Hummus, Guns, and Sabbath Games

Here are some last observations before I hop on a plane tomorrow.

Israeli Food

There is no such thing as traditional Israeli food.  Sitting down for lunch with a small group of friends highlighted the challenge here.  Two were from Ukraine, another two from Moldavia, one was an Uzbek, and one a Pole.  Only the Pole was born in Israel, the others had immigrated as children. These were not people who grew up eating feta and figs. For them it was cabbage and vodka.  So when I brought up the topic of local food, they all sort of shrug and suggest that I was looking for Arab food.  I didn’t bother mentioning that I thought Arab food was Israeli food.  In Tel Aviv, Arab food was not as easy to find as I had thought.  Neither the grocery store across from my hotel, nor the hotel itself, had pita for the hummus I’d bought earlier in the day.  French baguettes, however, were available aplenty. I ended up eating the hummus with a loaf of white sandwich bread.  I might as well have been in Iowa.

Which brings me to the institution known as Abu-Hassan. If you didn’t know any better you’d think it was a rundown hole in the wall that served little more than ground up chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. Well okay, you’d be right, but you’d also be missing the point. Abu-Hassan does one simple thing very well. The make the world’s best hummus. Across all of Israel, since the mid-60s, when someone wants to go out for the perfect hummus, they get in their car and drive down to Jaffa, the old Arab Quarter of Tel Aviv, and wait for a table at Abu-Hassan. Hummus here is not a side dish. It’s the only dish. You sit around your beat up old table, on cheap metal chairs, and scoop hummus by the mouthful. Note: this is not the sort of place you ask for a receipt.

Checkpoints

I’ve seen three distinct types of checkpoints in Israel.  The first control access to buildings and public transit.  The simplest has the pencil thin Falasha Jew from Ethiopia who likely isn’t armed.  He’s got a wand, checks your bag, and waves you through.  At train stations they add in the typical x-ray bag scan and have pistols.  If something goes down, I’m assuming they yell bloody murder and the police will come charging while the civilians scatter.  The second type is the car checkpoint.  There’s a fair bit more conversation about one’s purpose, and then a mandatory trunk check looking for bombs.  My Canon 200mm great white lens in the trunk was the topic of conversation and slowed me down considerably.  The guards at these checkpoints are armed with weapons bigger than pistols.  If they find something that upsets them, you’re stuck behind a barrier and are likely going to get shot.  On the highways the military handles the checkpoints and they carry assault weapons.  A Caucasian Canadian who doesn’t speak Hebrew gets an easy wave through.  Arab Israelis don’t have it so easy.  There is very clear racial profiling happening here, but then that’s not wildly surprising given the frequency, in the late 90s, of Palestinians blowing themselves up. The final sort of checkpoint straddles the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  These are the ones you really don’t screw around with.  Purpose built and nasty looking, no one here is playing games.  Battle ship grey, hung with barbed wire, and manned by heavily armed soldiers, they’re ready to stop an insurrection if need be.

The Sabbath

Israelis don’t say Sabbath, they say Shabbat, and for those who follow it, what a wildly complex beast it is.  I first noticed the effect returning to my hotel in Tel Aviv one Saturday night.  Although the mechanized gate arm was still functioning, the revolving door was not.  For reason I do not understand the former did not violate Sabbath, but the latter did.  Three of four elevators were operating normally, and the forth had been configured to stop at every floor, over and over, so that a devout Jew need not press the buttons to actually make the blasphemous contraption do his bidding.  Pressing an elevator button, after all, is a grave affront to God.  Listening to a bastardized version of Sweet Child ‘o Mine by Guns ‘n Roses as you ride up, is not.  Apparently it’s the little details that really get under God’s skin.  The mechanical keycard to enter my room was okay, but turning on the lights was not.  Opening the closet door which automatically turned on a light was also very, very bad.  Only cold dinners were available, cooking after all would violate the rules, but opening the fridge door to get out the cold tuna salad did not.  When the kitchen staff opened the fridge door to get the tuna, I wonder, did the light go on?

There’s a joke here, and it goes like this:

God:  Moses, it is cruel to cook the meat of a cow in the milk of his mother.

