The Enchanting Ride from Amman to East Jerusalem

Trip Start Jun 05, 2008
Trip End Jun 30, 2008

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Flag of Palestinian Territory  , West Bank,
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I had read as much as I could about the journey across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank of Palestine, but nothing could have prepared me for the real thing.  The simple fact is that the Israelis blew up all the bridges over the Jordan River after the 1967 war, and this one was the only one that they rebuilt into Palestine.  The ride downhill from Amman is one that every bicyclist should consider because you eventually wind up in Jerico, which is just about the lowest place on Earth.  Once in Jerico you can visit the old city or push on to Jerusalem.   A community Sheroot [?] is a cab for about 15 people.  It costs about 20 Shekels, but if you are short a rider, each person on board has to kick in so that the driver isn't short a fare.  It takes about an hour to get to E. Jerusalem, but the ride is breath-taking and seems to go by in a flash.

Once at your destination, your senses are overwhelmed by the smells, noise, heat and raw humanity of the place.  Just slow down, live life at the pace provided and don't try to get by at what you think the pace should be.  Settle in and enjoy the 'joie de vivre' of this place that is like no other on earth.  Spend a couple of days on the West Bank side, imagine that you are one of the locals that can't go to the Old City of Jerusalem.  The Palestinian side has a lot to offer; a Christian Pork Shop, the Nativity Church, Jewish merchants.  Visit the refugee camps.

I was lucky enough to have had friends to stay with on the West Bank.  One of the first things to remember is that they all live in an Occupied Territory.  It has been like this since 1967, the year I graduated high school, I will go back this summer 2009 for another visit, now that I have retired.  Perhaps some day Palestine will be an independent country, the present administration in DC promises the best chance of this.

The people of the West Bank are among the friendliest that I have met.  First in Arab culture is hospitality for travelers, and this means eating.  Eating means a "Manzif" which is a Bedu feast of rice, lamb and yogurt, all eaten with the hands.  Do not think about dieting, its best not to eat at all the day you are going to have a Manzif, especially if you know that it is coming.  [I had two one day and could not hardly walk after the second one]

Everywhere you go the smiles are wide and the people eager to meet you.  The more Arabic you speak the better, anything actually, just so they know you have tried to learn.  Many speak English, its is surprising really, but it seems that English has become the de facto second language in many places in the world.

Nothing prepares you for the reality that East Jerusalem is an awful like East Berlin, a generation ago.  There is a wall, and he people on one side are a world away from the people on the other.  Before going to this part of the world I got a copy of Frommer's travel guide, and I am never going to buy another. It dismisses the Occupied Territories as dangerous and simply says not to go there.  It written by a guy who lives in Israel and who probably is barred from the West Bank.  It is simply dismissive to the point ob being haughty.  Next time I will try Lonely Planet, a much more honest and forthright publication.

My first trip was to Nablus, only a few miles on the map, but hours and hours in a car.  My host's daughter was getting married, so we packed thirty or so men, women and children into three cars and a rented diesel bus.  We took a winding road around Jerusalem and thru a checkpoint named "checkpoint".  A fairly uninteresting affair, but another reminder that while the US has said this should be a soverign nation, the Israel's have their boot on the throat of the residents here.  A couple of hours into the trip we stop at a small village just south of Nablus that is famous for its sweets.  Tea, Coke and a panoply of homemade pastry that would make a Frenchman blush.  It has been four days since I left the US, so I figured it was time to call home and let my wife know I had arrived safely.  It was no mean feat to make my cell phone operational at $3/min. so I used it sparingly.  I had made a connection for only a few seconds and a string of firecrackers went off at a nearby wedding reception.  "just a little M16 fire" I told my wife, who was wholly unamused.  [One thing about the middle east; it really is not dangerous.  They need out tourist dollars and they do everything to get them by making us happy.] 

An Arab wedding is a thing to behold, huge numbers of family members and friends attend and the men stay in one room and the women in another.  The men sit around smoking and looking dour, the women sing, dance and have a blast.  Try as I might, I could not penetrate their quarters.  After several hours at the reception at a hilltop hotel in Nablus, we headed back to Bethlehem.  At the road block south of Nablus we had to leave our vehicles, go thur military security, and then find a cab to the reception hall.  After the festivities we started off for home.  Unfortunatly the checkpoint, while still manned by soldiers, was closed.  It was midnight and thirty off us could not get to our cars and the bus.  Half a dozen Israelis manned the checkpoint and had the green lights turned off.  Some of the men tried to bully the soldiers, who probably did not speak much Arabic, without any success.  As some one who has made a living by arguing, cajoling and persuading others, I struck up a conversation with the one soldier that was also an American.  He was from New Jersey, and having recently immigrated to Israel, he was eager to speak to someone from home.  After ten minutes or so I persuaded him that I really did come this far to go to the wedding of the daugher of a friend, so he let me go.  With that, it would have been impolite to refuse my friends.  After we were thru the barricade the women started to sing an impromptu balad.  It went something like; "they put us in an iron cage, Abdullah set us free".  It was my favorite part of my trip!  I felt like Lawrence of Arabia.

