And just like that, Wednesday marks a year that we’ve been living in East Jerusalem. I would say it has whizzed by in the blink of an eye, but the past month has put the brakes on life in a way that has given a lot of time for reflection. In many ways this new isolation has sharpened our focus of what we love about being here.
We’d probably started to take the weekend jaunts down to Jericho and the regular trips to Bethlehem and the Old City for granted. At least once we are released from our current captivity, we will truly appreciate the experience again. And don’t get me wrong, we’re massively grateful that we can travel about freely. The fact that many people living here are hemmed in by artificial barriers all of the time is overwhelmingly sad.
Over the past year we have travelled around a lot, eaten a vast amount, met some wonderful people, made some friends for life and learnt heaps about different religions and cultures. There are so many highlights to choose from, but here are a few that stand out for me:
Aida Camp and Bethlehem
For me, driving the short distance from Jerusalem down to checkpoint 300, crossing into Bethlehem and following the line of the separation wall along to the Banksy hotel and down until you reach Aida camp is a hands down winner for time well spent. It’s a half hour drive but you’ll feel like you’re travelling across several countries. You’ll see the ugly scars of the conflict up close but also the beauty that emerges from people living with dignity and holding their ground. The community that surrounds Aida refugee camp is warm and welcoming and I have loved spending time there. The youth centre is the hub of the community and the doors are always open to visitors. A visit to the camp will change your perception on what it means to be a refugee. If you haven’t been then go, go, go (after Covid of course).
The ‘what celebration is today’ factor
This highlight isn’t a place but has been an almost daily discovery. When we arrived last year Passover was just starting, Easter was approaching, and Ramadan wasn’t far away. Every single day it felt like the rhythm of the city was changing to accommodate different religious events. One day we came out and there was smoke everywhere. A bit of research confirmed it was the annual burning of the Chametz (flour-based products) which is required before Passover starts. There were literally bonfires across the city as every last crumb was swept out of the toaster.
During Shabbat (Saturday’s) when Jewish people don’t drive, we would stay in Palestinian areas but somehow always got lost on the way home from an outing. We would often be driving along eerily quiet roads with no traffic lights, fearing that the scowling locals would start throwing stones at the car. When it was Shabbat and also Ramadan, we couldn’t take our snack-obsessed kids anywhere for fear of upsetting someone! The religious fervency is the source of many problems here but for us, it has been fascinating to observe. I’m only sad that Purin this year was already dampened down by Covid as that sounds like our type of party! The premise being to do your religious duty by wearing fancy dress and getting as drunk as possible.
Nablus & Nisf Jubeil
In October we spent a weekend in Nablus and stayed in the small village of Nisf Jubeil. Nablus old town was vibrant and bustling in a way that is sadly missing from other West Bank towns like Hebron. There was a real warmth to the people which manifested itself in free samples at stalls and a genuine interest in who we were and where we were from. My daughter was being potty trained at the time, and the panicked opening line of ‘please can we use your toilet’ led to several outpourings of hospitality from kind individuals. Before we knew it, we were beating drums in a sufi mosque and having a tour of a newly renovated property.
Nisf Jubeil was quaint with many good options for walks in the rugged countryside and the ceramics shop is a must visit. It provided perfect tranquillity in contrast to busy Nablus. You can also visit Sebastiya so it’s all round an action-packed great weekend.
Hikes and Olives
Pottering in the countryside has been another definite highlight. When you are out walking amongst the olive trees it feels like you get to experience the real essence of the place. Cool rocks to climb, a tortoise on the path, a stream to cross, bright wildflowers, fruit to pick: it’s got it all. Some of the best walks we’ve done have been with Palestinians who can banter away with the locals and explain some of the history of the place. We walked in Wadi Limone last year during the olive harvest and we nearly got roped in by families desperate for a spare pair of hands to help collect the harvest. We did a short olive picking shift near Battir and that was also beautiful. Then there are the hills surrounding Jericho where short walks lead to magnificent views over the Dead Sea. The locals drive up and set up their BBQs because that is the sort of local knowledge that they don’t want to share!
It’s an odd list, but it’s mine. I can’t wait to get back out there again soon and feel so thankful we have more time here as we’ve only scratched the surface!
What have been your highlights living here? Please get in touch if you would like to share an experience or write a diary post. I’d love to hear from you!