Two magnets of the Hindu gods Shiva and Ganesha stack above one another on the fridge in the apartment of a young Israeli located in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv. In the Palestinian home of three sisters in their 70s, magnets ranging from London to Sydney dot the fridge in the West Bank city of Abu Dis.
However, despite their travels to far flung destinations and the volatility of politics in Israel and the West Bank, both households cannot resist the inescapable magnetic pull of living in the Holy Land which reeled me in as well.
For the past six weeks, through a sequence of shared taxis, trains, and buses, I made my way across Israel and the West Bank on a grant from my university as an independent journalist interviewing, observing, and writing. This experience immediately followed a year spent living and studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan.
At every opportunity, Jordanians expressed a deep nostalgia for Palestine. To set foot on the land and embrace family members they left behind. While visiting the largest refugee camp in Jordan, Al Baqa’a, a large sculpture of a key stands at main street’s roundtable as a symbol of the Palestinians’ desire to return.
And while visiting Hashem, the iconic local restaurant established just shortly after Jordan’s establishment as a country, someone at the table besides us picks up on my host’s distinctive accent from Hebron. It is a commonplace conversation starter and an immediate bond.
When I traveled south to Hebron for myself, I could see the city retain its identity as a historical center of commerce. The morning sunlight cascaded over the number of stores selling handmade leather shoes, glass ceramics, textiles, and manufactured goods in the Old City.
Between Bethlehem and Hebron, a looming military watchtower marks the entrance to the Palestinian village of Beit Ummar. From the moment I arrived, each resident of Beit Ummar showed me photos and videos of a brother or cousin going to Israeli prisons. It’s nearly a rite of passage for the young men of the town.
A microcosm for the conflict over land, resources, and security unfolding in Area C, a Palestinian farmer Abed AlRahman Muhammad tells me, “When the soldiers come here we talk to them strongly even though we are scared inside.”
Next, in the city of Nablus, Palestinians with tears welling in their eyes wander into a home transformed into a shrine for a recently killed young Arab man. The walls are adorned with posters and the room decorated with memorabilia while a melancholy recording of a prayer hums in the background. For one, a martyr, and another, a terrorist. These three scenes in Hebron, Beit Ummar, and Nablus illustrate the deep divisions and animosity still present between West Bank Palestinians and Israel.
However, the coastal city of Haifa, the reality couldn’t be more different. On an early Friday morning, the downtown Saro Bakery, the oldest in Haifa, tables buzz with excitement and an eccentric mix of languages. Israeli Shoshi Diamant has worked at the bakery for more than 20 years, witnessing it change ownership from one Jewish family to the next.
“No one bothers about someone speaking any other language,” Diamant said. “This table speaks Hebrew and this table speaks Arabic. It’s not something new.”
Her eyes light up behind the colorful frames of her glasses as she emphasizes, “it’s not just sometimes, it’s on a daily basis.”
I could see it again one block up the street at the Arab owned restaurant Abu Shaker where the hummus is served fluffy, warm and slightly sweet. Israeli families devoured bowls of hummus while the Arab owners checked in to see not just how their food was, but how the customers’ children were doing as well.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that the mainstream fails to capture the contours and grooves about the very much alive and breathing human beings who compose this “conflict.” As I observe the eccentric characters and varied expressions found on Masada Street in Haifa, the neighborhood is filled with voices not just in Arabic and Hebrew, but Hindi, Turkish, Chinese, and Russian in the mix.
Finally, on one of my last days in the country, on the train returning from Akko to Haifa, an elderly Iranian-Jew captivated me with his family’s history. He recounts his memories in the Air Force during the Yom Kippur War, advocacy for the acceptance of Ethiopian Jews in greater Israeli society, and his father even having to travel to Mecca while practicing Judaism in secret.
At points, tears start to form which he quickly wipes away and continues talking. He articulately touches on the major points of historical change, the depths of human suffering, and the ability to cope. I don’t think I could have a similar conversation in any other place. And just as I prepare to leave, he shares the most delicious and simple hummus recipe— chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. I realized it was the same recipe when I asked the Palestinian grandmothers in the West Bank.
The only information I’ve found to be simple, straightforward, and agreed on thus far.