More Excess Baggage (BBC Radio 4)

I was pleased to be invited back onto BBC Radio 4’s flagship travel programme, Excess Baggage, which goes out live every Saturday morning to an audience of around 10 million. Last time, in July 2010, I was talking with the witty Sandi Toksvig about my experience on a desert retreat in Sinai, alongside the writer Anthony Sattin (see the ‘TV & Radio’ page of this website for the podcast).

This time the programme’s theme was Palestine, hosted by the charming John McCarthy and with two other guests: the writer of a new guidebook to Palestine and a young circus performer whose troupe of clowns had recently been out to the region to perform to children. I was asked about my experience of walking there: meeting ordinary Palestinians, sharing meals cooked by local women and sleeping in Bedouin tents and village homes. I wanted to give an alternative view to the negative headlines and the stereotypes so often portrayed in Western media, and tell people about the beauty of the countryside and the warmth of the people I met there.

One of my most memorable experiences when in Palestine was hearing a shepherd play the flute to his flocks, which I filmed. Another was hearing the memories of an old Bedouin sheikh, which I wrote about in the Guardian (and added on a previous post) and the life story of the marvellous lady, well into her 70s and the daughter of an Orthodox priest, who runs the Arab Women’s Guest House in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, which I stayed in and whose profits go towards women’s projects in the area.

And if anyone would like to visit Palestine, and share some of the same experiences, I recommend this not-for-profit organisation: the Siraj Centre for Holy Land Studies, who will arrange a tailor-made trip for you. Other great organisations that offer walking/cultural trips in Palestine are Walk Palestine (or for cycling, Bike Palestine), and Hijazi Travel, run by a professional hiking guide.

Living in the shadow of the Wall (al-Jazeera)

As Christmas came, and carol singers all over the Christian world were intoning the well-loved “O Little Town of Bethlehem“, al-Jazeera English published a piece I’d written when I visited Bethlehem earlier in the year. Sadly, the silence, peace and magic of the city as celebrated in the carol is long gone as the town is now sliced in two by the brutally ugly concrete wall that Israel started building in 2002. This wall has cut off ordinary Palestinian Christians, many of whom make their livings from tourism to the wonderful Church of the Hold Sepulchre, from their means to make a living and is slowly choking the life out of the city. In the piece I wrote about the plight of one lady, gift shop owner Claire Anastas, and others affected by the separation wall. The story ends with some rays of hope, as you’ll see.

Claire Anastas' gift shop, surrounded on three sides by the wall © Gail Simmons

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