2004 Middle-East Travelogue
"I am Eating Absurd Amounts of Felafal" (experiences in Israel)
"In Tel Aviv..."
"Peaceful in the Middle-East" (experiences in Jordan)
"A Few Words About Egypt"
"Jerusalem and Palestine"
"One More for the Road" (experiences in Israel)
"I am Eating Absurd Amounts of Felafal"
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps the first two weeks of my trip, during which I was on a 'birthright israel' bus tour. Photos of this trip are here.
Hello from 'The Internet Shop' in Tel Aviv. Today is the first day that I've been able to sleep late, relax, and go anywhere I please. It feels great! Now if I could only find a cup of coffee that isn't instant...
I have seen a whole lot of Israel in the past ten days, from top to bottom. It really is such a beautiful country... with so many types of terrain and climate so close together (the sea, mountains, desert) so close to each other, it's kind of reminiscant of California. The tour basically showed us all of the big can't-miss tourist sites, and along the way crammed as much Zionism down our throats as possible. Traveling around on a bus with 25 Americans aged 18-25 (most of them closer to the former) got to be a little tiresome, but it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be. I'm very glad to finally be on my own though.
One of the highlights of last week was Mt Moriah in Jerusalem. The view is incredible: at the top sits the Dome of the Rock, one of the most holy sites for Muslims (where they believe Mohammed ascended to heaven to take his place with Allah). Right next to it is the Kotel, the remains of the Jewish temple that was destroyed about 2000 years ago. All that's left is the Western wall; many Jews come there to pray, and stick messages to God written on small pieces of paper in the cracks between the stones. Now as you may know, I'm no theist, but my mother suggested to me that my Aunt Vivian (who passed away a few months ago) would have loved to have her name with a message for peace to be put into the wall. So I wrote my note, approached the wall (avoiding the many orthodox Jews that are practically bouncing up and down in loud prayer), and found a crack to stuff it in (most of them were full). But that night, when I was emptying my pockets, I found the note. I was confused for a moment, and then realized that I stuck an ATM reciept in the Western Wall! Yikes! I think I'll be going back to Jerusalem next week to spend more time wandering around the old city, and so I'll swing by the wall again to leave a more appropriate message for God.
So much of the last 10 days is a blur, as we only once spent consecutive nights in the same place and sometimes did 5 different activities in the same day! Other highlights... the Ba'Hai gardens in Haifa (those Ba'Hais are way cool... the most tolerant religion around!), hiking around in the Golan Heights, climbing through cave-basements and digging up pottery that date from the time of the story of Hannukah (100 BC!), stepping into the Dead Sea (my hands and feet have never been softer!), and hanging out on the beach in Eilat (the Jewish Cancun!). Hummus at every meal, ridiculously good olives. Yee-ha Israel. I'm even picking up a bit of Hebrew... the important things like 'Ani riev' (I'm hungry!) and 'Ani lo medaber Ivrit, atta medaber Anglit?' (I don't speak Hebrew, do you speak English?).
Of course, I haven't been able to resist talking about politics with many of the Israelis that I meet. They all seem to be very well informed (what a contrast from the US!), and everyone is willing to share their opinions. Though the intense nationalism and militarism rubs me the wrong way, I'm doing the best I can to understand it and also to communicate my own ideas (though I'm not always so sure what they are!). I'm discouraged by the 'Us vs. Them', contentious worldview that most of the people seem to have settled on. Almost every Israeli I've spoken to firmly believes that the Palestinians don't really want peace, and that Arabs in general just want to see the Jews at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. It's easy to understand why though; one soldier that I got to spend some time with, a liberal and compassionate person, said sadly that ever since her best friend's mother was killed by a suicide bomber it's been difficult for her to sympathize with the Palestinians. Every person I've spoken to, without exception, is able to tell me about a friend or relative victimized by terrorism. Also, our visit to the huge Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem (it's called Yom Vashem) helped me understand where this mindset comes from... one of the points that was stressed the most (and that many Israelis mention) was that the world turned its back on the Jews during the Holocaust, and Israel exists to guarantee that it will never happen again. It's hard to argue with.
I'm now staying with- get this- the bus driver from the tour I was on! Despite her almost complete lack of ability to speak English, she's able to communicate friendliness and has made me feel very welcome. She has a big beautiful home in Gan Yavneh, a town near Tel Aviv, and two sons my age to hang out with and show me around. I think I'll stay for a day or two while I figure out how to spend the next two and a half months.
I apologize that I don't have time to send out e-mails to you individually. Take care, and let me know how you're doing!
"In Tel Aviv..."
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps a couple of weeks in Israel. Photos of this trip are here.
