Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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Ramallah is the boom town of the West Bank. As, bit by bit (under the settlement policy of Israel), the likelihood of East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine is fading, Ramallah is emerging as the de facto capital of the country. It feels secular and relatively sophisticated, and there’s no question that it’s Palestinian. The PLO headquarters is here. Yasser Arafat is buried here. And it’s busy with NGOs and international agencies working on Palestine’s problems. As many Palestinian Americans have moved back home and live here, there are lots of American accents. The city of 70,000 people sits at about 3,000 feet above sea level. Its name means “God’s Mountain,” and it was cold when I was there. As it lacks the trouble-causing religious sites — and is more liberal and cosmopolitan than other Palestinian cities — it was the most relaxed place in the country for me.

Coming into Ramallah, a road was closed off with chunks of broken concrete. A few tires were burning in the distance. And a group of teenage boys were throwing rocks at an Israeli police station. It’s what some kids do here for a little "excitement" after school.

Coming into Ramallah, a road was closed off with chunks of broken concrete. A few tires were burning in the distance. And a group of teenage boys were throwing rocks at an Israeli police station. It’s what some kids do here for a little “excitement” after school.

Ramallah is considered the most cosmopolitan city in the country; there's nightclubs and fun after dark.

Ramallah is considered the most cosmopolitan city in the country; there’s nightclubs and fun after dark.

In Ramallah I slept at a friendly and comfortable hotel called Beauty Inn. Their breakfast was delightful.

In Ramallah I slept at a friendly and comfortable hotel called Beauty Inn. Their breakfast was delightful.

Sadly, Christian churches throughout the Middle East are suffering from the rise of extremist Muslim groups. The Lutheran church in Ramallah is built like a fortress.

Sadly, Christian churches throughout the Middle East are suffering from the rise of extremist Muslim groups. The Lutheran church in Ramallah is built like a fortress.

My guide, Iyad Shrydeh, took me to everyone’s favorite ice cream joint, Rukab’s, for a bowl of delightfully stretchy Palestinian ice cream.

My guide, Iyad Shrydeh, took me to everyone’s favorite ice cream joint, Rukab’s, for a bowl of delightfully stretchy Palestinian ice cream.

Downtown Ramallah was the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and relaxed urban scene I found in Palestine.

Downtown Ramallah was the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and relaxed urban scene I found in Palestine.

Perhaps the number one sight in Ramallah is the tomb of Yasser Arafat. While, to many, Arafat is just a terrorist, regardless of what you think of him, he was instrumental in raising awareness of the plight of his people. I found that, while many Palestinians believe Arafat squandered some opportunities for peace that they would love to have now, nearly all respect him as an important leader who committed his life to forging a free Palestinian state.

Perhaps the number one sight in Ramallah is the tomb of Yasser Arafat. While, to many, Arafat is just a terrorist, regardless of what you think of him, he was instrumental in raising awareness of the plight of his people. I found that, while many Palestinians believe Arafat squandered some opportunities for peace that they would love to have now, nearly all respect him as an important leader who committed his life to forging a free Palestinian state.

Yasser Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization and — whether you consider him a terrorist or a statesman — he raised awareness of the struggles of his people.

Yasser Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization and — whether you consider him a terrorist or a statesman — he raised awareness of the struggles of his people.

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In the Balata Refugee Camp, mothers send their sons out for chicken, and they bring home a very fresh bird ready to cook. The boy selects a bird from the cage. The butcher slits its throat, drains it, and tosses the bird into a spinner to remove all its feathers. Then he guts it, washes it, and puts it in a plastic bag. The cost: about $4 a bird. Palestinians call the spinner a “ma a’ta” — the same word they use for the turnstile they have to go through at various security checkpoints. To them, whether you’re a chicken or a human being, the ma a’ta robs you of your dignity. Warning: There’s some graphic content in this butcher shop video.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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There are camps throughout the West Bank where refugees from the Israeli/Arab wars live. The biggest, with over 23,000 people, is in Nablus. It’s across street from Jacob’s Well, where Christians believe a Samaritan woman offered Jesus some water and he revealed to her that he was the Messiah. (One of the only surviving Samaritan communities lives today in a tiny, tight-knit group on a hilltop above Nablus.) While the camp’s original, three-by-three-meter platting for tents survives, the actual tents were replaced by concrete structures long ago — and these go up many stories. The density is horrible, and there’s little privacy. It’s a land of silent orgasms.

