Beyond the Separation Wall

Travel Stories: Could a late night of Arak and hookah prompt Hasam to open up about life as a young Palestinian? Alicia Imbody wanted to find out.

06.07.10 | 12:36 PM ET

The Separation Wall near Anata. Eliana Aponte/Reuters

Somewhere behind us on the dimly lit hill-top road, I heard the crack of dry grass breaking under running feet.

“What was that?” I asked Hasam, quickening my pace and looking past Tracey into the darkness.

“Probably wolves,” he answered nonchalantly. He continued to lead us down the deserted street.

Until this point our introduction to the Holy Land had been limited to the stilted impressions gleaned from glittering churches and guarded watchtowers. For our last night in Bethlehem we’d set out for a more unfiltered glimpse at life behind the Wall, and I was already getting more than I anticipated. I studied Hasam’s face, detecting a subtle smirk from the serious young man who had offered to accompany us as our guide and bodyguard, and I laughed softly as he admitted it was probably just a neighborhood dog.

Below us, the city rested on the western boundary of the West Bank, a stone’s throw from Israel, but impenetrably divided from neighboring Jerusalem by the Separation Wall. Tracey and I were staying nearby with a local family while touring the area and studying grassroots peace activism. We had met Hasam, the oldest son and a university student like ourselves, only the previous day. After returning from a class trip to a nearby archaeological site, he had offered to show us around during our final evening in town.

We gorged on nutmeg-seasoned lamb and rice with his family, then set out for music and hookah. I was excited for the chance to talk with Hasam alone, to try to penetrate the veneer the locals seemed to have erected to protect visitors like me from the harsh realities of everyday life in Palestine. We’d had our fill of contrived experiences that tried to ignore what we could sense was seething under the surface, and the rehearsed rhetoric that both sides spouted whenever politics inevitably came up. I felt as though there was a cultural wall that was even harder to circumvent than the cold concrete and barbed wire being constructed around us, and that the psychological checkpoints to be dealt with on both sides were an even greater impediment than those along the border. I hoped that night we would finally get an unfiltered glimpse of what it meant to be a young Palestinian, but I wasn’t sure if Hasam would be able to deliver it, or how I would be affected if he were.

A half hour later, we’d reached The Tent, a covered outdoor lounge, draped and carpeted in a cross between a Bedouin camp and a harem. Tracey and I positioned ourselves on a central couch with a view of the surrounding hills, dotted with the dim lights of the flat-roof houses crowding the valley below. Hasam sat respectfully across from us and ordered a hookah pipe for the table. My eyes darted around the room and I instinctively performed a modesty check, pulling the long sleeves of my thin cover-up higher on my shoulders. But since no one seemed to take much notice of us, I relaxed. 

“Would you like something to drink?” Hasam asked.

I glanced uneasily at my companion before answering, unsure of the protocol. We were used to cafes in this part of the world that served tea and played music late into the night without a drop of alcohol on hand. But noticing several tables adorned with carafes of Arak, I decided to do as the locals (mostly Christians like Hasam) were doing and order a bottle. We poured the clear liquid into glasses of crushed ice and watched them cloud over as the chilled liquor turned milky white. With sweet apple-scented smoke lingering around us and the strong taste of black licorice on our tongues, we were soon deep in conversation.

Hasam spoke openly with us, excited for a chance to practice his English and speak candidly to “enlightened westerners,” as he put it, like ourselves.

“What did you think of the sites in Jerusalem?” he asked, eventually steering the conversation away from the safety of the local highlights into more political territory.

“Beautiful,” I answered, deliberately brief. I knew Hasam had never been beyond the disputed borders of Palestine where he had been born, so I decided it was better to downplay my own travels, especially in Israel. Instead we talked about American hip-hop and movies, and we argued the merits of various Star Academy contestants.

The conversation began to lull as we tried to think of more subjects we might all have in common, and Hasam refilled his glass. We declined, citing the long day of travel ahead. As he poured himself another shot, and then another, his tone grew darker. I sensed a bottled-up cynicism that he rarely showed spilling over with every sip.

“We have to learn the significance of every site, the history, where it’s mentioned in the Bible, everything,” he explained to us about his extensive training as a tour guide. “But sometimes I want to tell people that it’s all just a story.”

He looked to us for a reaction, and, accepting our silence as agreement, continued. “People get so caught up in little things, they miss the point,” he said. “So much suffering over something that was just supposed to teach people how to live their lives together.”