So many of the people I meet- the cab driver from Barcelona, the flirtatious female soldiers, the bartender from Toronto, the old Armenian woman on the bus (sorry Mom... I know you asked me not to ride the buses, but they are really unavoidable)- tell me that I should come live in Israel. "Why not," they ask. "Aren't the women beautiful? You should be here with the Jews!" I'm still not convinced, though. Of course, there's the Holy War thing, and the compulsory army service, but also... Did you know that the orthodox Jews get to make the rules for all sorts of things? Even if I imported a reformed rabbi from the USA to perform my wedding, the marriage wouldn't be recognized by the state of Israel! All weddings and funerals have to adhere to strict Jewish law. Yuck! As an atheist, I'm not so eager to move to a state where I wouldn't have religious freedom.
For the last week I've been hanging around Tel Aviv, meeting people, seeing all the sites, and getting a general feel for the city. I'm prety lucky: right now I'm staying with a very friendly family (they lived in Fair Lawn, where I grew up, about 15 years ago), and they've given me a key to their house and even a cell phone! Boaz grew up here in T.A., so he's able to point out all sorts of buildings and tell me the stories behind them. Unfortunately, a whole lot of them were built during the 60s and 70s, a period not known for its stunning architecture.
I was shocked by the drivers in Italy and China, but Israelis take obnoxious driving to a whole new level. A local explained to me that 'politeness' just isn't part of Israeli culture, especially on the roads. As such, you'll witness the ugliest merges ever, more honking than you can imagine, and just supremely intense road rage. Even at the height of the Intifadah (the Palestinians' violent struggle against Israeli occupation), three times the number of people who died in bombings died on the roads. Just walking around the streets the past two days, I've witnessed two acccidents. I'm telling you, they make the NYC cabbies seem patient and polite.
I've been pretty busy with music recently... Last night I performed a few songs with a guitar player from Indiana. He introduced me to the crowd as 'the best banjo player in Israel!' I'm not so sure that he's right (I heard that there are 3 other guys living here that play, too), but I didn't argue. Today I rehearsed with some guys who saw me play last night. Their band is called Fishyboom, and their names are Enar, Ofer, and Bob. I'm performing with them on Monday night at some sort of cabaret thing here in T.A. Tonight I'm going to play at a music club at a kibbutz in the mountains (with Israel's three bluegrass musicians backing me up!). Then next Wednesday, some 'folk club' thing here in T.A. I just made a few phone calls, and everything seemed to happen by itself. The musicians and crowds I've encountered are very friendly and appreciative.
Other favorites: Best meal yet was 'shukshuka', a deep skillet with bubbling tomato sauce, eggs, and crazy spices. The avocadoes are schocking... over twice the size of our puny little ones. Wandering through the crazy markets is great, but just sitting at one of the many many trendy sidewalk cafes is even better.
Okay, I'll be in Jerusalem next, and then back in T.A. for a couple of days before I head off for a couple of weeks in Egypt. Bye for now...
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps a couple of weeks in Israel. Photos of this trip are here.
Greetings from the land where I am of nearly average height.
Jerusalem is the most amazing city I've ever been to. I can't even begin to describe the feeling that I got when I was there. It's so old, so intense, such an amazing juxtaposition of cultures. In some cases there's clear delineation between areas... like the sign at the entrance of the chassidic (an extremely religious sect of Judaism) neighborhood warning women to be modestly dressed (apparently, if you show too much skin, or even drive through on a Saturday, you might get pelted with rocks).
Walking around the old city of Jerusalem made me feel like I was in a different era. With all the Jewish-Muslim business, I almost forgot that it's such a holy place for Christians also. Then I happened upon the huge and somber Holy Church of the Sepulcher, at the site where Jesus was crucified. This is the kind of place you 'happen upon' in old Jerusalem.
On Friday at about sundown I went to the Western wall and witnessed hundreds of Jews doing their thing. Some groups of men going to and from the wall would walk arm in arm, doing the 'Monkees walk' with the high stepping and the singing. At the wall, men (men and women are sectioned off from each other, so I only saw the one side) were separated into different groups praying together... e.g. the orthodox ashkenaz in the black suits and hats, the tzfardim with the dancing and the singing, the chassidim with the long paeas and silk bathrobes, and a group of young yoshiva students that must've sang their lai-lai-la-la-lai song (on a harmonic minor scale!) for a solid hour. They were all so loud, I could hear the din from 100 yards off... and when the sun went down, and the adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) was sounded at the nearby Mosque, they even turned it up a notch!
