GUEST ARTICLE: Jerusalem was our first stop during our recent trip to Israel in June. Honestly it wasn’t on my wish list (mainly due to all its bad publicity) but with some encouragement from my husband we decided to see things for ourselves and made it a stop on our around the world ticket.
After landing in Tel Aviv we got a cab got ready for our 50-minute journey to Jerusalem. On the way the cab driver pointed out certain sites. It wasn’t long before we started seeing towering concrete walls dividing certain areas. Our cab driver gave us a little history lesson along the way and made sure to point out the dreaded city of Ramallah situated in the West Bank. With ignorance on our side and wide eyes we asked if he would ever go there, his reply was a definite “no” since he was Israeli and he cautioned that we shouldn’t either.
The city of Jerusalem was a beautiful landscape of undulating hills covered with a sprawling cityscape of pale stone buildings. Along the way we meandered through well-groomed streets and passed some beautiful parks. Our hotel was situated right in the heart of the city within close proximity to both the New and Old Cities.
Knowing nothing about Israelis we did get our first lesson – impatience and they love a good blare on their car horns. I swear you can’t step outside without hearing someone going off, it’s definitely no India but its got to rank right up there. We had only ‘just’ stopped in our hotel’s roundabout to unload our luggage when a car pulled up behind us and couldn’t wait that extra 10 seconds to whip our bags out so they decided to lay on their horn non-stop.
At the check-in counter we were warmly greeted by a friendly lady named Najat, she on the other hand epitomised patience by focusing on us whilst other guests randomly tried to close in by space invasion?! It was obvious my one highbrow trick wasn’t going to work there so we were going to have to find a new tactic in this foreign territory.
In the end we were given a spectacular room along with some handy tips of where to go and what to see. Being dinnertime we asked the doorman to point us in the direction to some good restaurants. Just minutes later we found ourselves on the very busy Ben Yehuda Street.
Ben Yehuda Street is a big pedestrian street and that night it was alive with tourists and large groups of American Jewish kids all happily taking in the ambience. There were heaps of restaurants to choose from, but that’s always the problem “which one?” By chance we got a discount flyer for the grand opening of a new one called De Masa. After scouting out the area and not being sure where to go we accepted their offer. We had no idea what type of cuisine we were in for while in Israel but I can tell you they didn’t disappoint – it was fantastic!
The next morning the day welcomed us with sunny blue skies. We wanted to try and beat the heat so we had an early breakfast and headed out. Our first explore was to the Old City. Before entering the city we walked through a beautiful modern shopping centre called Mamilla Mall.
We entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. An information booth was located right near the entrance and they provided a good map of the city and tours if you wanted. It was surreal strolling down 2,000 year-old walkways in a city that dates back 3,000 years ago. The place is pretty big covering 0.9 square kilometres and is sectioned into four quarters – Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian.
The inside of the city is a stone labyrinth of beautiful narrow cobblestone walkways and narrow streets. Scores of tourist shops line the sides offering all kinds of trinkets and depending on what section you’re in the product changes to accommodate that particular religion or dress.
The passageways were packed! We passed so many different types of people dressed in all types of garb. Jewish men wearing skullcaps, Arabs adorning traditional headdresses and robes, priests, monks, nuns and the unmistakable ultra-orthodox Jews wearing their traditional tall black hats, long coats and face framing ringlets. It certainly was an interesting people watch. There were also heaps of police posts. Each policeman carried some pretty heavy-duty artillery…I guess it made us feel safe?
We didn’t have an agenda as such so we just tried to let ourselves get lost in the streets. First we ended up in the Muslim quarter. Shops selling elaborately beaded dresses, fresh baked breads and assorted sweets were everywhere We found a good place for lunch and after chowing down on fresh falafels, salad and hummus we sat back and watched the crowd go by. We noticed the crowd getting thicker and all headed in one direction. We soon found out it was their Friday prayer time at the Noble Sanctuary in the big golden mosque.
We tried to follow them to watch the prayer but we weren’t allowed to enter the big mosque. In fact we couldn’t even go near it. “Muslims only past this point,” the policeman with the big gun insisted, so we Snagglepuss’d it. Such a shame because we really wanted to see that mosque, we heard it’s a highlight. Oh well next time I guess. At this point we weren’t far from the famous “Wailing Wall” or also known as the Western Wall (in the Jewish area) so we headed in that direction.
We all passed through metal detectors and bored security personnel to get into the area. Before us stood a grand stonewall with trickles of people praying at the wall (no wailing heard). In this area God wants people to separate into men and women when they pray at the wall and it is necessary for men to wear a hat (kippah) to cover their hair. People stick bits of paper in the wall with requests and messages to God apparently (if you can’t make it here in person there are internet services where they’ll stick one in for you).
After paying homage to the wall we headed towards the Christian quarter. Here we found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is said to be the place where Jesus was crucified and also buried (the sepulchre) making it the most important pilgrimage destination for Christians.
The inside was quite dark and cool with beautiful vaulted ceilings, decorative lanterns and artwork. Near the entry is a large flat stone called The Stone of Anointing where it is said Jesus was laid and prepared for burial. Masses of people queued to kiss, touch and put their babies on the stone and we even saw some lay out their bags of trinkets. We wanted to see Jesus’s tomb but the line up was too long and it didn’t seem to budge in the half hour we spent there.
