Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian territories through a month of trial. And today: a special farewell double-feature with lots and lots of photos from a really cool town!
Jerusalem is eerie this morning. The two days of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, are to be followed immediately by shabbos. I arrive into town on Friday, at the exact middle point of this three days slumber. Since driving is prohibited on holidays, I can walk directly in the middle of King George Street, normally one of the city’s busiest.
But the peace of Jerusalem can also be disturbing. Here is the Horse Garden, previously the site of Israel’s densest tent city. On the first day of this journey I saw for the first time a dismantled tent city, in Beit Shean. These little hubs of healthy dissent have suffered and shrunk ever since, but in all cases something remained, if only a single tent or a banner. The Horse Garden is empty. Nothing happened here.
Let it be. I’m not in town for tents today, but for buildings with stable roofs, roofs on which one can stand and take a look around.
Here’s the story. About seven years ago the editor of a local travel magazine had a wild idea. She asked me to check into a Tel Aviv hostel, make friends with a bunch of backpackers and travel the country in their footsteps. She didn’t explicitly ask me to pose as a backpacker – that I did on my own whim. When on the first night some Swiss girl asked me where I was from, I asked her where she thought I was from.
“South Africa?” was the guess.
“Correct,” I said.
Thus I became Bill from South Africa. I picked a name similar enough to my own, so that in case someone called me from afar, I would turn my head. It worked.
What didn’t quite work was the grand plan. The editor expected a serious tour. “Spend a week with them,” she instructed, “Follow them wherever they go, the Sea of Galilee, Safed, the Dead Sea…” In action, the backpackers with whom I teamed up picked a single destination, a hostel in the old city of Jerusalem. They spent an entire week there doing little more than playing cards.
As the week drew to an end, I found myself standing on the roof of that hostel at sunset, baffled with this world. I was a tourist in my native city, working by doing nothing at all, myself and yet someone else. I could see in the distance the building on French Hill where I grew up, and wasn’t sure how too look at it.
A dark yellow peace came over everything as calls of muezzins and tolling bells mixed into my vertigo. Something happened to me there. I felt for a second what people are supposed to feel in Jerusalem, that stir, as though the heart were a tea cup into which God was mixing two spoonfuls of sugar with a minaret. It was then that my theological dillemas were solved and I finally, firmly knew what I believe in: I believe in Jerusalem rooftops. My objective for this last day of the September journey is to stand on as many of them as possible.
It’s been a tough month. I arrive in Jerusalem feeling as though I just crossed Europe on horseback. Over the past 30 days I was arrested by Palestinians, interrogated by Israelis, shot at by a Russian and moved nearly to tears by a right-wing American evangelist. My shoes are in a sorry state, my relationship with my parents is a wreck. I need a good, proper rooftop to start the day, a five-star rooftop, the rooftop of the 22 story Leonardo Plaza Hotel.
Inside the lobby, Jerusalem’s eeriness continues. Jews around the world pray facing Jerusalem. Having arrived here, they seem to turn their devotion towards elevators.
The security guard, Omri, is a friendly sort, but can’t let me up without word from the chief security officer, who isn’t on the premises. I take Omri’s number, in case his boss returns, and walk out without having kissed the sky. Directly outside the hotel, my disappointment switches instantly to joy, on discovering that Jerusalems’ second tent city still lives.
An activist named Erez invites me over. He works at a snack factory in the town of Beit Shemesh, a half an hour from here, and has been living in a tent for two-and-a-half months now. “I’m not willing to put 60 percent of my salary into rent,” he explains, “I’m staying here if it scrapes years off my life.”
Since this day is the journey’s last, I don’t ask Erez about September, but about October and beyond.
“What do you think the future holds?”
“I’ll tell you exactly what is going to happen. Shelly Yachimovitch will be prime minister, Amir Peretz will be defence minister, Amram Mitzna will be minister of welfare. Our problem is that the right is too strong. It is so strong that Bibi managed to become prime minister without even getting a majority of the votes. It is so strong we almost had a revolution here. But now the Labor party is back in action.”
“Have you always voted labor?”
“Close to Labor,” Erez says, in a somewhat timid tone. That’s understandable. Up until the founding of Kadima in late 2005, the party directly to the right of Labor was Likkud.
Erez invites me to stick around, but I’m starving and fantasizing of open shops and cafes in East Jerusalem. The activists ask whether I can bring them a bottle of cold water from there and I promise to do so.
A sesame bread at Jaffa gate does the job for now, and I head for the Petra Hostel’s roof. The view is indeed splendid, especially now that Hezekia’s pool, a reservoir dating back to the 1st century BC, which lays directly beneath, has been cleaned of decades’ worth of trash previously ignored by Jerusalem’s municipal authorities.