At the wall, multiple people invited me to their homes for Shabbat dinner; I went with some guys my age to a nearby yoshiva called Aish Hatorah. When we arrived, dinner had already started... There were about six tables, each with 10 young men, and we sat down at one of them. During dinner, lots of psalms and prayers were sung with real passion; some of the guys even got up and danced around the tables. They gave me the hard sell: "Haven't you ever studied Torah? Why don't you stay with us for a while? The first month is free! I came to Israel planning to stay for two weeks, but now I've been here at the yoshiva for 4 months and I never want to leave!" By my estimation, it was pretty much a fanatical cult, hebrew-style. They all seemed to be really happy though. I declined their invitation to the Shabbat 'afterparty' at the local rabbi's house.
One morning I was eating breakfast at a cafe, and I noticed a guy two tables over with a shaved head, wearing a keepa. A strong breeze blew, but the keepa didn't budge. Is he using some kind of head adhesive? What's the deal with that?
There's something inherently strange about watching a guy in full orthodox outfit buy a lotto ticket... or even stranger, when a teenager wearing a keepa tries to sell you drugs.
The other night, back in Tel Aviv, I performed with a punk band at a warehouse party. It was a monthly music/poetry/cabaret showcase called Stage. They don't see too many banjos around these parts, so I got a lot of attention. I'm not sure if I enjoyed the poetry or not, because it was in Hebrew. It was a great scene though, with people of all ages and kinds. It reminded me of San Francisco, actually: the crowd was very artsy, and the MC was cross-dressed.
Today I arrived in Nazareth, home of the big J. There aren't so many tourist attractions here, aside from a couple of churches; tomorrow morning I'm catching a bus to Amman, Jordan. It is pretty incredible to be here though, as this is one of the few cities in Israel (as opposed to the occupied Palestinian territories) with an entirely Palestinian population. A girl I met in the hostel I'm staying at showed me a copy of the local TV Guide... alongside the listings and pictures of American actors are political graphics and cartoons e.g. two hands in cuffs shaped like the numbers 4 and 8 (in 1948, Israel was established and Palestinians were forcibly moved off the land), or a red Israel-shaped heart with barbed wire going through the West Bank area, and blood dripping down from it. It must be tormenting for them to live here in Israel, only 15 miles from the West Bank where so many of their people live basically in a jail, caged in by a big wall and the Israeli army. People have been quite friendly... they're used to seeing a lot of Christian tourists around here, and they seem to appreciate my pitiful attempts to speak some Arabic.
Okay, well... I'm being safe, having a blast, and thinking of you all. Up next is 7-10 days in Jordan, and then a couple of weeks in Egypt.
"Peaceful in the Middle-East"
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps the week I spent in Jordan. Photos of this trip are here.
I just finished up a week of travel in Jordan. It was my first experience traveling in a Muslim country, and I must admit that I was a little nervous at the start... but it didn't take long for me to open my eyes, and realize that any fear I had was completely baseless. I think in the USA there is this massive distortion of reality: we associate Arabs and Muslims with violence, anger, and hatred. This is propagated mainly by our media, but even by our president, who throws around words like "Evil!" and "You're either with us or against us."
The reality I encountered in Jordan was amazing... probably the most warm, friendly, helpful people of any country I've been to. Almost every Jordanian I met offered "Welcome" as one of the first few words out of their mouth. When I asked people for directions, half the time they'd accompany me to the place. I understand that as I tourist I might have received different treatment (though it's not like I was tipping random people on the street), but by every indication this is how Jordanians treat everyone, especially each other.
Once again, I got to talk politics with the locals. I sat over drinks with two Iraqis, one of them a soldier who deserted just before the war. I had such nice, pleasant conversations, even when I was in disagreement with the person I was talking with. The Arabs that I've met are really good at distinguishing between an individual and the actions of his government... better at it than many Europeans I meet who instantly resent me for being American. Of course, it helped that I usually agreed with most of the people I talked to ("Bush very bad" was often the starting point). One thing that distressed me though was the very widespread belief that the Jews were behind 9/11. If you think about the motivation behind the idea though, it might make you smile: the majority of Muslims are so loath to believe that a fellow Muslim could be responsible for such a heinous act, they'll readily believe an alternate version of the truth.
I saw lots of guys wearing NY Yankees hats in Jordan. I asked one of them what he thought of the trade for Javier Vazquez, but he only stared back blankly. I can only assume that he was so angry that the Yanks gave up Nick Johnson, he was at a loss for words.
In Amman, I randomly got to attend a gallery opening. The exhibit is called 'Stop the Wall'; it's about the huge wall that Israel is building through the West Bank. Now while I support actions that can prevent violence and death, as the wall seems to be effective at doing, it is really tragic how it is affecting the Palestinians. It is dividing communities, even destroying lives. The exhibit was amazing... upon entering, you are forced to walk through a narrow passageway, up against a huge wall that simulates the actual one. Then you enter an open space with pictures, movies, maps... it was all really powerful. Hopefully they'll bring it to the states soon... check out their website.
