On the list of America’s irrational fears, Palestine is near the top. This is no small feat for a “country” with no actual territory and a population about the size of South Carolina. Despite its lack of an air force, navy, or any real army to speak of, Palestine has long been considered an existential threat to Israel, a nuclear-armed power with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the full backing of the United States. Since there’s no military or economic justification for this threat, a more nebulous one had to be invented. Thus, Palestinians are depicted in the media as hot-blooded terrorists, driven by the twin passions of fanatical Islam and a seething hatred for Western culture. So engrained is this belief that the op-ed page of the New York Times can “grapple with questions of [Palestinian] rights” by advocating openly for apartheid, forced expulsion, or worse.

This worldview demands an Olympian feat of mental gymnastics. It can only be maintained so long as most Americans have no firsthand contact with Palestine or Palestinian people. Even the smallest act of cultural exchange is enough to make us start questioning the panic-laced myths we’ve been taught since birth.   

Of course, the best way to discover the truth about Palestine is to visit the country yourself, though most Americans don’t have the free time or financial resources to do so (this is not a coincidence). This means that those of us who are fortunate enough to visit have a responsibility to share what we’ve seen and heard, without lapsing into pre-fabricated narratives, even “sympathetic” ones. We can’t fight untruth by telling untruths from the opposite perspective. What we can do, however, is report what we saw and heard in Palestine. We can try to provide a snapshot of daily life and let people come to their own conclusions.

With this in mind, here’s what I learned during a recent trip to the Holy Land…

The Palestinian doorman of the Palm Hostel in Jerusalem is a large and friendly man who insists his name is Mike. My fiancée and I are skeptical, as we’d expected something a bit more Arabic. We ask him what his friends call him.

“Just Mike,” he says, and taps an L&M cigarette against the wooden desk. He’s sitting in a dark alcove with rough stone floors, nestled halfway up the staircase that leads from the fruit market to the Palm’s small arched doorway.  A pleasant, musty oldness floats in the air. You could imagine Indiana Jones staying here, if he’d lost tenure and gone broke for some reason. To Westerners like us, it seems too exotic to have a doorman named Mike.

Before we can ask him again, though, Mike pounces with a question of his own. “You’re from the States, right?” He speaks English with a thick accent and slow but almost flawless diction, an odd combination that is causing my fiancée some visible confusion, which seems amusing to Mike. I tell him that we’re from Minnesota, a small and boring place in the center-north of the USA. His grin gets bigger, which makes me self-conscious, so I also explain that Minnesota has no mountains or sea, and the winters are very cold.

“Yeah, I know,” says Mike. “I lived in El Paso for thirty years. Border cop, K9 unit. It was a nice place. Had a couple kids there.” Now it’s my turn to gawk, and I start to race through all the possible scams he might be trying to pull. Mike seems to guess what I’m thinking. “Really. I even learned some Spanish.” He scrunches his brow in mock concentration and clamps a hairy hand over his forehead. “Hola. ¿Como estás? Una cerveza, por favor.”  He opens his eyes and laughs. “Welcome to Jerusalem, guys. Damascus Gate is that way. Enjoy.”

I don’t know why I’m so surprised he knows a handful of Taco Bellisms, or why this convinces me of his honesty. However, now it’s impossible to walk away. We have too many questions. The first one: Why’d he return to Jerusalem? Mike looks down at his cigarette, smoldering into a fine grey tail of ash. He flicks it against a stone and a bright red ember blazes to life.

“This is my home. I had to.”

Later, as we sip sweet Turkish coffee outside a rug shop in the Old City, it occurs to me that Mike was the first Palestinian person I’d ever spoken with face-to-face. His life story seemed unusual, but I have no idea what’s “usual” when it comes to Palestinian lives. I’d never thought about them before, to be honest. The world has an infinite number of stories, and the days are not as long as I’d like. It’s not like I’d chosen to ignore Palestine. I just hadn’t chosen to be interested in it.

Which was odd, because Palestine has been all over the news since I was a kid. There isn’t a single specific story I recall, just a murky soup of words and phrases, like “fragile peace talks” and “two-state solution” and “violent demonstrations.” They all swirl together, settling under the stock image of a bombed-out warzone as the headlines mumbled something about Hamas or Hezbollah or the Palestinian Authority. I remember reading about rockets and settlements, refugees and suicide bombers, non-binding resolutions and vetoed Security Council decisions. Not a single detail had stuck. I could feign awareness of some important-sounding events—the Balfour Declaration, the Oslo Accords, the Camp David Summit—but I couldn’t say what decade they happened, or who was involved, or what was decided.

For years, I’d been under the impression that I knew enough about Palestine to be uninterested in what was happening there. This isn’t to say I felt any particular animosity toward the Palestinians. But it’s impossible to fight for every cause, no matter how righteous, if only for reasons of time. Every minute you spend feeding the hungry is a minute you’re not visiting the sick. Life is a zero sum game more often than we’d like to believe.

