The Road to Peace
Our bus returned Amelia and I from Bethlehem to the Damascus Gate, and under the setting sun we walked back up the Mount of Olives, through the crowded rows of the Jewish cemeteries. The Mount is prime real estate for the dead—the buried there end at the front of the line when the Last Judgment comes around.
Tuesday we tried to enter the Temple Mount, that holiest site of Abraham’s test and Mohammed’s ascension where one prayer is worth ten thousand, but the guards shut the gate in our faces. Only a certain number of non-Muslims could enter during the two daily windows the Mount opens to tourists, and we were two too many. Dismayed, we went up through the Old City, the streets full of Nigerian pilgrims, Zionist American tour groups with their hired riflemen, girls with unloaded guns slung over their backs huddled around some map as part of their army training. All Israel’s women serve two years in the army, and men have three, except the Orthodox Jews paid by the government to study the Torah.
After locating with some difficulty the rock-covered grave of Oskar Schindler, we walked northwest of the Old City to visit the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood there, Mea Shaarim. The inhabitants live and dress as their forebears did in nineteenth century Europe, locked in a simpler era by that peculiar regressive fancy that strikes every human faith in some way.
They wear the black clothes that the medieval Church demanded they wear, with tzitzi tassels hanging out the men’s jackets. Some wear the teffilin, a black box strapped to their forehead and black straps on their wrists. Most men have a hat: at least a kippa or fedora, and often the cylindrical Slavic fur hats, the shtreimel, spodik, and kolpik, of the Hasidic Jews. Beards and sideburns and sidelocks were common. The streets were bare of life and decoration as a ghetto. Stores sold simple, often handcrafted things, used books, and antique furniture, and, I noticed, the mattress stores carry no size larger than a twin.
The “residents faithful to the tradition of divine command” had posted the following sign: “To women and girls who pass through our neighborhood, we beg you with all our hearts, please do not pass through our neighborhood inimmodest clothing. (Modest clothes include: closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no trousers, no tight-fitting clothes.) Please do not disturb the sanctity of our neighborhood and our way of life as Jews committed to G-d and his Torah.” Another stated: “Groups passing through severely offends the residents. Please, stop this.”
Ibrahim served a big dinner that night and gave us a talk about paying the bills, so we were sure to donate before we left the next morning. It was a crazed place, Jerusalem, and we were tired of the politics of faith, and ready to go somewhere secular and get a drink.
Tel Aviv called to us as the place to welcome the New Year. If Jerusalem was the locus of Israel’s religion, then Tel Aviv was the bastion of her Western liberalism. The glass coffins of offices and apartments lined the sunny beach like diamonds, and you could find people swimming in the sea and drinking at bars and washing clothes at the laundromat at all hours of the day. It seemed in its modernity infinitely far from the squalor and politics of Cairo and Hebron and Beirut and all the rest of the region. Though young, educated activists take to the streets in protest against their government’s treatment of the Palestinian problem, the Telavivans never leave their vibrant city to show support where it really matters.
Amelia and I were CouchSurfing for the first time in Tel Aviv. By that wonderful Web site, travelers meet locals who offer the hospitality of extra beds or vacant couches, and of a local perspective, a free guide. In some places, like South America and most of the Middle East, CouchSurfing can be difficult as the young people to whom it appeals live with their parents, but in Israel hosts were common (and I hear that Indians will invite their guests to stay for a week or two).
We took a bus up to the University and asked directions to find Ehud’s apartment building, and our host welcomed us inside. Ehud, a physics student, lived in a clean, well-decorated flat with leather couches and modern art in what used to be the wealthiest area of Tel Aviv, but took credit for none of the room’s taste. “It’s all my roommate,” he said. “I let her do everything. I’m useless at it.” He was in the middle of cooking an onion soup for her and had only a little time with us before he had to go to work, but that was enough to display his generous hospitality.