Have you ever heard of Petra? Imagine big mountains and rock formations, in the middle of a desert, that are red and purple and yellow and other amazing colors. Then imagine a huge ancient city carved into the side of these rocks and mountains. There's a temple about 50 yards high and 60 yards wide, a huge Roman-style amphitheater, big tombs and fountains and staircases decorated with animals and flowers... all carved into the colorful rock 2000 years ago. Some of the more impressive sights made me shriek like a little girl. You should visit.
Other highlights of Jordan: mensaf, the national dish consisting of tender lamb on a bed of rice with pine nuts and yogurt sauce; the amazing ruins of the imperial Roman city of Jerash, which were as impressive as much of what I saw in Rome itself; mosaics, mosaics, mosaics; the utter silence of the desert at Wadi Rum. I wasn't so hot on the music, especially with the bus driver blasting it throughout the 3 hour ride. Also, being woken at 4:30AM by the adhan sounding from the local mosque wasn't so cool.
Now I'm back in Eilat, 'the Jewish Cancun', for some much needed beach time and recharging. After a few days I'll head over to Egypt.
"A Few Words About Egypt"
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps a couple of weeks in Egypt. Check out the pictures here.
So I spent about two weeks in Egypt... temples, tombs, hoards of tourists, and a few really surreal experiences. With my limited time, I wasn't able to stray too far from the beaten path. Egypt's economy is almost totally reliant on the busloads of pasty tourists that flow in and out nonstop... and so at every turn restaurateurs, shop owners, bus drivers etc were trying to charge me 'tourist prices'. Also, some Egyptians would frequently provide some petty service that wasn't even a service (e.g. hail a taxi for me when I didn't need one; point to some artifact in a museum and say "That's over three thousand years old"), and then stick out a hand in a demand for baksheesh (a tip). That got old pretty quickly.
Talking to one of the few Egyptian friends I was able to make helped me get some perspective though. Belal is well-dressed, well-spoken, has two apartments in Luxor and a cell phone. He's a banker, and he earns 700 Egyptian Pounds per month. That's about $116. Per Month. My band would make that much playing for two hours on a Tuesday night. This really drove home for me how the scale of wealth is so drastically different here... no wonder they think that all foreigners are fabulously rich, and can afford to pay a little more.
I climbed Mt Sinai by starlight (and flashlight)... only to be dismayed at the top when I discovered 400 other people waiting to see the sun rise. When it finally peaked up over the horizon to give us some relief from the freezing cold, an Italian teenager behind me started strumming an acoustic guitar; he and his friends sang christian songs for the next 20 minutes, dashing my hopes to enjoy the views of the red rocky Sinai in peace and quiet. Too many tourists.
I traveled all the way to the southern end of the country to visit Abu Simbel, a huge temple carved out of the rock thousands of years ago. It's pretty amazing... the egotistical Pharoah Ramses II wanted the first sight of people who were entering Egypt to be of four enormous statues of him staring angrily. Our schedule brought us there on February 22nd... which, in an amazing coincidence, is one of two days a year when, immediately after sunrise, the sunlight shines through the temple door, all the way down a long passageway, and completely illuminates the seated statues (of Ramses, and various Egyptian gods) on the temple's back wall. There were even television crews for this. So we got there at about 4AM and lined up with everyone, and finally at sunrise the line started moving. When I got to the front, I stood in awe of the light striking these ancient, solemn looking statues... and was literally knocked over by three Japanese women who were jockeying for position so that they could get the perfect photo. Too many tourists.
So many of the people we met greeted the Australian guy I traveled with with "G'day mate"... maybe it was the flip-flops that gave him away. My tanned skin and big head of hair threw people for a loop... they asked "Argentinian? Italian? Spanish?" I was most commonly addressed, by far, with "Shalom" or "Yehud" (that's Arabic for jew), which occasionally made me a little nervous. Sometimes they said it threateningly, sometimes mockingly, rarely in a welcoming tone. I never felt physically threatened, but I was glad not to be traveling alone.
