Tag Archives: summer

Jerusalem: love, hate and friendship

One Day and One Night in Jerusalem

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 or natural one, but one imposed by the others.

After all, I met him on Chain Street.  

How I survived 10 days alone in the Middle East.

Day 1: Tel Aviv, Israel

I was lying on a bunch of pillows and colorful carpets in a big Bedouin tent, made of only a few high wooden pools and a black rough membrane of camel hair. Our host was making the food for us: pita bread, prepared on a piece of wood, right there, on the ground and cooked on a large pan heated above the fire in front of us, served with labneh (goat yogurt) with olive oil, dry mint and green olives. I was drinking my mint tea while talking to the Thay blonde young woman about how it took her years to get her visa and be able to visit her boyfriend’s county, Israel. There I was, in Israel, at the shore of the Red Sea, a stone’s throw away from Jordan and Egypt.

It was the 10th day of my holiday in the Middle East, my back was all sunburned, the skin of my hands was never that dry, my clothes and I were dirty and smelling like camel but it was the purest freedom and happiness.  So…who says Mondays are no fun?

How I got there, with a big smile on my face and memories for a lifetime?

10 days go, on a hot Saturday morning, I arrived in Tel Aviv. I received my 3 months stay permit after a series of question that lasted for about 10 minutes at the passport control. It was the Sabat, almost no one was working and the only way to get to the city was by taxi. I knew taxi sharing was common here and when Boris, a russian israeli taxi driver approached me, all I needed was a couple to share the drive with. And so we were 3 on our way to the beach front area in Tel Aviv, for 50 bucks, a good deal. Boris was so talkative and had no problem in sharing intimate details about him and his wife, but the word he pronounced the most was “money”.

I was tired from the 1 hour night sleep, thirsty and hungry when I reached my AirBnb room. The apartment was shared with two really nice guys and its location was ideal, right there on the beach, in front of Ben Gurion iconic statue representing the first prime minister of Israel in swimwear, doing a handstand on Frishman Beach. Summer was already here in Israel, though it was only the end of May, it was a laid back August mood. The beach looked perfect, with clean turquoise water, soft sand and packed with people, all tanned and fit and cool, singing or skateboarding, speaking all the languages. The large boulevard by the sea was full of rainbow flags as the LGBT pride was to be held in a week or so. The tall buildings in glass facing the Mediterranean sea, with fancy hotels or business centers were completing the image of a present, cosmopolit, and alive city which I did not expect to be this amazing.

Tel Aviv beach

After a slice of cold watermelon, one of the best I ever had, I was ready to explore a new beautiful place.

I started walking the promenade towards old Jaffa, where a friend have told me about a restaurant where they serve you 20 types of mezze on the house. That is something a foodie can never miss.

Yafo in Hebrew or Yaffa in Arabic, the ancient port that has stories to tell about Solomon, Saint Peter, Andromeda and Perseus, was the place I first saw the two big cultures, the Jews and the Arabs, separating and mixing each other. The old buildings with dusty antiques shops where an old Jew was selling hundreds of big old silver rings on a silver plate and the small street food restaurants where muslim man were selling pita bread and humus and many more, all had names in both Hebrew and Arabic. Al-Bahr Mosque (Sea Mosque) and Mahmoudiya Mosque with their minarets reaching as high as Jaffa Clock Tower, built of limestone, as most of the buildings I was going to see and live in the next 10 days. I wandered the empty silent streets of old Jaffa in the afternoon heat. It smelled like good fresh food, spices and oriental perfumes, and the light  notes of a song in Hebrew, similar with Greek music, reached my ears.

Hunger determined me to head to the port, a few minutes away, where I immediately notice The Old Man and The Sea terrace by the impressive number of plates on every table. And here I had an unforgettable food experience. As soon as I sit down, my table was covered with not less than 12 small plates of different starters, from humus, falafels, all sorts of salads, fried cauliflower + hot pita bread and freshly squeezed lemonade with mint. Again, this was on the house, for free, no money… Though this was more than enough, I had to order something and a big plate full of shrimps in garlic butter cream have joined the feast. It was more than I could eat but I did my best. It all ended with zalabyieh or lokma (deep fried dough soaked in syrup) and tea made of fresh mint. Incredibly tasty and on the house again. I thought I was in paradise.

After this feast was rolling towards Neve Tzedek, one of Tel Aviv oldest neighbourhoods, a fashionable area with avant-garde design stores, handicraft shops, trendy and stylish bistros, white small houses and most of all full of bougainvillea flowers which I simply adore. While you wander its quiet street, enjoying the shade of trees in blossom and playing with lazy cats that are everywhere, indulging yourself in a cozy small village like atmosphere, when you look back you are brought back to reality by the view of tall shiny skyscrapers that seem to touch the clear skies.

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I was amazed by Jaffa, enchanted by Neve Tzedek, I was so satisfied after a gourmand fest, was wearing a new bracelet on my hand (I buy bracelets instead of magnets) and all I wanted more was to head to the beach for a swim. The water is perfect, I was told by Gal, my host and I thought we might just have different standards of appreciating water temperature, though I don’t mind cold water for a swim. I let my feet feel the sand for the first time this year and touch the waves of my beloved Med. It was close to sunset and Gal was so right, the water was more than perfect.

I ended a beautiful day on the beach in Tel Aviv, watching the sun hiding beneath the sea, feeling the warm salted breeze on my skin, with my feet hidden deep in the soft sand, not even realising how rapidly the city lights replaced the day. A couple of good conversations with locals about Israel and Palestine and how this place is now the safest on earth made me smile thinking of my friend how was here last year and told me the opposite.

The start of my journey couldn’t have been better and safer. And as soon as the sun was rising again I was to discover more, as I was heading the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and parts of Palestine.

To be continued… soon 🙂