Jerusalem, Israel

It’s hard not to visit Jerusalem and not get into religion or politics.  I won’t be avoiding either.

And given my writing style, it’s hard not to write about personal turmoil.  After a lot of thinking and putting off writing this and the next few entries, I won’t be avoiding that topic either.  I’m writing this entry over two weeks late (it’s now August 11).  What happened is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it’s turned into a significant part of my travel experience.

But let’s start from the beginning.  Flying into Ben Gurion Airport (between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), there was one thing I needed to do first: avoid the Israel passport stamp.  A little sad that I have to do that, but many countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan…the list goes on) refuse travellers who have the stamp in their passport.  My travels may be ending soon, but given that my passport is new, I don’t want to restrict myself in the future.  No offense to Israel though!  The customs officials do understand.

Except I ended up with a particularly cranky lady.  She rolled her eyes when I couldn’t hear her and asked her to repeat, she asked me a billion questions, much of which had nothing to do with my stay in Israel and more about my personal history…but eventually she let me through without the stamp.

Then going through the gate to the baggage claim area, I was noted for avoiding the stamp, and pulled aside for yet more questioning.  Oy vey!  Friendly guy though, only doing his job…but many questions on why I went to Morocco, whether I knew anyone there, whether I was conducting any business…  Hmm!

Anyhow, after reuniting with Bernhard (who is travelling with me for Israel and Jordan) in the hostel, overnighting, then moving into another hostel smack dab in the Old Town (Austrian Hospice…of course, I’m travelling with an Austrian), it was time to finally explore the city.

Well, first we had to learn a lesson in how exactly a city as religious as Jerusalem works.  Given that our hospice was so close to the Temple Mount, we thought that we would visit it first, as it was just down the street.  Well, when we got there, we found out that the entrance was for Muslims only.  The only entrance open to tourists?  At the Western Wall.  Also, only between 7:30-11:00am Sundays through Thursdays.

The Temple Mount is a holy site both Jews and Muslims.  Given that it’s on the Palestinian side of the Blue Line (the 1967 borders drawn between Israel and West Bank, which are currently not followed, that literally runs through the middle of Old Town Jerusalem) and the fact that Israel’s control has crept east, it remains a major point of contention among peace talks.  Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven there, while Jews believe it to be part of Herod’s temple, which was built on top of the ruins of Solomon’s temple, the holiest site for Jews.  And that Western Wall?  It’s what remains of the temple.  It’s also called the Wailing Wall – Jewish pilgrims come to the wall, put their hand on it, and mourn.  More on that later…


Bernhard and I joined a free tour of the city, to get our bearings a bit more.  We learned that not only is the Old City divided among Jews and Muslims, but also among Christians and Armenians (first nation that declared itself Christian) as well.  These quarters still exist this way…simply because it’s always how it’s been, these people got here first.  Many other groups (particularly Christians) try to claim parts for themselves due to the religious significance, but ownership has all been established now.

The concept of ownership is one that even divides Christians, not just the Israelis (Jews) and Palestinians.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was commissioned by the queen of the Christian Ottoman empire, after she came to Jerusalem in the 300s looking for where Jesus died and was buried.  She asked a local, who didn’t know.  She then tortured that local, convinced that he knew.  He “knew” then, of course, and pointed her in some spot with a cave with three crosses lying in it.  So, like any other rational Christian would, she built a big giant church over it.  Various Christian churches have been fighting ever since over the ownership of parts of the church – each room, ceiling, floor, ladder, stair…belongs to a different group.  It’s ridiculous enough that a priest from one group once punched another priest.

And the city of Jerusalem itself looks completely different from its historical origins.  It’s been conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt many times – in fact, during the previous war, the whole Jewish quarter was destroyed.  It’s now the newest-looking quarter, having been rebuilt.  Prior to the war, it was a part of Jordan…I think?  There’s too much to keep track of, but it’s amazing that Israel and Jordan actually get along well now, given that they fought a war just 4 decades ago…

But another example of the difference between historical Jerusalem and current Jerusalem is in the Via Dolorosa, the so-called path Jesus took carrying his cross from one point of town (where Pontius Pilate sentenced him to crucifixion) to where the Sepulchre church stands now.  Yeah…not accurate, but this one is meant to be symbolic instead.  Stations around town depict where Jesus fell to the ground, stumbled, or met Mary Magdelene.  Well, “depict” – again, symbolism.  Bernhard and I followed a Franciscan procession (run every Friday afternoon) run down this route.  It’s amazing how affected and emotional devotees can become treading on a place of religious significance.  Then again, in Christianity… does the fact (or suspicion, for the places that are unconfirmed) that something significant happened somewhere make it hallowed ground?  Food for thought.

On our second day, we walked up the Mount of Olives, at the base of which is the Gethsemane church (Church of All Nations), the cupulas of which have been funded by various different countries, including Canada.  The olive trees in the church garden are around 2000 years old – back from Jesus’ time.  Not too sure if the location’s right though!  After an arduous walk uphill in the heat, we arrived to the top of the mount, and were rewarded with a magnificent view of Old Jerusalem.

On our third and fourth days, we invited Itsuki, a guy from Japan staying in our dorm room, to come with us into the West Bank.  I’ll save that for the next entry and fast forward.

