Tag Archives: middle east

One day and one night in Jerusalem: about love, hate and friendship

It was late. Don’t know how late but the full moon was up the clear sky. I was sitting on the very top of the ancient limestone wall that surrounds the Old Jerusalem, facing the muslim quarter. In front of my eyes, as far as I could see, was an entire hill, all covered with houses and thousands of lights blinking. So this is where that 70% muslim population of Jerusalem lived, I thought.

– What are all those lights? I asked as soon as we got to the wall, high enough to see above it.

– It’s the lights of the Ramadan, he answered.

None of us took our eyes from it.

I come from a country with more than 95% christians, but I remembered then I’ve heard this before. Muslims use lights in their houses, during the Ramadan, similar as we, at home, use for Christmas. It was an unbelievable view.

Earlier that day I woke up soon after 5am. This is when the muslim prayers start. You’ll hear it even if you’re deaf. I tried to ignore it and sleep again but in seconds the christian bells started too. I thought what a great idea it was to get a room in the old Jerusalem, meters away from all the holy places … Since I had no chances of sleep anyway in that noise, I decided I should try to see if I can enter one more time the holly tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was 250m away and I wanted to be able to finally say the entire Lord’s Pray, since the evening before we were so rushed by the Greek monk who wanted to close the church gates, so I couldn’t even finish it.

The streets were empty, except a very few early merchants who were opening their stores. One I talked to, the day before, insisted I will be his first customer that day, to bring him luck. He wanted to offer me a cashmere scarf for a good price. The price was good only after a short negotiation, and so I got myself with a beautiful purple cashmere scarf.

The church was almost empty, for my big surprise. Inside, about 8 priests of different religions were performing a mass in Latin, in front of the now closed holy tomb. Around them, on four wooden benches on each side, a few catholic sisters were listening, joined by 3-4 tourists and one guy dressed like Jesus. In Jerusalem nothing seems too religious. I joined this small gathering and for about an hour I assisted to the most enchanting mass I ever saw. And in the end, I was happy to be among the first people to enter the holy tomb and left so pleased this time I could finally say the entire Lord’s Pray.

I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon wandering the streets, among the stalls, merchants, tourists, christian monks, muslims and ultra orthodox jews. I had delicious foods like warm arabic pancakes or freshly baked baklava filled with vanilla cream, and of course, humus. Lots of it. I headed to the Mount of Olives, then the Gethsemane garden, with the oldest olive trees I ever saw and lost of bougainvillea flowers, shortly entered a muslim cemetery, went again and again on Via Dolorosa, entered the Church of St Anne: the birthplace of Virgin Mary, then Damascus, Dung, Zion and Lion’s gates of the city, The Garden Tomb. I couldn’t stop walking! The heat took all my energy but in the afternoon I started again my marathon through Jerusalem, this time tasting the new city. I walked from Jaffa Gate to Mahane Yehuda Market. This new part of the city is different but you can still feel the special atmosphere. I never saw so many types of halva as in this market and I heard a jewish saying I liked: If it’s for free, in means two. There’s no other people to have such a deep relation with money and business and no other people who could have said this better. Jews are born to make money.

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As I got back to the old city I decided, what else, but to walk its streets one more time. It was the last evening there, in the morning I was heading Jordan. It was getting dark but you don’t realise this while being inside the covered labyrinth of Jerusalem streets. The stalls were closing one by one, leaving the streets with more space as the majority of the tourists were gone now. I had no idea where I was going. At one point I realised the street I was walking was getting more and more crowded again. But the people were not tourists, they were all muslims. In a few minutes it was a river of people, women, men and children, rushing on that street. I’ve noticed that children were all having one toy: different types of guns. Well, toys of the Middle East…

No one was looking at me in any way, as if they didn’t even noticed the only blonde there looking lost. But I wasn’t lost, I was curious where all those crowds were going. For a few minutes I continue in the same direction, trying to see if I meet any other tourists, like me. None. I thought maybe I was, accidently, on a street I wasn’t allowed to be if not a muslim. It happened that morning to be stopped by two army officers to enter one street. Only muslims were allowed that area for the entire week. It was impossible to get back in the opposite direction, too much people.

Men were carrying small carpets on their shoulders, they were either alone or in group of men, women were usually with children. Only a few families with both parents. I saw in front two Israeli police officers. The sound of what was now already the familiar muslim prayers was hearing loud. I knew where they all were going. To the mosque. To Temple Mount, one of the sacred place for muslims, where is believed that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.  

