Friday, January 20, 2006

Dead, Red, Black, Mediterranean, Marmara

After a full day in Jerusalem and a visit to Bethlehem, a visit to Jericho, a brief repose in Tel Aviv, and a flight to Istanbul.

Here I am floating (a couple of weeks ago) in the salty embrace of the lowest body of water in the world.

And here is (part of) the former largest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Long Walk Across a Short Bridge

Another rambling, narrative-lite post written hastily from a rented terminal is in order, I think. I'm in a graffiti-covered Byzantine stone grotto of an internet cafe in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, around the corner from the souq where real people buy sneakers and gadgets and spices by the shovelful. The keyboard is cluttered with Hebrew, Arabic, and Roman letters, and my fingers are a bit numb because it's cold here. We just returned from a postcard-buying trip along the Via Dolorosa and through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where there was a boisterous candle-lighting session going on (it's Sunday night).

Today we ended our short visit to Jordan, although it did not end the way we wanted it to. At seven this morning we got a taxi from Amman to the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge, which connects Jordan with the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The plan was to go to Jericho (possibly the oldest city in the world), look around, get a bus or shared taxi to Bethelehem, and eventually return to Jerusalem by night. These places are all quite close together, at least by North American standards, but travel in the West Bank is far from a sure thing these days, and our plans were changed for us. A few days ago when we entered Jordan at Aqaba on the Red Sea, we made a point of asking whether we would be able to cross back at the Allenby Bridge. It has been hard to get reliable info on things like that because 1) the rules seem to change often, sometimes on the spot, and 2) a lot of people seem to think they know the rules but their views are coloured by political prejudices and paranoia. In other words, many (not all) of the Israeli Jews we talked to told us we couldn't pass through the West Bank, while the Palestinians and Jordanians we talked to mostly told us it was no problem. Some Israeli soldiers we talked to at the Egyptian border said it was fine. And the people at the Aqaba crossing, whom presumably should know, told us, "Sure. Why not?" So did the very friendly and helpful hotel owner / tour operator Fayez in Amman. Nevertheless, when we got to the border, the laconic mustachioed Jordanian border guard would not let us out of his country because Karen had entered Jordan on her Israeli passport, and he said that Israelis could not use that crossing. As an American it would have been no problem for her to go through, nor for me as a Canadian, but Israelis are given a hard time, for obvious reasons. So instead we had to take another taxi for another hour-long drive to the north, to the next crossing which connects directly with Israel. The crossing took a couple of hours, for no good reason. From there we took a bus (filled about 80% with rifle-toting soldiers) which went through the West Bank anyway, and right by Jericho, although we were not able to get out there. So here we are in Jerusalem, and tomorrow or the next day I will make another attempt at visiting Bethelehem at least.

In the Negev I was attacked by a goose, and was embarassingly winded and shaken by the time I had fought it off.

I have to correct an earlier post in which I said that I had been to all of Israel's ports after visiting Akko, Haifa, and Jaffa. I had forgotten about Eilat, which is on a different sea, and which we visited on Thursday. NOW I've seen them all. Eilat was really the least interesting to me, I have to say, although Israelis seem to love it: lots of expensive hotels, some mediocre beaches, shopping malls, and less-than-sensibly-dressed people on vacation busily convincing themselves that they're having a ball.

A favourite conversational tactic in Jordan is to inquire as to which country the interlocuter hails from, and once a reply is given, to respond with "You're welcome." (As in, "Welcome to Jordan", but sounding more like the phrase used after "Thank you".) During one conversation in a taxi in Wadi Musa, virtually everything we said and every question we answered was greeted with this response. It made me feel, in fact, very welcome, although a bit unnerved. I think that Jordan earns a nomination at least for Friendliest, Most Helpful Country I've Visited. However, when we finally exited from the border on the Israeli side this afternoon, we met a man who didn't just give us a free ride to the nearest town; he also, upon realizing that we had no Israeli money with us, insisted on putting 100 shekels in Karen's hand.

At the Amman Archeological Museum, between the Ummayad jewelry and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we saw a bronze Nabatean coin that looked remarkably like the coin that Karen paid a Bedouin 5 dinar for in Petra (somewhat gullibly, I thought at the time), which went a fair way towards convincing me that the small round green-black nubbin we got is, in fact, a Nabatean coin found in the desert.