Next we continued back to the Jewish Quarter to check out the synagogues. While staring at our map a man asked us if we need help. “Yes please! Where is the synagogue?” Joseph leads the way while telling us how God blesses us and we in turn tell Joseph that the thing we like about him is that he is showing us the way while not asking for anything in return – showing tourists his city out of the pure kindness of his heart. All of sudden Joseph stops cold (kindness gone) “This is how I make money you know.” And with that he walks away. “What? I thought we were friends Joseph”
As the day continues we are finding that every merchant – Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian are our friends and are kind enough to offer best price. Who gets shit price? Anyway I’m content in knowing that if I want statues of Jesus, crosses, kippers, burkas, postcards, leather sandals, ancient rock jewellery or candles I am in the right place. One shop in the Christian quarter is selling the Jerusalem equivalent of gag t-shirts. One has “Free Palestine” on it. Mmm … wearing that one is a good idea (not).
Even though we are all tourists checking out the old city, everyone seems to stay in their particular religious zone. As we walked through the Muslim quarter we realised there were hardly any of the thousands of Jewish American students we saw back in the Jewish quarter. The same goes for the other groups. Not only is that obvious but also the physical appearance between the Muslim quarter and the rest of the quarters is pretty distinct.
That night we went to a restaurant recommended by our new friend Najat called Al Mehbash. It was situated just outside the Damascus Gate. It wasn’t a fancy place but had good character and some pretty cool accommodating owners. They immediately make us feel at home. As we sunk into comfy chairs a man began playing his guitar and belted out some beautiful tunes.
Not long after we were pleased to see Najat and her friend Abu Hassan. They kindly invited us to sit with them for the rest of the night and that’s where we got to know each other a bit better. We found out that they are both Palestinians but have Israeli residency. Even though Abu was born in Jerusalem he can’t claim citizenship?? It’s hard not to get into politics there but you do mainly out of curiosity.
He said that he would be glad to take us on a tour to Ramallah in the West Bank the next day if we were interested. He operates a company called Alternative Tours. First off, “Is it safe and are we allowed?” He said he’s never had any problems and likes showing tourists the situation first hand so we can make up our minds for ourselves. I had a flashback of the taxi driver on our way in that first day and his characterization of the place. But you never know if you never go so we booked ourselves in.
The next morning was beautiful and also Shabbat (Jewish day of rest). Not knowing all the rules of Shabbat I unknowingly got into our hotel’s ‘Shabbat’ elevator. I found out they really take this day of rest super seriously because you can’t touch any buttons (anything electronic) so the elevator stopped at every floor. I was on number 21. On floor 19 I was joined by a nice New York Jewish lady on her way to the Synagogue for Morning Prayer.
We exchanged pleasantries and then she asked what I was doing that day. I said I was going to Ramallah. Well you would have thought I grew another head by the expression on her horrified face. “Why in the world would you ever do that?!” she said. “You have everything you could ever want here, it’s clean, modern and safe, over there it’s filthy and dangerous!” Like I said Israel wasn’t tops on my list for places to visit and even thoughts of going to the West Bank brought visions of riots, bombings… Now with this lady’s reaction I was feeling a bit worried. But I had to see things for myself, I’ve learned to never trust in hearsay.
Abu picked us up in a nice minivan along with another tourist, a professor from France. First we went just on the outskirts of Jerusalem and we got a good look at a settlement. I found it unnerving to see tightly grouped apartment blocks that looked to the point of overflowing and garbage strewn streets, no nice playgrounds for the kiddies over there. And it was surrounded by towering concrete walls topped with barbed wire the stark differences between the Israeli and Palestinian neighbourhoods were a sight to behold.
Abu was very insightful and it was good to hear and see his point of view. Next we went to the city of Ramallah (area A). Getting in was no problem it was getting out that looked like it might be tricky with the line up. Just before the checkpoint we passed a big red sign warning Israelis it was forbidden for them to enter and it could endanger their life. Long gone were the beautiful clean streets and housing. Instead it kind of looked like a dust storm blew through.
It didn’t feel any different to any other 3rd world city we’d been to. In fact it was more on the modern side with heaps of specialty shops and nice cafes and billboards promoting the latest Galaxy phone. This wasn’t anything like what we had expected or had been warned about it. In fact it was actually pretty good and it didn’t feel claustrophobic like we thought it would. I had thought we were going to be walking shoulder to shoulder in crowds.
The first thing we did in Ramallah was visit the tomb of ex-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The tomb was guarded by a number of Palestinian soldiers. Everyone was really friendly and allowed us to take pictures.
For lunch we went to an authentic Palestinian restaurant and had a delicious assortment of homemade dips, fresh breads, salads and grilled meats. After that we went to a beautiful café for tea and coffees and smoked a little shisha while indulging in great conversation. The place was filled with smiling patrons all wearing the latest fashions.
There is too much detail to discuss here but overall I highly recommend a tour with Alternative Tours. It was a real eye-opener and allowed us to hear first hand from people on the other side of the conflict. If you are at all interested in how the Palestinian people live in Israel / the West Bank then this is a great introduction.
Later that afternoon after saying our goodbyes we headed back for one last tour around the Old City. When we entered the Jewish quarter we saw heaps of happy families and men joyously singing making the most of Shabbat. It was definitely a festive atmosphere and a great way to end the night.
What a great day and experience! We were happy to have met such wonderful people (on both sides) and also to put behind us any unfounded fears we had. Jerusalem was an unexpected treat and we enjoyed and appreciated every eye-opening moment!!
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!