Visiting Israel, First Impressions

This post originally appeared in my travel journal.  During June 2012, I spent some time in Israel, West Bank, and Jordan supporting USAID-sponsored development projects.  I’m excited to share excerpts from that trip with you.  Some of the posts have been edited.

American Jews are taught from an early age of the significance of Eretz Yisrael, and above all, the iconic significance of Jerusalem. I’ve passed on the opportunity to visit this diverse, interesting, and very complex country in the past for many reasons – fear, timing, money, time and money.

I politely asked that my passport not be stamped upon entry because of my development work in other “non-friendly” countries.  This, of course, invited the litany of questions – the answers to all of which I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times prior to landing. Why did I not want the stamp? What was my business? Who did I work for? Where would I be staying? Between the sound of the blood rushing through my ears and the feeling like I wanted to throw up, I must have satisfactorily passed their assessment that I was not a hostile threat to the country and my passport was returned unstamped with a “Gate Pass” on a separate sheet of paper for entry.

I was met by my company’s Security Manager (we will call him Mr. M) who quickly packed me into the company car and we began our 40-minute drive south to Jerusalem. Mr. M is a life-long resident of Jerusalem. He is also Palestinian. Prior to his current positions, he worked for 15 years in the Public Affairs Office for the former U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem (it’s now closed and has been relocated to West Jerusalem).

As we drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem down Highway 1, he spoke openly and freely about his experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not necessarily in political terms, but in how it personally affects him and his family in their everyday lives. The word “settlement” is a very emotional and sensitive topic – for both the Israelis and the Palestinians – in a way that I have yet to really understand and appreciate.

From L to R - Far wall to left of picture = Western Wall, black dome = Al Aqsa Mosque, Gold Dome = Dome of the Rock

From L to R – Far wall to left of picture = Western Wall, black dome = Al Aqsa Mosque, Gold Dome = Dome of the Rock

Since it was still too early to check into my hotel, he offered to take me around and show me the major sights. Needing an excuse to fight jet lag, I eagerly accepted his offer. We started by visiting the the Mt. of Olives which is home to spectacular scenic overlooks into the Old City of Jerusalem. Because it was still morning, we were well ahead of the numerous tour groups that shuttled visitors around the city every day. From there, we made our way to the Damascus gate and set off by foot within the confines of the city walls. It quickly became apparently clear that without Mr. M to guide me, I would have become very frustrated with the labyrinth of alleys throughout the old city.

Muslim Quarter, Old City

Muslim Quarter, Old City

We worked our way through the Muslim quarter stopping momentarily at Jafar’s Sweets to enjoy the warm, gooey, sweet goodness known as kanafeh before continuing on towards the Christian Quarter.

Spice Shop, Old City

Spice Shop, Old City

Arriving at the steps leading down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we found masses of tour groups – many of them comprised of Christian pilgrims – who had journeyed to this sacred spot to pay homage to the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.

Church of Holy Sepulchre

Church of Holy Sepulchre

The devout were weeping in both joy and sadness, and while I could not share the awe and wonder, I was able to understand that only such raw emotion could come from utter devotion to their faith.

Supposed site of Christ's crucifixion

Supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion

After taking the necessary photos, we moved towards the Jewish Quarter. Because it was Shabbat, all of the shops and restaurants were closed. In comparison to the Christian and Muslim quarters, the Jewish quarter was a ghost town. After wandering the streets, we made our way to the Western Wall which is the most sacred site for Jews.

This way to the Western Wall

This way to the Western Wall

I cut the line in front of a large Korean tour group and made my way down the steps toward the wall, stopping momentarily to cover myself with a blue shawl because of my “immodest dress.”

I stopped short of actually approaching the wall. Legally, only men are allowed to pray at the wall. The penalties are stiff for women who approach the main wall, including arrest, although a small section to the south has been set aside for women in keeping with Orthodox tradition.

A blue cover was provided for those immodestly dressed.  It was also Shabbat so I had to sneak this photo.

A blue cover was provided for those immodestly dressed. It was also Shabbat so I had to sneak this photo.

I spent about 10 minutes in the public areas before I decided to head back to Mr. M. I really wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel moved, connected to my Jewish identity…something…anything. I felt nothing. Instead, I felt hot and tired, and mad that I didn’t feel anything.

From there, we walked through the Muslim Quarter where I was stopped by an Israeli soldier from approaching the Dome of the Rock and its impressive gold dome. Visiting hours were in the morning, and more than that, I was female.

Having completed our general tour of the Old City, Mr. M invited me to lunch with his family. Knowing what I know of Arab culture, to say no to such an invitation would be considered disrespectful so I happily accepted. After having a chance to shower and freshen up, Mr. M picked me up at my hotel and drove the short distance to his house where I could already smell his wife’s cooking from the ground floor. Mr. M, his wife and youngest son live on the 4th floor of a 5-floor walk up.

His wife had been cooking all day to prepare a very typical, Palestinian meal called maqluba. She had prepared the chicken version steeped in safron and chicken stock.

It. Was. Delicious.

This came rounded with healthy side portions of yogurt, and baba ganoush, and cucumber salad, and olives. Soon after our arrival, Mr. M’s eldest son and family joined us for this routine Saturday lunch. Once we had cleared our plates from the first serving, family members continued picking directly from the serving the dishes. All the while conversing about the week’s events, politics, neighborhood and family gossip. It was all very familiar and natural, and they were kind enough to translate relevant topics from Arabic into English for me so that I could participate throughout the conversation.

His eldest son recently took a job with the local affiliate of the BBC, he explained to me. His son’s English is impeccable and he is well-traveled throughout the Gulf States. His wife of 6 years is almost done completing her studies at the local university, and together they have 2 adorable little boys under the age of 6. He explained to me that his wife is from the West Bank and requires special papers to reside in Jerusalem. He, however, has lived his entire life in Jerusalem and cannot take up permanent residency in the West Bank or he will lose his residency as in Jerusalem; short visits are authorized.

The wall that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.  Look familiar?

The wall that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.  Look familiar?

When each of their sons were born – in Jerusalem- it took nearly 3 years to receive documents from the Israeli authorities that not only were the children his, but that they should receive legal resident cards for Jerusalem. It was through his connections at his prior job that they were able to receive the paperwork, momentarily pausing in his story to tell me how certain Israeli connections actually assisted getting the papers sooner than later.

I listened to his story while we drank our glasses of mint tea. I assumed that his story was not unusual, and that there were hundreds of stories like his. I did not know what to say in response, nor was he asking for one. I simply listened.

Taking notice of my drained mental, emotional, and physical state, Mr. M. packed me up some fruit to take with me back to the hotel. It had been a very long – very, very long – day.

Downtown Ramallah (West Bank)

Downtown Ramallah (West Bank)