Tired and beat after one hour of questioning by the Israeli police, I found myself outside of the prayer room of the Istanbul airport with one credit card and my passport. Everything else had been confiscated. Phone, wallet, business cards, bag and clothes, camera and computer. I was unsure about my crime.
Seven days before, I had just wrapped up work at the United Nations World Data Forum, gearing for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Hanging out with my high school friend, Saana, I had a small glimpse of life in Dubai. High roller Palestinian Civil Engineers, former Russian Chefs, Patan Venture Capitalists, and rooftops with wine, shisha and star gazing. Everything in Dubai runs smoothly, but to me, it looks like a beautiful shell. Gorgeous, but empty. The economy was suffering due to low oil prices, and a lot of people were forced to shut down. The city runs like clockwork. Still, tension brews. Israelis, or anyone with an Israeli stamp on the passport is not allowed in the country. You can’t bring up Israel, or talk about the economic woes. Freedoms are on a tight leash. I love my stay — I’m with family and friends, and this makes the experience worth it.
I then travel to Israel via Istanbul, where I enter without problems. My former roommate (Johnny Boy) just had his second baby and I want to visit him and his family. The tension is real in Israel. Soldiers with guns everywhere, together with the miracle that Israel has truly tamed a desert. The vision of Ben-Gurion is aggressive, yet formidably implemented. We visit the desert canyons and a southern Kibbutz and marvel at the innovation that can emerge from the interaction of desire for freedom, independence, and a strong community. We travel to Elat and make friends with a Yemeni musician by the beach, and then run into a group of girls from the Kibbutz who then join us for drinks, music, and Salsa that randomly emerges by the coast, organized by a group of Russians that are giving lessons by the shores of the Red Sea.
It’s crazy seeing it all come together.
We make our way to Jordan, but Johnny bails. I carry on and make my way to Petra and Wadi Rum. The most amazing thing of this place is that it was built by the Nabateans, a nomadic tribe that left a perpetual monument on an otherwise desolate landscape. One can’t enter Petra, but you can hike up for views and hang with the Bedouins. I close my eyes and imagine how it must have been to rediscover this place after it was abandoned during the Islamic era. 25 Bedouin families still live here, and although it’s tempting to stay there for a couple of days, it suffices for a day hike in Petra and Wadi Rum. The treatment of the camels haunts me, and the amount of garbage and plastic on the ground is strange giving Petra’s UNESCO status. Still, the magnificence is startling. I stay for the night and leave the next day — I want to experience more of the desert, but the cultural pull of Palestine is even stronger.
A series of buses from back in the border take me to Bethlehem, I travel all day. Only Arab buses can take me there and their stops are not marked. I get lucky and manage to get into the 231 and arrive to Bethlehem with a few hours of daylight left. It is strange for a tourist to walk Bethlehem alone so I get some weary confused looks. Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but Israel maintains a heavy presence. Most tours are organized, and I see a few groups but I don’t see anyone walking alone. I wonder if I look Israeli or Arab. I begin walking and I’m offered a walking tour, which I take and walk up and down looking for Banksy, as well as some historical religious sights. Bethlehem is rich in history. My guide, Khalled, complains that he doesn’t understand why tourists come and see Banksy and the Separation Wall. He is proud of the historical religious importance of his town, acknowledging that interest has diversified. I get this point, but I also think it’s good that Art can attract people to this side of the conflict.
At the Occupation Wall I befriend some Palestinian youth, who are hanging, laughing, seemingly enjoying the Wall. They are from Ramallah, and came to take pictures of the graffiti. They grew up with the wall so they have a different relationship to it, none of them saw it get built. It’s part of the furniture. They seem happy. I can see that Khalled is annoyed by their giggles and enjoyment of the Art. This is a prison, he says, not a playground. We walk and talk to the owners of shops and establishments where Banksy painted. All happy for his art, all talk about the experience with a huge smile. Art can heal, and bring cash. With all the hanging and talking I forget about the Prison Hotel, but it’s Ok. It’s night now, and at the bus station are about 50 men smoking hookah, drinking buckets of pomegranate juice, and warming the cold night with fired-up metal bins — all cheering for Messi and Barcelona. A Surreal Scene.
