Israel: same same, but different
Israel and the West Bank are places I have been many times before, but I always find something new.
It’s no secret the number of times I’ve visited Israel; the border guards are even starting to get suspicious why I come so often. But as my friend Gili said the other day, “it seems natural that you’re here… it’s summer in Israel”.
So, why do I come so often? Friends like Gili mainly, (especially when they get married), but as I’ve written in the past there is something about this area that is intoxicating, and no matter how frustrated it may make me feel at times, I find myself wanting to come back, every year for the past four so far.
Every year I see the same things, the same restaurants and cafes that have been there for decades, the same buildings that have been there for millennia, the same problems and the same joys. But every year, things are different.
New businesses, new construction, new faces and always a different version of me.
New nooks and crannies of the Old City of Jerusalem are found by wandering into its labyrinthine alleys. This year with a little help from my guide book, I discovered a blue staircase on the corner of Chabad St and St Mark’s Rd.
Climbing up, I had a 360º view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Dome of the Rock. A view I’d not experienced before.
I also finally did part of the Ramparts Walk.
Süleyman the Magnificent, 10th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire oversaw the construction of the current walls of the Old City between 1537 and 1542. Soldiers used the ramparts to protect the city (and still do today) and they give a great view to life below.
Always beguiling, but often filled with tension, the Old City has distinct quarters, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian.
The Muslim quarter tends to be covered and full of shops selling everything from intoxicating spices, sweets and falafel to cheap plastic toys made in China. The Jewish is more open, brighter and dotted with a few cafes, galleries and Yeshivas. The Armenian is mostly residential but lots of shops selling ceramic items with distinctive patterns. And the Christian quarter is filled with churches, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the most important. It is the place Jesus is believed to have been buried in a cave.
And then there’s the Western Wall and Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a contentious area sacred to both Jews and Muslims. A visit by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount (Judaism’s holiest place, but largely off limits to Jews), was one of the catalysts for the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.
Nothing in this part of the world is free from politics, but it is possible to look past that. Perhaps the joy and wonder of my first trip has worn off slightly, but finding new parts helps rekindle it.
Heading for the Mediterranean coast and Tel Aviv, I found a new appreciation for a city that is reasonably relaxed, filled with great cafes and restaurants, tree lined streets, plenty of beaches and some funky galleries. There are plenty of hipsters too, but I’ll gloss over them.
Again, finding new places to visit, I saw Tel Aviv afresh, and I liked what I saw.
The beach is filled with volleyball games, stand-up paddle boarders and runners galore (even in the humidity) and of course matkot, a game played with a bat and ball that doesn’t really have a winner, but is about co-operation and getting as many hits between you as possible. Add in the bars on the sand, and to me you have the perfect beach setting.
Buildings in Tel Aviv aren’t the prettiest, some are fairly rundown, but that adds character of the city. And when the Mediterranean Sea is your beach, you can’t go too far wrong.
History in Israel stretches back as far as the dawn of time; this is of course the land of the bibles and the Qu’ran. Amongst the many conquerors of the land are the Israelites, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Ottomans and the British.
And wars are sill fought today for control of the land, again politics isn’t far away.
Even in history, politics is never far away; Masada is a place that saw plenty of it. An ancient fortification on a rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea built in the first century BCE. Herod then took over and built a palace and then occupied by Jewish rebels (Sicarii) escaping the Romans. The place seemed impenetrable, but then along came the Romans with their fancy technology and battered their way in.
Thinking it better to be dead than Roman slaves, the Sicarii committed mass suicide, except for a couple of women and some children. Well worth the cable car ride (or climb if you’re feeling fit) to the top for the view alone, the story is a bonus.
Israel and the West Bank are hard places to sum up. Reading over an old post, I can see how my thoughts and feelings towards the area have changed. I’m now used to the sight of teenagers with guns and the sight of Jewish settlements seems less abnormal (even if my feelings towards them haven’t changed).
I still feel a little nervous at Israeli borders, but they’ll either let me in or they won’t. What I do still dislike is hearing the cursing of the other side. For me it’s incongruous with finding any kind of lasting solution for the future.
Each time I come to Israel I see something new; I understand the place in new and different ways, through a new lens, a different version of me.