2011
04.30

DAY 90 – KAMANDJATI

SYNOPSIS:

A visit to a concert at Al Kamandjati, a music school in Old Ramallah.

The beat-up Arab bus outside the Hebron settlement had been sitting around for ½ hour not filling up and not about to leave and I had questioned my decision to take the Arab shuttle rather than the slick new Israeli bus leaving inside the settlement.   Yes, there are two bus systems in Hebron, since Jews are not allowed to enter Hebron proper.  This restriction seems indeed to refer to “Jews”, not only Israelis, as the posted sign at the settlement exit indicates (see blog Day 89 from yesterday).  When I left the settlement the soldier specifically asked me if I was Jewish.  This Hebron world is warped!

But then a bunch of five foreigners arrived and there was a chance we would leave eventually.  As things go when you meet other travelers abroad, we started talking.   This was a German-British dual language family of two music-teacher parents and three music performing children.  The older ones were stationed as music teacher volunteers in Ramallah, at Al Kamandjati, meaning “The Violinist”, in Arabic.

I learned that there had been a gifted man who grew up in Al Amari, the Palestinian refugee camp in Ramallah, and became an internationally renowned musician.  In that position, he wanted to pass on the opportunity to study music to other children and in 2003 started the Al Kamandjati foundation which now provides musical education to children Ramallah, in Lebanon, and soon in other places.  The family I met on the bus was giving a concert at the school the next day, the day David would arrive.  What a “full immersion experience” it would be for David, to arrive from Ann Arbor and as his first experience go to a concert in a West Bank town?!  Obviously, that’s why I was on that bus.  Obviously, this had to be.

David boarded a bus to a place “north of Jerusalem” to a surprise concert…

OK, it wasn’t the New York Symphony playing, but it came from the heart.  First, a whole bunch of girls accompanied a children’s song on their flutes.  They were obviously beginners.  But it was impressive to see them playing on first-rate instruments and with great enthusiasm.  The next number in the program was a percussion piece and more than a dozen boys got out their drums, rattles, and cymbals.  In more or less synchrony but again with great passion, they played their instruments. This was the group, the family’s oldest son had been instructing for the last six month.   The remainder of the program was provided by the family who played on recorders, ocarinas, ocornomeuse, crumhorn, gemshorns, a sausage bassoon, and other – let’s say not your run-of-the-mill, instruments.  Many of their pieces would qualify as musical spoofs and the players as well as the listeners had great fun with it.  The finale was a piece in which the youngest son conducted the audience to pop balloons with tooth picks at particular times and to join in a “Hahaha” chorus!  I guess you get the picture.

And so went David’s first ½ day in Israel.

Tomorrow, Maria and Jack will arrive and for the next two weeks I will be on vacation; sort of.  I will try to keep the blog going, but it may be a bit shorter as I will socialize a bit more than usual.

Good night.

2011
04.29

SYNOPSIS:

Hardcore fanaticism at Hebron – A visit of one of the West Bank’s most notorious towns and the first of many Jewish settlements.

I hear there was a royal wedding somewhere in the world today.  Well, I missed it.  Hebron was infinitely more fascinating.  But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of this town.

Settlements are perhaps the most disputed contemporary issue causing ongoing worldwide contempt and controversy.  Over the last two weeks I have passed many such settlements.  Often perched on hilltops, surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by military posts, they are exclusive enclaves built regardless of UN condemnation or the hardship they pose on the surrounding population.  Hebron was the first and a turning point in recent Jewish history.  What started out as the longing for being in the place of the forefathers escalated into religious fanaticism, feeling victimized and turning to victimization.

Hebron has a history of coexistence that goes way back and lasted for hundreds of years.  Contemporary history probably makes the most sense when started in 1929:  Palestinian nationalists massacred over 60 of their Jewish neighbors in response to Zionist movements while the British stood idly by and on top of that evacuated the rest of the Jewish population to avoid further conflict between the two groups.  Jews were banned from one of their most ancient and most holy sites.  Hebron features prominently in the bible.  It holds a shrine dedicated to the entire Abraham family: his sons, and their wives.  It is known as the shrine of the patriarchs.  It is a holy site second only to Jerusalem and sacred once again to all three religions.

To this day a strict separation of the shrine is observed into a mosque and a synagogue.  Each group prays separately and allows the other in on only a few occasions per year.  I was able to visit the synagogue today but not the mosque as it was Friday.  Had I come any other day both parts would have been open to me as belonging to neither religion.

