One Big Family
Visiting the open-air prison that is Palestine
I sat on Mount Nebo, one of my favourite places in Jordan. It's the mountain on which Moses saw the promised land but wasn’t allowed to enter after leading the Israelites on a 40-year journey through the desert. I can't explain exactly why I love it so much on top of this mountain, I'm not religious, nor is it the best view I've ever seen, but every time I'm there I feel peaceful. From Mount Nebo you can see the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, the luscious Jordan Valley with the Jordan River flowing through and on clear days you can see the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem glisten in the sun. John sits next to me as we look out over the promised land. He is a tour guide from Jordan who speaks Dutch fluently and has become a close friend of mine, he’s always dreamt of visiting that mosque but explains that people from Jordan, or any other country in the Middle East for that matter, can’t cross the border in to Israel. He is a smart man; he knows everything about anything. He tells me stories about these places that he is not allowed to visit. Stories of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Alexander the Great and the Ottoman kingdom, the crusaders and General Saladin, Israel and Palestine. He knows every story in every religious book, he tells his tour groups about them every day.
John tells me he was married to a Dutch woman a while ago and after living in the Netherlands for 4 years he received a Dutch passport. He seems almost embarrassed; I don’t really understand why. He says he hardly ever shares this but it means he could potentially go to Palestine. He feels guilty that somehow this Dutch passport is worth more than his Jordanian one. He’s always dreamt of crossing that border, but sees doing so with his Dutch nationality almost as a betrayal. We sit there for a while, without saying anything, looking at Jerusalem. I don’t know if we are actually looking at Jerusalem, it’s a very cloudy day, but John assures me we are. He breaks the comforting silence by saying 'Let's go there, together. To see what it's like on the other side, so we can tell others about it.' I have my own reservations about visiting Israel too, but I accept. Even though he has a Dutch passport he warns me it's a strong possibility they won’t let him in. He thinks his changes might be better with me by his side.
The following day we drive to the border. I assumed we would drive straight into Israel, John finds my ignorance rather amusing, “you're obviously not allowed to drive a Jordanian car into Israel”. We park his car and walk to the heavily guarded border and while I'm met with indifference John is met with suspicion. They look at his Dutch passport, which is exactly the same as my Dutch passport, but they see the face of an Arab, of a Muslim. We put our bags through the metal detector that beeps constantly whether a bag is going through or not and are told to sit down on a little bench in the corner while they keep hold of our passports. Three guards step to the side and start talking in Hebrew, closely examining our passports, looking at us with distrust. Even though I know I did nothing wrong and their stares aren’t even meant for me, I feel nervous. I’m strangely aware of my limbs and fail to find a casual human seating position. I eventually decide on an extremely upright position, with my head too far back and my hands carefully placed on my knees, actively keeping my fingers perfectly straight. They ignore my suspicious behaviour but take John, who is sitting like a normal human, with them, just a couple meters away. Close enough so I can see him, but too far to offer any kind of support. I wait while busloads of German, Dutch, Italian and American tourists pass me by. The guards form a circle around John in an obvious attempt to intimidate him and ask why he wants to go to Israel. He calmly tells them how we sat on Mount Nebo overlooking the promised land and were wondering what life was like on the other side. They ask him what he does for a living, he says he’s a tour guide. 'Where do you go with your groups?' they ask. He explains he goes everywhere; Wadi Rum, Petra, Jerash, Amman, he even picks groups who are doing a combined Israel-Jordan tour up, often from this exact border. 'Tell us about Petra' they say aggressively. 'My English isn’t great, I can't tell you about Petra in English but I can tell you in Dutch' he explains. An almost amusing scene unveils; three armed Israeli guards listen to John talk about the city of Petra in a language they don't understand, while oblivious tourists complain about the weather as they cross the border without a care in the world.
I feel angry and helpless but also proud of John who is keeping his cool during this lengthy cross examination. Finally, they give us back our passports and we are free to leave, at least that’s what I thought. We go outside and walk up to a ticket window to quickly pick up our Visa. John goes first and another interrogation starts. He has to write down his father’s name, his grandfather’s name, his telephone number, email address, home address, phone numbers of friends and exes and information about his job and employer. Eventually he’s told to take a seat without getting his passport back. I go up next, the grumpy grey-haired woman behind the glass asks me questions but not about me. She couldn't care less about me, it’s almost offensive how much she doesn’t care about me. She tilts her head, looks at me over the top her glasses and asks me about John; What he does for a living, how we know each other and whether he is Muslim. She scribbles stuff down as I answer her questions. Within 5min I get my Visa and passport and am told to enjoy my stay in Israel. But I sit back down with John, the dangerous Arab, and watch the herds of tourists effortlessly receive their visa’s as they carry their excessive Hello Kitty suitcases to the other side. We sit outside in the cold on an uncomfortable metal bench for another hour, without anything to eat or drink. A woman walks up to us and tells John to follow her. A hostile face seems to be one of the job requirements here. She takes him to a small white trailer surrounded by fences and aggressively closes the door behind her. I sit outside for 2 long hours on that same uncomfortable metal bench before John finally comes back. He lights a cigarette as he paces up and down and while he unsuccessfully tries to hide his frustration, he says “I don’t want to go to Israel anymore”. I nod. I walk up to the grumpy grey-haired woman behind the window and explain we've been waiting for 5 hours now, we don’t want to go to Israel anymore, we just want his passport and go back to Jordan. She tells me no; we can't have his passport back.
