Our first morning we leave the lovely Kibbutz/Hotel on the hill and venture to Jersualem. Flags from all the countries of the world, particularly the U.S. flap on the hillside. Clinton is coming to town and Guiliani has just left. Clinton is here for the Peace Summit in Egypt and Guiliani toured the destruction of the bombs by travelling the famed #18 Bus route. We stopped and accorded the tradition of saying the Scheckechyanu as the base of the city.
Our first stop was the Western Wall. We entered the recently excavated site and toured the city streets that lie below Herod's Temple. Walking through ancient sites is a pretty heady experience. It was as emotionally charged as walking through Auscwitz, yet a polar opposite experientially. Yet the area is fraught with similar tensions. For many, this portion of the trip was tinged with a sense of will something happen. Desipte assurances and knowing that we could easily alter the itinerary and get out of the area of incident, our time in Jerusalem was clouded with slight insecurity. As we moved forward and met more people we were thanked for coming. Somehow it was reassuring to everyone we met that we had made the journey despite the unspoken possibility of violence. This was my second trip to Israel. To be honest, there was no moment at which I was worried. Yet as I was dropped off at the Long Island Rail Road train station, I still kissed my mother and told her I loved her and at the airport and called my older brother to let him know that in the event of anything, he would be the one I would call. I also wanted to remind him to call into my answering machine and to book interviews for my underemployed ass.
Jerusalem is a city of quadrants. Old city, new city. Jewish, Muslim, Christian quarters. Each thrives with their own traditions, languages and way of life, while delicately waltzing with and around the other denizens. There are no clear cut borders in the city, but you can immediately sense when you've crossed into a different quarter. Herod's Temple is slowly being exacated. Most of the Southern wall has been dug out and we've learned that "tradition is stronger than fact. The Western Wall is a retaining wall of the city, not a wall of the temple. Still people pray there and honor it -- under God's sheltering presence." [Fran Alpert, director of Archeological Seminars]
From Jerusalem we moved to Efrat, a bustling Orthodox suburb. Due to the politics of relations with Arabs and Palestinians, Efrat can not expand their community. Both have a manifest destiny to the land. Goat trails and the age of Olive trees define the Arab commitment to the land. The roads of Efrat curve around olive trees and small barbed wire fences clearly illustrating the maze of issues that swirl around Israeli/Arab relations. The citizens of Efrat are not against peace, their neighbors are Arabs and they have a cold peace with them. In fact given time and an Arab commitment to demonstrating their autonomy and ability to live in true peace, they'd welcome a Palestinian state -- in the West Bank.
To balance out the day of Arab/Israeli relations, we cruised down to Bethlehem, probably not the hot spot it was in Jesus' time. The stores are empty, with owners out front staring dazed at the road and wide-eyed at tourist buses. Trash tumbles down the streets. The ability of the Israelis to garner life from the desert soil, clashes with the spartan dunes and lifeless concrete homes of the Arabs.
In Bethlehem, we met with one of Arafat's boyz, Jorges Spoon, head of the Research Institute of Economics and former vice-Mayor of Bethlehem. He was the consumate politician who tried to present his own views as a Catholic living in Bethlehem. He admits they need a constitution and to prove that they can live autonomously, but only with financial and other resources from Israel. "We are changing," he said, as he patted a bead of sweat from his forehead," It will will take a long time to do it, we start....We need democracy and freedom, not Western democracy, because democracy has many colors." Rocks seem to be the only thing that this soil yields. It is a strange, frustrating situation with no easy answers. Yet the tenacity of both sides will hopefully yield a peace without more blood shed - this was the one thing everyone could agree upon.
History was at our feet. We would climb a tel and listen to a bit of the old testament and some proof that geographically the story occured at this site. Kind of a cool thing.
Politics was our bed-fellow. Rabbi and Lawyer Uri Regev spoke of his attempts to get non-orthodox marriages viewed as legal within Israel. Regev wrestles daily with Israel's attempts to become a "modern democratic Jewish state: how does one reconcile Jewish with democratic. There never was a model until Israel was established." Israel has a grave conflict for Regev in that it grants religious freedom to every religion save for Judaism, particularly as all Jewish marriages and divorces must come under the decree, judgment and auspices of the orthodox. While the former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolleck, spoke to us Israel's political future, Arab/Israeli relations, and the present mayor. And we even got a chance to babysit Ethiopian children as part of an afterschool enrichment program.
