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Lebanons, part 5: The Wind

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

Blue and white stripes appeared faintly in the fog above me, one atop the other, higher and higher up the rock face. the ladder of trail markers paralleled the chute of water and was very near it. I was about to get drenched.

It could have been worse. I could have not found that discarded hiking stick. As it were, it supplemented a third foot that could rest even on the slenderest hints of stepping room. A gentle drizzle mixed with the fall’s spray. I sang an Irish folk song to keep my morale high, while taking great care not to slip.

There were two sisters in County Clare
Oh the wind and rain!
One was dark and the other was fair
Oh the dreadful wind and rain!

I also thought of Lebanon. My plan was to contemplate Lebanon, and here was a perfect occasion. It was either that or gaze down obsessively and pray there is an afterlife.

What was Lebanon? it was an occasional cultural relic, mysteriously delivered across the lines, a bottle of Arak Touma, for example, that my friend Daniella somehow obtained. It was an entire liter’s worth and she cooked nice fish to go with it. That was one truly proper feast on her Jerusalem rooftop that day.

What was Lebanon? Styrofoam snowballs falling into an umbrella at Haifa’s Wadi Nisnass neighborhood, to the sound of Fairouz’s Christmas album. Jingle bells in Arabic always make me smile. Of course I am far more up to date and know and love Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan as well. I caused a small stone to tumble into the ravine. I should find a decent bench of rock to sit on and rest.

And the both had a love of the miller’s son
But he was fond of the fairer one
So she pushed her into the river to drown,
And watched her as she floated down.

This waterfall was danger, real danger. Out of the rock stuck a peg of steel for me to grab. I held on. It was wet, but rough and well-planted. Dependable. I pulled myself safely one meter further. What was Lebanon? Images online: the pigeons’ rocks, a dock at Byblos, mountains, snowy mountains with a ski lift....





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Lebanons, part 4: The Cage

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

In the year 1991, my father quit his gig as radio journalist for an exciting job: he was made media adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Soon afterwards, the Oslo peace talks were made public. You should see his photo album from the years that followed.

In the course of those years, he frequently traveled to top secret destinations. Telling us he was going on reserve duty, but packing up his suit and tie. Even my mother had no knowledge of his whereabouts.

Once he called her from a secret place, just before dawn. “Where are you?” she asked.

“I still can’t tell you,” he replied, “but I am looking at Eilat from the east.”

Overlooking the southern city of Eilat from across the bay is Aqaba, in Jordan. My mother did the math in a split second. King Hussein committed that he would normalize ties with Israel were a deal to be cut between Israel and the Palestinians. This pact was signed, and now the promise was to be kept. Peace with Jordan was on the way. Tears of joy rolled down her cheek.

I was 16, and the cage of my birth was endowed with a new door. We could now go both to Egypt and Jordan, plus, Jerusalem’s Old City didn’t seem quite as scary anymore. Eventually I ventured through majestic Damascus gate, accompanied by a good high school friend. Contrary to everyone’s warnings, no one stabbed us.

Meanwhile, new gates were being welded, fixed and locked. Within my cage – two new, smaller cages were formed. Palestinians were now required to carry permits in order to leave the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The blue license plates of West Bank and Gaza Strip cars, which once intermingled with our yellow ones along Israel’s roads, were replaces by a new, green variety, banned from crossing the line. The checkpoints became stricter. A new permit regime was imposed.

Within each of the small cages, and throughout the large cage, tiny cages appeared: prisons in which Palestinians are put in “administrative detention” without trial, or as convicts of military trials in which prosecutor and judge wear the same uniform. Tinier still are the cages of the mind, perfect shells of iron buried in our skulls, barring us from interacting even with members...

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Lebanons, part 3: The Gorge

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

The next place on the map that had a name was “Schwarzwaldalp”. I headed for it in the cool morning, winding downhill into a small valley. The pastures were dark green, the cows cute. The clouds were low, obscuring how tall the mountains were above it all.

