The Israeli disappointment and the Jordanian surprise

Before leaving to the Middle East, I wasn’t completely unprepared. I knew all about the conflicts of the region, the history, the Israeli-Palestinian question, the economy, the Arab springs etc.. Besides, I had already been to Lebanon the previous year and I had studied a bit of Arabic at the Arab Cultural Centre of Brussels. Nevertheless, what this trip revealed to me sort of broke the images I set off with, giving me more insights on the sad truths that gather in the area. Obviously my judgement relies on a very short visit to the area and the opinions I’m about to give are based on that. As I have a 1h40 flight I thought I’d just write a quick post about my big disappointment and my big surprise over there.

Israel was overall quite a big disappointment. I had very high expectations on many fronts but eventually I came back with a negative image of both the country and the Israeli society. On the other hand, I didn’t have many expectations from Jordan which actually turned out to be really great for both its people and the land itself.

In Israel we found awful service, unfriendliness and always a sort of gain-oriented approach. For instance as I explained in one of my posts about Tel Aviv, people working in bars and restaurants would always ask for tips, which I found very unusual and quite inappropriate. If 2 driks were 80 shekels (Tel Aviv is indeed exhorbitant) and you give them a piece for 100, they would automatically ask “Should I keep the change?” and my answer (to their surprise) was “No you should not”. Also, at the level of accommodation we didn’t get so lucky either. We had arguments with the owner of the place we stayed at which went on and on even after I came back to Brussels due to a bad review I gave on Tripadvisor. What and idiot.

Apart from this irrelevant detail that only foment groundless prejudices, the fact that I witnessed the occupation and apartheid in Palestine certainly did not help raising the profile of Israel to my eyes. The adjective I use when describing my visit to Palestine is “touching”. Touching in a way that can’t be easily erased. Being an international relations graduate I find it unacceptable that a state which is currently in violation of a number of UN resolutions is still allowed to perpetrate massive human rights abuses. Also, during our tours and chat with Israelis we always sort of felt a fake sense being under attack and that, even though many segments of the society are against the government, the IDF’s actions were always sort of justified.

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The word “settlements” has a completely different meaning in my mind then when I left Belgium to reach Israel. A meaning of hatred and permanent impasse of a situation that only the Israeli establishment and don’t want to solve.

What came as a real surprise was Jordan. What a great place and what a great people are the Jordanians. I had been already to other Arab countries but Jordan was different in a very positive way. Jordan is a very hospitable country to tourists and foreigners and people will be happy to help you if asked.

I must say that that we were also very lucky to have met amazing people such as Marwan and Layan who were also so kind to drive us to Petra and visit it with us. By the way, Marwan is a very professional and enthusiastic consultant. I recommend visiting his company’s website (http://www.beyond-consult.com/) if you’re interested in making business in the region.

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Also, we found kindness and great service everywhere. We could really see, even in the modest hotels where we stayed in Amman and Aqaba, how hotel personnel would really try to make the best to make us enjoy our stay and encourage us to come back. Thank you very much Jordan.

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Marco Jordanian version with Marwan

Middle East Chronicles: Hebron

Hebron is mentioned in the Bible as the home of Abraham, and the burial place of him and several generations of his family. In King David’s time, Hebron was briefly the capital of the Israelite state, before the capital moved to Jerusalem and today, Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews due to its association with Abraham.

The Jewish population of Hebron was evacuated after a killing of nearly 70 of them in 1929. Then, after the 1967 war, a few Jewish settlers went to visit Hebron for Passover, then decided to “renew life” in what used to be the Jewish quarter of Hebron until 1929. Today, about 500 Jews live in part of the old city of Hebron under continual protection by the Israeli Defence Forces with a ratio of four Israeli soldiers for each Israeli settler. The remaining 166,000 residents of the surrounding city are Palestinians. At this regard, I recommend watching “This is my land, Hebron”which sheds light on the hard coexistence of the two religious communities in this Holy place.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the main religious site in the city. The cave, where the Patriarchs and their wives are buried is deep underground, and now people pray in a building on top of it, which was built by King Herod about 2000 years ago. Visitors are welcome to visit both the Muslim and Jewish sides of the cave when they are not being used for prayer schedules. The Muslim side provides cloaks for women to cover up when visiting.

The Muslim side of the Cave contains the only known entrance to the Cave below (it is locked by a marble door). And as well, the tomb-markers of Issac, and Rebekah, with the tomb-markers of Abraham and Sarah lying on the border of both the Muslim and Jewish section of the cave so both have access to Abraham and Sarah’s tombs from each side.

Most of the time, half of the building is used for Muslim and half for Jewish prayer. On a few predetermined days each year, each religion gets to use the entire building. For the Jews, in addition to the normal holidays, one of these days is “Shabbat Chayei Sarah” each fall, on which thousands of people from all of Israel visit Hebron to commemorate Abraham’s purchase of the Cave from its previous Hittite owners. For the Muslims it is on Friday’s during Ramadan and as well during the Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha holiday which Islam commemorates as the day Abraham was willing to sacrafice his son.

Regardless of the sacrality of the place, Hebron was the place where the only “accident” during our trip occured. While we sort of got lost after visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we ended up in a kind of maze which was an extension of the souq. At a certain moment Olga, Mustafa and myself start hearing some noise, like a sort of chanting, from a group of kids walking behind us. At first, I thought they were coming closer to ask for some money, as it had happened before while we were visiting the famous protection nets. While the chants got louder I noticed that their intention was completely different. Stones started being thrown at us, small at first but when I turned my head we had a dozen kids throwing bricks. At first we felt incredulity. Within my dumb international relations student’s rationality I thought “Why was that?” We were an Italian, a Greek and a Syrian and clearly with a pro-Palestine view on the conflict. We started to run and Mustafa stopped and shouted at them in Arabic “We are Arabs, we are Arabs”.

This calmed them down but I admit we had some very bad 30 seconds. Later on I realized that these kids have been witnessing pure hatred for all their lives. They’ve been witnessing the rape of their land by a foreign colonizing army. They have seen their family’s shops qnd dwells being evacuated from one day to the other against the blind eyes of the international community. Whatever different, more Western or non-Arab we could look at that moment,  it us made look like intruders to them. It’s not their fault. Hatred breeds hatred and this is just a product of this relationship.

