Allix Denham is a journalist and author, whose novel Hotel Jerusalem was inspired by a month-long visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
From Ramallah, we travelled to Nablus, the West Bank's second largest city, famous for its high-quality soap and the most delicious of desserts.
We arrived to an overcast sky which quickly became showery and then turned into a torrential storm. But we didn't care. Our hotel had the fabulous Zeit ou Za'ater café, and we feasted on brilliant breakfast buffets, lavish lunches and sumptuous suppers, with a few sinful snacks in between. The naughtiest treat—for which this city is famed—is Kanafeh, a sweet cheese and syrup dessert. I can assure you it is way tastier than it sounds.
Moments of Happiness in Nablus
On our first morning, as we snacked on coffees and pastries, two young women at the table next to ours, their hair covered but otherwise in jeans and fashionable clothing, were smoking nargilehs. Seeing my curiosity, they beckoned me over to try it. It was a light, apple-scented taste, and certainly not unpleasant, but what I enjoyed the most was that little bit of contact, and our shared laughter and smiles.
On another day part of the cafe was given over to a young couple clearly celebrating her birthday, with balloons hanging from the ceiling and lots of wrapped presents. It seemed to me that the young man had gone to all this trouble, and perhaps he was about to propose? I got the distinct feeling that Palestinians are good at snatching joy from the jaws of depression, and finding moments of happiness in an otherwise tough life.
But Back to the Food!
But back to the food! This was my absolute favourite breakfast buffet, with eggs that were boiled, fried or turned into omelettes, and accompanied with cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, as well as cheese and freshly warmed pitta bread. Then there was a choice of hummus, baba ganoush, foul (a fava bean dip), za'atar (thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) and dibbis, a date syrup that’s mixed with tahini and into which you dunk pitta bread. For three indulgent mornings, I finished my breakfast with a cupcake and a slice of halva which melted into my final cup of strong black coffee.
In the souk, the aroma of spices filled the air, while tubs of olives lined the path, along with pickled vegetables of all kinds. Sacks are lined up of beans, grains and nuts, of teas, dried fruits, dried chillis, and za'atar.
A Spot of Sightseeing
We walked up Mount Gerzerin to find a lavish, newly-built mosque and apartment blocks. Not far away was an Israeli settlement. We didn't go there but met someone who did; they said it was like walking into a different country, all neat, orderly and manicured, a world away from the souk and the market in town. Where do these people shop, I wondered. Where do their children go to school, where do they work, and why have they chosen to isolate themselves like this?
We visited Jacob's Well, a large Orthodox church built over a still-functioning well. The priest was happy to demonstrate this, pulling up a small bucket of cool water in the crypt. In 1979, the priest and church custodian was murdered by Israeli settlers, who stabbed him some 35 times and tried to burn his body at the altar. His tomb is just outside the church, with an icon depicting the 35 axe-strokes that killed him.
Small Act of Kindness
It was in Nablus that we had our only difficult moment with a Palestinian. As we were waiting to cross a busy road, a man who looked totally out of it approached us, asking my partner which country he came from. As he replied England, the man made a throat-slitting/beheading motion. Immediately behind him, two younger men appeared, dragging him off, apologising, calling him crazy. We looked at each other, somewhat unnerved, as the traffic continued past. It was nasty, but nothing had come of it. We were OK and felt safe, as we did throughout the trip. Then the two others came back, apologising again, profusely.
And that small act of kindness and reassurance told us pretty much all we needed to know about the average Palestinian. They are kind, good people who want just want peace and to get on with their lives, but there are the odd nutters determined to ruin things for everyone.
Roman Ruins in Sebastia
We took a day trip to see the Roman ruins in Sebastia, where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head. As we walked around the olive groves and amphitheatres, the sound of machine-gun fire rang out from the valley below. An Israeli settlement was just above it, and clearly this was target practice time. I just hoped we weren’t the targets. We met a man who operates a town twinning system and runs a guest house. The week before, he told us, Israeli soldiers had visited, moving many of the stones and pillars—for what reason, he didn’t know. Three years ago, he added, the settlers diverted their sewage system, flooding the village and its precious ruins.
‘Of course it’s the fault of you English.’ Mahmoud, the portly shopkeeper, sighed, offering me a small glass of tea. I was in his shop (he kindly let me use the loo) and looking at his treasures. ‘The Balfour Declaration—you did that.’ ‘Balfour was a Scot,’ I hurriedly pointed out. ‘Not English.’ He burst into cheery laughter and high-fived me.
Leaving the West Bank
Nablus was our final stop in the West Bank, and I was sad to be leaving. We headed to Jenin and the checkpoint from there. I was nervous; this was to be our first checkpoint. We agreed to say we'd been to Bethlehem and Sebastia, without mentioning anywhere else. It was a grim affair—a series of turnstiles and then a security check with our luggage on a conveyor belt, where unsmiling Israeli soldiers barked out orders in Hebrew, making no effort to help us in our confusion.
It was incredibly quiet, however, with only us and a cheery Palestinian, who chatted constantly about the injustice of having to go through all this palaver, while I worried that our conversation might be overheard. I had to remain neutral.
Paranoia started settling in. What if they had facial recognition, and had seen us in Hebron? What if they found out the extent of our travels? Would we be locked up, questioned, held for 'security reasons', as so many Palestinians found themselves?
In the end, our passage was straightforward and we emerged in Israel. Our Christian taxi driver took us to Nazareth, along clean, smart streets with Hebrew on all the shop fronts. It was a very different world, and I mourned our departure from the West Bank, feeling somehow that I was betraying all the friends we'd made there.
It was months later that I learnt why the checkpoint had been so quiet. Just the day before, an Israeli bus driver had plowed into two Palestinian men waiting outside, killing one instantly and sending the other to hospital. I wonder if the driver was punished. Had it been the other way around—a Palestinian killing and wounding two Israelis—it would have made news headlines.
But this was yet another Israeli crime that went unnoticed, and quite possibly, unpunished.
© 2019 Allix Denham
Liz Westwood from UK on April 17, 2019:
This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article travelog.