I want to focus on three things that made this past week great.
Bethlahem Live Street Festival (Yallah Makloobah) happened this past Thursday through Sunday. This festival occurs annually and features art, workshops, live music, and local vendors in Bethlehem. It’s held on Star Street, which is about two blocks from my apartment; I walk on it every day to get to Wi’am. This street is one of Bethlehem’s oldest streets and it connects one end of the Old City to the other. It used to be a bustling shopping district, but as tourism has taken a dip in recent years, most of the shops have closed down. Today, it is mostly barren; I would estimate I pass only around 10 open shops. But for one weekend a year, the street comes alive again with vendors, local artisans, and musicians. Food, coffee and juice shops, booksellers, hookah, carpenters and embroiderers, and other businesses lined the sidewalks. It was incredible to see the street’s narrow walls packed with people.
I went to the festival three nights out of the four. The music was my favorite part. I listened to local bands from Bethlehem, but there were others from Ramallah, Japan, and Scotland. Some played traditional Arabic music, but others played folk, R&B and rap, and alternative music.
On Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised (and a little confused) to bare witness to two members from Mumford & Sons play a DJ set! Mumford & Sons has been one of my favorite bands since I was in 10th grade, so when I found out two of the members were going to be in Bethlehem, I was ecstatic. But then, my second and third thoughts were a) Why are they in Bethlehem? and b) Why are they DJ’ing? After listening to their set, my hope is that they stick to actually making music rather than playing it (At one point, they played “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”… Really, M&S?). Regardless, my friends and I danced to it; it may have been the worst DJ set we had ever witnessed, but when Mumford & Sons comes to Bethlehem and plays music for you, you dance to it. The rest of the crowd did not share our views; from the looks on their faces, they were as confused as we were but on top of that, they didn’t know who these guys were. I think M&S could tell that we were some of the few in the audience who were having fun, because at one point, one of them came down to my friend and I and pulled us up on stage! For thirty-odd seconds, I stood onstage, in Bethlehem, next to Mumford & Sons and my friend, and stared out at a crowd of 1,000+ people. (Unfortunately, security made us get down and I have no photographic proof of being onstage. Drat.)
Strange things happen in this city. Sometimes, those things include having your favorite band play a terrible DJ set and pulling you up on stage in the middle of it.
Bethlehem has some AMAZING food. I’m not just talking falafel here, either – although if you ever do come to Bethlehem, skip Afteem and instead go to this place on the Main Street called “Falafel Hummus.” Their falafel is fresh.
First, Bethlehem has amazing pizza. One good place is Mundo. They have gigantic pizzas with cheese stuffed crusts (aka “Mundo Stuffed Crust”) that rivals any stuffed-crust in the States. Plus, if you dine in, it boasts one of the greatest views of Beit Sahour. Casa Nova wins second place for pizza. Order the Calamari Pizza (it also has clams!). Remember to get some gelato for dessert.
You Burger is my favorite burger place. The “She Burger,” with garlic aeoli and a fried egg, is my burger of choice, but order the “Us Burger” if you’re extra hungry. It comes with two large beef patties, three slices of cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a “special sauce.” The best part: they deliver until 1 AM, so this is the number one choice for when you are craving fattening food but have reached your limit for walking that day. Best part #2: Onion rings come with the burger!
Now on to more traditional foods:
The best drink here is something called “lemon mint” in English. It is just what it sounds like; you squeeze a bunch of lemons, add a little bit of sugar, and muddle in a handful of fresh mint. What you get is a minty, extremely tart version of lemonade. This is the drink of choice to refresh and hydrate on a hot day. In Bethlehem in August, they are all hot days.
Labneh and Za’atar. There’s really no good way to describe what labneh tastes like. It’s closest to a cream cheese texture-wise, but it’s much saltier and it’s technically yogurt. Za’atar is a thyme and sesame seed seasoning that Palestinians sprinkle on top of just about anything (olive oil, cucumber and tomato salad, straight up on pita, etc). If you mix these two together with a little bit of olive oil, you have yourself one of the greatest dips known to man. At the very least, I walk about four miles a day, but I think I may actually have gained weight simply because of my labneh and za’atar consumption.
Pictured: the incorrect way to eat labneh, it is better to dip/scoop it
Fresh Baba Gnoush. Enough said. Eggplants are gigantic in Bethlehem.
Foul – pronounced “fool” – is a legume that you cook for about an hour, until tender. Best served fresh with salt and pepper. My host sister calls it “Palestinian popcorn.”
