In Lebanon, I had met a young couple who worked with an organization that helped Palestinians communicate their situation through film. They had visited refugee camps in Lebanon and had participated in peaceful demonstrations in Israel, but their primary focus was distributing video cameras and training Palestinians on how to use them. They told me some harrowing stories about being shot at and being caught in the middle of an Israeli air raid on a Palestinian village. Their work was highly controversial and led to them being barred from entering Israel. During our many discussions about the situation, I always tried to remain neutral in my opinions, which frustrated them. They told me that until I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t possibly understand.

Some of their passion must have rubbed off on me because, many months later, I found myself passing through the checkpoint outside of Jerusalem, and entering the Palestinian Territories. The sense of claustrophobia didn’t set in immediately. In fact, it seemed much like any other border crossing I had experienced in the region. There were soldiers with automatic weapons, barricades in the road and many people queuing in lines, waiting to enter or exit. The one main difference, was the presence of an eight meter tall concrete wall snaking off to the horizon in both directions.

I was questioned by an impossibly young Israeli soldier. “Where are you going?” “Ramallah and onward to Nablus.” “Why?” “I want to see these places.” “Why?” “I want to see how the people live there.” He looked at my camera equipment. “Are you a journalist?” “No, just a tourist.” “OK.” He waved me on. As I passed through the building, I saw the long line of Palestinians heading to Jerusalem, each bundled up against the cold.

There were several old minibuses waiting for passengers to Ramallah, the first city of any size and the main transport hub in the region. I stepped inside the first one. There were already several men sitting in some of the seats. I sat in the back next to the window. The minibus slowly filled up. Most of the passengers were men and many wore keffiyahs which could really be called the national symbol of Palestine. In fact, in Ramallah, I was planning to visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the man responsible for making the checkered head wear so popular.

It wasn’t a long wait until the bus was full and we headed out. I looked out the window as the urban landscape gradually changed to a desert equivalent and then, just as gradually, changed back as we approached the outskirts of Ramallah. Just like in Jerusalem, most of the buildings were made of white sandstone. All of the signs were in Arabic, however, and little English was to be seen. The roads were dusty and littered with trash. The bus stopped in a busy market area and everyone piled off. I didn’t know where the tomb was located, so I hailed a taxi, whose driver quickly understood where I want to go. I negotiated a price, haggling him down from ten shekels to six. He drove through the crowded streets, honking at pedestrians and presumably cursing them in Arabic.

We arrived at the mausoleum, an expansive site under construction. I asked the driver to wait while I visited. A soldier stood in front of a huge poster of Arafat, behind which his permanent tomb was being constructed. I was surprised to be the only one there. I returned to the taxi after a few minutes and we drove back to the bus station in the market where I quickly found a minibus to Nablus.

I arrived in the ancient looking market of Nablus in the early afternoon. It reminded me of bazaars I had seen in Syria and Egypt, a chaotic carnival of the senses. Corrugated steel roofs hung from the ancient stone buildings that were festooned with telephone and power lines. It was a collision of traditional and modern culture. I walked along the cobble stone street and entered into the bazaar proper. All manner of goods were on display and for sale. Tables full of ripe oranges, tomatoes and cauliflower competed with stacks of plastic chairs and colorful buckets. Cheap knock-off purses hung from the roof supports. The walkway was littered with discarded fruit and rubbish.

I was in search of lunch. I found a young man selling roasted chestnuts, his cart surrounded by eager customers. I waited patiently until my turn. He offered me a choice sample to try. It was warm, nutty and delicious, so I bought a small bag. I continued my way into the market, eating my chestnuts. Shortly, I was greeted by a bearded man wearing a black stocking cap with Arabic calligraphy embroidered into a green patch on its front. He saluted me before shaking my hand.

“You are a journalist,” he didn’t so much ask, as tell me.

“Sort of,” I replied, “I am a photographer.”

“Then take my photo.”

I agreed and he posed for the camera.

“Thank you,” I told him. He looked at my bag of chestnuts and I offered him some.

“No thanks,” he said. “I think you must really like them.”

“I do, but do you know a place near here where I can have some lunch?” I asked him. “I am starving.”

He took me by the arm and led me further into the bazaar. While we walked, he told about his life in Ramallah. His name was Khaled and he was married with three children. He was a furniture maker but the economy was poor. Everyone managed to survive only by helping each other. I told him about my project and he was very interested. He said he was glad to be able to show me what Palestine was like.

As we were walking, there was a loud explosion somewhere ahead in the distance. I jumped, startled by the sound, but my friend just kept walking. I looked around at everyone just going about their business and wondered if I had just imagined it. Up ahead in the distance, I could see a cloud of smoke rising above the buildings. I asked him about it. He said it was probably an Israeli attack on a suspected terrorist.

“It happens all the time,” he informed me. “Whenever they suspect a Palestinian of being a dangerous terrorist, they bomb his house. If they don’t kill him, he might as well be dead because he’ll never be able to leave Palestine. His brothers can’t leave either. Not his mother or his father – no one in his family can leave, they are all blacklisted. This way, they make Palestine a prison for the Palestinians.”

