It’s taken me a while to get to writing up some final thoughts on our trip to Jerusalem.  I don’t know why, because I have mostly just been sitting around in Amman not doing anything. But sometimes it is when you have the least to do that it is hardest to make yourself think.

I will echo Helen’s assessment of living abroad.  Our time in Jerusalem made me feel like not only could I continue living there, but I could maybe live somewhere else, too.  If it’s that easy to feel at home (maybe “at home” is an exaggeration) in Jerusalem, the weirdest city I have ever been to, then maybe it would be similarly easy to live in Tblisi or Nairobi or Istanbul.  (It may be slightly less easy in Karachi.)

It was interesting to see how my feelings about Jerusalem changed over the month that we were there.  Six months ago, when I first visited the city, I couldn’t stand it.  It felt to me like a place dominated by divisions, cut in half into the Arab East and the Israeli West, with its heart, the Old City, quartered and divided.  This impression wasn’t exactly wrong.  Jerusalem is a divided city.  But it is far more complex than I realized. Jerusalem is at its essence a multicultural place, a city rich in history and mythology and religion that attracts people from around the world. It took me a while to come to appreciate the layering of cultures that makes Jerusalem what it is, but in the end I figured that out.

Spending time in Israel-Palestine did not make me feel more confident in my ability to conceive of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  If anything, hearing the pessimistic views of all the Israelis I met, views that so tragically reflected the fatalism and pessimism that I’ve heard time and again from Arabs. That said, it did increase my understanding of the situation. I have a better grasp on where the borders stand, what the distances are, what the cities look like, how people live and move and think.

I really enjoyed my job, but I’m not going to bother talking about it.  Suffice to say that it reinforced my desire to be a foreign correspondent, an aspiration I have held since I was in elementary school. I have no complaints at all, except that the trip was far too short.  I hope to be able to return to that bizarre, magical city before too long and experience more of it, though I doubt that I will ever be able to understand Jerusalem.

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I started this day, the fourth of July, about 24 hours ago, giving the security officials at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv a full demonstration of how my 4×5 camera works. The camera has no electronic elements—it is essentially an empty metal box with a tiny little hole that clicks open and shut.  But in this digital age, it thoroughly confounded these people who spend their days searching through mountains of underwear and idiosyncratic souvenirs for bombs and guns.  And this was after having to run my film through their gigantic x-ray machine, very probably ruining it and rendering the whole arduous process of carrying this big camera and tripod half-way around the world—not to mention to all corners of the city of Jerusalem on foot in the blazing sun—pointless.

It was a fitting goodbye to a place that, while being comfortable and modern and in that way familiar, exists at a level of tension that can border on absurd.  But Max and I truly became settled in the holy and bizarre city.  I felt as though I could go on living there, going to our market, our pastry shop, our coffee shop, our favorite restaurant whose name we never learned (it was written in Hebrew) but which we referred to as “Mountains of Food,” for quite a while longer.

This past month, while stepping off the bus, or going to the post office I would often look around me and think, “all these people live in Jerusalem.  In Jerusalem!”  The name brings to mind the world’s holiest sites and a long-standing and high-profile conflict.  The walls are steeped in thousands of years of momentous people and events.  But after a few weeks, it started to feel almost humdrum to walk through the old city.  Going to the Western Wall Plaza became just a slightly annoying shortcut, having to wrap a taupe-ish colored cloth around my scandalously exposed knees, even as I walked in one entrance and out the other.

But now I’m sitting in the Detroit Airport, not outside the Damascus Gate as I would normally be at this time of day, and I am trying to decide how to end this blog.  The surreal time created by international air transit, with days stretched and squished to unrecognizable sequences of light and dark, has only added to my current sense that I dreamed I lived in Jerusalem, on Klein St., in the German Colony.  But once I’ve slept and showered, I’ll realize that I didn’t make any of it up.  What’s more, I could go back to that life in Jerusalem whenever I want.  Or, if I were to choose a new city, life would be waiting for me to start there, too.  Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable and familiar with the world.  Cities with outlandish names are no longer abstract collections of foreign associations, but real places that can be visited, that are lived in.  There might very well be a little apartment in Tbilisi or Nairobi that will someday be my home.

