Hebron’s glass story

In June last year I spent a few days in Hebron, Palestine, meeting some of the extraordinary glassblowers who work in searing temperatures to practice their craft in the centuries-old way. Hebron, lying on a crossroads of ancient caravan routes, and with the necessary minerals  nearby, is famed for its glass – as well as its ceramics and leatherwork. With the occupation – and virtual strangulation – of the city by extremist Israeli settlers life has become very difficult for these craftsmen, whose ancestors for centuries exported their wares throughout the world.

With me on the trip was the photographer and film-maker George Azar who took some gorgeous photos of the glassmakers, their wares and the old  city of Hebron (recently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Status). Here’s our story about them.

Glassblowing in Hebron © George Azar

Traditional glassblowing in Hebron © George Azar

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Christmas in the Holy Land (TIME Magazine)

I was very pleased to be asked by TIME Magazine to write a piece on Christmas in the Holy Land (Palestine and Israel), based on interviews with prominent citizens there. My priority was to talk to people representing the three Abrahamic faiths, each of whom in some capacity work at bringing the different religions and communities together.

After much research and avid networking I managed to find five such individuals, from Nazareth (in Israel) and Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah (in  Palestine) including the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the first female mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, who were kind enough to give me some of their precious time despite being hugely busy with national and international commitments. I really hope you enjoy reading their thoughts.

And here’s the PDF version, which has better photos.

Sunset in Bethlehem 3

Sunset in Bethlehem, from the roof of the convent of Brigettine Sisters
© Gail Simmons

Bethlehem Bells

When I was in Bethlehem earlier this month I stood in Manger Square and listened as the bells as they rang out from the ancient (4th Century) Church of the Nativity. I could hear the birds chirping in the background, and as the clanging faded mournfully away the mundane sounds of modern life – traffic, people – came to the fore once again …

Sunset in Bethlehem © Gail Simmons

Abraham’s Path (Resurgence)

My journey to Palestine last May was perhaps my most productive ever, with five written pieces and three BBC radio broadcasts emanating from this one trip (see previous posts). The last story to appear was in the recent edition of Resurgence magazine, and allowed me to write in depth about the human – and spiritual – experience of walking through this timeless, beautiful and resonant landscape.

© Gail Simmons: "a landscape of rocks and wind”

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.

Letter from the West Bank (Guardian Weekly)

This is (probably) my last post of 2011. It’s been an eventful year – uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East have brought many frustrations – but also new opportunities. As well as writing purely about travel I have branched out into more in-depth features: trying to tell the stories behind the news. One of the stories I heard is that of  an old Bedouin sheikh who I met in the desert, near Jerusalem in Palestine. He hosted me overnight in his goat-hair tent, and recounted memories from his childhood over sweet tea and bitter coffee. When he dies, a whole way of life will die with him, as the Bedouin are being ‘resettled’  – not only in Palestine, but throughout much of the Middle East. Here, in 500 words, is his story.

Sheikh Ishmael Ali al-Rashayda © Gail Simmons

Coffee Cups & Facebook Friends (BBC)

My trip to Palestine earlier this year proved a fruitful one, and I came back with many stories to tell. One rather personal story was recently broadcast on the BBC’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ (second story), with this intoduction by the BBC’s Alan Johnson:

“You might say that in life, there are few more important things than finding the right person to love. But what’s the best way of doing that? Some say it’s all about personal feelings and romance – and luck letting the right two people meet at just the right time. But others aren’t keen on leaving everything to chance. They would say that with a bit of planning, marriage and love can both be arranged. In many cultures and countries, people are finding their own ways to blend both approaches and take a little from each. For them, both traditional and modern strategies for mate-finding have their advantages. Gail Simmons has been watching one such relationship develop amid the hills of the West Bank.”

(And here’s some more information about the programme, which has been running for over 50 years.)