I couched surfed in Hebron, in an apartment above a falafel shop in the New City.
It was in Hebron, the city in the south of The West Bank, Palestine, that the contents of my chest got ripped violently apart and utter confusion leaked in.
Couch surfing in a conflict zone is a good idea. Especially when your host is called Mo and the walls of his apartment are plastered with penciled artwork from everyone he has ever hosted. Especially if you want to try and grasp what it is to be a young person, just like yourself but with a bigger beard, living within the boundaries of occupation.
Mo took us to a hill to watch the sunset. It was a long walk up a highway, and as we clambered along a low wall and sat to stare at the west, it was almost eerie seeing the sun set the sky on fire as the lights of Tel Aviv, Israel, glint in the distance. We looked over farmlands, and could see Israeli settlements encroaching on the heart of the torn city – behind us on a tower stood two young soldiers, 18-year-olds with guns silhouetted against the diminishing light.
Mo told us that during the Intifadas – the times of active conflict – it was possible to sit on the hill and see the missiles passing from Tel Aviv to Gaza and back again. To watch war like a spectator sport. We met a farmer who gave us some bitter fruit and took us to his house to meet his mother and brothers. We sat in the darkness and ate pastries while they told us a broken version of their family story, his mother stern with her noisy grandkids.
Eventually Mo urged us to leave, it was a long walk back and being a young man at night walking the streets was a little to risky to deal with. That night we blasted repetitive deep techno and smoked shisha until my eyes were almost glazed over completely. Then Janna - my Danish biochemist friend, Mo and I slept in the same bed, freestyle rapping until Mo had to get up and go to his hospital accounting job.
It all seemed so normal.
We walked to the old city the next day, getting stopped constantly on the way by people wanting to tell their story. So often it was exhausting - shopkeepers using the war as a marketing tactic, young guys as an excuse to talk to foreign girls and everyone else bursting at the seams with tragedy. It was such a strange amalgamation of things. We met a young guy in the street who worked in tourism. He was soft spoken and gentle in the way he explained what was going on.
“Let me show you something,” he said, taking us to a building on the boundary between Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories.
On the first floor a man told us about the time he has been shot at during the Intifada when he left his house after curfew to get supplies. The bullet had hit him almost in the heart and now he had serious health problems. His wife sat silently at her sewing machine while we listened to him, the house was dim, adorned with small, embroidered items for sale. It was awkward. The window behind us was blocked off, the settlement bordering their house.
Their son brought us tea, his eyes red around the edges. He was slightly blind, chloride thrown through the rooftop caging by settlers leering at the kids playing below. We didn’t know whether to give them money, or what the protocol was, they gave us red gold necklaces as gifts and we moved to the next story up.
A quiet lady, thin and much too young looking for the 10 knee-high daughters surrounding her, greeted us at the door. We went upstairs to the rooftop and watched Jewish kids playing basketball below. They didn’t look up, soldiers across the roof watched us, everyone silent - everyone face to face, no one saying a word. It was unnerving.
Hebron is complex, to say the least.
It is divided into parts, broadly ‘The Old City’ and ‘The New City.’ On the boundary stands a building housing the tomb of Abraham, the bible figure at the heart of the religions we know as Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This building was formerly a mosque, but after an attack by a Jewish settler in 1994, which killed 29 Palestinians, it was divided in two – half mosque half synagogue. People worshipping side by side, a checkpoint outside the door, kids with guns staring bored as the faithful pass by.
The Old City, formerly the centre of Hebron, stands abandoned. Beige stone houses stacked against each other, glassless windows looking out at the empty streets like vacant eye sockets. It now belongs to Israel; a high tech community with more soldier protection than citizens, built in close proximity. The New City is a bustling metropolis scented with cardamom and sewage, fruit and falafel and noisy taxi drivers. It was in the New City that we met Shariva and Shawalsa – two sisters 48 and 38 respectively, both twice divorced and sharing their house with their elderly father.