Under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine passed by the UN in 1947, Hebron was envisaged to become part of an Arab state. While the Jewish leaders accepted the partition plan, the Arab leadership (the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine and the Arab League) rejected it, opposing any partition. Following the Six-Day War, Israel occupied Hebron. In 1997, in accordance with the Hebron Agreement, Israel withdrew from 80% of Hebron which was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian police would assume responsibilities in Area H1 and Israel would retain control in Area H2.

An international unarmed observer force—the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was subsequently established to help the normalization of the situation and to maintain a buffer between the Palestinian Arab population of the city and the Jews residing in their enclave in the old city.

Hebron was the one city excluded from the interim agreement of September 1995 to restore rule over all Palestinian West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. Since The Oslo Agreement, violent episodes have been recurrent in the city. The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre took place on February 25, 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli physician and resident of Kiryat Arba, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29, and wounding 125 before the survivors overcame and killed him. Standing orders for Israeli soldiers on duty in Hebron disallowed them from firing on fellow Jews, even if they were shooting Arabs.

This event was condemned by the Israeli Government, and the extreme right-wing Kach party was banned as a result. The Israeli government also tightened restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in H2, closed their vegetable and meat markets, and banned Palestinian cars on Shuhada Street.

In the 1980s Hebron became the center of the Kach movement, a designated terrorist organization, whose first operations started there, and provided a model for similar behaviour in other settlements. Hebron is one of the three West Bank towns from where the majority of suicide bombers originate.

Within his holiness, this is a city of pain and blood. The type of blood that stays within the the veins of many generations.

Middle East Chronicles: Bethlehem

Nearly all travellers arrive via Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations. If entering from Jerusalem, one must pass through the “Rachel’s Crossing” Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem. Although it is ordinary businees here, you actually have to flash your passport to an Israeli soldier (belonging to the army who’s occupying your country), place your bags into an x-ray machine, and then walk through a metal detector, much like airport security, to get into Bethlehem. The bad thing is that this is no airport. This is Palestinian land where Israeli colonizers make their way into another land violating all norms of international law.

As with all areas under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens to enter unless they receive approval from the Israeli Civil Administration. Tourists are free to enter and exit the checkpoint to Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem as many times as he or she would like without any restrictions.

Bethlehem means “The House of Bread” in Hebrew, and “The House of Meat” in Arabic. However, it seems likely that both meanings have been retrofitted onto what was originally the House of Lachma, the Mesopotamian god of fertility. For centuries Bethlehem remained a small town in the shadow of mighty Jerusalem, and according to most estimates it had some 300 to 1000 inhabitants at the time of the event that gave Bethlehem its fame, namely the birth of Jesus. Somewhat surprisingly, aside from noting that the Nativity indeed took place there, the New Testament virtually ignores Bethlehem.

In the city itself, 40% of the population is Christian, while 60% is Muslim. Christians used to be a large majority but their numbers have declined throughout the 20th century. Although Arabic is the language of Bethlehem’s inhabitants, English, French and other languages are widely spoken and understood.

Although Bethlehem is a Palestinian town, it is also very tourist-orientated.Because of Bethlehem’s immense potential as a tourism magnet, the Palestinian Authority maintains a constant tourist police presence in the city. For example, if escalations in violence are occurring in Southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, this does not mean that trips to other Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem should be seen as unsafe Bethlehem is a safe place to visit for tourists to visit and tourist numbers are increasing to this hidden gem of the Holy Land.

The Church of the Nativity is the top attraction in Bethlehem, a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was allegedly born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The actual alleged site of Jesus’ birth, is located in an cave in the church (the original Manger where Jesus was born was a cave, not a shed, as popularily depicted).

There is a star marking the exact location of Jesus’ birth in the cave. The original Manger with the star marking Jesus’ birth site is called the Grotto of the Nativity, and is accessible from inside the church.The amazing thing about this grotto is a painting where Virgin Mary is breast feeding Jesus. Something I had never seen before. I mean, it’s the first time I see the painted breasts of one of the most religious figures of man history.

We take a quick stroll around the main square and walk back to out cab to reach our next destination. One of the symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hebron.

A social media analyst’s visit to Israel

I’m off to Israel and Jordan this week. As a social media analyst and a Middle-East enthusiast (although my Arabic classes did not bring me very far on the lingustic level) I made some research about what to know about social meda in Israel. Much credit should be given to Danish diplomat Karen Melchior who pointed out to me many interesting articles on the topic.

  • Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement

by dhosier

The story of how one foreign mission innovated its diplomatic engagement with global society from the bottom-up.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/dhosier/startup-digital-diplomacy-innovating-israels-social-engagement-6622639&#8243; title=”Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement” target=”_blank”>Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/dhosier&#8221; target=”_blank”>dhosier</a></strong> </div>

Both sides kept up live commentary on Gaza attack in which key Hamas leader was killed in attempt to corral world opinionhttp://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-16/israel-twitter-and-the-line-between-free-speech-and-violence …

  • Israel, Twitter, and the Line Between Free Speech and Violence

By Mathew Ingram November 16, 2012

Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip–seen from the Israel Gaza Border, southern Israel, on Nov. 16, 2012.

If you’ve been following the social-media campaign recently unleashed by the Israeli army on a multitude of platforms—from Twitter and Facebook (FB) to Instagram and Tumblr—as part of its attack on Hamas guerillas in the Gaza Strip, you know that we are seeing the birth of a whole new way of experiencing a war: in real time, and with live reports from the combatants themselves. But while some might argue that more information about such events is good, it also highlights just how much of our perception of such a conflict comes to us through proprietary platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube (GOOG). What duties or responsibilities do they have (if any) to monitor or regulate that information?

How important were Twitter, Facebook and other social media in toppling regimes in the Arab Spring uprisings?

Amid a fierce debate in academic circles, an upcoming book argues that social media and new technology made a key difference in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and helped foster grassroots movements in other Arab nations.