The next day Isa Musa went to the Old City by himself to pray.  I went to court!  My host's father had a dispute about a parcel of land in Bethlehem and so we were off to the Palestinian Authority court of general jurisdiction.  Both criminal and civil matters were being heard that day.  The new judge was Fatah and had replaced the older, wiser Hammas judge.  I made no further inquiries about that as it is a sensitive subject, and was just a visitor.  The court was crowded wtih all sorts of people whose only common characteristic was that they all loved to smoke.  Cigarettes were sold in foyer of the court, matches were everywhere, and the unairconditioned halls of justice were choaked with thick, stale smoke.

I waited around all day, only to find that the judge wanted to have the matter continued until live witnesses could be called, a common stall by judges in America to avoid deciding tricky matters.  While visiting the court house, word spread that I was an American lawyer.  Though my Arabic was not up to the task, I was approached by many with problems that Solomon himself would puzzle upon.  A woman had been convicted of assaulting her neighbor had been sentenced to three days in jail, but since there were no facilities for female prisoners, her husband had to serve the time in her place.  She was beside herself as her husband would beat her when he got out, and she needed my help. [I had no idea what to do]  Another fellow has cashed a check for an Israeli that bounced.  He wanted justice, but could not go to Israel to file a claim against him, and the PA court had no jurisdiction over an Israeli under the Oslo accords.  [I had no idea what to do for him either]  When the day was done, I was known to everyone at the court house.  The prosecutor came out and introduced himself to me.  He could speak English so we had a nice little chat about jurisprudence, which was not so different to that in the States.  I asked him about land disputes; what happens if you decide a case and award a parcel of land to A and not to B, then the Israelis come and build a settlement on it, can you order them off?  They have tanks he said, and followed it with, 'now you know what it is like to be a Palestinian.'

The next day we were off to Hebron.  Our trip took us to the south and to a lovely village just north of the city.  We arrived at dusk, only about 4 hours late, but that was expected.  We were given a tour of the small farm of the owner, and then treated to a traditional Arab meal for guests.  The lamb was selected and the process begun.  We sat around for hours while the meat was cooked, the bread baked and the friendships made and renewed.  I tried my best to understand, but alas, my Arabic was lacking.  My host, who was fluent in English translated for me, and I tried to understand what I could.  The real blessing was in the way they all accepted me and welcomed me into their home.  This was true where ever I went.  After we ate our fill, we started our return trip back to Bethlehem.  Unfortunately, we heard that the military had closed the road, so we prepared to spend the night.  This is not uncommon on the West Bank, so there is always plenty of bedding for guests.  A truly rewarding experience to bed down with my new friends.  The comaraderie was outstanding and not to be forgotton. 

The next day we stopped in Hasan, a small village just east of the 'Green Line', which originally divided Israel from the rest of the West Bank, then Jordan, just after statehood.  The roads were ghastly, so we cold only go 10-15 Km per hour, for fear of breaking an axel.  Everyone here owns their own house free and clear, if at all.  There is no such thing as a mortgage or a foreclosure.  You get a piece of land, when you can afford some bricks and morter you start buliding.  No house seems ever to be finished, as you can build up as many stories as you can afford.  If you live long enough you can have a 5 or 6 story house.  More room for family, friends, renters, or whatever.  Houses here are build to last; no 2x4's and wallboard!  The walls are usually foot thick Jerusalem stone!  After all the quarries are just around the corner and the building materials are cheap enough.

[at this point I must confess that I do not understand this software and can not get the pictures to go with the words! sorry, try to use your imagination a bit]

Jerusalem, was my final stop on my trip.  The crossing thru the wall was uneventful, and there were plenty of taxis on both sides.  There are buses but that requires a knowledge of the schedules or the ability to read Hebrew/Arabic.  While Jerusalem is a large, sprawling city, it is the old part of the city that attracts the throngs.  You should spend a full day there, at minimum.  While a guide would be nice, the locals are eager to explain the sights.  The catacombs near the Dome of the Rock are cool and provide refuge from the son.  The man standing sentry was eager to explain the genesis of the place to us.  He even invited us to his home for tea and a meal when we finished. 

There are restrictions on the Jewish and Muslim sites at various times of the week, but the Christian sites are open to all, subject to availability.  On Sunday the Nativity Church was jammed, however.  The 'Wailing Wall' was off limits the day I was there, Shabat, but is open to all faiths at other times.  I had to recite so much of the Qur'an as was easy for me to gain access to the Haram on Saturday, but this too is open on other days, or so I am told.

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hajjabdullah on

does anyone look at this stuff?

geof giles on

apparently not

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