Alive?

July 2, 2008

I saw this cat and took about six pictures of it.  All the while the cat just stared at me, not blinking, not turning its head.

Something I’ve noticed since landing here is the high number of people wearing Crocs.  I don’t really have anything against Crocs, they seem comfortable, but honestly, I think they look pretty silly.  I never quite understood how Brown’s Shoe Fit  Co. in Grinnell could sell their mountains of Crocs.  Who is buying all of those funny looking shoes?  Here, though, there are entire stores selling only Crocs.

And it is not at all surprising.  Some of the most stylish girls on the street wear Crocs.  Off duty soldiers wear Crocs.  The spaced-out “manager” of the hostel-bar-indian restaurant-movie theater we stayed at in Tel Aviv was wearing mismatched Crocs.  Moms wear Crocs.  Babies wear Crocs.  Dads wear Crocs.  Even this stately Arab man has taken advantage of Crocs Inc.’s endless array of colors to perfectly complete his all-white ensemble.

Maybe if all Israelis and Palestinians would just take a look at each others’ feet every once in a while, they would see that whatever their differences are, they really are all just people who like Crocs.

Tel Aviv

June 30, 2008

Tel Aviv

A day at the beach

June 29, 2008

The trip from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv only took forty-five minutes in a shared taxi, but when we arrived it felt like we had traveled to another country.

Tel Aviv, which sits on the beautiful coast of the Mediterranean, is Israel’s largest metropolitan area and its most modern city.  Before 1900 the area was just a cluster of houses on the sand dunes north of Jaffa.  This location means that the weather was stifling, just as hot as Jerusalem, but unbearably humid.  On the other hand the modernity and beachfront property make the city feel like a natural party town, sort of how I imagine parts of Miami or one of the surf towns near Los Angeles.  It helps that Tel Aviv is full of really nice bars and restaurants and cafes.

The population is known to be largely secular and that was apparent from the first few minutes of walking down the street.  Of course you still see men wearing kippot and women in long skirts in far greater numbers than you would in New York, but the streets aren’t crowded with men in black hats the way that Jerusalem’s are.  Tel Aviv residents also seemed—and I feel pretty shallow and guilty saying this—quite a bit better looking than those of Jerusalem.  On the whole the city felt, to us, pleasantly normal.

In a lot of ways Tel Aviv makes Jerusalem feel like some kind of provincial outpost inhabited by fanatics.  I have grown to love this city, but I can’t help feeling that this impression of it as provincial and fanatical is largely correct.  Over a third of all Jerusalemites are ultra-Orthodox.  They live in a society of their own.  To say the least, they are not the kind of people you’ll find playing volleyball in Speedos or bikinis on the shore of the Mediterranean.  There are also very few Palestinians in Tel Aviv, as opposed to Jerusalem, half of which is technically occupied territory according to international law.  This is not to say that the absence of Arabs that makes Tel Aviv pleasant—I generally feel more comfortable among Arabs than Israelis and prefer Arab culture overall—it just makes it possible to forget for a minute about the conflict that plagues this region.

What I found interesting was that being in Tel Aviv made me feel—for pretty much the first time since I arrived here—that I can be proud of Israel and supportive of Zionism.  Zionism is a movement to provide a homeland for a nation that lacked one.  Unfortunately, much of this has come at the expense of a people who already had a homeland.  (And there have been countless flaws with the way Zionism has been implemented.) But in Tel Aviv, which was built on an empty piece of land, incurring minimal displacement, there is a feeling that maybe this project could be a success. Maybe Zionism and the State of Israel don’t have to be dominated by religious fanatics and marred by racism.  As a Jew, I do get a certain satisfaction and sense of pride from going to a café or bar and knowing that everyone there is also a Jew, this is a country that was made for us.  But that satisfaction and pride are far greater at a bar in Tel Aviv than it has ever been in Jerusalem.

