When you travel a lot, it is unfortunately all too easy to get a little blasé. Everywhere reminds you of somewhere else. You have dealt with most of the major ups and downs of travel. You have seen poverty, social injustice and begging and have developed coping strategies. You enjoy your trips but the wow factor is usually missing.
I went to Hebron last December and the veneer that travel experience has laid down was blasted off me the minute I stepped out of the taxi.
I read the papers. My life has been played out against a backdrop of ‘trouble in the Middle East’ news. I also know a bit of history and, in a general sense, understand how things have come to be as they are in that part of the world. Up until that particular moment, I had found my trip interesting, enjoyed Tel Aviv more than I expected to and remained intrigued but relatively unfazed by Jerusalem. I had visited Bethlehem earlier in the day with a companion, calmly taking a bus from East Jerusalem through the Israeli checkpoint into the West Bank and seeing a few sights under the amused aegis of an urbane Palestinian taxi driver. In the afternoon, he offered to take us to Hebron, and I said, “Yes, why not? I’m sure it’s worth seeing.”
It is worth seeing. You have to see it. Because until you see it, you cannot feel it, and I cannot explain it to you. The atmosphere in Hebron is indescribable.
I stepped out of the taxi and a bunch of about ten Palestinian children ran across the park shouting “hello, hello, hello, hello”. They were giggly and funny and slightly raggedy. One of them had a dodgy eye. A few of them spoke a bit of English. They were all bright and pleased to see us. We and the taxi driver and the children walked chattering down some alleyways then suddenly we were at a checkpoint and the children melted away.
Much of the detail of what we saw in Hebron I will have to save for a future blog post. A picture tells a thousand words, it’s true, but I don’t have many photographs. I was too busy taking it all in. Briefly, there was a deserted market street, a segregated road, a marooned shop, a strange smell and feel in the air that turned out to be the remnants of tear gas, a divided holy building, armed soldiers on the roof of a school. I have never been anywhere as beautiful and ruined and hopeful and crushed and dignified and angry and joyful and impossible.
Dusk fell. We took the taxi driver to dinner and then he drove us back to Bethlehem. A week or so later, back home, I saw on the news that a 16 year old boy had been shot dead at the checkpoint by a 19 year old female soldier. Tragedy is rolling history in Hebron. Everything about it is symbolic, but at the same time life goes on there every day. I want to be able to describe it to you, but I’d rather you saw it for yourself.