I thought, probably, at one point, I would be stopped to join them and so I stopped myself and sit on some stairs, trying to look busy with my phone but I was actually watching the hurried passers by. One guy approached me through the crowd, trying to get as close as I could hear him saying: – – – Don’t stay here, come over there, I have a chair and tea.

I was happy I could finally ask someone about what was going on.

He told me, as I suspected, it was the evening prayer during the Ramadan and thousands were going to the mosque. And of course, non muslims are not allowed but I could see the mosque during the day. I regretted I missed that place during the day, I got no idea how I forgot about it.

He told me soon the street will be empty again as everyone will have reached the mosque. And so it happened in a few minutes. Now we could finally hear each other speaking. He had a table outside, in front of a small house with two windows at about 1m high from the pavement of the street and an old wooden door, and he was selling hot tea. One type only, menthe, already sweetened. He offered me a cup. It was a hot evening and that was the sweetest tea I ever had, my blood must have been sweet too after. He still had some tea left and hopped to sell it to the people as they were leaving the mosque, very soon.

He asked me where I was from, how long did I spent in Jerusalem, how I liked it, if I got the chance to see the mosque and the muslim quarter. I told him what I saw during the day and than he said, if I want, he’ll show me the muslim quarter. I wasn’t sure what to answer, he saw my hesitation and he addressed what I thought to be a strange question: are you friendly with muslims? I said, surprised, I’m friendly with everybody and as I was saying it I realised this might sound silly. But his English was not perfect and I understood what he meant. He wanted to say if discrimination was the reason of my hesitation.

I was sitting on the chair, drinking my tea. He was a few meters away, in front of me, on the other side of the street. I felt he prefered this distance. I was thinking I didn’t wanna wait to much since it was getting late, I wanted to leave. As if he heard my thought, he started to close the stall sooner, putting everything inside the house, before the people were coming back from the mosque. He mentioned he’s not a believer cause he likes too much to smoke and so he doesn’t fast, as he was taking the table and all the other stuff inside. He rushed out the door soon after, head to the street in front, making a sign with his hand: come, I’ll show you.

He was a Palestinian born and raised in Jerusalem, he was working in constructions in Tel Aviv cause there he could earn more money. He had an elder brother married with two wives. He has two children with each of them and was working “as a slave” to support them all.

– Isn’t enough trouble already with one woman, why two? I joked

– True!  

We were heading to the Western Wall and when we got there I stopped for a few minutes to take a look. The lights there were so strong as if it was daylight. He continued and stopped a little further, waiting for me.

One of the two policemen there invited me to enter, I said I’ve already been there the day before, joked a little and followed my new friend.

He looked as if he was constantly running. I decided to test his speed, walk even faster and kept walking in front of him. We started almost running

– Why are you walking that fast?

– I only try to keep up with you, I replied. If you’re walking fast, I can walk faster, I told him as if I were launching an invitation to compete. He seemed to enjoy it but he was definitely not used to it, so it seemed.

We entered almost running and laughing in the square where the Great Synagogue was.

– See, this is the Great Synagogue. But except the mosque, where you are allowed to enter during the day, the jews don’t allow anyone to enter.

– Really? But I din entered in synagogues in other places…

– Not here. Not in Jerusalem. Here you can’t.

We started walking on some narrow streets where there was no one else. I stopped, searching for other people, to make me feel safe. He realised it and said I don’t have to worry, I was safe. He took me then in a place that looked like an old abandoned garden. From there we could see a part of the old city. We sit on what it was a part of a demolished wall, in front of us children were playing.

– See, they are palestinians and jews, they play together. This is how we live here, in Jerusalem, all together.

We talked about the neverending war, about the little chances to ever make peace there, about what he thought about the jews and I told him what the jews I talked to were saying about the palestinians. We talked about terrorism, about Syria and the violence that generates violence.

As we left, we met another guy, he was wearing the Israeli police uniform. They saluted each other, shook hands happily and said a few words in Hebrew.

– You see, he is my friend, he’s a jew. He works for the Police but he is my friend.

Next he wanted to take me somewhere. We walked a little and got to the wall. A part of the huge wall surrounding the old Jerusalem. In a few steps we were on top of it. The view there was astonishing. As far as I could see, in front of me, there was the muslim quarter, an entire hill covered with houses, and in every house, a light was blinking. I think there can’t be a better image of that time of the year for muslims, the Ramadan. It was quiet.