This political art, typical of paintings decorating the wall separating Israel and Palestine, comes with powerful symbolism: Along with the Dome of the Rock (sacred to Muslims), the broken wall, and the olive branch, is a key — what refugees took with them when evacuating their hometowns decades ago.

This political art, typical of paintings decorating the wall separating Israel and Palestine, comes with powerful symbolism: Along with the Dome of the Rock (sacred to Muslims), the broken wall, and the olive branch, is a key — what refugees took with them when evacuating their hometowns decades ago.

In several places around Palestine you see big keys symbolizing the determination of refugees who left Israel to return to their home villages.

In several places around Palestine you see big keys symbolizing the determination of refugees who left Israel to return to their home villages.

In the very poor refugee camp of Balata kids don’t have computers or the Internet at home. But they can spend a few pennies at the Internet shop on the main street. I popped in to see the action. Nearly all the boys were playing violent shoot-‘em-up computer games. One cute little boy turned to me and said, “Shalom.” Another, just as cute, turned away from his terminal, looked up at me, and said, “F*** you, rich man.” Part of me was impressed.

In the very poor refugee camp of Balata kids don’t have computers or the Internet at home. But they can spend a few pennies at the Internet shop on the main street. I popped in to see the action. Nearly all the boys were playing violent shoot-‘em-up computer games. One cute little boy turned to me and said, “Shalom.” Another, just as cute, turned away from his terminal, looked up at me, and said, “F*** you, rich man.” Part of me was impressed.

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Nablus hosts the Balata Refugee Camp. With more than 23,000 registered refugees, it’s the largest United Nations-administered refugee camp in the West Bank, and it’s now 63 years old. While most Palestinians would disagree, some point out that Israel has had many refugees and assimilated them into their prosperous society while Palestine — and the Arab world — keeps the West Bank refugee camps in squalor in order to stir public opinion against Israel. Others point to the horrible conditions here as an example of the injustice Palestinians are living with every day. Regardless of your perspective, one thing is true: In 1948, when the families now living in Balata left their homes in Israel, they thought it would be for a short time. They locked up and took their keys. They still keep those keys — and they still hope to return.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Nablus is the second city of the West Bank in population and, like so many cities in the Middle East, it goes way back. The name is an Arabic version of its original name, Neapolis (New City) — it was founded by Roman Emperor Vespasian in A.D. 72. It’s a socially conservative city and feels that way. They say if you go to Egypt you must see the pyramids, and if you go to Nablus you must eat kunafeh — a shredded wheat, cheese, and syrup-soaked delight. I’m not one to put desserts in the category of ancient wonders, but kunafeh was the tastiest treat I’ve encountered so far in the Middle East. I made a point to eat it everywhere I could.

My guide, Husam, took me to Tanoreen, which must be the best restaurant in Nablus, where we enjoyed a fine city view and a local feast — chicken and vegetables cooked in a fire pit...and sweet kunafeh.

My guide, Husam, took me to Tanoreen, which must be the best restaurant in Nablus, where we enjoyed a fine city view and a local feast — chicken and vegetables cooked in a fire pit…and sweet kunafeh.

Like any Palestinian city, the skyline of Nablus is dotted with black water towers. Palestinian buildings can be identified by the gear on their roofs. While Israeli settlers have running water whenever they like, Israel controls and limits water service in the Palestinian Territories. Consequently Palestinians have black water tanks on their roofs and top them off whenever the water is running. Each community has its concerns: They say the first thing an Israeli considers when building a house is a bomb-hardened safe room, and the first thing a Palestinian considers is building a cistern. Along with solar panels, Palestinian rooftops also sport satellite disks to connect to Arab and international satellites, which serve as their window on the world.