As we headed toward the Via Dolorosa, the road that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion, I began to feel uneasy. The Israeli police (indistinguishable from soldiers except for the patches on their uniforms) who stood guard at every corner still smiled at us, and they were still apologetic when they forbade us from walking down streets that were “for Muslims only, unfortunately.” Their English was excellent. Many of them were women. They were young and diverse and photogenic, a recruiter’s dream team. But all I could see were their bulletproof vests and submachine guns. Above every ancient stone arch bristled a nest of surveillance cameras. Only a few hours ago, I’d been able to block all that from my sight, leaving me free to enjoy the giddy sensation of strolling through the holiest city on earth.

All photographs by Nick Slater

The road ended at the Lion’s Gate. Just as we approached it, a battered Toyota came rattling through. It screeched to a halt and a squad of Israeli police surrounded the car. All four doors opened and out stepped a Palestinian family. The driver was a young man in his 20s, with short black hair cut in the style of Ronaldo, the famous Real Madrid footballer. When the police told him to turn around and face the wall, he did so without a word. It was obvious this was a daily ritual. The policeman who frisked him looked as bored as it’s possible to look when patting down another man’s genitals. Soon it was over, and the family got back in their car. One of the policemen pulled out his phone and started texting.

If I’d made a video of the search (which I didn’t) and showed it to you with the volume off, you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting. The Israeli police didn’t hurt the man, and he barely made eye contact with them. There were no outrageous racial slurs or savage beatings. The only thing you’d see is a group of people in camouflage battle gear standing around a small white sedan, with a middle-aged woman and a couple of young girls off to the right. Unless you have hawk-like eyesight and an exceptional knowledge of obscure uniform insignias, I doubt you’d be able to tell “which side” any of the participants might be on. All you could say for sure is that the police wanted to search the family’s bodies and belongings, and the family looked very unhappy about it, but the police had guns and cameras, and that settled things. It’s interesting what conclusions different people might draw from a scene like that.

Later that night, after we get back to the Palm, I tell Mike about what we saw. He asks what we’d thought. “It was fucked up,” we say.

Mike sighs. “You should see Bethlehem.”    

Jerusalem is so close to Bethlehem that you barely have time to wonder why all the billboards that advertise luxury condos use English instead of Arabic as the second language before you arrive at the wall.

The wall is the most hideous structure I’ve ever seen. It’s a huge, groaning monument to death. Tall grey rectangles bite into the earth like iron teeth, horribly bare, cold, sterile, a towering monstrosity. The wall makes the air taste like poison.

We’re in the car of Mike’s cousin Harun, who is Palestinian, but his car has Israeli plates so we aren’t searched at the checkpoint. We inch past the concrete barriers and armored trucks. Harun holds his identity pass out the window, a soldier waves us through, and a few seconds later we’re in Bethlehem, a short drive from where Jesus Christ was born. It feels like entering prison. I don’t say prison in the sense of an ugly and depressing place you’d prefer not to visit. I say prison in the literal sense: a fortified enclosure where human beings are kept against their will by heavily armed guards who will shoot them if they try to leave. This is what modern life is like in Bethlehem, birthplace of our Lord and Savior.

Looking at the wall from the Israeli side breaks your heart because of its naked ugliness. On the Palestinian side, the unending slabs of concrete have been decorated with slogans, signs, and graffiti, which break your heart for different reasons. One of the hardest parts is reading the sumud series. These are short stories written on plain white posters, plastered to the wall about 10 feet up. Each story comes from a Palestinian woman or girl, and most are written in English, because the only people who read these stories are tourists.

One in particular catches my eye, by a woman named Antoinette:

All my life was in Jerusalem! I was there daily: I worked there at a school as a volunteer and all my friends live there. I used to belong to the Anglican Church in Jerusalem and was a volunteer there. I arranged the flowers and was active with the other women. I rented a flat but I was not allowed to stay because I do not have a Jerusalem ID card. Now I cannot go to Jerusalem: the wall separates me from my church, from my life. We are imprisoned here in Bethlehem. All my relationships with Jerusalem are dead. I am a dying woman.

The flowers are what gets me, because my mother also arranges flowers at church. Hers is an Eastern Orthodox congregation in Minneapolis, about 20 minutes by car from my childhood home. That’s about the same distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, although there aren’t any military checkpoints or armored cars patrolling the Minnesotan highways. Until today, I would’ve been unable to imagine what that would even look like. The situation here is so unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in real life that all I can think is, “it’s like a bad war movie.” For the Palestinian people who’ve been living under an increasingly brutal military occupation for the last 70 years, an entire lifetime, I can’t begin to guess at the depths of their helpless anger. What did Antoinette think, the first time the soldiers refused to let her pass? What did she say? What would my mother say? There wouldn’t be a goddamned thing she could do, or I could do, or my father or my sisters, or anyone else. We’d all just have to live with it, the soldiers groping us, beating us, mocking us. No wonder Antoinette gave up hope. In her place, would I be any different? We walk in silence for a long time.

