Promised lands: six days in Israel and Palestine

Country in focus
Team stories

Louise Smith

22 March 2018

Louise Smith, our resident editor, travelled to Israel and Palestine with two LQ colleagues: Amanda Manuel, based in Mumbai and Natasha Parekh, based in Singapore. It was their first trip to the region. The brief was to spend a week checking out interesting local leaders ahead of our Middle East Open Quest in June 2018. This is Louise’s personal account.

3 am, touchdown in Tel Aviv. There’s clapping from the Orthodox passengers on board. Two hours later, we’re in Jerusalem. Sodium lighting on cobbled stones; our cases bump along behind us. Exhaustion.

Day one: Jerusalem. The Old City. Everything feels expansive and microscopic at the same time. We make our way through the alleyways in each quarter: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. The whole area feels electric, but it isn’t threatening; it’s alive. We dodge bicycles speeding around corners, and Orthodox Jews striding along with their young sons. We arrive at the Western Wall (female section), where phones must be turned off. A woman whose appearance screams ‘I’m a tourist’ waves a giant iPad around, filming. We’re surrounded by worshippers wearing headscarves and shiny Doc Martens. Old ladies with giant handbags shuffle in trainers. Two babies in bonnets are propped on a picnic chair. Tiny birds fly in and out of the Wall, nesting in its interior.

At the edge of the Muslim quarter we wind our way past market stalls and glimpse the Al-Aqsa mosque through an ancient stone arch and its massive gates. Three soldiers with machine guns watch us. Our guide asks if we can go a little closer. Permission is given and for a moment we stand and look at the historic golden dome. Non-Muslims can go no further. If in doubt, the soldiers will ask us to quote from the Koran. If we cross the line, they’ll take aim. There’s a kind of languid tension in the air. As we leave, we look up and see a shopkeeper’s merchandise – fluorescent kiddie tractors – suspended from the historic vaulted ceiling. As the light fades, we buy some ‘holy oil’ and haggle with an overbearing shopkeeper. He’s annoyed, but closes with ‘bysie bye’.

Day two: Ramallah, West Bank. Masoud, our driver, is late, but triumphantly announces “on time”. We’re off to Ramallah, passing long stretches of Israel’s Separation Barrier under blue sky, and the occasional roadside vegetable seller. Two shirtless men on horseback weave through the traffic. Red road signs warn Israelis: ‘It is forbidden to enter. It is dangerous to your lives.’ We drive through a checkpoint, where the guard gives a cursory glance at our passports, and the phone signal falls away, muting our satnav. From now on Masoud will rely on directions from strangers, who come to our aid every time he winds down his window. In a cool new café we meet Christina, born in Palestine and educated in the US, who’s launched a lingerie website for Muslims. It’s a big deal in this conservative society. There are restrictions on free movement of goods into the West Bank, so she keeps her stock in Riyadh and sources orders from there. Many of her customers are men, buying for their wives. Her bestseller is a plus-size one-piece.

Next we meet Laila, born in Houston, resident in Palestine, whose risk-alert phone app logs threats for people travelling in MENA countries. Everything – from stone-throwing to localised power cuts – is instantly tagged. She’s called her company RedCrow because, although she doesn’t actually like crows, their intelligence is superior. She nods politely as I describe the pet crow that waddles alongside me while I feed it in Richmond Park. I go further and recommend a book ABOUT crows. My colleagues make tsk tsk noises.

Later in the evening, we have supper at the American Colony Hotel, home to writers and diplomats over the decades. Its rooms have a tranquil 1950s feel. There’s a lobby cat and we try to take pictures of his stripy body against the ochre tiles. Amanda finally strangles him into submission and we get the shot.

Day three: Jerusalem. Yad Vashem [Holocaust Remembrance Centre]. On arrival, the coat check man asks Amanda (clearly Indian) and me (clearly white) if we’re sisters. He shows us photos of his three wives, whom he refers to as woman 1, woman 2 and woman 3. Back in the main atrium, our elderly guide tells us about the miracle of Israel. She is wearing a turquoise beret and a Disney Ratatouille lapel pin. I’m dreading the answer, but I ask her how the centre is personally relevant to her. She tells us of the relatives she lost to Auschwitz, and adds that the white-haired lady on the front desk survived when neighbours hid her from the Nazis in Paris. I’ve never met anyone with this connection to the Holocaust and feel suddenly overwhelmed, but concentrate hard to stop myself crying. I shake her hand, but soon branch off on my own, following the winding path of the exhibits until I can’t bear it any longer. Yad Vashem’s architect, Moshe Safdie, has routed the exit doors onto a perfect, prismatic view of Jerusalem in the distance. The land of Israel. It pulls you up short. It’s brilliant. In the museum bookshop, a visitor in his forties, smart overcoat hunched about his shoulders, is crying. The lady on the till tells him to take his time. My sorrow is continually before me. Psalm 38.

Day four: Ramallah. Natasha and I travel for hours with Masoud, who deposits us at “the best sweet shop in Ramallah”. We buy exquisite pistachio pastries and ask to take the owners’ photo. No. Then yes. The lady sits with her husband and his friend, both of whom travel in Europe for business. “We have been to Madame Tussaud’s TWICE”, they tell us. Natasha, whose origins seem to fascinate the locals, answers a ton of questions about India, and as we pile back into the car, the trio sends out another plate of goodies. While my colleagues plan logistics, I walk around the back streets of Ramallah and find myself outside the Quartet offices. It’s deserted, a warm breeze is blowing the dust around; a mother and child watch me from a garden. I see a woman exit a tiny grocery shop with a loaf of bread. A stray tabby winds itself around her ankles. She breaks off some bread and gives it to the cat, then walks on.

Later in the afternoon we get stuck in the Thursday rush hour. We inch along, as Ramallah turns out for weekend shopping at fruit stalls, hardware stores, bakeries, barbers, salons. It’s a massive, exhilarating crush. Taxis are everywhere, driven by septuagenarians. Then we exit the high street and suddenly we’re the only car bombing along the road. We watch the sun set between four-storey apartment buildings, rooftop water tanks silhouetted against the dusky blue.

Day five: Tel Aviv and Akko. We start to absorb the different energy of Tel Aviv. It feels like a pressure drop – magnetic, but minus the modulated tension of the Holy City or the West Bank. We breakfast opposite a dog park and watch a keep-fit group of portly middle-aged ladies bicycle their legs in the air. There are dogs everywhere. All sizes, all breeds (unlike Jerusalem which, curiously, has almost none). They even allow them into the shopping malls here. God, I love this place. Late morning, we drive for hours to Akko in the north, to visit an Israeli NGO bus kitted out as a school lab, and meet Arab kids who are being taught to use computers. The second we arrive, they throw their arms around us. “Come back on Monday”, they shout as we leave. We back away into the twilight, watching them wave goodbye, outlined against the neon light of the interior.

Day six: Tel Aviv. I have an hour to spare so I take in the Bauhaus buildings and think about the history in the street names: Allenby, Rothschild, Rabin. Later that night, we lift off from the airport, on our way home. Amanda to Mumbai, Natasha (two marriage proposals heavier) to Singapore, me to London. Beneath us lie the lights of the capital city: symbol of modernity, retrospection, existence, survival. I feel the magical pull of the region. The noise, the silence, the generosity. The strangeness. We say goodbye to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Intractable and unforgettable.  

If you're interested in getting under the skin of this richly complex region, we still have a few places available on our Middle East Open Quest in June. You can find more details here.