A Brief Tour of the Holy Land – Page Two

A Brief Tour of the Holy Land – Page Two

By Roman Skaskiw

The wall
The wall

A taxi took us into the Jordan Valley, down majestic mountains of crumbling rock.
We switched to a bus at the actual border. On it, we met a Swedish guy who’d been cycling from his home to Cairo. He used the phrase “the way forward” to express approval, as in: “This mango juice is the way forward.” We liked him immediately and began calling him “Scandy.”

He told us how he’d found hiding spots to spend nights along the roads, about the humidity of Southern Turkey, and how in Damascus, men stood in the streets collecting money for Hezbollah. He said they were eager to talk politics, but limited by their English, similar, I think, to how our hotel’s owner had been with us.

Scandy said he’d listened to them respectfully, not wanting to get into it, and they were kind to him, offering tea and shelter.

I saw the apertures of concrete bunkers on the Jordanian side of the border and mine fields on the Israeli side. None of it was obvious. You have to know what to look for.

We spent almost three hours in the border control area. We were separated from our luggage and entered a huge room with no stanchions to control the swelling crowd. We gleaned the goal here was to elbow one’s way to one of several booths, where 18-year-old-looking girls interrogated travelers about the purpose and circumstances of their visits.

Men with M-4 carbines watched over the operation. Their weapons looked very familiar, except for the fact that I wasn’t carrying one. I instinctively scanned their carbines – seeing that selector levers were turned to safe and index fingers were not resting in trigger wells.

We passed the three hours by feigning the ugly American, saying how “everything would be so much easier if everybody just spoke American.” We told jokes about one of the guards – a very short, very muscled, very stoic guy in mirror sunglasses (really), who we thought had been unnecessarily curt when we appealed for instructions.

Scandy, who’d recently pedaled through Syria, got the hardest time at the booth. The girl asked him repeatedly why he’d been to Syria. His argument was consistent and geographic. She left the booth, returned, asked the same questions again, then asked if he planned to visit any Arab areas and whether he knew any Arabs.

We passed beyond the booths into a second area where we did pretty much the same thing.

The Old City in East Jerusalem is approximately one square kilometer surrounded by an Ottoman-era wall. It is a labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets covered with overlapping awnings and archways, and lined with shops. Every morning hundreds of barn-like doors swing open and merchants display their wares.

The place was packed. At every moment during our search for a hostel, there were a half-dozen people within arm’s reach of me. This didn’t stop boys with pushcarts, some stacked impossibly high with crates, from crashing through the crowd. Occasionally, a tractor pressed through. I smelled fresh fruit, falafel, the leather of a sandal shop, trash, body odor, candy, the faintly nauseating smell of raw meat, and a whiff of cannabis.

At night, it would all vanished and look as if the markets and the people never existed. The streets would be deserted, dark, and lined only with pad-locked doors.

The Old City is divided into Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. The crowd seemed mostly Arab, but every population has a definite presence. I liked seeing the interaction. It dispelled my perception that the different groups were like fighting dogs straining their chains to get at one another. The tension is subtler, like when a lady told me I could take bus number thirty, or the twenty-three, but, she cautioned, the twenty-three would put me in an Arab area, or in our hostel, where the chessboard’s kings had their crosses twisted off, or a Hebrew, English, and Arabic street sign with the Arabic is vandalized.

A t-shirt shop in the Old City
A t-shirt shop in the Old City

It was Friday. After sunset we sat in a cafe and watched traditionally dressed Jewish families enter the Old City near the Tower of David to pray. Young girls walked in groups clapping their hands and singing. Arab-owned t-shirt shops sold Israeli Defense Force shirts alongside ones that read “Free Palestine.” One t-shirt featured an F-16 Strike Eagle and read “Don’t worry America, Israel is right behind you,” others had cartoon characters – Sponge Bob, Tweety Bird – posing beside maps of the country.

The Old City also seemed to attract backpackers. In fact, that evening, Scandy pushed his bicycle into our hostel and we spent the next few days being tourists.

August 5: Okay, so if the Dome, the Church, and the Wall had a fight, who do you think would win? I hesitate to admit such notions kept us entertained for hours.

“The Dome has size, the Wall has the longest history, but it’s the Church, man! Power of resurrection. Look, if there’s a fight and one guy keeps getting resurrected, eventually, the other guy’s gonna get tired.”

“We’re going to hell,” I told Steffen.


Falafel and bottle of water in Jerusalem: 12 Shekels.

The presence of Israeli soldiers was so common that I almost forget to mention them. Everywhere, I scanned the selector switches and trigger wells of their weapons. Steffen, who’d served with a National Guard unit and carried an M-16 through Iraq, resented the fact of their more modern M-4’s.

Outside the Church of the Holy Paternoster, which stands on the Mount of Olives, a small sign read “Please: no explanations inside the church.”

August 6: We decided swimming would be the way forward, and where better than in the Dead Sea? Everything you hear about it is true: salty, great buoyancy, worth the hour-long trip from Jerusalem. I was even more impressed hiking into the facing mountains along a series of waterfalls and swimming holes called Ein Gedi Park. Scandy, who’d carried a bird-watching book all the way from Sweden, pointed out starlings and short-tailed ravens unique to the region.

We asked about the impact of the war with… Lebanon? – Or was it Hezbollah? The common reaction: tourism was down. Occasionally, we spoke to someone who knew someone who’d been mobilized, or had evacuated Haifa. Some West Jerusalem cafes had guards sitting outside with metal detectors dangling from their wrists, but at least in Jerusalem and around Ein Gedi, the war seemed about as big a presence as the war in Iraq is a presence in America – dominating headlines and the subject of much discussion, but daily life for most people remaining unchanged.

Ice cream at Ein Gedi: 13 shekels, and worth every one, despite Steffen’s suggestion that I stamp my forehead with the words: “Stupid, rich American.”

Farther south along the coast of the Dead Sea stands Masada, the mountain-top fortress where, in the first century, after the fall of Jerusalem, a group of Zealots withstood a years-long Roman siege before conducting a mass-suicide to avoid falling into Roman hands. My guidebook said the words “Masada shall not fall again,” are in a swearing-in oath for parts of the Israeli Defense Force.

August 7:

CNN: Hezbollah Rockets Hit Haifa
Al Jazeera: Israel Bombs Eastern Lebanon

At an Internet cafe, young Arab boys played Grand Theft Auto, Fifa Work Cup Soccer, and Command & Conquer. I checked my email and let my mother know I was okay.

A Palestinian woman took us on a tour of East Jerusalem. She showed us the wall. “When Jesus came,” she said, “my family was here to receive him. She spoke about a “resident” status imposed on many Palestinians. If they leave the country for longer that their travel permits allow, they lose their residency and cannot return. She told us how school children walk an extra two kilometers to school because of the wall. She fears some crossing points will soon close, further complicating their commute.

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