After our Sea Stones & Stories group left Ramallah on our quick visit to the Palestinian Territories, we entered Bethlehem from the Shepherd's Field where an angel was said to have announced the birth of Jesus.
Unlike many travellers to the Holy Land, our group wasn't part of a pilgrimage but some of us quickly became converts of a different kind. I've always enjoyed the graffiti art of the Palestinian territories, so seeing Banksy in Bethlehem seemed to be a good fit.
This was the first Banksy our group saw:
Banksy has had a decade-long connection with the West Bank city since he 'decorated' part of the Israeli security barrier. He's been in the news recently after an auction of his work where he made his famous 'Girl with a balloon' artwork self-destruct.
Destruction and renewal are themes we found in the artwork within his Walled Off Hotel, a boutique establishment directly across from Israel's concrete security barrier. The tiny exhibition inside the hotel was well-worth the visit.
(Walled Off Hotel, front view)(Concierge, on the left)
One of the highlights of the Sea, Stones & Stories tour was a day in the Palestinian Territories. For me, I had travelled extensively to the West Bank and Gaza as a correspondent in 2000, 2003-5, but so far, my tour group had only glimpsed Arab villages as the tour bus travelled from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan Valley and through to Jerusalem on Israel’s sophisticated highway network.
(Below: me in Gaza, 2000)
First stop was the seat of the Palestinian government, the city of Ramallah. I was last here in 2004 reporting on the return of Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat’s body, carried in a Jordanian military helicopter following his death in Paris.
Today, at the site of Arafat’s former compound, you can visit his tomb. There’s also a museum with an evocative exhibition focusing on the story of how Palestinians ended up with the patchwork of territory they have today.
Until our visit, I don’t think the group fully grasped the complexities of ‘the situation’ today and I was keen for them to experience this. To get to Ramallah (approximately 10 kms from Jerusalem) we had to switch tour buses and drivers. Our regular Israeli tour guide wasn’t allowed to travel with us.
This daunting red sign is placed at the entry to Palestinian cities. The 'Area A' is a reference to territory under the administration of the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the Oslo peace accords.
The bus climbed the hill out of Jerusalem and eventually we reached Qalandia checkpoint, Israel’s fortified entry/exit point with the Palestinian Territories. Palestinians were passing through the checkpoint on foot, in cars and mini-buses to go to jobs, schools and universities either in Jerusalem or other West Bank cities like Bethlehem or Hebron.
In Israel, the government takes care of the roads. They are often lined with purple and pink bougainvillea. Palestinian roads are littered with plastic bags and bottles. The checkpoint and the West Bank security fence, as Israel calls it, presents an image of control, of occupation.
The bus pulled over and we waited for our Palestinian guide who had phoned to say he was running late. He’d tried to get a permit from the Israeli military enabling him to pass through Jerusalem in order to meet us, but the permit didn’t come through so he had travelled from Bethlehem (on the other side of Jerusalem) via Palestinian roads. He’d left his home at 6.30 am and it was nearly 8.50 am.
“I’ll be there in around ten minutes,” he promised.
True to his word, the Palestinian guide, Motasem Amro, a cheerful young Palestinian in his late twenties, hopped aboard our bus ten minutes later.
The first thing he did was to show me a photo on his phone.
“Know this guy?”he asked with a twinkle.
The photo showed him standing with former Australian PM Tony Abbott who visited the Middle-East in late 2016.
“I was told to give him a purely religious tour. I was not to talk to him about politics,” he said, laughing.
“But personally, I like to talk about the political situation,” he continued. “In fact, I believe it’s my mission.”
Our Australian group were already hooked, keen to see for themselves what life was like on the other side of the fence.
And so the Sea, Stones & Stories tour continues. I was looking forward to visiting Degania Bet, one of the earliest kibbutzim to be established in the land of Palestine, (now Israel) in 1920. Kibbutz means ‘gathering’ and each kibbutz was originally a socialist community of pioneers, acquiring land for farming or industry. There are currently 274 kibbutzes (or kibbutzim, as the are known), although in recent decades many have been privatised.