After the controversial 1967 war, the redrawn borders and the power shifts in the country, some of the most extremist ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers returned for a Seder and never left.  More and more joined them and they began to reclaim property in the city center.  “Reclaim”, of course is a euphemism for moving out Arab residents who at that time most certainly were not the culprits of the 1929 massacre.  They had vital homes and shops in the area.  Middlemen bought their property at low prices and before anyone fully understood the huge implications of this move for the future and for other such settlements, Israeli citizens had taken over the center of this Palestinian town.  The Israeli government was pushed into a bind to protect them.  Since then, about 500 settlers have lived in the middle of the Old City of Hebron and over 7000 have moved into the more typical and less controversial outskirt new development settlements.  According to locals, it takes over 2000 soldiers to guard and protect these settlers, particularly the ones in town …

The violence between these groups has ebbed and flowed ever since and culminated in the famous Baruch Goldstein incident in 1994:  29 Muslims were killed and 200 injured while praying at the mosque during Ramadan.  The situation was out of control and both Israel and the Palestinian authorities turned to outside help:  TIPH was founded – Temporary International Presence at Hebron, a six European country civil guard monitoring the area.  I saw two of them today.

Violence may have slowed down, but it never stopped, despite TIPH.  UN resolutions were signed and broken.   Borders and zones of authority were established like nowhere else.  Israel is divided into Zone A, B, C; Hebron is divided into zone H1 and H2.  Contrary to popular belief, most areas of Hebron are completely off limits to Jews!  But the reality is that in order to guard the tiny central town settlement and to insure its safety, over 1000 shops (according to local sources) were closed by Israeli military.  This effectively turned the downtown area into a ghost town crippling local businesses and restricting movement, not to mention the effect this all had on tourism and pilgrims so vital, for example, for Bethlehem.

Walking through the Arab souq means looking at rows of closed stores and up into a mesh of wire stretched over the souq, through which you can see military towers.  Looking out from a settlement window means to look at military posts and barbed wire.  Even though the residences themselves gleam in the white new sandstone so typical of the area, they are located next to the more shabby looking, older Arab residences.

Some of the Arab apartments are only feet away from their Jewish neighbors.  Today, Arabs are still offered buy-outs.  A few resist mainly out of principle and are allowed to stay, but at great hardship and loss of business.  Jewish residents are often armed – I watched a man with a machine gun over his shoulder push a baby stroller – a bizarre sight!

A trip to the revered tomb of Ruth takes you through a massive military post, and through a solid aluminum corridor topped with barbed wire, to a hilltop guarded by a lone soldier on a metal balcony.  The site could be so tranquil, but I think Ruth would turn in her grave could she see what has happened to her town.  Interestingly enough, the soldiers did not mind me photographing just about anything, anywhere.

Inside the settlement, a plaque at almost every corner reminds of the various victims of violence: Jewish children, men, and women who died in the various outbreaks of violence.  I would not be surprised if similar markers can be found outside, put up by the Palestinians to commemorate their martyrs.  It could happen today.  As I was boarding the bus to leave town I heard gun shots.  Nobody even looked up or concerned…

Blue markers chronicle the history of the area going back to biblical times – clearly an attempt of justification for the current settlement.  A small museum displays and describes the massacre of 1929 and the bravery of the early settlers in the 1960s.  But is this bravery?

How can anyone, and I mean anyone, anywhere in the world construct happiness on the backs of others’ suffering?! How can anyone laugh or sleep or go about their business knowing that others lost everything to afford you this “normal” life?  I have no idea what it takes to convince yourself of this kind of twisted justice; but these settlers have and so have, of course the Palestinians on the other side, not just in Hebron.

I spoke to one of each:  A woman in a trailer who clearly was proud of her presence there, claiming the birthright of the Jews.   One of the historical signs supported her sentiments.  Paraphrased, it read:  “The restitution of stolen Jewish property is a legal and moral imperative”.  To disown and displace Arab Muslims means nothing to her.  I also visited a Palestinian home right off the souq – one of those whose roof top pretty much touches the wall of a settlement home.  The owner was utterly proud of his love for Hizbollah and prominently-displayed Hizbollah leaders in his living room.  To him, to eliminate the State of Israel and all the Jews with it is the goal, and as imperative as it is for the woman on the other side to claim her birthright.  They both gave me the chills.

This was the most depressing town I have ever seen.  Nothing in Iraq or anywhere else in the world even comes close to it for me.

In all fairness I have to say this:  It is wrong to judge all Arabs or Muslims, or even the majority by the actions and ideas of Hamas, Hizbollah, or other extremist organizations.  It is equally wrong to judge all Jews or Israelis, or even the majority of Jews, by their fanatics.  But Hebron seems to draw them in, the fanatics of all sorts, even the ones from the outside, Christian NGO’s (Non-governmental organizations) among them!  Hebron stands for extremism on all sides.  At its best it could be a warning sign for all of us on what not to do, what not to turn into and what not to pursue.

Wouldn’t this be a good place to raise the Maundy Thursday question:  Is it I?!

Good night.

2011
04.28

SYNOPSIS:

Three museums in one day.  From ultra-modern deep down to ancient layers; from roof tops to tunnels.

As the clouds gathered over Jerusalem,  I changed my plans from doing another day trip to staying around and visiting a few of the less traveled local museums.

