Is it safe there?

I was in Jerusalem the day after Yom Kippur, and the traffic was terrible so I had the chance for a long chat with my taxi driver—a secular Jew married to a Chilean Christian. He was very interested in my perspective on life in the West Bank: what is it like there? “Do you feel safe?”

Certainly these questions are not unusual. If I get a taxi all the way from Jerusalem into Beit Sahour (rather than coming through the checkpoint in Bethlehem), I pass by enormous red signs that warn Israelis that it is “illegal and dangerous” for them to enter ‘Area A,’ the part of the West Bank that’s completely under Palestinian control (see more here). It is difficult for Israelis to travel here, or to know what life is like here—especially when the media mostly tells stories of violence or protests.

On Friday, on the way to Bethlehem University, I had another long chat with a taxi driver, a Palestinian Muslim. This taxi driver, who remembered me from a previous trip, gave me a long diatribe about the difficulty of being a taxi driver in this area; he bought a taxi thinking he would be able to drive tourists, but where are they? They mostly come on enormous tour buses, which clog the streets around Manger Square as they wait to collect tour groups from their hour in the Church of the Nativity—the tourists get off the bus, walk up a short ramp from the street to Manger Square, see the church, and return to their buses. They have little chance to see Bethlehem itself, to interact with local people, or to spend their shekels in the shops here (and certainly no need for taxis).

My driver in Bethlehem agreed with me that many tourists are nervous to come to the West Bank on their own (and, I might add, it’s difficult—you have to know the right place to find the Palestinian bus, and the right bus to take; you have to go through Israeli checkpoints). However, my driver insisted, the West Bank is the safest place on earth. And he assured me it’s not just because he lives here that he would say such a thing.

I would have to agree with my driver. I feel much safer and more comfortable in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem than in Jerusalem. In part, it’s simply because Bethlehem is smaller than Jerusalem—and Beit Sahour smaller yet. But it’s also because of the general friendliness of Palestinians; because of my neighbors (in the family apartments where I live, and also in the houses next door); and because of the total strangers who occasionally stop as they drive past on the road to ask if I’m okay, if I need anything.

To counteract the media’s depiction of the violence and chaos of life in the West Bank, here are a few snippets of my own experience of life here:

  • In several of the local shops, I’ve seen people buying on store credit—which means having their total recorded in a small notebook (in pencil, nonetheless). This is a small community, and people know each other. I’m also starting to get used to shopping without a cart or basket (not that there’s space for either in the narrow aisles!)—once your hands are full, you pile your items on the counter while you continue shopping.
  • People here do not want me to pay too much for things. Taxi drivers have told me to take the bus instead, because it is cheaper (side note: as a Fulbright scholar in the West Bank, I’m not allowed to use public transportation—I have to use taxis). I had to fight with the receptionist at the gym to pay for a full month rather than day-by-day (NIS 120, about $35, vs. NIS 10 for a day). And everyone tells me I’m paying too much for my apartment (and they just happen to have a spare room/a friend with a guesthouse/etc., and can get me a good deal…).
  • Locals claim that Bethlehem and Beit Sahour have only two streets. On the one hand, this is patently absurd: there are hundreds of little twisty streets to explore, and get lost on. On the other hand, it’s quite true: there are basically two streets with names that people know (Manger St. and Star St.), and all the others are virtually nameless. If I try to tell someone I live on al Karameh Street, I get a look of total confusion; if I say I live near the Latin church and Hotel Ararat and Roots discotheque, they understand.
  • The olive oil is so local, the bottles aren’t even labeled. Ditto for the bags of dates in the grocery store. And the spices are spicier here. The scent and flavor is so much more intense than the normal grocery store spices ‘at home.’ I’m sure they are fresher; the spices I can buy in my local grocery shop come from a spice shop, packaged in little plastic tubs (sometimes with printed labels and sometimes labeled with a Sharpie). My very kind shopkeeper lets me open them to sniff out what they are (and he googles translations of the names for me, if my nose can’t figure it out).

Sometimes it feels very ‘western’ here: everyone has a smartphone; at the gym I watch music videos only slightly less racy than I’d see in Europe or America; local shops are stocked with Cadbury’s chocolate and Lavazza espresso and Dollar General ziplock bags. Then I pass a man with a donkey walking down the road, or find that the tomato paste I’m using comes from Saudi Arabia. I look down the street and see the hills of Jordan, or notice that I’m using, and suddenly it’s all very new and different again. What it is not, is frightening or dangerous—so come to the West Bank! You are very welcome here!