Sarah A. Tobin

Dr. Tobin is a Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Islamic Studies at Wheaton College. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Boston University.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was watched closely during the early events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Many Western analysts expressed concerns that it would be the next country in which large protests and social and political mobilization would shift the

“You call this violent language?” The IDF’s social media spokesperson sees online posts as just another way to spread the same message, “without the touch of an editor.”

Middle East Chronicles: Nablus

We only have a couple of hours to visit Nablus and we’re also a bit tired from our rushed visit to Ramallah and in fact we end up falling asleep on the van on our way there.

As soon as we get there we get a similar feeling of what we could breathe in Ramallah, a young ( in terms of population’s age), vibrant and chaotic place. However, we could still feel something different in the air. The same air you can breathe in Rome, Athens or Istanbul. The air of history, an ancient history.

Nablus is one of the oldest cities in the world, possibly first established 9000 years ago. It was originally called “Shechem” by its Canaanite inhabitants. The Romans built a new city (Flavia Neapolis, in honor of Flavius Vespasian) a short distance from Shechem. The name Nablus comes from Neapolis. The old city of Nablus is located on the site of Neapolis, but in modern times the city has grown to include the site of Shechem as well.

Nablus is distinguished by its location in a narrow valley between the two mountains Gerizim and Ebal. This makes for an impressive view when you are within the city itself.

During the British Mandate, Nablus became the core of Palestinian Nationalism, and it was the center of resistance against the British. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War Nablus was occupied by Jordan, and 2 refugee camps were built near the city. In 1967, during the six days war, Nablus was occupied by the Israeli army, the infrastructure of the city was damaged and 3 refugee camps were added to accommodate the people who fled to the city. Jurisdiction over the city was handed over to the Palestinian National Authority on December 12, 1995, as a result of the Oslo Accords Interim Agreement on the West Bank.

During the Second Intifada Nablus was a center of violence between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militant groups. There are many damaged buildings and debris-filled fields around Nablus, the result of past Israeli attacks, but today most of the damage was repaired. Israeli restrictions on the city are generally looser than they used to be, and a visit to Nablus in the daytime is a safe and worthwhile trip.

The majority of Nablus’ inhabitants today are Muslim, but there are small Christian and Samaritan communities as well. Much of the local Palestinian Muslim population of Nablus is believed to be descended from Samaritans who converted to Islam. There are seventeen Islamic monuments and eleven mosques in the Old City.

The Old City of Nablus is a charming area filled with winding narrow streets and small shops selling all kinds of foods, clothing, and trinkets. We simply enter the alleyways leading into it nearby the massive parking garage in the center of town, and wander around until we recognize every street. The sooq  is a typical colorful and loud Palestinian vegetable market located right in the center of town. The the tent roofs really stand out.

We must run back. We have an appointment in the evening in Ramallah and we must rush to the bus station and take a mini-van to the Palestinian administrative capital. We are a bit lost in the sooq and fortunately we find a kind man who offers to walk us back. We get talking and he explains to me that he lived in Benghazi (Lybia) for many years, where the Italian colonial tradition, according to him, is still vivid in the local culture. I’m not very proud of the disastrous colonial past of my country and I even forget Italy had colonies sometimes. He was a very kind person displaying the solemnity typical of someone that has seen war, probably many wars among civil and against an external enemy. A solemnity the I will still discover during our upcoming visit to the South West Bank.

Middle East Chronicles: Ramallah

“This is Palestine”. In 3 words Tore expressed it all. We were at the Sunday Palm procession up on the Mount of Olives from where you can get a great view of the Occupied Territories. TIP and nothing more. The view, the smell, the chaos, the history, the hatred, the blood, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, the Samaritans and a lot more in this fertile byblical land.

Buses to Ramallah are quite regular but the trip’s duration can vary greatly, mainly depending on how long you have to wait at Qalandia checkpoint. It wasn’t our case at least. We just passed through even though it took us a good 2 hours to reach our travelling friends at the “Stars and Bucks” in the centre of Ramallah.

Ramallah currently serves as the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority. It was historically a Christian town, but today Muslims form the majority of the population, with Christians still making up a significant minority.

Ramallah serves as the headquarters for most international NGOs and embassies and it is known for its religiously relaxed atmosphere—alcohol flows freely and movie theaters are well attended—and the cafes along its main streets. Ramallah is, without question, the cultural capital of the West Bank, with a highly educated and fashionable population. It is also the hub of Palestinian feminist activity; the city’s women frequently attend university rather than marry early, and several cafes run exclusively by women are used to fund local feminist organizations.Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid flowing into the city have boosted Ramallah’s economy greatly since the end of the second Intifada. In November 2009, Tony Blair told the New York Times that “there is more hope for Palestinians than many realize.”

The Ramallah construction boom is one of the most obvious signs of West Bank economic growth estimated at an annual rate of 8 percent. This has been attributed to relative stability and Western donor support to the Palestinian Authority. The city’s buoyant economy continues to draw Palestinians from other West Bank towns where jobs are fewer.

In 2010, “more than one hundred” Palestinian businesses were reported to have moved to Ramallah from East Jerusalem, because “Here they pay less taxes and have more customers.” This is also the reason that pushed our friend Amer, who we’ll meet later that night, to move here.

One thing to be seen (although Olga and I actually didn’t manage to do) is Arafat’s tomb. At least Tore managed to take a picture for us before our arrival. There isn’t actually much to see apart from that. It is an incredibly vibrant and chaotic place but we know that in our next destination we’ll be overwhelmed by the amount of history we’ll breathe. Next step: Nablus

Middle East chronicles: Jerusalem

Finally Jerusalem. I can’t wait to get there and already in the morning my excitement tricked me as I went to the grocery shop outside the hostel, bought what I thought was milk and realized it was yogurt only after pouring it into my coffee cup. I was so in a hurry to get en route even though it was just 7:30. Olga was excited too and she’s extraordinarily ready in the early morning 🙂 We find two more guys to share a cab with to take us to the bus station. It’s Sunday, which is actually the equivalent of Christian Monday and the city is hectic.

