Olives and Jasmine

Dear Passenger,

We have ventured out into the Levant. While most of last year was spent shuttling between assignments in East and West Africa, this year saw a shift in focus to the Palestinian Territories, where the British Government is sponsoring a series of economic development programmes.

While the politics of this land are familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in international affairs, one knew less about society, and the daily lives of individuals.

Earlier in the year, a series of trips between London and the West Bank gave me my first glimpse into a place which I had earlier known only through the news media. I was deeply fortunate to be able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and go hiking in the northern part of the West Bank. While this is indeed a deeply troubled land, it is also one of unparalleled historical significance, and of rich traditions.

During my trips, rather than becoming fixated on things which were not working, I reminded myself of a principle I once learnt from a wiser man – when introduced to a new place and people, to see them first for their common humanity, the things they strive for, the occasions they celebrate, the relationships they value, and their sense of humour. This allowed me to listen more than to speak, and to better connect with people, who, in turn, received me with warmth.

Later in the year, the project asked me to come for a longer term. After discussions with the home office in London, I was offered a longer posting to Ramallah. I happily accepted.

My new home is a small, hilly city, with winding streets and traffic that zips along them. On colder days, if the the clouds come down low, it reminds me a bit of Murree. In the evenings, if one goes for a walk around the city, one is alternately treated to whiffs of Arabic coffee and jasmine, which residents are fond of planting. The city centre, called Al-Manara, is normally buzzing with life, and houses a large variety of shops. Not far from it is the Old City, which has commercial buildings and homes from the Ottoman era. Some of these gorgeous stone buildings have been converted into fancy restaurants, while others are (still!) used as stores and shops, and yet others lie abandoned.

On the weekends, I like to go for walks into the Old City, and explore its streets. My favourite one thus far is one upon which there is both a Church and a Mosque. Daylong, both are frequented by worshipers who go about their business in a relaxed and friendly manner. Both the communities mix at an old coffee house on the street, and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Occasionally, if passing through, I purchase a coffee (or qahwa) and sit down for a break from the day’s normally hectic proceedings. While doing so last weekend, the muezzin’s call to prayer rang out, and I realised how long it has been since I was in a city where the call to prayer could be heard in public. It also made me realise that there are two realities. One which the news cycle has a penchant for focusing on, in which divisions are endless. And another, which can be found beyond the sensational mainstream, but takes more effort to find.

There is much to explore, and in doing so I hope to learn more about my new home and its aspirations.

And yes, the olives are very good indeed.

Stay tuned.




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