Ehud served us leftovers and then started mixing drinks, White Russians—“I used to be a bartender”—and some fruity liqueur as soon as a glass was empty. I asked about Israeli beer, and he brought out a Goldstar dark lager without a thought. His apartment stocked more booze than food. A week before, he and his roommate, Alinna, drove up to a small Orthodox town to buy food. Because every family there has at least eight kids (if you have eight children in Israel it nets extra benefits from the government), grocery prices are much lower. They came back with a trunk full of Goldstar and Absolut. Both Ehud and Alinna had that Russian biology common in Israel, where one in five speak the language.
“Jon,” said Ehud, “you studied history and seem like a philosophical kind of guy, so I have a philosophical question for you. What are you drinking?” He stirred another White Russian, then continued: “So, I don’t know if you’re religious, but religions say that God has a plan for everyone, that everyone has a fate. Everything you do is planned. It’s all destiny. You can’t escape it. There’s no, how do you say—yes, right, there’s no free will.
“In quantum mechanics, though,” and he waved at the big red physics book on its leather chair, “you see that at the most basic level, within particles, you can tell where an electron is, or you can tell how fast it’s going, but not both. Even with the most advanced computer in the world, even with a computer that nobody can make yet, you couldn’t tell. It’s random. There are tiny variations that nobody can predict. So I’m reading about this, and it just makes me question everything.”
We kept talking, applying Chaos Theory and the lawlessness of history to the mundane existence of a human, and listening to Balkan Beatbox, until Ehud’s friend Cho-Cho arrived, fresh returned from a tour of duty. Curious, we asked them about military service in Israel, where at 18-years-old all men serve three years and women two. Israel had consigned Ehud to an armored division where, after his eight months of busy training, his keen intellect languished with nothing to do. For every young Israeli conscripted to a job examining satellite photos of Gaza or working in a hospital or learning a martial trade, there are ten who sit idly at a dead border or deal with Palestinians going in and out of the Wall. No wonder so many Israelis travel for months after their release from such a purgatory of duty!
“It’s not dangerous,” said Ehud, “and it’s not useful. It’s just like any other thing. If you study hard in university, you have the same amount of discipline that you would if you took apart and scrubbed your rifle every day and marched around.”
Ehud finally escaped his mandatory service ahead of schedule via the neat trick of a mental breakdown. When Alinna came home from work, she told us that her two years were wasted time, that she started college two years later than she would have in any other country. We talked until Ehud had to go to work. Then we sat there watching TV with Cho-Cho and Alinna and eventually went to bed on the mattress they’d laid out behind the couch. In the morning when we were up, Ehud made omelets in his underwear, blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812.
Ehud worked at a hotel down by the beach, a sleazy by-the-hour place where he could study physics behind the reception desk. His most common clients were East European prostitutes and Hasidic Jews—“Because they’re not getting anything good at home,” said Ehud. The prostitutes left him a small tip each time they came through, and the Hasidic Jews avoided his eyes.
We met him there in the early evening after exploring downtown Tel Aviv and having a beer at the mahogany and gold Brewhouse on Rothschild. Our CouchSurfing host poured us coffee from a thermos and then went to deal with something while we sat in the lounge next to an old woman from Ontario named Karen. Tel Aviv is nice, Amelia said, "but expensive. “Yes it's expensive,” said Karen. “Don't think we're licking honey in Canada. I don't want to tell you what we're licking.”
There was a Californian named Mark working there as a handyman, who had first come to Israel as a professional soldier. He was heavyset and had a shaved head and an East Coast accent. Once he and his friends had packed up all their gear and ATVs in the trailer when a call came to each in turn: “Be on base in six hours.” They returned from Gaza City a week later to find everything gone.
“Where was your wife?” asked Karen.
“Come on,” said Mark. “I told you a dozen times. We're not married.”—“What do you mean you're not married? She bore two of your children.”—“Well we're not married.”—“You should marry the girl. Isn't she good enough?”—“She says I don't make enough money. I make 200,000 shekels a year and she says it's not enough. I give her a house, a car, groceries. She doesn't have to work. Isn't that enough?”—“Do you understand this?” asked Karen of Amelia and I. We shrugged.
