Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Holy Land

Where do I begin? I have two weeks of memories, travels, good-byes, heartbreaks, and triumphs to transcribe in tangible thoughts while my weary self, exhausted emotionally and physically, sits here in the Nile Hilton, about to begin another, final sojourn to Dahab where I hope to find a bit of tranquility that eludes me in this chaotic city of Cairo. I have hardly had time to rest for the last 10 days, let alone ponder anything other than the next day’s plan. How does he say it, Parting is such sweet sorrow, but I never realized how poignant the sweetness really is, how the memories of a relationship clash and churn as you give that final hug, and the things you left unsaid remain unsaid, and, in the end, the turned back walking away into the future seems more final than death itself, how our friendships, once confined to the small organism known as AUC, are scattered and rent across the globe, some to remain rooted resolutely in a deep desire to love and care, while others slowly unravel and wiggle free from the Cairo dirt of their foundations, cast into the wind to latch onto stronger bonds. And I wonder who will be my ageless firmaments and who will be the ephemeral flowers wilting after a brilliant, but brief, spring.
I said good-bye so many times that, I thought, I was immune to the sudden onslaught of anguish that accompanies the departure of someone you really care about, but, it seems, I am human in the end, and not entirely a cold, heartless shell (well, mostly I am, but there are still a few cracks in the exterior), and I have yet to bid two of my best friends, Frannie and Deya, maa salaama. I know I will see them again, I know I will see a lot of them again, hopefully this summer at a D.C. reunion, and for sure next fall at the N.S.E.P. conference in D.C., but it is still the severing of something amazing that can never be again. There will never be another year like the one in Cairo, and I don’t mean to say my life from here on out will be complacent, dull, or depressing, just different, in both good and bad ways. But I cannot duplicate the experiences this year, and I know it would be folly to try, but the actualization of this does not ease the sorrow of their passing. As my friends know, I am a shameless devotee of Lord of the Rings (but who isn’t?), and perhaps now I understand a bit of the melancholy that suffuses the end of the age of elves, and the beginning of the age of man, and the tears that flow at the end, but also the promise of a boundless future, new life, and new beginnings. So, no, I have not succumbed to a deep depression, or any depression at all, but have descended into a state of contemplation, of restiveness, of censure of the past and future, and why, at the age of 20, I’m beginning to grasp a rudimentary understanding of what life is, and how the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed in my path can both tear me apart and build me up, how it is always best to wait for a situation to cool before reacting on it, how it is best not to date all of the eligible men in your Arabic class (this one is particularly relevant to most people) , and how beautiful the sunset really is. Well, alright, so that last stipulation is not really a life lesson, but I can look up from wherever I am sitting, Cairo, Dahab, Thailand, Jordan, Israel, Tanzania, Rome, Paris, London, the Caribbean, the coasts of Florida, the wilds of Colorado, the monuments of D.C., or Chaska, and still my breath at the beauty of nature, and, even as the sun sinks to dwell in darkness for a night, it still blazes with a confidence that has seduced every poet of every age, including this simple Minnesotan trying to find a place in the wide, wide world.
My narrow world did indeed get a little wider over the past two weeks, as I finished classes at ALI, had those final farewell dinners with roommates and best friends, sat up late at Sequoia long after the sheesha ran out just prolonging the night, crammed for the last few tests, recorded a video for my media class (on the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon to Arabic pop music), performed those final good-byes in a rushed daze of emotions and worry, packed up the last of my things, and, finally, 15 minutes late at 3:45 on May 24, 2007, piled into Embassy Aaron’s 95 Ford Taurus for the drive up to Dahab. Wawa was late because, yani, I had a lot of luggage and my Amia teacher kept me late during my last final, chatting pleasantly while I attempted to stay awake and respond to her questions, the latter of which did not occur with the alacrity that I would have liked, and is probably why she felt it necessary to give me a B+ in her class. A B+! I so deserved better, but cuz she had rescheduled the final to 2:15 on Thursday, I was too exhausted to think straight. Grrrr….Oh well, I’ve moved on, I’ve moved on…Anyway, you may be wondering who this Embassy Aaron character is, one of my rare non-AUC friends who works at, you guessed it, the American Embassy and just happens to own a car, exceedingly beautiful in my eyes, that has diplomatic license plates and can sail us through every checkpoint without a pause. And, he claims that it cost more to ship it over to Egypt than the car’s value, although he didn’t pay a penny of it, you did! Gotta love the Foreign Service! I missed that car soooo much when I took the interminable public bus up to Dahab yesterday, 11 hours of hell, but back to the other Dahab trip.
Aaron had kindly acquiesced to drive myself, Frannie, Eli, and Sam up to Dahab for a long weekend, so we fit cozily in the vehicle, plugged in our ipods to the sound system, and watched Aaron navigate Cairo rush hour with the ease of a native. I wonder if I’ll drive like that when I return…Soon we were singing along to Arabic pop and classic rock as the sandstorm hit, obscuring most of the landscape from our vision and sifting across the road in sinuous golden streams, but we had a mission, strictly government in nature, so we sped onward up the coast, attempting to entertain Aaron and keep him awake with our horrendous singing and even worse jokes. We paused briefly at a rest house, but soon pressed onwards, racing the setting sun and encroaching darkness. As I watched the Red Sea coast roll past in a ceaseless parade of soft beaches and lapping waves, I detected movement further out in the water, and I beheld a pod of dolphins frolicking through the waves turned crimson and bronzed in the setting sun. What a beautiful day! The sunset was, of course, magnificent, a fiery surrender to night rippling across the ocean and half blinding us, but nothing stopped our trusty Ford Taurus, except perhaps the labrinyth of streets in Sharm, through which we criss-crossed but eventually found the course to Dahab and arrived about 10:30 or 11. Dropping me off at the Hilton, where I stayed in luxurious redolence for four days, everyone else checked in at the Penguin (where I currently am). When I myself received my room, I was welcomed back like an old friend, with a warm smile and izayik from the front desk staff. That night I took a cab into town to meet up with the rest of the gang, as I was quite ravenous and ready for a Dahab milkshake and ambiance that only this city can provide.

For the next four days, my nazam didn’t really alter; I awoke lazily in time to catch breakfast on the Hilton’s patio and contemplate what time I should head to the beach for sun, occasionally taking a walk along the shore if I truly wished to exert myself unduly, although I also managed to slice my foot open, so that prevented most exercise, as every time it touched sand, a paste of sand and blood tricked from the wound. Yum yum! It appears to be healing now, and is only slightly grey, so I should be alright. In the evenings, I would dine at the Hilton and then head into town to meet my friends in the cafes along the shore, chat, gaze at the stars and lights of Saudi, and sip milkshakes. It was a brilliant way to de-stress from the finals of ALI and the insanity of the past month or so, and dear Lesley came and joined me (at 8am on day three ;-) for two nights at the Hilton to relive our Christmas revels and relish our final days together. Not surprisingly, most of our conversations revolved around the past year, and our memories of events and people, and how we’ve changed, and how life will be like in America. The first night I was there, ensnared in a deep and desirable slumber, my phone rang dissonantly in my ear, and I groggily reached over to turn it off, saw the caller was Nicola, and slurred out a hello. “Hi, sorry to wake you, but I wanted to say good-bye! I’m leaving in a few hours!” Truly, that was the best kind of early morning call to get, my sweet Nicola remembering to bid me farewell, and I perked up a bit, managed to sound intelligible, promised to see her this summer, and hung up, snuggling back into my comforter with a smile alighting on my features.
The rest of the gang departed back for Cairo on day three, leaving Lesley and I alone to wreak havoc for a day, although our version of initiating chaos involves lolling on the beach and strolling along the corniche in search of milkshakes (I hope you all don’t think I have this weird addiction to milkshakes, because I don’t, but Dahab is famous for them! They somehow manage to combine a perfect blend of ice cream and shake for a scrumptious treat that just begs you to indulge. And they work so well with every meal ;-) On my last full day, I also went for an exhilarating gallop along the beach with my horse guide friends, always a blast!
