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Travel to Better Understand
How an unexpected trip to Israel and Palestine taught me more than any news report.
I noticed that people were giving me side-ways glances as I walked down the street.
But I didn’t think much of it.
Even though it was only 80 kilometres away, I had had an arduous trip from Jerusalem and I just wanted to find my accommodation.
I didn’t know that though; I had never been to the Middle East before, let alone here.
I hadn’t come for tourism and—contrary to what the Israeli security service people probably suspected me of when they took me aside for a two-hour check at the airport—I wasn’t a political activist.
I had come here because of a misguided desire to pursue a pointless romantic relationship.
But that story is irrelevant to this one.
I now found myself in a village that had, from 2002 until at least when I was there in 2009, been at the heart of weekly protests against the Israeli occupation.
These had been triggered by the construction of the 700-kilometre Israeli-built West Bank barrier, which in Jayyus had effectively separated the villagers from much of their agricultural land.
Every Friday after prayers, villagers—as well as international activists—would walk down to the barrier and protest. Often, these protests spilled out into violence; stones thrown in one direction and tear gas in the other.
But that too, I didn’t know yet.
All I knew was that the relationship I had come for was dead in the water.
With my stay already booked, I had nothing to do other than wander around the village.
That’s when I really noticed that very few people would engage me in conversation. Only the older generation would politely return my hellos.
I had yet to talk with a single person my age—mid-twenties at the time.
Bored after a day or two of this, I decided to visit the barber’s shop in the centre of the village.
I remember feeling nervous as I walked in.
Inside, there were a few young men, drinking coffee and smoking. They stopped talking and looked at me as I sputtered ungraciously, trying to tell the barber that I wanted a shave.
He didn’t understand until, eventually, one of the other men stepped in and helped me translate.
The next thing I know, I’m lying back in this barber’s chair, my neck exposed and a straight razor blade against my skin. I never had someone shave me like this and now I have no choice but to trust this quiet man.
As I lay there, men—most of them young—kept coming in and going. Some stayed to chat for a while, others came in and left.
Slowly, in between strikes of the razor blade, I managed to strike up a conversation with the man who had helped me translate.
‘Where did I come from?’ he asked. ‘Why was I here?’
Once he was satisfied with my answers, the conversation quickly turned to football.
Which team did I support?
I dug deep to remember what I knew about different clubs and their rivalries; I didn’t like football but, right there, I was its biggest fan.
Then the door burst open and a new guy walked in. He came straight up to me and started semi-shouting in what turned out to be Hebrew.
Luckily, my new football buddies stepped in. As they talked in Arabic, they’d periodically look over at me but I had no idea what they were saying.
This went on for what felt like minutes until the new guy seemed to calm down. The barber returned to shaving and I decided best to shut up for a bit.
A short while later, the new guy left and I asked my football friends what he had wanted.
“Don’t mind him”, they told me.
“He just got out of prison and he’s still pissed off”.
“He thought you were an Israeli spy”.
An Israeli spy?
The mere concept blew my mind. ‘I‘m just a simple traveller!’, I felt like protesting.
But I was in the Middle East, a place—I was learning—with no more patience for nuance.
A little while later, one of the guys from the barbers had invited me to his house to meet his family and drink tea.
By the time I was back outside, dust had fallen over the village.
There was a group of us now, me and a few Palestinian men my age, walking through empty village streets.
I ask again about the guy from the barber’s; the guy who had just come back from prison.
“That‘s normal here”, one of the group tells me.
“It happens all the time.”
As we walk, they tell me that a lot of the young men in Jayyus have done time in Israeli prisons, most accused of throwing stones. (Is that where that man had learned to speak Hebrew, I wonder?)
Israeli soldiers would do sweeps of the village, often in the middle of the night, and detain them.
Some still only teenagers.
“Come, we want to show you something.”
We walk until we’re at the edge of the village, a place where the olive groves begin on the hillside. In the distance, I can see the lights of Tel Aviv flicker, a mere 30km away.
I’m shocked at how close it is and think back to walking along the beach there a few days before.
“See that over there?”, one of the group asks me, pointing to a spot on the hill across from us.
I turn to look where he’s pointing but I don’t see anything.
Only the darkness of a countryside night.
“There”, someone else insists, pointing again.
“Israeli soldiers. They’re watching us”.
We stay there for a moment, crouching in silence under a blanket of stars.
Two groups of young men, watching one another; each on their own side of this forsaken landscape, unable to really see in the darkness of the night.
Young men whose lives have been caught in this impossible web of generational pain and suffering.
A few days later and I was back at the airport in Tel Aviv.
In my bag, I was carrying this beautiful plate, bought from a Palestinian man in the city centre of Hebron, military checkpoints literally outside his shop window.
To protect it, he had wrapped it with paper from a Hebrew language newspaper.
“That way they won’t give you any trouble at the border”, he had told me, smiling.