Mark said, “You want to see pictures of my gun?” and I said, “Yes, definitely.” He showed us a photo of his M4 on his cell phone and told us about the armor piercing bullets and all that, then showed us a video of his Gaza team. “That guy’s always sleeping,” he said. “We stop for five minutes and he falls asleep. See, he’s sleeping here. We call that guy the Student, since he’s always studying. That guy has to wear a map on his back when we walk around. It really sucks. Oh, check this out.” He had a video taken by an undercover friend of his, of a Gazan lying on a stairway in the dusty street. Miliants would run up to the him and spray bullets from their Kalishnakovs, so the body jerked around and splattered. “He sold secrets to the Israelis,” said Mark, matter-of-factly.
We excused ourselves, said goodbye to Ehud, who was working all night, and went down the street to Momo’s Hostel. Our friend Rob of Perth, who we met at Ismaelia House in Cairo, was staying there, and we arranged to meet him later in Florentin before going to Mike’s Place for nachos and a pitcher of beer. Mike’s was an American bar right next to the Embassy, famous for being bombed in 2003, that served American fare with the atmosphere of a place just off the Interstate. The only Israelis who went there were after foreign girls.
Mollified, we retrieved Rob from his hostel and took a bus down to Florentin, picking up a few bottles of beer on the way. Denniz's friend Rachel lived in the neighborhood and had told us that on New Years Eve the main street became a party, blockaded to traffic and filled with young revelers. The three of us pushed through them until we came to a corner under a streetlamp and met two Texans that Rob knew. I never got their names, but one was a large blonde girl with a tremendous affection for Black culture and the other looked like a Giovanni Ribisi action figure.
Florentin had no official countdown, so when Amelia’s watch said the time was right and the decade was about to change, we started shouting seconds alone. Our enthusiasm dissipated when nobody joined us. A dozen groups spontaneously did the same over the next few minutes. Eventually we decided it must be New Years and we could celebrate. We stayed a while longer until the lack of music got to us, and then we got on a bus back up the strip. The Texans started singing old 2Pac and Biggie songs, and they fell in love with Rob when they learned that the Australian knew all the verses.
We went back to Mike’s Place for beers. The band had stopped playing and their equipment littered the stage, and we sat on benches around a wood table and watched people. The Texans were confused about why Amelia and I were in Israel and why we had been traveling for so long. “So,” they said, “you just go to a place and look around for a few days, and then go somewhere else?” Yes, we said, enjoying their incredulity.
A drunk Hindu businessman from Bangalore named Gururaj started talking to us, and he invited me to call him when I come to that part of the world. His more sober friend was ready to leave and tugged Gururaj away. “Don’t let him do that!” cried the Texan girl. “If you don’t wanna leave, you stay. Just say this to him: 'I will cut you,'"—she emphasized that cut with an extending drawl,—“Come on! 'I will cut you!' That’s what we say in Texas when we mean business.”
Our bill when we asked for it included a lot of extra charges labeled “Quality Discount,” and even inebriated we could tell they weren’t discounts at all. “What are these?” I asked the waitress. She went and got the manager, an porky American, who with an aggravated, overbearing friendliness asked us, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help you?”
“What’s this Quality Discount?” I wondered. “Well,” said the man, “here at Mike’s Place, we have a policy of not charging anyone cover, so y’all got in here free tunight. The quality charge is something we charge after ten, since there’s no cover. There are signs up everywhere.” “We didn’t know that. We didn’t see any signs.” The manager got very defensive, and I issued some platitudes about how much we respected his institution and its policies while assuring him that we wouldn’t pay the charge. “Oh, you’re not paying. You're one of those guys,” said the man. “Well okay, fine buddy, great way to start out the new year. Well let me tell you something, karma always comes around. Enjoy your fourteen shekels. And don’t come back.”