On the morning of the fourth day, I became a solo rover for the first time, traveling alone to Israel for three days before meeting up with some friends in Jerusalem. After tightly hugging Lesley at the Hilton gate in front of my taxi, I threw my bags in and headed into town to pick up the minibus for the two hour ride up the coast to Taba, the border crossing with Israel. Clambering into the empty back seat, I eyed the other passengers suspiciously, as they just appeared too…AUC…to be anything but, and, indeed, they were, and quite pleasant as well, especially for being study abroaders ;-) Verily, though, they were very kind, and I crossed the border with them, piling out of the minibus at Taba, walking about 100m and entering the Egyptian departure hall, where our bags were cursorily inspected, it being Egypt, we filled out forms that we needed to track down from the admin office, as they failed to provide adequate quantities, made it through immigration, although I stalled slightly, as I asked to be stamped on a separate sheet of paper, not in my passport.
Ahhh, and here we begin our lesson in Middle Eastern politics; realize that Israel is not a legitimate or recognized nation in much of the Arab world, Egypt and Jordan being two notable exceptions, which is why border crossing is allowed between these nations. The rest of the Middle East, however, basically refuses entry to anyone with an Israeli visa stamp in his/her passport, but I soon learned how un-accommodating certain nations can be about this situation. Anyway, the jolly ol’ border guard in Egypt readily stamped a separate form as we chatted in Arabic, I translated for a few tourists, and then my coterie walked out of the Egypt side, passed through a parking lot, marveled at the ‘Welcome to Israel’ sign splashed across the eponymous nation’s immigration building, and entered a new world. In sooth, though, I left the disordered rabble of Egypt and stepped into order. Waiting in queue for a brief time, Robert and I approached the first of a series of security spots, explained our travel plans, and then moved on to the metal detectors and luggage inspection. Of course, my suitcase set off some censor, so one of the soldiers (I’ll explain about the IDF in greater detail later) pulled my suitcase to a table and began rummaging through the outer pockets. Pulling out Arabic grammar books, Harry Potter, packs of gum, and other miscellanous items I crammed into the thing, he eventually came to my stash of tampons, hesitated, and then gave up on the search and waved me past. I’ve discovered the perfect method to deter nosy security guards-just stuff ‘feminine products’ in various spots, and any male guard will blush and proceed no further. Then we had to pass through the actual immigration line, and when I reached the front I politely asked the female guard (unfortunately, if she had been a he, perhaps I could have flirted to better effect) to not stamp my passport. She bristled and began to interrogate me acerbically as to why I would not want an Israeli stamp in my passport, then told me it would take a while to contact her superiors and maybe get the ok. I had little appetite to wait, so I caved and let her taint me with a seemingly innocuous stamp besmirching my identity. My entire group eventually got through, exchanged our pounds for Israeli shekels (4 sh=1$) and took our first steps on Israeli soil with the Red Sea following our footsteps. We briefly pondered hiring a cab to take us all the way to Jerusalem, but there were five of us, and they were nice enough not to exclude me, so we instead took a cab just to the bus station in Eliat, the resort town of Israel, fairly trashy as towns go, but oh so beautiful to one who has been living and traveling in the ‘third world’ for the last 10 months. There, we learned the next bus to Jerusalem was full, so we instead opted for the Tel Aviv route and spent the next hour or so wandering the town, finding an ATM, and, for myself, a mobile store where I purchased a new SIM card and minutes.
El-Egged, the main bus company in Israel, runs a very efficient system throughout the country, and we boarded on time (not like in Egypt) and found ourselves in the back with a large contingent of IDF soldiers in the seats around us. Every Israeli citizen is required to enter the army at the age of 18, and most girls serve for two years and boys for three. Thus, I was not just surrounded by soldiers, but soldiers my age or a bit younger all shouldering M-16s (unloaded, of course) and wearing their various khaki-colored uniforms. Dainty-coiffed girls with manicures, perfect makeup, and Razrs, boys with a bit of peach fuzz over their upper lips, all were represented on the bus, and I could not help but stare in consummate curiosity at this cultural phenomenon chatting and laughing easily in Hebrew. As the bus pulled away, a beautiful, olive-skinned Israeli girl threw her bag down in the aisle and stretched out in it, embracing her weapon with the ease of someone accustomed to bearing the burden, put in ear phones, and fell asleep as the Americans watched, fascinated. Everywhere you looked, in the streets, in buses, in malls, at the Western Wall, soldiers paraded past in their distinctive uniforms, armed potently but casually, an ingrained part of the social fabric as the American college freshmen is to us. Colin perhaps put the paradox best-The girls have a machine gun on one arm and a Luis Vuitton handbag on the other.
I dozed for part of the ride, got out for the two rest stops we took (and the rest areas were nice, with clean bathrooms and modern restaurants) and eventually arrived in Tel Aviv four hours later, listening to the banter of the soldiers as two 18-year old Canadian girls on Birthright got to know the IDF a little better, particularly those who spoke English. Somehow, it struck me as, not inappropriate, but just odd that these soldiers, who could mow someone down in seconds, were joking about gays and sex and all sorts of things that young adults do, discussing their party plans for the weekend, their visits home, the banalities of life that just don’t seem congruous with their armed image. But, in Israel, they are, being an IDF soldier is just a part of life, a transition period between high school and college that is less of an ordeal and more like a rite of passage. And, it certainly does instill nationalism in the young people, marching around with impunity in defence of their nation and subjugation of the Palestinians, who, of course, are not allowed to carry any weapons. The more I saw of Israel, the more confused I became, the more I felt I need to delve deeper into the society to even slightly comprehend it. What I transcribe here are mere observations, mere scrapings of the top layer of the iceberg, with the greater import buried within a dense mass of religion, politics, race, and identity.
To continue my tale…We arrived in Tel Aviv around 9, and there I parted from my AUC companions, for they were going to spend the night there, and I wished to travel onwards to Haifa, farther up north along the coast, so I picked up the next bus to Haifa and climbed onboard for the hour-long ride. Realizing I needed a place sleep, I pulled out my Bible, the Fodor’s Israel guide, and began calling the hotels in it, starting from cheapest and working my way up. Panicking as the first two were full, I found availability at the Nof Hotel, and, although it was a bit more than I wanted to spend, I also did not think I had the energy or mettle to troll the streets of Haifa at 11 and search for lodging.
How is that saying, boys will be boys, well, so too will men be men, and I was briefly befriended by a Russian Jew on the bus who questioned me and tried to be helpful, and I responded politely, but half-feigned fatigue (only half, because half of me was quite exhausted) and he eventually left me to rest. I disembarked at the bus station in Haifa, entirely disoriented, and found a cab to bring me to my hotel. Now, one thing I will say for Egypt is that it is cheap! Israel was, in most aspects, far more expensive than I had thought, and most cab rides cost a minimum of 30 sh, which was also why I kept those to a minimum. Arriving at the hotel, I checked in, learned the dining room was closed, trudged across the street and purchased a snack and water, sent an e-mail off to the fam letting them know I had not yet been blown up, and collapsed in bed, promising myself an early start the next morning. Well, the snooze button on my phone alarm is a dangerous tool, and I overslept breakfast, but at least I was a bit rested. I knew I had to change locations, but to where I was not certain, so I headed into the city center to find an internet café and food. I will confess that my first true meal in Israel was at a McDonald’s, but it was so welcome I did not mind ;-)
I was located in the Tel Carmel, or something like that, area of Haifa, on a hill overlooking the bay and lower environs of the city, but I couldn’t appreciate the stunning views until I logged onto the internet, decided to head further up north to Naharyia, and then to Nazareth and then down to Jerusalem, booking lodging at the same time. With that under control, I wandered back to the hotel, checked out, stowed my luggage, and ambled down the hill to the Bah’ai Gardens, a gorgeous, terraced display of fauna stretching from the height of the hill down to sea level, with temples scattered throughout. Unfortunately, it was closed for a holy day, so I walked around the perimeter only and then decided to move on to Nahariya. I decided the most efficient method, since I had a fair amount of luggage, would be to take a cab to the bus station and then a bus to Naharyia, but, after I got in the cab, the driver convinced me that a cab wouldn’t be terribly more expensive and much more efficient. Well, he actually wasn’t far from the truth, and I had a pleasant ride until, about half an hour into it, he tells me he has an appointment and cannot bring me all of the way. Perhaps he was genuinely sorry, I’m not positive, but he drops me off at a mini bus station to go the rest of the way, but still demands most of the fee. I paid him more than was fair, but not what he asked, and then walked away, a bit suspicious of the mini bus, but it turned out to be a decent mode of transportation, costing only 5-10 sh. and dropping me off right near my hotel, the New Carlton, on the main drag in Naharyia, which I much preferred over the Nof. The Carlton was trendy, modern, tasteful, and clean, while the Nof, clean, but a bit tired and worn, and they both cost the same price, which was laughable. Anyway, I checked into my lovely room, grabbed my trusty camera bag and guidebook, and headed out for adventure.