My foot kicked something on the trail, some stick that didn’t feel like a branch. I looked down and found a titanium walking stick. The handle was broken off but otherwise it seemed fine. Nice luck.

Shwarzwaldalp was not much more than a small restaurant and a children’s playground. I grabbed breakfast: heavily buttered dark bread with slices of hard cheese, had some coffee and flipped through a pile of old magazines on mountain vacationing. They were full of wooden interiors and smiley children in ski goggles. Only the Swiss can really afford Switzerland. I felt resentment toward each and every one of them.

Outside the restaurant was a sign detailing hiking trails in the area.  Only one was interesting, the last on the list. The previous day at the Grindelwald tourist information office, I learned a sad truth: crossing the Bernese Alps on foot was impossible. The top of the range was a vast desert of rock and ice. No hiking trail led through it, just as no foot bridges spanned the Atlantic.

There was, however, one blue line that sloped dramatically up a slender shoulder of the range, then curved down into a valley and eventually met up with a road navigable by car. That trail was mentioned on the sign and to the best of my German understanding, was designated: “extremely demanding Alpine trail”. This was perhaps not an Amundsenian adventure, but wouldn’t be cheating either.

I looked up, knowing that nothing was there to be seen, nothing but fog. I was headed into that fog. How long would this climb take? Could I do it in a day? Unlikely, extremely unlikely. Two days? Perhaps. I pictured myself sitting out the night on a rocky shelf in my wind jacket and light wool sweater, drinking handfuls of snow. I could probably do it, but why would I?

Maybe it was the liberty — the land spread so freely before me, vertically, for the most part — but this was still that thing I lacked so much at home:...

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Lebanons, part 2: The Town

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

I walked in beauty. I walked in fire. Early morning matured into fully boiling day just as the trail led me from shady forest into pastures. Above me soared rocks in outlandish angles that seemed carefully measured so as not to shield me from the sun. Each village spring was a life saver. One farmhouse advertised cheese. I knocked, craving the cool of their cellar far more than the cheese itself.

Somehow I persisted, climbing to the town of Grindelwald, then beyond it. The mountains grew greater, nearer. Over the cliffs appeared the glaciers that worried Theo. They truly were melting, and water gushed down to the valley. The child of a land of few waterfalls, I couldn’t stop taking cellphone photos and posting them. Likes poured in by the hundreds.

Even at 1,500 meters I remained bare chested, cursing the straps of my backpack and guitar case. Oxygen was becoming scarcer and I rested more and more frequently, taking in the gradually expanding vistas of the valley below me. I had to push through. A lady at Grindelwald’s tourist information office booked me a bed at a hikers’s hut, directly above the tree line. I had to reach it before dark – and did. It was lost in a cloud, the first I had seen all week, and as I stepped in, rain began to pour outside.

The pleasant proprietors showed me to a room with fourteen vacant beds. I sat there with little to do but stare at the torrent. This would have been a great time to write about Lebanon, but I had no computer, nor even a writing pad, and in any case, I had nothing to write about Lebanon. I knew nothing of Lebanon. I have never been there.

Except once, in a sense.

Anna, a German journalist and a friend, smuggled me past the border fence in 2005. The IDF gave her permission to visit Ghajar, a village split between Israel and Lebanon, and to bring a translator along. My German and Arabic are both south of limited, but friendship gets you places.

Here’s how Ghajar got to be this way: It expanded into Lebanon while Israel occupied the country’s southern region, following the war of 1982. No Israeli citizens were allowed into the occupied land, Where the IDF...

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Lebanons, part 1: The Theft

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited.
(Click here for more).

I was in Paris and it was hell. A heatwave beat down on the gray town, chasing people out through windows of old maid chambers. They perched in the evenings on roofs, Gothic spires in view, to sip wine by the light of an exhausted moon. Indoors was too hot, but then, out on the roof was also too hot. My hosts lent me a “wife beater” tank top to let my armpits breath. It did little good.