We sit on a bench, looking at the lights, and there he told me the story of his life. About his childhood, his work, how difficult it was to live there as a palestinian, about his father who died recently of cancer, after months of suffering in hospital, how close they were and how every single evening he spent with his father before, offering him a cigar and a drink, talking about all in the world.

He saw my knowledge about the arab culture was poor and he told me about the Ramadan, their traditions and beliefs, how weddings took place and are arranged in traditional families.

And eventually, we got to the sensitive part: the personal life.

– Have you ever loved someone? I asked. At first he said now and then, word by word, he started talking.

He grew up together with a cousin of his, attending the family events and holidays, playing and seeing each other becoming adults. All their lives they were talking about how they will get marry and start a family. This is common in some cultures, marrying a cousin. He started building the house without saying anything to the family, as he needed to support his future family. He was working as a crazy to finish it faster. And one day, he finds out she is getting married. And this was the point where his life stopped and all his dreams ended. I tried to tell him that it was an episode in his life, that lots of other good things will happen and he has to stay oped. He didn’t care. He only asked me how I got over someone I loved. He listened as if this was impossible to happen to him. The recent death of his father added even more sorrow. I don’t think I ever meet someone more discouraged by life. He didn’t care not even if he was to die that second. I so hope what I told him will make him even think about forgetting and moving on.

When we said goodbye, later that night, he told me he once was a guide for someone who thought he is an Israeli, cause he was speaking Hebrew. And that someone didn’t like muslims at all. This finally explained his question from when we met, if I was friendly with muslims.

At the end of the day, this palestinian friend of mine took his palm opened in his. Now he was doing the same with my hand, and started closing a finger for every sentence below:

I am born and raised in Jerusalem

I speak Hebrew

I also speak Arabic

I’m a Palestinian and now you know me

And today, my friend, I was your friend

Too many thoughts kept me awake that night. Maybe also that tea with too much sugar. I realised I didn’t remember the name of my Palestinian friend. I wish I did. I will though remember him like this: the one who showed me the other part of Jerusalem and shared his personal story with me. One name means nothing to this.

At the end he told me that when we were in front of the Western Wall he got a few meters away to wait for me because he was not allowed to enter that area. Because he was a muslim.

– What! I sad. I didn’t know that!

And there it was, finally, the difference between us. Not a real ar natural one, but one imposed by others.

After all, I met him on Chain Street.  

Sunday in the Middle East: Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea

We were indeed an international gathering around our table, eating falafel in pita or chicken shawarma, on the rooftop terrace in old Jerusalem, as Anita have well said. She was the super nice girl, with contagious laugh, chocolate skin of Indian roots and with the perfect English accent of someone living in London. Then there was the guy from Venezuela, now living in Miami, one of the very few religious in the group, also the most funny. The single traveler girl from Germany, the two guys from Australia and the American (I think) man who was sitting next to me in the bus. He was quiet, on the road, he almost never took his eyes off his tablet. He was following online our itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as we were driving among the yellow hills of the Judean Desert, hundreds of meters below sea level, with unreal views. Well… people.

The Judean Desert, below Sea Level

 

We were now finally enjoying the food, after a well spent long morning at the Dead Sea, speaking about everything: from the mosquitos in Brazil to a subject that we all had a lot to say about: how pricey Israel is. I was a newcomer, in my second day, but had already enough experiences to fully agree on that.

Tel Aviv was, the day before, my first taste of the Middle East, but Jerusalem was promising to be a feast.

All of a sudden, above all our voices, of people coming from everywhere to eat on that terrace, loud sounds of muslim prayers, coming from the high minarets, started filling the hot dry air. In a second, the christian churches bells followed, like in a competition. What a concert is was! It felt exciting and I knew then I was in a place that was promising more than I was expecting. I tried, with little hope, to put some order in my hair. No chance, was too much of a mess, the salt from the Dead Sea earlier that morning was still there.

The Dead Sea and the theory of floating

That day I woke up at 5. For not a morning person this is tough. I did some unwanted fitness while pulling my baggage for 30 minutes on the streets in central Tel Aviv. My not so fun way of saving money. But mornings have this gift of making us happy, including me. The fresh air, sleepy people walking dogs or watering small gardens, that silence before the city wakes up. Love it, every time. Since I was heading Jerusalem for the next couple of days, I thought a guided tour is a good idea to get more information about the place. I ended up in a bus with a driver which was mute to us but constantly speaking with God knows who on the phone.

