Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lessons in Jerusalem: Peace and Conflict Studies

Since we were in Jerusalem and Palestine was literally a 20 minute busride away, we decided we should make some short day trips. It’s really quite easy and common for tourists to go to Ramallah and Bethlehem, both of which we did. Bethlehem looks like a slightly cleaner, heavily-commercialized version of many other Middle East cities. The only thing we did there was go to the Nativity Church, which was built on the site where Mary gave birth. The church was beautiful, but we didn’t stay very long. After that we headed north again to Jerusalem, and then north again to Ramallah. Ramallah is considered the hip, urban center of Palestine. I don’t say that to be facetious. Travelers expecting Palestine to be a land solely of tents and sporadic infrastructure are going to be quite surprised. We went to a café called Stars and Bucks for lunch, which had a much more extensive menu than its American counterpart. After that Nur-E and Camille wanted to take a tour of Parliament. They had heard visitors could simply walk in and ask to be shown around, so we headed off in search of the building. Initially everyone we asked either seemed to be offended or didn’t know what we were talking about, but eventually we found the way.

The Parliament building is bright and clean, and amazingly there is no security. Parliament has not been active ever since Hamas took over rule in the Gaza Strip, but the government in the West Bank maintains a sort of watchdog authority, regulating the areas they can and communicating with the press. We were shown to the office of a man whose children actually go to AUC, and who was head of the Communications Department. He was incredibly nice and took an hour or so to sit down with us and explain Parliament, as well as the politics of the Security Fence, Palestinian economic problems, the various travel restrictions he faces, etc. It was all incredibly interesting. Afterwards he pointed us in the direction of a refugee camp, which we’d wanted to go see. We walked through the area, which just looked like a lot of run-down apartment buildings. We could have just been in a nicer part, but like most of the Middle East, it was not at all what I was expecting.

After we got back to Jerusalem, Kathleen, Ainsley and I went to the market (and bought cottage cheese!) then sauntered off to the Garden Tomb, which is one of the two places religious historians believe Jesus could have been entombed. The garden is really lovely, and it was so peaceful to wander through the quiet, leafy sanctuary in the middle of the city. When we were done with the garden tomb, Kathleen and I went shopping in the Jewish Quarter, and I FINALLY succeeded in finding a gift for my Dad, which was not an easy feat.

For dinner we really wanted to head back to the Thai restaurant that had closed early the day before. We got there early, but as soon as we walked through the door the man behind the counter started yelling that they were closed. He was very angry, and was yelling at us to leave without any explanation. This was not ok. I had been looking forward to actual Thai food for that whole day. I was famished, tired, and this rude man was standing in the way between me and the solution to my problem. All my small travel anxieties and frustrations came boiling to the surface, and I just started screaming back at him. Brian and I had made bets before the trip on who would be the first to legitimately lose it, and I am not proud to say it was me, but I’ll own up to the fact. We discovered at the next restaurant that the reason for an early closure was that it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the government mandated restaurants close. We didn’t understand why our hostel would not warn us about Jewish national holidays and such, but we managed to find a burger joint and some pudding, and I felt better. Aside from mean Thai restaurant owners and sporadic early closures, I must admit Jerusalem is pretty cool.