Letter from Palestine

Guest blogger Sarah Tranquilli travels inside Jerusalem for an inside look at an ongoing conflict and its people. This is her story.

What is Palestine?

Before moving to Jordan for six months to study Arabic, I made a list of all the countries I wanted to see during my time abroad. My list included many different places, but there was one in particular that I knew I had to go to – Palestine.

Palestine is a confusing topic for a lot of people. What exactly is it? Where is it? Is there a Palestinian culture and people? Even I was puzzled as to what exactly Palestine is.

The day before, I explored Jerusalem. While in West Jerusalem, I noticed that the street signs were written only in Hebrew. Most of the people were Jewish and all of the touristic sites were controlled by Israel. Once I exited the Al-Aqsa Mosque, however, everything seemed different. I heard people speaking in Arabic, saw kufiyahs hanging from store fronts, and smelled fresh knafeh being made in sweet shops.

I felt like I was in a whole new city, a whole new country, as almost everything was written in Arabic and nearly everybody was an Arab.

But I was in neither a new city nor a new country. I was in East Jerusalem, the part of the holy city in which Palestinians make up the majority of the population and has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 War.

I woke up the following day, which happened to be Thanksgiving in America, and had no idea what to expect of my upcoming tour to Bethlehem. I still did not fully understand what Palestine was, but I was excited to find out. I found a taxi at around 9:00 to take me inside Bethlehem at 9:30. There, I would meet the tour guide.

Sarah with her father (center) and brother at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred Muslim holy site


Inside the Occupied Territories

As my taxi driver slowed to a stop, I looked around. All I saw was an endless stream of huge, gray slabs, about as attractive as the walls of a prison. I called the tour guide frantically, telling him that I was lost and asking him if he could help. He said that he could neither help nor explain what to do, for he had never crossed the border, and thus, had never been on the other side of the wall.

It amazed me that I travelled through so many borders to arrive where I was, but this man had never even been on the other side of the city in which he lived.

Eventually, I found my way through the border crossing and stepped into Bethlehem, a city in Area A of the occupied Palestinian territories. My tour guide, a Palestinian Christian (we will call him Fadi), took my family and I to multiple different sites throughout the city. At a cafe, our view of the distant rolling hills showed modern housing built in stark contrast to the traditional sand-colored buildings of Arab cities. I asked Fadi what this was.

He said that it was a newly built Israeli settlement, but that on that same piece of land. This is the same place where there was once hundreds of olive trees that provided the Palestinians of Bethlehem with both food and work.

His own father used to work in the industry of olive wood carving, but his work was cut short by this destruction of olive trees that coincided with the construction of Israeli settlements and the separation wall.

Olives are symbolic to Palestinians. They represent a homeland they have lost from Israel after the 1967 war. Olive trees signify a deep attachment to the land as well as offer economic stability.

Later in the day, Fadi took us to see Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery located a short distance from the city of Bethlehem. During our drive back to the city, Fadi’s car broke down in the middle of a Palestinian village. As we were sitting in the car waiting for Fadi to get help, a large crowd of Palestinians came out of their homes and started staring at us.

Knowing that I was going to be stuck there for a while, I got out of the car. I greeted all of the Palestinians in Arabic, and I instantly saw the shock on their faces. I was just a random American girl that knew how to properly greet others in coherent Arabic. A group of teenage girls called me over to speak with them, and my little brother and father were asked to play soccer with a group of young boys. The girls invited my family and I into their home to drink tea and eat Arab sweets.

A Stranger’s Welcome

In the United States, it is unthinkable to go into a stranger’s home because everybody fears the intentions of others. Yet, the Palestinian villagers eagerly welcomed my family and I into their home and we did not hesitate to accept the offer.

We walked into their home as strangers, but we left as friends. We were foreigners in their land, and they treated us as if we were a part of their culture.

After Fadi’s car was finally fixed, the sun was nearly setting. He asked us if we would rather go to his home and meet his family or go to one last holy site. Without hesitation, my family and I accepted the invitation to go to his home.

The Perils of Conflict 

When we arrived, I was instantly greeted by the smell of fresh bread. His mother served us manakeesh, tea, coffee and a variety of different locally grown fruits. I asked for a glass of water, and, coming from Jordan where water is rationed and undrinkable from the tap, I was curious about the water situation in Bethlehem. So, I asked Fadi, and he replied by saying that it is the same in Bethlehem as it is in Jordan. I was very perplexed, for just the day before the tour guide in Jerusalem had praised the water in Israel as some of the purest in the world.

The city of Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority. The far view is an Israeli settlement. Photo taken by Sarah from a cafe.

My day in Bethlehem finished at the separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel. This side of the wall was so different from the other side I had seen earlier in the day. It had art, scriptures, and statements of protest painted and written all over it. Just by looking at it, I understood that the art acts as a visual representation of the Palestinians’ feeling of being caged in, of being unwelcomed on the other side.

Photo taken by Sarah

Looking back on my time in Palestine, I have realized that it was there that I made some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Ironically, it was a gift that Fadi’s car was not in working condition. I experienced a vibrant culture that was so welcoming that I felt as if I was a part of it.

Most importantly, I learned about the history of a place and a people that, despite their current situation, continue to embrace hospitality, advocate for peace, and share their lives and culture with others.


A visit with a Palestinian family in Bethlehem. Photo taken by Sarah of the family with her father (center) and brother (far left).

Sarah Tranquilli is an Arabic speaker, a world traveler, and a student at The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.). To learn more, you can contact her at stranquilli10@gwmail.gwu.edu. 


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