• The return to Palestine

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Abandoning the old idea of gracing Corfu, a delightful little Greek island in the Mediterranean sea, with a visit, we turned our heads to Palestine, after discovering that our Greek needed more work and that out Arabic was almost perfect. Now, if a person craves a taste of the olden days, let him visit Palestine; for while the State of Israel is as modern as any other place today, Palestine still retains much of its ancientness, and that makes it all the more endearing. The first place to be visited by us was the Old City, an appellation it truly merits; the very air feels pleasantly rusted and timeworn. Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Armenian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Christian. The Muslim quarter is so colourful; the souks are fabulous; when you enter, you feel one with your surroundings, not like the visiting stranger that you are; everybody is so pleasant and all faces are smiling. Various golden trinkets on display looked to us at the time so irresistible that we all spent a pretty penny on things that aren’t of the slightest use to us. The Muslim quarter is, in fact, nothing but a chain of alleyways, a sort of real-life Wonderland. The Armenian quarter may be the smallest, but it comprises the most magnificent archways I have ever beheld; eroded as they are, they still haven’t lost their splendour of bygone days. We stopped at the Armenian Tavern to help ourselves to tuna sandwiches and platefuls of tomato. At the Jewish and Christian quarters we only managed to steal a peek; we’d resolved to come back to them later, but never really got around to doing so; Palestine is so diverting. We spent the first four days of our visit in Jerusalem, but even so, upon leaving it, we felt reluctant; there were so many things to see, places to go and past instances to relive.

Next we visited Ramallah. Though Ramallah is a pretty populous part of Palestine, the atmosphere is very relaxed. We passed the rather sombre al-Manara square and visited al-Birweh park, where a Mahmoud Darwish memorial stands. It is a rather simple place, being a mere room exhibiting some of his belongings, including a sample of his signature, some of his books kept under a glass table top and a few pictures of his. What we all conceded was that walking through the marketplace in Ramallah was much more entertaining and enjoyable; here, there were all sorts of pleasantly intermixing sounds and fragrances. We stopped at a perfumery and ended up walking off with a bottle of homemade perfume of our own choice; the owner was adamant that we take one and stoutly refused payment. We also snacked on the Levant’s famed falafel, which looked especially tempting and were topped off with hummus and pickles.

From Ramallah, we went to Nablus. We entered via the notorious Huwwara checkpoint, which was pointed out to look rather like a large cage meant to hold in savage animals of some sort and bode evil. Contrastingly, we found Nablus to be a vibrant place, full of life and simple grandeur, despite its relative humbleness when compared to other cities around the world. The main square is a mildly bustling old place, in the middle of which stands an antiquated tower not more than twenty metres high, with a clock embedded in the bricks; our guide, a friend of a friend and a local, told us that this watch works at times and at times doesn’t. When we visited, it was well and working—for our benefit, she affirmed. We visited many places in Nablus: the university, the olive oil soap factories, and, best of all, the various eateries. The university there is absolutely splendid, standing sentinel on top of a hill; Nablus is a pretty hilly area, though the sight of army bases on top of many of the hills can be a bit sobering. We stayed a while and made small talk with the students, and later moved on to see the soap factories. Only two now remain, where there were many more before, we were told. The old city walls are plastered with the faces of martyrs, a grim reminder of the occupation and the painful events of the two intifadas. We realised we had overstayed only after we heard the call for eventide prayers; our guide invited us to their place and we accepted. The people of Nablus are so incredibly warm and welcoming! They don’t allow anybody to be anything but at ease when in their company. We stayed for a couple of hours and were served the most delicious kunafeh, a mouth-watering dessert, with gahwa, Arabic coffee. Kunafeh is a special golden crust filled with soft creamy cheese and is bathed in syrup, whilst the rather bitter coffee strikes a perfect contrast and the pair together set up a most agreeable feast.

We had had the intention of continuing on to Hebron and then Gaza, but we were advised against it; the time wasn’t right. We instead went for a short hike, following the path taken by the Upper Galilee. The wilderness is breath-taking; we saw all sorts of tiny creatures, seemingly insignificant, but very interesting all the same. Especially fascinating were the various species of deer perambulating about the place, with their heavy, almost immovable heads bearing absolutely colossal horns, and their rough tufts of beard. It was a largely exciting experience and we immensely enjoyed ourselves. We left feeling as though we were leaving home. Certainly it was a winter break well-spent.

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