We went to their place for dinner, a small unit with a downstairs they were doing up to put on Airbnb. Their dad had throat cancer, a hole cut in the front of his neck, smoking a cigarette and breathing the fumes out the round gap. We compared love stories with the sisters, girl talk that spans continents, ages and religions, “I found love once,” Shawalsa said dreamily. “And then I lost it” she barked, telling us of her adventures of chasing a man to Jordan to promptly be sent back to Palestine.
It turns out being one of multiple wives is as any girl can expect “you support each other and you get along, but women are women,” Shariva explained, right before proudly announcing herself as the only female travel and tourism expert in all of Hebron.
We left and went to a bar, with a young guy called Muhanned. He was articulate and good looking, ordering us lemonades and lighting up a shisha. He told us about his recent trip to Denmark, and his job as a sport presenter on the local TV channel.
“We don’t hate the Israelis,” he said.
“We don’t even hate Israel or the government. All we want is for them to stop the occupation.”
Mo said the same. In fact, everyone I spoke to said the same, even the fiery young English teacher who launched out of a mosque to intercept our walk and talk to us as she directed us through the city. She wore high heels and a headscarf. She doesn’t hate Israel; she just wants to live a normal life as a 26-year-old. No one condones the violence, and this, it seems, is where the confusion lies.
I left Palestine to go back to Israel. Walked through the checkpoints, got on a settlers bus and was back in Tel Aviv before the sun went down. I went north to stay in a cave on the shores of the Med with a young guy called Moshe. His father had sat on the beach in 1976 and decided to build a cave in the cliff, and has been creating the elaborate network of tunnels and rooms, decadent and detailed, ever since. Moshe and I stand up paddle boarded, and drank beers in the sunset. How could I put together that conflict with these people?
The thing about all of this is that everyone just seems tired. The young Israeli soldiers don’t want to stand at check points in uniform while everyone else their age in the world is booking one way tickets to paradise. The Palestinians don’t want to empty their pockets every time they enter a mosque, or hurry home after dark to avoid appearing like a threat. None of them want to raise their kids wondering if they’ll get stabbed in a shopping centre or get acid thrown in their eyes.
But, to say ‘stop the occupation’ is not as simple as that. Israel, although a controversial country, is home. Home to the people once rendered landless, home to everyone that was born there. As a White Australian, it is possible to understand, that if someone were to now tell us to leave, where on earth would we go? Australia is home, as is Israel. This includes the settlements, as they have now been there long enough that it is multigenerational. If they were to be kicked out, where would they go? The same goes for Palestine, this land is home.
So why not just hand back determining power to Palestine? As it stands Palestine has no stable government, the biggest reference to a governing party is Hamaas – the group considered responsible for the Gaza violence, for the terrorist attacks in Israel. But then again, are these terrorist attacks not just retaliation to the suppression of Palestine under Israeli rule? After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter right? Amongst all this are propaganda, media obscurity, government suppression and the most potent of all – religion.
The heartbreak however, lies in the absurdity of it all. I considered this as I sat in a nook in the afternoon sun in the cave in Israel. Moshe laughed as he tried to hook me up a footrest. I considered that he and Mo would get along really well. In fact, all of the generous welcoming Israeli’s I met would get along with the generous welcoming Palestinians I had met as well. Which, in the mind of someone who has never known conflict, this is miserable reality, because no matter which way you look at it, the people on both sides, are exactly, the fucking same.
I left Israel and went back to Egypt. I rode a horse called Sanoud in the Sahara Desert, the Pyramids of Giza visible above the golden arches of McDonalds on the outskirts of Cairo. The Sahara is full of rubbish, as is the Nile. It’s smoggy and brown and it made me think that the ancient Egyptians probably should have come up with a waste disposal system instead of the pyramids.
I booked a flight back to paradise. After all this, I needed a holiday.