Moses:  So you’re saying we should not eat meat and milk together.

God:  No.  Just don’t eat the meat of a cow with the milk of that cow’s mother.

Moses:  So you’re saying we should have two separate sets of plates, one for dairy, one for meat.

God:  No.  It is cruel, Moses, to cook the meat in the milk of the same cow’s mother.

Moses:  So you want us to wait 6 hours after eating meat, before we have dairy.

God:  Moses…fine, do whatever you want.

Jews and Palestinians.

The relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians of the occupied territories is complex. The relationship between the two ethnic groups within Israel proper is even more so. For the most part Jewish Israelis never call their Arab neighbors Palestinians, they call them Arabs.  This, no doubt, is a deliberate attempt to remind the world that in Israel’s eyes there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Many of the Jewish Israelis, especially those from Tel Aviv which has almost no Palestinian population, are afraid of the Arab population, and are reluctant even to drive into Israel’s Arab areas, even if it means missing out on a good meal; Cabbage and Vodka can only go so far. Unlike their parents, many of the younger Israelis see the current problem along economic lines. They believe the Palestinians need a viable territory and jobs…a two state solution.  They view the West Bank as Palestinian territory which should become a Palestinian nation.  They don’t hold the West Bank and its religious sites in reverent awe, but then of course many of them also eat bacon.  At the same time, they fear the Palestinians do not see the world in the same way.  Jobs, they fear, are secondary to the politics of Israel’s existence.  Still, with the younger generation there’s always hope.  But then mortars, fired from Gaza, just landed in the south, a Palestinian has been shot trying to take hostages at the Turkish Embassy, and I am working in a conference room in the middle of a building which has a steel door and a ladder which runs both up and down to other similar conference rooms.  Why I asked does it have a ladder?  Because it’s also a bomb-shelter.  Ah.  Complexity.

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Heatstroke and Soup

First thing Saturday morning I was back on highway One, leaving behind the American Colony Hotel and all its luxury.  Sabbath had begun so traffic was lighter, similar to a typical Canadian weekend.  Most Israeli’s simply aren’t that devout.  There are areas of Jerusalem where the ultra-orthodox will stone your car if you drive on the Sabbath, but the orthodox remain a minority, and typically keep to their own areas.  Despite all of the their indignation at Sabbath driving, it’s not easy getting out to throw stones at cars on the highway when you have to walk the whole way.  Sometimes the universe appreciated a bit of irony.

The first military checkpoint is just east of Jerusalem, and for what matters, this is where the West Bank really begins.  For the first time a new type of car appears on the road, one with green plates with a distinctive “P” on the left side.  It’s a not so subtle way of telling you that this car belongs to a Palestinian from one of their West Bank enclaves.  Without that plate, however, you might never know.  For the most part it seems Palestinians who can work through the red-tape to get access to the Israeli roads within the West Bank, also have access to funds.  The cars are new and well kept.

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Leaving Jerusalem drops you into another world.  It is the line between the semi-arid, but still productive center of the country, and the barren wasteland of the Judean desert.  Hot, bleak, oven like. As many adjectives as you can think to describe heat, this place can use. The scenery is spectacular, particularly if you hate green.  Nearer the Dead Sea there are signs warning of road closures due to floods.  Locals here assure me that flash flood are a real danger, and there are even photographers who go out into the desert to chase them down, but it’s hard to believe when all you see is an endless expanse of rock and heat.

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Not far from Jerusalem you see the first Bedouin.  But these aren’t the Bedouin of movie fame.  You aren’t about to see Omar Sharif offering you figs from the comfort of a colorful tent.  These Bedouin look as though they’ve survived a nuclear strike, eking out the most meager existence, their homes clinging to the sides of hills.  These are makeshift structures of corrugated steel and other bits they’ve scavenged.  Nearby, their herd of goat manage to subsist on the barren scrublands.  And then before you know it the Bedouin are gone too, the climate too harsh even for them, and there is nothing left but rock and the occasional military radio mast atop the hills.

