Reflections on the Road: Travels in Palestine

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on January 16, 2008 0 Comments







In the spirit of the “Excerpts from a Manuscript” posts I did almost three months ago, which looked at Asia, I thought I’d do a series of one or two posts about my experiences in Palestine.  Of the many times I’ve been to the region, the longest stint was in 2003, when for five months I volunteered and worked with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Group in Palestine and Israel (  These stories are excerpted from unpublished writing I did during that time.  For good or bad, experiences in some places cannot be conveyed without sharing stories which carry political overtones.  I suspect some readers will be bothered that these excerpts all come from Palestine rather than Israel, and that they do not attempt to explain an Israeli narrative.  That is a fair concern.  In response, I’ll just say that these articles were never intended to give a balanced look at both people.  Rather, they were written to describe what it is like to live in the towns and villages of one of these peoples, to travel on their roads and to experience their lives.  There is no substitute for actually being there; perhaps, however, these excerpts will pull back the curtain just a bit, revealing a place where beauty and brokenness dwell side by side.



Creation must have been groaning like a sick child today.  At least this is what the ears of faith might have heard, carefully attuned to the disparity between how things are and the way things were meant to be.  In any case, I know I was groaning and could see through the eyes of thousands of others that I was not alone.  Our groaning was silently done as other more audible sounds filled the air.

In the city the roar of high-flying jets and the occasional crackle of not-so-distant gunfire twisted its way into the ears of Palestinians determined to go about life.  Children went to school.  Mothers changed diapers.  Farmers sold fruit.  Falafel shops sold food to hungry men on their way to pay the electric bill or get a watch fixed.  A music shop belted out the latest from a Lebanese diva as a teenager entered to browse the selection.  The day was warm, drawing a few children with a shekel in hand to a freezer with ice cream.  The wrappers torn away and the ice cream quickly spread over their young faces, they seemed happy.  And the bullets crackled nearby.

Meanwhile on the edges of town, the rumbling of Israeli tanks mastering the good roads and the thud of Palestinian cars falling into the troughs of the bad echoed through the fields and off the dust-covered olive trees.  Cautiously, nervously, somberly Palestinian drivers lumbered forward.   Once their careful gazing of the small horizon revealed a tank or jeep sitting firmly and threateningly on the path ahead, grinding gears signalled to passengers that they would back up and put hope on another road.  It is not easy to helplessly watch tons of man-made steel cut excitedly across blossoming fields to toy with mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, sending these already weary citizens back to find another route and stew in a pile of painful emotions for yet another day.   Motorized masses of armor kick up rocks and dust which eventually settle.  If only the hearts and minds of the families they also heavily trod upon could relax with a similar ease and innocence.

– From “Learning to Sing in a World that Groans,” 8 April 2003


A backroad on the edge of Jenin, which we were taking in an attempt to avoid Israeli tanks.  This particular day I was traveling with Magdi, a Palestinian physical therapist who was trying to get to a village 8km away, where he made regualar visits to two families who had children with cerebral palsy.  On some days, when the Israeli military blocked all the roads, such visits had to be cancelled.  But even on days such as this, visits carried a degree of risk.





Never in my life had I seen an adult begin to hyperventilate because of fear, but a day in Palestine always brings new experiences.  Sitting beside the driver, I turned to the backseat to see 20-year-old Said shaking.  His chest heaved frantically for air.  His face was twisted with anxiety and every few seconds his shaking turned into a single, uncontrollable jolt.  It reminded me of a man in an electric chair, first waiting and then receiving that awful electric burst.  None of the other six passengers made a move to comfort him.  How could they?  Faces were frozen.  Hearts pounded.  Hands gripped door handles or knees.  One person turned this way and that, eyes scouring the landscape to find that which would surely be upon us in the coming seconds.

No, there was no comforting going on right now.  We all knew death might be hurled into us at any moment.  Some faces froze as if anticipating eternal stillness.  Hearts beat wildly as if they might never have the chance to do so again.  Adrenaline flowed.

A mere 15 seconds earlier I had been standing outside the parked taxi, a bright yellow dot surrounded by the endless green grass covering these massive hills of ancient Samaria.  The spring morning was wonderfully fresh and warm.  I was returning from an overnight trip to Nablus, a city infamous for the harsh measures Israel has taken to cut it off from the rest of the region.  Tomorrow would be the one year anniversary of my only other visit to Nablus.

I recalled how a year ago I shared a taxi with a young couple also heading to the city.  She vomited because of the poor road we were forced to use, our taxi coming ever so close to cliff-edges and making slow turns that not all before us had made, judging by the carcass of one taxi that seemed to have slid off the sloping curve.  Eventually we reached the end of the road, or at least the end of the passable portion.  Because the Israeli military had taken a backhoe to sections of the road in order to prevent its full use by Palestinians, we had no choice but to exit the taxi and continue 45 minutes on foot till we had passed all the humiliating, manmade ditches.  We passed a stream of people, including pregnant women, elderly men, a family on the way to a hospital.  Once across we caught another taxi and made it to Nablus.

