Travel writer Jean Glock traveled with David Tett, Jared Diamond, and 40 Bushtracks travelers on our Jerusalem to Cape Town by Private Jet Expedition, September 1-21, 2016. Here Jean shares her thoughts on exploring Jerusalem with their guides: one Israeli and one Palestinian.
Standing atop the ancient site of Herodium, at the highest point in the Judean desert, our group turned away from the archaeological site to examine the surrounding landscape. We were on the West Bank. In Palestine, but standing on a site under the control of Israel’s National Parks Authority. We were looking out at a landscape of small Palestinian villages and new Israeli settlements. This was the land disputed since before Herod built his palace in the 1st century BCE. We were about to hear about the history and current political situation in this volatile region from two men who lived it day by day.
Our guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, shared the narration. We had become accustomed to conflicting narratives for many sites in Jerusalem. Though friends, the differing perspectives of our guides insured our five days in Israel and the West Bank were not your typical tourist fare. Looking out over this area of the West Bank, at villages and settlements, their views and past took us beyond the headlines, way beyond.
The tour company leading us, Mejdi, prides itself on presenting dual narratives of sites and history in the world’s most volatile region. The man behind Mejdi is Aziz Abu Sarah, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer with a fascinating background. An earlier interview with him in National Geographic Traveler can be found here.
I was privileged to spend 5 days with Aziz and his staff in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Traveling with a group of 40 guests and the author Jared Diamond on a Bushtracks Expeditions private jet journey from Jerusalem to Cape Town, this was our first stop.
The history of the standard sites was well covered from all perspectives. But it was the personal stories of our guides and the logistics of traveling around the region with them that taught our group so much more than the linear history of the region.
Our Israeli guide, who grew up in Jerusalem, had never met an Arab until he was 18 years old, despite living only several blocks from East Jerusalem. The same was true for our Palestinian guide. They both admitted they had been taught from an early age to distrust the other. They were now friends, though understanding they may never agree on some fundamental issues. But it was clear that they trusted each other, and both hoped for peace.
At some checkpoints, Aziz and our Palestinian guide had to drive to separate checkpoints to enter the West Bank. They could not enter with us on our bus and were never certain they would be allowed back in Israel. Guards at various Israeli sites were clearly confused why we would have a Palestinian guide. Guards at every site kept us under close watch as they were confused as to our motives.
The high point of our visit was dinner with Aziz’s family in their West Bank home. We were the entertainment for the whole village and the children enjoyed sneaking around to get a peek at this odd group of Americans. Sitting in the garden, enjoying a delicious feast, the highlight was meeting Aziz’s family. I asked his mother if we could take a picture together and she refused until she could change into dressier clothes. Mothers are the same worldwide.
As we walked back down the path to our very obvious buses parked in the street, we heard loud bangs. Gunfire I asked Aziz? No, just fireworks he said. Probably true, but a reminder that despite our experiences, differing views are rarely so congenially discussed in the Middle East.
On the hill of Herod’s Palace at Herodium, we saw the battles of the past and the discord of the present. We also heard how two young men of vastly different backgrounds interpreted both the past and present. Not sanitized versions, but thought-provoking and challenging.
A luxury trip by private jet with Bushtracks had begun, and the real luxury was not the private jet. It was the rare chance to meet two men who shared their personal lives along with a strong dose of history. What we heard will not be forgotten.
As Aziz said in his earlier interview with National Geographic Traveler:
“Travel is the best intercultural exchange that can happen. I’m not saying people need to agree, but [I am asking them] to open their minds."
Thank you Bushtracks Expeditions and Aziz Abu Sarah. Hugs to your lovely mother.