First thoughts on the Holy Land

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I did not have a good start in Israel. I arrived from Istanbul with my nose running like a faucet, sneezing every 14 seconds, and generally miserable. The hostel I’d reserved online turned out to be one of the grimmest ones I’ve encountered thus far. I was shown to a bunk in an eight- bed room with cold bare concrete floors and grey sheets and the resident cat stealing food from a shopping bag on a neighbouring bed. It was not what I’d been led to expect from the website, which promised en-suite bathrooms and free breakfast and showed shining corridors and bright, pleasant rooms. Sitting on the side of the bed, nose running and head pounding, I came to a quick decision. “Do you have any private rooms?” I asked, and was quickly shifted across the hall to the hotel side of the operation. Here were the shining corridors and en-suite bathrooms! And though the price was 3 or 4 times that of the hostel, they were some of the happiest shekels I’ve spent. The room was the tiniest I’ve had so far – about 8’ square, and the bathroom was so small it could only be viewed with the aid of a scanning electron microscope. But it was mine.

The next morning when I woke up it was clear that the antihistamines I’d taken the night before had been completely ineffective. I was sick, but I was also determined not to waste the short amount of time I had in Jerusalem, so I loaded up on tissues and Vitamin C and trudged off for a walking tour of the Old City. It was a good tour – we saw part of the Armenian Quarter and then went up to the Temple Mount itself, home to the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though non-Muslims are not allowed to enter either. (And you can’t just walk up and say, “Uh, yeah… I’m Muslim… no really…. Allah rocks!” If there’s any doubt, they make you recite the first chapter of the Qur’an.)

The golden dome.

We also had a look at a small, hidden section of the Western Wall, and wandered through some of the Muslim souk, which reminded me a lot of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, though shabbier and more cramped. We even stopped for lunch as a group, which was nice and sociable. After lunch we trooped along part of the Via Dolorosa past about five or six Stations of the Cross, including this one, number nine, “where Jesus fell a third time”.

This is the where really devout pilgrims who’ve dragged crosses through the maze of city streets drop them off before entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church itself was odd, it had so many different levels and shrines and tombs and other holy cubby-holes in it that it was easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, a lot of different groups have claims on the church, chief among them being the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Armenians. They argued about things for so long that eventually they came to a “status quo agreement”, confirmed in 1852, that means everything in common or still-contested areas must remain unchanged unless all parties agree on the changes to be made (and you can guess how often that happens). This means that there’s an old wooden ladder leaning on an exterior window ledge that’s been there for at least a century and a half. Every tour guide in Jerusalem in required to point this out or they will be immediately stripped of their guiding credentials and ridden out of town on a donkey. Similarly, every tourist in Jerusalem is required to take a photo of the ladder. I will spare you mine.

Instead you can see the diving bell in the square outside the church. Ok, actually, it’s a tank for containing suspected bombs. No kidding.

Anyways, I had a guide at the church and I was still befuddled. We did see the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been crucified, and the line of people waiting to crawl under the alter and touch the rock at Golgatha itself. And we saw the supposed tomb of Jesus, and the line of people waiting to see inside that. There were also several other hugely significant spots, but this was at the end of our tour and by then it was abundantly clear that it had not been a good idea for me to drag my sick and travel-weary body around for four hours. I was rather hoping there might be another empty tomb in the area so I could crawl away quietly and expire. (In fact there is - the 1st century tomb of Joseph of Aramithea - which was pleasing small and dim, though decidedly rustic.) I stumbled back to the hotel after gathering oranges and juice, and lapsed into a fevered sleep for the rest of the day, waking only to email, Skype and Twitter my misery to the world.

The next day I checked out the Mahane Yehuda Market in the New city, because I love a good market, and I was looking for something a little low-key after the previous day’s melt-down. The market is predominantly Jewish and I visited late on a Friday morning, so the place was heaving with people shopping for Shabbat. Of course I itched to take a thousand photos, but only took a few.

These looked good, but I stopped somewhere else, as you’re about to find out.