Figs. There are two varieties of figs, purple and green. I used to hate figs in the States, but I realize now that is because I had only ever experienced them store-bought or in Fig Newton-form. Fortunately for me, it’s harvesting season for figs. Wi’am has a purple fig tree and my host family has a green fig tree on some of their land. I find something very calming and rewarding in the process of picking, cleaning, and eating figs with your coworkers and friends. Climbing the tree to get to the ripe ones at the tops of the branches is sort of a workout, too.
Cactus fruit. That’s right, cactus have fruit on them, who would have known? Cacti grow little yellow and red buds on top of them; these fruit are as spiny as the cacti themselves. Once washed of their spines and peeled, they have a juicy texture, similar to watermelon. It’s impossible to equate their taste to any other fruit, you’d just have to try it sometime.
But picking cactus fruit is less calming and more labor intensive than picking figs. It requires special poles with cupping tools on the end. This enables you to reach into the cacti patch, secure the fruit in your cup, and twist to release it from the cactus. You have to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, and gloves to ensure that when you get spines on you, they will mainly embed in your clothes and not your skin. You will inevitably get some in your skin, as well.
Cacti spines come in two forms. The first are the bigger splinters which you can feel as they poke into you. You can usually see these and pull them out of your skin with your fingernails. But then there is the smaller variety, which are actually the worse of the two. These ones can be as small as the head of a ballpoint pen and require tweezers, that is, if you can manage to get them out. Sometimes they get so deeply embedded that you have to leave them be to work themselves out of your body as they please. I had one in my thumb for a full week before it poked itself out enough for me to remove it. I would like to say that the fruit is worth all of the pain involved, but I’m not so sure it is. However, I can say that picking cactus fruit is worth doing, at least once.
Food takes time in Bethlehem. Whether you have to pick it, walk to a store to buy it, or cook it, there really is no such thing as “fast food” here. Most home cooked meals take a couple of hours or more to prepare, but when you take that first bite, you realize it is worth the waiting, picking, chopping, walking, and/or cacti spines in your hands.
On Sunday, about an hour and a half before sunset, I went hiking with a group of friends at a place called “Al Makhroud.” Al Makhroud is just outside of Beit Jala in Area C, which is Palestinian territory controlled by the Israeli military. It is ten miles of mountains, valleys, and farmland. One of the few green spaces left in the Bethlehem area, there are olive tree groves, gardens, and other foliage. There are also natural steep rock cliffs and old rock walls constructed by farmers who used to live there. In short, Al Makhroud, especially at dusk when we went, is stunning. It was refreshing to get outside of the city for a few hours. It didn’t feel like Bethlehem, it didn’t feel like anywhere else on earth. As we scaled the rocky soil and looked out over the gaping valleys of trees and rock dotted mountains in the distance, I grew aware of how quiet it was there in comparison to the city I’ve been living in for the past three and a half weeks. I felt very small; I felt like that moment in time, our hike there, was so miniscule and insignificant compared to the vastness of the environment, its history, and all of the other people who had walked and lived there over the centuries. Bethlehem has a way of doing that to you.
My host sister told me about the history of Al Makhroud. The land used to belong to families, and some people in her family had once had land there. When it became Area C, Israel forbid Palestinians from any further building and cultivating. Because of this restriction, many people have left their lands. Today, Al Makhroud is all but abandoned. There are dozens of deserted rock homes scattered along the hillsides. I thought about the injustice of prohibiting people from building on their own land. Suddenly, the silence took on a more somber tone.
Our hike took us up a mountainside and back down into the valley. We climbed a giant boulder and watched the sun dip beneath the mountain. The evening was going so well that we didn’t think about the simple equation of “sunsets = darkness.” As we scaled down the boulder, it became clear that soon it would be very, very dark, and we were about a mile away from the car.
Luckily, one of our friends, Juda, was leading our hike. He knew the shortest way back to the car, but it would require us to, in his words, “go off the path a bit.” My stomach flipped. We were going to be searching for our car, in the mountains, after dark, for an indefinite amount of time, with only the light of our cell phone flashlights. Images of snakes, scorpions, and coyotes came to mind, and I gave my host brother a panicked look. He didn’t look too thrilled at our situation either. The worst part was that it was totally our fault. We had gotten ourselves into this; we had stayed too long on the boulder. Our only way out of the darkness was to stumble around in it and find our way back as quickly as possible. Thankfully, Juda did know his way back, and after a terrifying but adventurous 45 minutes of trudging through the steadily increasing darkness while singing and telling jokes about being eaten by wild animals, we were back on the main trail toward the car. Under a half moon and bright stars, we clapped for Juda and howled in gratitude and celebration.
Hiking in Bethlehem is beautiful. It is a great place to think and experience silence when you’ve all but forgotten its existence. It is not advisable to stay on a boulder to watch the sun set, but if you happen to, it’s the best sunset you’ll ever experience.