For me was barely the end of spring in terms of temperature when I left home and I thought Tel Aviv was suffocating when I got there. I’m ok with both strong heat and cold as long as I have a few days to adapt. Not this time. The closer we got to the Dead Sea, the temperature was rising. When we stopped at a gas station and got out of the bus, I was melting. Only the three camels there seem to be fine in that dry heat. But there was hope, in the horison, among the palm trees, I could spot the Dead See.

The Dead Sea

If you think you can imagine the feeling of floating in the Dead Sea, as I proudly did, well, you can’t. I thought it’s like floating in water as usual, but maybe just easier. Nop! Actually your body is way higher, at the very surface of the water and you feel like a pressure keeping you straight and up. I’m glad I didn’t bet I will be able to swim cause any try was just making me laugh. All you can do is flip from belly to back or sitting as if you are in an old armchair, knees up and bum down. And the deeper you go, the more difficult it becomes to touch the bottom with your feet and stand. All you can do is floating and what’s so cool! But keep your mouth shut and most of all, your eyes protected by sunglasses. The smallest drop of water in your eyes will send you immediately in the hell of all pains. Of course I tasted the water on my finger the moment I got there. There’s no word to describe as salty it is, it’s bitter sour salted. Or dead salted.

But where was the mud? Aaa, finally! On the right side of the private beach we went, I found the famous mud from the Dead Sea, the worldwide used ingredient for beauty products, the very one that is said to make your skin so perfect. you’ll love it yourself. All the area was covered with that precios nature gift. I walked outside the protected zone, spoiling my feet as if I was walking in a jar of cream. I soon found out the purpose of the protection line when I got knee deep in the thick mud. That adventure brought me fast to the shore for some other fun episode: covering my body with mud. Others followed the idea. In 5 min the sun was burning my now black skin. I needed a good float. It took me minutes to remove the mud. Now that I tested this, I can tell, indeed: it is the best spa treatment I ever tried since the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. My whole skin was now so slippery, I could make a dolphin jealous. After that, there’s no way to leave the beach without a long shower, if only you don’t plan on turning into a salt sculpture.

I climbed the hill to the bus taking many last glimpses of the Dead Sea. Another bucket list wish accomplished. Great experience! All there looks so quiet. No waves, just dry empty hills around. It’s amazing what nature can create.

We left, driving through a dry vast land, towards a wall of palm trees waiting for us in a perfect line. I was going to get used to this sights for the next 9 days. Most of these areas are like that.

We passed by Jerash, the oldest city in the world. It was close to Jordan river. All I could see was a sight of the city from far away. We were suppose to get closer but the itinerary was changed days before for security reasons. This was one week after the official opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. I was so pissed off I couldn’t see more.

Jerusalem, a place to understand

We entered old Jerusalem walking through Jaffa Gate, the one close to the new city centre. The entire old city is surrounded by a tall limestone wall and the entrance is possible only through its gates. Old Jerusalem looks like an island from another time of history in the modern world that surrounds it. Once you leave behind the new Jerusalem, with its fancy stores, expensive hotels, coffee shops and crazy traffic, you step into another world. But that’s my kind of place and it doesn’t look like any other I’ve seen so far.

Its small streets, paved with big blocks of stones, from the christian, muslim and jewish quarters, have names written in 3 languages, in this order: Hebrew, Arabic and English. All together are forming a labyrinth like a huge bazar. And inside there, muslims, jews and christians, all together, run their small street shops. All looking the same, just a few meters deep from the street pavement, all stuffed with goods. They sell all you can imagine, from carpets, local sweets, spices, cashmere scarves, clothes, shoes, jewels, perfumes and beauty products to fresh meat or crucifixes and rosaries. By the merchandise you can tell the religion of the owner or you know you’re in the christian, muslim or jewish area. The natural light is poor inside or even replaced by artificial light since sun doesn’t get down there. Most of the streets are covered, like endless corridors of not more than 3m wide, where you immediately feel like wander. It takes 1 min to get lost, forget about the time and space and really enjoy it. But the multitude of scents, that is hallucinating: spices, myrrh smoke, freshly baked pastries, squeezed fruits, all together mixed with arab music, fragments of discussions in all the languages reaching your ears from the sea of people covering every centimetre of these streets.  