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My goal for the day was Masada, built by Harod around the time of Christ, and later the scene of the mass suicide of the last Jewish Zealots fighting off the Roman Legions.  For years the Israeli army did their swearing-in ceremony here, until someone realized that perhaps the glorification of mass religious suicide wasn’t the best model for an army with a goal of actually winning a war.  Driving towards Masada, on the west you have a line of desolate red mountains, and to the east the Dead Sea.  It is the only body of water I’ve ever seen that has no plants on its shores.  Nothing.  The landscape is utterly, and totally dead.

Having had huge expectations I was surprised when I finally reached it.  I had expected a single grand monolith like Ayers rock in Australia.  It’s not.  It’s just one of many burnt red mountains that are part of the long line I’d been driving next to for an hour.  It’s tall enough that at first I didn’t even realize it was Masada.  Unless you look closely you don’t see the tiny trail that winds up the east face or the ruins atop the mountain.  Either the climate really has changed dramatically, or Harod was a madman to build a palace out here.  Its total isolation must have been a reason it fell out of use so quickly once he died.  And my god it was hot.

I had planned to hike the Snake path, the original trail used by Masada’s inhabitants.  On a good day in the winter it can take a couple of hours to climb.  Today, one of the hottest days in the year, it was going to be a nightmare.  Groups stood about in the air conditioned visitors center, slathering on sunblock, getting their water ready, buying specialty hats, all in preparation for the arduous trek up ten stairs to the gondola.  The gondola?  Cowards.  Ready for anything, I marched passed them feeling rather superior, got out to the trail head and stopped.  Close due to extreme heat.  Damn it.  In hindsight, this was a very good thing.  A Danish cyclist died that day from the heat.  No doubt I would have as well.

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The gondola ride up is actually rather nice, and a good way to go if you’re not a fan of heat stroke.  Still, there are two sides to Masada.  I was on the eastern side which has the Snake path which can be closed because you can take the gondola instead.  On the western side there’s the Roman siege ramp, but no gondola, so they can’t very well close that one, can they?  Anyone coming from the west has to climb the mountain.  So once at the top I spent a bit of time looking up at the sun and sweating, then walked around to the western side and headed down the path to the mountain’s base.  I had come to Masada to climb it, and damn it I was going to climb something even if that meant going down the wrong side first.

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Other than the incredible location, Masada is famous for the 700 Zealots who committed suicide rather than be taken captive or killed by the Romans.  Because the Romans couldn’t possible attack by way of the perilous Snake path, to get to the top they simply built the mother of all ramps and wheeled up their battering rams.  This is why Rome conquered the world.  No one could compete with that.  Today, the siege ramp, a containment wall, and numerous siege camps are all still laid out around the mountain where the Roman left them over 1,900 years ago.  It was a remarkable place to explore, and I did it entirely alone.  The entire time I was there I could count the number of people who climbed that siege ramp on one hand with all the fingers hacked off.  There was nothing alive except ravens, and I’m lucky they weren’t vultures. They would have seen me wandering down along the siege wall, nearly a kilometer from any source of shade, and pecked out my eyes.  At some point my brain kicked in, I turned around, and started the trek back up.  It was head down, one foot and then the other.  There was a good reason the Snake path was closed. Once aback atop, although climbing up the Snake path was forbidden, I realized that climbing down was not, so that’s how I returned to the absolute bliss of the visitors center, and it’s popsicle sales woman to whom I quickly became a regular. The moment my body heat that cold, air-conditioned air, my sweat stopped evaporating and I was drenched.

When Masada fell to the Romans, it was abandoned almost immediately.  Much of what was there was left in place, including human remains.  While leaving the onsite museum the attendant asked me what I found most interesting.  For him it had been eleven clay port shards, each with a man’s name on it…without question in his mind the famous lots the Zealots had drawn to see who would kill the 700 others, and then commit suicide himself.  Lovely group, Zealots.  Historically interesting, sure, but the find seemed just a little too prosaic to be believed.  What really caught my attention was a braid of woman’s hair, as though just recently cut.  Very moving.  One of the wives of the Zealots, says the museum.  More likely a Roman woman captured and killed when the Zealots first seized the place, say modern archeologist.  And the Zealot remains who were given full military burial by the Israeli army?  Likely Roman soldiers from the original garrison.  It’s good that they all agree.