The Museum at the Seam was a wonderful break from all the ancient history I absorbed yesterday at the Tower of David and all the religious structures.  In a small, three-storied house which used to be an army post up to the 1948 war, 20th and 21st century artists from all over the world exhibit art related to protest, uprising, oppression, prejudice, racism, and social conflict.  From China to Germany to Israel, from communism to gay parades to refugees, the three levels of the museums were full of thought-provoking images, videos, and installations.  The building itself provided an interesting context.  It was a focal point in the 1948 war as the only border crossing between Jerusalem and Jordan.  To this day it has a damaged balcony, hundreds of bullet holes, and windows which were only roughly boarded up with concrete slabs rather than neatly repaired.  The main point of the exhibit was as much about resistance and protest as it was about freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech is easy when all agree.  It must be protected in times of tensions and conflict even if the message portrayed is an uncomfortable one which tempts the powers to be, to suppress it.

The Rockefeller Museum, the first archaeological museum of the country, took me back in time.  Too far for my taste:  I am not that much into prehistoric arrow-heads and pottery shards.  But the building itself was interestingly laid out in a square with extension corridors and a beautiful, open, court centered around a fountain.   What a tranquil place to sit, just outside the hustle and bustle of the markets that spill out from the Muslim quarter of the Old City.

But the highlight of the day was the Tunnel Walk along the Western Wall.  It is accessible only through a guided tour and you should book tickets in advance to guarantee access.  But, as a single traveler I can usually squeeze in.   You may recall the most recent violence over this tunnel dating back to 1996 when an exit was provided out of the tunnel into the Via Dolorosa which is located in the Muslim quarter.  It was not about any new discoveries.

But in the 1980’s this tunnel project had created even more of a stink when the excavating teams under the supervision of local rabbis had dug westward beneath the Temple Mount, which is considered Muslim territory.  The rabbis had to retreat and to seal the westward extension of their project quickly to avoid escalation of the problem.  Accusations were as far flung as the intent of blowing up the Temple Mount…  The tunnel leads down to a main road dating from Herodian times and an even older water complex of Hasmonean times.

This excavation proves that Jerusalem looked very different 2000 years ago:  Where there are houses and roads today – outside the old city – there was nothing much but sloping terrain which over time was completely filled in and leveled as construction ground.  At Herod’s time the road was exposed to the sky.  Medieval arches built over it, strengthened the ground and allowed construction on top.  This was tangible history supplementing the theoretical information at the Tower of David.

The group is met by an armed guard at the exit – a residue from the days of trouble and protests.  He walks the group back to the Western Wall through the Muslim Quarter.  I have had enough of armed guards and excused myself.  Ultra-orthodox Jews walk through the Muslim quarters daily and the troubles over this exit are fifteen years old by now.  This guard is a joke if not an embarrassment.

Another full day.

Good night.

2011
04.28

DAY 87-TOWER OF DAVID

SYNOPSIS:

A full day spent at the Tower of David and its museum chronicling the 3000 year history of Jerusalem.

A medieval Muslim minaret that became the symbol of a Jewish King who lived 2000 years before it even was built, and which now symbolizes the city of Jerusalem like hardly any other landmark except perhaps the Dome of the Rock.  How is that for some mix-up?  That’s the Tower of David for you as the citadel of Old Jerusalem is known.  It wasn’t David’s tower but Herod’s fortified castle and the medieval minaret was a much later addition.  But who is checking?  For hundreds of years this landmark has been known as the Tower of David and it is unlikely that this will change.

The buildings of the citadel have been renovated to house a wonderful museum of about ten different rooms to represent the major developments in the 3000 year history of the town of Jerusalem.  Beautiful panoramas, well-drawn maps, spectacular models and overall state of the art displays are the strong points of this museum.  I thought I would spend a couple of hours there, but I had to be dragged out by the guard, who shut off all the lights as we left — the last person out, I had been listening to my guided tour and I did not hear the closing announcement…  And I was not done yet!  Oh well.

For me to summarize a museum experience in this blog would make for very boring reading.  So instead, I will finally get around to writing my last Iraq entry and leave it at this:

Jerusalem’s history is a series of remarkable ups and downs of vibrant life, immigration, pilgrimage, trade, commerce and religious competition on one hand, and war, power shifts, and outright neglect on the other.  And it isn’t over.  If Jerusalem will remain in Israel’s hands in the future is questionable if a two State solution will be pursued.   Despite all of these shifts, the Old City has never ceased to be a magnet for all kinds of people, like hardly any other town in the world.  Let’s hope that this will always be the case and that the tolerance between the religious groups which finally has been achieved here will be the basis for its future no matter who “owns” it.

Good night.

2011
04.27

SYNOPSIS:

A visit to the Mount of Temptation in Jericho and a visit to Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

No more walls in Jericho.  They must have all fallen down at the blow of the horns as the story in the bible (Old Testament) tells us.  It is most likely the oldest known inhabited town, with a history of over 10,000 years.  There is not much to attest to that today.  But the sound of the name drew me and so I went to see the Mount of Temptation, another attraction of biblical (New Testament) importance.