Plus, one of the doormen at the Carlton taught me how to dial internationally using the SIM card, which I had been attempting to do for days but could not for lack of knowing the right sequence 0231+your number, apparently, or something like that. Hopping in a cab to the nearby Crusader city of Acre (or Acco, depending on who you ask), I called Mom in the wee hours of the morning but could not talk for long, as the impressive ruins of the city began to manifest themselves, first in the form of an aquaduct, then in the walled city itself. I headed straight for the high walls, climbing a sloping ramp and tracing their curve around the city, observing from that vantage point the harbor and lighthouse, the numerous mosques and churches, the poorer Arab quarter, and then a man walking towards me, Arab of course. As I’ve mentioned before, I am not yet cold and heartless enough to utterly ignore most people, unless they be Egyptians touts, so I conversed succinctly with him in Arablish, descended the ramp, and refused his offer of a city tour, striking off in a different direction, passing under gates and through old city streets, absorbing the atmosphere of ancient cobblestones passed over by car tires, of children racing up and down worn Crusader stairs, of food stands operating in the ancient markets, of the amalgamation of old and new that was to characterize my time in Israel, how almost everywhere has historic ties but has also been integrated into the 21st century. I followed signs through the souk (none of the shop owners were nearly as obnoxious as those in Khan El-Khalili) to an ancient Templar tunnel, descended into its moist coolness, and emerged on the other side of the city near the Med, where I paused briefly for refreshment and then sped up to the ancient citadel that was about to close. Ducking in just as the guards were closing, I marveled at the ancient, gnarled, towering banyan trees casting leafy shade over the central courtyard, raced to the old halls, snapped a few pictures, and then escaped before the guards could chastise me ;-)
I visited a store around the corner, where I purchased a beautiful necklace and earrings of Roman glass, and then caught a taxi home before the sun began its descent, allowing me time to check out a cute clothing store on my street and walk to the beach to catch the entire town enjoying an evening along the Med. By this time, my tummy was again persistently pleading for dinner, so I supped in a quaint little restaurant called the Penguin at a little corner table, watching the Israeli families around me and the passerby in the street behaving like utterly normal human beings. Somehow, I expected people to act differently in Israel, to be somehow distinguished by their constant strife, by the bombings from last summer’s war, by the tension of a Jewish state in a region hostile to it. But I detected none of this, just the ever-melding patterns of human existence, sweethearts and families, friends and colleagues, old and young, all striding by without distinction. As the restaurant owner came over to chat with me, he seemed surprised that I was American (he placed me as European), and even more surprised that I was traveling alone, but from him I detected the first undercurrents of imbalance in this almost utopian society, of the disparity between Palestinians and Israelis that was only to become more salient the further I traveled.
I awoke the next morning, went for a pleasant 40-minute walk along the corniche, breathing in the fresh sea air and sight of villa after orderly villa along the water, grabbed a light breakfast, and then took a cab further north to the border with Lebanon, to a place named Rosh Hanikra, where the vicissitude of the sea has ceaselessly battered the white sea cliffs to carve a chain of sea grottos and caves into the cliff face. Riding in a cable car down to the sea level, I watched a brief presentation on the history of the area, and then headed into the shadowed tunnels echoing with the sea’s cry against the rock walls, the eternal clash began water and earth, as water, with indubitable persistence has immutably crafted grottoes out of solid rock. By the time I emerged out into sunshine again, I too, reverberated with the battle of the two elements, and probably appeared a bit dim-witted to the couple who asked me to take their picture.
Ahhh, but then came an even greater challenge-getting back to Naharyia, as the taxi driver had left and no others were waiting. I plopped myself down at the deserted bus stop and considered what to do, as the minutes dragged by, if no bus came to bear me away. Finally, after at least a half hour, one did pull up, and I ascended its stairs eagerly, asking if it went to Naharyia. No. Well, I decided to ride it anyways, bought a ticket, and slid into one of the few empty seats while, it seemed to me, everyone’s eyes bore into me as the stupid foreigner who didn’t know where she was going. Lost in my ipod, I didn’t notice the bus pull up to a stop a mere five minutes later, and, when nobody got on or off, I realized the entire bus was waiting for me to leave, so I hastily gathered my things and got off, once again in the middle of nowhere. But at least a major road ran nearby, so I stood in the shelter of another bus stop, fending off the biting flies, when eventually a taxi pulled up and I gratefully slid in, finally getting back to my hotel.
Transportation was time-consuming that day, slightly frustrating, and highly embarrassing, at least for me. Alhamdulil’ah, a mini bus station was located right near my hotel, so I trundled down the street with my suitcase and shoulder bag in tow, asked how to get to Nazareth, and was directed to one of the buses with the assurance that the driver would help me transfer to another bus later on. That transition went smoothly, as I switched buses with only a little confusion, but from then on my success diminished. About half way to Nazareth, my driver suddenly pulled over, cast my luggage to the side of the road, and told me to get into yet another bus, the driver’s my brother, he assured me, so I complied and soon arrived in Nazareth, only then realizing how God-cursed large the city is. No longer the small, picturesque village of Jesus’ childhood, it is now a teeming city of over 70,000, with hill upon hill of houses, apartments, and business cluttering the scenery and cloaking its religious significance with a suffusing air of clutter and modernity. On top of that, I had no idea where I was going…well, that’s not entirely true, I had the name and phone number of my hostel, but no directions, and the entire mini bus waited as I ponderously called the place, spoke to the owner but had difficulty understanding, and finally handed the phone to the driver, who, after a bit, handed it back to me, hauled me out of the vehicle, and told me someone from the hostel would come and pick me up, speeding off with his relieved passengers free of the foolish foreigner. So, I stood by the side of the road for awhile, although, in reality, it wasn’t really that long, endured the intermittent honks of taxis and other vehicles, and glared suspiciously as a car pulled up. Automatically refusing the offer of his ride, he then identified himself as from the Fauzi Azar in, and I released a huge WOOSH of relief, threw my things in, and entered myself. One of his friends was in the front, and the two of them were chatting in Arabic, so I found myself listening, and eventually butted in with my own laughable Egyptian dialect, which they found highly amusing, and so we talked for awhile, dropped the friend off (not before he bought me a Diet Coke ;-), and then proceeded into the narrow and twisting streets of the old city. Gabi, the driver and manger-type figure valiantly dragged my suitcase through a few more alleyways and halted at a low, careworn wooden door, ducked through, mounted a steep staircase, and dropped my bag down on the patio. I was instantly charmed! The location was magical, an restored Arab mansion in the heart of the old city largely untouched since the age of our Lord, bedecked with flowers, crumbling stone arches, pigeons, and beautiful rooms, particularly for a hostel. After minor confusion, I was given the room on the top floor (more stairs for poor Gabi) with a low mattress and stunning views of the ancient city. I lingered little, but grabbed my camera bag and headed off to explore, wandering the streets for a couple hours (Nazareth is largely Arab), practicing my Arabic and marveling at the neighborhoods, colossal churches, and tucked-away nooks of startling beauty-gardens, cemeteries, thousand-year old city gates and serpentine passageways, yani, pretty normal stuff. Returning to my hostel, I rested for a bit, ate dinner at a restaurant Gabi recommended (all by myself ;-), bought a new cell phone charger (mine had been ‘misplaced’ at the Carlton), checked my e-mail at the free internet at the Fauzi Azar, decided to book a tour of the area’s religious sites the next morning, and read a bit of From Beirut to Jerusalem before tumbling into dream land.