– From “Five Minutes One April Morning,” 29 April 2003



In the springtime, the hills around Nablus are breathtakingly beautiful.  A few minutes after taking this picture I was at the yellow taxis you see in the picture.  A few minutes after that is when we all heard a tank approaching to enforce the closure of this road, and Said began his violent shaking.  You’ll notice the mound of dirt in the left of the picture, marking the spot where an Israeli backhoe dug up the road to prevent Palestinians from using it.  For a close-up photo of the mound, click HERE.





It was not even 8 o’clock, and yet for the old lady walking past me this new day was already difficult enough that she was barely holding back the tears.  Dressed in traditional Palestinian embroidered dress and raising hands and voice toward the sky, she muttered words of frustration — and pain.  She looked defeated, having lost a game she never wanted to play.  It was May 9 and we were at the Bethlehem checkpoint heading to Jerusalem.

            The woman must have been in her eighties.  The border policeman who turned her away was maybe twenty.  If one looks at age, the woman was clearly his elder.  If one looks at power, the woman barely existed.  Jerusalem, four miles away and historically an integral part of the lives of Bethlehem’s citizens, is off-limits to most Palestinians.  Rarely, if ever, have they been so separated from this city they love.

            Having turned the woman away, the border policeman cast a glance to the waiting line and called me forward.  I handed him my passport and he lazily flipped through it, never focusing on any one page.  Within seconds he handed it back and I was off for Jerusalem.  As I walked away from the checkpoint I saw the old lady down in a gully.  She had climbed down into it and was now emerging on the other side.  Soon she would be in Jerusalem as well.  The border policemen saw her making this detour around the backside of the checkpoint, but no one stopped her.  So why turn her away in the first place, I wondered? How was the woman to interpret the meaning of the checkpoint and the motives of the people who run it?  Was it there simply to keep an old lady from taking the easy route?

            To add to the frustration of it all I realized that many of the border policemen here this morning were immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  This is difficult for both Palestinian natives and observant foreigners alike:  to watch people who have lived here for often less than a decade wield abusive power over those whose families have often been here for centuries.

– From “Checkpoints: Pillars of an Occupation,” 9 May 2003




I don’t have a picture of the woman, but this is another scene at the Bethlehem checkpoint, not at all uncommon during my visits in 2003.  Men who had either been caught trying to go around the checkpoint or who had simply been detained while trying to cross at the checkpoint would sometimes be put up against this wall, sometimes for hours.  Once, when a group had been standing so long that the shade from a tree had moved enough that it began to shade them, the soldiers ordered them to move out of the shade and back into the summer sun.  (As of 2004, going around the checkpoint is impossible now that a 24-foot-high wall separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem is in place.)





The sun set this evening, as it always does.  I sat on my patio on the Mt. of Olives and felt the wind against my skin.  I wished it could somehow blow into my spirit as well, for the space there spent the day once again desperate for air and new life.  It is ironic how a thin man can feel so heavy.  As the last orange slice of sun slid beneath the horizon, first one and then dozens of calls to prayer moaned and coaxed men of faith and discipline to their knees.  I looked straight up and stared at the empty, fading blue of the sky.  Soon darkness would pull the curtain back and reveal the mind-boggling expanse of stars and space.  Our souls, too, are that unfathomable.  The call to prayer drifted deep into my being, reaching parts of me I have known but then going further to places I have not yet discovered or named, reminding me of the mystery that we are even to ourselves.

– From “Living With Beauty and Horror,” 29 July 2003 (written after spending a day with a Jewish rabbi, visiting scared Palestinian families whose homes were about to be demolished)




If interested in reading “Five Minutes One April Morning” in its entirety, you can find it HERE.

There are programs and tours available for people interested in visiting the region.  With Middle East Fellowship, for example, you live with a Palestinian family, learn a bit of Arabic, and volunteer in the community doing something you’re good at and enjoy (sports, teaching, health care, media, etc).  The Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation is another program, geared more toward Christians, which introduces visitors to the region.  Both of these programs can arrange visits of a few days or a few months, and they are directed by people who know how to look after your safety (i.e., you won’t be sitting in a car with hyperventilating people, unless you wish to seek out such experiences, as I did).



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Joel Carillet, Gather Travel Correspondent

Joel’s column, “Reflections on the Road,” is published every other Thursday to Gather Essentials: Travel.

His articles, based on extensive travels in Asia and the Middle East, seek to shed light on humanity, both our own and that of others.   They aim not merely to entertain and inform but also to develop a sense of connection between the reader and the world.

Joel’s writing and photography have appeared in several magazines and newspapers, including the Kansas City Star and Christian Science Monitor.  Currently he is seeking an agent for a book manuscript entitled Sixty-One Weeks: A Journey across Asia.

When not on the road, he happily calls Tennessee home.

Keep up with Joel’s article series by joining his network, or subscribing to his content.

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About the Author ()

I'm a freelance photographer and writer who focuses on travel. I sell my work on istockphoto -- -- and have published a book called 30 REASONS TO TRAVEL: PHOTOGRAPHS AND REFLECTIONS FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA

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