“Did you know that yesterday the temperature was -40 degrees?” she asked, eyes full of wonder.
I’d had an idea about what I might be getting into that day two years ago, but this was far from it.
As an American preparing to enter occupied territory in the West Bank on a cushy, organized tour (the simplest and least aggravating method of entry), I steeled myself for hostile glances or pointed questions over my country’s involvement in Israel’s occupation of this land west of the Jordan River.
Eventually, I would have two options:
A) Prepare for an involved conversation in which I struggled to convey to a face filled with skepticism that many Americans also prayed for a two-state solution and lasting peace.
B) Pretend to be Canadian.
Neither of those ever came to be.
The drive on Route 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Jericho takes just over an hour. Things really become exciting when you pass Elevation 0 (the level of the Mediterranean Sea) and look down across the tumbling Judean Hills to the Dead Sea (elevation -1,401 feet). This was the area known as Canaan.
Along the way was a site commemorating the Good Samaritan’s good deed (which was set on the road connecting Jerusalem and Jericho), the presumed location of Moses’ grave, and a Bedouin shanty town. “They are offered housing by the Israeli government, but they prefer to live a nomadic life,” says our Israeli guide.
(If you find yourself scratching your head over that statement, you wouldn’t be the only one. While the situation surpasses the scope of this post, a google or two will show a number of firsthand accounts by Negev Bedouins that describe unfavorable conditions in these state-supplied townships, and even contest the concept of Bedouin nomadism itself.)
20 Jericho (s)
At the gate to Jericho, we disembark and switch to a vehicle with a Palestinian guide (Israelis cannot enter) before visiting the archaeological site of the self-declared “oldest city in the world.” Excavations here have unearthed over 20 successive settlements, the earliest of which dates back past 9,000 B.C.E., providing subsequent homes for civilizations including the Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Macabees, Arab caliphates, Crusaders, Ottomans. It was the site of Herod’s winter palace, and for a period, the entire city was the private estate of Alexander the Great. Mark Antony famously gave Jericho to Cleopatra as a gift.
Why the land grab? Jericho is a literal oasis. Fresh water springs from the earth, and some of our earliest accounts of the city describe its palms and agriculture. Today, this city of 21,000 has a mostly agricultural economy of palms, dates, bananas, citrus, tomatoes, and vegetables.
The surprises begin
After touring the archaeological site we were ushered into a gift-shop-slash-buffet-lunch-venue, exactly the kind of place one is usually ushered into on a tour, and the shekels we relinquished there could have fed a family for a week.
I knew that it was a ridiculous price. And I knew that the workers were secretly shaking their heads in amazement that people would overpay so excessively. I crossed gazes with a young Palestinian serving in the buffet line, and felt uneasy. Later, as something other than luck would have it, we both found ourselves washing our hands next to each other.
“Hello. Where are you from?” she asked in perfect English.
“Ohh, from the United States,” I stumbled, at first caught off guard and then steeling myself for what would come next.
“Oh, American!” she exclaimed, her large brown eyes widening in tandem with her smile. “I would like to see America. Some areas, not all! Did you know that yesterday in Minnesota – or Mississippi? – the temperature was -40 degrees?!”
We agreed that it seemed outrageously cold and moved on to more small talk (if I had a dollar for the times I’ve been asked about Obama…). All the while I was thinking that what seemed the most outrageous to me had nothing to do with extreme temperatures: it was that she not only knew the names of two of our states, but had weather information readily at hand to supply me in fluent English. I imagined her faceless American hospitality-industry counterpart, and wondered what tidbit she might bring up about a visiting foreigner’s homeland, if anything at all.
The surprises continue
There were more surprises that day than the Palestinian girl’s warmth and enthusiasm, which I lay out in no particular order:
- Many wealthy Arabs have chosen to build winter homes in Jericho (they don’t stick around for summer, when the temperature soars to 120 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Likely because of this clientele, there is an Intercontinental Hotel here. You’ll also see billboards for BMW.
- Until 2001, a large casino lured Israelis and provided the city with revenue, but after the Second Intifada they were no longer allowed into Jericho.
- Everyone learns English in school. All street signs are written in Arabic and English.
- Russian money is increasingly present within Palestine. Three days before I visited, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Jericho for the inauguration of a beautiful museum they built (our guide said the museum cost them $22 million, but an article in the Moscow Times places the figure at $3 million). President Vladimir Putin has also visited Jericho.
- The United States has also made contributions in Jericho, via USAID’s renovation of the Jericho Governmental Hospital (http://www.anera.org/resources/press-releases/press-release-anera-to-renovate-jericho-hospital/)
- U.S. dollars are the main currency here and in East Jerusalem. Our guide said it was a matter of tradition, not politics; regardless, shekels are used only for small items, such as fruit in the markets. Large purchases, such as monthly rent and automobiles, are all priced and collected in dollars.
A cast of characters
There were several friendly encounters that day in addition to the girl at the buffet: Jamal the street vendor, who offered me a fat commission if I just sent him some goods to sell; a young female border guard who offered a shy smile; and tour guides who patiently answered questions about the Palestinian travel predicament (some hold Israeli passports, some Palestinian, some Jordanian, and some none at all). My favorite characters, however, need more description:
There is a large sycamore tree in Jericho whose preliminary dating has revealed it to be 2,000 years old. Local legend says it is the same tree that figures in Jesus’ visit to Jericho, when a short and detested tax collector climbed into a sycamore in order to see Jesus, only to have Jesus called him out by name, invite himself to dine at the tax collector’s house, and ultimately convert him.
On the day we visited, there was an ancient-looking Bedouin gentleman in a threadbare woolen suit selling a crate of fruit. He so enchanted a friend of mine that she reached in her wallet and handed him a dollar bill in exchange for an orange. As the van pulled away, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him (and his reaction). He jumped up and walked around in circles, kissing the dollar and then pressing it to his forehead, again and again.
Immediately afterwards at the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting and meditating, it was a Bedouin’s turn to be generous, and I was the recipient. He was a sand artist, making and selling intricate souvenirs made from colored sand. Yet my attention was focused on the bottled water he was also selling, because not three minutes earlier on the van I had complained that I was dying of thirst.
However, what I thought was a large coin in my last remaining shekels (the dollars were long since spent) turned out to be a much smaller denomination. Forlornly, I returned the water bottle.
“Take it,” he shrugged.
“Oh no, I couldn’t,” I replied.
“Yes,” he insisted. “If someone is thirsty, we must give water.”
And that is my final memory of Jericho.