Palestine: Beyond the Wall

Posted January 17, 2013 by Megan Eileen McDonough in Under the Radar

Shrouded in mystery, the land of Palestine has always been a big unknown. We go behind the barriers to find a world of ancient culture, history, and unspoken strength.

By Megan Eileen McDonough | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)


sit statue-like, my eyes transfixed on the unnatural wall snaking through the distant Judean hills.

Approaching the unwelcoming concrete barrier dividing Israel and Palestine, I stiffen as the security officer asks for my identification. While he looks over my passport, my driver, Anas, turns around in his seat and begins sharing his story with me.

“I was born in Israel but I am Palestinian, which makes things a bit tricky” he says with a humorous indifference. “Neither can grant me an official passport so I was issued one from Jordan, which is why I can drive to both Israel and Palestine without difficulty.”

Casually explaining his complicated citizenship status as if it makes perfect sense, I can’t help but note how different his reality is from mine.

As my time in Palestine unfolds, I will slowly become acquainted with a far more civilized nation than what I expected to find. Despite the conflict and unrest that is so often associated with this region, the state is filled with many sites of religious and historical importance – that a world far too absorbed by the other end of Palestine has yet to notice.

Gaza, a region Palestine is notorious for, remains off-limits to visitors. But I’m in the West Bank, a hilly region that surrounds the northern and southern reaches of Jerusalem. In spite of the headlines, I can hardly sense any danger in sight.

As Anas steers our car away from the checkpoint, my mind races with questions about the land beyond the wall.

Religious Rebirth

After chatting with Anas on lighter topics for the rest of our drive, he points to a man just outside the Church of the Nativity in old-world Bethlehem. While Palestine is primarily a Muslim territory, the majority of tourists who visit each year are Christian, due to Bethlehem’s significance within the Bible. This famed stone basilica is just one of the sites that draws them here.

Anas introduces the man to me as my local Palestinian guide, Abu. Despite his intense stare, Abu’s quiet personality and polite nature effortlessly soften his outward shell. As soon as we reach the church, he leads me through the small entrance, also known as the “Door of Humility,” as its low design ensures that every visitor has to dismount his horse or cart in order to enter.

“As my time in Palestine unfolds, I will slowly become acquainted with a far more civilized nation than what I expected to find.”

With my own head bowed, I enter and gaze up at the grand altar, and faded mosaic tiles that cover the floor. Considered the oldest church still active today, the historical site is also home to the underground Grotto of the Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus.

After a few minutes with Abu, it’s clear he knows this place like the back of his hand. There is a carefree confidence he carries with each step. As I marvel at the two rows of stone pillars stretching from the floor to the high ceiling, Abu’s comfort and ease lessen their intimidating architectural appearance. He confidently signals for me to follow his descent into the cave, where Armenian priests recite their morning prayers. As I stand in silence, with only the priests’ melodic chants ringing softly in my ears, I find myself unable to move.

Local Living

Upon leaving the Church of the Nativity, Abu suggests we browse through Bethelehem’s local food market. As we walk up the short stone steps illuminated by the day’s intensifying heat, he stops every few paces, conspicuously handing coins to beggars crossing our path. Abu’s kindness catches me off guard, prompting me to question why I didn’t act similarly.

As we continue to the bustling market, we are greeted by the alluring smell of fresh fruits and vegetables. No longer squinting under the hot Palestinian sun, my eyes slowly open to Palestine beyond the touristic attractions.

Clearly standing out as a tourist by my fair complexion and Western clothes, I walk along the somewhat grimy flooring below me with ease. Nobody asks me to buy anything and as far as I can tell, I’m just one customer in a sea of many. A far cry from the stereotypical aggressive market vendor often attributed to many countries in the Middle East and surrounding areas, I’m instead offered coffee and food samples with no hidden motive. They are handed as a welcome gift as I continue on my journey.

History Uncovered

My journey takes me to the Jordan Valley next, where I uncover thousands of years of history in the small but scattered city of Jericho. Estimated at 10,000 years old, Jericho remains the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Situated well below sea level just north of the Dead Sea, the tranquil town hosts a slew of ripe banana trees and is also where the Biblical Mount of Temptation site is located.

Within moments of reaching Tell es-Sultan (ancient Jericho), I refocus my attention towards Abu who is patiently waiting for my wandering eyes to center. The view before me seems unending in every direction I look. Despite the sand and dust that blur my vision, I can see miles of rugged mountains and the clear blue water of the Dead Sea glittering from the sun’s reflection.

My gaze then shifts over to the sierra peacefully sprawled  along the West Bank. There stands the Mount of Temptation, the spot where Jesus spent forty days and nights fasting in the desert, both starving and continually tempted by the devil.

What once was a barren mountain landscape with little use is now a tourist attraction accessible via cable car or by foot. I choose to view the mount from a distance, knowing that the Jordan Valley peacefully flowed beyond its edge.

“I’m in the West Bank, a hilly region that surrounds Jerusalem. Inspite of the headlines, I can hardly sense any danger in sight.”

Learning about Jericho’s extensive history quickly becomes part of its undeniable charm. Much of Jericho’s historic appeal is not in its surrounding mountains and fields but what lies underneath the ground. After conducting carbon-14 tests, experts determined that the bones found in the city date back to the Late Stone Age, between 7800 and 6500 B.C.

In my continued quest for answers, I compare these visible excavations no longer concealed under the ground to the openness of the Palestinian people, who have no interest in hiding their culture or traditions.

New Perspectives

Anas picks me up later that day in Jericho for my departing flight in Tel Aviv. To my surprise, Abu joins us for as much of the long, winding drive as he can. As we get closer to the border, Anas slows down the car, simultaneously waking me up from my inward thoughts. It takes me a few seconds to register that Abu is hopping out of the car in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Momentarily brushing my disappointment aside, I say goodbye to Abu and watch as he slowly slips out of my view and toward what must be his home.

Within minutes we are beyond the daunting barrier enclosing Palestine but unlike before, I no longer feel frightened by the magnitude nor its power. While my time here has been too short, I’m grateful still for the glimpse it has given me of the world beyond the wall.


This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)

About the Author

Megan Eileen McDonough

Megan is a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City. She is also the founder of Bohemian Trails, which covers global art, culture and off the beaten path destinations.

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