We end up in a refugee camp called Aida, where more than 6,000 people live in an area roughly the size of a Super Target. Here, the air is literally poison. Israeli soldiers have fired so much tear gas into the tiny area that 100 percent of residents now suffer from its effects. If they were using the tear gas against, say, ISIS soldiers instead of Palestinian civilians, this would be a war crime, since “asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases” are banned by the Geneva Protocol. However, such practices are deemed to be acceptable in peacetime, since there’s no chance an unarmed civilian population would be able to retaliate with toxic agents of their own. Without the threat of escalation, chemical warfare is just crowd control.

Before we continue, there are three things you should know about Aida. The first is that there’s no clear dividing line between Aida and Bethlehem, so an unwary pedestrian can easily wander into the refugee camp without realizing it. The second thing is that it doesn’t look like a refugee camp, at least if you’re expecting a refugee camp to be full of emergency trailers, flimsy tents, and flaming barrels of trash. The third thing is that the kids who live there have terrible taste in soccer teams.

We meet the first group as soon as we enter the camp. There are five of them, all teenage boys. One of them is wearing a knockoff Yankees hat. They’re staring at us, and at once I’m very aware of my camera bag’s bulkiness and the blondeness of my fiancée’s hair. A loudspeaker crackles with the cry of the muzzein, and it’s only then that I realize how deeply we Americans have been conditioned to associate the Arabic language with violence and death. The boys exchange a quick burst of words, raising my blood pressure even higher, and cross the street toward us.

“Hello…  what’s your name?” The kid who speaks first is tall and stocky, wearing the same black track jacket and blue jeans favored by 95 percent of the world’s male adolescents. He’s also sporting the Ronaldo haircut, as are several of his friends. Two of the kids start to pull out cigarettes, so I pull out my cigarettes faster and offer the pack to them. Is this a bad, irresponsible thing to do? Sure, and if you’re worried about the long-term health of these kids’ lungs, you should call the American manufacturers who supply Israel with the chemical weapons that are used to poison the air they breathe every day.

I tell the kid my name is Nick, and he shakes my hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Shadi.” He’s carrying a rolled-up book, as are his friends, so I ask if he’s going to school. “Yeah bro, exams. We have three this week.” His friends laugh, and then engage in a quick tussle for the right of explaining that they’re heading to their math exam now, which is a boring and difficult subject, and I agree that it is, although at least you never have to use most of it after you finish school, a sentiment that earns me daps from Shadi and his friends, and we stand there giggling and smoking on the street corner of the refugee camp, though for a few moments we could be anywhere in the world.

My fiancée and I, both teachers by trade, start to pepper the kids with questions. Shadi says that he has one year left at the nearby high school, which is run by the UN refugee agency that was just stripped of half its funding by Trump. After he finishes, he plans to study at Bethlehem University. The other guys nod with approval, and speak of similar hopes. I ask them who their favorite footballer is, and they all say Ronaldo, at which I spit in disbelief, because everyone knows that Ronaldo sucks and Messi is much better, visca el Barça! Shadi and his friends break into huge grins, since few elements of brotherhood are more universal than talking shit about sports. Seconds later we’re howling with laughter as Shadi’s buddy makes insulting pantomimes about Messi’s diminutive size. A small part of my brain is loudly and repeatedly insisting that everything about this moment of life is batshit lunacy, that there’s no reason why I should be standing in a Palestinian refugee camp, yards away from buildings my country helped bomb into rubble, with my pretty fiancée and expensive camera, talking in English slang with a group of boys whose lungs are scarred with chemicals made in the USA, the exact kind of reckless young ruffians whose slingshots and stones are such a terrifying threat to the fearsome Israeli military, and the craziest thing of all is that here in the refugee camp, surrounded by derelict cars and rusty barbed wire and 6,000 displaced Palestinians,  we are not in danger, at least not from whom you’d think. Here, in the refugee camp, we can joke around with people who speak our language and know our cultural references and actively seek to help us navigate their neighborhood. None of this is to say that Aida is a safe, comfortable, or morally defensible place to put human beings, but only that the people who live there treated us with such overwhelming kindness and decency that I have never been more ashamed at what my country does in my name. I tell Shadi and his friends to take the rest of my cigarettes, but they smile and decline.

“We, uh, have to go now,” says Shadi, as his friends start to walk up the street. “Do you have Facebook?” We do, because everyone does, and as we exchange information, I wish him good luck on his math exam. “No way, bro, I suck at math,” he says. We both laugh, and I pat him on the back.

“Fuck math. But hey, you’re gonna do great, Shadi.”

“Thanks bro. Fuck math.”

