Gunfire, Figs, and Missing Road signs

I’d never been to the West Bank until today. And I certainly hadn’t planned my first experience to be at night, lost, and with the massive security barrier rising up beside me. The road was unlit and curved through empty fields littered with half built structures. There were no road signs or any other indication I was even still in Israel proper. I began to worry. The dark made it very easy to believe this was the West bank of CNN, a place of rock throwing youths, suicide bombers, and brutal street battles between Palestinians and the Israeli army. And now here I was, lost and alone in an Avis rental car. I looked down at the Google map I’d printed off earlier. It showed all sorts of roads, none of which seemed to exist. Stupid, stupid Google maps. How bloody hard could it be to find a world famous hotel that was just two blocks off the main highway running through Jerusalem? Well apparently beyond my skills. I looked in my rear-view mirror. Jerusalem was well behind me now. I was getting deeper and deeper into a region even many Israelis refuse to drive. I swore in frustration. Three hours earlier I’d been presenting a Power Point deck and making jokes about choosing the wrong font. Now I was somewhere lost in the West Bank with only a Cliff Bar and Diet Coke. This was how stupid people died.

Five hours earlier in Tel Aviv my plan had seemed very simple. I would rent a car from the local Avis office, drive to Jerusalem Thursday afternoon where I would check into the American Colony hotel, and then spend Friday exploring the old city. Saturday, in daylight, I would head into the West Bank stopping at Qumran to see where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, float in the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, and finally climb the Roman siege ramp at Masada. Aside from getting locked out of the car while the alarm blared, the plan had started off well and I had quickly left Tel Aviv behind.

The landscape around Tel Aviv is flat and unremarkable, but as you approach Jerusalem it changes dramatically and becomes the sort of place you expect to see Harrison Ford getting chased by angry Nazis.  The air becomes dry and hot. The hills are rugged and steep, some forested with conifers, and others barren save for a few dusty olive trees. Looking up, it’s hard not to imagine the armies of the Romans and Egyptians marching through and swearing about the heat.  The Israeli’s say in Tel Aviv they play, and in Jerusalem they pray. I could feel the change already. It was nearly evening and cars of orthodox Jews had begun to pull over with dusks approach to pray. And then without warning I was in the outskirts of Jerusalem. A few kilometers further and I’d be at the internationally recognized eastern border of Israel. The drive from Tel Aviv is not far at all. I understand now why Israel is so determined to keep the West Bank as a buffer.   They say a mechanized army needs space to maneuver.  Retreat much more than a few kilometers from the hills around Jerusalem and your soldiers are drinking mojitos on the beach.

Tomorrow I would explore the city. Today my only goal was to find the American Colony hotel, and with darkness approaching I wanted to do it quickly.

Jerusalem is a city that time forgot.  It’s also a city that forgot to use street signs.  Perhaps this is a defensive strategy. Given its proximity to a simmering war-zone, it really should put up some sort of indication that unless you know exactly where you are, likely where you are is not where you want to be. By the time I realized what was happening, Highway One had dropped from its full three lanes down to just one. The sun had set, I was the only car passing through a barren construction zone, and the massive concrete security barrier had risen beside me.

The barrier is almost fifty feet high in places. It snakes up and down the hills, holding back the flood of Palestinian apartments that push up against the concrete.  It really is intimidating, especially at night with razor wire glinting in the wall’s security lights. Behind the wall are the dark silhouettes of buildings in the Palestinian ghetto. I could not help but think the barrier dehumanized those on the other side. You don’t build a wall unless there’s something dangerous on the other side, right? I suppose if I’d been living in Israel earlier in the decade, when suicide bombers were slipping into Israel proper on a weekly basis, I’d have a rather different view of the wall.  It did stop the violence within Israel, of that there’s no question.  But it also turned the West Bank into a giant prison. Looking up at the wall, there was no doubt in my mind that is exactly what it was. A prison wall. Only here the prison held towns, and families, even children.  There has got to be a better way.  A local Israeli man said he didn’t think the violent acts committed by the Jewish Stern Gang before independence were radically different than what the Palestinians try to do today.  Many would disagree.  When I asked if he’d ever been to the West Bank, he said no.  Almost no one I asked had.

I pulled the car over, got out, and simply stood there for a time watching the wall. In all the windows, of all the buildings behind it, I never once saw a sign of life. I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but nothing did. The night was quiet. I got back into my car, turned around and headed back in the direction I though Jerusalem to be. I ignored the map, drove on instinct, and eventually found my way.

The American Colony Hotel is one of the most evocative hotels in the world.  It isn’t in the relative calm of West Jerusalem were most tourists stay, but rather east of the UN Demarcation line that kept the Jews and Arabs apart until the last hours of the Six Day war in 1967.  T.E. Lawrence spent his days here in the courtyard after World War I, no doubt planning to study up on how to ride motorcycles, but instead lulled into a stupor by the courtyard fountain.  Today it is the haunt of spies, journalists, and diplomats. Secret negotiations were held here before the signing of Bill Clinton’s Oslo peace accords which put an end to the first intifada in the early 90s.  There is no better accommodation in all of city to experience what Jerusalem is today.

For an unknown reason I was upgraded to the penthouse.  I did not complain. The rack rate for the room was nearly a thousand dollars a night and it was easily worth every penny, especially given that I didn’t pay most of them. I dropped my bags in the spacious room, stepped out onto the terrace, and smiled. A plate a fresh figs and dates awaited That evening I sat out on the terrace until late, listening to the sound of the waterfall in the garden below. Muezzin sang in the distance to call the faithful to prayer, the lights of the ancient city crawling up into the hills, and the sounds of gunshots echoed in the distance.  It’s an incredible place.  If I ever become so famous I need to disappear for a time, this is where I will go.  Perhaps in the morning the image I’ve built will crumble down.  I’ll see grime and chipped paint, the disparity between the Jewish and Muslim populations in the city, and realize that my penthouse terrace is part of a world that doesn’t really exist.  But for right now, I must go.  A meteor shower has begun, and it’s difficult to type while laying on the patio watching meteors streak above one of the world’s oldest cities.

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