During the day I went for lunch with my friend Theo. We sat at the bistro’s terrace, gasping for air, digging with little excitement at our tartars. A bulldozer arrived and began tearing up the street, ripping out car-sized shards of asphalt with a harrowing noise, dusting up our food and serviettes.

I decided to leave. Norway sounded appealing, but I had to remain in France. My girlfriend at that time was attending two academic conferences and I was to join her when they ended, down in Geneva. That sounded right. Geneva was naturally higher in elevation, but would be too expensive. I Googled an Alpine city in France, Grenoble. Its weather report predicted an entire week of 38 degrees Celsius.

“How is that possible?” I slapped my sweaty forehead, “Grenoble is in the mountains!”

“It’s relatively low,” Theo explained.

Everywhere was low. I soon learned that the cities of the Alpine region are all situated in deep valleys, only a few hundred meters above sea level. Continental Europe claims not a city lofty enough for a neat midsummer blizzard. Theo checked the weather on his own phone. “Their glaciers must be melting like crazy,” he lamented.

“I’ll have to reach actual peaks,” I calculated, “I’ll go to a village, a mountain village.” What would I do alone in a village for an entire week?

I knew what I would do. I would write a book about Lebanon.

I have never been to Lebanon. I can never go to Lebanon. I can get to Paris, 5,000 kilometers away from my home, and rant about it, I can climb up the Alps for air, and rent a room with a mountain view, but the roads that extend north from Tel Aviv all terminate at in impassible fence. The Lebanese can’t visit me either. The...

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Station to Station 4: The two towers

This series will soon arrive at Nitzana. Doors open on the left. The next stop is Nablus. This will be the last stop. Thank you for riding with Elisha Baskin and me.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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The country is magnetic. Several energy fields hide in the terrain, emitting the land’s intensity and mystery like orbs in a Tesla experiment. One such field is famously Jerusalem, another, far vaster one, is the desert.

A journey that began in a dusty ditch on a city’s outskirts, now furthers into the wilderness. Elisha and I take a bus from Be’er Sheva into the Negev. The Turkish wartime rails extended south of here, and the remains of a station await us at Nitzana, directly on the Egyptian border.

Nitzana, a Nabatean town, has not been a place of proper human habitat since the ninth century. A train station was built there in 1915, and was literally nowhere-central. It served a remote police station that guarded the empire’s border with the British controlled Sinai, and a hastily constructed hospital where war wounds were tended. The hospital’s ruins can still be seen atop the mound of the ancient town. It seems like a very bad spot to bring potential amputees. Go figure.

History moved quickly. A flood of Union Jack-waving Aussies and Kiwis appeared from the southern wilds and ousted the Turks from the holy land after centuries of dominance. Nitzana station began crumbling almost as soon as it was built. When we arrive there today only the limestone water tower is left to remind us of long lost wars. It sticks out of the wasteland in majestic mystery, much like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith.  We wander over the expanse, finding a few more walls, recognizing traces left by the rails, taking in the silence.

Following the buzz of music and children’s voices at Be’er Sheva, silence seems to be telling a truth about history. We need to listen well, and not limit ourselves to a tower and a wall. We haven’t yet answered this project’s principle question: why are we even doing it? What’s in a station?

We climb the mound, or “tel.” A dry wind blows through the dead hospital’s windows. We are the only...

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Station to station 3: We the living

In a land of rampant commercialism, abandonment isn’t the worst thing that could happen to an historical railway station. Elisha Baskin photographs — and insists on riding the kiddy train.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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Once upon a time, the good people of this land were able to travel by train from the coastal cities up to Jerusalem. They still can, come to think of it, but nobody does. The trip is twice as long it as it is by bus and the terminal on the Jerusalem end is at Malha, a remote southwestern offshoot of the city. When Elisha and I headed to check out Jerusalem’s historical depot, neither of us even proposed the train, we automatically met at the “sherut” minibus station.

It’s a fairly interesting ride. A man in the front is speaking excitedly in Arabic to the driver for the entire hour-long journey. He’s out of his seat, balancing himself in an awkward crouch, his knees threatening to shift gears. At one point, near Abu Ghosh, he pulls out a stick of hash and singes it with his lighter. We are quite amused.

