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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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…