Like any Palestinian city, the skyline of Nablus is dotted with black water towers. Palestinian buildings can be identified by the gear on their roofs. While Israeli settlers have running water whenever they like, Israel controls and limits water service in the Palestinian Territories. Consequently Palestinians have black water tanks on their roofs and top them off whenever the water is running. Each community has its concerns: They say the first thing an Israeli considers when building a house is a bomb-hardened safe room, and the first thing a Palestinian considers is building a cistern. Along with solar panels, Palestinian rooftops also sport satellite disks to connect to Arab and international satellites, which serve as their window on the world.

Nablus was considered a capital of terrorism during the Second Intifada. Its residents hit Israel hard, and Israel hit back hard. Its old town streets still show bomb damage. Today, Nablus feels unrepentant, and the town center is decorated with posters of what locals call martyrs. Looking into the eyes of these young men (many of them just teenagers) and seeing how they are portrayed heroically in such posters — and then imagining the anger and hopelessness of the poor street kids today — made me feel sad…and not very optimistic. But there’s always ice cream.

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Visitors are welcome to tour both the mosque and the synagogue at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Here is a quick walk through the synagogue and a peek at the tomb of Abraham. Look for the bulletproof glass that separates the Muslim and Jewish sides of the much-venerated tomb.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Hebron is a fascinating place. With about 250,000 people, it’s the largest Palestinian city and the commercial capital of the West Bank. Its people, while very conservative,  seem to have some Crusader blood — you’ll see some blond hair and blue eyes. While the old town thrives with commerce, there is a palpable unease that makes just being here stressful. That’s because it has the Tomb of the Patriarchs — where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all buried — which makes it holy for Jews, Muslims, and Christians…and sharing this peaceably is tricky.

The people of Hebron are seen as a bit different. They speak more slowly. Perhaps because of their Bedouin heritage, they have a tighter tribal community, and, I’m told, this is the only place you’ll find fresh camel meat at the butcher’s.

The people of Hebron are seen as a bit different. They speak more slowly. Perhaps because of their Bedouin heritage, they have a tighter tribal community, and, I’m told, this is the only place you’ll find fresh camel meat at the butcher’s.

You see and feel the tension in Hebron. The center of the city is literally Jews atop Muslims — as both communities are committed to staying close to the patriarch Abraham whose tomb lies in the center. While Arabs take the ground floor, a group of about 400 Jewish settlers (many of whom are American) live above them. Because of the violent history of this town, there is a large contingent of Israeli security forces to protect the Jewish settlers. Going through security turnstiles and walking down the boarded-up “ghost street” was not enjoyable. While people choose to live here to be close to their patriarch, I wondered what Abraham would think about the inability of his feuding descendants to live together better.

 A daily part of life in strife-torn Hebron is for residents to go through security turnstiles like this.

A daily part of life in strife-torn Hebron is for residents to go through security turnstiles like this.

While this is a tough place for a Jew to live, those who do are driven by their faith, believing it’s important not to abandon the burial site of their patriarchs, the second most holy site for them after Jerusalem. The Tomb of the Patriarchs marks the first Jewish possession in the land of Israel. Abraham purchased the burial plot almost 4,000 years ago as explained in Genesis 23. Many times the temple here has been “repurposed” as a church or a mosque. Jews could not go beyond the seventh step on a staircase outside the building from 1267 to 1967. Since 1967, Jewish worshippers have had full access to the holy site. In 1994, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers here. Since then, the holy spot has been divided — half mosque and half synagogue — with each community getting a chance to pray at the tomb of Abraham separated by bulletproof glass.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is holy for both Jews and Muslims. It holds the much-venerated tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah. Much of the building is an old Crusader church built on top of an enclosure from the time of King Herod. It is split to function as both a mosque and a synagogue.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is holy for both Jews and Muslims. It holds the much-venerated tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah. Much of the building is an old Crusader church built on top of an enclosure from the time of King Herod. It is split to function as both a mosque and a synagogue.

Like they pray at the Western Wall of their destroyed temple in Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews pray at the foundation wall of their temple in Hebron. As at the Western Wall, the stones here are “Herod Stones,” quarried and cut during the reign of King Herod and each with a distinctive carved border.

Like they pray at the Western Wall of their destroyed temple in Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews pray at the foundation wall of their temple in Hebron. As at the Western Wall, the stones here are “Herod Stones,” quarried and cut during the reign of King Herod and each with a distinctive carved border.

