My journey to Hebron started when I read online that the Palestinian kaffiyeh is dying. With an influx of cheap Chinese imports and a lack of manufacturing facilities in the west bank, Palestine is seeing its iconic kaffiyeh fade into History. Fighting the odds, one last factory remains,
and we ran through tear gassed streets to get to it.
Created by Yassar Hirbawi, the factory is now run by his three sons and a family friend. This rare workshop exists in a city in conflict and creates a powerful symbol for the Palestinian people. I knew I had to go. Since I first started traveling to Israel a year prior I had been wanting to purchase my own traditional black and white kaffiyeh but was turned off by the idea of being scammed by the abundance of cheap knock-off's.
I'm an advocate for first-hand experiences, putting my money where my mouth is, and trying my best to understand issues from the people who live with them daily - So I paid six shekels, got on a bus, ignored the warnings, and made my way to the Westbank.
I didn't know that 17 Palestinians had been killed the day before in a massive 30,000 person Land Day demonstration on Gaza's wall...A massive hit by the IDF and a new argument about human rights violations and abuses of power. The Palestinian people were in mourning. This complicated my plans in Hebron and I quickly realized that my planned escort through the city was about to go from a group event to a practically private tour as nearly everyone canceled last minute.
I arrive early as usual and the first thing I discover is that I'm unable to make a call from an Israeli phone to a Palestinian number. Less than ideal, but it only takes moments of looking lost and the unexpected kindness of strangers pulls through. I'm given a phone to call my guide and moments later a silver minivan pulls up next to the only white girl on the block (me) and Amer smiles at me from the driver seat.
Amer introduces himself to me and invites me into the front seat. I sit with him, (joined by David from Whales who chose to join me last minute after realizing all buses were shut down within the Westbank) We immediately dive into what happened the day before. Amer is rightfully angry at all of it. We exchange mournful condolences and as I tell Amer about the rhetoric in Israel I can see he is overwhelmed. This isn't just news media and debates anymore, it's personal and real - as real as the black burned scars in the streets below us from recent riots.
We leave bethlehem and start on the 30km journey to Hebron. We cross from area A which is under
full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, into area B that is governed by Palestine and Secured by the IDF. As we pass through the security area Amer tells us to look behind us an read the ominous warning for people, Israeli's specifically, who attempt to cross into area A.
Apart from a heavy presence of IDF, area B doesn't look very different from area A. But as we drive down the nearly empty highway, Amer is sure to point out all Settlements along the way. He points to our left and explains that the houses we see next to us - the houses that look as if they came out of an American McMansion suburb - they belong to settlers. The class divide is blatantly evident.
As we enter Hebron Amer gives us the run down of the city. Divided into two parts, H1 and H2, it works as the hub of industry in the WestBank, Hebron is normally bustling with workshops, factories, and markets.. But for us, on this specific day, it's a ghost town. Market doors are locked shut and everything seems to be closed in direct protest against the killings the day earlier.
Then sneakily, a man peeks out from a pottery shop door and says hello in Arabic to Amer who assures us not to worry, our plans aren't cancelled - people are still working on the sly. Our first stop takes us past the protesting shops and markets to the most intense conflict inside of Hebron. We walk through a security checkpoint into an Israeli settlement in the heart of the city... A settlement that is slowly growing and expanding its borders, all with the help of the IDF to ensure the protection of the encroaching settlers.
A few days before, a Palestinian family was evicted from a large home on the edge of the settlement - Forced from parts of their home, it now flies Israeli flags. A small arab girl, one of the previous residents, looks down on us from a balcony. Strangers are living inside her home, and her family will soon be forcefully removed by the IDF. I later read that this was deemed illegal and the family is currently fighting to return. Read more about the “Abu Rajab” home take over here on Aljazeera.
We stand at the apex where jews collide with muslims, where kids of different religions play separate games of football on the same street, completely segregated from each other. No shared land and no shared language.
I'm in the middle of taking photos of the beautiful brickwork, yellow-painted doors, and narrow alleyways, when I hear Amer tell the group to pick up the pace. Across the street someone has lit a tire aflame and things are immediately tense. Not ten seconds after I notice the thick black smoke billowing upward, and shots ring out above us. I look up sharply and notice the IDF on a rooftop next to us. They shoot two tear gas canisters at the anonymous fire-starter and we're all in shock.
Almost out of nowhere a swarm of volunteer UN observers appear from side streets with cameras and equipment to document what just happened. Amer quickly herds us in the opposite direction to avoid any escalation. We scurry back down through the market, where mothers walk with babies and people stroll like nothing is out of the ordinary.
(This isn't the first time I've smelt tear gas in Palestine and it wasn't the last. A light dusting of gas is like experiencing an immediate seasonal allergy attack, sneezing, teary eyes, stinging. I can't imagine being at the heart of it all)
We decide to wrap up our visit and start checking things off our list. Thinking we've had our fill of conflict for the day we drive through town to a smaller-than-expected workshop to watch men blow glass. An already hot day gets increasingly hotter as we walk into the oven that is the glass factory.
Skilled artists sit attentively, their faces next to a vat of molten glass, blowing lumps of lava into beautiful vases. While I enjoyed the character of Hebron's streets, this is where the beauty of the city truly shines. Dedicated craftsmen and women work on their trade amidst chaos, producing beautifully delicate works of art. After painstakingly picking out the perfect, one of a kind, hand made glass cup from the shelf... I embarrassingly shattered it on the floor.
Forgetting my clumsiness for a moment I realize that this means our next stop will either make or break the trip - The Kaffiyeh factory! I can't wait, this is why I wanted to come in the first place. We pull up to an unassuming building that looks just like every other building in the city. Yellow sandstone walls, tall barbed-wire topped fences, and of course - a large gate locked shut... It's closed. I'm instantly disappointed but with a quick, "Let me check" Amer disappears around a corner. Moments later he reappears and with a smile tells us it's secretly operating.
We slip through the gate to the heavy rhythmic "chuck chuck chuck" of automated looms working away on a rainbow of different Kaffiyeh's. Immediately I notice that half of the factory looks like a night-club. Lit with pink neon, a wall displays the variety of patterns and colors available.
Speaking little english, or just avoiding conversation, the Hirbawi's show us around. Gesturing at the looms and tending to any stray threads, we're free to roam through lines of machines. I tuck in any loose clothing as to not get sucked into a loom by mistake and scurry around the room looking at threads weaving together methodically.
Enthralled with the machines, I almost forgot I wanted to buy a Kaffiyeh. On our way out I poked through a few options, but eventually chose the classic black and white... I am now a proud owner of a Kaffiyeh from the last Palestinian factory in the world.
Hebron was in the end, far more exciting, crazy, and adventurous than I thought it would have been. These trips are almost always unexpected and eye opening and Hebron gave me an authentic peek into some aspects of Palestinian life. But experiencing what I feel is authenticity, cannot be simplified into a "right" or "wrong" point of view on a very complex issue. It's my goal while living in Israel to genuinely search for truths in a conflict that is so easily reduced to black and white. I have a feeling I will be back to Hebron soon.
Israel was the first country I've ever visited in the Middle East, and although I tried my best to arrive as a blank slate, I couldn't help but have preconceived ideas of what to expect visiting a country only 100 miles from the border of Syria...
Only in Israel for a couple days and looking for some amazing sights to see? Whether you're touring the rose city of Petra, climbing the cliffs of Masada, or getting a sneak peek through the walls of the West Bank - The area has so much to offer...