I hope he gets every question correct on his exam. I hope he goes to university and wins a scholarship to Oxford. I hope he invents some insanely popular widget and it makes him a billion dollars and he never has to breathe tear gas again.

We continue walking through Aida camp. The buildings are square, ugly, and drab, but the walls are decorated with colorful paintings of fish and butterflies and meadows (along with a somewhat darker array of scenes from the Israeli military occupation). We meet a group of cousins, aged four to 10, all girls, who ask if we can speak English. When we offer them a bag of candy, they take one piece each, and run away yelping when a man limps out the front door of their house. “Thank you,” he says, his face a mask of grave civility. Cars, all bearing green-and-white Palestinian plates instead of the blue-and-yellow Israeli ones, slow down so their drivers can shout “Hello!” We meet another group of kids, boys this time, who grab fistfuls of candy and make playful attempts to unfasten my wristwatch. We make a hasty retreat from this group. The streets are scorched in spots where tear gas canisters exploded.  Narrow strips of pockmarked pavement lead us down steep hills and into winding alleys, and soon we’re lost.

This is how we meet Ahmed. He’s a tall man, about 40 years old, with a small black mustache and arms as thin as a stork’s legs. A yellow sofa leans against the concrete wall of the three-storey apartment building where he lives. Ahmed is sitting there with an elderly couple. He asks if we’d like a cup of tea, and although we’ve been warned about the old “come inside for a cup of tea” scam, we accept his offer. The elderly couple greets us in Arabic, and I try not to notice the large plastic bag of orange liquid peeking out from beneath the old man’s shirt.

While we climb the stairs to Ahmed’s apartment, he tells us that the old people are his parents. “They live here,” he says, pointing to the door on the first floor, “because they don’t walk very good. My mother has problems with her legs, my father is sick from the water.” He traces the pipes with his finger, and we see they’re coated in a thick reddish crust. “Here is the home of my big son,” he says when we reach the second floor. “He has a new baby.” We congratulate him on becoming a grandfather. “And I have a new baby, too! Come, I show you!” One more flight of stairs, and we arrive at Ahmed’s apartment.

It looks remarkably similar to a hundred other apartments we’ve visited. Framed photos of various family members hang on the living room walls, which are painted the same not-quite-white as most living room walls. There’s a beautiful red rug and a small TV. A woman is sitting on the sofa, nursing a baby as she folds socks. “My wife,” says Ahmed.

She speaks a little English too, and says that her name is Nada. She has a pale round face and long black hair. Her eyes are soft, kind, and completely exhausted. Yet if she’s annoyed or embarrassed by our presence, she doesn’t show it. She just hands the baby to Ahmed and goes to make the tea.

“I’m sorry for my house,” says Ahmed, cradling his son like a loaf of bread with legs. “We try to be clean, but…” There’s not so much as a slipper out of place, but I know what he means. “We rent this flat. And my son, and my parents. All rent. Before we have a farm, animals, olive trees, but now, we rent.” I ask about his job. He smiles and shakes his head. “I want a job,” he says, “I love to work. With my hands, with my mind. I love to work. But here, haven’t jobs.” For a second he looks like he’s going to continue this line of thinking, but he stops himself. “I help my wife, that is my job.” Ahmed laughs and passes his baby to my fiancée. “And he, he helps in the home?” She demurs while I protest in mock indignation. I do the dishes every morning before she even wakes up! Still laughing, Ahmed rubs his shins, and again it’s easy to forget we’re sitting in a refugee camp in Jesus’ hometown.

Then the baby wheezes. It’s a dry, scratchy wheeze. Ahmed squirms in his seat, looking embarrassed. The baby begins to cough. My fiancée rubs his back as the coughing turns wet and violent.  Machine gun explosions blast from his tiny lungs. As an asthmatic, I recognize the sound of serious sickness. The baby writhes in my fiancée’s lap, struggling to breathe. He’s gasping and it’s getting worse fast. At moments like these, personal experience tells me that a nebulizer can be the difference between life and death. I don’t insult Ahmed by asking if he has one, because it’s clear that he doesn’t. All I can do is rub the boy’s chest with my finger, a stupid and useless massage. He kicks and stretches as if trying to wiggle away from the unseen demon that’s strangling him.

Nada hurries back with the tea. “I’m sorry,” she says, picking up the baby. She coos to him in Arabic and rubs his back, both of which are comforting but neither of which can relax the inflamed tissues of her infant’s lungs. “My baby…” Unable to find the words in English, she looks to her husband.

Ahmed rubs his cheek. “When she is pregnant, one night the soldiers come. They say the children throw stones. They always throw stones. So the soldiers shoot gas in all the houses. In the windows, over there.” His voice gets quieter. “And she is very sick. When the baby is born, he is sick too.” I ask him if it’s possible to find medicine. “Sometimes yes,” says Ahmed, “but very, very expensive.” For the first time, there’s a note of frustration in his voice. “Everything is expensive here. You see this,” and he picks up a pack of diapers, “it cost me thirty shekels. 10 dollars, almost. And the baby needs so many things. It is impossible to buy. I haven’t money for meat, how can I buy medicine?” He points to a plastic bag with four small pitas. “This is our food. One bread for my two sons, and two breads for my wife. She must make milk for our baby.” When I ask him what he eats, he holds up his cup of tea.