At the bus station we see hundreds of young people wearing military clothes and holding rifles. We are explained that they are all serving their army duty and are now going back to their station after the weekend break. Still, I find very strange to see 17-18 year old kids holding a rifle on a bus.

We get to Jerusalem and got to our hotel which is close to the Mount of Olives. It’s not a very handy position but it gives us an incredible view on the Dome of the Rock and the all Old City.

At the end of our stay we won’t be visiting all Jerusalem in one day but actually in a more scattered way along 3 days.

The first day we witnessed the Palm Sunday procession together with Tore and Mustafa who we met earlier at the notorious Austrian hospice in the Old City. The event starts right at the Mount of Olives where numerous Christian communities from literally all over the world gathered. There’s mainly Arab Christians and a lot of Italians who, even in the holiest of days, cannot refrain from wearing cool sunglasses.

We started the tour at the Viri galilaei  compound (Latin for people of Galilee), a late 19th century church devoted as the entry point to Jerusalem for Galileans, with a description of how Jesus ascended to heaven. This is also the summer home of the Orthodox Greek Patriarch. Obviously, the place has no connection with the Catholic ceremony. It is, however, a beautiful site, and as then gate was open, we entered for a brief visit. From here we continued to Pagi House, the starting point for the ceremony and procession.

The present Bethpage church was built in 1883 on the remains of older churches – a Byzantine church and above it ruins of a church from Crusader times. Inside the church, fenced off by hedge, is the Memorial Stone of   Bethpage, discovered at the sanctification of the Franciscan church in the 19th century. The stone stood at the apse of the Crusader church (1170) and is decorated from four sides with scenes from the Old Testament relating to Jesus’ stay on the Mount of Olives. Among the scenes: Two of Jesus’ disciples finding the donkey; Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem; Jesus restoring Lazarus to life; Jesus with Martha and Maria. The Crusaders believed that Jesus used the stone to help mount the donkey. The inside the Franciscan church has Latin inscriptions describing Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem. The murals were painted by the artist Cesare Vagarini, who also painted the wall murals in the Church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem.

The procession set out from the church, led by leaders of the Catholic Patriarchate (the Custos of the Holy Land in brown robes, the Latin Patriarch in purple robes and the Greek Archbishop in black robes). Pilgrim groups started out ahead and lined the route, greeting the procession with songs and blessings.

The assembled crowd hailing from many countries accompanied the procession bearings flag, placards and of course palms branches with cries of “Hozana, Hozana” (meaning of course, “Hoshana, Hoshana”), playing and singing (including songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar”). Despite the crowding, there was no feeling of claustrophobia, due to the wide streets and the surrounding wide spaces. There was a happy, carnival atmosphere as the procession made its way along the main street of the Mount of Olives.

The sound of bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher wafted through the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, ushering in Palm Sunday and Easter Holy Week. For believers, the holiday marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey 2,000 years ago. At Palm Sunday Mass, priests and monks in festive robes led a procession around the ancient stone tomb of Jesus, followed by pilgrims waving palm and olive branches.

Behind Palm Sunday

One Sunday in the year 30 CE, a group of Galilean pilgrims arrived at the Mount of Olives en route to celebrate Pessach (Passover) in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their arrival brought a huge wave of emotion among Jerusalemites and other pilgrims. Crowds gathered to greet one of the group, a man named Jesus from Nazareth, a renowned miracle maker and preacher. To remember this well-“publicized” event, Christians celebrate “Palm Sunday”, one week before Easter. Catholics celebrate the event with a colorful procession of pilgrims carrying palm fronds and singing from Bethpage on the Mount of Olives to Saint Ann’s Church on the Via Dolorosa.

“1. As they approached Jerusalem and came to the Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples. 2. Saying to them:” Go into the village in front of you and immediately you will find a tied donkey and foal. Loosen them and bring them to me. 3. And if anyone says anything to you, tell them “The master needs them”, and immediately send them. 4. All this happened so that the prophesy might be fulfilled. 5. “They said to Bat-Zion: Here, your king is coming to you, lowly and riding a donkey and its foal”. 6. The disciples went and did as Jesus commanded. 7. They brought the mare and the foal and placed their clothes on them and he sat on them. 8. Many of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9. And the multitudes who went before and after read:  hozana hozan (mening Hosha Na = Please save (us),  the son of David! Welcome in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! “(Mathew, 1-  9).

The Old City

The Old City is divided into four neighborhoods, which are named according to the ethnic affiliation of most of the people who live in them. These quarters form a rectangular grid, but they are not equal in size. The dividing lines are the street that runs from Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate — which divides the city into east and west — and the street leading from the Jaffa Gate to Lion’s gate — which bifurcates the city north and south. Entering through the Jaffa Gate and traveling to David Street places the Christian Quarter on the left. On the right, as you continue down David Street, you’ll enter the Armenian Quarter. To the left of Jews Street is the Muslim Quarter, and, to the right, is the Jewish Quarter.

A great way to visit the Old City is simply to wander through the labyrinthine paths and let yourself get lost. For safety reasons, it’s best not to travel alone and to be careful about wandering beyond the main thoroughfares of the Muslim Quarter. It is also prudent to explore during the day, though the views of many of the sites — when you know how to find them — are often best at night.

Just inside Jaffa Gate, on the left beyond the Tourist Information Office, is a small enclosure with two graves nearly hidden beneath the trees. These are believed to be the graves of the two architects whom Suleiman had rebuild the city walls. They were supposedly murdered either because the Sultan wanted to be sure they could never build anything more impressive for anyone else, or because he was angered by their failure to include Mount Zion within the walls.

From the Jaffa Gate side of the city, the most striking landmark is the Citadel, which is marked by David’s Tower, a misnomer given that the cylindrical structure dates from the 16th century.  By contrast, the tall, square tower is 2,000 years old and was built by Herod. Inside the Citadel is a courtyard and museum with exhibits on the history of the Citadel and Old City.

The best way to immerse yourself in the city is simply to head straight down David Street from Jaffa Gate into the Arab market, the souk, where you can expect to be verbally accosted by shopkeepers trying to entice you into their stores and to keep you occupied long enough to buy something. It’s a great place to bargain, but keep in mind the shopping tips offered under trip preparation.