“Have you ever left the West Bank?” I asked him.

“Once, when I was little, I went to Jerusalem. I couldn’t believe how clean everything was. But I can’t go anymore. My brother was suspected of something a few years back. I am sure he never did anything.”

Plastered to a wall and surrounded by garlands of flowers was a poster of a Palestinian martyr, the young man in the photo looking proud as he held his assault rifle pointed to the sky. Khaled pointed at the poster.

“When they punish the families of the martyrs by bombing their houses, they want to make sure we don’t encourage them. Don’t they realize that this will only create more martyrs? Look at how we honor them as if they are saints.” I didn’t know what to say, so we walked in silence for a while.

We arrived at a low doorway on a side building. He stooped and stepped inside; I followed suit. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness within, I could make out the arched ceiling, the support columns and the stone floor. At the far end of the room a group of men were playing cards on a low table topped with a Persian carpet.

“Assalam Aleikum,” my friend greeted the group. I knew this to mean ‘Peace be upon you.’

“Wa Aleikum Assalam,” they all replied in unison. ‘And upon you, peace.’

He introduced me to his co-workers. We talked briefly, my friend serving as translator for the others who didn’t speak English very well. After few minutes, one of the men called into the back of the building. A young boy appeared, received instructions and quickly left. Moments later, he reappeared with a pot of tea, some small glasses and pita bread. The men cleared the cards from the table and poured several glasses of tea. I was offered the first one, which I gladly accepted, holding the glass in both of my hands to absorb as much warmth as possible. It was very sweet, as I expected, and had a strong mint flavor. I was offered some pita bread, also. The same man shouted some other instructions to the boy, who again, ran off to do his bidding. We sat around the table, enjoying the warm tea, our breath visible in the cold air.

Ten minutes later, the young boy came back with plate of chicken which he placed in the center of the table. They motioned me to take some. Even though I had been in this situation many times before, I felt nervous. I grabbed a piece of pita bread and used it to break off some of the chicken. Everyone else followed suit and soon there was only a pile of clean bones left on the plate, surrounded by scraps of discarded pita bread. They cleared the table and quickly resumed their cards. I asked Khaled how long they had for their lunch break.

He laughed. “No work right now, so we play cards and drink tea all day.”

“How long since you’ve had work?” I asked him.

“Four or five days.”

“Is that normal?”

“No, but we make do, Alhamdulillah,” he replied.

Alhamdulillah. ‘Praise be to God.’ This is a typical Palestinian reply to a multitude of questions. ‘How are you?’ ‘Praise be to God.’ ‘Is your family well?’ ‘Praise be to God.’ ‘Is business good?’ ‘Praise be to God.’ It doesn’t matter if he is well or has a terminal illness, or if his or business is fine or on the brink of bankruptcy, the answer is always ‘Praise be to God.’ It is a form of humility common throughout the Arabic speaking Muslim community and is even frequently used by non-Arab Muslims. All credit is given to Allah, as is, conversely, any blame for misfortune.

I asked Khaled where I could go to take photos of the separation barrier. He started laughing and then apparently translated my question for the others who also began to laugh wholeheartedly.

“You don’t have to look very hard to find it,” he finally replied.

“I know, but can you take photos of it anywhere?” I asked.

“Me, no. You, no problem. Anywhere. Where are you going next?”

“Back to Ramallah and then to Jerusalem,” I replied, immediately feeling guilty. I had described a journey that would take me about 90 minutes, but that was impossible for him. He seemed to sense my discomfort and put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s OK. Take your photos and tell people about us. That is the most you can do.”

We said goodbye to his friends and Khaled led me back out to the street where he pointed me in the direction of the bus station.

“Thank you Khaled and good luck. Masalamah,” I said. ‘Goodbye.’

“Masalamah, Jeffrey.”

We shook hands and I walked away into the afternoon sun.

Back at Ramallah, I took a taxi from the market to the checkpoint. As we approached, the separation barrier appeared on the horizon and slowly grew. The road to the checkpoint began to parallel the wall and I asked the driver to stop, so I could walk the remaining distance. I walked to the base of the wall. The ground was covered with litter but there was a well worn path along the base. The concrete was painted with graffiti, most of it in Arabic, but some in English. I put my hand on the cold concrete and stood there looking up at the clear blue sky. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a prisoner behind this wall. I was suddenly gripped by a strong sense of claustrophobia and I couldn’t leave fast enough. I took some hurried photos and half-walked, half-ran to the checkpoint. I don’t remember how many questions were asked, or what answers I gave.

On the other side, I breathed a sigh and boarded a modern city bus headed to Jerusalem. I sat in silence, observing the other passengers. The bus stopped periodically, people getting on and off. At one stop half a dozen soldiers in uniform, all armed with machine guns, boarded the bus. Two of them were young attractive women who looked to be about 18 years old. As they were chatting mindlessly to each other, I wondered what they might have to do in the name of their country.

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