Somehow Nada has soothed the baby out of danger. His breathing is almost normal again, just a quiet raspy crackle. She’s still staring at him, her big brown eyes wide with worry. I don’t know how many times she’s done this before. I don’t know how many times are left before her luck runs out. Somehow she’s keeping her baby alive with nothing but the sheer force of her love. I ask to use the toilet so I don’t have to cry in front of her.

When I come back, we finish our tea and say our farewells. I press a small wad of bills into Ahmed’s hands. He glances at them for just a second before passing them to Nada. Then he hugs my fiancée and I, and I can feel him squeezing so hard with his wiry little arms. I dig my hands into my pockets, and discover several packs of orange fruit chews. Nada chirps with delight when I hand them to her. She immediately dashes out the door with two of the packs, shouting to Ahmed’s parents in the street. A moment later she returns, just as we’re leaving the flat. I can see her through the closing door, tearing open the last pack and unwrapping a little cube of bright orange paper. She puts the candy in her mouth and chews with slow, weary happiness. “Thank you,” says Ahmed as we wave goodbye, “I cannot forget this.”

Neither can I. As we walk back to the car, I’m wondering what it’s like to watch your elderly parents die of organ failure before your eyes, pissing into a plastic bag while they sit on a sofa in the street. What’s it like to starve yourself so that the love of your life can have a few more mouthfuls of food each day? What kind of stupid, brutal hellworld is this? When Harun asks us if we still want to go to Jericho, I nod, but how am I supposed to get excited about some ancient cave when I can still feel the grip of a six-month old baby who might be choking to death as we speak?

Life goes on, for some reason. The road from Bethlehem to Jericho takes us past remote Israeli settlements, fortified outposts with armored cars, and finally the Dead Sea. Up ahead is the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Today it’s home to a Greek Orthodox monastery. It’s here, in this historically significant if deeply underwhelming place of pilgrimage, that we meet a Palestinian man named Yousef.

Yousef asks if we’d like him to take a picture of us. We say yes. He asks if we like Palestine. We say yes once more, and show him the bracelets we’re wearing, which are red, white, and green. His face brightens. He asks if we’d like to come visit him in Ramallah. He says that he’d like to show us a part of Palestine “that you don’t get with a professional guide,” and we accept without thinking twice.

Ramallah is synonymous with chaos and murder, at least in the American mind. It belongs to a class of cities like Baghdad, Kabul, or Tehran—places believed to be populated by swarthy bearded lunatics, slave women in veils, and wild-eyed orphans with a suicidal hatred of baseball, Ford trucks, and Diet Coke. You’ve probably never thought much about any of these cities, or Ramallah in particular, except in the context of war and mayhem. These days, the only time you’ll see their names on TV is when there’s an attack with an unusually high death toll during an otherwise slow news day. Americans have been fed a nonstop diet of war zone imagery from places like Ramallah, and as a result we’re unable to imagine them as anything other than war zones. It’s impossible for most of us to picture Ramallah, for example, as a place that’s decorated with Christmas lights. Would you believe it also has free wifi in the streets and a Popeyes Chicken?

We meet Yousef at the statue of Nelson Mandela. It’s about a 40-minute walk from the city center, standing in the middle of an empty roundabout. We walk in slow circles around the 20-foot tall bronze sculpture. Mandela is smiling with his fist raised to the sky. Back in Bethlehem I’d seen that same image spray-painted onto the prison wall, with his famous words written beneath: We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians. Yousef says he thought it was the perfect place to start our day. “I know it’s a little far to meet, but I wanted to show this to you. Because, you know, Mandela is a hero for us. He told the world about Palestine. This is what I want to do, too.”

Yousef says our first stop is Birzeit University, where he used to work as a graduate assistant. Located just outside Ramallah, Birzeit is one of 14 universities in occupied Palestine. It’s also a frequent target of Israeli military raids, so Yousef apologizes in advance for any security hassles. “I did make a coordination with my colleagues there, so I think everything is OK, inshallah,” he says. “You’ll like it, I hope so.”

The campus sits on a hilltop overlooking the rocky Palestinian countryside (the university’s website offers a virtual reality tour, if you’re curious). Students swarm around the main entrance, buying coffee and pastries from little kiosks. At least half of them are women. Many of them wear colorful headscarves and skintight jeans. Others have beautifully styled hair and long, loose dresses. Some women wear golden crucifixes around their necks, some wear traditional Islamic garments. The male students dress better than their American counterparts, though hoodie-and-sweatpants is not a hard bar to clear. On a nearby bench, a couple takes selfies, laughing in mock outrage at the silly faces they’re both making. My fiancée squeezes my hand and says, “Remember when that was us?” Then a bell rings and we’re swept up in a wave of humanity. A security guard keeps watch as we file through the gate, greeting many by name.