That was the further point south I went.  From there I headed back northwards.

It’s no longer accurate to call it the Dead Sea.  The sea level is dropping a meter a year, and has now broken into two distinct sections.  What a wonderful environmental disaster it has become, and a great spot to stop for a bit of a swim.  I halted at a place near Ein Gedi, which also had a true desert oasis which I completely missed because I was too intent on watching Russian matrons float like Beluga. For man of the Russians, the real joy here was they could float and smoke at the same time.

From Ein Gedi’s original beach area you have two options to get to the sea.  You can walk to the new shoreline, or take a makeshift train.  It’s the sort that drags families around amusement parks.  When you’re standing at a sign that says “Shoreline: 1985” it seems silly to do anything but walk, so I did.   It seemed even hotter there than at Masada, but I was going to a beach, and planned to cool down in the water.  After baking under the sun for about ten minutes I came to a well-constructed wooden deck that at some point had been the new beach area.  No signs of water.  I kept going.  I came to a shower facility used to get the salt off your body when you’re done swimming.  I kept going.  I passed a sign that said “Shoreline: 2000”.   See where this is going?   Finally I came to the new, new wooden deck area, stepped off, and kept going.  The Dead Sea will not be of this world much longer.  It took fifteen minutes of walking, before I’d finally reached the beach, and it is a beach from hell.  It is not sand, but salt.  And I don’t mean salt like.  I mean actual salt.  This is not an exaggeration.  You can reach down, scoop up a handful and sprinkle it on your fries.  The spa which controls beach access demands you wear footwear when going near the water.  This is because natural salt is not soft.  It is sharp and jagged, and if you’re not careful will slice your feet apart.  This brings up a minor inconvenience of with the water.  The ocean has about 3.5% salinity making it unpalatable, and deadly if you drink too much.  It’ll also stings your eyes.  The Dead Sea is currently at around 35% salinity, ten times higher.  This isn’t water anymore.  It’s a giant chemistry experiment.  I tasted the water and felt my tongue string.  It is poisonous even in low quantities.  Before swimming they warn you if you have any cuts, or get water splashed on yours eyes, that it’s going to burn.  What they don’t warn you is that it will burn any opening, or openable, part of your body.  Any.  So you sit in the water, which is Jacuzzi hot, bobbing like a cork, and hoping the stinging pain goes away because you really don’t want to be the first one to run out, holding yourself, and whimpering.

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Now the really cool part about the Dead Sea is that you really do float.  In general, I tend to sink.  Not here.  A person cannot sink.  I doubt a brick could sink.  It’s impossible to get your entire body underwater at one time.  It’s as though someone took a bicycle pump and had a go at turning you into a balloon.  Stick your leg down, and it floats back up almost instantly.  Stick your legs out, and you tip backwards.  Put your head back, and it’s like there’s a pillow there.  When I finally manage to get myself upright, I floated up out of the water close to my nipples.  It really is a remarkable experience once you get over the pain of salt sneaking its way into ever orifice.  One local described it like swimming in soup.  That’s about right.

I rinsed off, trudged back to the spa, and then was on my way back to Tel Aviv, driving below heavily guarded settler communities atop the barren hills.  It’s almost Sunday, and it seems I’m expected me to work on this trip…

Jerusalem and dates

Jerusalem is nothing like Tel Aviv and it’s far more interesting for it.

This past Friday was the first one of Ramadan, and the Israeli’s expected trouble.  I awoke just before six, by which time thousands of additional police and Para-military were already setting up checkpoints and roadblocks in an effort to control access into the old city.   The first group took up position outside the walls, re-directing traffic and blocking off many of the streets that lead to the old city’s main gates.  Passing through East Jerusalem, my driver was able to get me to the City of David, which is just south of Dung gate, outside the present walls and the only entrance directly onto the Wailing Wall.  Today, it’s one of only two into the Jewish Quarter itself.  Jerusalem has a wildly complex history, and without a good set of maps it’s almost impossible to figure out the different bits that were, are, or might be, part of the old city.  Briefly, much of what is today within the walls, was just goat pastures when a rather self-assured young carpenter started telling people to stop hitting each other with sticks and worship him instead.

