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Palestine: Voices from the other side

Unforgettable faces in Palestine

“My grandfather came here to Bethlehem in 1948 when the war started,” Elias Salameh Afteem told me in his family’s busy eatery, Restaurant Afteem. “He thought it would be over in 10 days.” He paused. “Ten days,” he said again. “Now it’s 60 years. We still have the key to our family’s house in Jaffa, Tel Aviv.”

But this personable young man doesn’t seem bitter. He engages with almost everyone who enters this well-known eatery, and he’s obviously proud of what his family has accomplished.
“My grandfather started this restaurant when he came here. Then my father worked here. And now I work here, too.

“Our food is for poor people and rich people. You know the French president — Sarkozy? He ate here. The princess of Qatar ate here. We serve for dinner what we serve for lunch — fava beans, hummus, falafel, salads.”

They also serve a delightful beverage we enjoyed throughout the week — a lemonade of sorts served with crushed mint.

“Do you know Lonely Planet?” he asked. “They named us as one of their picks for places to eat in Bethlehem. This building we own. We rented it in 2000, then bought it three years later and restored it ourselves.”

I stepped back into the restaurant a few minutes later to get a photo of Elias. He was sitting with an older gentleman and rose to meet me. “This is my father!” he said. The older man shook my hand and smiled.

A birthplace in Bethlehem

I was traveling in the Holy Land and predominantly in Palestine as a guest of the Palestine tourism office. A group of 18 journalists had come at their invitation to see pilgrimage sites in Palestine and Israel and to also visit a few sites less familiar to most 
Christians. It was these sites that offered a perspective to our group that many travelers to the Holy Land don’t receive.

Our trip began in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem. We passed through the first of numerous checkpoints we’d encounter. Our experience with checkpoints was relatively stress-free. Most are manned by young Israelis who are required to serve in their country’s military for a few years. All carried automatic rifles and checked passports.

“The scrubby trees are olive trees,” said Kirk Smock of Carana Corp. as we drove towards Bethlehem. “They are harvested in October, and every other year is a good year.”

Carana has a contract to promote Palestine tourism through USAID, a federal assistance program for economic development in various parts of the world.

We toured the Shepherd’s Field, where tradition has it that the angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to tell them of Jesus’ birth. We were high on a hillside, overlooking a deep valley. There are ruins here of cave-like grottos that shepherds could use to get out of the weather. On the other side of this valley sat a typical Israeli settlement — a collection of stark, stone-colored apartment complexes built across the top of the hillside.

From there, we went to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. To enter this revered site, you pass through a doorway that is barely more than waist high. It was created centuries ago for security purposes — only one person at a time can pass through.

“You are forced to bend to show respect to a very holy place,” said our guide.

The sanctuary was illuminated with candles; just beyond the altar we stepped down ancient stone stairs into the area where Jesus could have been born.

As with many sites here, it’s impossible to say exactly where something occurred, but it’s reasonable to assume that this tiny church above these ancient stables is very close to where Jesus was born. Silent pilgrims knelt and prayed here, and a small group of priests celebrated mass in a room nearby.

“Stables were always under ground,” said our guide. “My grandfather has a stable under his house today. If there was no room at the inn, you went to the stable.”

A brewer and a priest
After our lunch at Restaurant Afteem, we traveled to Hebron, the site of many uprisings since 1948. We walked through an impoverished old market area on our way to the Ibrahimi Mosque. Our guide pointed out that Jewish settlers are actually living in apartments above the Palestinian markets, so tensions can flare up easily.

The mosque is the site of the tombs for several patriarchs, including Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac. Abraham is the father of all three monotheistic faiths.

That evening, we had a festive dinner at the Tent restaurant in Bethlehem, and many dignitaries from the Palestinian tourism industry attended, including their minister of tourism and antiquities, Khouloud Diabes.

In Taybeh, we met two fascinating people — one a brewer and the other a priest. Dr. Maria Khoury is Greek and moved here with her Palestinian husband to start the only microbrewery in the Middle East, Taybeh Brewing Company, in 1994. They also founded an Oktoberfest for the region.
“Our festival is peaceful resistance to the occupation,” Khoury said.

Then we met Raed Abu Sahlieh, parish priest in Taybeh and an eloquent proponent for peace.
“I am an Arab, a Palestinian, a Christian, a catholic and a priest,” he said. “It’s complicated, but this is who I am. I have studied violence because I want to understand it. You have to know that when you have peace in Jerusalem, you will have peace all over the world.”

He was as good a salesperson as he was a priest.

“My first appeal to you as travel journalists is to tell your readers to come in big numbers and don’t leave us alone.”

Cities and towns
The following day, we traveled to Nablus, a predominantly Muslim city that is the site of Jacob’s Well, where tradition has it that Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. The well is 4,000 years old and is still active. Our host dropped its bucket 123 feet into darkness, and we heard it splash. He pulled it up, and several of us drank of the cold water it produced.

Our primary guide, Wisam Salsaa, introduced us to Sebastia the following day. This archaeological site is massive and includes the ruins of a palace, amphitheater and numerous tombs dating to Herod the Great.