Yousef takes us to meet his friend Mohammad, his old buddy from their days as teaching assistants in the English department. We find Mohammad in the kind of tiny, windowless office with white brick walls familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in academia. He’s bleary-eyed and surrounded by stacks of papers, but he invites us to sit down—and, of course, to have a cup of tea. He asks if the security gave us any trouble. “Sometimes the Israelis send undercover commandoes to steal records or arrest student leaders of different organizations, so we must be careful with visitors. I hope you understand.” He says that many of the university’s professors are also “visited” by Israeli commandoes, in retaliation for political views such as supporting the academic boycott of Israel. At the moment, though, he’s less interested in talking about armor-clad shock troops kicking in his door than he is about his upcoming English exam. “You know the IELTS, right,” he says, naming the standardized test that’s used in the screening process for UK visas, “I want to take it next summer. The listening part, though, it’s hard.” He asks if I’d mind Skyping once in a while so he can practice following a conversation without being face-to-face, and I tell him yes, of course. Then his phone rings and we whisper our goodbyes, leaving Mohammad to shuffle papers around on a desk that has been flipped over by Israeli special forces more than once.

We stop at the international students’ office, which I’m surprised to learn exists. We’re introduced to a woman named Rasha, who’s eating the kind of turkey-and-white bread sandwich found in vending machines around the world. “Sorry, it’s lunchtime,” she says, placing the half-eaten sandwich on a pile of notebooks while she searches for a brochure to give us. “Here you go. I’m not crazy about the color scheme, I keep telling them we need to go brighter. But I’m not the designer.” As we look through the brochures, Rasha explains that international students usually come for courses that run for three months, because that’s the maximum length of time Israel allows foreigners to stay in the occupied Palestinian territories. “I do try to make it really clear to prospective students that there’s a chance the Israelis might not let you in at all,” Rasha says, “It depends on your luck. Sometimes the passport control guy is having a bad day, and he doesn’t like the answer you give him, and you’re denied entry on the spot. I know other people who come every summer, and they never have problems. It does help if you don’t look Muslim.” Despite the risk, she says that every year foreign students keep signing up for Arabic language and Palestinian political science courses at Birzeit. “We have students from Europe, Canada, the U.S., along with many countries in the Islamic world,” says Rasha. When I ask her what’s the best way to prepare for a course of my own, she says, “Read Edward Said, and don’t try to study the alphabet on your own. Either you’ll get confused and frustrated, or you’ll learn just enough to be bored with the first three weeks of class.” We thank her for the tips, and leave her in peace with her sandwich.

As we walk through the campus gardens, we see how Palestinian students pass the time when they’re not busy studying for calculus finals or making human chains to prevent armored bulldozers from demolishing their homes. Four girls, three with headscarves and one without, are singing “Happy Birthday” in a mix of Arabic and English, serenading their bareheaded friend who’s holding a small chocolate cake and puffing in vain at what is obviously a trick candle. A couple of serious young men in leather jackets are practicing photography with DSLR cameras. We hear conversations in French, German, Spanish and English, and at least two of them are about finding the nearest bathroom.

Yousef leads us to a parked minibus, and as we climb inside he apologizes for the tameness of our tour thus far. “I know it’s not so exciting, not like the demonstrations,” he says, “but I wanted to show you we’re not crazy. We like to study. We like to make things. I don’t know what you think about Palestinian people before, but I hope you see we aren’t mad people, we aren’t terrorists. We can build a country if we have a chance. Just wait, you’ll see.” He grins and nods his head, beaming with gentle anticipation. “We’re going to Rawabi.”

Rawabi, says Yousef, is Palestine’s “city made from nothing.” The first thing we see is a sand-colored minaret rising above a gleaming forest of towers. Built on the side of a cliff with commanding views of the valley below, Rawabi is so modern and polished it makes my eyes ache. “A Palestinian businessman made this. It was his dream,” Yousef says, “I think he wanted to show the world that Palestine isn’t empty.” The city looks like a Silicon Valley utopia, with cute shady boulevards and boutique eyeglass stores next to Mango outlets and artisanal coffee shops. There’s even an enormous Roman-style amphitheater and an extreme sports park. On the whole, Rawabi has as much in common with a typical Palestinian town as Las Vegas does with a typical American one. Many of the buildings aren’t quite finished, and there’s a noticeable lack of inhabitants. It’s fair to question the logic of building such an expensive new development while so much of Palestine’s infrastructure lies in ruins. If such a project were proposed in the U.S., I would be against it.