We walked the few blocks back to Momo’s Hostel, complaining all the way, though I felt eerily heroic. Rob and the Texans went to bed, and Amelia and I started hailing cabs. It was so late that all the cabbies tried to charge us an exorbitant fee, until Amelia declared, “Let’s just walk back. I walk back home all the time in Melbourne. Sometimes for miles.” Instead of doing that, we got on a microbus headed most of the way to the University. Amelia said as we sat there, “Doesn't it seem like there's something off about this city? I don't know what it is. I can't put my finger on it. It's like a Western city, but something's off.”
We tried to figure out what it was the next day. Tel Aviv is surely a bubble, a fresh, sterile, secular Western metropolis in the middle of an ancient, noisy, faithful East, and it seems unaware of its isolation—not arrogant, just blind. More than that, the population of Tel Aviv, compared to the other cities of the Levant, with their Arabs and Coptics and Nubians and Druze, and compared to the cities back home, was homogenous. Nearly everyone was Jewish and speaks Hebrew and English or Hebrew and Russian. They came with few exceptions from Russia and America and pockets of Europe.
(The most fascinating exception is the community found in Ethiopia, practicing a fundamental form of Judaism. Nobody knew where they came from, but the Israelis pulled them into airplanes, shipped them into Israel, and started teaching them Hebrew. "I didn't know what was going on," anyone will tell you. "All of a sudden, there were black people.")
New Years Day we took a break and went to a theater in the mall to see Where the Wild Things Are, and I gorged myself at the pre-Shabbat cafeteria on the thick, rich Slavic food you can find in Israel. The day after we picked out more of Israel’s strange traits, as I walked down the beach to Jaffa and Amelia tried to shop on the Shabbat. Along the grass promenade that ran along the sand were picnickers and cyclists and women in skirts and groomed dogs on leashes, and I was not being oggled as a remarkable aberration, a stranger in a strange land, an Other. “He was one of us,” as Conrad says, and no one treated me any different.
Old Jaffa, the Port of Jerusalem, where Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish and where Christian pilgrims disembarked on their way to sites of pilgrimage, is a museum piece. I wandered through the quiet old town and had a grilled cheese sandwich at Said Abuelafia & Sons, since 1879. You can find many distinct foods in Israel, such as schnitzel sandwiches and salami and the largest concentration of sushi restaurants outside Japan.
That night we took a bus back to Jerusalem, though we had to wait until the Shabbat ended at six. We returned to the Peace House and got beds in the back room, and the next day the Temple Mount turned us away again. We went to the Israel Museum, to see the vast model of King Herod’s Jerusalem, the Second Temple prominent, and the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are maintained in worshipful solemnity.
As our contribution to Ibrahim’s Peace House, we made a soup with what we could find and what we were hungering for: Spinach, cauliflower, onions, and a lot of garlic, with potatoes and yams mashed into a paste to give more body to the tomato sauce broth. Ibrahim asks for donations to keep the place running, and those who can’t afford it help in other ways, by doing laundry or cooking for people. A group of German backpackers had shown up, asked Ibrahim to pay for their cab fee, and then stayed for a few days, eating their fill at dinner. “We’re pretty good at telling who will and who won’t donate,” said Irene. “They won’t.”
A good Muslim, Ibrahim never kicks anyone out from his house, although in their self-righteous bickering his lodgers often ask him to. Only once has he broken the Mohammedan principle of hospitality. An American man and wife had come to Jerusalem with their dog from some devout recess of the country, where a preacher told them, “God has spoken, and He wants you to stay at Ibrahim’s house.” The wife was pregnant, and Ibrahim gave them his own room and bed and took the woman to the hospital when the time came. On the roof at the same time, their dog gave birth to nine puppies, which ran around the Peace House making a mess of things.