As you make your way through the souk, you’ll reach different forks. Head to the left to go toward the Christian or Muslim Quarter and the right to reach the Jewish Quarter. The path to the major shrines, the Western Wall, Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher, are not very well marked, but anyone you ask should be able to direct you.

If you head toward the Muslim Quarter, or enter the Old City coming from the North from Mea She’arim or somewhere else off Suleiman Street, you’ll want to look for Damascus Gate. This is where most Arabs enter the city and you’ll find a bustling open-air market filled with people, carts, food and trinkets. Below the gate is a surviving arch built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 as the main entrance to the city he called Aelia Capitolina.

The Jewish Quarter

The current Jewish Quarter, which today looks almost brand new and usually sparkling clean, dates to roughly 1400.  The oldest synagogues — the Elijah the Prophet and Yohanan Ben Zakkai — are roughly 400 years-old. These synagogues are below street level because at the time they were built Jews and Christians were prohibited from building anything higher than the Muslim structures.

In the main plaza, the famous arch that used to stretch skyward where the Hurva Synagogue once stood has now been replaced with a rebuilt and rededicated Synagogue. Originally the Great Synagogue, the Hurva was built in the 16th century, but was destroyed by the Ottomans. The synagogue was rebuilt in the 1850’s, but was damaged in the 1948 war and later destroyed after the Jordanians took control of the Old City. After Israel recaptured the Old City in 1967 debate lasted for decades on whether the rebuild the Hurva or leave it in the destroyed state to memorialize the conflict. Finally, in March of 2010 the newly rebuilt Hurva was dedicated and the synagogue is now in regular use.

Nearby is the Ramban Synagogue, named for Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman — the Ramban — who helped rejuvenate the Jewish community in Jerusalem in 1267, after it had been wiped out by the Crusaders.

Just off the plaza is the Cardo, which was a Byzantine road, roughly the equivalent of an eight-lane highway, that ran through the heart of the city. Today, a small area is preserved with some of the original Roman columns.  Just beyond the columns is an underground mall with a number of Jewish stores and art galleries. This is a good place to purchase Judaica, and it is possible to haggle with shopkeepers. Compare the prices with the shops downtown before you buy.

The Jewish Quarter of today is located on the remains of the upper city from the Herodian period (37 B.C.E-70 C.E.). The Wohl Archaeological Museum contains what are now the underground remains of a residential quarter where wealthy families belonging to the Jerusalem aristocracy and priesthood constructed homes overlooking the Temple Mount. Some archaeologists believe the palace of the Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees) is among the ruins.

Two gates lead into the Jewish Quarter. One, just outside the Western Wall plaza, is the Dung Gate. The other is Zion Gate. If you want to bypass most of the tourists, take the path from Yemin Moshe down the hill, across Jaffa Road and up the snake path along the wall to Zion Gate.  This was the last gate constructed (in 1540), probably because Mount Zion was inadvertently let outside the city walls. In Arabic it is known as “the Prophet David’s Gate” because it faces Mount Zion where David is supposed to be buried. Like other fortress gates, this was built in an L-shape to prevent armies on horseback from charging through the entrance. Today, you only have to worry about cars charging through.

The Western Wall

When Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., only one outer wall remained standing. The Romans probably would have destroyed that wall also, but it must have seemed too insignificant to them; it was not even part of the Temple itself, just an outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount. For the Jews, however, this remnant of what was the most sacred building in the Jewish world quickly became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries, Jews from throughout the world traveled to Palestine, and immediately headed for the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi (the Western Wall) to thank God. The prayers offered at the Kotel were so heartfelt that non-Jews began calling the site the “Wailing Wall.”

A large plaza offers access to the Wall. You may take pictures —  except on Shabbat — from outside the fenced enclosure near the Wall. The area is open 24-hours and is especially nice to visit when it is quiet late at night or during holidays and bar-mitzvahs when the area is filled with worshippers.

The area near the Wall is divided by a fence — a mechitza — with a small area for women only on one side and a larger area for men on the other. If you don’t have a yarmulke, a box at the entrance has paper ones to use while you’re near the Wall.

Go right up to the Wall and feel the texture of the stones and take in the awesome size of the structure. The largest stone in the wall is 45 feet long, 15 feet deep, 15 feet high, and weighs more than one million pounds. The Wall is 65 feet (20 meters) high.

Praying at the Wall is a unique experience, one that makes believers feel as close as it is possible to get to the Almighty.  You’ll notice scraps of paper in the Wall when you are standing up close. These kvitlach, are messages and prayers that people write and put in the Wall, hoping they will be answered.

Entering a tunnel at the prayer plaza, one turns northwards into a medieval complex of subterranean vaulted spaces and a long corridor with rooms on either side. Incorporated into this complex is a Roman and medieval structure of vaults, built of large dressed limestone. The vaulted complex ends at Wilson’s Arch, named after the explorer who discovered it in the middle of the 19th century.

Along the outer face of the Herodian western wall of the Temple Mount, a long narrow tunnel was dug slowly under the supervision of archeologists. As work progressed under the buildings of the present Old City, the tunnel was systematically reinforced with concrete supports. A stretch of the Western Wall — nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) long — was revealed in pristine condition, exactly as constructed by Herod. In this confined space, you are walking on the original pavement from the Second Temple period and following in the footsteps of the pilgrims who walked here 2,000 years ago on their way to participate in the rituals on the Temple Mount.

At the end of this man-made tunnel, a 65 foot (20 meters) long section of a paved road and an earlier, rock-cut Hasmonean aqueduct leading to the Temple Mount were uncovered. A short new tunnel leads outside to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose organized women’s prayer services at the Wall; prayer services they maintain, may only be conducted by males. Public pressure has grown over the years to allow women to pray collectively at the Kotel. Similarly, Jews from the Conservative and Reform movements have been fighting with the Orthodox authorities who control access to the Wall for the right to conduct their own services. Clashes have unfortunately turned violent in recent years; however, the political trend has been moving in the direction of greater pluralism.