But we’re not in the U.S., and the symbolic importance of Rawabi to Palestinians shouldn’t be ignored. Yousef himself says, “Only rich people can live here. And it feels so empty. Even if I have a big salary, I don’t want to live here. But you know, I’m happy to see a nice, clean, peaceful place in Palestine. It’s a good thing to show the world.” Whatever shortcomings Rawabi may have as a paragon of egalitarian praxis, it makes up for these with its brick-and-mortar rebuttal to the lazy stereotypes of Palestinians (and Arabs in general) as people who ”bomb crap and live in open sewage,” to quote famous dipshit and ethnic cleansing enthusiast Ben Shapiro. Rawabi offers a view of Palestine’s future where kids don’t pack gas masks for school and nobody gets frisked by paranoid soldiers on their way to work. That’s enough reason for Yousef to be proud, and his optimism is hard to resist. “I’m glad you could see this place,” he says. “We should go back now, but I have one more surprise for you.”

Back in Ramallah, we say our goodbyes in front of an enormous illuminated sign that reads We Ramallah. It reminds me of the famous selfie magnet outside Amsterdam’s airport. A man pulls up on a motorbike, and when he removes his helmet, he looks so much like Yousef that my fiancée blurts out, “Holy shit.” It’s Yousef’s twin brother, and he’s ridden more than half an hour to greet us. He has the same gentle and curious eyes, the same brilliant smile. “Sorry, I don’t practice English for a long time,” he says, “but my brother, he speaks very well. He’s a smart guide. I hope he showed you the good things in Palestine.” My fiancée and I are quick to say yes, of course. Raindrops start to fall. Yousef and his brother jump on the motorbike and wave goodbye. “Come back in the summer, the weather will be much better,” says Yousef, shouting over the engine’s roar, and they zoom away into the night.

My fiancée and I start walking back toward the center of town, enjoying the peaceful rainy darkness. An enormous Christmas tree stands in a plaza. Children run around it, laughing and chasing each other, while street vendors sell roasted corn and grilled chicken. It’s not exactly like a scene from an American city, but it doesn’t feel that different, either.

Suddenly a car pulls up. Two young men are sitting in the front seats, and they’re staring at us. My pulse quickens. I can’t help it. Years of conditioning are hard to break. Then the passenger rolls down his window and says, “Hey, are you the Couchsurfing guys?” His face is dark and handsome, with a short beard groomed to perfection. “Come on, get in, you’re going to be super wet!”

His name is Ameer, and his friend’s name is Fadi. They’re graphic designers who work at the same company. Both of them talk like SoCal surf dudes. We’re heading back to Ameer’s place now, which he shares with his brother and another friend. The car weaves through the narrow streets of Ramallah. As we drive, Ameer and Fadi ask us what we like to do for fun.

“Do you party?” Ameer has a smile best described as impish. “We don’t have many discos or bars here, but I know some places.” He punches Fadi on the shoulder, and they make an impromptu list of drinking establishments in Ramallah. Every other word is “fuck.” Their casual profanity and enthusiasm for alcohol is something we haven’t encountered yet in Palestine, and to be honest, there’s something exciting about it. I pull out the bottle of Jameson I’d hidden in my backpack (to avoid insulting what I’d assumed would be our conservative Muslim hosts) and ask Ameer if he’s ever tried Irish whiskey. “No bro, but I’ll fucking try anything,” he says, and I can tell we’re going to get along well.

Ameer’s apartment building stands on the side of a steep cliff, which seems to be a common trend in Palestine. The elevator is out of order so we take the stairs. We pass the empty husk of a unit with no doors or walls. Stacks of rebar lie in the dust and a few empty potato chip bags flutter when a gust of wind blows through the holes where windows should be. Construction is not a linear process in Palestine, and Ameer isn’t sure when the building will be complete. “If the company still has money, they’ll finish,” he says. “If they don’t, they won’t.”

When he opens the door to his own apartment, though, it’s a different story. Ameer’s place is huge and spacious, with a big screen TV and a huge gorgeous rug and couches so comfortable they could be in an ad for American man caves. Two men are already sitting there, both young and bearded, both smiling at the foreigners who’ve just invaded their living room. “This is my brother Abdullah,” says Ameer, “and this is our other brother Momen.”

“Not a real brother,” says Momen, “more like, a friend-brother.” He’s in his early 30s but he has the calm, thoughtful eyes of a grandfather. I have a strong and inexplicable feeling that he can be trusted with money. Maybe I’m onto something – it turns out that Momen works in a bank, and he is somewhat of a financial genius. Ameer tells us that he bought Bitcoin years ago, “like 10 of them,” and now he’s crypto-rich. “It was only three,” says Momen, with a rueful sigh, “and I should have sold them already.” When I ask him if he has any tips, he says, “Buy XRP, from the company Ripple. Take maybe $500, and forget about it. If you lose, it’s OK. But if it goes up…” He leans back on the couch, crossing his arms, conveying such wisdom and authority that I forget to think it’s weird I’m getting investment advice from a guy on a couch in Palestine.