Unfortunately, I encountered a rather peculiar issue the next morning-instead of the usual lack of hot water at hostels, my room had too much of it, as the cold water was not reaching it. Which explained why, the night before, the toilet needed water manually added to it (I have learned a lot this year, I realized on this trip, if only how to manage in situations like these. See, the 14 grand to ALI has paid off! So I forewent a shower, washed up briefly, wandered downstairs, checked the e-mail, had some tea, and met formally (I had seen them the night before) my tourmates, Pedro and his father, both from Brazil. Pedro, who I learned later was 26 (when I told him I was 20, he blanched slightly and remarked that I seemed older, welp, I’m an odd one, that’s for sure) spoke English fluently, and his father fairly well, so we got along swimmingly.
Gabi drove and his father, Mansoor, who spoke six languages and was a spry, irrepressible old chap, narrated. Israel is an extremely hilly country, especially in the Galilee region, with olive groves, villages, forests, and fields dividing the land into a neat patchwork of agriculture, nature, and habitation, and allowing oneself to imagine that Jesus did indeed walk these lands, tread through this village, perform this miracle here, this one there. It was the landscape more than the churches on the sites of the Son’s achievements that evoked in my a spiritual closeness to God.
Our first stop was Cana, the location of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding, when He turned water into wine. Now, as with every important religious site, a church has been constructed over the spot, this one a beautiful pale stone structure with a décor of simplicity, whiteness and gold. I could understand why it has become renowned as a place to renew wedding vows, as the sanctuary harboured an aura of timeless beauty, promise, and light. In the bowels of the church, several old mosaics and wine jars also were displayed, presumably from around the time of our Lord. From Cana, we drove to Mt. Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured with, I think two of his disciples in tow, John and Peter maybe? My Biblical knowledge, I learned from this trip, is sorely lacking.

Even without its religious significance, Mt. Tabor is stunning, with an excellent vantage point over the entire Galilee region, and we admired the view for a bit, then headed to the very top where an extensive array of ruins, monasteries, and a church dominate the summit. Driving through an ancient Crusader gate, we knew the complex was going to be impressive, but even I was astounded. Parking, we approached the massive cathedral through a pathway of gardens-but these were not your everyday gardens, no, knurled olive trees, profusions of brilliant blossoms, and stately shade trees nestled among formidable Crusader ruins, archways, halls, and staircases to grand effect. And then we entered the coolness of the church itself, dating back hundreds, and in some areas, thousands, of years, with fairly plain stone walls but a glintingly golden mosaic of the Transfiguration covering the front wall and lighting up the air. Below this, a nave arched in a semicircle, with more golden artwork and a window through the floor to the more ancient foundations. Mansoor and his son, both who were Christian, seemed to know the monks at every church, so they chatted awhile as the three of us marveled. Then, we went out to soak in the view and encountered several pilgrims, or at least religious groups discussing the significance of the site, praying, or simply staring. Throughout my time in Israel, I became accustomed to encountering individuals such as these-most traveled in groups arranged by their home church or tourist company back home with an emphasis on deeper spiritual understanding, and a lot of them sported matching baseball caps and the like, and some groups even wore brown, shapeless habits out of piety for their journey.
At this moment, I think, I realized how truly blessed I am for these travel opportunities, for one trait most pilgrims had in common was their age-decidedly middle-aged. Of course, there were a few youngsters, but very few, especially in the Galilee region. Here I was, scampering around Israel on a whim decided about 2 weeks earlier, while most everyone else had planned for months, if not years, to make the voyage to the Holy Land. And they originated from every corner of the globe-America, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa-we saw Fijians, Bostonians (their priest had a hilarious accent), Italians, Spanish, Koreans, and other nationalities I could not identify, all seeking a Oneness with the Lord that unified our disparate group of nationalities into a cohesive sect-Christians. I don’t think I had truly felt the impact of Christianity’s influence on the world until then, how a group from Fiji can serenade in hauntingly foreign voices the same emotions that Mansoor can express in his Arabic hymns that my own congregation can emote in the familiar Missouri Synod Lutheran songs.
We made the harrowing descent from Mt. Tabor and headed to Tiberius, a city on the Sea of Galilee, and yes, this is the that Sea you may have read about, where Jesus walked on water, where Peter fished, and around which many of Jesus’ miracles were performed. Before entering the city proper, we briefly stopped at the Jordan River and the kibbutz shop on its shores, but a languid stream dividing two nations, and watched a number of baptisms performed in its waters, taking the opportunity to stand in it ourselves. I stared at the banks of Jordan for a moment, wondering how I had tread upon that ground only a month ago. How different life had become in that short span!
As I was climbing back into the car, my phone rang, and I, confused, answered it, hearing a familiar voice on the other end. Colin! He was already in Jerusalem, having taken the night bus from Cairo, and was wondering when I’d arrive. Later, I told him uncertainly, eveningish hopefully, and then we hung up. As much enjoyment, liberation, and general confidence I had gained through my solitary wanderings, hearing his voice made me also realize that I did appreciate the companionship of friends, if only just to talk about things familiar to you both. Anyway, my tour group stopped for lunch along the shores of the Galilee (not too shabby, eh?) and then pressed onwards to more religious sites, our first stop the site where Jesus fed 5,000 from three loaves and two fishes. A church dedicates the spot, with a small garden beautifying the otherwise unspectacular building. Inside, mosaics dating back to at least the 6th century depicting birds, plants, and other nature scenes decorate the floor, while, at the altar, a small rock sits of the floor, a piece of the larger rock upon which Jesus performed his miracle. A line of people crowded around it, all desiring to touch it, although I desisted-it was just a rock, after all.
From there, we proceeded along the shore of the Sea for a bit, arriving at a beautiful, landscaped haven and chapel, plain with some stained glass and a large, craggy stone occupying the front, where Jesus spoke to Peter, “Upon this rock will I build my church.” The area also had a beautiful, rocky beach where Pedro and I waded in the Sea and snapped photos of each other standing in more famous bodies of water. Onwards we drove to Capernum, the site of Peter’s house (remember, before he became a fisher for man, he was a humble fisher for fish) and the ruins of the city itself and a Jewish synagogue. By this point, the sun had long surpassed its zenith, and my stalwart band was dragging, but we observed the house, identified as such because it is shaped as an octagon, passed on the ugly modern church built over it, ambled through the pillars and walls of the synagogue, stared at the ruins of the old village houses cramped and crumbling, and then left for our final stop of the day, the Mt. of Beatitudes.
The Franciscan Sisters control the site-oh, yeah, I should probably mention, there is fierce competition between various Christian sects about whom should occupy each holy place, the best example being the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which I will talk about later- The Hill commanded a riveting view of the Sea of Galilee and the entire region as a whole, and we proceeded to the church itself, newer than most but still intriguing, but here I was barred entry. Israel was exceedingly hot during the day, so I took the opportunity, from which I had been denied for the last 10 months, to wear tank tops most days, although I usually carried a jacket for religious sites. Unfortunately, I had forgotten it in the car, so the sister took one look at me, the whore that I am, and practically shooed me far from the church entrance. Slightly acrimonious, I sat on the hill and soothed my pride by staring at such strange beauty that surrounded me, and it worked, as my friends returned and I was no longer belligerent.