Near the Wall, men are often approached by Orthodox Jews who want them to put on tefillin. A few rabbis also hang out in the area and will approach young people and ask them for the time or strike up a conversation. Their intent is to persuade you to go with them to a yeshiva. Going with them can be a rewarding experience — some people stay for years — but don’t let yourself be intimidated or misled about their purpose.

The Muslim Quarter and Temple Mount

Around the corner from the Western Wall, below the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount, is the Ophel Archeological Garden. This excavation reveals 2,500 years of Jerusalem’s history in 25 layers of ruins from the structures of successive rulers. The ancient staircase and the Hulda Gate, through which worshippers entered the Second Temple compound, and the remnants of a complex of royal palaces of the 7th century Muslim period are among the antiquities excavated.

A path up from the Western Wall plaza leads to the Temple Mount, or Haram es-Sharif (the Noble Enclosure in Arabic). This 40 acre plateau is dominated by two shrines, the Dome of the Rock (which is not a mosque) and the al-Aksa mosque. The shrines, built in the seventh century, made definitive the identification of Jerusalem as the “Remote Place” that is mentioned in the Koran.

Muslims remove their shoes and express their devotion to Allah inside the Dome of the Rock, which was built around the rock on which Abraham bound his son Isaac to be sacrificed before God intervened. According to some old maps and traditions, this is the center of the earth. This is also the place where the Koran says Mohammed ascended to heaven. Muslim tradition also holds that the rock tried to follow the Prophet, whose footprints are said to be on the rock. For many years, pilgrims would chip off pieces of the rock to take home with them, but glass partitions now prevent visitors from taking souvenirs. A special wooden cabinet next to the rock holds strands of Mohammed’s hair.

Under the rock is a chamber known as the Well of the Souls. This is where it is said that all the souls of the dead congregate.

At the southern end of the Temple Mount is the gray-domed al-Aksa mosque. The name means “the distant one,” and refers to the fact that it was the most distant sanctuary visited by Mohammed. It is also the place where Mohammed experienced the “night journey,” which is why it is considered the third holiest Islamic shrine after Mecca and Medina. In 1951, King Abdullah of Transjordan (Jordanian King Abdullah’s great-grandfather) was assassinated in front of the mosque.

Between the mosques is a great water fountain used by Muslims to wash their feet before entering the holy places. Visitors must also remove their shoes. Both mosques are closed to tourists during the five times each day when Muslims pray. The Temple Mount also has a small museum .

A radical group of Orthodox Jews have periodically issued threats against the Muslim shrines in hopes of rebuilding the Temple there. These threats are treated seriously by the Israeli authorities and the group is kept away from the Temple Mount. More mainstream Orthodox opinion forbids Jews from walking on the Temple Mount because of the possibility of unwittingly defiling the place where sacrifices were once offered. Non-Orthodox Jews typically accept the opinion of other authorities who argue the sanctity of the Temple Mount ended when the Temple and altar were destroyed and that it is permissible for Jews to go there so long as they show respect for what was once a holy place.

Despite the name, the Muslim Quarter is also the site of many important Christian sites, including the Church of St. Anne, the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, and the Ecce Homo Church. The Via Dolorosa begins in this section of the city and most of the Way of the Cross is actually in the Muslim rather than the Christian Quarter.

Most Muslims who live inside the Old City have homes in the Muslim Quarter, but this is an area where Jews resided for decades. In recent years, some Jews have moved back to this part of the city, an act viewed by Muslims and many others as unnecessarily provocative, though the Jewish residents would argue they have every right to live anywhere in their capital.

The Ramparts

Visitors tour the inside of the Old City of Jerusalem, but most do not know they can climb on top of the ramparts to get a different perspective. Not only do you get a spectacular view of the city beyond the walls, you get a unique look, especially in the Muslim Quarter, at how people live inside the city. The path along the walls can be accessed from Jaffa, Damascus, Lion’s and Zion Gates. The entrances are surprisingly difficult to find, but worth the effort.

The walls are approximately two-and-a-half miles long. It is not possible to circumnavigate the city atop the walls. The street separates the Citadel and Jaffa Gate at one end of the city. At the opposite end, the wall walk ends at St. Stephen’s (Lion’s Gate), because you cannot walk along the wall surrounding the Temple Mount. This is where the walk beginning at the Jaffa Gate ends. The walk from the Citadel ends short of the Dung Gate, opposite the Jewish Quarter.

From the Citadel, it is possible to look at what once was a moat surrounding Herod’s palace. The Citadel was built by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages as a lookout to guard the road to Jaffa. The walk actually ends atop the police station. Beyond the walls, one gets a spectacular view of the new city, Yemin Moshe, the hotels, and shopping mall outside Jaffa Gate.

As one walks around the wall, you can look inside at an Armenian seminary and a huge vacant lot in one of the most ancient parts of the Old City. It is no doubt invaluable as real estate and as an archaeological site. The Armenian authorities, however, will not allow any excavations.

From the top of the wall, you can see the 1948 border where Arabs shot at Jews living in Yemin Moshe, identifiable by its non-functioning windmill, until the border was settled with Jordan. Just to the right is the King David Hotel and behind it the tip of the YMCA tower is just visible. The Sheraton Hotel and the other few “skyscrapers,” also hotels, mark the skyline of what is otherwise a low-level city.

It is also possible to see the cemetery of Dormition Abbey just beyond the SE corner of the walls. This particular route is separated from the Jewish Quarter by a road inside the wall so that it is not possible to see much. Beyond the walls, however, it is possible to get a panoramic view of what the rest of the world calls the occupied territory. Closer to the Old City, it is possible to see the Arab village of Silwan and, if someone points it out, the City of David excavations. Toward the exit it is possible to see large depressions that are the ruins of cisterns from the 4th and 5th century Byzantine period.

The path along the ramparts in the Muslim Quarter is even more interesting. Making your way toward the Temple Mount from Damascus Gate, it is possible to look inside the courtyards of Muslim homes. Outside, across Suleiman Street, you can see the Rockefeller Museum, which houses antiquities found from archaeological excavations and other exhibits. When you reach the far corner of the City, you can get a wonderful view of Mount Scopus, the Hebrew University, Mount of Olives and various churches.