Abdullah, on the other hand, prefers to talk about travel. Tall and muscular, with a strong jaw and deep brown eyes, he could easily pass for the All-American halfback of your high school football team. He says he’s always been curious about the outside world. “When I was studying abroad in Malaysia, my parents used to send me money for my studies. The price isn’t so expensive like in the U.S., but it was a lot of money for me.” When he says this, I try to hide my surprise that a Palestinian student even could study abroad. “I was really lucky, you know. We don’t have any islands in the West Bank, and it’s so difficult to go out. Most people never see the ocean. So anyway, one day me and my friends decide we’re not gonna use the money for school. We wanted to see what it’s like to live on the beach. We rented a little flat in Langkawi, stayed there three months. We felt so free, so, just, you know, happy. I loved it, man. I’m in love with islands.” We start trading spots on our bucket lists: Fiji, Palau, the Maldives. In 15 minutes, he shows me so much of his soul that I feel like we’ve been best friends for years. 

We’re interrupted by Fadi, who’s noticed the tattoos peeking out from my sleeves. He laughs when I ask if he has any of his own. “No, bro, I wish. In Islam it’s haram, you know… but, who knows, maybe someday I will. I like a lot of things that are haram,” says Fadi, “not, like, super-haram, but a little haram is OK.” He points to the bottle of Gordon’s gin sitting on the coffee table. “Maybe in America people think all the Muslims are so serious, they never party or have fun, just go to mosque. But we like to party, we like to live. We’re like any people. We want to have a good time with our friends. We’re not some crazy terrorists who only care about religion. I mean, listen bro: I’m Muslim. I pray, I go to mosque. I believe in Allah. But also, I like some things that are haram.” He pours a gin & tonic for me, and another for himself. “In Ramallah, there are a lot of people like us. This is a liberal city, progressive, you know? That’s why we come here. It’s different in the small villages, like where my family lives–there’s no alcohol there. The people there don’t like it.  It’s fine, no problem. We can believe different things and still live together. I don’t hate them. Even the Israelis, I don’t hate them. Well, maybe the soldiers, but not the people. Why should I hate the people? I don’t know them.”

Ameer, who’s busy rolling a hash joint, seems to agree. “If you hate somebody, it means you want to control them. Me, I don’t want to control anybody,” he says, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air. He leans forward and locks eyes with me. “I want to be free. Totally fucking free. I don’t care about borders, nationality, any of that shit. My mind is open. I love everything that’s different. That’s why I love to meet people from outside Palestine. The normal daily life is always routine, and I fucking hate routine!” In his excitement, he slaps the coffee table and leaps to his feet. “Come on, let’s go! Let’s show you the fucking Holy Land!”

What follows is the strangest and most magical night of my life. It begins with all six of us piling into Fadi’s tiny car, giggling with our faces pressed against the windows. The radio is playing a song by Bon Iver, and my fiancée squeals with delight. Abdullah tells us that we’re heading to his favorite spot in Ramallah. “It’s a Mexican place called Fuego,” he says, “and the nachos are amazing.” We order round after round of margaritas and huge frosty mugs of beer with salted rims. When I try to pay for the drinks, the waiter smiles and refuses to take my credit card. “You’re our guests tonight,” says Fadi. “We’d be assholes if we let you pay.”

When we return to the apartment, Ameer invites some friends to come over. One of them is a beatboxer named Laith, a local celebrity with over 90,000 Facebook followers. He attributes his success to Dale Carnegie, the Law of Attraction, and his Muslim faith. Another friend, named Samhouri, is an artist who’s painted every inch of his house with enormous, colorful murals. He doesn’t speak English, but Momen is happy to translate when I ask why he did it. “Samhouri and his wife, they can never leave this city. They have no residence permits, no identification. If they try to pass the checkpoints, the Israelis will catch them. Then it’s possible Samhouri will never see his wife again. So they are trapped here. But at least they’re together. This is why he paints their house. He wants to make the life beautiful for her, as much as he can.” Later, an enormous bald man named Mo arrives. He says he used to be a hacker, living on the run from Israeli intelligence agents for years. Eventually he was captured and tortured, but even the long years of imprisonment didn’t break his determination to fight for Palestinian freedom. “Someday, I want to write a book about the people I met while I was locked up,” he says. “They had such interesting stories.”

The hours slip away, and roosters begin to crow outside. We’re all red-eyed and exhausted, but nobody wants to go to sleep. We know that something precious and ephemeral is alive in this room. In Arabic and English, we take turns trying to describe it. Friendship, brotherhood, solidarity… they’re close, but there’s something more, something that evades our best attempts to pin it down. We just feel close. We feel together. I look around the room at Fadi and Momen and Abdullah and Ameer, and I realize that I love them. They’re Palestinians, and they’re my brothers, and I love them.

I’ve never learned anything more surprising or wonderful.  

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