We then embarked in a homeward direction, arriving in Nazareth shortly, and, as much as I desired to linger and drink tea with Mansoor and company, I also wanted to begin my travels to Jerusalem before the hour got too late. Having already checked out in the morning with one of Fauzi Azar’s granddaughters, I implored Gabi to aid me one more time with my luggage, and he drove me a bit and then deposited me at a bus stop to catch it to Afoula, where I could catch a bus to Jerusalem. I waited for about 15-20 minutes, and no correctly numbered buses came, so I eventually hopped in a cab for the short ride, got to Afoula in time to catch the next bus, and boarded gratefully alongside a contingent of the IDF. Seriously, though, my bus was 85% IDF and 15% other, and the clink of M-16s blended harmoniously in my ear with the buzz of voices as everyone, equally tired, it seemed, settled in for the 3 hour ride, clipping their bullets to the seats in front of them and cradling those big guns between their legs. I’ll never get over it!
And here is an excellent spot to take a brief refreshment, if you so feel inclined, as I do, because now we move on to the Jerusalem portion of my trip, a city that fascinated, enamored, and enchanted me. I like Cairo, but I left my heart in Jerusalem, in a city full of beauty, prejudice, religion, modernity, history, and, most importantly, life-a vitality courses through every being, be they Muslim, Christian, Jew, Arab, Armenian, everyone has a passion, and these often conflict, but it fuels everyone with an energy nonexistent in the laziness of Cairo. Before I continue, a milkshake, a gaze at Saudi Arabia, a plate of fries, the rush of waves breaking against the shore…
Alright, showered, exercised, and fed, I continue my tale-My bus pulled into the central bus station in Jerusalem, more like a mall than a transit stop, I went through security, found a cab, and headed to Jaffa Gate in the old city, slightly giddy to finally be in the axis around which it all turns. After a short drive, the old city appeared on the horizon, colossal in size and majestic in grandeur, trumping Acre by miles, bes yani kida, and we drove through the Gate and found my hostel with little trouble (well, with a name like Jaffa Gate Hostel, it better be near the entrance ;-) Struggling with my luggage, as I am wont to do, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to find Colin standing there with a grin on his face, having been sipping tea in the nearby shop. He refused to help me with my luggage, claiming they would think he would be skipping out on the bill (good excuse) so I walked down the little alleyway and discovered my hostel, checked in, and found my room on the third floor. To Wawa’s standards, it was adequate, with a private bathroom (although the shower, being handheld and without a curtain, flooded the place every morning) bed, fridge, window, and TV, and to the hostel’s, it was the nicest room in the place. The staff kind of smirked when I asked if there was daily maid service, but it was a place to sleep, decently clean, and centrally located.
Pining for a shower, I was about to start when Colin knocked, so instead I unpacked a bit, saw his pictures from Uganda (I think gorilla trekking is next on my list of things to do), and then we went to find the Armenian Tavern down the road, a lovely establishment cluttered with antiques, curiosities, a fountain, and a tantalizing aroma. Israeli food, I learned, is mumtaz owee, very excellent, and the chunks of seasoned lamb and rice, babaghnouh, and wine were all top notch, and, by Israeli standards, not outrageously priced, although food in general was far more expensive than I had anticipated, and I often found myself paying 20 dollars or upwards for a good, but not gourmet, meal. The night was young, and, though mildly exhausted, I was far more keen to explore Jerusalem, so we headed down Jaffa Rd. to a soon-to-be-familiar, and happening, nightspot, checked it out for awhile, watched the end of an Israeli basketball game and eventually called it a night.
My first morning in Jerusalem was…abrupt, as around 6 am, the mosques began their familiar summonings, but I had not reckoned on the innumerable churches around the city ringing in each hour with a chorus of mellifluous, yet deafening, bells, which broke into my rest periodically. Defeated, I finally rose for good around ten, took my first of many shockingly cold showers (the Jaffa Gate claimed to have hot water, but it apparently only worked when I was not showering ;-), went to brunch with Colin at a charming little roof top restaurant, Papa Andreas, lingered over the view, and headed out to seek the city, but, the city, apparently, did not want to be sought, as most things close by 1 or 2 on Fridays due to the Jewish Sabbath. Instead, we wandered through the souk on David Street, conveniently located steps away from my hostel, into the Arab quarter (a slightly less chaotic version of Cairo), through the Damascus gate, and attempted to locate the Alternative Tours company for a chance to visit Hebron the next day. After a bit of asking, and a few phone calls, we found it, but the owner was out until 5, so we returned for a brief siesta (Jerusalem is chilly at night but sweltering by day) and then wandered back through the old city, camped out at the hotel hosting the tour company and sipped tea, eventually meeting the owner and booking the tour. Hebron it was! And then we meandered our way back through the old city, and paused at the Western Wall.
Danielle, another ALI friend, and her sister arrived then in Jerusalem, so we found them shortly after, dined again at Papa Andreas, and then toured the city a bit by night, admiring the moonlit walls and peculiar ambiance that a deserted, stone-guarded city can project, the worn flagstones sheltering the secrets of millennia and the whispers of the wind wrapping our own histories into its fathomless confidance. Although, at times, the city was not entirely deserted, as hordes of young foreigners paraded past us, exuberant and snappily dressed. Based on their route we guessed they were birthright visitors returning from evening prayers at the Western Wall, young Jews traveling to the Holy Land to embrace their heritage and their right to this land. Interesting program, in many aspects…
The other three returned to their home for the next five days, the New Swedish Hostel, while I briefly went back to my lodging, but was restless, so instead set off again down the shadowy streets to the Western Wall, my refuge during my tumultuous time in Jerusalem. I took a circulatous route, I memorized a more direct one the next day, but I found it swiftly, put my bag through the security, smiled shyly at the guards, and entered the area of the Western Wall. Perhaps you are confused when I use the term Western Wall, as to most it is known as the Wailing Wall, but this term is not used by Israelis, not p.c., you understand. As it was the Sabbath, no photos were allowed, but I was more interested in observation than photography anyways, watching the various Jews in traditional and normal raiment bustle through the wide courtyard and head towards the wall to pray. Many of the men wore long black coats, black boots, wide furry hats, and an intense stare, while others sported black jackets, top hats, and side curls with a similarly, spiritually intent glaze to their eyes. All prayed before the wall, some just standing with their head bent, some sitting in chairs, and some reading the Torah and bowing repeatedly before the wall.
The women’s and men’s sections are divided by a short wall, with the men’s section about three times larger than the women’s, but the women wore similarly varying clothing, some in long skirts and kerchiefs over their hair, others more modernly dressed, but all conservative. Seated away from the wall, I looked upon the scene and tried to comprehend the issue of Israel, how 50 years ago Jews were separated from this heritage, how central it is to their religion, and how they obtained this priceless piece of land. Honestly, at that moment, I could not imagine the Western Wall as anything but a traditional site of worship for the Jews, which other civilizations, for thousands of years, had instead possessed after the diaspora. Quietly, I got up and left, trekked back up the worn stairs, asked directions from a jovial group of IDF soldiers (Where are you from? America…Welcome America! I’m Israel!), and tucked in for the night, shivering slightly under my thin blanket.