While John was inside the little white trailer, I thought about Heerlen, the small town in the south of the Netherlands where I grew up. We used to go to Germany to get gas, go shopping in Belgium or drive to Paris just for fun. There is even a ‘Drie-Landen-Punt’, a point where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands come together and you can jump from one country in to the other. There is a street where the houses on the left are in the Netherlands and the houses on the right are in Germany and nobody cares.
I hold Johns hand in a clumsy effort to comfort him but I don’t know how to make him feel better when my privilege is so painfully clear. I ask him what happened in that trailer. They questioned him about everything; his job, his ex-wife, me, they even asked him if has ties to Hezbollah. He had to take all his clothes off and they strip searched him. They told him to give them his phone but he finally reached his limit and refused. 'What do you have to hide?' they asked. He said 'I don’t have anything to hide, it's a matter of privacy and respect, I am a well-travelled man who has visited many countries, never have I had to deal with this. Why?' He asked them. 'It's just a country why make it so difficult?' They said 'You're the one knocking on our door', after which they threatened to arrest him.
We wait for the return of his passport, and he says to me ‘I'm pretty sure I will be arrested’. I don’t know what to say, so I stay silent while I sheepishly stare at the floor. People keep taking his passport from trailer to trailer to trailer but after a lovely 6 hour stay at the border, we finally get his passport back, inside we find his visa. I’ve come to know John as a temperamental man with a lack of patience but today he impressed me with his ability to maintain his composure. I tell him if he wants to go home, I absolutely support that decision, I don’t even know if I still want to go. We go back and forth for a while but hesitantly decide to walk into Israel. I feel like I’m in a movie as we cross the border, it feels surreal, as though we are walking in slow-motion, my hair blowing in the wind, surrounded by nothing but sand, the eyes of all the guards are glued to us, following us wherever we go. The only thing missing is nonsensical explosions behind us as we walk off into the distance. I know this sounds dramatic, but it felt dramatic. After our epic action-movie-scene we rent a car in Eilad, the woman who is helping us is reasonably friendly to me but can't stop staring at my Arab friend, she doesn't address him once. We only just got into Israel but the sun is already setting, John is exhausted from the hours of interrogation and is unusually quiet. I drive from Eilad to Tel Aviv, laughing at my own jokes since John isn’t acknowledging my wonderful sense of humour. He quietly looks outside as we drive deeper into Israel, amazed by how green and fertile the land is here in comparison to the dry and water deprived Jordan just a couple kilometres away.
We wake up the next morning in a beautiful apartment in Tel Aviv overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I listen to the waves calmly hit the shore as I sit on the balcony, but the sound of the ocean doesn’t put me at ease like it normally does. I can tell that John feels anxious too as he lights his 5th cigarette of the only-just-begun morning. He tells me stories about Tel Aviv as we walk through the modern city. He is one of the best story tellers I’ve ever met and though I’m trying to listen all I can think about is the ordeal he had to go through to get here. He knows so much about this country where people don't want him to be. After wandering around for a while we sit down for lunch. I look around and though I have never been here this place feels strangely familiar. I feel like I’m in any modern European city, trendy-dressed people race by on Segway’s bopping their heads to the new Billy Eilish track sipping on their Matcha Tea’s. The cobblestone streets are filled with hipster coffeeshops, vegan cafés, tattoo parlours and art galleries. Just 70 years ago all of this was Palestine, a Middle Eastern Arabic country just like Jordan. How did they build all of this so fast? Where did all that money come from? How is it possible to completely erase Arabic culture from this land like it never existed when Israel was only created in 1948? I drink my Mocha Frappuccino and watch armed military patrol the streets of Tel Aviv. They are young girls and boys, maybe 18 years old, proudly wearing their Israeli uniform. I seem to be the only one who is disturbed by their presence.