Also: I have live footage on digital video cassette of the birth of a calf next to an irrigation ditch in the Galilee, if anyone is interested.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

We're OK, You're OK

Writing from a dingy closet of an internet cafe in Amman, Jordan, under a shelf offering tons of scruffy paperbacks for a dinar and a half each. Titles include "I'm OK, You're OK", "Delta of Venus", "A Farewell to Arms", and "My Messy Bedroom" of Montreal HOUR fame. It's a small bibliographic world.

Since we left Tel Aviv on Tuesday, we have floated in the Dead Sea, covered ourselves in mud, wandered Nabatean ruins in the Negev desert, waved across the border at men riding camels in Egypt, touched the (blue) water of the Red Sea, crossed into Jordan, survived a death-defying "taxi" ride through the mountains to Wadi Musa, and spent an exhausting day hiking the ruins and rosy rocks of Petra.

Today we rose before the sun (but after the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at 5 am) and took a bus to Amman, Jordan's capital built on seven hills. It feels like winter, and the knaffe is tasty but does little to warm your bones when your hotel room is unheated. So we go in search of tea. Likely in Jerusalem I will fill in this sketch a bit.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Communing with nature

We're in Tel Aviv (Holon, actually) right now, but tomorrow we leave for the Dead Sea and then the Negev Desert. We'll be travelling around for a week, so I may not get to post much.

Our second day in the Galilee I had an experience I never thought I'd have: spending the day in a convoy of 4X4 jeeps and trucks doing a little recreational off-roading through densely-populated Israel. It's Avi's favourite hobby. This particular excursion, the details of which I may save for another time, was a tour of kibbutzes and moshavs where we learned about the production of olive oil, mushrooms, passion-fruit liqueur, and glass beads. (Or at least, those of us who could understand Hebrew learned.) Except instead of driving to these places on the perfectly-good paved roads, we drove through the bush and over the mountains. The day ended with dinner at a Bedouin restaurant, not a night in a Bedouin tent as previously suggested. But it was delicious and interesting.

The Alleged Site

Avi is a great tour guide and Tali is a marvelous cook, and during my three-day stay in Galilee I felt like my every need or desire had been anticipated and obviated. They live in Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth), which is a higher, wealthier, and more Jewish suburb of Nazareth, which is mostly Arab. The day after we arrived, we drove into the city and visited the souq, where I bought an AC plug adaptor from a huge plastic basket of various adaptors, and we also sampled some knaffe, an Arab cake that looks like birds’ nests.

Then we made mini-pilgrimages to the Church of the Annunciation (on the alleged site of Gabriel’s visit to Mary to tell her about the virgin birth and everything), the Church of St. Joseph (on the alleged site of Joseph’s carpentry shop), and the Greek Catholic Church (on the alleged site of the synagogue where the young Jesus allegedly prayed and taught). We skipped the Greek Orthodox Church and Mary’s Well, which is the alleged site of the annunciation according to the Greeks – we didn’t want to get involved in any controversy. We also skipped (to my disappointment) Nazareth Village, where actors dress up in robes and re-enact life in the time of Jesus (on the alleged site of Canaanite Town, where Jesus attended his first historical reenactment).

There was a service going on in Latin and Arabic at the Church of the Annunciation. It was the biggest and newest of the churches (built in the 60’s, on still-visible Byzantine ruins), and aside from the grotto that Mary supposedly lived in, it featured wall sculptures of virgin and child from around the world. The Mexican one was cartoony, a la Diego Rivera; the Japanese one had the holy figures dressed in kimonos; the American one was colourful and vaguely hippy-ish; the Canadian one was a low-key terra-cotta abstraction. It was as though they had been created by an international committee whose job was to reflect each country’s perceived personality. In the basement of the St. Joseph church was another grotto, this one below our feet and covered with plexiglass, which gave the impression of not being a very commodious or salubrious location in which to conduct a carpentry business. Everything was pretty quiet, except at the Greek Catholic Church, where there were Christmas decorations around the door and people were singing while tourists snapped photos.