On my last night in Egypt, we went to a wedding reception. Four of them, actually: two on each floor of a cruise boat that went a short way up the Nile. Apparently, in order to defray costs, they open up some seats for tourists. It seemed a little voyeurish- I wonder how the brides and grooms would've felt about the random american atheist jew at their wedding- but it was a pretty amazing experience nevertheless. At about 5 minute intervals throughout the meal, one of the female guests would let out a long festive shriek... perhaps something akin to the 'glass-tapping' that goes on at American weddings, though there definitely weren't any public displays of affection in response. There were two belly dancers, one of whom practically accosted me. I'm not joking. There was a guy wearing a multi-colored triple-layered skirt who twirled around nonstop for 30 minutes. Seriously. (I later learned that he is a whirling dirvish... though not the kind that whirls out of religious fervor, but rather the kind that does it for money.)
Other highlights of Egypt: climbing up into the great pyramid of Giza, through a narrow shaft into a tomb that's thousands of years old, was unforgettable; the 'Sound and Lights Show' at the pyramids... they project a face with moving lips onto the sphinx, and it narrates! Along with the laser lights, and the melodramatic music, it scored very high on the unintentional comedy scale; floating lazily down the Nile on a felucca (a funny looking 30ft sailboat) for some much needed relaxation; koshare, a pasta-rice-lentl-crunchythings-chickpea dish served with spicy tomato sauce, which I had for lunch every other day and never got tired of; camels camels everywhere; the chaotic vibrancy of Cairo (though the pollution is pretty disgusting).
Tomorrow I fly to Istanbul, and I'll spend 17 days in Turkey. Drop me a line and let me know how you're doing.
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps three weeks in Turkey. You can see pictures of this trip here.
Turkey's got it all... friendly people, tasty cuisine, one of the world's greatest cities, unbelievable landscapes, relaxing beach towns, and more ancient ruins than you'd ever want to see. At the risk of sounding like a rep from their tourism board, I don't understand why more people don't travel here. One guy at a travel agency explained to me his theory that, because of its central location, tourism in Turkey gets hit whenever something goes wrong anywhere in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. Bummer. Anyway, in 17 days I only had time to do a big loop of the western half of the country... I'll definitely be back sometime to see the rest.
Turkey is a very secularized country, but religious conservatism is on the upswing. It makes for a pretty interesting juxtaposition, especially in Istanbul: it's an exciting, modern, cosmopolitan city, complete with a vibrant music scene and even young hipsters... and there are also plenty of women with their heads covered, even some in burkas, and men that will drop everything 5 times a day to roll out the carpet and pray. A couple of people spoke to me about tensions that have been brewing between the growing religious population and the majority that prefers a secular society. At any rate, my time in Turkey has reinforced my belief that it is really irrational to fear traveling in a country just because it is Muslim... people are warm, peaceful, and welcoming, even to an American.
During my first week in Turkey, I only showered once. Yet I was as clean as I've ever been, thanks to one of my all-time favorite cultural experiences: the Turkish bath, or hamam. I could write 2000 words on this subject and never do it justice. Many hamams are shaped like mosques, and you might say that it is something like a religious experience. Full service (which I sampled on my first day in Turkey, in a 6-century-old hamam where the Sultans themselves used to go to get cleaned up) includes a long stint in a big stone sauna, getting scrubbed by a professional (he peeled off layers of dirt that I didn't even know existed), an intense massage (at one point I thought the guy was going to break my neck, and that was before he started walking on me), and then another round of bathing that includes special soaps and shampoos and oils. Most Turks just go in and bathe themselves though, as I did on subsequent visits to hamams around the country. Seriously: after a long hard day at work, your average Turk won't go out to the bar; rather he'll go to the hamam to relax and hang out with his friends... while bathing. Try it yourself some time and you'll see... there's no better way to unwind than sitting around for a couple of hours, scooping water out of a 500 year old stone basin and dumping it over your head. (In case you're wondering: the hamams have different areas for different genders, or on certain days of the week they are open to women only. The hamam is not at all a sexual thing, just a bathing thing.)
In Antalya, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast, my friend and I arranged for a driver to take us on a day trip to a few nearby locations, including the ruins of Termessos, a Greco-Roman city with an amazing mountain setting. As we drove to the first stop, the driver asked me if I thought I could drive in Turkey. I can drive in New York City, I boasted, so it wouldn't be a problem. So he told me to prove it. After 10 minutes, he'd seen enough: he asked to be dropped off at his house so he could spend the day with his family, and said that we could take the car ourselves. It sounded great, but I pointed out that I didn't know how to get to any of the destinations. He gave a very zen response... "Just go forward, you'll find the way." So my first experience driving in a foreign country was through the winding mountainous roads of southern Anatolia. It was kind of like driving through the Marin headlands near SF, except the signs were in Turkish.