It did not seem fair that Christ had to walk all the way up there to be in the desert for 40 days and I could just board a modern cable car which got me to the top in a few minutes, all the while enjoying some spectacular views.  Up on the mountain were a bunch of souvenir stores tucked into natural caves, and several terrace restaurants overlooked the valley, blasting infectious “Habibi” music (popular Arab dance music).  Dozens of young Palestinians enjoyed the view, sipped tea and smoked the nagileh (water pipe) on this hot week day.  This seemed to be a popular excursion spot and not cheap!

For the few more serious visitors – seemingly Christian tour groups who had come for a day trip from Jerusalem – there was a path with plenty of steps to climb to reach the final destination:   A Greek Orthodox monastery built to honor Christ’s fast and temptation in the desert.  This is my third “hanging” monastery on this trip.  Several monks still live in a dormitory literally overhanging the cliff.  And a chapel is built into the mountain.  That’s about it.  A Greek priest gave a short sermon to a group of Greek visitors and a Russian group had come with its own priest holding a service in a side chapel.   I was the odd one who had come alone and understood nothing.  But I looked around for a bit, soaked in the atmosphere and descended for a cold drink onto the terraces before taking the cable car back down.

If you have a car, you can visit a few more sites in this area of secondary importance.  But with public transportation I was limited and decided to use the remainder of the day to go to Qumran.  Taxi? Taxi?  Taxi?  No, taxis are expensive and I decided to approach a group of three visitors asking if I could share a taxi with them.  They had their own car and took me back to Jericho.  Taxi?  Taxi?  Taxi?  I was looking for a bus, but this time I was stuck in this Zone A, Zone B, Zone C dilemma.  There was no bus going to Qumran.  I had to get to the road where an Israeli bus would come through the Palestinian territory, or go on a detour.   I chose the taxi.  The transition was seamless, lucky me.  This bus does not come very often; about once an hour, I was told.

In Qumran I came across a tour of ecumenical English-speaking Christians attending a program in Bethlehem called Tantur, guided by an excellent guide.  I tagged on to their group.  I simply could not resist.  Often I run away from guides as they are making up half their stories, but this one knew his stuff and in great detail.  Ultimately, I hitched a ride home with them in a wonderful, comfortable, air-conditioned bus.  When it came to the check point, we were just waved through!  Wow, not even a passport check.  That was my fifth border crossing and a new experience yet.

It turns out that the guide is an independent one for hire.  Here is his information if you ever are in Israel and can afford or want an excellent guide:  Allan Rabinowitz,   goatpath@gmail.com

There is not that much left at Qumran, but Allan brought the remains to life filling in historical facts, addressing geographical features, and interpreting the evidence looking at the “big picture”; just wonderful.

I got my first glimpse of the Dead Sea which lies at the foothills of Qumran like a big, quiet, dark blue-green mirror.  No boat on it, no sign of life.  No people.  Just a shiny surface.  Further down are resorts and beaches.  I am sure we will go there when Maria, Jack and David arrive.

The road from Qumran  to Jerusalem passes by one of the most controversial Jewish settlements, fenced in with barbed wire and cut off from the Palestinian land by check points:  Ma’ale Adumim.  Over 30,000 people live there since the 1990’s and it is hard to imagine to relocate a community like this should political borders be redrawn in a two-state solution.

Bedouin camps punctuated the otherwise barren, brown, rolling hills along the road and between Jericho and Qumran, and I saw a huge herd of camels herded by Bedouins.  There are only a few of the traditional black square Bedouin tents.  Many of the dwellings seemed to be slapped together from wood, plastic, or aluminum scraps.

In Jerusalem I headed to my chosen falafel stand for my daily dinner:  A falafel – what else?  It gets a bit boring, but it’s the only way I can save some money on a day like this.  It is unbelievable what you spend in Israel on anything from food to transport to entrance fees to overnights.  On average you have to count on American prices plus 50-100%!  And falafels are the most filling and most healthy food around here.  Why not.

Good night.

2011
04.26

SYNOPSIS:

I spent a whole day and a lot of money tracking down some of the more famous art on the Israeli security barrier (wall) between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Today I manifested Walid, bodybuilder, weightlifter, taxi driver and art connoisseur. Who would have thought!? In my naïveté, I pictured myself just going to Bethlehem walking along the wall in a big circle or as far as I could, taking photos. But I only got about 100 meters into it and there was the first complete block. This was not going to work.

After I had crossed the check point at Bethlehem – now I knew exactly what to do and where to go – a whole bunch of taxi drivers descended on me: Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? The big business in town is to shuttle people from the checkpoint to town. No taxi, thanks. No, I did not need a taxi, I wanted to walk.

When I returned, defeated from my 100 meter walk, the scene repeated itself: Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? No taxi, thanks. I needed information and guidance. I want to see pictures on this wall. One taxi driver singled himself out and said: I have a book – let me show you. His English was great and he started to explain some of the images in front of me. And when he mentioned “Banksy”, I was sold! This guy knew Banksy! Banksy, the aloof, incognito, notorious cartoonist from England who reportedly had left half a dozen images on the wall in Israel. This was the man I needed. He quoted me an outrageous price to take me around the area to the various Banksy pictures and to different parts of the wall – no matter how much time I needed, no matter how many times I wanted to stop for pictures. I sighed. He was my man, there was no question. But he wanted his price; so I agreed. He did not let me down.