Hebron. I met Colin at his hostel, tred the familiar route through the Arab quarter, where I stopped to buy these delectable nuts and gummy candies, exited through the Damascus gate, and met our guide and group, 10 of us total, and piled into our van and headed into the West Bank. Along the way, our guide, I can’t remember his name, let’s call him Ali for ease of reference, explained to us the Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Passionate for his people, Ali was an excellent guide, pointing out the checkpoints that bar Palestinians from entering Israel (typically, you have to be over 45 to enter), the new Israeli settlements populating the West Bank and crowding out the Palestinians, the new roads that separate farmers from their land, making it impossible to cultivate and thus easy to acquire into Israeli hands. Reaching Hebron, we drove through the outskirts and entered the downtown, climbing out of the cab and into the central marketplace, sticking close together as a group. First, we paused at the Martyrs’ Road, a stretch of pavement now closed off from traffic (with barbed wire and barriers blocking the way) due to fear of attacks on the few Israeli settlers sequestered in their compound. To understand Hebron, you first need to understand who is living there, and why. A radical group of approximately 500 Jewish settlers live in the city center guarded by multitudes of IDF soldiers in guardposts, towers, and hideouts around this living space. When Hebron was handed over to Palestinian control, these settlers, not even Israelis, but Jews from Brooklyn, instead moved into the center and refused to leave, necessitating a small army of guards to protect them, taking over various buildings in the center and shutting down the central market area. Truly, it was remarkable to walk down the streets and see deserted stores and boarded up buildings in the once-bustling souk. Machine guns, barbed wire gates, concrete barriers, imposing walls, and other obstructions now separate the settlers from the rest of the population, who struggle to survive in a city drained of its vitality. Violence flairs up frequently between the disgruntled civilians and the Jewish guards, and the atmosphere thrummed with tension, hatred, and rancor at the settlers who so imperiously declared themselves lords.
In fact, they are now building a Jewish school in their little settlement on the site of an old Islamic school with the ridiculous aim to draw more Jews into their enclave, expand their kingdom and eventually drive all of the Palestinians from their center. Now, wire mesh covers the air above the walkways, as the settlers daily cast down garbage, rocks, and rubbish into the marketplace, although sometimes the mesh fails and broken stones litter the pathway. With absolute impunity, the IDF arbitrarily close down shops in the area, locking the doors on shopkeepers and preventing them from accessing their goods. We visited one such shop, owned by a forlorn old man, whose merchandise smelled of mildew and decay after he had been denied entrance into his shop for many months, and there were few customers in the area, too frightened to shop in such an atmosphere. So much of the city bore signs of violence and neglect that it was impossible to envision that, but a few years ago, this place thrummed with life and bartering and ease.
Our little tour group trouped down these streets, passing through the current market into an increasing desolate street of deserted shops and few customers, pausing before the ugly barriers of the settlement to peer inwards at the houses and wonder what sort of life it must be to exist entirely inside the compound (they never venture outside, for obvious reasons), severed from the city in which you live and reviled by all. Does it bring them satisfaction? Finally, we came to the Ibrahimi mosque, the most holy place in Hebron and the final resting place of Abraham, Sarah, Rebekka, and Jacob, whom you may recall from the Old Testament. To enter, we passed through stringent security, where each of us was interrogated without any of the amiability of Jerusalem’s IDF. These grim, unsmiling soldiers inspected our passports, asked us our religion (Jews cannot enter the Muslim side of the mosque, I’ll explain in a bit) and begrudgingly allowed us to pass after our packs were also rigidly searched. Because we were all foreigners, we had relatively little trouble entering, at least in comparison to the Palestinians who were forced to wait, sometimes for hours, while the IDF ‘checked their i.d.s’ before eventually granting them entry. I felt like such a fool, not knowing why this place required such security, and I got a hasty explanation from Colin. In 1994, a Jewish professor teaching in a nearby university entered the mosque during Ramadan prayers and opened fire on the worshippers, killing 29 before he was finally killed in the ensuing chaos. For awhile, the mosque was entirely shut down, but it eventually reopened with a new twist-half of it had been converted into a synagogue, and Jews are no longer allowed into the Muslim side and vice versa. We passed through the portal with several other Muslims, viewed the scene of carnage, particularly the balcony from which Bernstein had fired (and the rather ugly barrier wall dividing the mosque), paid our respects to the forebearers’ tombs-Sarah’s was just outside the entrance to the mosque itself, Rebekka’s and Jacob’s were in mausoleums inside the worship area, and Arbraham’s was uniquely located between the two divisions so both religions could pay their respects, windows allowing you access to the grave and a glimpse into the other world.
Then we headed back down the streets, pausing at a few shops, one that sold beautiful Palestinian embroidery, and also ventured into a home to view the settlement from the rooftop. Ali mentioned, as we were mounting the uneven stone staircase, that the residents could get in big trouble if the Israelis discovered they had renovated the inside of the building, as this is forbidden to all current residents. Peering down from the rooftop into the compound, we saw a few solitary soldiers standing vigil on corners, and then one of the settlers herself appeared on a balcony to air out some laundry, saw us watching her, and started screeching at one of the soldiers in Hebrew. Time to go….We descended swiftly, drank tea in a nearby shop, wound our way back through the market and into the crowded main street, cast one last look at the desolate Martyrs’ Street, and climbed into the bus to find some food at a local falafel joint. No, all but the French fries were breaded, and they could not seem to process my order, so I went rambling outside a bit while everyone ate, stumbling upon a bakery a few doors down and, unable to help myself, entering. Chatting with the owner in my Arabic (You’re from Egypt, no?) I asked if there was anything without wheat in his shop, he chuckled (It’s a bakery), but then handed me a box of coconut macaroons, which I paid for happily and munched on my way back to the falafel place. They were divine, and I shared them with my willing travel partners on the bus, all who affirmed their sweet perfection. Then, a quick stop at a glass blower’s shop, a sprint across the street to take a picture with the severed camel heads hanging in a shop, and back to Al-Quds, Jerusalem, with a slightly better understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. I went to Hebron mainly just to say I’d been there, but I left with a knowledge of the other side of the story, something concealed from view on the clean, manicured lawns of Jerusalem proper.
Although a bit tired, Colin and I nonetheless embarked on a trek to the Garden of Gesthemene (sp.) and the Mt. of Olives. Of course, a church commemorated the spot where Jesus sweat drops of blood on the ground in fervid prayer, and where the kiss of betrayal was administered by Judas. The garden itself was rather diminutive in size, but still twisted, riotous, and somehow Biblical, and the church itself was dark and melancholy, with deep-colored stained glass windows filtering in faint light to illuminate the Gothic-like pillars, paintings, and thorn-themed décor. Continuing upwards on the Mt. of Olives, we stopped, looked back over the valley and view, and decided we had seen enough of the mount, so turned back around and headed home through on the laborious route past King David’s City (yes, the King David), the Western Wall, the old city, and, finally, my little room.
I found that sleep did not come easily to me in Jerusalem, and while everyone else rested, I wandered David St., browsing the shops, purchasing a beautiful Jerusalem cross necklace, and poking into narrow little alleyways with my insatiable curiosity. Randomly, I met a fellow AUCian, Jay, in the doorway to one of the shops, so we also wandered a bit, found my way back to my hostel, where Colin was sitting in his signature coffee shop, and made dinner plans. One of the difficulties I encountered in Jerusalem was the lack of nearby ATMs, and I quite often resorted to a store next door that claimed to be an ATM, and charged an amount on my credit card and gave me the cash. Now, I verified this was not a cash advance, just a rather peculiar way of doing business. It worked, and around 8 we set off to find a restaurant , thwarted twice before, finally, we settled on a Chinese restaurant, hit the night scene for a bit (pool in Prague ;-), and then returned home, well, everyone else did, I took a short detour to the Western Wall, where, I discovered, most of Jerusalem remained in prayer and remembrance.
My third day in Jerusalem was perhaps my proudest moment, as you will soon discover. My gang had planned to meet at 8 for breakfast, but, when I arrived at the said meeting place, no one was there and the restaurant was still closed. So, I took a gander into town to see what I could see, happening to pass by the restaurant on my way back to find my three friends seating themselves, as the place opened at 9. They, too, had encountered the same dilema, and solved it by visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, wending there way in circles for a bit before actually finding it. After a hearty breakfast, and the addition of our German friend, Misha, we trudged down to the Western Wall in an attempt to obtain tickets to tour the Western Tunnels; you see, the tickets are limited, must be reserved in advance, and, by all accounts, challenging to obtain. In other words, a perfect task for me!
