Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Israel and Palestine

Palestinians and Israeli Soldiers

Shortly before the 9/11 attacks I spent a week in Israel visiting Marty. It was a couple months after the start of a new Intafada and a dangerous time for westerners to visit. Prior to the recent outbreaks of bombings Israel was a fairly peaceful place for outsiders to visit. However at this time the tourists all stayed home. Even the large Jewish organizations were having trouble giving free kibbutz summer vacations to Jews in other parts of the world. My entire time there the only other foreigners I saw were Christian tours of the holy land or Jews who had emigrated between Intafadas.

Marty met me at the airport where I had to wait about an hour to get through customs. It was Friday and the faithful were off for the night. Starving from my long flight, we managed to find a little café in a back alley run by Arabs who didn’t seem to care that rats were wondering in and out of the kitchen. The food was good and a little wine made me care less about the rats too.

Marty lived in Tel-Aviv in a 5th floor walkup that looked much like every other apartment building downtown. It was a curious little place with two bedrooms a large living room a walk in closet of a kitchen and a toilet in an ordinary closet barely wide enough for my shoulders when I sat down. Certainly not out of the ordinary for someone who’s visited funny little apartments on Beacon Hill. What made it so foreign was the fact that the entire exterior wall folded back opening the living room to face the street. It faced the neighbors open living room across a very narrow street. Definitely not something you find in New England. From his rooftop you could see city hall and a giant neon artwork depicting fireworks in the sky.

Over the next couple days we drove Marty’s little Ford Focus around the country. We drove up to Haifa which looked to me to be just like Tel-Aviv with a bigger harbor. We visited the grottoes at Rosh Haniqra which is located on the border with Lebanon. The border is a fenced off portion of the road closed to travel. There are signs everywhere in any language that matters warning against taking photographs. At Caesarea I learned that much of Israel’s archeological tourism is still in its infancy. Much of the ancient city was still a forensic dig yet it’s open to anyone who pays the entrance fees to wander through. If I wanted to I could have pulled out a brush and joined in. I found this to be the case of almost everywhere I visited. The sites that were well developed and fully explored were places like Mosada and Jerusalem. Places central to the Hebrew faith. Caesarea and Nimrods Fortress still retained their raw archeology and charm. It was easy to fantasize that just below a pile of rocks lay treasures indescribable. I fantasize about finding treasures of the lost world in the desert or diving into an Austrian lake and finding lost Nazi gold pretty often. Here my fantasy’s ran wild.

Driving back from Rosh Haniqra we stopped to pick up some IDF soldiers, a couple of kids in uniform with rifles. Marty had mentioned something about it being a law to drive around soldiers or maybe he said it was just a smart thing to do. I had heard that every young adult serves in the military and wasn’t surprised to see them. I had also heard that Israeli’s are taught English all through school. One of them tried to speak a little English to tell us where to drop them off but otherwise they didn’t want to talk to us on the ride. It was only when Marty tried to use his newly acquired Hebrew vocabulary that they tried to speak English to us. I thought how French of them or rather Parisian. The way a waiter pauses to let you butcher your order and then speaks English as if he learned to speak it from King James himself. Not so much as his way of giving you better service but as a way of putting you down for trying. I hear they’ve made it a ride at Epcot’s World Pavilion.

When we visited Jerusalem we were barred entrance to the Dome of the Rock. Marty tried to say hi to a Palestinian teenager who sneered at us and wandered away. Marty’s always been an optimist. We wandered around inside the old city for the better part of the day. At the western wall they made me put on a hat before I could approach it. Marty happened to be carrying his pocket Yarmulke. I on the other hand had to indulge local custom by wearing a borrowed paper bowl that they supplied. The kind of boat you get at any clam shack overflowing with steamers. There we met a couple from South Carolina who told us they had just emigrated after visiting for years. Their kids had grown and early retirement called them to the homeland. They spoke about how it’s the only place they could ever live and that you have to support the free Jewish state with such a zeal it made me wonder what flavor cool-aid was in their cups. At the Citadel of David I was pleasantly surprised to find an installation of Dave Chihuly glass on exhibit. Lisa and I had just visited an installation at the V&A Museum a week prior. Later she would be jealous that I’d gone and found more.