Look up Banksy on line if you have not heard of him. His cartoon-stencil art goes for hundreds of thousands by now. Today I saw some on the side of a garage, on a tiny wall along a main road, and on a wall soon to be demolished for a slick clean hotel!

I saw the single concrete yellow/white block on the side of the road which marks the transition from a Zone A to a Zone B territory; and before I mess this all up, google the Oslo Accord. There, the various zones of administrative and police/army authorities between the Palestinian Territories and Israel had been agreed on – that was when the peace process was still making progress and before the first intifada in the 1990’s. It is all about whether you are in a territory administered and policed by the Palestinians, or administered by the Palestinians, but policed by the Israelis, or completely administered and policed by the Israelis.

I saw the check points in the middle of the road going to Palestinian towns which were completely isolated from the rest of the area, surrounded by barbed wires, and I saw miles and miles of the wall interspersed with watch towers. All clean on the Israeli side – all full of graffiti on the Palestinian side. Some slogans were very thoughtful, others outright hateful, some completely unrelated. Some images were first rate art, some mediocre, some just trash. Between pictorial statements and the actual writing of messages, there was a lot to look at and to think about. Over time, some of even the finest of images had been over-painted and vandalized; too bad. But the wall is a living thing and I could have put my own two cents on it, had I cared. But I did not bring a spray can and had no intentions other than to record.

Walid gave me directions on where to find more wall art, and after taking a couple of microbuses I ended up in Kalandia on the way to Ramallah. There I found my final Banksy image for the day. But I know there are a few more.

How is this Corey, for following up on your request on looking out for Banksy?

By now I had crossed in and out of Palestinian Territories on the West Bank a few times and thought I knew what to expect. But the check point at Kalandia turned out to be different. First of all, there were a lot of people. The lines moved excruciatingly slow and the soldiers at the check point seemed to have a bad day. There were two young female Israeli army officers who found something to complain about with everyone crossing. Two women in front of me, they rejected a bag of raw almonds. The distressed woman whose bag it was handed it back through the revolving door to us in line asking us to just eat the darn things. When it was my turn, the woman – she looked like she was barely 16 – yelled at me in Hebrew. I asked her to please speak English with me. She then yelled something in English about liquids in my bag. I had no idea that this was on the “no” list. My bottles of water were empty. What could it be? My tiny container of hand sanitizer? Yes, she did not like that. This would have passed muster as carry-on to any airplane! What was her problem? Then she did not feel like opening the revolving door. The woman in front of me had to wait until I was through with my bag. Then she got through but the angry officer locked the revolving door on me. I was trapped and had to go all the way back to her to ask her to please open the door for me! It took a full forty minutes before I had passed the check point by foot; a humiliating and demeaning process. All it would take would be professional friendliness as we encounter it at all of our airports. Who likes those checks? Nobody. But if they are done with compassion and courtesy on the part of the officers they are bearable. Imagine to be yelled at on top of all the shenanigans!

I wanted to know if this was typical and decided to repeat the crossing. I turned back and walked into the West Bank again. This time, I boarded a bus about 100 meters inside the territory going to Jerusalem and went through the check point on public transportation. It took only 20 minutes. Two guys checked all ID’s. My backpack – the one that had caused so much fuss just ½ hour earlier – did not even draw attention.

I guess, it all depends. It’s like the red line in Iran – you just never know where it is and when you will cross it. You don’t know what you will face that day. It could all be fine, or it could be not fine…

Good night.

2011
04.25

SYNOPSIS:

Easter morning at the Mount of Olives. Easter day at the Dome of the Rock.

Last year, I was at a cave in the heart of Iran for Easter. This year I am in Jerusalem. It does not get much better than this and I know how very lucky and privileged I am. To do justice to the occasion I got up before five to be at the Mount of Olives to observe the sunrise. I found a spot in the Jewish Cemetery across the Old City and sat there for a couple of hours taking pictures, watching the darkness flee from the rays of the sun.

Like a beacon, the gilding of the Dome of the Rock picks up the light and outshines everything else in town. The white sandstone that most of the buildings are made of glow in the early morning sun and hardly a person or a car was out yet. A couple of early risers had gathered for sunrise sermons, but they did not come near the Jewish cemetery – wrong religion, wrong time. But it was there, that I could have my own spiritual moment away from it all. Organized religion is nothing for me. But to sit and to contemplate the richness of the history of this place on this very special day felt just right.

I realized that I had left Maat behind in Egypt and Mary Nisbet behind in Turkey. In Iraq, my Pantheon was drowned out by too many people around me. A new virtual travel mate made no sense. But as I was sitting and contemplating, I felt a deep affinity to Mary Magdalene, the most controversial of the three Marys who this very morning way back when, according to tradition, sought out Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. Mary Magdalene in some sources is described as a repentant sinner, a woman whose seven demons had to be driven out, and a woman who was closest to and most beloved by Christ. I like her for her complexity. And this very moment I liked her for having been here before, two thousand years ago. I think, she would be perfect to travel with me through this holy land.