Everything is really close together in Israel, so not long after we left Nazareth we arrived at the extreme north-western tip of the country to visit the caves at Rosh Hanikra. We descended in a cable-car from the top of the cliff to the tunnels at sea-level. It was a beautiful sunny day and I leaned out the window, taking pictures of the sheer white chalk cliffs. The very impressive caves are partly natural holes in the chalk worn by waves, and partly the result of excavations by the British Army in the 1940’s to allow a train to pass from Beirut to Haifa. We learned all about it in a unique 15-minute multi-media show: it was basically a film shown on a screen in one of the tunnels, part nature documentary and part historical narrative, but at one key moment dramatizing the sabotage of the railway bridge by the Israel independence forces there were flashlights in the ceiling playing along the walls, and then at another moment near the end when the voice-over was mooning over the eternal love affair between the sea and the rock, and the waves were washing against the shore on the screen, we were sprayed with a not-so-fine mist to simulate the loving caress of the sea spray.

Next we went to Akko (Acre during the Crusades), a walled port city that looks like it hasn’t changed much in several centuries (that is, if you disregard the acres of ugly high-rise apartments in the sprawling new city, and the scooters and plastic water bottles on the street and so on). Here is a picture of the marina. Israel has only three ports and now I’ve seen them all.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Felafels of biblical proportions

The next day, we took an hour-long train ride to Haifa, Israel’s third-biggest city. Shortly after we arrived Karen’s uncle Avi (her mother’s brother) came to pick us up, but not before we had a chance to ride the Haifa subway, which is rather interesting: there is only one line, and it goes straight up the inside of a mountain on a steep angle. From the top we had a breathtaking view of the harbour and the Mediterranean sea, and the Baha’i Gardens that stretch down the hillside to the prominent monument that marks the burial place of El Bab. (This is apparently one of the two holiest sites for Baha’i, the other being in Akko.) Climatically and topographically the city resembles San Francisco, or perhaps Kobe.

We drove from Haifa to a small Druze village on the Carmel mountain range. Visiting a Druze village sounds more interesting than it turned out to be, since only a tiny fraction of the population is actually Druze and they are generally invisible anyway, so that what we ended up seeing was just felafel restaurants, souvenir shops, and a busload of American Jews on their “Birthright Israel” tour. But farther on, at a Catholic monastery high on a cliff at the site where Elijah the prophet allegedly did the thing he is supposed to have done, we had a remarkable view of Galilee, from the sea to Nazareth and beyond. We’ll spend the next couple of days there, staying with Avi and his wife Tali. There is a lot to see in the land of Jesus (Jesusland, one is tempted to call it).

Just Ask Someone

We went to Jaffa, the day before yesterday. In the Bible it is known as Joppa (it’s where Jonah embarked to get away from God, and ended up getting swallowed by a whale), but Israelis call it Yafo. It is much older than Tel Aviv, which now surrounds it with urban sprawl, and from what I’ve seen it’s also one of the more interesting parts of the city. These days it is mostly occupied by Christian Arabs and new-agey potters. The harbour used to be the major Palestinian seaport, and at its mouth you can see the rocks where Greek Myth says Andromeda was chained (as a sacrifice to one of Poseidon’s sea monsters) and then rescued by Perseus on his flying horse. The Old City is a small area on the hill above the port, dominated by St. Peter’s Church, which is where Napoleon slept when he and his army arrived to conquer the country. The narrow steps and alleys around it are all named after signs of the zodiac, and there are hundreds of cats hanging out there. We had dinner at a fish restaurant several blocks away called The Old Man and the Sea.

After dinner we had plans to go to visit Karen’s aunt Yushinka and her family in a city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The problem was that nobody seemed to know how to get there. Karen’s mother gave us her car, but she didn’t know the way. We went to pick up Karen’s cousins Avivit and Efrot who, we figured, would be able to direct us, but their notions of the geography of their city were vague at best. And when we called Yushinka, her sixteen-year-old daughter gave us cursory directions which ended up sending us in entirely the wrong direction. It seems that Israelis have a slight allergy to the use of street addresses and city maps. I had already noticed this in Karen’s mother, whose preferred navigational method in Jerusalem was to roll down the window and yell questions at the people in the other cars at the stop light. In fact, Yushinka just told us that when we got close to her city we should ask someone the way to the center, and when we got to the center she said we should ask someone the way to her neighbourhood. I didn’t understand why she was so reluctant to explain it to us herself. Perhaps it was a test, I suggested. Perhaps the next time we called she would tell us we had to find a hideous dragon who would transform into a beautiful princess, whom we could then ask for directions. We did manage to end up near her house, but we couldn’t find her street. So we called, again, and instead of telling us the way to her home, she insisted on walking the two blocks to meet us. Perhaps when she gets here we will be blindfolded, I said.

