A journey into the holy lands
My mother and sister's journey to their Palestinian village deep inside the West Bank was made after a three-decade absence. They eventually took it upon themselves to revisit the place they long remembered through fading memories, and people coming and going of a lost homeland that once existed as an independent entity.
It was a short trip, everything changed they said. For one thing, they said there was a lot more people, many more kids running around. For another, the environment had been built up through more constructions and houses with the village inflating from all sides.
Howara, our village seven or eight kilometers south of Nablus, had changed. My mother said it resembled a very large garage from its north to the south with lots of small workshops. These ranged from offering tire change to oil checks, and mechanics meddling with your carburetor.
She had decided to spend her time in her widowed sister's house that has long been renovated and spruced up, a far cry from how I and she remembered it when we used to visit in the 1970s and 1980s. The house had a large gate and framed in an open courtyard yard with rooms towering in mid-air reached through steep flight of steps.
My sister slept at my uncle's house since he was supposed to be the closest, but she knew how to get around, geographically zigzagging from one area to the next. She told us before embarking on this trip she would be going to 'all of Palestine', 'historical Palestine', the Palestine that was taken and became Israel after 1948.
She kept her promise she told us later, except to say she didn't go into Israel proper, nor to Arab towns taken by the Israeli state, but remained within the geographical distance of Howara.
Still that left a great leeway to explore travelling to major cities that had been under Israeli occupation after the 1967 War but had been turned to Palestinian rule after the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Howara is neatly placed on the road to Ramallah and Jerusalem. Their first trip was to Ramallah as being one of trepidation. This was the first 'liberated' city and now the seat of the Palestinian government and its elected legislative council.
Today, its trendy and exciting, becoming the home of a bourgeoning Palestinian bourgeoisie with residences, buildings, and plots of lands reaching up to 1 million dollars or more. This is the place of secular living where free-moving ideas and intellectual debates is pedstolled by its world-famous Beir Zeit University, the once fire-brand institutions that stood up to Israeli occupation in the not-too-distant past.
She was visiting her childhood friend who had now become a grown up married lady with few properties of her own, and was in the business of renting apartments. Although she had grew up in Kuwait, she and her family made it back to their original place in Palestine after 1991 when Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded and let his soldiers loot the country.
In the evening it was more get-togethers in Howara. They had not seen so many people who came to greet them. Relatives, nieces, distance relations, they were all there either to greet them or greeted by them.
"I've never seen so many faces, staring at us," my sister would later say. "It was overwhelming, eyes peering at you, they thought we came from Mars or something," but she said it was exhilarating as well.
The Palestinians she saw were not the downtrodden people we have come to paint a picture of as we made our lives in Amman and other corners of the globe. Although we hear World Bank statistics of the average daily wage as $2 per day on the West Bank and Gaza, these people are happy, enjoying life as much as they can. Here is no place for gloom but the chuckle, laughter and mirth abound on many faces.
Unlike elsewhere, the people of Howara hadn't come to experience the consumer culture found in other countries. Today, scarcity and hardship has been overturned with more and more people plowing their lands and/or the plots in front of their houses with tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, obergines and okra to feed the family. Some herd goats and milk them for their dairy foodstuffs.
The world was her oyster. The following early morning, both my mother and sister took off to Jerusalem, the cradle of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. My cousin had taken them by his taxi but he had to turn back at the roadblock because he didn't have permission to enter the city.
At the city gate, they managed to get another taxi with an Israeli number plate whose driver offered to stay and take them around. Needless to say, it was "east" Jerusalem they saw and had only got a glimpse of the "west" side of the city that had been westernized by the Israelis who are trying to make it their capital.
In the "east", it was walking, walking, walking, going from one mosque to another, praying here and praying there. They couldn't fathom the extent of the holy precinct, the richness of the shrines that represented one of the pillars of Islam, but it was a sight to remember.
Souks and markets, alleyways, meandering through the old markets heralded greater yearnings by my mother, an emotional bond that once tied her to her former homeland rekindled old and trusted feelings that happen when you lose something. Being old and weary by now, they plowed on and managed to get a taxi back to Howara.
Up at the crack of down. You couldn't stop her, my sister is strong willed. First my cousin's taxi, he drops her to Ramallah, she crosses with her friend to Beit Jallah on the outskirts of Jerusalem where she visits the hospital and the Children Cancer Unit that is being set up and refurbished though lots and lots of money is needed.
From there on, they went straight to Bethlehem. It was Easter, their visit coincided with a trip made by the Italian president into the holy compound. At first they were stopped by the police who shouted make way, make way, step aside. But in the end, we got in, she said. The taxi managed to pass, as if the vehicle is part of the diplomatic convey.
The trip into the holy compound of Bethlehem was deeply satisfying, my sister later said. Lots of photos taken of the surroundings, the church and the cradle of Baby Jesus, it was open for everyone. Masses and masses of people flocked in the wake of the official visits. Priests and Fathers were welcoming to everyone.
Another emotional trip, much moving around, much activity on the roads, mobile pictures, photo snapshots. For most of the time my mother was left to her own devices in the solace of her sister and nephews and nieces as her older brother and their wives long passed away.
She preferred to spend her time in the garden, the olive grove or the small vineyard, chatting to her sister, and sister-in-law that used to pass by. It was a carefree life, more or less, soothing and sedate at least by the standards of the past when there was much hardships imposed by Israeli roadblocks and were car trips had to be taken through long muddy detours.
They didn't see that nowadays, it was open, as open as security will allow. My sister made one final trip to Jericho, the old, almost medieval town. It was neither old nor medieval nowadays, she said. It is plush with villas and grooming, things have changed, are changing.
On the border into Jordan. An Israeli guard smiled and said "hope you had a pleasant trip in our country." My sister just starred and moved along.