I also like her because she reminds me of a childhood incident. My father and I were walking through the woods and came across a plant which curled up its leaves at the merest touch. The Latin name for it is “Nole me tangere” or “Don’t touch me”, my father explained; and he told me about Mary Magdalene. I have never forgotten that phrase even though I was hardly older than 6. Nole me tangere were the words, the risen Christ is believed to have said to Mary Magdalene, the first to spot him in the garden. She took him for the gardener until she identified him by hearing those words: Nole me tangere.

And so it is that Mary Magdalene joined my Pantheon.

I hiked along the rim of the Mount of Olives, visited the Garden of Gethsemane, and circled back through the Lion Gate to the Western Wall. Destination: Dome of the Rock. There is only one gate near the Western wall which is the entry point for tourists. The Dome area is only open until 11 AM for outsiders and visitors are no longer allowed inside the mosque or the dome itself. What a shame. I am lucky that 16 years ago, I saw the interior of both. It is the Israeli police that check people’s luggage and patrols the mountain. But it is the Muslims who no longer allow entry into their sanctuaries; I am not quite sure why.

The temple mount area is huge. In the Jewish tradition it is known as Mount Moriah on which the temple stood. In the Islamic tradition it is referred to as Al Haram Ash Sharif. Aside from the Dome of the Rock there is the Al Aqsa Mosque, a madrassa (also the First Station of the Cross or what was believed to be the House of Pontius Pilate) and many small gates, fountains, towers, and buildings whose functions are obscure to me. What was most stunning for me to see was a group of orthodox Jews. It is a very tricky thing for Jews to enter the Temple Mount. It is strictly forbidden according to Jewish law to enter the Holiest of Holy. Since the Dome was built over the former Jewish Temple, the Holiest has to be somewhere. The Jewish group – escorted, by the way, by four armed soldiers who attached themselves to the group as soon as they entered – did not go near the dome but circled the area on its outskirts. I have to assume that visits like this do not happen too often. I was so reminded of our police escorts in Iraq. We drew more attention this way than if we had just walked around by ourselves. But then, orthodox Jews are always recognizable as such just as we always could be picked as foreigners no matter how much we tried to blend in. The likelihood of violence was minimal, but the escort acted as a deterrent; fair enough.

At the Western wall special prayers were under way for the last day of Passover. The Torah was read on various tables set up near the Western Wall and many worshipers had crowded into the immediate area before the wall praying and swaying. By tomorrow night that too, will be over. It was early afternoon, when I decided to head back to the hotel. I had been up and about already for over 9 hours and seen enough for a day.

By the time I wrote it all down, processed the images, and called my relatives for Easter, it was way after midnight… And this is how a very special Easter week in Jerusalem went, where Orthodox Easter, Western Church Easter and Passover had all fallen onto the same week for a unique spiritual frenzy.

Only in Jerusalem!

Good night.

2011
04.24

SYNOPSIS:

A closed Old City:  A failed visit of the Dome of the Rock and a hurried visit to Bethlehem instead.

For the Western Churches today is a quiet no-event day in the middle of the frenzy between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.  Not so for the Eastern Churches (Copts, Armenians, Greek and Russian Orthodox) who are celebrating the Miracle of the Spontaneous Light originating in the tomb chamber of Christ within the Holy Sepulcher.  Entry to the Old City was only possible with permits.  Hundreds of people crowded outside the various gates hoping to get in eventually.   I gave up.

The afternoon was quiet all around.  Sabbath in Jerusalem means that no trams are going, there is hardly any traffic, stores are closed and people are walking around in festive mood and dress.  Aubrey and I had our share of violating the Sabbath last night…  We decided to take a new route back to the hotel from the Old City to make things more interesting.   All went well until we got lost in the maze of small streets in a neighborhood called Mea Shearim.  It was dark there, I hardly could read my map and the area, as one of the older Jerusalem neighborhoods, is pretty confusing.  Since Aubrey is a tall, big and darkly tanned man, I thought it would be less threatening if I as a woman with a map in hand would approach some people walking by to ask for directions.

The first young man reluctantly agreed to talk. He had speech impairments and his English was limited; we felt bad for approaching him.  The next few men simply kept walking as if I was not there.  At best they were waving their hands in refusal.  It finally dawned on me that these orthodox men would never talk to me, an unknown woman!  Of course; I knew that much, but had forgotten.  With Aubrey approaching the men, we had more luck but nobody knew where our hotel was or the street we were looking for.  Everywhere reminders were posted to behave in this neighborhood according to the Jewish law; especially women were urged to display modest dress – with my baggy pants and my scarf I never have a problem but I wanted a picture of the announcement.  I made sure that nobody was near and took a photo.  The flash went off and from way back in the distance we heard a scream.  A man was running towards us and for a moment I thought he would arrest me.  He just shouted at us in anger:  Shabbat, Shabbat!  I felt bad for having drawn attention to my camera.  We still were nowhere.

