Jericho from the Telepherique
Our first day in Palestinian Palestine. Our friend Sameer (not his real name) knows Jericho well, and is only slightly nervous as he explains to the policeman at the only Palestinian checkpoint in the West Bank that we are guests from Italy. Our foreign passports are given a cursory glance. The policeman returns the documents with an ahalan wa sahlan and we are through.
Next stop Hisham’s Palace. There is a nice visitor’s centre, and we watch a very slick video produced by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. The film diplomatically ignores the period of direct Israeli control of the site, with only a vague reference to damage incurred in 1948. The site itself is impressive and the “Tree of Life” mosaic breathtaking, although some of the restoration work (yellowish concrete pillars with iron rods sticking out the top) leaves a lot to be desired. An American student or volunteer, working on a new dig, automatically addresses us in Arabic. We reply in kind.
After Hisham’s Palace, we head for the main attraction in Palestine’s favourite internal tourist spot – the Téléphérique (cable car) that links Tel Jericho to the Mount of Temptation (Qarantal). A lot of money was obviously invested in the city when it was first turned over to the Palestinian Authority, but buildings are unfinished or poorly maintained, and there is a kind of depressed look to the place. A boy selling pomegranate and orange juice approaches us as we enter the deserted cable car terminus, and asks us (in passable Italian) to promise that we will buy a glass on the way out. Atop the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus is believed to have been tempted by Satan), we order some drinks at one of the restaurants. Again we are introduced by our Palestinian friend as guests, and the waiter goes out of his way to get some biscuits and chocolate for us (not on the menu). We are joined on the terrace overlooking the desert, by a group of Italians. They seem politically committed, like most of the Europeans we encounter here. Jericho is no longer on the average pilgrim or tourist’s itinerary.
Back in the valley, we are again addressed in Italian, or rather a mixture of Italian and Portuguese, by a souvenir salesman intent on selling us Israeli settlement-produced Dead Sea salts and mud. We decline, on both environmental and political grounds (BDS!). Although the salesman agrees with us in theory, he doesn’t give up until we buy some Hebron pottery. A glass of promised pomegranate juice, and we’re off to the market to buy some dates. Sameer decides to do his vegetable shopping, and phones home for instructions. While filling our bags, we are offered bananas, cucumbers and coffee. The shopkeeper is surprised when Sameer turns to me in English. He was sure I was Palestinian. The confusion is repeated the next morning at a grocery in East Jerusalem.
Sameer insists that we stop for lunch. His father-in-law, the family expert on kebab, has assured him that Essawe’s Restaurant makes the best in Palestine. He’s probably right. Essawe’s is five or six stories high. We sit on the second-story terrace with a great view of the recently-renovated main square (“A gift from the People of Japan to the People of Palestine”, the sign says) and the traffic that flows around it. Jaywalking seems to be the rule in Jericho, despite the presence of a shiny car with “Traffic Police” written on the side and a couple of uniformed men standing next to it.
We end our visit to Jericho with coffee and a narghileh at a crowded sidewalk cafe on the other side of the square. A municipal inspector comes by and has some words with the owner, who has apparently overstepped his allotted 80 centimetres of pavement. I describe a similar scene I once witnessed in Rome (which ended without a fine) and Sameer translates. The inspector is amused and decides to let it go. The owner tells us that our drinks and smoke are on the house. We thank him and pay anyway, as etiquette seems to require.
Fortunately, by the time we are ready to leave Jericho, the Israeli checkpoint we spotted on our way into the city has gone. Our foreign passports would have been suspicious without Israeli entry visas, and our Israeli identity cards would have exposed us to fines and possible criminal proceedings for having entered Area A. Sameer had suggested that we keep both documents ready and “go with the flow”. He keeps checking to make sure we haven’t left our documents anywhere.