Although I appreciated his frustration, I remained silent, unable to offer any new insight or explanation for the hopelessness we’d witnessed in the refugee camps and demolished neighborhoods that were so far removed from the life to which we would soon return. Hasam continued to delve deeper without encouragement, unearthing a desperation rooted in his limited prospects and isolation.

“Now I’m going to school to be a guide since I can’t sell my artwork,” he said. “I know more than my teacher; sometimes I even correct him when we go to the sites. Other times it takes us all day to go only a few miles, and the soldiers tell us we can’t go today, come back another day.” He reported all this with forced indifference but I could sense the stifled bitterness that undercut his words. I wanted to express my exasperation with the barricaded roads and abandoned markets we’d seen as a result of the occupation, but listened in silence. 

“There’s no future here,” he said. “Anyone who can, leaves, but half the people my age have been in jail at least once.”

I wondered if he had been arrested too, but didn’t dare to ask. Tracey remained quiet, nodding at times and looking to me helplessly at others.

Finally, sensing our discomfort, he laughed awkwardly. I was honored that he would open up to us, but suddenly felt as if I had overstepped my boundaries or witnessed something that wasn’t meant to be shared with outsiders. I had been hoping for this kind of conversation all along, but found myself speechless, unable to reconcile what I was hearing with the misconceptions I’d had about what it must be like to live here. Had I expected anger and determination to fight the occupation? Some devout inner calmness that allowed him to resist succumbing to violence and extremism? I can’t say exactly, but I never expected the quiet resignation, or the emptiness that stared back at me from where I had hoped to uncover a hidden desire to improve conditions for himself and his family, a passion that might indicate a different future for this desperate place. It made me wonder why I had ever come, and what I, or Tracey, or the peace-minded college students who had traveled with us, or even the entire international community, could actually do to improve things. I thought that his outlook was justified, but I couldn’t begin to empathize. I just looked away, studying the delicate gold leafing of the hookah, and the cold, smooth curves of the colored glass. Desperate to lighten the mood, I mentioned how I wished we’d had more time because I would have liked to buy a hookah like the one we were sharing, to bring home with me.

“You should go with me so you get the best price,” Hasam offered, revived from the temporary lapse into despair. We reminded him that we were leaving early the next morning, before any shops would be open. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then, as if suddenly remembering, he said, “I’ll give you mine. It’s very small, perfect for travel.” I offered to buy it, but he insisted, assuring us that he rarely used it. Everyone’s mood seemed to lift.

We walked back in silence. Tracey and I waited outside under the loquat tree between the main house and our adjacent apartment. After a few moments Hasam emerged and handed me the miniature hookah lamp. The dusty glass was a beautiful pale Mediterranean blue, just small enough to smuggle home undetected. I thanked him and considered leaving money anyway, but decided against it at the risk of insulting him. He just nodded and we stood there, unsure whether we should say goodbye now, or wait until morning and risk it going unsaid.

I tried to think of some poetic way to express how much this night had affected me or to offer some encouragement, but words failed me. Hasam had given me so much by sharing his perspective on the complexity of life here, but I felt like a privileged voyeur who could only soak it up yet offer nothing in return. I knew I would treasure the hookah he had given me as a reminder of our brief friendship, but his honesty was a much more powerful gift.

I whispered goodnight and we left him standing on the steps of the house while we slipped into our little apartment for the last time. I wrapped the hookah in a T-shirt, tucked it into my pack, crawled into bed and clenched my eyes shut until I eventually fell asleep.

Alicia Imbody is a former World Hum intern and an international development consulant based out of Washington D.C.

2 Comments for Beyond the Separation Wall

Ellie 06.08.10 | 10:00 PM ET

Great article! I shared some of your same thoughts during my recent trip to the Palestinian Territories as well.

Lisa D. 06.12.10 | 6:09 PM ET

Beautifully written.
I have not been to Palestine but have often felt a loss of words to describe stories I heard in Turkey (from young Kurds who have been imprisoned) and Bosnia, where I heard many stories of war. I think part of what you’ve accurately described is the initial shock I felt, never having grown up with war, mixed with both and intense curiosity and a little fear to understand what it feels like to be a young person having grown up constantly confronted with war and violence. It’s simultaneously a very important and moving experience - I almost felt honored - to be told these stories, and very difficult. The suffering becomes much more real - not a strange war in a strange land, but just people, at times preyed on by their governments, trying to survive. I think some of the people I met (especially in Bosnia) told me their personal suffering in order to change it. I heard again and again, “We must tell our stories. People need to understand what happened here.”
Thanks for putting your experience so beautifully into words and sharing them here. I think we have something to offer as writers by retelling the stories that are honestly shared with us as we travel. Those voices may not otherwise ever be heard.

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