The Way of the Cross

The best way to follow the Via Dolorosa, or way of suffering, is to enter Lion’s Gate (St. Stephen’s Gate) from the eastern side of the City (beside the Temple Mount). This is the route Christians believe Jesus traveled carrying the cross from his trial to the place of his crucifixion and burial.  The 14 stations commemorate incidents along the way. The first seven stations wind through the Muslim Quarter. The last five are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The tradition of following the Via Dolorosa dates to the Byzantine period.

Station I — The place where Pontius Pilate’s judgment hall once stood and Jesus was condemned to death.

Station II — The Monastery of the Flagellation where Jesus was given the cross.

Station III — The spot where Jesus fell under the weight of the cross for the first time.

Station IV — Where Mary came out of the crowd to see her son.

Station V — Simon the Cyrene was taken out of the crowd by the Romans to help Jesus carry the cross.

Station VI — Recalls the tradition of Veronica stepping up to Jesus and wiping his face.

Station VII — Where Jesus fell for the second time.

Station VIII — The place where Jesus consoled the women of Jerusalem.

Station IX — Where Jesus fell for the third time.

Station X — Jesus is stripped of his garments.

Station XI — Jesus is nailed to the cross.

Station XII — The place where Jesus died on the cross.

Station XIII — The spot where Jesus’ body was taken down.

Station XIV — The tomb of Jesus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is revered by Christians as the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the 4th century, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and a convert to Christianity, traveled to Palestine and identified the location of the crucifixion; her son then built a magnificent church. The church was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. The building standing today dates from the 12th century.

Control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is zealously guarded by different denominations. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Copts are among those that oversee different parts of the Church. In the 12th century, fighting among different denominations over who should keep the key to the church led the Arab conqueror Saladin to entrust the key to the Muslim Nuseibeh and Joudeh families.

Today, eight centuries later, the 10-inch metal key is still safeguarded in the house of the Joudeh family. Every morning at dawn, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, who took over the job of doorkeeper from his father 20 years ago, picks up the key and opens the massive wooden church doors. Every night at 8:00 p.m. he returns to shut and lock them.

For years, Israel tried to convince the Christian denominations to open a second exit to the Church for safety reasons. In 1840, a devastating fire caused a panic that led to many deaths, and Israeli officials became especially concerned about the danger with the expected crush of tourists arriving for the year 2000 celebrations. Agreement was finally reached in June 1999 to open another exit, but this has provoked a new dispute over who will have the key to the new door.

The Armenian Quarter

The Old City is said to be divided into quarters because of the concentration of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Armenians in corners of the nearly square area enclosed by the Turkish walls. The Armenian section is actually the smallest, comprising about one-sixth of the area of the Old City. If you enter the city from Jaffa Gate and turn left, walk past the Citadel and police station and continue down the narrow street – watch out for cars! – you’ll run smack into the Armenian Quarter. From Zion Gate, the first thing you will see are the Armenian shops where you can find beautiful hand-made ceramics.

The Armenians claim a presence in Jerusalem since the first century when an Armenian battalion fought under the Roman emperor Titus. The Armenians adopted Christianity as their official religion in 286 C.E., even before the Romans and, for the last 1,700 years, have been ensconced in Jerusalem, frequently finding themselves between warring factions. The Armenian Quarter was established in the 14th century. Today, approximately 2,500 Armenians live in Jerusalem and another 1,500 elsewhere in Israel.

The Armenians are not Palestinians, but they generally sympathize with their political agenda, although the Armenians have not supported the idea of Palestinian control over the Old City. In fact, during the Camp David Summit, leaders of the Armenian church insisted the Christian and Armenian Quarters were inseparable and expressed their preference for international guarantees.

The Armenian section is almost a city within the city. The walled compound surrounds the Church of St. James, the Convent of the Olive Tree, the Armenian Patriarch residency, a monastery and a number of shops.

St. James Church, built in the mid-12th century, is named for the brother of Jesus, who was the first bishop of the Jerusalem church and for James the Apostle. It is renowned for its beauty. The domed ceiling is illuminated by gold and silver lamps. Jesus’ brother James is said to be buried in the central nave and beyond the wooden doors inlaid with mother-of-peal and tortoise shell is a shrine where the head of St. James is buried.

The St. James Monastery, which takes up about two-thirds of the quarter, houses gifts left by pilgrims over the last 1,000 years. It also includes a quiet residential area. The Gulbenkian Library is also inside the monastery. It holds more than 100,000 volumes, many dating back hundreds of years. The Mardigian Museum is nearby and it contains exhibits on Armenian art and culture and the genocide of 1915.

Oddly enough, only one Armenian church is in the Quarter, but four other denominations (Syrian, Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican) have churches in this part of the city.

Middle East Chronicles: Nazareth and Galilee

Early wake and it’s a beautiful day. It’s now time for history and biblical culture after the modernity and vibrancy of Tel Aviv. First stop Nazareth.

As we all know Nazareth is best known as the home of Joseph and Mary and hence also Jesus, although he was born in Bethlehem. A number of Christian holy places in Nazareth are associated with the Annunciation, the childhood and the early ministry of Jesus. In addition to the imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, these sites include the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangel Gabriel (built over the freshwater spring known as “Mary’s Well”), the Greek Catholic “Synagogue Church” (assumed site of the synagogue where the young Jesus was taught, and where he later read from Isaiah), and the Franciscan Church of St. Joseph (built over a cave identified since the 17th century as the “workshop” of Joseph).

As the place where Jesus may have grown up, studied and lived most of his life, Nazareth has for two thousand years been closely identified with Christianity and has attracted hundreds of millions of pilgrims from around the world. Nazareth is also Israel’s largest Arab city and as such serves as a major cultural center. Over the past decade the historical Old City has been extensively renovated, preserving and restoring the architectural beauty and unique character of its narrow lanes and alleys. The combination of these three elements – history, culture and architecture – assures the Old City of Nazareth a place among the most beautiful historical destinations in the world.

We only got to see the Church of the Annunciation and the many mosaics that have been donated to the church representing all the different ways Jesus and the Virgin Mary are the depicted around the world. See the gallery below and pay attention to Asian and African images.