Haaretz, one of Israel’s most prominent newspapers, ran this story the other day about tourists to Israel.  This is one of the things that they said:

Tourists who visit Israel are divided into clear categories, adds Heisman. The majority are Jews from the United States or France who come to the Holy Land for a vacation and at the same time, when possible, also conduct real estate deals. Next on the list are Christian pilgrims, who, to the dismay of many business owners, are not that wealthy for the most part and not big spenders. Another large group is comprised of business owners who make brief but regular visits here several times a year. There are also cruise ship passengers who spend a night or two, as well as casual tourists from all over the world.

So what are we?  I am a Jew from the United States here for a vacation, but I am most definitely not conducting any real estate deals.  Helen is a Christian, here on her own sort of pilgrimage, but she has little in common with the troops of Koreans or Spaniards you see at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And I am here on business, kind of, but not for a regular visit by any means.  And neither of us have ever been on a cruise.  Does this mean that we are “casual tourists from all over the world”?  I guess so.  We have stayed in hostels, traveled the country, floated in the Dead Sea, but even this broad label seems like it doesn’t really describe us.

A friend of ours who spent last semester in Tel Aviv commented that he found it interesting that our experience in Israel was so much more political than his.  I think that this gets to the heart of what kind of tourists Helen and I are in Israel.  We are both news junkies, fascinated with politics, attracted less to beaches and luxury than important and misunderstood cultures.  This is why Helen and I lived in Moscow and Amman respectively last semester, as opposed to Australia or Paris.  We are in Jerusalem largely because we want to see for ourselves this place that we read about in the New York Times every day.

Which is not to say that we are strictly political tourists.  We appreciate biblical history or romantic scenery just as much as oppressive walls or Zionist political ideology.  And I don’t think that we are alone in finding these aspects of travel in Israel interesting.  A number of those interviewed for the Haaretz story expressed a similar interest in visiting Israel. This is undeniably a draw for a lot of people who come here.  That’s something to keep in mind while you read about what Helen and I are up to.

Marketplace Marketplace

June 25, 2008

See those sandals they are selling? I bought some of those the other day.  They are the kind that look like what the Romans or Jesus would have worn, which I guess is the point.

I had been glancing longingly at those shoes since I got here.  A couple days ago I was walking through the Old City and lingered at a sandal shop.  Lingering on anything is obviously an invitation for the shopkeeper to start offering tea and good prices and a pleasant buying experience.  But when I was walking away, the shopkeeper said “Come back!  Free shoes!  You can have free shoes!”  I thought that was such a hilarious proposition that I went back and bought some shoes.  They were very reasonably priced, though not free.  In fact, I’m  pretty sure that I paid quite a bit more for them than I had to.  I am absolutely terrible at bargaining, unless I don’t want something.

After I left, wearing my new sandals, every sandal shop I passed was even more aggressively courting my business than they had been previously.  I understand I had tagged myself now as not simply a tourist, but as a tourist who buys things.  But the sandal-sellers drew the obvious conclusion that if I had just bought myself a pair of sandals, the next thing I would want to buy would probably be a pair of sandals.  Of course.

Anyway, now I’ve got new sandals.  When I walk I stare at my feet and think about being a prophet or the Virgin Mary.  I say to myself, “I’m just another pilgrim with the simplest leather sandals, on my way to the ATM.”

The Armenian Quarter

June 24, 2008

We returned from a couple days in the lovely town of Nazareth on Saturday evening. On Sunday we went back to work. Thinking of Sunday as a work day requires a little bit of turning my brain inside out, but I dealt with it ok.

Anyway, here are a few things I saw yesterday:


A VW Bus


Three black breifcases, the ultimate sign of adulthood


A cushy chair, a cup, and a closed “Oriental” restaurant.