There are local elections all over Turkey next week, so we got to see the campaigns in full swing. It's quite different over here... no television ads, but instead lots of billboards with shifty-looking men in suits, their promises and politician-smiles plastered up for all the passing cars to see. Also, even stranger: all over the country, from Istanbul to the smallest village I passed through, the local candidates had campaign minivans cruising around town. The candidate's image would be painted on the sides, and there were speakers on top blaring annoying music and, presumably, his political messages. I can't imagine how these win them any votes... everyone I spoke to hates the things, as they roll around during all hours of the day and night. Visibility is key, I guess.
Other Turkey highlights: walking through stone ruins of Greco-Roman cities and temples that are 2500 years old... Ephesus (it's just so huge) and Troy (as I'm a big fan of Homer's Iliad) were particularly memorable; the food is kebapalicious... I never knew there were so many different ways to prepare grilled lamb... my favorite was adana kebap (basically lamb cooked on a skewer with chilis); 3 days hiking through Kappadokya, one of the most incredible places on Earth. It's got underground cities, caves and churches and tunnels that were carved into the hills 1500 years ago, and rock formations that are gravity-defying and absolutely beautiful. I'll post some pictures soon...
Ack, my trip is almost over! I'm meeting some friends in Prague for the weekend, and then I have a few more weeks in Israel. Let me know how you're doing.
"Jerusalem and Palestine"
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps the week I spent in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Photos of this trip are here.
Last week was the craziest one yet. I arrived in Jerusalem on Monday... the day the Israeli army assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas (and a pretty popular guy in Palestine... I'm not sure if you heard much about it where you are, but this is big news in Israel... it's an escalation of what is basically war, and Israelis are generally pretty nervous that it will lead to some serious reprisal attacks). I spent the next bunch of days alternating between traveling through the West Bank and witnessing what's going on there, and hanging out with religious (and Zionist extremist) Jews in the old city of Jerusalem. It has been emotionally draining, but also pretty exhilarating. I'll try to relate to you some of the experiences and feelings I've had...
(if you want some context, skip to the bottom for my summary of what has lead to the 'situation')
So first off, understand that Palestine is a pretty safe place. (One Palestinian who had us (I was traveling with another American that I met in Jerusalem, a friendly guy named Kevin) over for tea lived in the US for ten years and said "I like America very much. But it's not safe like here." He was referring to the fact that there's almost no crime in Palestine.) Often the media portrays the Palestinian people as, basically, a bunch of terrorists. What a farce. So many Israelis believe that every Palestinian wants to see every Israeli Jew dead, or driven into the sea. From my experiences, that also isn't close to the truth. The Palestinian people that I've gotten to know- I had the chance to talk to and spend time with quite a few- just want peace. They're not violent; on the contrary, they are welcoming, friendly, warm people. It's true that a small minority of the people have unfortunately resorted to violent protest (and some Israeli extremists have done the same). Why is that? Well...
There is some hard-core oppression going down in Palestine. It's pretty awful, and you need to know about it (if you don't already). The big thing that I witnessed, that affects everyone, is movement restriction. E.g.: One guy I met was born and raised in Nablus, and most of his family lives there. Now he works as a pharmacist in Ramallah. He is not allowed to go to Nablus. If he wants to try, he needs to report to an office and turn in a bunch of paperwork, and then he might get permission. Pretty crazy, huh? There are frequent road closures, and checkpoints all over the place. To get from one city to the next, you might need to take three different service taxis to travel a distance of less than 20 miles; between each ride, you might have to go through a checkpoint, or you might just have to climb across a huge dirt barrier to get to the other side of the road (which we often did, alongside frail old ladies). You know, waiting on a long line to show ID to a soldier so he'll let you into the place where you live must be pretty humiliating. Even for a visitor, it was an unpleasant experience. When your taxi is stopped in the middle in the road, and you get out and have a grenade launcher pointed at you and are demanded to show paperwork that proves that you are allowed to be traveling that road... I can tell you, that really sucks. This is every day life for a Palestinian.
There's also destruction of homes. I heard about one guy who lives across the street from a settlement in Hebron, and has had his home bulldozed four times. He's rebuilt 4 times.
Down in Hebron, the situation is particularly tense. It's the only place in the West Bank where settlements exist as enclaves surrounded by Palestinian communities (everywhere else, the settlements are off to the side). There is a checkpoint and barrier right in the middle of the city. This was unbeknownst to us... so we were walking along (after the curfew that we also didn't know about) and all of a sudden saw, about 15 feet away, a kid slinging a rock, just like you see on television. Then I looked over towards where he was aiming, and saw an Israeli soldier crouched down, pointing a large weapon towards us. We retreated. The next day, walking past the same spot, it was a big market! But when we came back later in the day, the market was closed down, and rock throwing had resumed. We watched for a while and then walked away... and about 10 seconds later, heard a loud boom. We turned around and saw a huge cloud of tear gas coming up from the spot where a bunch of kids had been standing. Moments later, two kids came running up to us, shouting "Water! Water!" One of the kids, couldn't have been older than 10, had a completely red face, and red eyes that he could barely open; he looked pretty awful and in pain. I poured water into his hands, which he used to rinse the tear gas out of his eyes. Does this count as 'direct action' in opposition to Israel? I don't even know anymore.
