In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012.
The West Bank Tour Guides saw wonderfully to the care and feeding of the tourists they showed around. In Nablus it was kunafeh on the street–a creamy, syrupy sweet browned and then flipped in a pizza-sized pan. In Hebron, it was lunch in a cool upstairs room, sinking into soft couches amongst embroidered cushions and watching maqlubeh– “upside down” chicken, rice and cauliflower–upended on a huge platter before our eyes.
The guides took us down market streets and into spice shops crammed full with sacks of saffron, zatar, nuts and mint. Often, they also drew attention to less consumable details that I, for one, would have missed seeing if I were by myself. When Fred Schlomka pointed out Israeli settler houses popping up overhead in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, I was surprised. The street level market there was so packed with pistachios, grape leaves, sheep heads, embroidered abayas and souvenir t-shirts that I’d likely never have looked up to see armed guards stationed on settler rooftops above.
In Hebron’s quieter market it’s possible that I’d have noticed the rock-littered chicken wire overhead but it was the tour guide who said it’s there to protect pedestrians from rocks and trash settlers throw down from their roofs. Not only was space divided horizontally in the West Bank, but also vertically; it took the helpful words of tour guides to point out for me this dimension in spatial segregation.
What is the role of a tour guide? To encourage you to look with your own eyes, or to feed you information? To prompt you to connect what you see with your feelings and experience, or to imagine meanings outside it? And should place-based tour guides just describe what’s there, or let you know what it means for them?
Majdi, who called himself an activist, told hair-raising stories about civilian casualties inflicted by Israeli tanks and artillery in Nablus, about the murder of a priest, about appalling physical and social conditions in the Balata Refugee Camp, (the same camp currently identified by Google Maps as a Green Olive Tour meeting point in another city). Majdi also pointed out the similarity in sound and sense between the greetings Salaam and Shalom. His tour left me drained.
Other Palestinian tour guides told stories about their own everyday difficulties, many having to do with freedom of movement. Samer, who is Greek-educated, knows the Louvre, and has taken his family on safari in Kenya, is barred from Israel, just a short drive away. For everyday matters, his wife’s permit allows her into Tel Aviv for business, he said, but his does not. And even with the right exit permits, travel abroad apparently requires leaving through a third country, Jordan.
Yamin showed a group of us freely mobile tourists a long string of black block numbers stamped into his Canadian passport. The numbers mark him as Palestinian and therefore restricted in where he can go. His anti-visa reminded me of the restricted U.S. passports mentioned in Larissa Sansour’s video, Soup over Bethlehem. I also thought of artist Emily Jacir’s documentation of her travels in Israel on behalf of Palestinians who can’t go. While there, she performs everyday tasks for them: putting flowers on a grave in Jerusalem for a mourner; just playing soccer with a child; paying a bill in a stipulated but simultaneously off-limits post office.
The Palestinian tour guides talked about wanting to get together socially with their Israeli counterparts, to share a meal together or go camping. But some of these border-crossing proposals were apparently illegal, and all subversive. The concept of tour guide socializing as provocative was to me a new and exotic one.
Some of the places where the Palestinian tour guides couldn’t go gave me the willies. In Hebron I found it daunting to venture through checkpoints bristling with Israeli soldiers without a guide’s reassuring presence, especially when I noticed machine guns casually pointing at our backs, with fingers on the triggers.
It was also in Hebron that a small sub-set of my tour group went alone into an Israeli settlement. Walking first through an empty market street from which Palestinians had been evicted felt creepy. Then, after seeing so many refugee camp children cooped up in narrow alleys, the bright settlement playground with its swings and slides came as a shock.
On the bus our Bethlehem guide Samer shared with us family recipes for lemon syrup and for brined olives. You know how much salt to use, he said, once an egg will float on the mix. He talked a little about his trilingual children and a denied travel permit for one daughter. He told the story of a cousin who’d gone storming through a checkpoint with an unconscious child in the back seat to drive her to a hospital. Samer also told jokes: if a rooster lays an egg on the wall, he asked, whose egg is it?