“Are you going to go see Bethlehem or do you want to see the real West Bank?” asked Zafer, the Palestinian man I recently met outside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem.
Do questions like that ever actually have more than one answer? My curiosity to get all perspectives and deep desire to escape the typical tourist paths didn’t leave me any choice.
We climbed into his old, rusted Toyota and drove along a chaotic, Israeli highway. The further we drove towards the West Bank, the emptier the roads became. We approached the massive, concrete wall protected by barbed wire and Israeli soldiers barely out of high school, holding machine guns almost as big as they were. I handed over my Polish passport. I avoid using my U.S. passport in Israel, because if it is ever stamped, I will be forbidden to enter most other Middle Eastern countries. After the border guard determined that Zafer – who has Jerusalem residence, and therefore is usually allowed to cross the border freely – and I were not a threat, he stepped back and allowed us to pass.
In stark contrast to the dismal, monochromatic cement of the Israeli side of the wall, I was immediately struck by the colorful, artistic and politically charged graffiti coating the Palestinian side of the wall. Some images were peaceful, such as a painted ladder escalating towards the top of the wall, held up by hands reaching down from heaven. Some images were aggressive, depicting men throwing rocks, under the phrase “We Will Win.” Some of the images included demands, crying out “Stop Apartheid” and “Only Free Men Can Negotiate.” And some of the images mocked Middle Eastern peace talks, such as a peace dove wearing a bullet proof vest with a sniper scope aimed at its chest.
In the city of Hebron, Zafer took me to homes, elementary schools, local shops, rooftops, synagogues and mosques. He wanted me to see what was important to him and meet some of his friends. Every time we left a new location or passed through yet another security check point, he would turn and laugh while asking, “Would you have found this if you were on your own?” He was right. This excursion reinforced my belief that the most meaningful way to experience a new place is to befriend local people and attempt to see the place through their eyes.
I didn’t find the danger and hostility towards Westerners that I had been warned about before my visit, but rather open invitations to stay in people’s homes as long as I want. The trip also reiterated how important it is to see places for myself, as opposed to simply learning about them on the news. I thought about a dinner I had with seven Judaism scholars just a few nights prior in Jerusalem, where I asked them questions and listened to their perspective on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Now I saw and heard the view of many Palestinians. I know it is a very complicated issue, but I can’t help to think about how many great, friendly people I met on both sides of the wall.
While driving back, the invitations to stay longer still echoing in my ears and the multiple cups of tea still warming my stomach, I stared back at the concrete divide. I shared with Zafer something Martin Luther King Jr. had written: “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” We both sat in silence. He finally nodded his head and quietly responded in a heavy Arabic accent, “One day, my friend, one day.”