Finally, we saw a man in “normal clothes” – you have to imagine that everyone so far, and there were quite a few people on the road in the dark – had been wearing ultra-orthodox attire with side curls, large fur or black hats, woolen socks, long black or white silky coats.  We approached him and he finally had an inkling where we needed to go.  The whole time we had been within minutes of our destination yet as far as if on another planet…

Aubrey had to leave in the evening today and I was ready to do at least something else.  A new guest had arrived at the hotel and Eli, the manager, introduced me to him:  Wolfgang, a retired professor from Germany.  He was going to Bethlehem and I decided to join him.  I had forgotten how many people travel when they have one week in an entire country.  Professor Wolfgang, better referred to as Speed Demon, and I boarded a microbus which took us to the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories around Bethlehem.  I remember the trip I took about 16 years ago – the taxi was stopped briefly at a check point and showed his license.  Today, this is a check point short only of the shooting devices at a border crossing between former East and West Berlin.  It is part of the “Wall”, the Israelis erected to control the influx of suicide bombers.  Speed Demon was rushing along, calling me to follow, but I had to take this in!  Narrow, single file metal walkways would end in one-way revolving doors, zigzagging to the next revolving door or police booth.  The whole walk took a good five minutes until I found myself on the other side.  There, the wall was full of graffiti which I had to photograph in the fast sinking sun.  Speed Demon was urging me to go on and to make a long story very short:  I lost him after he refused to take a taxi to the church which was (at least for me) too far on foot if I wanted to catch any daylight.  Just running alongside him for less than an hour had exhausted me.  I could not even stop and look at anything!

Bethlehem is the place venerated as the birth place of Jesus.  It has its peak not around Easter but Christmas.  Nonetheless, there was a candlelight  service going on in the new church.  The older part – in 2003 the scene of  nearly 200 terrorists holding nuns and priests hostage there – contains two shrines, one believed to be the manger, the other, the actual birth spot.  As dark as these shrines come, photography is difficult.

I caught my breath again, slowed down, looked around and ran into Speed Demon again, who by now also had reached our destination.  He was racing around with a nun who showed him the various sites and within minutes I had lost him again.  It was pointless.  But lo and behold, on the last bus back to Jerusalem from the checkpoint, Speed Demon and I united once again.  We decided to have a falafel and a cup of tea for dinner and chat.  That did not go too well either as our discussion deteriorated into a political argument in which Speed Demon and I severely differed.   It is interesting to me that when it comes to Palestine and Israel, discussions don’t seem to be rational, measured, based on facts, evaluations, analogies, or analysis.  They are almost always fueled by opinionated, high rising emotions.  Why is that?  He and I are not even personally involved.  If we can’t cool it, how could anyone, whose life is affected by this?

I find it particularly interesting that when I pose factual and historical questions to people like Prima Donna (you surely remember the notorious BW from Iraq) or the Speed Demon which they cannot answer, that the discussion takes a defensive turn in which all of a sudden I become the “bad guy”.  Speed Demon insisted that Israel had never been called Israel before.  Well, is it my fault that it had been the kingdom of Israel in the 10th Century BC?  He also insisted that there were no Jews living in Palestine at all:  Wrong, not many but definitely some, along with Christians.  Why do we need to even deny the facts to make the story fit our own agendas?   Perhaps, it’s time to pose the Maundy Thursday question:  Is it me? Is it perhaps my own stubbornness which perpetuates the problem as much as other things?  I know, I won’t solve this problem.  Just thinking out loud.

Good night.

2011
04.23

SYNOPSIS:

What’s happening at the Via Dolorosa and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a day spent with, guess who:  Aubrey, the Mountain Man from Egypt.

At 6:30 AM I joined the English/German Protestant congregation again to commemorate the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa (VD).  They started at the Lions’ Gate near the first station and for the next hour made their way all the way singing and praying back to the Church of the Redeemer next to the Holy Sepulchre (HS).   Even though the last five stations really should be commemorated directly at the HS, most people have to make do with some temporary signs posted along the way.  Unless you had a pass from the Greek Orthodox or any other church in charge of the many parts of the HS, you would not be able to go in until about 11 AM and then it would be a pushing and shoving event – no place for groups to engage in prayer, etc.

Going with the Protestants gave me an understanding of the Via Dolorosa, but it was not very exciting.  Protestants are way too reserved.  It was much more fun to observe more outgoing and devotional denominations throughout the day who made this journey carrying huge crosses along to reenact some of the story of the last few hours in the life of Christ.  Individual worshipers were also on their way wailing and crying.  The VD goes right through the Muslim quarters of the Old City.  You could see a lot of vendors seizing the moment and making a lot of money by selling overpriced olivewood crosses, VD brochures, folding chairs – and, I am told hundreds of thousands of diapers…

Several more exclusive events were held at the HS throughout the day – one is a mass by a church patriarch given from a great wooden platform in the center of the HS courtyard.  On Thursday, I saw the setup.  By the time I got back on Friday early morning, it had already happened – there is no way to find out from a central source what is going on these three days in Jerusalem.  Each church and denomination has their schedule and as a visitor without any affiliations, you have to take what comes your way.

