Last year I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Ramallah and back to Jerusalem in a day. While travel guides will tell you to travel in a group or take a taxi, I did as the Palestinians – I took minibuses. These are also popular, cheap forms of transport in Turkey, and in Russia. The last time I went to Russia was solo, so in between these three cultures, and with some Arabic, I figured I could find my way around.
The distances between these cities are not great though a 30 minute journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah took 2 hours. Firstly, because the road skirts Israeli settlements and secondly because the minibus was involved in a car accident. That meant I had plenty of time to meet some folks.
In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I blended in, travelling as a single female, I wasn’t out of place. Ramallah reminded me of various Turkish cities from 15 years ago. It felt familiar and when Palestinians learnt I was Turkish, their kindness doubled. The only place I was an anomaly were in the transitions, for instance on the journey between Bethlehem to Ramallah. I was the only female on the minibus, but with recitations of the Quran playing the whole journey, I did not feel a tinge of angst or danger (one of the reasons the Quran is broadcast is for protection). Seated next to me were two Palestinian men, being born and raised in Jenin refugee camp. Between them, they probably spoke 20 words of English. Now I first wasn’t sure if they were being friendly or “friendly” so I kept my sunglasses on and guard up. The one sitting next to me was just fascinated that a Turkish woman was travelling solo, not part of a tour group and doing as the locals do. He was very keen to start a conversation with me. So he showed me his phone – a basic Nokia, one of the early versions with a colour screen, to show me pictures of his kids. He wanted to look at the maps of Jerusalem and Bethlehem I’d picked up from the tourist offices. The journey continued through uninhabited spaces – save for shacks, literal shacks belonging to herders with sheep and goats running around. Then, he presented his phone, “look, my merich, my merich.” I took the phone and said ‘hello” to which a woman answered – merich..his wife (my marriage). The conversation:
(me) – hello?
(merich) – hello how are you?
– very well, how are you?
– how are you?
– (realising this could go on and also becoming shy…) You have a beautiful country, I’m very happy to be here
– ok here’s your husband, bye!
– (giggles), bye bye, bye bye!
Shortly afterwards, a car drove into the minibus, it wasn’t a bad accident but meant we all had to exit and wait for a new minibus to take us the rest of the way. At the corner where the accident happened was a furniture store so I went in to charge my phone. Playing on the computer screen of the managers desk was the immensely popular Turkish show, ‘Muhtesem Yuzyil’ (the soap about Sultan Suleyman, Hurrem and co.)
The replacement bus arrived, we continued to Ramallah. They walked with me until the center of the city and said goodbyes. Custodians of a stranger, they went their way and I went mine. I do wish I had exchanged contact details, but stopped, limited by adult onset shyness and thoughts of what communication means when you don’t share a common language. I don’t even remember their names but that endearing terms stays with me, “my merich.”