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Mapping Palestine

2012 Travel Writing Competition Entry 

1st Place 
- $250 prize + one copy each of the Bradt Travel Guide to Israel and Palestine

From the judge, Sarah Irving.
I loved the way Alexandra raised such a wide range of aspects of Palestine in a short piece of writing, whilst linking them into the wider international context with the fact that our images of Palestine are so skewed by the way that everyday media – such as Google – fail to represent the land properly. Alexandra balances the personal and the political deftly, and presents both the troubles that Palestine and Palestinian people face, and the beauty and optimism of Palestinian culture.
Mapping Palestine
by Alexandra Vaughan, USA

There are no Google Maps of Palestine. The streets I wander down every day are not named, not by Google’s standards. Thin white lines on an unfinished map snake eastwards from Jerusalem into the unknown grey. Palestine is a blank spot on a world map that’s been retraced and readjusted countless times, an “entity” whose borders have been redrawn a thousand ways since 1948.

When I leave Palestine, what will be the image I carry with me? I’ve had borders and walls burned into my brain through endless lectures and articles and maps. British Mandate Pre-1948. Israel and the Occupied Territories 1967. The West Bank and Gaza Post Oslo 1993. Green lines, dotted lines, authorized areas, restricted areas, Areas A, B, C. Is this how I will remember it?

Will I remember the checkpoints and settlements announced on giant green signs, pointing me towards “safe” zones, towards approved roads, towards Israel, always towards Israel? Or will I remember the watermelon vendor, crouching in the shade by the side of the road, peddling his produce for 10 shekels a kilo? Will I remember his grin as I accepted the piece from his outstretched hand?

Will I remember the Israeli flags strung between the highway lampposts, flying high on the tallest towers, painted on every military vehicle? Will I remember the boxy red-roofed houses, colonizing every hilltop and defiling every distant view, the settlers inside hiding behind barbed wire and high walls? Or will I remember the young teenager, waving a Palestinian flag as he climbed a human pyramid to rise victorious above the swelling crowds of Nakba day? Will I remember the cheers?

Will I remember all those camouflaged soldiers who stared at me through unwashed windows, questioning my white presence among Arab strangers as we pass through their checkpoint? Will I remember their angry faces and indifferent voices as they casually lift their guns in their left hand and take our passports, our identities, with their right? Or will I remember the winding drive home, that perfect moment in the evening when the sun catches the western-facing hills, the warm wind blowing through the open window, with only the terraced olives groves revealing the human mark on this scarred landscape?

Will I remember the Wall, the unending, uprooting, encroaching Wall that violates this Holy land so many faithful walk upon? The Wall that divides this earth that has been burned and bulldozed and bombed by those that live in a not-so-distant bubble? Or will I remember the peaceful afternoons spent in a village blighted by its distant specter? Will I remember where I sat on the hillside, eating maftoul and maqloubeh made with ingredients from the farm next door?

Will I remember the nameless streets I walked along, the cities without addresses, the seemingly temporary structures on a barren horizon? Or will I remember the conversations with my neighborhood baker, pharmacist, or fruit vendor? With my favorite taxi driver, who put up with my halting Arabic and calmed my nerves at stalled checkpoints?

Will I remember that Palestine doesn’t exist between walls or zones or barbed fences? Will I remember that it doesn’t exist as a map that can be redrawn at the will of others?

In the end, how can I forget Palestine? How can anyone? You see, Palestine does exist. Well, not yet technically. Not in the United Nations, not in political negotiations, not in post office addresses. Not even in Google Maps. But something real and unwavering remains in that grey unmarked zone, just east of where Google ends. Existence is resistance, they say. And so is persistence.

So no, I can’t forget this place, this country, this unmappable and immutable land. No one can forget Palestine.