Very few retain the original communal way of life.
Degania Bet recently celebrated 98 years of communal living. It runs a large dairy and produces food including bananas and avocados as well as owning a small factory.
Our guide, Idan Ben Shalom describes himself as a ‘native patriot of this place’.
He’s a kibbutz member (Degania B has 210 members) and a film-maker. He doesn’t receive a salary and any money members make goes to the kibbutz and is shared equally among the members. No-one gets more than their neighboor. No-one is different or better than their neighbour.
Idan says all kibbutz members are looked after in their own homes until they die.
Until the age of three Idan stayed apart from his parents in a kindergarten. But separating children from their parents during childhood wasn’t a feature at this particular kibbutz.
I love these brilliant, idealised images of Degania Bet taken in the late 1930’s and 1940’s by Israeli-Hungarian photographer Zoltan Kluger. (Wikimedia Commons, from the National Photo Collection of Israel).
I enjoyed Degania Bet’s archive which is housed in the former home of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1963-1969. He lived on a kibbutz like former Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan (who actually lived in the neighbouring kibbutz, Degania Alef).
Each year since the 1940’s, someone with excellent Hebrew hand-writing (the archivist) writes down the history of the kibbutz: who was born, who died, what milestones were achieved. The history is recorded in these large volumes.
It was great for our group to catch a quick glimpse of this lifestyle which sounds like an admirable antidote to 21st century life. This is the original sharing economy. I gather however, that below the surface it's not as idyllic as it seems.
Being a member of a community involves the need to conform and there are implications if you don't.
One of the highlights of the Sea Stones & Stories tour, as we prepare to leave Tel Aviv, was the home of former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.
Most of the Tel Aviv house is now home to Ben Gurion's library.
The founding Prime Minister was, like many leaders, an insomniac. He collected more than 22,000 books in eleven languages! Our young guide said he taught himself so many languages because he believed it was important to read a book in the language in which it was written.
Other facts about Ben Gurion which I enjoyed, the gnome-like leader practised Feldenkrais and was taught to do a headstand. Apparently he summoned the media to the beach so they could capture him posing. The buff gentleman in the background is his bodyguard.
We heard so many glowing things about DBG I asked whether, apart from being a great Prime Minister, he was a good husband and father.
Our young guide admitted that he was not.
A book about Ben Gurion's private life, published this year by historian Tom Segev, poses the question "if the leader isn’t faithful to his wife, maybe he’s not faithful to his voters, either".
I enjoyed the peek into his shrine former home. It made me think about the creation of myths. They abound in this land.
So I’m trying to stay awake watching the sun sink over the Mediterranean Sea.
When I was asked to lead this tour, I chose the title Sea, Stones and Stories because I felt these elements were images I retained from the time I lived in the Middle-East from 2003-5. I always felt the presence of the sea, whether it was the ocean or the Dead Sea. The sea is also part of the story-telling landscape. Stones, because all over the West Bank, incredible rocks dot the biblical landscape. And Stories because every person, every issue here tells a story. Sometimes it’s a mythologised story, but there’s always a narrative and I am here in my capacity as a storyteller.
So with Sea, Stones and Stories in mind, here’s the culture list I provided to members of the Renaissance Tours group I'm about to meet.
I've read most of the books and I’ll be using the content in my presentations. The films and newspaper articles are useful background and context. I'm so excited to be in the Mid-East. Happy Reading!
Jerusalem, the biography - Simon Sebag Montefiore
City of Oranges - Adam LaBor
Jerusalem (the cookbook) - Yotam Ottolenghi
Where the Line is Drawn - Raja Shehadeh (memoir)
In Search of Fatima - Ghada Karmi (memoir)
To the End of the Land - David Grossman (novel)
Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life - Sayed Kashua (personal essays)
Kingdom of Olives and Ash - Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman (commentary)
American Priestess - Janet Fletcher Geniesse (non-fiction biography)
City on a Hilltop - Sara Yael Hirschhorn (commentary)
Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour - Yossi Klein Halevi (commentary)