Fjords in Norway, appearing and disappearing amidst clouds, make one wonder if it was the mountains that ventured too far into sea or the water that pushed further inland. Or is this just nature dreaming?
Sprouting geysers in Iceland, where the venting ground is a dormant giant whale when not a volcano.
Travel offers an appreciation of nature’s marvels.
The ancient city engraved in pink stone— Petra, symbols and tombs the size of mountains— the Pyramids, a lover’s eulogy— Taj Mahal, an art collection’s most reveled sanctuary– Hermitage, and a once despised entrance arch—Le Tour Eiffel.
Travel gives an appreciation of Man’s marvels.
Travel is pilgrimage to holy places, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Mecca, Varanasi, catering to the mystical, the spiritual; magnificent temples immersed in gardens on precipices, often combining both nature’s and man’s marvels with a revered historical reference.
Travel is adventure, a suspension of reality, an escape to an unknown place, sharing an intimate moment with a complete stranger that feels familiar, under a clear night sky on a Greek Island, skinny dipping, fearless and daring.
Travel reminds us that we are born free.
Travel with someone reveals truths, exposes other sides, tests relationships.
Travel adds to a life’s experience.
Travel reminds us of the horror and madness that man is capable of inducing.
But that is not the travel I wish to talk about today.
Working for a multinational consulting company in San Francisco some years ago, I was assigned a two week project in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestinian Occupied Territories.
Landing in Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, I proceeded to immigration and security, feeling secure with my Canadian passport.
“First time in Israel?” the young girl behind the counter said. She must have been in her early twenties.
“You were born in Jordan?” She leafed through my passport.
After a few customary questions about the length and purpose of my visit, and after checking documents by my employer validating my assignment, she asked,
“Where are your parents from?”
Her eyebrows flinched.
“My father is from Ramleh [not Ramallah] and my mother is from Jafa.”
“Please go to the office over there.”
She kept my passport and uttered something in Hebrew into her transceiver. I had arranged with my colleagues to meet at the airport, their flights having arrived before mine, and was anxious not to miss our connection. I had no experience navigating this terrain and my cell phone did not function.
After an hour’s wait with other Arabs, I finally got my turn.
“Are these your bags?” an officer said.
He proceeded to ask me more questions, went through every boring detail in my bag, then took in his hands a book with music scores and flipped through its pages.
“So you play music huh?” he said with belittling amusement. I was reminded of the story of the Palestinian violinist, who was forced to play his violin before the guards at one of the check points in the West Bank. Luckily, piano is not a portable instrument.
Having found nothing suspicious, the officer ushered me to another check point where my bags and I passed through two X-ray machines. After being cleared by the machines, he had the chutzpah to ask,
“Do you have any bombs on you?”
I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the question.
Up until then, I’d only met Palestinians in Diaspora. My first encounter with Palestinians in their homeland was in Ramallah, a run-down place that, compared to Gaza, I was told, is considered the San Francisco of the Occupied Territories. I felt a sense of belonging with the people and the land. It was a strange feeling that I could only approximate to what I imagined to be the feeling of an orphan meeting his biological parents for the first time. After completing my work assignment, I spent a couple of days traveling around Palestine-Israel. I made sure to get a taxi with a license plate that allows it to travel in and out of Israel.
We headed to Ramleh, which became part of Israel proper – not the occupied territories – in 1948. We asked people to point us to City Hall. That was easy to find.
An unmistakable edifice, looking more like an overgrown house, sat in a vast plot of green against the backdrop of olive trees. The taxi stopped and I stepped out. Green grass, well kempt, covered the spacious porch before the entrance.
The façade had pink undertones and was beautified by arches and columns wrapping around a large balcony. As I drew closer, the immense edifice towered over me, making me feel very little. Perhaps it wasn’t really that immense but it did make me feel little. There was no one else but the structure and I.
Security cameras plastered high on the walls gave me the sense that I was being watched, made me feel like a trespasser. I must have looked suspicious for I really had no business being there, walking around this municipal government building.
Except that this house and this land, covering an area of 29.34 dunams (7.25 acres,) belongs to Shukri Rizk, my late grandfather. He had built it in 1947 and had no time or chance to enjoy it or bequeath it to my father.
1948. Forced expulsion. Compensation: nil.
I was defeated by a combination of pain and helplessness. I quickly extricated myself and walked away, re-entered the taxi and took off, never looking back.
My father still preserves the property’s proof of ownership. Many other Palestinians still hold on to such documents, for what they’re worth, for mine is a world governed by the rule of power not the rule of law, and what is history but a fable agreed upon, as Napoleon once said. Except, it is not agreed upon.
Travel nostalgia— you ask?
Exile— I say.
Travel enriches and travel impoverishes the heart as well.
(Today, there are over four and a half million Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N.)