I'm not a super-adventurous traveler; while I like to go to less-well-known places and sites, they're seldom in areas altogether off the tourism map.
But a few years ago, we found ourselves in Israel to visit friends, and not very comfortable with the feeling of seeing and hearing a great deal of 'us and them' talk, and military presence. I found myself wanting to see 'the other side,' the perceived menace.
While it was not possible, especially on a short trip, to really "assess the state of the Middle East," we did get the opportunity to go with a friend to briefly visit the Arab cities of Ramallah and Nablus, on the West Bank.
We traveled from East Jerusalem on 'servis,' essentially large vans that collect passengers at stations; when one is filled for a destination, it leaves. Our first leg was to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestine National Authority, which we reached after passing numbers of Israeli settlements.
Ramallah was my first surprise; I always find my conceptions challenged by travel, and this was no exception. The town's buildings were larger, more varied and less 'Middle Eastern' than my mind saw. There were also quite a few clever signs imitating some well-known Western brand names.
After a pleasant lunch at a small kebab restaurant near the bus station, we were on another van on our way to our overnight in Nablus, an important commercial city, and more than five times larger than Ramallah.
We stayed at the Al Yasmeen Hotel, which, we found, caters to many staff members from a variety of NGOs. It was a pleasant hotel, though we were warned that it was occasionally quite cold at night. It also had a pleasant dining room; eight years later I regret we didn't venture further afield for dinner.
The hotel is near the city center, and the souk, or market. It's really a series of connected markets down this passageway and that, and out in the open, with different merchandise in different areas
To our eyes, the most outstanding sight was the produce, offered both in formal stands and off improvised tabletops. Fruits and vegetables familiar and unfamiliar in grand arrays
Most spectacular were the strawberries. Not only because we're not used to strawberries being in season in February, we New Yorkers, but because we had never seen such a profusion of huge berries, of a size that usually means that they're 'overgrown' and the flavor will be poor. Not here, though: these were luscious and clearly of a very different variety.
And there's some oddball merchandise, too: This blanket says it was "made with technical collaboration of Korea."
Nablus is actually not an ancient town by Middle Eastern standards; it's less than two thousand years old, founded by Romans. Even its name is a fooler: it is what happened over many years to 'Neopolis,' or 'new town.'
By our standards, though, it is clearly old, and its many gateways, courtyards and inner spaces added an aura of mystery; entering by one way from one street, we several times found ourselves leaving to an entirely different place.
Our return to Jerusalem was somewhat more eventful than our journey out. On the way to Nablus, our only signs of Israel's long-time occupation were roads leading off to Israeli settlements on seized land, and an occasional not-in-use guardpost.
At other points in the occupation, we were told, Israeli troops and police had been present in the various towns, but local administration had since been passed over to the Palestine Authority.
But shortly before reaching Jerusalem, we got a taste of the ongoing conflict; along with all the other passengers, we had to leave the Ramallah-to-Jerusalem bus and pass, on foot, through an Israeli Army checkpoint, where we and our fellow passengers were passed through a high turnstile a few at a time, slowly. If it was chilling for us, we had to remind ourselves, our fellow passengers face it every day, and some days all are turned back.
And congratulations to George G, who recognized Nablus after a deep search.