The station itself promises less excitement. It has recently been converted into a shopping and entertainment complex. No fences or thorns or squeaking stairs await us. Here is home of the ice cream cone and porcelain mezuzahs.

That in itself, however, attests to history. As a child of the 1970s I got to live in two Israels: a largely socialist one, born in 1948; and the radically capitalist one into which it metamorphosed in the 1990s. Elisha was born a decade later and came of age in the second Israel. Being a history buff, she can imagine with clarity what the earlier times were like, but it does demand imagination. The first Israel boasted a single TV channel. Its only shopping mall could be reached by train from the stone structure we are now entering. Now everything is a shopping mall, including this building.

Hopa hopa, here is no Europa

The Ottoman station’s waiting room is occupied by a quirkily designed gift shop. Mainstream Israeli singer Evyatar Banai is playing in the background. “There’s something about places that play Evyatar Banai,” I comment,...

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Station to Station 2: The phantom line

In a strange feat of partial resurrection, half of the railway between Haifa and Damascus is being fixed for reuse. Elisha Baskin’s lens and Yuval Ben-Ami’s pen follow it, focusing on the decaying and embalmed, rather than the freshly welded.  

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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For the next leg of the journey, Elisha and I meet at a train station, a living one. We are hung up on ruins, but Israel also boasts railway infrastructure that is largely modern, functional, and topped with a bonus bit of irony: our red trains are the same used for local service by Deutsche Bahn. Our forefathers fled German trains to establish a sovereign state where we would ride German trains.

The engine of our train dies before we emerge from Tel Aviv, and we remain stuck for 15 minutes or so, but the driver is so apologetic that we forgive. An hour later we are in Haifa, switching to a bus that would take us east, to explore the “Valley Railway.” The rails used to run east of here, linking the coast with Dar’aa in Syria, and with the main artery of the Hijazi railway: Damascus to Mecca.

The Ottomans laid down these rails in anticipation of constructing a major port in Haifa. They run along the Jezreel Valley and past the ancient site of Armageddon. Armageddons around here are a dime a dozen. The empire crumbled soon enough and the port materialized only under British rule. Once the Brits left in 1948, it was the rails’ turn to crumble. The border between Israel and Syria was sealed, the largely rural Eastern Galilee was not deemed worthy of train service, and the locomotives vanished like billows of steam.

Afula’s eggs

Abandoning rails is always a mistake. The fate of towns such as Tiberias and Beit Shean would have been dramatically different had they not been taken off the grid. The Valley Railway is currently being recreated all the way to Tiberias, but for the moment the new rails aren’t functional. We have an entire phantom line to explore and a strangely morbid task: to pick out the dead from the living, to ignore the shining new...

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Station to Station 1: The fenced failure

A journey to the Holy Land’s disused railway stations begins with a sonnet of concrete. Digital and disposable camera photography by Elisha Baskin.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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There is an old railway station in south Tel Aviv. It isn’t really so old by local standards, being 80 years younger than the city’s first train depot. A concrete edifice of the 1970s, it would hardly delight all eyes. “Tel Aviv south” is no Milano Centrale, oh, and it hasn’t served any lines since 1993. It’s useless.

Nevertheless, not only do I take off a hot September day to head there, but I have company. Elisha is a history adventurer: an archive detective who finagles rare film footage, photos and sound bites related to this country’s past. I told her I plan to explore the country’s disused train stations, and she sent me a strange array of ancient photos related to transport in the Holy Land. They were stunningly random. Here was spectacular company for a random historical journey.

“And the first station is just down the street from your hood,” I mentioned.

“Where?”

“Just past the Kibbutz Galuyot highway bridge.”

“There’s a station there?”

Behold how the past evades even its greatest lovers. Then again, South Tel Aviv Station was invisible from its beginnings. That is what sealed its fate.

