Strawberries from Palestine

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Recalling a day spent in Palestine that consisted of unforgettable hospitality, lip-smacking Knafeh and a renewed belief in the similitude of human beings regardless of our superficial differences.

Nablus, nestled between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, is one of the major commercial and cultural centres of Palestine.

I shuffle through the songs on my playlist restlessly while the bus remains firmly lodged in traffic. I was supposed to meet Zahra at 11 a.m., and I’m already half an hour late. Zahra sounds calm as she replies to my apologetic text, assuring me that she understands and would wait for me.

I’d moved to Israel a short while ago to volunteer with an NGO in West Jerusalem that cares for adults with intellectual disabilities. Having spent the first couple of weekends exploring Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I was ready to head into the West Bank. I’d written to a few Palestinians on Facebook asking if they’d like to meet for coffee. Zahra, who lives not too far away from Nablus, had responded quickly and positively.

Nablus is a predominantly Muslim city in the northern West Bank and a major hub of commerce and culture. To get there from Jerusalem, one has to take a bus across the Qalandia checkpoint followed by another bus or shared taxi.

The Internet is rife with articles and blogposts offering advice on travelling to conflict-prone regions of the world, particularly for solo female travellers. I, for one, am not easily perturbed. After all, I’d grown up in India — deemed among the more unsafe countries in the world to be a woman — and I turned out okay, sort of.

 

The Qalandia checkpoint is one of the main checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank. The two territories, which have been embroiled in conflict since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, are divided by a separation barrier erected by Israel that runs roughly along the Green Line.

 

Presently, however, the thought of crossing the Qalandia checkpoint all alone makes my palms clammy. The sight of extremely young soldiers carrying large guns as they watch over people passing through full-height turnstiles and metal detectors is a tad disconcerting, particularly to someone who hasn’t seen many guns outside of movies. Anything could happen, the voice in the back of my head squeaks, before it is hushed.

 

Getting to Nablus involves taking an “Arab bus” from Jerusalem across the Qalandia checkpoint and then taking a bus or sherut (shared taxi) to Nablus.

 

 

I finally arrive in Nablus, over a good hour late and mortified. I notice a young, slender woman in a grey headscarf at the bus stand; I know it’s Zahra when I see her answer my call. We embrace. She’s as gracious in person as she was on the phone and puts me at ease about being late. She doesn’t speak much English and my Arabic skills are non-existent, so we communicate using simple sentences and excessive gesturing.

 

Fruit and vegetable market in Nablus.

 

 

A busy street in the city centre of Nablus.

 

 

 

Markets in the heart of the Old City.

 

 

Navigating the bustling crowds, we head into a sweet shop to eat Knafeh, a delectable cheese pastry topped with pistachios and sugar syrup that is said to have originated here. We get to talking; I learn that Zahra studied translation at the Arab American University and now teaches French in a school. It’s hard to find translation work, she says. As is the case in many Indian households, she still lives with her parents and siblings in a town nearby.

How is life in Israel? she wants to know. She has never been across the border. I’m not sure how to answer. “It’s a little more comfortable,” I manage.

Palestinians from the West Bank are required to have a permit to cross the border into Israel, where living standards and wages are substantially higher. However, permits are hard to obtain; Zahra herself has never applied for one.

Still, a large number of people from the West Bank work in Israel, primarily as unskilled labourers, while Israel benefits from the cheap labour. Each day, starting from the wee hours of the morning, checkpoints overflow with Palestinians trying to get to work on time, with lines extending into the distance.

For Israelis, entering areas in the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority — Zone A — is officially prohibited. Ironically, as a foreigner, I get to travel across the entire region of Israel and Palestine (with the exception of the Gaza Strip) without much difficulty, whereas several Israeli Jews and Palestinians have never interacted with someone from the other side.

 

Knafeh is popular across the Arab world, as well as in Turkey and some parts of Europe, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Greece.

 

As we ingest the last morsel of our Knafeh, Zahra invites me to visit her hometown and meet her family. I happily accept.

 

Zahra and her family live in Zababdeh, a small town of just over 3,000 people. It attracts students due to its proximity to the Arab American University.

 

Zababdeh can be reached by taking a sherut from Nablus to Jenin, followed by another short sherut ride into town.

 

 

Zahra’s grandmother moved to their house in Zababdeh during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when she was forced to flee her home in present-day Israel’s port city of Haifa.

 

In Zababdeh, I am welcomed wholeheartedly by Zahra’s family and stuffed with delicious homemade food. In the months that follow, I will come to recognise this as typical Palestinian hospitality. We talk about food, India, and Amitabh Bachchan, who, as it turns out, has amassed quite a fan following in Palestine.

A number of Zahra’s relatives, like many Palestinians, have migrated abroad in search of more promising futures to Germany, Canada, Russia and other countries, to study, work or settle into married life. Hordes of Palestinians, including Zahra’s grandmother, had to flee their homes in present-day Israel as a result of the ongoing conflict. While the Israeli occupation has caused prolonged political and economic instability in the Palestinian territories, the Palestinian Authority has also come under attack for rampant corruption and inefficiency within its government.

I bite into a mamul and realise how much time has passed. Zahra’s mother invites me to spend the night but, alas, I’ve got to head to work in the morning.

We say our goodbyes. Zahra and her father drop me off at the bus station in Nablus, but not before ensuring that I’d return to Jerusalem carrying plenty of fresh strawberries from the market that I’d relish for days to come.

 

A view of Jenin. The city has had a troublesome past, with the Battle of Jenin claiming several Palestinian and Israeli lives in 2002.

 

 

Across the border, life in West Jerusalem looks a lot less chaotic.

 

Sometimes the best way to get to know someone's story is to reach out and begin a conversation, even if it is by means of halting sentences. This seems all the more pertinent today, as reactionary politicians across the world espouse exclusionary ideals and keyboard warriors fill cyberspace with blind vitriol. Hating is easy and may even serve to temporarily relieve us of our insecurities. But remembering the kindness that Zahra and her family bestowed upon a complete stranger still warms my heart today.

I’ve travelled around Israel and Palestine many a time since then, often alone, meeting various people along the way. As I partook of their hospitality over cups of coffee and conversation, I only hoped that Israelis and Palestinians could someday experience this side of one another.

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