As the others milled around in the courtyard, I, with my usual audacity, marched up to the entrance to the tunnels and asked, in my sweetest voice, if there were any tickets available for today. Stuttering a bit, the man shuffled through his papers, told me that usually the tickets had to be reserved in advance, but, when I asked, very demurely, again if there were any spaces, he murmured, there may be. Ahh, he said, there are four spots for today still available, but then another surly gentleman approached us, well, me, and told me sternly, the tickets have to me reserved in advance. The gate attendant brushed the man off and led me over to ticket booth, where I was to purchase them. But, there are five of us, I implored, and he muttered some more and returned to his post. Unsure of what to do, I asked Colin, and he affirmed that we shouldn’t leave anyone out, so I began to ask about tomorrow’s tickets. Allah Akbar! The kind man came back from his post and said, alright, five is fine, and overrode the protests of the ticket seller. I got all five of us student rates, grabbed the tickets, thanked the gate man profusely, and joined the tour, which had just started. Sweet success! It’s kind of arrogant, but I was so proud of myself!
Anyway, the Western Tunnels were one of the most fascinating places I visited in Jerusalem, a series of tunnels, carved out by the Israeli government and opened within the last ten years that run along the Western Wall, or the base of the Temple Mount, nothing more, topographically, than a raised plateau. You see, the visible Western Wall is not the last remaining vestige of the Temple Mount, but happens to be the only portion still visible. Let’s go back over 2,000 years, to the time of King David, who had captured the Ark of the Covenant, and his son, Solomon, who actually constructed the first temple on The Temple Mount as the holiest of holy places for Jews to venerate this artifact. The Ark was housed in a western room in the temple, but, unfortunately, the first temple was destroyed by ensuing invaders and the relics lost. Over time, houses, businesses, and markets crowded around the base of the temple mount, eventually, as old structures crumbled and new ones were built on top, entirely obscuring the old walls from view, although they still were, and are there, but exacavation is needed to reveal them. However, in, I think around the 1st century B.C., a second temple was rebuilt over the same spot, and the Temple Mount actually doubled in size by one of the Roman emperors, the western wall being the longest portion. As you may know, this temple, too, was destroyed and never rebuilt, one of the controversies of the Temple Mount. Today, two mosques stand upon it, Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both marking the place where the prophet Mohammed journeyed by winged steed from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven with Gabriel to receive the Quran, and also as the site where Abraham made his covenant with the Lord and almost sacrificed his son. If a third temple were ever to be rebuilt, it would have to replace these current mosques, and thus the suspicions that arise around any excavations or activity around the base of the Temple Mount. Our tour led us through first the old cisterns of the homes that used to stand next to the mount, and then, eventually, to the wall itself, in reality just as holy as the Western Wall.
I will confess, Israel does an amazing job preserving their monuments and national history. The tunnels were well lit, guarded, with fairly impressive mechanical models to illustrate the changes in the Temple Mount over the centuries, a stark contrast to Egypt, where, for a small bribe, anyone can climb the pyramids! At one point, we passed the holiest place along the entire Western Wall, the spot closest to the old temple where a small altar and prayer area were displayed and several Jews were silently lost in God. Our path wound us through the old bedrock of the Temple Mount, past the gigantic blocks of stone that successive invaders had been unable to dislodge (so, instead, they defiled them by installing public bathes and lavatories next to them), through narrow tunnels brushing against the base, and, finally, out again into sunlight on the Via Delarosa. Our guide, a young man, was absolutely wonderful, charismatic and ebullient, with almost no accent, knowledgeable, and firm in his belief that it is a Jewish right to control this land wrenched from them 2000 years ago.
And then we switched religions, and began walking the Via Delarosa, the way of suffering, which traces the spot from where Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate to place where he was laid to rest in his tomb. All in all, there are 12 stations of the cross, each commemorating a different suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the first several are marked by, you guessed it, churches, simpler affairs, with a few paintings, a main altar, a little decoration. For instance, in the third station church, a powerful, all white statue of Jesus stumbling under the weight of the cross draws your eyes to it, and in the second station, a crown of thorns rings the ceiling, another poignant reminder of His suffering. However, despite the peace and contemplativeness of the churches, the Via Delarosa was rather disappointing, more commercial than spiritual, and I had to strive unduly to picture My Lord stumbling up these selfsame steps, the streets lined with jeerers and mourners, the Romans prodding him with their whips and mockery. Somehow, the Holy Rock Café and Via Delarosa Relics store simply did not convey the same atmosphere that I needed to walk with my Lord.
Actually, I became briefly separated from my friends, and, when I found them again, decided to forego the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the next day, and instead visit Bethlehem to see what that city could offer. The most economical way to reach it is by bus, so, after minor confusion, we boarded the correct bus and settled in for the drive over the border to the West Bank, arriving in the city shortly, piling all five of us into a cab, and making the short ride to the Church of the Nativity, the place of Jesus’ birth. It was a cavernous affair, pre-Crusader in age, and controlled by several sects of Christianity, each with separate dominions. Vestiges of old mosaics dotted the walls and floors, and a golden, crystal-chandeliered altar area presided over the main nave, but, off to the right side, a mass of people were gathered in anticipation of something. Well, I guess my herd instinct kicked in, so I joined the throng and gathered that we were waiting en masse to enter the grotto where the Christ child was born. You know, everyday stuff…I could not understand the delay, until, as I neared the front of the line, I saw several priests performing a ceremony in front of the memorial to Our Lord, waving burners of frankincense and myrrh in front of the site and chanting in their esoteric tongue, swishing from the room in their flowing robes with appropriate pomp. I, too, soon entered the grotto, and knelt in front of the holy space to a) pay my respects b) push through the crowd to get a view and c)take a photo of the multi-pointed silver star glinting in the ground, then I stepped back, attempted to envision the birth on Christmas night, was mildly successful, and then departed, making a brief detour with Misha to the Catholic cathedral and grotto, where St. Gerome lived and worked, and where the inn that refused room to the Mary and Joseph was located.
Taking a brief refreshment in one of the side streets from the church, we found our way back to the bus, boarded it, endured the passport and bag check at the border, and returned to Jerusalem, everyone else to rest, but, being my restive self, I called several horse stables in the area and decided to go horseback riding. Seemed like a good idea…I found a cab (and cabs in Israel are actual cabs, not the clunking, sputtering, jerking beasts that troll the Cairo streets), handed my phone to the driver to receive directions from the owner, and settled in the lovely leather-appointed Mercedes for a enlightening chat with the driver, who pointed out to me various landmarks, including the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and Hebrew University. Being Palestinian, he and I got along well, and, since he spoke fluent English, having lived in the States for a few years, we discussed identity issues, as Palestinians aren’t allowed to carry Israeli passports. Actually, because of the pre-1967 boundaries, he has a Jordanian one, but, in order to travel, one must obtain expensive travel papers from the government.
Finding the stables with a little difficulty, I climbed out and thanked him, and he said if he’s in the area, he might stop back in about an hour. Sure, I said, he was a nice, non-creepy guy. And then I endured torture for the next hour, as I learned how horrible of a rider I truly am. Heels down, knees in, back straight, you’re going to fall off any minute if you don’t adjust! was the adage of the hour, and I attempted to conform to the old man’s instructions, but felt a little ridiculous. However, the instructor was very good, harsh but not acrimonious, and we struck out into the wooded valley bordered on both sides by the city, a sliver of nature gracing Jerusalem. Plus, I was on a pure-bred Arabian, so that didn’t hurt either. After the lesson/ride, I took tea with him and his family, switching between English, Hebrew, and a bit of Arabic with ease, although I needed translation from the Hebrew. Then, as the day waned, I decided to have them call a cab for me, but then noticed my taxi friend waiting, so I thanked them profusely and trekked up the hill for the ride back to Jaffa Gate. This trip was just as enlightening as the one before, passing the prime minister’s house (and the protests in front), causing a minor fitna, when another car cut off ours, so Amin, the driver, nudged them with his own car and rolled down the window to ‘discuss’ while I chuckled nervously in the backseat. Arab drivers, they never change…And then, I received perhaps the most interesting date offer ever-So what are you doing tonight? Oh, going out with my friends, probably. Well, if you want, I’d like to take you out. Oh yeah? With a smile in his voice, he said, knowing I had a penchant for visiting the West Bank, I’ll take you to a nice restaurant in Ramallah, and then we can visit Yassar Arafat’s grave.