Remember Aubrey, the Mountain Man who traveled with me and the Spirit Man Kasper for a couple of days down the Nile?  He arrived in Israel a while ago to cat-sit his uncle’s house somewhere North of Tel Aviv.  We connected today and roamed the Old City of Jerusalem together in search of good pictures of the various worship practices and faces associated with Easter.  It is amazing how many languages you hear in a ten-minute span and how many nationalities and colorful dresses you can observe in this city.

We finished the day with a visit to the Western Wall.  It was the Sabbath during Passover Week, one of the most holy days of the Jews coinciding with one of the most holy days of the Christians, not to mention that Friday is the holy day of the week for the Muslims in town as well.  The city was not only flooded with Christians, but entire Hassidic families carrying their Sabbath food to the Western Wall.

I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Good night.

2011
04.21

SYNOPSIS:

Maundy Thursday at the Church of the Redeemer plus a walk to the mount of Olives, or the garden of Gethsemane plus a new insight.

It is no coincidence that I am in Jerusalem this week.  Once in my life I had to be here, where it all started, and see it with my own eyes.  How often are you in a church on Maundy Thursday and the priest can say after handing out communion – which after all is celebrated in remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper, which after all originated just a few hundred feet from the church somewhere in that famous ‘upper room’:  “Let’s go to the Mount of Olives.”  That’s where Christ went right after his Last Supper and there you are, in Jerusalem, and within 20 minutes, you are there, too!  It’s just too much.  I am glad I brought enough tissues along… And I am not even religious!

Of course, it would be great to be in the Holy Sepulcher for the next three days.  But people who get that close literally have reservations through their various congregations and spend all day there – standing, in some cases from the morning until night, like the Ethiopian Christians who wait for the arrival of a miraculous fire coming out of the tomb of Christ, and who have been coming for generations on this day.  Many of them stay in the Kaplan Hotel where I am, wrapped in white linens over their colorful or white dresses.  Quite stunning!

I had to find a much more modest option and decided to go with the German speaking Protestants at the Church of the Redeemer just around the corner from the Holy Sepulcher.  For Maundy Thursday they put on an international service.  Everything was going on in at least three languages:  Arabic, English, and German.  That gave me a conscious reminder that not all Arabs are Muslims.  Many, in fact, are Christians.  But prayers were also split up into Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish!  Curiously, French and Spanish were absent.  They must have their own church.  Everyone got the notes for the service and the songs in their own language.   Each song and prayer sounded like a gathering after the destruction of the Tower of Babel!

After the service the entire congregation walked singing (in four different languages), procession style to the Mount of Olives (or the Garden of Gethsemane), right through the Muslim quarter of the Old City.  Only in Jerusalem!  This town is so charged, particularly now, where the holy week of Passover and the holy week between Palm Sunday and Easter overlap exactly – this does not happen that often because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle.  Every other person is frocked, fringed, side-locked, capped, bearded, hooded, or hijabed.  Crosses, yarmulkes, vestments, and wagon-wheel-like fur hats dominate the landscape.  I can’t help but be in awe over this massive outpour of sincere devotion.

The agnostic I am, I feel like an intruder, but I am there with emotions going back all the way to my childhood.  Growing up in a devout Christian household, I have many memories of going to the Easter Sunday service with my father before sunrise, standing freezing out in the church cemetery for the service celebrating the empty tomb.  I will do my best to be up two days in a row to see the “real thing”:  6 AM tomorrow, 5 AM on Sunday…

I am also there with a genuine interest in the cultural and historical implications of all these rituals and celebrations.  I don’t expect much from the sermons, but today, I was positively surprised and profoundly touched by the German vicar’s message:  First, he appropriately for time and place addressed the fact that Christ’s Last Supper really was a Passover Seder meal.  He also addressed the unfortunate debate within Christendom over matters such as should leavened or unleavened bread be used for the Eucharist – an issue, as silly as it seems – that contributed to the permanent split of the Eastern and the Western church!  He then addressed the Last Supper and the famous statement Christ put before his disciples:  “One of you will betray me.”

And he put a fantastic spin on this scene:  “Is it I” – was the answer of each and every of the disciples.  None of them blamed anyone else.  They all first searched for the possibility that they could be the one who was capable of betrayal.  Just think of all the “good Germans” who for whatever reason turned and became the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Think of all the “good Muslims” who for whatever reason turn to become suicide bombers.  Think of all the “good Jews” who under recent circumstances become fanatics and on and on.  We are all capable of indescribable atrocities given the right circumstances.  These disciples were as fallible and vulnerable as we all are.  But they did the one thing we all could learn to do:  They were looking for the blame first and foremost within themselves!  They were not pointing fingers.  What a cool lesson is that?!  Apply this globally, and the implications are mind-boggling.

And with this wonderful thought to ponder, I will call it a day.  It will be an early morning tomorrow.

Good night.