I would build on the moon

Here is the brief chronicle of a civil engineering folly: the city’s first train station was opened in Jaffa in 1892, when only Jaffa existed. At one time you could board a train there and travel north to Damascus and as far south as the Sudan.

Following the war of 1948, that station became disused. The young State of Israel sought to decentralize Jaffa, allowing the adjacent Hebrew city to inherit it. The final mile of rails was undone, and trains now only ran as far as a station in central Tel Aviv.

The 50s and 60s saw society and leadership both turn automobile-crazed. City politicians expressed concern over traffic jams and blamed the trains that rolled into downtown. Eventually a new station was planned at a peripheral location, and an architect was chosen: Nahum Zolotov.

Zolotov himself felt uncomfortable with the initiative and...

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Seven Nights 7: The Pub Crawl

‘So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people were murdered due to inter-group hatred.’ The seventh and final installment.

For other nights click here.

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One April night in 2003, my cousin Yaron decided he needed a bass player. He was growing as a local blues musician and figured that some accompaniment would do no harm. He told his girlfriend, Shir, that he’s popping over to Mike’s Place, a blues bar on Tel Aviv’s promenade, and left.

He returned shortly afterwards, covered in blood and in a state of shock. While the band played at Mike’s Place, two men walked in wearing explosive belts. The place went up in flames, claiming three lives along with that of one of the attackers. For a reason that remained unclear, the other terrorist failed to pull the trigger. He escaped into the night; his body was washed up by the waves a few days later.

Shir washed Yaron off with the shower hose. The blood came off and no wound appeared — the blood belonged to other people. Nine months to that night, the couple’s first child was born, a Second Intifada boomer and a treasure of a kid.

A dozen or so years later, on the eve of this story’s final night, I invited my friend Michelle for a drink at Mike’s Place. “I’m planning a epic pub crawl that will be remembered in this city’s history. I have been healing nicely from what happened at Jerusalem Pride, but I need a catharsis. So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people have been murdered due to inter-group hatred.”

“May I remind you I live in Jerusalem,” Michelle replied, “That is what I do whenever I go out.”

So she was out, but others agreed to come. At 9 p.m. I left for Mike’s Place with a happy song in my head — one that has been stuck in my head ever since picking the name for this series: “Seven Drunken Nights,” an Irish pub ditty. In each verse, a man returns home from the pub and finds another object that seems to belong to another man. His wife denies, blaming his blood-alcohol level:

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk, you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not...

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Seven Nights 6: Malawi

On its next to last night, the journey leads away from the cities and, in a way, to another continent.  

For other nights click here.

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The papers promised a meteor shower. Here was a great excuse to take a spin out of town. I haven’t been off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis in a while (Bethlehem is essentially a Jerusalem suburb). Nothing sounded more appealing than heading into the dark hills to chase a shooting star or two.

Ruthie was feeling a tad better and encouraged me to head out, but I was unsure. Then a surprise phone call called the shots. My old buddy, Cindy, who lives in Hawaii, urged me to meet a friend of hers on a short visit to the Holy Land. The friend, Nadi, was staying in Haifa, had a car, and was eager to go watch meteors. I stuck with Ruthie for as late as it made sense, then hopped on a northbound train.

It pulled into Haifa just before 11:00. Abby waited in the parking lot. “The climax of the shower should take place just after midnight,” I informed her while buckling up, “How much time and energy have you got?” I asked.

“I need to return the car by 6:30,” she said, “That’s pretty much it.”

This was more than I had bargained for. The Carmel range offers a patch of woodland, the nearest respite from light pollution. but it appeared we didn’t need to stay near. ”So we can go and explore, right?”

“Let’s do.”

All I knew about Nadi on the way up was that she is Malawian. I also knew she is a top class traveler. Rolling out of the city and into the Galilee, I learned that she spent much of her life in the US and was now studying medicine in Boston. She came to Haifa to support a friend, a member of the Baha’i faith, who came to volunteer at the Baha’i headquarters. We spoke of Bahaullah, of Boston and of Cindy for a long while, while seeking a dark spot. There was no such spot, so we spoke of gender issues in Malawian society. We covered the issue nicely, but there still was no dark spot. This country is just that populated.