In Hebron, we tried to get into the cave where a whole bunch of the forefathers and foremothers (is that even a word? if not, it should be) of Judaism are supposedly buried. It's the big thing to see there, an extremely holy place for all the monotheists around these parts. The soldiers wouldn't let us in. They offered no explanation why. Maybe we weren't looking particularly holy that day.
On the evening of the day of the very affecting tear gas experience, I returned to Jerusalem for Shabbat dinner with a bunch of religious Jews. We spent much of the evening singing, eating fantastic food, and talking about philosophy and spirituality and other great stuff. The discussion got around to politics though (I didn't start it, I swear!). The peace process has got some big problems, because a big block of religious Jews, who seem to wield a fair amount of power, believe, among other things, that 1) the land in the West Bank belongs to the Jews, and 2) all the Palestinians are bloodthirsty animals. I tried to counter these ideas, and it wasn't long before I was being accused of betraying my people. Lovely!
I went to a religious Jewish wedding. (No, I wasn't invited, but a friend I've made was invited, and he invited me to join him. Apparently, that's the way it works with a lot of these weddings. When I finally met the groom, he said "Any Jew is welcome to my wedding!" So, actually, I guess that means that most of you wouldn't be welcome. Those wacky religious Jews!) The evening was amazing. A few interesting notes about the cute couple:
-They met through a professional matchmaker. I'm not joking.
-They never came into physical contact until they held hands underneath the hoopa (that's the Jewish equivalent of the alter).
-They didn't see each other during the week before the wedding.
Now, as it was explained to me, the groom is king for the day of the wedding; it's the guests' job to entertain him. This entailed mostly singing and dancing. Some people even sang throughout the marriage ceremony! As for the dancing... The dance floor is partitioned by a big wall (they seem to like walls around here), men dance on one side and women on the other. Now, think about the weddings you've been to: when guys dance, they're either dancing with a girl, or they're trying to dance with a girl. When you take out that element, people are only dancing for joy. I've never witnessed anything like it. At the secular Jewish weddings I've been to, when people dance the Horah, this joyful dancing is what they would be aspiring to if it were even possible to conceive of such joyful dancing. I almost got trampled in the excitement- maybe I just wasn't quite joyful enough (though strangely, even though I didn't even know the couple, I was pretty friggin' joyful). Finally the groom (who had been fasting for the prior 24 hours) looked like he was going to keel over and die (aside from the big smile on his face), and so he and his new wife and his parents were sat down on chairs in the middle of the dance floor. Then, with the man dancing in a big circle around them, different guests came up to perform tricks for their amusement... acrobatics, fire consumption, juggling, etc. It was incredible. If I ever have a wedding, I definitely want this 'stunts to entertain the bride and groom' idea incorporated. Anyway, there was more dancing, more singing, and the food was great, too. A bit too much praying, though, in my opinion.
The day after the wedding, Kevin and I went to Nablus. Except, we didn't get into Nablus. After a bus ride and a checkpoint and a taxi ride and another checkpoint, we were told at the final checkpoint that we'd need to get permission to enter; they directed us towards the DCO office, at the nearby army base, to get this permission. So we went to the army base, and were directed to the next entrance... where we were directed to the next entrance... and we walked for almost an hour, all around the army base. We got to the DCO office, and waited 20 minutes with a bunch of Palestinians (who were waiting to submit paperwork to get permission for different things) until the office finally opened, and then there was this exchange:
DCO Guy: "You want to go to Nablus? No."
J/K: "Uhh, why?"
I tried again thirty seconds later...
DCO: "Who told you this?"
J/K: "The soldiers at the checkpoint."
DCO: [laugh, followed by angry look of the 'Go away now' variety]
We went all the way up to Nablus- no easy journey- and got turned away at the gate. Bummer. So we went back down to Ramallah, and spent a few hours with a great guy named Ashraf, who we'd met in Hebron. He's a biomedical engineer. He and his roommate (the aforementioned pharmacist) sat and talked with us for a long time about their lives, politics, and religion. They really just want what the Oslo accords of the 90s were supposed to lead to... a settlement freeze and reduction, and eventually a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders. I had a much easier time having reasonable discussion and relating with them than I did with the religious Jews of Jerusalem. That made me think. Eventually, I admitted to them that my parents are Jewish. They laughed, and made fun of me for thinking that it would even make a difference to them.