The church of annunciation was established at the site where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Annunciation took place. Greek Orthodox tradition holds that this event occurred while Mary was drawing water from a local spring in Nazareth, and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was erected at that alternate site.

The current church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church. Inside, the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the remains of the original childhood home of Mary. Under Roman Catholic canon law, the church enjoys the status of a minor basilica.A historically significant site, considered sacred within some circles of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, the basilica attracts many Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox Christian visitors every year.

From Nazareth we headed north to a beautiful observation over the Valley of Armagedon (Megido) where, according to the scripts, the site of the final battle of Armagedon will take place. Our next stop will be on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We visited Mt. of the Beatitudes over looking the lake. From there we will head to Capernaum – where Jesus spent most of his adult life and where he began preaching and then we visite Tabgha where it is believed that Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and where of course we had a fish-based fantastic lunch.

Capernaum is an ancient fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. It is home to a celebrated Byzantine-era synagogue as well as the house where Jesus healed a paralytic and St. Peter’s mother-in-law.

Next, drove along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to the origin of the Jordan river and visit the Baptismal site where you, if you want, can have the chance to get baptised. Actually a number of people were there wearing some some sort of Baptismal pijiamas and dove into the (quick dirty river) full of massive cat fish. The level of commercialization of the place was incredible. You could buy bottles (even 5 litres bottles) so you could bring Jordan River’s water home. I found highly unadvisable for health reasons. Plus we paid some 2 euros each to use the (only available) toilets in the premises. I’m sure Jesus would disapprove that.

Middle East Chronicle: Tel Aviv and Jaffa

Right, after telling you about our small adventure at Tel Aviv airport we are off to a day visit of the city. What strikes us from moment one is the level of westernization of this place. It doesn’t look Middle Eastern at all. Tall skyscrapers, bicycles lanes, actual bus lines with timetables, hipsters. This place is way more similar to Barcelona or Berlin than Beirut or Cairo.Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

Tel Aviv is really a rapidly growing city in the midst of an exciting transition from medium-sized urban center to bustling international metropolis. Its booming population, energy, edginess and 24-hour life style give the city a cosmopolitan flair comparable to few other cities in this part of the world. Tel Aviv is likely the most liberal city in Israel and in the Middle East – as it is no-less liberal than Western Europe’s liberally-inclined major cities. It has a bustling civil society and is home to many activist movements and NGOs. Its residents tend to have liberal attitudes towards gay and lesbian rights, and, in fact, Tel Aviv hosts the largest gay pride parade in Israel (the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not considered illegal).

Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

With its liberalism comes a dose of sophistication and some will say detachment, and Tel Aviv is often dubbed “The Bubble” or “Medinat Tel Aviv” by residents and non-residents alike. Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis have even dubbed the city a modern day “Sodom and Gomorrah”, due to its hedonistic lifestyle. It is also very common to see head shop and smell marijuana in the middle of the very centre as in fact there seems to be a pretty liberal policy on soft drugs consumption.

Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

We take a stroll on the beach, originally hoping for a swim, but an unusual massive sandstorm ruined our plans. We even entered a bar where even the inside couches were just covered in sand.

A VERY BAD HABBIT that people working in the bar-restaurant area have is that they ASK FOR TIPS. Ok, I’m Italian and we are not used to tipping. It’s just not in our culture also because in most restaurants you pay a small service fee. Anyway, this means that when we tip we do it because we have received a great service and we enjoy rewarding the waiter or receptionist whatsoever. All the time in Tel Aviv they ask you “Should I keep the change? How much do you want to add as a tip in the bill?” Apart from the first brunch place we went to, which was fantastic, I found it incredibly annoying to receive such requests for a simple, and mostly overpriced, beer or tea. In the beach bar I mentioned before we spent some 40 shekels (8 Euros) for 2 tiny cups of tea. I handed the guy a 50 and he said “Should I keep that change?”To which I replied “No, you should not”. If you go to Tel Aviv don’t hesitate to say NO. They will always push you for that. Screw that, honestly.Tel_Aviv_house

Anyway, as the centre didn’t seem to offer much, unless you are on a business trip, we headed towards Jaffa. Jaffa is one of the world’s oldest ports. It was here that the prophet Jonah started the journey that left him in the belly of a big fish (not a whale as is the common misconception!) and Andromeda was tied to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster, before later being saved by Perseus. It was also here where Peter the Apostle received a vision marking a significant ideological split between Judaism and Christianity.

Painting_Obama_Laughing

The smallish gulf of Jaffa has been the site of a fortified port town for at least 4000 years. The old city walls could no longer contain the population, and they were destroyed in the 1870s. New, more spacious neighborhoods started to appear. We also managed to find a very beautiful and hidden Greek Orthodox church where a priest was teaching the Bible to a family in Russian.

Jaffa is more Arab. You can already perceive a different and more exotic hustle and bustle on the way up to the souq and the main square. In July 2003 Tel Aviv-Yafo was declared a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site for the many “International” style (also known as Bauhaus after the German school it originated from) buildings built in the city during the 1930s-50s. As this style emphasized simplicity and the white color, Tel Aviv is in fact also called the White City.

A long day and a very early wake expect us the following day, so after having an amazing dinner nearby our hostel we head back. On a related matter and to highlights some bad practices services wise you can find in Israel, when we got to hostel after visit to Jaffa and having walked some 12-13 km, the hostel owner told us to stay for shwarma and after waiting 45 minutes he said he ran out of it. We were so pissed off and starving and this guy even chased us when we headed out to look for food. We thought he wanted to apologise. Actually, he came out shouting that “a hostel is not a restaurant and it wasn’t his fault we didn’t get any food. All this with his mouth full of hummus and chicken. We surely kept this in mind for our review on bookings.

Leila saida.

Coming next Nazareth and Galilee

Streets_of_Tel_Aviv

Middle East chronicles: Tel Aviv aiport

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)

Long pause…

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.

Ben_Gurion_Airport_Waiting_Room
In Ben Gurion’s waiting room with the other people waiting. I think I was lucky to be held and having had the opportunity to meet such incredible people

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.

Guard: Why?

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

Long pause..

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…