Even though now outside the walls, The City of David is the oldest part of Jerusalem and holds a strong allure for Israelis.  If there was a  King David, this is likely where he lived.  (The jury is out on that one though.  Other than the Bible, there’s scant reference to David.  A single Aramaean fragment might say “House of David”, but is also might say “House of Kettle.”  The City of Kettles, doesn’t have the same ring to it.)  The most impressive feature is Hezekiah’s tunnel which cuts through bedrock to provide an underground, and hence secure, channel for water to flow into the city.  The Hong Kong tour group in front of me was all giggles.  Having arrived before it opened, and I tend to migrate away from the most heavily trafficked areas, I decided to head down the hill, and out into the streets below.  As it turns out, I was at the edge of Silwan, a Palestinian village, and now a trouble spot as Jewish settlers push in.  The settlers use a variety of methods to buy up, or have demolished, Palestinian houses, and then take the land.  The differences are stark as you begin to notice clusters of houses with Jewish flags, better maintained exteriors, and armed guards.  As I explored, a local settler passed me, dressed in traditional black, carrying a shopping bag, and with a pistol shoved into the back of his pants.  It’s remarkable to me that some would choose to live this way.  So although things were calm while I was there, there was plenty of evidence of the potential for violence.

At the end of one street, where a row of Jewish houses thrust deeper into Silwan, I noticed a Jewish security guard up the hill watching me intently…or at least I had thought it was me he was watching.  A few minutes later a small blue bus pulled up below me, and a rather stern security guard from the bus jumped out and took up position.  Khaki pants, polo-shirt, equipment vest, and just generally far too many pockets.  A Jewish boy, perhaps twelve, emerged from up the street and hurried down to the awaiting vehicle.  He said something to the guard while pointing towards the Palestinian area.  The guard did not reply, his eyes never leaving the Palestinian street as he simply nudge the boy into the bus.  With the boy safety aboard, the bus backed-up, and drove off to a day of recess and pulling girls’ hair.  We had guards on our busses where I grew up as well, but they were local military recruits, and I doubt gave a hoot what happened to us.

Walking back up the hill into the Jewish area, I noticed for the first time two different lookouts built atop buildings.  The first was manned and keeping a careful eye on the Palestinian buildings just across a small dry stream bed.  The second looked like it had been thrown together in haste, perhaps during the last Intifada.  Nice life, huh?

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The second group of extra police positioned themselves near the Wailing Wall.  There is a large, modern ramp the runs up on one side of the Western Wall and ends at a small gate that opens onto the Temple Mount itself.  Muslim’s don’t enter that way, and would certain not use it to leave, which leaves its purpose open to speculation, but the evidence points to security.  It’s covered, so you can’t see what goes on in there, but I happened to catch a glimpse of a platoon of heavily armed police snaking their way up to take position just behind a gate at the top.  In case the prayer services ends in something of a riot, I figure, its looks like they’re ready to spill onto the Temple Mount and take control.

Jerusalem is broken out into four distinct quarters, though the distinction blurs a fair bit at the seams.   The Jewish Quarter, substantially destroyed in ’48 after the British washed their hands of the entire place, was extensively rebuilt and repopulated after the six-day war in ’67.  It’s clean, orderly, and generally where tourists go to buy Gelato and not worry that they’re wearing a Cheney for President t-shirt.  A great deal of archeology has been done in this section, revealing numerous ruins, all destroyed during the Roman sacking of the city in 70 A.D., the event which arguably birthed the main problem the Middle East is still dealing with today.  The fires which roared through the city left soot and scorch marks on floor mosaics which you can still see today.  In one home they found a spear and severed arm, and next to those, charred wooden beams from the ceiling.

