Israel

Gus Mattammal

Hello all!

OK, here is the story on Israel. Should be much shorter than the Egypt story…

All my hard work making sure not to strike any stones in the Sinai more than once paid off, as I made it to the Holy Land in one piece. The security check by the Israelis in the Cairo airport took 1.5 hours, involving an interrogation lasting half an hour that was more intense than my first round interview with Mitchell Madison, followed by 45 minutes of unpacking my bag completely, down to the small compartments in the shaving bag, followed by 15 minutes fussing over my flashlight, which is palm sized, flat, square, with just a single button in the center, and hence might as well be labeled “detonator” in big red block letters. I was not allowed to carry my bag on, which was irritating, and I had to specially petition to carry on my journal and pen, so I could do something on the plane. It is legal in Israel to have a blacklist of people who will be subjected to more stringent security procedures, and people who look remotely Arabic (me, as far as the Israelis are concerned), people with Arabic sounding names (me, as far as the Israelis are concerned), and people coming from Arab countries (me, definitely) all qualify. But, I was eventually allowed on, with journal and pen.

Tel Aviv

I spent my first day in Tel Aviv, which felt just like being in an American city, except for the language thing. And even then, everyone seemed to speak a fair amount of English. Most things are labeled in Hebrew and English, and those that aren’t are labeled in Hebrew and Russian, so it helped to know Russian. I basically took a day off after all the time in Egypt, and did restful things like:

  1. going to the beach. The BEACH! It was so nice to wear shorts and a tank top (not done in Islamic countries except at resorts), and to swim! It didn’t even matter that it was without a doubt the trashiest beach I’ve ever been on, except maybe the one in Galveston, TX. Swimming was glorious.
  2. Seeing a movie. A movie! I saw Fantasia 2000, and it didn’t even matter that the new animation was pretty boring. The music was such a nice change from Arab pop music.
  3. Drinking tap water. Brushing my teeth with same. It’s a pain to schlep bottled water into the bathroom just to brush your teeth, as I had to do in Egypt (and will have to do here in Kenya).

But, after 1 day I needed to get back on track, because I only had 8 days total in Israel. So I took a bus to Jerusalem (a blissfully dull and restful experience).

Jerusalem

The next 7 days I spent in Jerusalem. In fact, there was so much to see there I never got out of Jerusalem at all, and hardly out of the Old City. I saw a ton of stuff, mostly old Jewish, Christian, or Muslim holy sites. Often these are all in the same place. Typically, the Jews built something in a particular spot 2–3 thousand years ago, then something Christian related happened there, so the Christians came through a few hundred years later and knocked down the Jewish stuff to build a church. Then the Muslims came through a few hundred years after that and knocked down the church, to build a mosque. In some places this process has been through several iterations, and you never know who is going to be the last religion standing in a given place. The net result is a city full of suffocating religious zealotry and fascinating religious archaeology.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that the Jews, Christians, or Muslims present a united front. No no, within each are various groups each trying to assume control over holy sites. The best example is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Things got so bad in the late 19th century with different factions of Christians trying to run the place that the Ottomans turned the whole place into kind of a joint venture: the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, and the Armenians are all majority shareholders, with several other groups granted minority shareholder status. Only majority shareholders are allowed to reside within or hold services within the church.

Of course, this arrangement pleased no one, and resulted in the Ethiopians, (who lobbied hard but failed to get majority shareholder status, and therefore were not allowed to live within the church), building a monastery on the roof of the church, where they hold services and think up new ways to interfere with the majority shareholders. Inside the church, no one is allowed to so much as change a burned out light bulb without consulting representatives of all majority shareholders, who wherever possible try to thwart each other’s actions.

Bottom line: the church is falling apart, because the various factions interfere with each other at every turn and sorely needed repairs and restorations are rarely if ever made.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

One of the highlights of my explorations of Jerusalem was Hezekiah’s Tunnel. It’s a 1500 meter tunnel connecting a spring to Shiloh’s pool. In ancient days it was the primary source of water for the city, and the tunnel was built to channel the water within the city walls to ensure water availability when the city was under siege, which seems to have happened at the rate of once every 50 years for 4000 years running.

Anyway, the tunnel is barely tall enough or wide enough to stand in, and it’s pitch black, and it’s knee to waist deep freezing cold water, which makes it a ton of fun after hiking around the hills in the heat all day. It’s also completely unmarked. Like so may things in the Middle East, you find it through some combination of luck, instinct, and contradictory directions from people on the street.

At one point I was very close to finding it; I could tell because there was a little upwelling of cold water on the side of the road, and so I asked this guy who was standing outside what looked like the gate to a house where the spring was. He said if I paid him 15 shekels he’d show me where it was.

After Egypt I’ve gotten good at sensing when someone is trying to scam me a lot. Lots of scamming goes on in the Middle East, but it varies in degree and sometimes it’s useful to put up with small scale scamming to achieve some immediate goal. But this was clearly a huge scam. So I said no, and started to walk off. Then he asked me if I wanted a guide for the tunnel, and for the same 15 shekels he would both show me where the tunnel was and take me through it.

“It’s a TUNNEL,” I said, “there aren’t any side passages, so what do I need a guide for???”