Marty had to get back to work and so he let me explore Tel-Aviv and the old city of Jaffa alone. Tel-Aviv and in fact the whole left side of the map boasts stunning Mediterranean beaches. Unfortunately my visit coincided with the larval stages of a rare jellyfish bloom. Every foray into the surf resulted in a slight stinging sensation all over my body. So I had to be content just walking around the city.

Being a New Englander, more specifically a Bostonian, I found the experience of an Arab marketplace to be completely disturbing. I don’t wish to purchase cigarette lighters or Chicklets from stray children. I don’t want fabrics by the bolt. I don’t want produce in ridiculous amounts. Who can eat a skid of cucumbers? I really don’t want to argue about why I don’t want these things. If I want something I will pick it up, bring it to the register, hand it to you so you can make the machine go beep. I will then swipe my card while you put my thing in a bag, enter my pin and go. No need for discussion. I understand you haven’t seen many tourists lately but I’m certainly not going to support your whole market economy. Stop bulldozing people’s homes. Stop blowing shit up because your home was bulldozed. And every one has got to stop sniping at each other. The tourists will come back; your country is beautiful.

The old city of Jaffa sits on the shore above a small rock outcrop. There I found a formerly thriving tourist trap loaded to the gills with fading postcards and shops that appeared to be heading for receivership. Lunchtime found me sitting alone in a restaurant at the best table in the room, a four top by the window overlooking the sea. I was served a meal of lamb and rice with salad that was perhaps the tastiest meal I’ve ever had. I have to admit a bit of sticker shock when the bill came with a 48 on it until I remembered the exchange rate of 4:1. After lunch a bus half full of Americans unloaded they were pilgrims from some church in the Midwest.

I took a bus trip the next day to Mosada and the Dead Sea. The bus wound its way from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem and out into the desert. The Negev is largely populated by goats. The few human settlements we saw were tents with beat up Subaru’s parked next to them. I don’t know if it’s a political thing but most of the Japanese cars appeared to be driven by Arabs with American cars driven by the Jews. The bus passed the road to Bethlehem but we were not stopping there today. It seems that like the Dome of the Rock it’s for Palestinians only there. We stopped to get out at sea level where a fellow was offering camel rides for $10. Well not so much rides as a chance to sit on one for pictures. I declined. The day I pay $10 to get on a camel is the day I ride him in the Kentucky Derby. (I’d probably be willing to pay $100 to do that.)

Just down the road from where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls stands Mosada, the ruins of King Herods summer palace and the location of a bloody Roman siege. The ruins sit at the top of a high rock outcrop overlooking the Dead Sea on one side and a narrow valley and hill on the other side. The legend is that a group of Jews fled the Romans and hid at the top of the mountain where they found grain and water in giant cisterns cut into the stone. They hid there for many years but were eventually found by a Roman legion. The fortress was easily defendable from direct attack below. The Romans then built a ramp out of dirt and stone from the hills to the east across the valley and up the side of the mountain. The last night before the Romans were to finish the ramp and take the fortress the Jews committed mass suicide rather then become slaves to the Romans. This is all dramatically explained in a mandatory filmstrip at the visitor’s center and in a laser show projected onto the side of the mountain if you visit at night. The story is also retold by the tour guide as you slowly wander past knee high piles of rocks.

Mosada was interesting but we spent entirely too much time there. We were given 2 hours at Ein Geddy, the spa at the Dead Sea. I changed pretty quickly into a bathing suit in front of a dozen or so old men who all seemed to enjoy their locker room nudity. On the wall outside the changing room there is a list of the chemistry to be found in the water. For someone earning a degree in chemistry the word “Natrium” had me pondering its mysteries for entirely too long. Then I remembered Na is sodium.

Perhaps I could have planned my visit better but with only two hours I felt very rushed. The traditional visit starts with covering oneself in sulfurous clay and washing it off in the water. However the shoreline has evaporated such that it was a half-mile from the spa to the water. Having traveled the furthest from home that I will ever be I was not about to miss the tram to the water. The only other passengers on the tram were two Palestinian men who wanted to be very chatty in English with me. I made pleasant chit chat with them, as pleasant as a Bostonian can be when thousands of miles from home and faced with a person he’s been taught to assume was a suicide bomber. They wanted me to know they’ve visited Philadelphia and wanted to know if Boston was near there. I said it was closer then California. When we got to the water they warned me not to put my face under water. It was good advice; the salt water stings the eyes. I floated around for a while. The chattier of the two Arabs tried to get me to believe he saw a fish. I went back to where the mud was and covered myself in it. Took a shower outside, changed inside and went back to Tel-Aviv.