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The Christian and Muslim quarters are similar to one another, but you find more tourists venturing into the Christians areas.  Both quarters are a maze of congested alleys jammed with all manner of tiny shops hawking their goods.  Very little natural light makes it in.  The main alleys are illuminated by exposed blubs hanging from makeshift wires strung above.  As you head deeper into the Muslim area, the tourist trinkets give way to shops full of spices, skinned goats, and women’s underwear.  It’s here that a better part of East Jerusalem does its shopping.  You also soon notice that unlike in the Christian areas, the number of tourists has dropped off substantially, and native speakers of English are almost extinct.  It’s left to a few intrepid Europeans to venture this deep.  The area is poorly kept, and the smaller alleys which lead away from the main thoroughfares are less than welcoming.  Unlike the Jewish Quarter with its signs reminding people that you’re walking through a family neighborhood, so please be respectful, here packs of local kids seem to live a Lord of the Flies like existence, like something from a grade school teacher’s nightmare.  In one alley I found a group charging about with flaming torches, laughing as they spun the torches wildly, letting the embers fly off and burn their friends.  Kids and their games.  The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four, and really just amounts to a few anti-Turkish posters up on a wall.

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What seems like the largest contingent of police took up position in these alleys, particularly the ones leading to Al Aqsa mosque, but unlike our riot police who stand in long rigid lines with visors down, these leaned up against walls, chatted, and generally looked as though they didn’t have a care in the world.  No doubt the moment something went wrong they would have gotten to the business of violating human rights, but for now it went a long way to keeping the atmosphere from being explosive.  Unfortunately, as a result of their presence I couldn’t get very close to the Temple Mount.  As I tried to follow the worshipers, an officer stopped me, and pointed me to a different route, one leading away.  To keep a lid on tensions, even the area leading to the Temple Mount was bared to non-Muslims, and apparently I stood out as one of those.  Must have been my shoes.  Later in the day, after prayers were over, a reverse flow began as the city once again emptied of Muslim worshippers.  It is like watching the tide,a hungry tied waiting for the sun to set so they could feast.

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There are a number of observational points in the Jewish quarter that look down at the Wailing Wall.  These are typically well policed.  There’s also a much bigger one right above on the Temple Mount itself, but rather than being observational, that one’s typically used for throwing stones at the Jews below.  In the afternoon, as I was getting ready to head back to the hotel, I came across a young group of French Jews who were obviously making a pilgrimage to the city.  They were at one of the observational points, carrying a large Israeli flag, and oddly two of their group were blindfolded.  That sort of thing never bodes well in the Middle East, and typically ends up on a Jihadist version of YouTube, but the two police nearby didn’t seem terribly concerned, so I stood about and watched.  Their guide went through a dramatic speech full of emotion and obviously designed to build excitement.   As he neared the climax he held up a radio and played the voice of Mordechai Gur from ’67, announcing that his men had just taken the Temple Mount.  It was all very theatrical and obviously designed to build a certain level of expectation.  Then with a final flourish off came the blindfolds, and the students saw the wall for the first time.  The first of the two turned, face blank, mouth slightly open.  I’m not sure if it was a look of awe, disappointment, or excitement so far off the dial his facial muscles just gave up and sagged.  They sang, they clapped, and they wandered off, perhaps to find the Gelato.

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I bought a late lunch in the Muslim Quarter (Dates, bread, and an amazing form of baklava with a custard layer), then headed out through the Damascus gate on my way back to the hotel.  Damascus Gate is chaos in motion, a collision of roads, people, and goods that can be heard for miles away.  It’s easy to slip back in time there and I’d like to go back, perhaps this time with earplugs.

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Just past the gate, and run by the most cordial British Protestants, is the Garden Tomb, which many believe to be the actual site of both the crucifixion and burial of Christ, rather than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher within the Christian Quarter.  Although archeologists have mostly debunked this idea, in typical British fashion the volunteer guides point out that, “well, yes, that might be so, but wouldn’t it be ever so nice if it were true?”  And then, with pleasant smile, “Did you know the garden has the 3rd largest cistern in Israel?”  After a long day, it’s an ideal spot to find a little bench and sleep.

The expected violence never arrived, at least not this time.  Local commentators point out that with the PA doing a reasonable job of maintaining order, jobs are the biggest issue in the West Bank now.  Gaza, rockets, and pushing the Jews back into the sea will have to wait.  As for the border with Lebanon, now that’s where there’s going to be another war, as early as later this summer, if the pundits are to be believed.