In the Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque you can see a minbar.  It's a staircase representing how teachers spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad — a standard feature in mosques. This one is a rare original from the 11th century made of inlaid wood and no nails.

In the Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque you can see a minbar. It’s a staircase representing how teachers spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad — a standard feature in mosques. This one is a rare original from the 11th century made of inlaid wood and no nails.

The memorial tomb of Abraham comes with bulletproof glass and barred windows so that his two sons' feuding descendants — Jews and Muslims — can respect his grave.

The memorial tomb of Abraham comes with bulletproof glass and barred windows so that his two sons’ feuding descendants — Jews and Muslims — can respect his grave.

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Hebron, while not very important politically and very conservative, is the biggest city and has the largest economic impact in Palestine. Its population generates about 30 percent of the West Bank’s economy. Because it has the tomb of Abraham, it is holy to both Jews and Muslims…and there lies the problem.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Frankly, Palestine is not a very pretty place. In hopes of scouting somewhere that looks good for our TV camera, I searched for natural zones. One place stole my heart — a natural preserve for hiking near the village of Battir west of Bethlehem. A fine trail snaked along terraces that defined this terrain in the time of Jesus. These 3000-year-old “Biblical Terraces” were lined with stately and graceful olive trees.

I also looked for beauty elsewhere. Like many Westerners, I’m fascinated and perplexed by the tradition of women needing to be covered in public for modesty. While it’s certainly not unique to Islam, you notice it a lot while traveling here. For Muslim men, it’s a sin to look lustfully at a woman who’s not your wife. Around here, hair is sexy, and in the strictest of Muslim societies, women carefully cover up every strand in public. (Of course, in the privacy of their own domestic world, they are welcome to be as sexy as they like for their husbands.)

Three-thousand-year-old terraces and olive groves provide a peaceful pathway near Bethlehem. The olive tree, a symbol of steadfastness and faith in the future, has great significance in Palestinian society. The tree of poor people, it gives without taking. You plant it for your children, knowing that they will plant it for their children, too.

Three-thousand-year-old terraces and olive groves provide a peaceful pathway near Bethlehem. The olive tree, a symbol of steadfastness and faith in the future, has great significance in Palestinian society. The tree of poor people, it gives without taking. You plant it for your children, knowing that they will plant it for their children, too.

Happily for many men, the scarf — while meant to downplay a woman’s beauty —  has morphed into something stylish and sexy in itself. Women can be technically proper with their faith while still looking good. These days, scarves are worn like peacock tails. For many women, much care is put into coordinating their scarves, nail polish, hand bags, and lipstick.

Happily for many men, the scarf — while meant to downplay a woman’s beauty — has morphed into something stylish and sexy in itself. Women can be technically proper with their faith while still looking good. These days, scarves are worn like peacock tails. For many women, much care is put into coordinating their scarves, nail polish, hand bags, and lipstick.

Modesty requirements are not unique to Muslims. Some conservative Christian women are expected to cover their heads in church. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are expected to shave their heads and to wear a wig in public. And many Muslim women cover their heads. This woman, while technically covered, is dressed to kill.

Modesty requirements are not unique to Muslims. Some conservative Christian women are expected to cover their heads in church. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are expected to shave their heads and to wear a wig in public. And many Muslim women cover their heads. This woman, while technically covered, is dressed to kill.

Many restaurants have a main room for men and a family room for women and children. My guide talked this place into letting us eat in the family section. I was surrounded by shy and demure young women wearing gorgeous scarves. My guide — a good-looking, young, and single guy — would never dare connect with a strange women in this environment. He wouldn’t even try. And if he did, he’d be shunned. But I amazed him by getting eye contact with Jasmine, joining her for a few flirtatious minutes and taking a photograph.

Many restaurants have a main room for men and a family room for women and children. My guide talked this place into letting us eat in the family section. I was surrounded by shy and demure young women wearing gorgeous scarves. My guide — a good-looking, young, and single guy — would never dare connect with a strange women in this environment. He wouldn’t even try. And if he did, he’d be shunned. But I amazed him by getting eye contact with Jasmine, joining her for a few flirtatious minutes and taking a photograph.

