Gilded Serpent presents...

A Journey to the West Bank

A Lone Dancer Visits Palestine

by Zaina Brown
posted September 1, 2014

The refugee children were dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts, like school kids anywhere in the world. The coach was in a tracksuit, and his stern voice echoed over the young crowd. It could easily have been a basketball game, or perhaps a rehearsal for a play, that was about to begin in this gymnastics hall. But this was a dance rehearsal. The children were Dabke dancers!

Jesus born here.
The exact spot where Jesus is believed to be born

Dabke, the Levantine line dance, has spread across the globe. The Lebanese diaspora packed it in their suitcases, importing it wherever they set foot. Jordanians, Syrians, and Palestinians dance Dabke as well, all with slightly different rhythms and steps. I have seen Dabke groups in the United States, and spontaneous dancing in Arab clubs and restaurants in more countries than I can count. To see it in the native lands is especially exciting. Being performed by children, it’s all the more rewarding. Inside a West Bank refugee camp, it’s also thought-provoking.

Bethlehem

If you passed by the Dheisheh camp, right outside of Bethlehem, you may not even realize it’s not just a scruffy neighborhood. Decades ago it was a tent city, hastily put up for the newly homeless, now permanent housing has been built. Once you know to look for the UN signs on the roadside, you will spot refugee camps all around the West Bank. The United Nations runs the schools and hospitals, and the World Food Program sustains the residents, if at a very basic level. The living conditions are extremely cramped, employment is hard to come by. It is no Christmas card scenario. For most camp residents, life is just survival from day to day, and few can break the cycle of poverty. The future prospects of the young Dabke dancers look pretty bleak.

West Bank packs some of the most significant Christian landmarks. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Beyt Laham in Arabic) is probably the biggest of them all. To see the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born, you have to get in the back of a long line. It felt a little bit unreal to be in THE Bethlehem. It must be among the first far-flung places I ever heard of as a child, listening to those Christmas stories. I never could have imagined one day being there.

Despite Bethlehem’s popularity, and several big tourist buses parked in front of the church, the nearby souq was empty of visitors when I went there. Even the souvenir shops, lining the Manger Square next to the church, were deserted. The inviting cafes were only busy with locals and a few foreigners who seemed not to be on a day trip. How could this be? Most visitors make their trip with an Israeli tour company.

The tourists’ itinerary is planned so that they spend little to no shekels at all in the West Bank.

They simply see the Biblical sights, then head back to Jerusalem on the Israeli side for some souvenir shopping, dinner, and a night in a hotel. Therefore only a fraction of the tourism income goes into the West Bank economy, while the Israeli tour companies make a profit off Palestinian sights.

Souq
Bethlehem souq right near the Church of the Nativity.
Nativity Church
The Church of the Nativity is the star attraction in Bethlehem. Most tourists don’t venture beyond the parking lot
aweseom grafiti
Graffiti in Dheisheh refugee camp. The original residents fled fighting or were expelled from their villages upon the foundation of Israel.

Ramallah

My next stop was Ramallah ("God’s mountain"). A pocket size city, it is the administrative capital of the West Bank – East Jerusalem is considered the real, if unachievable, capital. I set out to roam the lively streets, with camera in hand. A roundabout with a lion statue marks the center, and busy commercial streets spread out in all directions. I took pictures of just about anything I liked, asking for permission here and there. Soon I realized that this wasn’t necessary in Palestine – the people are so friendly and easygoing. The answer was always the same. "Itfaddali!" Go ahead! This was true even of the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, right near the center of Ramallah. Not only was I allowed to take a photo, but the guards encouraged me to take one WITH THEM. I was grinning in disbelief. Now, Arafat left a mixed legacy, and visiting his tomb was not any kind of pilgrimage from my part. However, Ramallah is tiny, and the tomb of Arafat, a historical figure, is one of the few standout sights.

Arafat Tomb
The tomb of Yasser Arafat
Ramallah school girls
School girls in Ramallah

Nablus

Nablus is just about an hour by bus from Ramallah. This city has history reaching all the way to the Roman times. Thanks to the short distances, traveling around the West Bank is not tiresome at all. You could base yourself in the central Ramallah, for example, and just make day trips to other towns. I didn’t mind moving around, and spent the night in Nablus. I took quite some time to exploring the huge souq, and then decided to call it a night early. Just as I was getting ready for bed, the sound of drumming in the next building got my attention. That could only be one thing: a wedding Zaffa! I went out with my camera, and asked if I could go inside and watch. (By now you know the answer: "Itfaddali!")