Yushinka’s family is modern orthodox, meaning that they don’t, for example, operate light switches on Saturday, but they do, for example, let non-family-members of the opposite sex touch them. Religion permeates their lives, and many of their actions and opinions are dictated by strict rules, but aside from the fact that the men wear kipas, it’s not obvious. They seemed very excited to see Karen and were very warm to me as well; we were greeted by Yushinka and her husband and four of her children and her new daughter-in-law, and we were plied with humus, vegetables, borekas, and RC Cola. A party atmosphere ensued. The conversation was lively and ranged from Liron and Chani’s recent wedding to the size of New York apartments to “Brokeback Mountain”. Chani told us the story of how she met her prince charming (Liron), and Bosmat, the 16-year-old, told us how she learned Spanish by watching tele-novelas every afternoon. Of course, I didn’t understand what anyone was saying because everyone was speaking Hebrew. I know a few words, and Karen translated for me here and there, and with the help of non-verbal cues I was able to stay in the loop. I’ve found it strange, since arriving in Israel, to be following conversations in a language I don’t know, using context and intonation to make guesses about what people are discussing. When I want to make a comment, it’s no problem, because most people I’ve met speak at least a little English. And I should be learning Hebrew at an astonishing rate, but so far it seems I’m only capable of talking about vegetables.

The only time our hosts’ conservatism visibly surfaced was when the conversation touched on politics. For example, Liron mentioned that he was attending university in a settlement in the West Bank, and when I asked whether it posed any difficulties to cross the border every day, he basically denied that there was a border. For him it goes without saying that the occupied Palestinian territories are a part of Israel. He insisted that the wall built by Israel to enclose the West Bank was really just a fence, as if that made it normal. More sadly, Karen’s young cousin told her that she suspected that, if they weren’t cousins, Karen wouldn’t like her because of her beliefs. Karen said, “But you are so cute. How could I not like you?”, and she said, “Because I hate Arabs.” It had just been announced on the news that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being rushed to the hospital after having another stroke, so the conversation turned to his political legacy, and then it segued from politics to the importance of religious orthodoxy: for some people in Israel, political issues are essentially religious issues. But by that point nobody was translating for me.

When we returned home (after getting lost once more), Karen’s grandmother Tamar, who spent most of her life working with the progressive Labour Party and who is not really religious, had a very different take on the career of Ariel Sharon. Sharon had always been fairly far to the right (he had been a revered general in the army), but after he was elected, in order to advance the peace process, he started to make concessions that some of his supporters saw as betrayals. Yushinka’s evaluation of him was basically, “We believed in him, but he deceived us,” whereas what Tamar said was “I didn’t trust him at first, but he did some good things.” Yushinka is on Karen’s father’s side, and Tamar is her mother’s mother. I asked how her mother’s and father’s families ever got along. But in Israel it seems it’s not unusual for opposite political views to be found in the same family.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Going to Jerusalem at age 33 - risky?

New travels in a new part of the old world. The year 2006 begins for me in the Levant: for the next few weeks I will be in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and then Turkey for a week before returning to New York. During this trip I will not be doing any performances or attending any writers’ festivals, and I will not be promoting myself except in the sense that I have to impress my girlfriend’s family as a decent and responsible young man. Therefore this record is purely for the sake of conveying a few observations to some of you who may be interested. Shalom!

If you are making plans for next year, my advice is that there are probably more exciting places to spend New Year’s Eve than Tel Aviv. The Jewish New Year begins in September with Rosh Hashanah, so while January 1st is recognized, it is generally not made a big deal of here. And since New Year’s Eve falls this year on a Saturday night (the end of the Sabbath and the end of the weekend), it means that the following day is a working day. So Karen and her mother Ronit and her mother’s boyfriend Alex and I went out to a café and had some hot cider, and at midnight (or thereabouts, nobody was really watching the clock) we cheered for ten seconds or so and then went back to drinking our cider. It was the café owner’s birthday on the 1st, so that livened things up a bit.

