians now say Happy Nakba day jokingly.
Know your areas
I stayed mainly in areas A and B which are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Area C is controlled by Israel. Then there are undeveloped rural areas which make for pretty drives. For example, the drive from Beir Zeit to Nablus was really pretty, make sure you go in the day time.
In conclusion, go West Bank my son.