In Palestinian society — like all around the Mediterranean in both Christian and Muslim lands — women stick together in public and so do the guys. These women in the conservative city of Hebron are sporting peacock scarves yet sticking together. Far more women wear scarves in Hebron and Nablus than in the more cosmopolitan Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

In Palestinian society — like all around the Mediterranean in both Christian and Muslim lands — women stick together in public and so do the guys. These women in the conservative city of Hebron are sporting peacock scarves yet sticking together. Far more women wear scarves in Hebron and Nablus than in the more cosmopolitan Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Young Palestinian men live with strict codes of conduct. In traditional families they're expected to marry into their religion (Christian or Muslim), many marriages are arranged, and any physical romance comes very late in the game. In a few communities, mothers-in-law even expect to see a bloody sheet after the wedding night. I saw a couple walking down the street holding hands, so I asked my guide about it. He said, “They’re engaged. I saw the ring.”

Young Palestinian men live with strict codes of conduct. In traditional families they’re expected to marry into their religion (Christian or Muslim), many marriages are arranged, and any physical romance comes very late in the game. In a few communities, mothers-in-law even expect to see a bloody sheet after the wedding night. I saw a couple walking down the street holding hands, so I asked my guide about it. He said, “They’re engaged. I saw the ring.”

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In the last decade Israel built a wall separating it from the Palestinian Territories in order to stop Palestinian terrorists from getting into Israel, and most people in Israel attribute the dramatic drop in violence since then to this barrier. Since the wall’s been erected, terrorism within Israel has gone down about 90 percent. While it has angered people around the world who care about the plight of the Palestinians, many Israelis would say, “Sorry about the inconvenience, but what’s a matter of convenience for Palestinians is a matter of survival for us.” While the wall is generally nicely finished on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side it’s rough concrete punctuated by fortified towers. The concrete provides a big and inviting canvas for angry Arab artists and fascinating viewing for any visitor.

When Israel celebrates its Independence Day each spring, the same event is mourned as “The Day of Catastrophe” on the other side of this wall. While Israelis celebrate their independence by setting off fireworks and having big family BBQs, charred towers like this one are a reminder that, on the other side of the barrier, the anniversary is remembered differently — for example, it's an excuse for angry Palestinian teenagers to stack tires against these symbols of occupation and set them on fire.

When Israel celebrates its Independence Day each spring, the same event is mourned as “The Day of Catastrophe” on the other side of this wall. While Israelis celebrate their independence by setting off fireworks and having big family BBQs, charred towers like this one are a reminder that, on the other side of the barrier, the anniversary is remembered differently — for example, it’s an excuse for angry Palestinian teenagers to stack tires against these symbols of occupation and set them on fire.

Much of the art along the wall has a David and Goliath theme, with slingshot-wielding boys tormenting well-armed troops.

Much of the art along the wall has a David and Goliath theme, with slingshot-wielding boys tormenting well-armed troops.

There's a big culture of hero- and martyr worship in Palestine. This woman, Leila Khaled, won notoriety by hijacking a TWA plane flying from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1969. Is she a terrorist or a freedom fighter? It really depends on who you ask.

There’s a big culture of hero- and martyr worship in Palestine. This woman, Leila Khaled, won notoriety by hijacking a TWA plane flying from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1969. Is she a terrorist or a freedom fighter? It really depends on who you ask.

In this mural the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is lionized. I was told that there's a very good likelihood that the extreme Hamas party could beat the more moderate Fatah party in the next Palestinian election, which could in turn radicalize the West Bank as Hamas has radicalized Gaza. Moderates claim that if Israel would let Barghouti — the only Fatah leader with any charisma — free, Barghouti could help things stay on a moderate course. Many wonder why, if Barghouti could help moderation and Hamas would bring more extremism, Israel refuses to release Barghouti.

In this mural the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is lionized. I was told that there’s a very good likelihood that the extreme Hamas party could beat the more moderate Fatah party in the next Palestinian election, which could in turn radicalize the West Bank as Hamas has radicalized Gaza. Moderates claim that if Israel would let Barghouti — the only Fatah leader with any charisma — free, Barghouti could help things stay on a moderate course. Many wonder why, if Barghouti could help moderation and Hamas would bring more extremism, Israel refuses to release Barghouti.

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