Mount Gerizim overlooks Nablus, and is quite a unique place. This is the home to the Samaritan community. Who are the Samaritans? It’s an offshoot of Judaism, but an independent religion. They consider the mountain to be holy – and not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holy place. There is a visitor center, where you can get a guided tour and learn a lot about the Samaritans. Nobody beat me up while on the mountain, so I cannot verify if the Samaritans live up to their reputation, but I’m assuming that they are just as good as they were in the old days.

Nabluls street
Market streets in central Nablus
Mt G
View from Mount Gerizim, the home of the Samaritan community.
According to tradition, it was here that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, and swapped him for a sheep instead. 
Jabos well
These Russian Orthodox women came to see Jacob’s well, a Biblical landmark.
They got out of the tour bus, went inside the monastery, and got back on the bus immediately afterwards.
Balata
Balata refugee camp, right across the street from Jacob’s well
Kids
Karim and his sister live in Balata. 

Taybeh

The village of Taybeh near Ramallah is unique in that it is the only completely Christian village in the West Bank. Built on a mountain top, there are beautiful views all around the picturesque village. I visited some old churches and Taybeh Brewery – yes, a beer factory!  They also produce wine and olive oil. Maria, a Greek woman who owns and operates it with her husband, gave me a tour. She described the hardships of running a business under occupation. Exporting goods was very difficult because of the red tape and the restrictions of movement imposed by Israel. The brewery didn’t have access to a port. Additionally, Taybeh only had running water twice a week. (Meanwhile, the surrounding Jewish settlements had running water all the time.) Israel controls the taps, and water shortages are common throughout the West Bank. Some Palestinian villages go for weeks without water. To get by, people collect water into tanks to use as a backup system. It is not sanitary, and for this reason travelers in the West Bank are not advised to drink tap water, while in Israel it’s perfectly safe. 

view
View from the mountain top village of Taybeh
watchtower
Israeli watchtowers are all around, a constant reminder of the military occupation
settlement
An Israeli settlement. All settlements are illegal under international law. 

Jericho

My last stop was Jericho (Ariha in Arabic), by the Jordanian border. The name echoes a grand walled city, but in reality it’s a dusty little town. There are several Biblical tourist draws. A cable car takes you up to the Mount of Temptations. Although the price is a little steep, the view is worth it. Right next to it lie the ruins of ancient Jericho. It’s more like the ruins of the ruins! I stayed my last night in Palestine in another youth hostel, located in another refugee camp, before crossing back into Jordan. I wished I’d had more time, but even in one week I was able to see so much, learn a lot about the daily life in the West Bank, and met many good people. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.

mt of temptations
Mount of Temptations, where according to the Bible Jesus was tempted by the Devil. The views down are dreamy
HIsham Palace
Hisham’s Palace in Jericho
Jerico
Quiet camels on the outskirts of Jericho

The West Bank sees very few independent travelers, which is a pity. Whether arriving by land from Jordan or flying into Tel Aviv, the biggest hurdle is the Israeli border crossing. Security is tight, and the procedure can be anything from a few straight-forward questions to a full-on interrogation. However, once inside, a foreign traveler can (normally) cross through the checkpoints, and that thick gray concrete wall, between Israel and the West Bank, without hassle. Within the West Bank, you can freely move between towns. Gaza on the other hand is under siege and tourists have no way of entering.

red sign
By Israeli law, it’s illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian Authority controlled areas.
They are only supposed to be in the settlements or on the roads leading up to them.
However, Israelis from Jerusalem sometimes come to hang out in Ramallah cafes at night. Nobody minds
 
wall
Near Qalandia checkpoint. Known as the security wall, as well as the Apartheid wall,
it separates not only the West Bank from Israel, but also encloses some Israeli settlements.
It splits many Palestinian communities in half, cutting people off their families, workplaces,
and farmland, causing major difficulties in everyday life. 

Palestine turned out to be a very welcoming, affordable, easy place to be a female solo traveler! I’ve been to a dozen Arab countries, by myself, and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. In Palestine I didn’t encounter any harassment on the streets, suspicious looks checking into hotels, or rip-off mentality among shopkeepers and taxi drivers. I can wholeheartedly recommend travel to the West Bank.

sweets!
These sweets are sold everywhere for one Shekel each. They were an essential part of my Palestine diet
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