A month passed and Ibrahim’s birthday came. He was holding a big party, and he asked the pilgrims, “Would you be able to move out of my room before then?” “No!” said the pilgrims, “God told us to come here, and we won’t leave until He says. If you want a place to stay, go to a hotel. Our Lord will get you a room.” Well, Ibrahim asked them to leave again and again, and finally a squad of Israeli police showed up.
“Ibrahim,” said the officer, “do you have Americans in there? They called and said you were trying to kick them out.” Ibrahim told the police what had happened, that it was his own bed he wanted the Americans to leave. The officer went to the pilgrims and said, “You have to leave.” “You’ll be punished,” said the pilgrims, “if you do this. God told us to come here, and we won’t leave until He says.” The officer replied, humorlessly, “Well then you call your God and tell Him to send down a fax in the next five minutes.”
While this was happening, the police found that the Americans had overstayed their three week visa by three months, and so God never had to fax the Israeli police.
I spent the next day apart from Amelia in Hebron. I had heard horrible stories of the city, one of the flashpoints for hostility between Israel and occupied Palestine, with one of the region’s saddest stories. In 1929 there was a massacre. Palestinian riots carried off nearly 50 of the Jews who still lived in that sacred city, the Canaanite city where Abraham was buried, though good Palestinian neighbors sheltered and saved the lives of hundreds more. The Jews left Hebron, and it became Egyptian and then Jordanian, until the Six-Day War. Victorious Israel sent 500 settlers to the West Bank of the Jordan to live in the ancient city, in the middle of 160,000 Palestinians, who call the place Khalil.
I arrived outside the souq with Catherine and Katerina, from Germany and Austria, who I met on the bus. They were volunteering at the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem and told me some things about the city.
The streets were full of Israeli soldiers and melancholic Arabs. Nets covered the souq like an aviary, to catch the trash thrown from the rooftops of the adjacent Settlement, a neighborhood on a hill closed off by a wall of sealed buildings and barbed wire and gated roadblocks, and there were watchtowers and sniper nests and spotters on all the rooftops. Israeli boys come out under military escort to slap Arabs and insult them. The Settler families are notorious in their zealotry and seem intent on removing the Palestinians from their Promised Land through antagonism and cruelty—turn them into refugees; let Jordan and Lebanon deal with their camps.
The Teutons and I left the souq for a great plaza surrounding the two shrines built over the Ma’arat HaMachpela—the Cave of the Patriarchs. The Ibrahimi Mosque and the Sanctuary of Abraham synagogue were once connected by the octagonal chamber around Abraham’s tomb, but now the heavy doors and walls and the bulletproof glass installed in the space between the two temples prevent any contact. The place is segregated by religion—no Jews in the mosques, no Muslims in the synagogue—for the safety of both. Fifteen years ago, a Jewish settler entered the mosque and killed 29 Palestinians at prayer.
When the Teutons left, I stayed to talk to people—to the Observers who watched the courtyards with cameras and notepads, who have been dispatched there by the six neutral countries participating since the massacre; to a man whose shop was closed and sealed since it was on a street adjacent to the Settlement, who is now unemployed. I asked, “When will the Israelis leave?” “Never,” he said. The Observers are in Hebron until they do. “The Israelis are supposed to leave?” “Yes," said one, "it is in the Hebron Agreement that Israel will turn over control of the city to Palestine.” “Have they?” “No.”
I wandered the town alone, bought lunch at a kebab place and a kefiyeh in the souq, and set off for the return journey. On the bus back to Jerusalem, I sat next to an unknown girl, as terrifying a prospect in the Islamic World as it would be to an adolescent boy back home. The gentleman fears to look at, much less brush against or talk with those sensibly scarved Muslim maidens, flipping delicately through pocket-sized Qur’ans.
The bus re-entered Israel through the fortress gates of the Wall in Bethlehem, its sheer ten meters covered in as much political graffiti as the Wall of Berlin. There, next to a huge tower, I saw the sign that Denniz had painted there and shown us in a photograph: red letters on a white rectangle, a quotation by Kurt Tucholsky that also hangs in the entrance of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem: “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”