Our guide was talking and talking and almost running through this huge mass of people. Of course I got lost the moment we came out of that rooftop terrace where we had lunch. I looked desperately for someone in the group. I had no idea where I was, where they were going and which direction to take from the 4 crowded streets in front of me. It was indeed a miracle when I finally saw two Greek girls I recognised, they were lost too but at least they seem to know where the rest of them were.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the place where Jesus was buried and were now hundreds of christians were waiting in line to enter the holy tomb. Sometimes the wait was exceeding 4 hours. Others were praying on the large red marble stone in front of the entrance, where Jesus body was prepared to be buried, keeping their heads and palms down, on the stone and touching it with different personal objects. At the second floor it was said to be the very croix on which Jesus was crucified, many were waiting here too, to say a pray.

We then walked the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the croix and passed to the muslim quarter to then to the jewish one, heading the Western Wall, the holiest place for jews and, as I found out there, the most guarded place on earth. I could say the entire Jerusalem looks like this, according to the number of Israeli police forces I’ve seen, two on every street corner, men and women, sometimes pointing their rifles straight in front. We passed the security check before descending. In front of the famous wall, made of limestone big square blocks, with grass growing on it in places, on the opposite side, sitting in the shade, there was a group of about 20 military forces, talking and laughing, all wearing big weapons. Men and women could approach the wall on two separated sides, men in the right, women on left. Men’s side was bigger thought it didn’t seem to need more space since the number of men and women looked the same. I was walking towards the wall when a girl wearing a t-shirt was asked the cover her shoulders. Modest clothing, covered arms and legs, is recommended in Jerusalem, mostly for entering the holy places of all religions represented there. Also, since it was the Ramadan, and the muslim population in Jerusalem is around 70%, it is recommended to be more respectful, cover more skin and avoid eating on the streets since most of the muslims are fasting from sun rise to sun set. Even without considering these, the burning sun would have had kept me covered.

As I got close enough to the wall, I saw the thousands of wrapped small pieces of paper carrying the wishes of all the people that came here before and find a little spot in the wall to hide their prayer.

Western Wall

From the top, the view of this place is really impressive and I recommend getting to know more about its history and why it represents all the world for the Israeli. 

It was late afternoon when we left Jerusalem and passed through the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, heading to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity. I wish I could have seen more of this area, of Palestine, maybe go to Ramallah, talk to more people there. The difference was visible instantly, both economically and culturally but I didn’t seem, not even for a second, that I would have felt unsafe if I were alone on the streets there. One thing we have in common for sure: it was full of graffities against Donald Trump.

When leaving Bethlehem, we were told the short way we came in from was blocked so we had to drive more through the city to reach another exit. This was just perfect for me since I could see more, even a wall. That wall. The big tall concrete wall, all covered with graffiti and messages for peace and against discrimination, that separates the two countries. But this time, no one was praying in front of it. It’s quite difficult not to get into politics at all when talking about Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

It was 6pm when the bus dropped me back in Jerusalem, close to the old city. All the others, including the very nice people I got the chance to meet, were going back to Tel Aviv. I felt so blessed for finally having more time on my own now and the chance to see on my own more of this place that got me already hypnotized. And I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, dirty and a bit smelly after walking and sweating all day long in the sun, at 35’C. I was praying to all saints that my hostel in the old city will be close and easy to find. I knew it was close to a main gate of the city. But which one? And yes, it was that one, Jaffa Gate, the best possible location, 250m away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the christian quarter. In 5 minutes I was in front of the stairs, feeling so relief.

The owner was an old muslim guy, really grumpy. I was too exhausted to care and I thought it might be because of the fasting. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. I would be biting people at the end of a day of starvation, so I had empathy for him. A boy showed me my room. It was terrible but was no surprise since I read the reviews before, still I took it for the location and price. What I didn’t expect were the very dirty sheets. The good part was that both the room and the bed were large enough and the private bathroom was a welcomed surprise. The improvised shower inside brought me back my self esteem. After, I used the big pink beach towel I found on the bed, which was clean, to lay on it on so I won’t touch the dirty bed sheets. It was so hot I didn’t needed more. All I needed was what I had. I felt perfect and happy I was in Jerusalem.

I went out before the sun set, wandered the streets alone, talked to a few merchants and had the best humus. I found out that the way to say hello In Jerusalem was: Hello, where are you from? I entered the holy tomb, I whispered a prayer and watched the Greek monks closing the big gates of the church, the holiest place for the christianity, while a group of catholic sisters were singing religious songs outside, on the big stairs of limestone. It was a peaceful night, I went to bed only after I watched for a while the full moon shining above one of the oldest cities in our history, with its Mount of Olives and its Temple Mount, in the best panorama of the city that my modest hostel was so lucky to offer. I already knew now Jerusalem is not a place to see, it’s a place to understand and feel.