It wasn't all fun and games, though. After a rousing night of drinking and playing "I Never," the group fled the confines of the city and headed for the desert. After a hike through the sprawling hills of Ein Gedi, complete with someone from the group mooning an Ibex, we relaxed and floated in the Dead Sea. Following an afternoon in the spa, we headed for Israel's Riveria...the ocean city of Eilat. This city is getting so large they want to move the airport so they can build more hotels. Can't blame them. Nice beaches, a Club Med, and malls bring tourists from all over.
Our stay in Eilat was limited to one night for our real goal was Egypt. Border crossing is no fun. Especially with our Robert Plant-look-alike/tag-along tour guide (for Egypt) Nico. The man had a propensity for disappearing and reappearing. Must be the rock star in him. Or the German. Hard to say. The difference between the two borders was night and day. Pack lightly and if you have anything that might come under scruntiny put it on top. But the vistas of fyords and clearest ocean water (more blue than the Carribbean) are uncomparable.
Egypt is not a country for drinkers -- it is Muslim and liquor can only be served with special dispensation. Their special import lager tastes like flat soda. And the wine is like drinking cut glass and chased with salt. Nor is it a country for eaters, unless you are a fly or cat, both of which prosper nicely. Slowly the Sinai, the land no one truly wants, is being developed. The Bedoiun have their winter homes which are shaped like tents, though made of stone and they have tourist attractions in the form of a dolphin you can swim with.
We did, however, stop at the guide's (Mansour -- you get an Egyptian and Israeli, and a must Egyptian tourist police officer, plus our Israeli guide -- chances were good that this bus was not going to get lost) favorite relatives' rest-stops/family busineses, every forty kilometres. Onto Saint Katherine's a one-horse, one mountain town...home to Mount Sinai and a monestary with the burning bush. The Bush is not currently burning and it is kept under metal because people were stealing the leaves. They aren't certain this is the real Mount Sinai, but they've created a whole tourist industry out of it anyway.
Sinai is a hell of a hike, and Moses probably did it without shoes, much food or water, knapsacks, flashlights, or steps. Straight up, loads of curves. You can't mistake the top, you just have to get there and once you do, you're in for a view. And you can find religion up there, because you need to pray for the strength to get down. Or you could take a camel -- not a good idea for gentleman. Think about the downward slope and your personnal areas...'nuff said. Great climb. Well worth it. Once you get to the top you feel an incredible moment of accomplishment. And at night you can see every star. Breathtaking.
After that we headed back to Eilat for an evening, said goodbye to half our commrades and then psyched ourselves up for a return to the Sinai for three days of scuba-diving. Lots of corral (though probably a little less), whale-sharks, and jelly fish. The ocean is clean and beautiful, quiet and quite remarkable. Egyptian beaches are littered with the trash of divers and supposed the Jordanians (rumor has it they release their trash from boats and it washes up on the Egyptian beaches). It is horrendous to dive into utter beauty under the water only to climb onto the squalor of poorly kept beaches. We tried to pick up as much as we could, but the capitialist in the Egyptians clearly care only to get as many divers out there as possible.
The rest of the Sinai is filled with barely finished/started construction projects - hotels, stores, restaurants, towns. It is being developed for somebody. There was even a five-star hotel in which we stayed...cheap one too. With a big pool. And a clean beach with lots of wind-surfers.
It was a pretty remarkable trip. All of these countries are complicated places that are developing themselves. They have been through a lot and probably will continue to evolve swiftly. More swiftly than America will - for these are places, I feel, with a lot more at stake and willing to take loftier chances. Yet they constrast one another - Israel welcomes most everyone, particularly Jews; while Poland greets and treats you as if you were a rarely seen relative who has to be put up on a couch because all the hotels were booked. Egypt tries so hard to please you can't fault it for trying. I got a lot out of this journey, despite this somewhat smug rendering of it. These are certainly places I'd like to spend more time exploring. Maybe you should too.
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Adam F Cohen