Our stay in Jerusalem – or rather, our meals – were very affected by the current time of year.  When we wanted to eat Muslim food, we couldn’t.  When we wanted to eat Jewish food, we couldn’t.  In both cases, we had to settle for the other, or walk into the Christian quarter.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it’s Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting (no food between dawn and dusk).  And everytime the call for prayer came, the streets FLOODED with people to a suffocating but exhiliarating crush…all in one direction.  Usually not the one we want to walk into.

As for the Jewish holidays – well, Shabbat (or Christian Sabbath), which runs from Friday night to Saturday night.  All Jewish businesses are closed, and I mean all.  And just when we thought we caught a break on Saturday night, we found that things in the Jewish quarter were closed on Sunday as well – turns out it was a day of mourning for the destruction of the temple, with major crowds congregating at the Western Wall.  Also, they were fasting for 25 (yes, 25) hours.  Oops!  A kind Israeli soldier helped us out and even walked us all the way to the Christian quarter, for some food suggestions.

Oh, that’s another thing about this city.  Soldiers everywhere, in uniform and out of uniform, walking around with giant guns.  I’ve seen plenty of that before, but not to this scale.  Not sure if their presence really helps though…  One night, as we were eating dinner, two Muslim cousins got into a fight on the street that crashed into our table.  10 soldiers were just standing on the side not 3 metres away…eventually pulling them apart.

On our fourth night, after returning again from the West Bank, Bernhard and I received news that our good friend Sally had just passed away in a tragic work accident.  I was due to meet Sally in a little over a week in Turkey, and hadn’t seen her in over a year (since saying goodbye in Singapore).

I’ve made a point of not writing directly about my friends during this trip – I think that’s too private (in a good way).  And this isn’t the place to eulogize someone, let alone an amazing friend; I’m not going to do that here.  But her death affected us and our travel in such a way that it’s impossible not to write about the fallout.  We considered immediately terminating our trip – but what could we do?  When a friend or family gets into some trouble, usually the first instinct is to fly home and bring comfort and support.  But we couldn’t do that – Sally’s from Sweden, and we knew none of her support network there; we would be a liability if we had gone there.  After a few hours of silence and tears and thinking and realising that there was nothing we could do until the funeral, we decided that we should continue as best as we could, but ready to act at a moment’s notice.  But there’s no solution, no right answer, no one to ask or look up to who tells you what to do.  For me personally, this continued to weigh heavily and is something that I still can’t stop thinking about.

Needing a bit of air and not wanting to drag our new friend Itsuki into this, we went outside of the Old Town and ventured into a trendy district for dinner.  As the day of mourning was over, people flooded the street – mainly youth.  Israeli youth are really a gregarious bunch, a boisterous crowd.  Two girls randomly approached us and yelled, “JAPAN IS THE BEST!”  Itsuki smiled.  Then they turned to me:

“Japan is the best!  Seriously!  Oh, wait, you speak English?  Where are you from?”
“I’m Chinese…”
“JAPAN!”  They then ran off.

Fast-forward a week, when we returned to Jerusalem for one night after our trip to Jordan.  (I wanted to head to the Temple Mount in the morning, which we missed the first time around.)  We were walking down the same street, when I was stopped by a few plain-clothed soldiers with their guns.  They simply wanted me to say “I love Jerusalem” on camera in whatever foreign languages I knew.  I happily complied.

Oh, Israelis.  Stay your happy selves.  Thank you for bringing some much-needed cheer.  And yes…I do love Jerusalem.  The mix of old and new is fascinating.  It’s truly a global city – a place where all Abrahamic religions exist, and now where you can find food from just about any corner of the world.  And plus, lemonade with mint – can’t get enough of that, given how hot it is every day.

But just fix your problems at some point, please?  We got tired of everyone having to be searched everywhere – metal detector here, bag x-ray machine there, whether at the Western Wall, Temple Mount, bus station, or any generic mall.  You can’t avoid it – whether you want to worship or eat or buy.  We can’t imagine how it is for someone who lives there and has to deal with this multiple times every day.  But we don’t blame you, especially when a country like Iran threatens to wipe you off the map.  Still, there’s the whole other mess, which is wholly internal.  Bernhard saw a Jew being kicked by four Arabs in the Muslim quarter of the Old Town.  I met a Palestinian Jerusalemite on a 4 hour bus ride from Eilat (Red Sea) to Jerusalem, who didn’t talk for the first 3 hours.  When we passed by the Separation Wall, his first words to me were “See that?  That’s the apartheid wall,” before launching into a impassioned rant about how his people were being pushed further and further east, and how their livelihood was being threatened by “increased Israelisation” of what has been historically a Palestinian area.

But he, too, was an intensely friendly individual.  In fact, every person who talked with me (other than the street vendors who relentlessly called me “Japan” again) had that trademark Middle Eastern genuine friendliness, whether Jew or Arab or whatever.  Can’t we all just get along?

(By the way, Mitt Romney?  You’re either an ignorant buffoon or a heartless suck-up looking for rich Jewish potential campaign donors.  How did you manage to walk to the Western Wall and declare Jerusalem a fully Jewish city without having even passed any Muslims?  And did you not notice that giant Separation Wall only 2 or 3 kilometres down the road?  Insinuating that Palestinians earn less due to cultural inferiority, rather than that literal physical and economic blockade erected down the street?)

There are hordes and hordes of tourists in Jerusalem, of all faiths – not just the Abrahamic ones.  They’re from all over the world.  I wonder if it was obvious for them as it was for me: the tension runs deep, the situation untenable, the causes mainly faith-based.  Visit this city, you’ll be fascinated.

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