Welcome to Palestine

If adapting to life in France takes learning a new set of rules, spending time in the Palestinian Territories is a lesson in patience.

The West Bank, where the Palestinian town of Ramallah lies, has been occupied by Israel since 1967.  To get in or out of the city, you have to go through military checkpoints.

The first few times we passed through, it was intimidating to see the young Israeli soldiers with their huge guns, but it becomes routine.

Each time it’s the same: they check our passports, open the doors and take a look inside the car, ask a couple questions about the Englishman’s bullet proof vest and broadcasting equipment in the trunk, and then wave us through.

For us, a foreign passport is enough to get through. Palestinians need Israeli permission.

What was more surprising though, is the traffic.

Palestinian police aren’t allowed within a mile of the checkpoint  (and no one seems to pay much attention to traffic lanes here anyway) so there is a lawless stretch of road that descends into a total chaos during rush hour, with gridlocked cars honking their horns in every direction.

Sometimes the short journey through the crossing can take hours.

In the center of town, the roads are tamer, but I wouldn’t describe Ramallah as a pedestrian friendly place.  Without a car though, or a death wish – I am an awful driver in the best of times – I have been exploring the city on foot.

From the Englishman’s apartment, it’s a short walk into town and it really is a different world.  The city center is a lively bustling place, with action going on down every side street and on ever corner.

From glossy shops offering this seasons fashions, to tiny store fronts full of sacs of spices, to street vendors offering freshly baked pita bread off portable stoves, and men in ornate costumes selling tea, you can find just about everything here.

I have a terrible sense of direction so am constantly trying to pick out landmarks to keep me from getting lost.  I have become fond of Manara Square with its concrete lions and giant 20-foot tall wooden chair (which represents the seat the Palestinians would like to have at the United Nations) for that purpose.

Ramallah is a relatively liberal and multi-cultural city and the diversity is represented particularly well buy women’s fashion; I’ve seen the whole range from hijabs and niqabs, to high heels and skinny jeans.

The city’s population is mostly Muslim and about 25% Christian.  And from the fruit tree filled garden in front of the apartment, I can hear the peal of church bells coming from a church a few doors over, and the call to prayer from a mosque down the road.

But things here are definitely different from the West.  I keep forgetting that I can’t just take the Englishman’s hand as we walk down the street together.  Public displays of affection, even just touching, between men and women are seen much less here.

I put on a relatively conservative black dress (a loose fitting cotton number with a high neck that fell a little above my knees) the other day as we were heading out, and the Englishman raised his eyebrows reminding me that I was showing enough leg to get a fair amount of unwanted attention in the West Bank.

But aside from all the distinctions of life in the Middle East, the biggest change is to finally be living in the same place as the Englishman after all this time.

Over the years of being apart together, we have met up in cities all over the world.

From Cairo, to Rome, to London, to San Francisco, and countless others, but our relationship has mostly taken place away from each other.

So for me, the mundane things; cooking dinner together, sharing the sink to brush our teeth, remembering to lock the door before leaving the house, are what feel exotic and special.

So here I am in the West Bank, a place fraught with political tension and controversy, oceans away from my friends and family, and I feel more at home than I have in a long time.

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