We had enough of Tel Aviv and decide to drive to Palestinian territory, to Bethlehem. When we get near the city, a massive 12-meter-high bleak concrete wall appears out of nowhere. One of those prison walls, with barbed wire on top guarded by machine-gunned military wearing their uniforms accessorised with an unfriendly face. The wall stretches as far as I can see, the rolling hills in the distance are framed by the grey wall until it all melts into the grey sky. We are told we can't drive into Palestine with an Israeli rental car and park it right outside the prison wall. A man walks up to us and offers to drive us into Bethlehem for a steep price, but once John mentions he is from Jordan we are met with smiles and some inside information on how to walk into Bethlehem for free. I’m touched by the sense of brotherhood between John and the Palestinian man who is clearly thrilled to meet him, he isn’t used to see people here from other Middle Eastern countries.
We walk up some stairs into a cold and dark 100-meter-long cemented tunnel. We get out at the other side and enter a completely different world, a buzzing market with fruits, herbs and spices, people honking their horns for no reason at all, the signs are in Arabic again and for the first time since leaving Jordan there are no guns in sight. The difference between both sides of the wall is surreal, like I just teleported to a different continent. As soon as we walk out of the other side of the tunnel a group of about 10 men start to follow us. They ask us where we are from, John tells them he is from Jordan and their angry faces transform into friendly ones. The Palestinians don't have guns or military patrolling the wall, so some men take it upon themselves to guard the tunnel to make sure no Israelis walk in. I think it's a way for the Palestinians to take back just a tiny bit of control. I can see the relieve on Johns face to be in Palestine, a relieve mixed with great sadness. The people here in Palestine can't go anywhere, they are imprisoned in their own country. They are surrounded by walls and Israeli guards, without an exit, without an airport, without a seaport. Everyone can walk into Palestine, but the Palestinians are caged in like animals in a safari park.
I always knew the situation in Palestine was dire, but hearing something on the news and seeing and feeling it are two completely different things. I’m finding it hard to process everything I’ve been experiencing and as we walk through Bethlehem, I can’t fully appreciate the incredible beauty of this city. We visit the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was said to be born, and walk through the quaint streets of this stunning city enclosed by ugly walls. There are so many tourists here but they only stay for a couple hours. They don’t stay at a hotel or eat at a restaurant in Bethlehem so tourism doesn’t actually bring in any money, it just leaves the Palestinians with overcrowding and waste issues. The tunnel will close when the clock strikes 8, giving us 30min to leave Bethlehem or we are locked in for the night. We make it to the wall in time, but you can't just walk into Israel like we walked into Palestine. We go through a couple metal detectors and our passports are checked. There is an old Palestinian man in front of us trying to get out but they don't let him. I walk straight through the gates, but they take some time with Johns passport before they let him out. With a heavy heart I walk to our car and look back at that massive 12-meter high prison wall with barbed wire on top.
Our next stop is Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, considered holy for all three major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jerusalem lays in Israeli territory but both Palestine and Israel claim it as their capital, neither claim however is widely recognised. We walk through the beautiful narrow limestone alleyways of the old city of Jerusalem but the Israeli military casually waving around machine guns everywhere I look is a constant reminder of a constant war. I should be used to them by now but they never fail to make me uncomfortable.
The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is located on Temple Mount; the most important site in Jerusalem. The wall, believed to be a remnant of Solomon’s second temple is a Jewish holy site. We want to visit the Western Wall but are told there is only one entrance and that entrance is not for Arabs. I’m told I can visit the Jewish holy site, John can take the Arab route and then we can meet again outside the Western Wall Plaza. John decides to try his luck and come with me via the ‘Non-Arab entrance’ using his Dutch passport. We have to go through yet another metal detector and show our passports, a strange procedure in the middle of a city. They look at his passport and tell him to step to the side. They make some calls, clearly unsure about what to do with this suspicious Arabic looking man with a Dutch passport but eventually let us through after they give him a thorough pat-down. As we walk on the Western Wall Plaza, I feel the eyes of every single Israeli guard on us. The square on which the Wall is situated is packed with tourists, staring at the extraordinary sight of hundreds of Jews dressed in their prayer shawls reciting their daily prayers. Some are sitting on a chair facing the wall, their head buried in their Torah, some put their hands and head on the wall as the pray out loud, some stick little notes in the gaps of the old temple wall.
We leave the Jewish Quarter and walk into the Christian Quarter, no gates or metal detectors this time. Temple Mount is believed to be the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and his last supper. Just like the Western Wall Plaza, the Christian holy site is crawling with tourists. John educates me on the stories of the bible while we go inside the jampacked Church of the Holy Sepulchre and visit Jesus’ empty tomb where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. Hundreds of Christians stand in line to light a candle and say a prayer at Jesus’ tomb.