Afterwards, we walked along the waterfront to check out what was going on at the clubs there, and I dipped my fingers in the Mediterranean. It was easily warm enough to swim in, if you’re used to the North Atlantic, although when I said so the others seemed to think I was crazy. When Alex arrived to pick us up earlier, he had brought a winter coat for me because he thought I’d be too cold. And he seriously urged me to wear it, even though it was barely below room temperature outside and I was feeling overdressed in my cardigan. Later we took a drive through Jaffa and got some Israeli bagels at an all-night bakery (they resemble Montreal bagels more than New York bagels, by the way).

I was happy for the mild weather because over the Christmas break in the Maritimes I had come down with a cold, which I had to put up with during a 16-hour drive through a snowstorm back to the US, and then during two flights and our 12-hour layover in Amsterdam which almost turned into a 36-hour layover because of another snowstorm, which landed with perfect timing on the runway we’d been planning to use to take off. It was an exhausting few days, so when we arrived at Karen’s grandmother’s place in Holon (on the outskirts of Tel Aviv), we were happy to spend a couple of days sleeping and doing nothing more adventurous than walking to the mall. Also, I’ve been practicing what I’ve learned in my Beginner’s Hebrew book, which is basically how to read the Hebrew aleph-bet (even though so far I don’t usually understand the words I’m reading). I felt quite proud of myself for being able to tell the difference between shampoo and conditioner just by reading the labels.

Yesterday we went to Jerusalem, where I started to feel a little more genuinely touristy. It was pretty easy to feel that way, walking among the souvenir shops and being invited to buy everything from crucifixes and menorahs to small plush camels to jelly doughnuts to weird slogan t-shirts (one had an image of a jet-fighter and said “US, Don’t worry. Israel is right behind you.”) More surreal for me were the crowds of off-duty soldiers, most in their late teens, wearing jeans and sweatshirts and toting automatic rifles over their shoulders. All young Israelis, male and female, must serve in the army, and one of the first rules is that you never leave your rifle. I think that the young soldiers are routinely taken on tours of Jerusalem, I suppose to give them a clear sense of what it is they are protecting, and I saw lots of them getting their pictures taken in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

Being in Jerusalem certainly gives one the sense that something is at stake: it has been the stage for sieges, battles, massacres, crusades, martyrdoms, destruction and reconstruction for basically as long as it has been a city, which is about 3000 years. The history of conquest by one tribe after another, including the founding events of three major religions, is all a bit overwhelming, and I had a hard time keeping the Jebusites and Seleucids and Maccabeans all straight. The information on the city’s history given in the Tower of David museum also focuses disproportionately, as is to be expected, on the history of the Jews in Jerusalem. But walking through the narrow corridors of the Old City, your feet sometimes fall on stones laid down by the Romans two millennia ago, and you hear conversation and see signs in Hebrew, Arabic, English and half a dozen other European languages, and it’s hard to ignore that this is a very important place for very many people.

Aside from that, it is a remarkably beautiful city, even in the newer parts. A local bylaw dictates that all buildings must be constructed of Jerusalem stone, and the uniform cream-coloured houses are clustered amid slender cypress trees on the tops of hills as far as you can see. We spent the afternoon at the museum, wandering, and visiting the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was supposedly built on the site where Jesus was crucified and then buried. This is one of the strangest and creepiest buildings I think I’ve ever been in: centuries of history have made it an architectural anomaly, a Byzantine hodge-podge, and despite its hordes of visitors, no effort is made to modernize or even to signpost its somber – I suppose the right word would be sepulchral – tunnels and grottoes. Most of the lighting is bare hanging bulbs and candles. Stepping among the other photo-taking, floor-kissing pilgrims, I took this shot of the glass-covered stone which is purported to be the crest of the hill of the crucifixion.

There is a lot to see in Jerusalem, and we intend to return next week (it’s less than an hour from Tel Aviv) to spend more time. We will also rent a car there and drive south to visit the Dead Sea (where I will float on the surface of the lowest body of water in the world, no matter what the temperature is) and the Negev desert (where we will go hiking with Karen’s cousin who is a tour guide) before continuing on to sunny Eilat on the Red Sea. First, though, on Thursday we’re going north to Haifa where Karen’s aunt and uncle will meet us and bring us to Nazareth. They intend to take us on an off-road adventure in their 4x4, during which I am told we will spend the night in a Bedouin tent. Also, we may go see King Kong at the mall. This and other tales from World World coming soon.