He didn’t have an answer for that, but he avoided the issue by looking at my shoes and suggesting that they were inappropriate for the tunnel and he would be happy to rent me appropriate shoes for, you guessed it, 15 shekels. This guy was a piece of work. I was irritated with his refusal to just point me in the necessary direction, and he was irritated with my refusal to just give in and be scammed. Finally I achieved apparent victory by extracting a direction out of him, and after walking quite some way back uphill in the heat toward the city I found the entrance to the tunnel.

I wasn’t sure which entrance it was, since you are allowed to go either way, but I was so happy to finally find an entrance that I went in. It was great fun; I used my flashlight as little as possible to revel in the pitch blackness. I only used the light occasionally to make sure I had headroom.

I was really hoping for silence inside the tunnel, to increase the spookiness of it, but somewhere up ahead of me there was a group of Spanish speaking teenagers. I know they were teenagers because they giggled almost constantly, and when they weren’t giggling they were singing selections from the Backstreet Boys, Brittany Spears, and my personal favorite, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. The giggling and singing interfered mightily with creating a spooky atmosphere, and so I compensated, at least briefly, by imagining we were in one of those movies where the single file line of annoying, Brittany Spears-singing tourists gets picked off one by one by some unspeakably horrible hungry monster. But then I remembered that the monster always starts with the guy at the end of the line, which in this case technically was me, so I gave up and splashed along sullenly in the dark as best I could.

After close to an hour I emerged at the Pool of Shiloh, where the spring head is, and as I climbed up the steps to the road, there was the guy I asked directions from. “what’s he doing here?” I thought, until I turned around and looked at the gate I had just emerged from, and it was the same gate I had been standing in front of when I asked directions originally! This guy was the guard of the other entrance, and he had wanted me to pay him 15 shekels ($4) so he could smugly point to the gate behind me and say “there it is.” And, the bastard sent me uphill in the heat all the way to the other entrance, so now I had to walk up the hill AGAIN to get back to the city. I could’ve killed him right then. If that’s how everyone operates, no wonder there’s no peace in the Middle East.

Dave Barry interlude: “There will never be peace in the Middle East. Billions of years from now, when all that’s left upon the earth are microbes, the microbes in the Middle East will hate each other.”

Other highlights of Israel were the Israel Museum, and the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings, though I got to Israel on the first day of the 3 month summer recess, so I missed my chance to see the very unique form of theatre that is an Israeli legislative session. I also missed the Holocaust museum, which is way on the other end of town, and I kept running out of time each day, but other Americans who went said the one in Washington D.C. is actually more powerful. I guess I’ll have to see that one.

I’m in Nairobi now, having safely made it through the security system at Ben Gurion. As far as the experience leaving, the good news was the dramatically more efficient security officer who processed me, and the bad news was the body search. (Not a body CAVITY search, thank god.) Neither one of us was real comfortable with the body search, and he made his position on the issue clear by being as rough as possible. But it was over soon enough.

Now I’m back in the third world, and I have to say it’s much more interesting than the sort of modern predictability that the U.S. and Israel have. Don’t get me wrong, I reallllllly appreciate modernity now, but as long as I am traveling I think I’d rather experience something less like home, and Egypt and Kenya definitely count. Things are chaotic, primitive, and cheap here, and this is the most modern city in the country.

Well, that’s all for now…. I hope everyone is doing well. Egypt and Israel postcards were mailed separately from Israel, using the 1.4 shekel stamp, which the guy in the market in the Muslim quarter swore was only enough for Europe, and so I needed to buy the 1.9 shekel stamp from him, which means one of two things:

  1. both postal workers who helped me were incompetent, and so all the postcards are permanently in some dusty bin in Israel (likely).

  2. the guy in the market was trying to scam me out of .5 shekels per stamp, and the postcards will eventually arrive as planned (much more likely).

But, if you asked for a postcard and don’t get one from either Egypt or Israel, then refer to (1).

Again, I hope everyone is happy and healthy and has hot water, possibly even drinkable, and a toilet seat (I’m jealous).

Cheers, Gus

Some new reader introductions:

Thor: a Danish classmate from business school headed for the McKinsey office in Copenhagen. Tall. Funny. Cryptic. Fond of science fiction and incomprehensible Scandinavian techno music.

Tom: I met Tom in Rethymno. He’s Dutch, and works for Dutch Ministry of Finance. Spent several hours discussing the world, politics, war, religion, and women late at night in some beach bar along with his brother, another guy in the Dutch navy, and a wacky German.

Niklas: met in Athens. Talked a lot about philosophy, physics, and religion, and TV. Niklas hails from Stockholm.

Peter: Met coming into Athens, and then again on the way out. Canadian, undergrad in biology but now works as an apprentice in the Canadian independent film community.

Serena: Y2K graduate of the Darden business school. She’s on her way to financial advisory at Ernst & Young Chicago. it was nice to talk to a fellow b-school graduate. I occasionally reflexively make jokes about business school related subjects, which of course don’t make much sense if you haven’t studied business somewhere along the line, and so they aren’t particularly funny to most. They weren’t funny to Serena either, but she at least knew to put here face in her hands and call me a dork, which is really all I’m looking for when I make a joke anyway.

Father Michel Lavoie: Now stationed at the Church of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem, the site of Mary’s birth. Also served 10 years in St. Patrick’s in North Hollywood, CA, and also 10 years at a church in Tanzania. He gave a book of essays to read, which has been my only reading material other than guide books. I was thrilled to get it.

© Gus Mattammal, All Rights Reserved