It was at the market where I had a scary moment. All along I’d been nervous about coming to Israel. It’s just in the news so much that I couldn’t help but think that of all the destinations on my itinerary, this would have to be the place where I was most likely to be blown up by passing bus. However, reassuring words from resident hashers assuaged my fears and in fact the reality seems quite different. But then I found myself in this café, sitting on a stool at the bar. A woman came in and set down a bag and coat on the stool next to me and said something like, “I’ll be back in few minutes” and asked me to watch her stuff. And off she went. I nodded and didn’t think about it until a few seconds later when I realized what I’d done, and then I was instantly terrified. Suddenly I imagined Peter Mansbridge gravely intoning, “Four confirmed dead, including one Canadian, in Jerusalem café bombing…”, while they showed some outdated picture of me behind him. Long long long minutes passed while I wondered if I should just run away. And then I thought I couldn’t do that because someone might steal the nice woman’s coat/bomb. And then I thought that would just be typically Canadian – too polite to make a fuss and too nice to leave the bomb to be stolen by some ne’er-do-well. About another three and a half months passed, and finally the woman came back with her latté and the world kept spinning. Rest assured, I won't make that mistake again.

The funny thing is that I was talking to some Tel Aviv hashers the next day about how the country still made me a bit nervous. They were Americans living in Tel Aviv and both said that they felt perfectly safe there, and it was certainly better than other overseas locations where they’d worked. This conversation happened in a bar called Mike’s, right next door to the American Embassy on the Tel Aviv waterfront. Mike’s was the target of a suicide bombing in 2003 that killed three and wounded fifty. And there I was having cheesy fries and listening to how safe Israel is. But when I told my hashing friends Tina and Susan about my little café episode they both instantly said, “Oh, well I would never do that.” So it’s a country where it’s not unheard of to get blown up in your local, and normal to see 18-year old army recruits wandering the streets with machine guns over their shoulders while simultaneously text messaging, but you can’t trust the person next to you in the coffee shop. Thanks, but no thanks.

Back to Jerusalem tourist scene. After my briefly terrifying visit to the market on Friday, I wandered back to the old city for the rest of the afternoon. Thanks to the LP I managed to see some of the weekly procession of Franciscan Friars along the Via Dolorosa. They stopped at each of the stations of the cross, trailing a parade of faithful behind them. They also have a wireless mic and speaker system, and I saw at least two friars walk by with receiver/speakers slung over their shoulders.

And then because it was nearing sunset, I made my way back to the Western Wall. I wasn’t sure if it would be deserted or crammed. Since it was the start of Shabbat, I thought maybe everyone would be heading home for dinner. Of course I was wrong. People were streaming into the square to gather and pray at perhaps the most sacred spot in Judaism. There was a celebratory feel in the air. On the men’s side there was a rough circle of young men with linked arms, singing and dancing. As I watched more and more joined the circle and they all seemed so happy. I suspect that for many of the Jews there had traveled from all over the world to be there to pray and celebrate at the Western Wall at the start of Shabbat. Outside of the enclosed area right in front of the wall there were more and bigger circles of young people – some of men and some of women, but they were all dancing and singing and it was clear it was a joyous and significant thing for all of them. I hung around for a while, just enjoying the feeling of happiness.

No photography is allowed at the Wall during Shabbat, so the only pictures I have were taken from outside the square.

As night fell, I wandered out of the old city and took the long way around the walls and back to my hotel. I stopped to pick up a falafel pita from a street vendor, and a beer from the market around the corner and decamped to the tiny hotel room to commune with my beer, my nasal spray and a mountain of damp tissues. It was an early night.


Unknown said...

Is that the GM and RA I see in the middle leading the Hash chorus? Definately less beer then we usually have in Istanbul though...

Unknown said...

The lady with the bomb probably thought you were an Israeli Soldier (longer hair would reduce this confusion).


Rob H.

Unknown said...

I, with aeronaut for 4 months in tow, will be shleping europe tog et to israel. If you are still in Jerusalem, try the "rugelach" from the bakery known as "marizpan". I am not sure why they bakery is called such, as i don't think they have any marzipan, but the ruggalach are around a shek each and totaly worth a trip. As in I carry them for 14 hours on a plane for the family back home! (saskatoon and the states). I haven't explored your site too much yet, but is there a packing list you can recomend?

Kathryn said...

Your description of wanting to crawl into Joseph of Aramithea's tomb and expire is perhaps the funniest thing I have ever read. (I needed a laugh - thanks!)Hope you are feeling better!

Lisa said...

Before I completely scrolled down I thought it was a Hash Circle as well..;))))

The comment about the lady's coat/bomb made me chuckle nervously...

Allan Sansom said...

As I'm sure others have already mentioned, your blog's fantastic. The writing has a wonderful shape to it. I wonder if there's another career there?

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