“This is considered by many to be the site of the beheading of John the Baptist,” said Wisam. “He was executed by Herod the Great. Herod wanted to build the next Rome here. He met Caesar and convinced him he could be a ruler over the Jews. He killed many people, including members of his family. His children hired old women to cry for him at his death. Our tradition says ‘Herod sneaked in as a fox, ruled as a lion and died like a dog.’”

We continued north to Nazareth, where we toured Nazareth Village, a re-creation of what this city would have looked like during Jesus’ lifetime. It was in Nazareth that Jesus grew up and was ultimately shunned. We had moved into a more fertile landscape, and Nazareth offered marked contrast to Nablus and Hebron. It is a modern city with shopping centers, automobile traffic and 21st-century commerce.

At a dinner there, mayor Ramiz Jaraysee told us that Nazareth is “the city of the enunciation — the first Christian event. Many Christian churches have a church here, and 50 percent of the tourists coming to Israel come here. Nazareth had been a pass-through until it was recognized as a development zone. Now we have 1,500 hotel rooms.”

Going to Galilee
We traveled into Galilee the following day and moved into a greener, more verdant landscape. The Sea of Galilee stretches for 13 miles between Israel, Syria and Jordan. From the Mount of Beatitudes, it shimmers and is dotted with boats, maybe some fishermen, maybe some pleasure cruisers. This was distinctly different from where we’d been. It’s easy to understand why Jesus would have been drawn to this place.

“Jesus was kicked out of Nazareth and came here,” said Wisam. “He was a refugee. There were Greeks in the area, also Gentiles and Jews. Caravans of up to 10,000 to  15,000 people would travel together in that time. It was fertile ground for belief.”

After a stop at the Mount of Beatitudes, we continued southward toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. We left the fertile valley for the desert.

“Bedouins still live in the desert,” said Wisam. “They are nomadic. Abraham was a Bedouin. They love their life.”

We traveled into Jericho, an oasis in the desert. They were preparing to celebrate their 10,000th anniversary as a city — the world’s oldest, they claim.

The Mount of Temptation, the mountain believed to be the site of Jesus’ temptation by Satan, stands above Jericho. A Greek Orthodox monastery, Qurantul, is built into the mountainside.

“The monks started coming in the 4th century when Christianity was made legal,” said Wisam. “Jericho is a Christian town. Herod died here.”

We spent an hour or so exploring Hischam’s Palace, dating to the 8th century, and we swam in the Dead Sea.

The next morning, we walked out to an overlook in the Wadi Qelt area where the desert stretched for miles. In the very bottom of this desert winds an ancient road to Jerusalem.

Where Jesus wept
We began our two days in Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives, overlooking its Old City.

“This is where Jesus wept about Jerusalem,” said Wisam. “He knew the Romans would come and destroy it. Jesus was a nonviolent resister. When Jesus said ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them the left,’ he was making a political statement. The Roman soldiers used their left hands to strike you because you were not their equal. Turning the other cheek forced them to use their right hand, which was an equalizer.”

We walked down to the Garden of Gethsemane. The Garden today is a beautiful respite in an otherwise frenetic city. Visitors are allowed to walk its perimeter, and it is filled with flowers, ancient olive trees and simple pathways.

We walked into Jerusalem’s Old City. Enclosed by ancient stonewalls, today it has 32,000 residents who live in four distinct quarters — Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. We walked the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ path to the cross. There are numerous stations throughout several quarters where many pilgrims pause to pray.

Our walk ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Hundreds gathered here in the courtyard outside and inside to pray. The tomb is here that marks the traditional site of Jesus’ burial.
We left the old city through Damascus Gate, a major site of commerce that opens onto the modern city of Jerusalem.

We enjoyed lunch in a hotel just outside the old city — the Golden Walls Hotel, where the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem spoke to us briefly.

“Welcome to you on behalf of all churches and also for the Palestinian Christian community,” he said. “The city of peace is not living at peace these days. If we are to be true Christians, we must tell the truth. True Christians will always stand up for the oppressed regardless of their faith — even for Jews.

“There is no religion on earth that can justify killing of those in another religion. That includes extreme Muslims. All the checkpoints have to go for there to be any peace.

“How can you as Christian pilgrims come here and go to these places when Palestinian Christians cannot do the same?”

On Saturday, we went to Ramallah and visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb. A wall on the way that divides Israel and the West Bank had grafitti on it that said, “one wall, two jails.”

Ramallah today is a thriving business center for the West Bank. It is a cultural center with a pulsing nightlife. “Apartments here cost $250,000,” Wisam told us.

That evening we were treated to a gala farewell feast at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem.  Our hosts served Palestinian staples such as pita bread, hummus and other dishes alongside a whole roasted lamb. I ate as much lamb that evening as I had eaten in my entire life up to that point.

The next day we toured the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. Most of us went to the wall to pray and to stuff a prayer into its masonry, as is the custom. During Ramadan, 350,000 to 400,000 Muslims will gather on the terrace outside the Basilica to pray facing Mecca.

For more on Palestine:

Voices from the other side
Personal moments
WEB EXCLUSIVE! Travel Snapshots photo slideshow