Note: You might want to read Chapter One first if you haven’t already.
After I finally remembered where Jesus was born, the guards only asked a few more questions and did a perfunctory baggage search before releasing me into northern Israel. The girl at passport control was even kind enough not to stamp my passport.
I emerged onto a twilit courtyard. My heart rate was still unsteady with the stress of the bizarre interrogation, and I knew that if my new friends were turned back, I’d be stranded here. But for now I was just glad to be off the tourist trail, lying to foreign authority figures about things I didn’t understand and heading to places about which my guidebook had nothing to say. I was unaccountably pleased by the simple fact that I had no idea what would happen next.
Half an hour later, to my immense relief, Yusif and Sebastian emerged together and discreetly indicated that I should follow them to an ink-blue sedan with a Palestinian driver and his young son. We squeezed in and motored off.
“We’re going to Cana first,” Sebastian said once we were underway. “It’s an Arab town in northern Israel near Nazareth. It’s famous for being the place where Jesus turned water into wine.”
“My friend Rami lives there,” Yusif said. “I met him when he was studying at Cambridge. We used to smoke nargila together in one of the courtyards.” Nargila was the local word for hookah.
“Rami’s father is an Arab Member of the Knesset,” Sebastian added impressively.
I nodded knowingly. I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what that meant.
Rami, a fresh-faced man with dark hair, olive skin, and an easy confidence, greeted his old friend Yusif. The living room had gleaming white walls and was decorated with an air of casual sophistication. Rami’s mother welcomed us in with tea and snacks.
Sebastian and Yusif had been invited to stay the night, which I hadn’t realized. Before I could ask if there was a hostel in town, I was invited to stay as well and given a place of honor in the oldest daughter’s room. Then we were treated to a lush dinner on the family’s rooftop veranda. Everyone spoke flawless English, and the food—grilled lamb, homemade tabouleh, baba ghannouj (a garlicky, smoky eggplant and tahini salad), and fluffy pita bread—was divine.
I’d become used to a certain level of hospitality in the Middle East. Ahlan wa sahlan, heard incessantly in the Arab world, is usually translated as “Welcome,” but a more literal translation is, “Be at ease, like one of the family.” I’d begun to take for granted that I would have a soft landing whenever I wandered off the beaten track. But this was bordering on outrageous. I kept rubbing my eyes and wondering what the catch was.
When I walked through the living room to wash up after dinner, I noticed an embroidered map of Israel plus the Palestinian territories — the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since 1967 — hanging on one wall. The word ‘Palestine’ and the names of several cities were stitched onto the map in Arabic along with an upraised fist.
In Jordan I had learned a little about the fallout from the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. Palestinians call it Al Nakba — ‘The Catastrophe.’ For Israelis, it’s their War of Independence.
By now I had learned that Rami’s family were among the Palestinians who had remained inside Israel after 1948 and that the Knesset was Israel’s parliament. I was surprised to see this map and symbol in the home of a man who worked in Israel’s government.
Into the West Bank
“You know what my last girlfriend said she liked about me?” asked Rami.
“Your nose?” said Yusif.
“Girls like my nose. They say it turns them on.”
“No, not my nose.”
“What, your eyes?”
“No, it’s not what you’d expect.”
“Your hair?” I offered. He had nice hair.
“Nope. Give up? My neck.”
“Yeah, isn’t that strange? My neck. Of all things. She said my neck was sexy.” He shook his head atop that irresistible neck.
It was the next morning, and Rami was treating us to breakfast at a hilltop restaurant owned by a friend of his. Afterwards he toured us around Cana’s two rival churches, both of which claimed to be built on the site of the First Miracle. At noon we settled into another café and ordered a nargila. Rami told us that after he’d graduated from Cambridge, he’d opened a club in Germany, and it had been a great success.
“But I sold it and left. I didn’t sell it because it was a failure. I sold it because it was a success. It made me afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” I asked.
“Afraid it would tempt me to leave here. Sometimes I think I would like to live somewhere else. But I don’t feel like I can leave here now.”
I wanted to ask him why. But I suspected it would be a long time before I was ready to understand his answer, and the day was too nice to try to tease a lecture out of him.
In the evening, Rami drove us south for an hour or so, then he turned east. The border between Israel and the West Bank is known as the Green Line, and we soon crossed it. Yusif said we were driving on a ‘settler road,’ which meant it was built on Palestinian land, but only cars with yellow Israeli license plates were allowed to drive on it. Palestinian cars with green license plates were forbidden.
Suddenly I began to feel nervous. Everything had been smooth up to this point. But now I was entering a bona fide conflict zone, not as a neutral observer but as a citizen of the country that bankrolled one side against the other. For all I knew it was full of broken, angry, unreasonable people who might look upon me as an enemy. An odd queasiness in my stomach reached a fever pitch as we drove deeper into Palestinian land on an Israeli road in an Israeli-plated car driven by a Palestinian-Israeli.
In the twilight, Rami pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. Yusif pointed to a massive pile of debris blocking a side street and told us to grab our things and climb over it quickly. “We don’t want any Israeli soldiers to see Rami and ask why he’s transporting people into a Palestinian area,” he explained.
Jesus, I thought dizzily. What’s left of Palestine doesn’t even have the dignity of a proper gateway into it. Just this ridiculous pile of garbage.
We thanked Rami and said good-bye, and then Yusif and Sebastian and I were climbing over the dusty pile of rubbish, and then…
We were in Palestine.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.