Palestine is not usually what comes to most tourists’ minds when planning a vacation. I thought about visiting the West Bank while traveling in Jerusalem but I was advised by the U.S. government, friends, and Israelis to not “risk” crossing the Separation Wall as western media outlets tend to portray Palestine as a conflict ridden zone filled with terrorists that hate Israelis and Americans.
Despite all the warnings, I chose to go to Ramallah, the unofficial capital and headquarters of the Palestinian Authority- the current governing body of the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Out of paranoid ignorance, I created a Canadian accent-ed alter-ego of myself and went to the East Jerusalem Bus Station located next to Damascus Gate in Old City Jerusalem and hopped onto Bus #18 that goes to Ramallah. The 40 minute ride from Jerusalem to Ramallah was like crossing over into another world.
Once in Ramallah, I hopped off the bus and spent the next two hours trying to find Area D Hostel. Before I got any opportunities to let my Canadian alter-ego-self ask for directions, I was approached by friendly locals who guessed that I was from America and offered to help me find where I needed to go. After some confusion and running around, I was able to make it into the hostel.
Ramallah is often described as the “cultural center” of the West Bank. The city is filled with shopping malls, proud displays of Palestinian nationalism, and a lot of unfinished construction projects.
Some cool places that I had the opportunity to checkout in Ramallah are the Headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and the Tomb of the former Palestinian Liberation Organization Leader Yasser Arafat.
Other places worth visiting are the “hisbah” markets in the center of the city, the shawarma joints, and cafés where you can enjoy Palestinian food and smoke shisha. Or if you are feeling a little homesick and would like more traditional American cuisine options Ramallah has a KFC and Pizza Hut as dining options.
Ramallah is the most liberal Palestinian city and alcohol isn’t too hard to come by. Even though I didn’t have time to experience it, Ramallah has a good nightlife scene with many different bars and dance clubs to choose from for a night out in the city.
Just outside of Ramallah there is an ancient Christian village called Taybeh. Taybeh is the site of Palestine’s only Brewery- Taybeh Brewing Company. The Brewery has been hosting a Palestinian version of Oktoberfest every year since 2005 (except 2014 out of respect for war victims). Here, visitors can visit the brewery and taste the various flavors of Taybeh beer then afterwards go exploring at the ancient ruins of St. George Greek Orthodox Church.
I also went on a day trip to Nablus, the third largest city in the West Bank with a French volunteer who I met at Area D Hostel. The ride from Ramallah lasted about an hour and a half and during the journey we passed by heavily guarded Jewish settlements and many IDF checkpoints without any problems.
On this trip I learned a very important lesson about conservative Palestinian culture- the hard way. On this day, I decided to wear shorts and when I got off the bus in Nablus I noticed that something was off- everyone was giving me odd looks and laughing. At first I thought it was because the locals weren’t used to seeing tourists but then I realized they were laughing at my shorts. Men, children, and burqa veiled women burst out laughing when I walked by- for almost 2 hours I was the laughing stock of the entire city. After first trying to laugh off my “dumb tourist mistake”, I began to freak out and ran through Nablus’ seemingly endless outdoor markets to buy a pair of decent pants. Apparently, in conservative Middle Eastern societies only little boys wear shorts- not grown men. After changing into my new pants, the people of Nablus treated me much differently. Instead of snickers and jeers the locals were again shaking my hand and insisting that I take pictures with decapitated cow heads.
Nablus is a great city to visit to see Palestinian culture. There are very few tourists there and throughout the city there are large murals of alleged martyrs and street art protesting the Israeli occupation. Nablus has many things to see and visit like Mt. Gerizim which is the site of the world’s only Samaritan community called Kiryat Luza. Other places to see in Nablus include ancient Roman ruins, the local Turkish bathhouses, and the many malls, shops, and restaurants that fill the city center.
I made the decision to visit the West Bank on a whim and my visit there ended up being one of the most memorable trips of my life. Life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is extremely hard for Palestinians who live under a regime that sees each and everyone of them as a potential terrorist threat. There are over 760,000 refugees in the West Bank and the economy is in desperate need of money that can come from tourism. I unfortunately didn’t get to see all that the West Bank and Palestine have to offer. But when I return, other sites that I plan on visiting include Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and the Dead Sea!