Saturday it’s the West Bank, Masada, and the Dead Sea.   If I can float anywhere, that’s the spot.

Soldiers, Breasts, and Flip-Flops

Never stay in a hotel that’s located between two major highway off-ramps.  Also, if you’re looking for your hotel on Google earth, and there’s a large blank spot where it’s meant to be, a spot into which roads just seem to disappear, a spot which itself doesn’t even officially exist, you’ve chosen a hotel right next to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which makes finding your way around rather difficult.

Israel is a strange country to fly into, almost as though you’re flying into a walled fortress with enemies on all sides. Thirty minutes out you are told to stay in your seats for the remainder of the flight.  Israel invented airline security. The plane approaches from the west, from over the Mediterranean, flies low over a military base, and then banks hard to come back around from the east.  I suppose if you didn’t bank hard you’d end up somewhere near Damascus watching a vapor trail racing upwards.  The Israeli desire to keep the West Bank becomes very clear.  This is not a terribly wide country.  And neither are its people.  As my room service waiter said, “Israeli women are hotties, but don’t try a one night stand because they’re demanding, especially the Moroccan ones.”   That’s why he’s divorced now.  He thought Italian woman were hot too, but realized they were “dogs compared to Israeli women.”  Important advice, I suppose, I just wish he’d remember to bring up my fruit plate.

What to think about Tel Aviv?  There are places you love immediately, places you grow to love, and places you fear something is going to love growing on you.  So far Tel Aviv is somewhere between the latter two.  It’s a chaotic mixture of southern Mediterranean neglect and modern prosperity.  There are newly built glass towers interspersed between rundown buildings with mildew stains streaming down from cracked stucco.  The big Latin American cities come closest in atmosphere, but Tel Aviv’s air is cleaner, it’s skyscrapers taller, and there’s no one out to kill you, well, not just you.  And cats.  Everywhere cats.  They’re as common as squirrels here.  It’s also remarkably secular, even though some 95% of its inhabitants consider themselves Jewish.  I finally spent some time today walking around the city and other than a few skull caps, and a Hassidic man praying up against a wall at the beach while a bikini clad Moroccan lady showered off sand nearby, it could have been any prosperous European city along the Mediterranean with attack helicopters flying watch.  Montreal has a more overtly Jewish population than Tel Aviv.

I suppose if you came into Tel Aviv from almost anywhere else in the region, and even big parts of Europe’s Mediterranean coast, Tel Aviv really is an impressive city.  It’s alive at all hours, full of people walking the streets to see and be seen, and most with a liberal view of life.  On my first night, at three AM when I was fighting jet-lag, I caught a documentary on gay Palestinians who flee the West Bank to live in Israel proper where they aren’t persecuted.  What a complex little place this is. I’ll give it some more time before I decide what I really think.

Curiously, despite the history of car bombs, suicide bombers, and surprise invasions, I do feel very safe here.  Perhaps it’s the hundreds of young female military recruits in olive fatigues and flip-flops coming out of the ministry each evening, talking on their cell phones, doing their make-up, and holding shopping bags from lunchtime excursions.  They make me feel safe until I realize the ones who serve at the ministry are those who couldn’t pass their physical to get out to the combat units near the border.  After that I just feel aroused.

Perhaps after you’ve passed through your hundredth security checkpoint, where some sleepy guard waves a wand over your shirt and passes you through despite the fact that his wand beeped, you just don’t notice it anymore.  Even standing behind a solider holding his M4A1 assault rifle in one hand, and a bag of bananas in another, I’ve stop noticing it all that much.  I travel to Jerusalem in a few days. Maybe it will be different.  Incidentally, if I ever had a son here, I’ll tell him to fail that damn physical and spend his next three years at the ministry with the girls in flip-flops.

Tomorrow before work starts, I’m off to a little place called Apollonia.  It’s on the coast, just a five minute walk from my temporary office in Herzeliya.  It was founded by the Phoenicians, and then occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Muslims again, Brits, and now Israelis.  Plenty of history around here.