Next stop is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the second holiest site in Islam, just a couple hundred meters away from the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Muslims believe that Muhammad was miraculously transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to the remote Al-Aqsa during the Night Journey. According to the Qu-ran Muhammad prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, when he finished the angel Jibril (Gabriel) travelled with him to heaven where he led several other prophets in prayer. John tells me it is a dream of all Muslims to pray at Al-Aqsa. The Mosque is guarded by unarmed Jordanian guards, during prayer times they vacate the square surrounding Al-Aqsa as a sign of respect to the Muslims. John goes inside to pray and I sit down on the stairs of the abandoned square. Some guards walk up to me and tell me to leave, but when I explain I’m waiting for John who is inside praying they invite me to enter the mosque even though I am not Muslim. I feel grateful yet guilty as I walk in the beautifully mosaiced mosque. I take off my shoes, put on a headscarf and sit down next to John who is leaning against a pillar, his normally harsh face softened. “It’s empty in here” he whispers staring blankly ahead. “How is it possible that a site of such religious significance is so empty?” I look around and see only a handful of people inside the massive open space, a huge contrast from the crowded Church and Wall we just visited only a few meters away. But it makes sense, it is nearly impossible for Muslims to get into Israel to visit this important mosque. John can’t believe he is one of the lucky few that gets to visit Al-Aqsa, the mosque that he’s been looking at from atop Mount Nebo for years. That feeling of gratitude however is overshadowed by the pain of the absence of his fellow Muslims. Though I will never fully understand that pain, seeing such a strong man on the verge of tears due to the unjust treatment of his people breaks my heart. I know I don’t deserve this visit to Al-Aqsa, I am humbled by the kindness of the guards and will forever remember this moment.
We leave the Old City and walk past some shops when an old man addresses John. ‘Do you speak Arabic?’ he asks. John nods and they start talking, the man, who is 90 years old, tells us he used to work in Jordan for King Hussein. We drink sugar with a bit of tea as he proudly shows us a picture of his young handsome self standing next to the king, carefully placed in a beautiful golden frame. It is clearly one of his most prized possessions. When we are about to leave the man grabs Johns hand and with a desperate look in his eyes he says “We need strong men like you here so we can be free again”. The old man shifts his gaze to me “make sure John teaches you about Palestine and Jerusalem”, he gifts me a necklace and tells me to remember this place and to remember how I feel. But I don’t know how I feel, it is the strangest place I have ever visited. Jerusalem is a city with an incredible history, a beautiful city with unbelievable structures and buildings, a holy city important for all three major religions but mostly, a segregated city filled with hate.
Our next and final stop before returning to Jordan is Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked over water and made fish appear for the hungry fishermen. Tiberias is a real tourist trap; hotels, beaches and trendy restaurants everywhere. We decide to drive around the Sea of Galilea, just meters from the military zone between Jordan and Israeli territory. They hid it well, the military zone is completely out of sight of the tourists, like it's not even there. But when we decide to take a left turn away from the main road, we are immediately followed by a police car asking us where we are going. They were being helpful and friendly, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if John was driving instead of me. John looks outside as we drive only meters from the border, he tells me how he has looked at this lake a thousand times. He is amazed that you can drive around the entire lake without a problem, he was sure it would be closed off to visitors this close to the border.
After our drive we get some food at a local restaurant. Two American couples sit down, they are talking about Jordan, about their visits to Petra. One of the men says 'We only went to Jordan for two days, we want to keep the money here, not spend it on Arabs'. Disgusted by his remark, my once enormous appetite has completely disappeared. The people who own the restaurant are very friendly, they help us figure out how to get to the Jordan River Border Crossing once we drop our rental car off in the morning. When we leave, they say 'We speak Hebrew, English, Arabic, whatever you want, we are one big family.' We thank them for their help but leave with a bad taste in our mouths.
That last statement doesn't feel good. We are one big family, yet the Palestinians have been forced out of their homes, their freedom and dignity taken, refugees not allowed to come back to their homes. Palestine is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with no clean water, massive food shortages and extremely high poverty, unemployment and illiteracy rates. A place where schools and hospitals are destroyed with no way of rebuilding because they aren't allowed to import food, let alone construction materials. A place where people are arrested for no reason, where children and women are killed in senseless attacks and bombings. A people accused of not wanting peace because they resist these so-called “peace plans” made by Israel and America. Plans that demand even more territorial concessions, plans that diminish whatever little there is left of their freedom and rights, plans that reinforce apartheid. But on the other side of the wall, the Israeli citizens live in luxury. And while they actively hide and ignore the harsh faith of their neighbours, celebrating their own independence and privileged lives, the Palestinians are fighting for theirs. But we are one big family.