Marty took the rest of the week off and we drove up to the Golan Heights. We visited the Sea of Galilee where we got a hotel room for the night. The Lake of Galilee is a more fitting description. It’s fresh water and seems to be losing much of it. We ate at an open-air restaurant that featured an open fire pit for roasting meats and vegetables. We drank a bottle of wine and met a group of Jewish girls from Cornell. One of them became very interested in me when she mistakenly thought I was an alumnus. I asked her if she’d ever eaten at the ‘hot truck’ and that apparently was the code word to unlock her panties. She cooled on the idea of hooking up with me when she found out I wasn’t Jewish. I tried to steer her toward Marty but she wasn’t having it. I think she spooked herself going off half-cocked for me and didn’t trust anything about me after that. That included Marty.

The next day we saw the Banias Springs which are the headwaters of the Jordan River. The only other visitors were a tour bus full of Scottish Christians. We visited Nimrods Fortress where we ran into the same bus of tourists. The fortress is almost untouched. The only signs of excavation are places where it was shored up so as not to fall down on the tourists. There are staircases that are filled in with dirt and chambers that end in great piles of rubble. One can only imagine untold riches that lie just beneath our feet. I spent a few minutes chasing a lizard around the unexcavated part only to watch him vanish into a space between two stones. He came out another stone and disappeared in some bushes. I’m convinced it was hollow behind that wall, full to the buttresses with the treasures of ancient Palestine.

At the Golan Heights Winery I purchased a bottle of cabernet and some olive oil. The wine was the same as from the night before, tasty with the right food. The olive oil was out of this world. I am a fool for a good oil and will spend more then I spend on a bottle of wine. We drove back to Tel-Aviv the long way to avoid Ramallah. On the way we hit a roadblock. We were waved through rather quickly. Other cars including an ambulance were made to wait. That night we drank beer by the litre at what must have been the only brewpub in all the Middle East. I talked to Marty’s friend, a fellow American trying to support the homeland. He wanted to know what the press back home had to say about Israel and the Intafada. I told him the press was supportive of Israel and also supportive of a free Palestinian state.

The next day I flew to London. At the airport I was instructed to turn on my laptop and open a word document. They swabbed it down and put the swab into a big machine. I thought for sure they were going to find traces of stray alkanes and ethers on it. I had just spent a semester studying gasoline additives. Seven minutes is a long time to stand there thinking they’re going to shoot you when their bomb detector decides your computer is full of ANFO. When the computer finally booted up (thanks Windows 98) I had forgotten 2 things, how loud it was and that my start up sound was Eddy Izzard shouting “I have a pig in my trousers! Woo Woo!!” The guard though it was funny when I jumped.

The flight to London was uneventful. When we landed they sent people staying in London to customs. They sent the rest of us right up to the international departures terminal. There was no customs or passport control. There was nothing to stop us from just leaving the airport and disappearing into Great Britain forever. I wasn’t staying. I was almost home.

That was years ago. It turns out that I was the only person other than family who made it out to visit Marty. I saw some interesting things on that trip. When 9/11 occurred I was flabbergasted. Really, I didn’t see that one coming. Marty was still living over there. After that he found traveling back and forth to be too much. Marty has since moved home. When I hear stories about what’s going on in Israel it’s hard to believe what I hear. I met some very nice Americans who were honestly fearful of the Arabs they encountered in daily life. I didn’t understand their fear. A month after my visit there was a bombing in a Sbarro Pizza place in Jerusalem. It was next door to the place Marty and I had lunch. The bombers were sending a message to the US that they’re sick of our unconditional support of Israel. I don’t claim to be an expert in Middle Eastern relations. The soldiers I met could have been a little nicer. I wish I was nicer to the Palestinians I met.

Being not so much an atheist as I don’t believe in a bearded man in the sky I find it hard to fathom the depths of fanaticism on all three sides of the religion debate. As I understand it they’re not arguing over the identity of that man as much as what his true name is. Also who’s prophet gets to sit at his right hand seems to bring tremendous sorrow into the world.

Note the above is free to link to or cite provided I retain all copyright in the paper world.


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