Bitter coffee

We turned to smaller roads, but even they ended up winding around and through...

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Seven Nights 5: Sodom Burning

I don’t always drink beer in bars with racist symbols on the wall. But when I do, it’s for a good cause. Part five of the nighttime journey.

For other nights click here.

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Saturday night we were back on the streets. Hundreds of left-leaning urbanites marching through central Tel Aviv, condemning the government for turning this land into a hothouse for inter-group violence. Pride flags flew alongside banners promoting unity and equality between Jews and Arabs. By now, the fateful morning of July 31 had claimed the life of Saad Dawabshe, father of baby Ali, who had passed away the morning of August 8. “Incitement is borne around the government table!” cried the megaphone. “Racism is born around the government table! The answer is pride! The answer is struggle!”

We reached the Likud party headquarters. Someone brought a projector and illuminated the building with hateful comments made by our leadership. Culture Minister Miri Regev had said that East African asylum seekers are “cancer in our body.” On election day, Prime Minister Netanyahu had threatened that sinister Arabs would take over the country lest Israelis rush to vote for him. Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich had called Jerusalem Pride “a parade of beasts and perverts.” His party member Motti Yogev had said Israelis should topple the Supreme Court with bulldozers because it had issued a minor decree concerning settler land-grab. There were more.

I bumped into Gil, a dear friend and one of my favorite poets. She looked up at the quotes and referred to the weather, as poets should. “The heat rises from the ground like a reflection of the hell that this place has become,” she said. “This is Sodom burning.”

Other things happened that night, but I don’t want to write about it. The heat got to me. I argued about the occupation with a stranger, then about the Nakba with a friend, and went to bed confused and somewhat despaired.

The following night was all joy. Our friend Nicola, an Italian diplomat, celebrated his birthday at the penthouse of another Italian diplomat. There was a small pool on the roof and the view was stupendous. The open bar was manned by hired hands, the pizza was authentic Neapolitan and the gelato the city’s finest.  I had many great conversations that night, none of them arguments, but...

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Seven Nights 4: Contact point

Chapter four in the nighttime journey is a tale of two parties.

For other nights click here.

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If you think the nights I skip in this chronicle are uneventful, think again fast. On Wednesday I was rushed to the airport with an immigration scandal. A young American who flew in to intern with a company for which I work was interrogated on arrival and then deported. The reason remained withheld but we suspected political bias. This is hardly an unusual occurrence these days.

The intern handed her interrogators the number of the company head: a leader in alternative tourism, a National Geographic Explorer, a Ted Fellow, a Palestinian. The interrogators questioned her at length about him and the tours we give, which happen to be dual-narrative and deal with political issues. They then put her on the first plane home. My boss was never told of her deportation and was denied the right to speak to her. I, being of privileged name and accent, was granted both truth and phone call, yet even I could not overturn the decree.

I returned home, couldn’t sleep and surfed the web. I read that a prominent Israeli community leader called for Jews to burn churches in the holy land,  I saw footage of a Bedouin village being demolished by authorities, who left its residents roofless in the desert and carted away their water tanks. The following morning I learned that a state budget was passed over night. There was no public debate. We were too busy bandaging wounds.

This was not helpful. I needed hope. I needed rest. I needed a good night out.

Kia ora, Palestine

I had just the friend for such a night: a friend from New Zealand. My previous series published on +972 Magazine was the Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries. It revolved around a tribute to my favorite star musician, who happens to be a Kiwi. One of Lorde’s compatriots read it and told another, who told another, who got in touch. On Thursday night I made plans to meet up with not one but two New Zealanders. I figured some cool mist from the south seas could do me good.

In rolled up to Jerusalem and went to see Kate, a young journalist who reports for major news sources Kiwi and otherwise. The night offered much entertainment. The city of Bethlehem...

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+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

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