Here we go, off to Israel. I had been waiting for this trip for a very long time. I have studied in depth the Middle East and the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and the political situation of the Holy Land. I have watched tons of documentaries and read guide books prior to my departure but I was sure that the upcoming firsthand experience would be quite telling.
We leave from the unusual airport of Liége which is used by many of the orthodox Jews living in the Antwerp community and take a Jetair flight to Tel Aviv. We get there after 4 and half hours and already I’m struck by the first surprise. Ben Gurion airport is incredible. It’s certainly one the most modern and advanced airport I have ever been to and at midnight it is super busy with all shops, duty-frees and cafes open. It’s exactly how it was described in the book Chronicles from Jerusalem by Guy Deslile.
The second surprise though was not that positive. I knew I would have some problems due to the Lebanese stamp I got on my passport after last year’s visit to the country but at the beginning things were going smoothly.
Passport control guy: What are you going to do in Israel?
Me: Just tourism.
Passport control guy: Where are you going?
Me: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (I didn’t mention my planned visits to the West Bank)
Passport control guy: When were you in Lebanon?
Me: Last year in April
Passport control guy: Why?
Me: Just tourism
Passport control guy: Your girlfriend can go. You will get your passport later. Now go to the room at the back
Me: OK (but actually thinking “oh shit”)
We go to a small room nearby and wait. Some other people were there just waiting for questioning. This slight misadventure actually turned out to be a blessing as it was in that room that we met some of the people we ended up travelling with. Some really cool people. A funny thing of that moment was that the TV in the room was showing South Park episodes with Hebrew subs…
Tore, a Danish teacher, had been to other Arab countries including Lebanon and Syria and had been waiting for a little while before we came. He’s a cool guy displaying a tattoo on his left arm. He offers me some wine gums straightaway which of course I can’t refuse and we start talking about why we ended up in that corner.
Mustafa is a Syrian movies studies graduate who’s been living in the US for many years. His nationality is the reason for him being held. He will turn out to be a great traveler, friend and valuable source of information about Syria and the Middle East. He even spoke Hebrew. He’s a really resourceful man.
Mickey is 17 years old. His family is Palestinian but he’s grown up in Chicago. He’s trying to reach some of his relatives up in Nablus but his origin and his “pro-Palestine” bracelet got him away. He’d been in the room for hours already and missed his train to his destination but he acts calm as he sort of saw this coming.
People are held for questioning for the most disparate reasons. Another Canadian guy was held and questioned for an Azerbaijiani stamp on his passport. A retired German couple was held because they booked accommodation in the West Bank. Total absurdities.
After two hours, they finally call me. The guard goes straight to the point. “It won’t be long” she says. She must be 21 or 22 years old max and she seems friendly. Of course she has to deal with loads of people (justly) annoyed by the absurdity of this over night waiting and she tries to be cool. At 3AM I tried my best to be calm too as I wanted badly to go to bed.
Here we go.
Guard: Can you tell me why you went to Lebanon?
Me: Just tourism.
Me: What do you mean?
Guard: What is to be seen in Lebanon?
Me: Well, Beirut is a beautiful city and I also went to the historic city of Baalbek (completely omitted my visits to Tripoli and Sour. Just tried to keep short and concise)
Guard: Have you been to other Arab countries or Middle East?
Me: Yes. Morocco, Tunisia, Cyprus (if you consider it Middle East), Turkey and Lebanon.
Guard: Where do you work?
Me: At the European Commission.
Guard: What do you do?
Me: I’m a Social Media analyst
Guard: What’s your religion?
Me: I’m not religious
Guard: What about your parents?
Me: Not religious (not true)
Guard: What about your grandparents?
Me: (Thinking “what the hell is this?”) Well, as they were an Italian couple during the 30s in Italy I assumed they were Catholic.
The conversation continues and the weirdest questions were asked
Guard: How long are you with your girlfriend? Do you have friends in Arab countries? What were your previous jobs? Do you use Facebook…?
I answer in syllables as I know any hesitation would give me away. They are trained and they do that every day, but I know how communication works.
We finally leave and share a taxi with the German couple I mentioned before and reach our hostel. We get a first glance of the city. It’s Thursday night and it is exactly how they described it to me. In Israel the week starts on Sunday and Friday and Saturday are off, hence Thursday is the party night.
Tel Aviv is called “The city that never stops” by tourists and locals alike. It has a massive range of pubs, bars, clubs and it is known worldwide for its nightlife. The entire city is crawling with nightlife attractions and you would actually have to work pretty hard to find yourself further than 500 meters away from a place to have a drink. People from the entire surrounding region come to Tel Aviv to have a drink or a party so on weekend’s traffic is hectic at late hours. But any day is a good day to party in Tel Aviv, not just the weekends.
New places are opening and closing every day and the “hottest spots” change every couple of months, so no internet guide will be able to direct you to the hippest place. One of the most popular drinks is the local Goldstar beer and at the moment (2010) the Arabic drink, Arak (it means “sweat” in Arabic) is all the rage in pubs and bars.
Even though all this was available to us we were pretty tired from the trip and went straight to bed in the Montefiori Chef hostel after having paid an absurd 15 Euros late arrival fee!!!!! Do not go this hostel. The owner turned out to be the rudest idiot I have ever met in my life. Anyway, part 1 is over.
Coming up, chronicles from Tel Aviv and Jaffa by day…