That night, back in Jerusalem, I hung out at the tomb of Kind David with some kabbalists (that is, people who are really into hard-core Jewish mysticism). We lit candles for souls, played lots of music, and said a special prayer for the month's moon. I was having a great time, but then they started up with stuff like "We are God's chosen people, everyone is else is a second-class human." Yikes!
Let me point out that I spent this week with some very moderate Palestinians and some extremely extreme Jews... I'm not trying to say that all Israeli Jews are nutcases and all Palestinians are only innocent victims, because I know that's not true. I do believe, though, that the US shouldn't be standing by, allowing this occupation to continue, when we can be taking big steps towards ending it.
I've got another 8 stories about last week, but this is going to be difficult to get through already, so I'll end here. Now I'm in Haifa, in the relatively laid back and safe North. This city is great... built on a hill, with staircases running through gardens that take you from level to level.
(A quick overview for the not-so-informed, keeping in mind that other people will tell it differently: When Israel formed in 1948, the Arabs living in what is now Israel were moved (sometimes forcibly, but often voluntarily) into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem that year, but Israel won it back in the 1967 war. The Israeli army has been in the West Bank and Gaza ever since, presumably in the interests of Israeli national security, but also to protect the (government subsidized) settlements of religious Jews who have moved to those areas in an effort to claim the land for Israel. Because Israel has never officially annexed these territories (they don't want to have to offer citizenship to the Palestinians, as then the Jews would be outnumbered in Israel), it must be considered to be an occupation.)
"One More for the Road"
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps the end of my trip, my last week in Israel. Photos of this trip are here.
Last time I wrote to you about moderate Palestinians and extremist Israelis. I think it's only fair to also give you the other perspective.
I've spent the last week traveling around Northern Israel, hanging out with secular Jews. The vast majority of Israelis do not support the settlements. I talked to a young man of 24 who, in his army service, guarded the very settlements in Hebron that I walked past in disgust 2 weeks ago. He told me that, standing with his armor and rifle for hours and hours each day, he'd get so mad that he wanted to kill them; he wasn't talking about the Palestinians, but rather the Jewish settlers! The general population certainly does not want to be in the West Bank and Gaza.
Unfortunately, they feel that they have no choice. Since Arafat rejected the peace deal in 2000 that would've given the Palestinians their own country (including East Jerusalem), and the current Intifadah subsequently began, it seems to most Israelis that the Palestinian leadership doesn't really want peace. Just about everyone here has lost someone they know/love to a suicide bomber; that doesn't really help liberalism much. People generally don't like the idea of the security wall... but it is saving lives, and it's gradually being moved back to the '67 line (it currently runs through the West Bank, rather than just around it). They see 14-year-old Palestinian children being sent with explosives to kill Israeli civilians, and so they support strong security measures. You can't really argue with that.
This week, everyone's been on edge. It's Passover, and the 'situation' has been particularly awful lately, so everyone is bracing for a terrorist strike. Two years ago on this holiday, bombers struck a hotel where hundreds of people were celebrating (I met a girl who lost her grandfather in that bombing), so there's fear of a similar attack. It must be so awful to constantly live with this fear hanging over your head.
I've now spent a lot of time over here in Israel, talking to all kinds of people and considering the 'situation' from many perspectives. I certainly know a whole lot more about what's going on here than I did three months ago. That being said, I'm not sure that I'm any more qualified to provide commentary. The situation in Israel is kind of like a Thomas Pynchon novel; anyone who claims to really understand it is a big liar. What the heck, though... here are my conclusions: If you want to hand out blame, the extremists on both sides deserve plenty. The next steps in the process are for Israel to get rid of the settlements, pull out its occupying army (two things which actually seem to be happening, albeit really slowly), and continue to brace itself. The Palestinians could use a great leader who espouses non-violent protest, a-la Ghandi or Dr. King. Not likely. Overall, there isn't much cause for optimism, but there's always reason to hope.
In just a few hours, I'll be on my way home. I'll spend 10 days in SF, 4 weeks in NYC, and then get back to SF for good in late May. It's been a fantastic trip, but I'm definitely excited to get back. While lately I've been somewhat embarrassed to admit my nationality when asked, I have to say that when it comes to home plumbing and insulation, we are truly a beacon of light in an otherwise dim world. If we would just bring over our superior toilet technology- and leave the flawed democracy at home- I think we'd be doing a much better job of 'winning the hearts and minds' in Iraq.
Thanks for reading. I hope you've enjoyed some of it. I should have pictures up soon...