Self Expression Magazine

Louis Proposes in Palestine

By Periscope @periscopepost

As I walked through the Bethlehem checkpoint a wind swept through the tunnels and an empty plastic cup blew past me, noisily. I noticed I was alone. Why was this place so empty? People told me I’d have to wait for ages to get through the Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem. That it would be a hassle and uncomfortable to watch.

But then people told me I wouldn’t get into Israel at all, didn’t they?

I’m beginning to notice something about Israel. Everybody has a different version of it and the only way to know for sure is to have your own version by being here and meeting people.

I didn’t get stopped at the checkpoint. There wasn’t a queue. I didn’t even show my passport. I meandered through, alone, and didn’t spot another human being, let alone a soldier, the whole way through. On the way back I walked through with two women and children and I saw a soldier who gave a perfunctory glance at the photo page of my passport and waved me through.

Although I had decided to walk around and get a feel for the place on my own, I didn’t have a map and it was a 7km walk into town from the checkpoint, according to Louis. Louis is a Palestinian taxi driver who, on the 7km journey into Bethlehem, convinced me to pay him 200 shekels to take me on my own personal guided tour of the sights of Bethlehem and Hebron, and the Banksy graffiti on the wall. But, most importantly, he promised me he knew the best shawarma in Bethlehem.

When I told Louis I was interested in kebabs, and schawarma – they are not the same thing here – his ears pricked up.

‘I’ve got just the thing for you!’ he said and drive directly to Abu Alees.

Here, there was no turkey shawarma and I took that to be a good thing. I had a choice of chicken or lamb and I chose chicken for the simple reason that it’s the chicken that’s been the best up to now.

I chose my bread, which was taboon, a Palestinian flatbread baked in an oven like a tandoor. It was layered with chicken, which was sliced off the shawarma with an electric knife (this is not a good thing) and was then handed over to Louis. Next to the counter was a salad bar, which you add yourself, and then a man at the end wraps it for you with a special kind of expertise. Louis added some salad and pickles and then did something that startled me – poured over something that looked like that horrible mango sauce I’d had in the Old City on my kosher kebab. He also added chilli sauce and a white sauce, which I took to be garlic. If my time in Lebanon had taught me anything it was that simplicity rules. I knew there were too many sauces and too many competing flavours going on here, but it was too late.
The bread, I have to say, was superb. It was possibly the best bread I’ve had so far. It was light and flaky and soft. Overall, however, this was an average kebab. Perhaps it was slightly better than average, I can’t remember what average used to mean. The bar was raised too high in Beirut. The spicing on the chicken is the same as that used on the turkey shawarma in Israel – it provides a slight curry flavour, which doesn’t do it for me I’m afraid.
I enjoyed the shawarma, but I didn’t love it. Because I was enjoying Louis’s company so much however I hesitated when he asked if it was better than Lebanese shawarma.

‘It’s good,’ I told him. ‘But….’ And he let it go.

I probably should take some responsibility since I’d encourage Louis to fill the wrap with just too much filling, but then perhaps they shouldn’t let amateurs free to ruin their kebabs. Faced with an all-you-can-eat bar, I tend to want everything. This is why, as a rule, I avoid them at all costs.

I award it three stars and a special star for Louis, who shined like one all day.

And that’s where the fun ends

I was expecting Hebron to be depressing but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. As we stood at a checkpoint in the casbah, I felt a heaviness descend. We were crowded into a tiny space, to be herded through the full height turnstile, one by one and at times sporadically, at the whim of a 19-year-old soldier. It felt kind of like trying to get into a stadium for a big sporting match after kick off. Only there’s not much excitement on the other side. Shops are closed and barricaded up. There aren’t that many people on the streets. It feels quiet and sad. Or maybe that’s just me. On the other side of this checkpoint is The Tomb of the Patriarchs. Abraham and Sarah, among other biblical notables, are believed to be buried there. So, obviously, it’s a sacred site for Jews and Muslims (I’m not entirely sure why the Christians are missing from this).

The reason for the tough security is because in 1994 an Israeli doctor, Baruch Goldstein, entered the building and shot dead 29 praying Muslims. He dressed in his reserve military uniform to commit the act. So now, the building is divided into a Jewish and Muslim section and security is tight. As a ‘Christian’ (it’s harder to say ‘atheist’ in these parts), I can go into both sides, and for this I felt a sense of privilege that somehow seemed wrong. I had an overwhelming conviction that if I went into one side, I absolutely had to go into the other. It was the only fair way to see things here.

So, after we’d been into the Muslim side, I told Louis I had to go to the other side. He walked me to a steel barricade where he asked an Israeli soldier, in English, if I could go into the Jewish side and he could visit his friend in a shop opposite the barricade. It was humiliation I felt – or did I only feel that later? – as the soldier said yes to me but no to Louis.

When I got back, the soldier had changed his mind and Louis was standing out of the front of his friend’s shop, opposite the barricade, waiting for me.

I wasn’t awed by either side. On both sides people were friendly. On both sides, there were tombs and people praying. On the Jewish side, there was some grass and a tree and that made it nominally nicer to look at from the outside. Inside, one looked like a mosque and the other a Yeshiva. Am I starting to become nonchalant about historical sights? Or was it just the atmosphere; that awful dreariness of the whole town that left me so underwhelmed?

I’ve said many times that this blog isn’t political, and I don’t want it to be, but I couldn’t help thinking about what my Israeli friend had said to me about the settlers: ‘Those people are ruining our country.’ I could suddenly and clearly see what she meant.

An Israeli soldier I met, who had served in Hebron, also felt that Israel shouldn’t be there. I haven’t met an Israeli who feels good about this situation. Which makes it neither better nor worse, but perhaps a little bit sadder.

When I got back in the taxi, Louis did his best to cheer me up.

‘Do you like Palestinian music?’ he asked me?

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. His response was to turn the music up as high as it would go and to sing along like he was on the X Factor final, or an episode of Glee. He was dancing in his seat and I said, ‘I like it, I like it.’

‘You have to love it,’ he said.

‘I love it,’ I said, ‘but can you put your hands on the wheels when you drive please?’

Louis briefly put his hands back on the wheel, in between showing me photos of his cute son. I said his wife must be beautiful and he thought I was hilarious. When I told him my imaginary boyfriend hadn’t yet asked me to marry him, he said he would marry me.

‘But you’re already married,’ I said.

‘I can take four wives.’

After a brief discussion as to why I didn’t think I could participate in this, he turned the music back up and we laughed the day away. I don’t know how it came to be that this poor Palestinian taxi driver took it on himself to cheer up a western tourist, but that’s the way it turned out that day. I felt bad about it, until he convinced me to give him a 50 shekel tip ‘for his son’. He remains to be convinced that western backpackers aren’t rich as much as I remain to be convinced on the merits of polygamy.

Louis, I’m really glad I met you, because you made me laugh on a day when I felt very sad. And I don’t know what bigger compliment I can pay to you.

Venue: Abu Alees, on the main road into Bethlehem from the checkpoint.

A version of this post first appeared in KebabQuest

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