Although I am rarely lacking speaking capability, this was one of those moments when I stammered a bit, contemplated the idea, and told him I’d think about it, because, in truth, the concept of it did sound adventurous…So, entering my hostel in a slightly confounded daze, I ran into Colin, who informed me the rest were going out for dinner. I’m all horsey, I replied, and I’ve been asked on a date to Ramallah. So when will you be ready? 10 minutes. Alright.
Well, that was the end of my West Bank fantasy date, as I reasoned it probably, probably, was not a wise idea to get into a car with a strange man some years your senior, drive to the West Bank, and be fairly beholden to him for my safety. But still…

I threw on some non-horse-drenched clothing and walked with my friends to a great Ethiopian restaurant, and then we decided to hit the town, as our time together was dissipating. After we’d been to a few bars, we returned to the first one we’d visited, Nadin’s, whose staff had, by that time, gotten to know us and our orders. Observing the scene around us, my eyes, like magnets drawn to a pole, focused on a group of IDF soldiers a table or two over just settling in, and on their guns resting at their sides. For days, I had wanted a picture with one, and I instinctively knew, if I ever had an opportunity, this would be it. Relating my plan to Colin, I unfortunately could not galvanize enough mettle to introduce myself so he, bless his heart, went first, telling them he was something Bernstein from Chicago here on birthright. When I came and joined the four soldiers (2 guys, 2 girls), he said I was also Jewish, although I was sporting cross bling around my neck and in my ears. None of them seemed to care, and I sat down next to one of the girls, who spoke perfect English, and we truly had an enjoyable chat about the service requirement for soldiers and how they handle it. Well, she said, we look at America and wonder how you can decide what you want to do with the rest of your life at the age of 18. Here, we have a transition period. By golly, she was right! They were stationed in Hebron, apparently in one of the hospitals or care centers there (Colin and I pretended we had no idea what Hebron was, the soldiers all shared a look and said, it’s kind of dangerous) and actually were kind of on duty. When their commander called, one of the guys got up to find a quieter place to communicate.
After about 20 minutes, I returned to my table, looked at my camera bag, and decided, the heck with it. I took a group photo with my new friends, and then, turning to one of the guys, asked in my sweetest voice if I could have a picture with his gun. Of course not, he roars, it’s too dangerous! So I accepted his refusal and turned around to sit down, but then he grabs me, thrusts it into my arms, and we take several priceless photos of me gripping that big M-16 and grinning like an idiot. Oh Wawa! I don’t know if that ruined me for several government jobs, but I don’t regret it.
The next morning we meet again for breakfast and then decide to visit the Temple House, Haram Al-Sherif, the location of the two mosques. Non-Muslims are not permitted entry, and Jews are instructed not to enter for fear they may desecrate the old temple, but anyone else is allowed entrance. Well, anyone with any sense that is. I, unfortunately, fall outside this category, because I had chosen to wear shorts that morning, why, Allah Alam, God knows, perhaps it is my innate, and obdurate, desire to push against any outwards forms of injustice or control, and despise being constantly forced to cover myself in Cairo, and in mosques. I think a year’s worth of Cairo has turned me into a bitter old woman…Anyway, we approach one of the gates of the Temple Mount but are told only Muslims can enter there, everyone else must go in through a gate near the Western Wall, so we oblige, and I climb past the controversial renovations/demolitions at the base of the Temple Mount with my friends, pause to take a picture while they go on ahead, and then prepare to enter myself. Of course I am stopped, and of course I cannot go in because of my dress, and I did not argue, but took a defeatist stance and wended my way back down the ramp, my companions having already turned the corner out of sight.
Frustrated with my own lack of sagacity, or even common sense, I climbed the long way back to the gate, passing the ubiquitous signs-40-commemorating the victory in the ’67 war that brought all of Jerusalem under Israeli control and muttering angrily to myself about various personal issues that seemed, at that time, intrinsically bonded to my gate apprehension. Also, I began feeling the effects of the rather spicy food I had eaten the night before, so I returned to my room, collapsed on the bed, and charted a path through numerous strange dreams before my phone jolted me out of my sleep.
Colin: We’re gong to the Holocoust museum now, wanna come? Yeah, I mumbled groggily, I’ll be down in five. Meshi. Taking the public bus to the museum, Yad Veshem, I don’t think any of us were properly braced for the onslaught of images, personal stories, historical facts, and other media that ruthlessly assaulted our faculties. Built in a wooded area outside of the main city, the museum’s gleaming, harsh geometric edges and bright chrome contrast dissidently with the tall pines and twittering birds of the refuge. It was a sobering visit, even after having seen the West Bank, to witness, almost firsthand, the calculated murder of an entire race and then look around and realize that you are in their last refuge. The museum was presented well, it did not provide any commentary on the Jewish homeland or their right to it, it just presented the story of the Holocoust in grim, gruesome, and stark detail.
Staying until closing, we still wished for more time, but instead returned via bus to our Jaffa Gate, where I decided to visit the Holy Sepulchre before my time ran out. The other three had been a bit befuddled in finding it, but I asked for directions, took the first left, third right, and there it was, an unimpressive building on the outside, but sheltering the Passion of Christ inside. Sobering, dark, medieval, brooding, colossal, capacious-these are all apt descriptions of the church, dimly illuminated by candles and soft lighting. As you enter, the slab upon which Jesus’ body lay stretches over the ground, a beautiful mosaic depicting the scene in the background. The proper ownership of the church is so contested that a Muslim family guards the keys to the church and opens and closes the doors every day, revealing how striven even Christianity is by division and ideology.
Then I entered the main nave, where the crucifixion took place, and walked into the small, mausoleum-like structure that distinguishes the spot. But a few people waited in line in front of me to enter the inner sanctuary, so I waited patiently as the serenity of the spot soothed me, and ducked into the private sanctum, sharing it briefly with one other person, and then, for a moment, having it all to myself. It was right, on my final day in Jerusalem, to finally feel the presence of God on the site of His last sacrifice, to achieve, as much a bad Christian can, an affinity with my Maker. Sated, I left the holiest of holies, passed other pilgrims seeking the same divine presence, kissed the slab on which my Lord lay, and left the Holy Sepulchre at peace at last.
On the way back to my hostel, I managed ;-) to find a store to acquire those final gifts from Jerusalem, changed into my evening wear, and had a lovely evening with my friends in the Armenian Tavern, and then a free salsa concert in one of the local parks, I felt it was a just end to an amazing vacation. Mother was having surgery that day, back in America, so, when I learned, around 11, that it had been successful, I felt my prayers had indeed, been answered. After we returned, quite late, from our last night, I strode once more down the streets of Old Jerusalem to the Western Wall. At 3 am, I and two other women prayed before the sacred stones, adding our own hopes, dreams, and fears to a God who hears them all.
And this is where my Jerusalem saga ends, after an uneventful, but lengthy, series of bus rides with Colin, we arrived back in Cairo and chaos the next evening. I have professed, many times previously, my desire to remain in Cairo, my terror at leaving a place laden with beautiful memories, but now, I think, I am ready to bring Wawa back home, to show her family and friends the woman she’s become, and the girl she left somewhere in a fateful apartment in Zamalek.

I doubt this will be my last blog (and I will add picture links soon, so check back if you will), for there are still a few days left, and I’m not sure whether I should continue it back in the States, but thank you all for reading and suffering through my implacably long entries.


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