On the bus to Ramallah I sit quietly and the lady next to me is asking me all sorts of questions in Arabic. I have no idea what’s going on so I pull out the phone and start showing her some pictures. My friends, my family, my food. I use google translate to communicate with her. We manage to understand that she is from Haifa and shows me pictures of her and her family by the sea. It looks beautiful. They’re tight. We are stuck in traffic for about 2.5 hours and manage to speak the whole time. I’m happy that she knows that people from Mexico find her country and life beautiful and rich. In Ramallah, I’m amazed by how the stars align, bringing the good and the bad. There was a shooting on the road that I totally missed between Israeli settlers and a Palestinian group (I’m unsure who it was). But in the house I’m staying with, a family of entrepreneurs and data scientists, I’m told of the abuse at all checkpoints and borders. The father does development work for the World Bank, the son is a security entrepreneur, and the daughter is a jiu-jitsu fighter and an expert in conflict resolution. We share a delicious dinner, with Olive Oil that drops like golden honey. The daughter is pregnant, and tells me that she has been interrogated for many hours at the border, basking under the sun. She tells me of her passion for Peace and Conflict studies and how she lost all interest in conflict resolution after all the abuse she sustained at border crossings and elsewhere. She has no hope for the conflict. Yet, she holds hope and happiness, with a baby that will be born in Ramallah. I hope I can see this family again, and host them in California or Mexico. Amazing people.
I see this myself at one of the checkpoints. Two Israeli soldiers, teenagers (or at least they look like that to me), come into the bus and inspect the passengers. An Arab man is pointed out and asked to show some documents. Afterwards, he is asked to step off the bus. He begins shouting at the soldier, a reddening face, veins bulging through his neck. The soldier, a young woman, keeps calm and holds tight on her weapon — an assault rifle. She continues to ask him to get off the bus, with a more severe tone each time. I can see the man’s spit landing on her face as she is screamed at. I can’t imagine how she is able to keep her composure. After what appears like a lengthy standoff, he gets off the bus and we carry on. Violence hurts everyone.
The next day brings me to Ramallah and Hebron. Hebron is the highlight of my visit, a culturally and economically divided city, it used to be the economic powerhouse of Palestine, occupied after the 6 day war (1967). The city thrives with over 300 job types that are all done by hand. Machines are not allowed by the occupation. The city is thriving and pumping until we get to Old Hebron. This reminds me again of war. The city has been split in two zones, H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, administered by Israel. The Mausoleum of Abraham, the longest standing religious building in the world, is also split in two, for Judaism and Islam. Our guide tells us the story of settlers, how he lost his finger and thigh because of a bomb in Bethlehem as a kid. The daunting reality is very present here. The markets and fruit are lush and beautiful, but grown with scarce or imported resources, the roof tops with water tanks to complement scarcity. Palestine is struggling to survive, but it gets by.
After having visited Dubai in its ostentatious wealth I have a feeling that the Arabs of Palestine have been forgotten, almost as if they have been left to die. Why isn’t the Arab world helping improve living conditions here? My geo-political ignorance prevents me from fully understanding the answer to this question.
On the last night, I’m blessed to be present in a private concert from Shahar Eberzon (https://gyro.lnk.to/Sabiha), an amazing rising artist from Israel with a wild soulful voice, writing her nomad sounds like a gypsy globe-trotting around the world. Youth like her also grew up in war, and she sees and understands both sides. She has seen the world and knows all that is possible when there is peace. Sitting and listening to her I take it all in. Art makes it all worth it.
I arrive to the Tel Aviv airport on time, but I get interrogated for 1.5 hours. I never lie. They ask me about all my Arab friends. Palestinian, Jordanian, Iranian. They are concerned about all the souvenirs I’m bringing home. I’m asked if I have ever been part of a Militia or covert operation group (I was assigned a level 6 sticker). They push and push but I got nothing to hide. They take my computer and everything else, wallet, cables, phone, Ids. They leave me bare bones with my credit card and passport. They get no reaction from me. Letting go has become a practice for me. Nothing new. I get searched, but they make the plane wait for me. Then, 4 people surround me. I have no idea why I should be so interesting to them, so I just sit and chill. They escort me to the plane and they send me to Dubai, via Turkey.
In Turkey, I’m shaken up and need a breath. I got nothing on me and the security squad questions shook me. I feel like I’m on watch list, and afraid that this will affect my status in the US. I don’t take sides, but this was overwhelming. I look for the prayer room and sit outside with my eyes closed to calm down until a man comes to me and says “go inside please. God is for everyone, brother”. I sit and meditate for an hour; everyone else is praying. It changes my mood. I’m back. Once at the gate I ask the agent if my stuff made it to Istanbul, if the Israelis checked it in. Yes, all of it.
A couple of days later I’m back in Berkeley. It’s sunny, and the wonderful people I met are now far away. My bags arrive 3 days afterwards en route from Paris. As I pick them up from the airport my computer and cellphone are in one box, and my bag with all my belongings taken out is in another box, disheveled. I hope there has been no spyware installed in my computer.