There’s a tent here, always agood omen, and it belongs to a man wearing an impressive beard. His small pony tails match the traditional Jewish tassels that hang, rather nontraditionally, from the belt loops in his shorts.
The man is reading aloud from a Hebrew Bible in an American accent. I wouldn’t dream of disturbing him, except that suddenly the chanting of monks rises from the street below and both of us lean over the railing to watch their procession trail the citadel’s ramparts. This is enough of a sight to spark a conversation, and what a conversation it is.
Timothy came from Pontiac, Michigan. “I’m the worst drug dealer of all time,” he says, “I sold my first kilo of cocaine to a policeman.” After two years in a Florida prison he escaped, and was only caught ten years later for committing a minor offence. During his second prison term, which lasted just short of a decade, he taught himself Hebrew and converted to Judaism.
Judaism tends to be a relative term on the Petra hostel’s rooftop. Timothy does mock “pagan Christians,” but also says such things as: “In the millennium I will reign with Christ.”
The pages of his Bible are inscribed by magic marker with the word “Eheye” – “I shall be.” In Hebrew theology, the name of God is made up of the verb “to be” in past, present and future tenses. I point out Timothy’s choice of emphasizing the future and ask him what he foresees for us.
“It is my business to know the future.” Timothy says, “See, I do biblical calculations. I have already calculated from the number-prophecies in the book of Daniel the exact dates of several important events.”
I ask about the end of days. Timothy pokes fun at people who claim to know the precise date of the Apocalypse. “If you read Paul,” he said,” You’ll see that he thought the end of days was imminent, that it would come during his lifetime. So many people after him thought the same of their own lifetimes.” According to his calculations, the apcalypse will arrive on the year 2314, “so we still have more than three centuries,” he smiles.
Will nothing this friendly, profound human being says be of any value to a skeptic like myself? Not quite. When Timothy speaks of the constant turmoil in the Middle East, he describes a reality I recognize. The situation here rarely erupts, he says, it’s the constant tension and the small, repeated injustices that drive everyone here to the edge. “God worked it out this way, so that people will feel forced to find him within themselves,” he explains, “But nothing truly terrible will ever happen here. God protects this land.”
What can one say but amen.
While having non-biblical hummus and siniyah at Abu Taher’s, in the butchers’ market, I notice that my phone’s clock moved one hour backwards. Throughout this month, West Bank residents lived by a different clock to that of Israel, a double-summer-time, implemented by the Palestinian Authority in order to ease August’s sizzling Ramadan fast. It turns out both my cellphone provider and time itself consider East Jerusalem to be part of the West Bank.
Not everyone does, though. The roof running over the market is used by Jewish settlers who made their homes in the heart of the Muslim Quarter as a walkway to the Jewish one. Several guard posts stick out of the flat promenade.
I approach one of them and find a bored, bare-headed lad inside, playing on his smartphone while an electric guitar leans against the chair beside him. He is dressed in civilian attire but is holding an Uzi on his lap.
“Are you with the police?” I ask him.
“Are you military?”
“So you work for a private company that protects the settlers here? One paid for by the city, perchance?”
“Some would suggest that you are supporting a provocative political act,” I say, “Do you identify with this act?”
“From your point of view I’m supporting a provocative political act. From my point of view, it’s work. Maybe there’s some guy on the Mount of Olives that hates me for it, but I’m bringing home the bread.”
His name is Yevgeny and he plays in several soft rock suits, accompanying singers who sing in Russian. He prefers not to make predictions for the future, but doesn’t mind making a wish for the new year: “I hope we all start acting like human beings. It’s up to each person to initiate this on his or her own. If you want to see change in the world, start with yourself.”
Hmmm, I think. Sometimes roofs simply aren’t enough to give a vantage point.
Since the promenade leads only into the Jewish residences and offers no access to the neighborhood, and since the courtyards of the settler enclaves turn out not to open to it, I retreat and reach the Jewish quarter. It is less picturesque than the rest of the old city, having been demolished by the Jordanians after 1948 and rebuilt later by the Israelis in modernist fashion, but it is nonetheless a lovely environment for a holiday stroll.
A few of the quarter’s streets provide wonderful views to the Wailing Wall and the monuments of Temple Mount. it seems that my turn has come to decide what would be an appropriate wish for the new year, then go ahead and wish for it.
Descending to the plaza that stretches before the wall (where a Palestinian neighborhood once stood and was demolished, but I really can’t linger on all of these), I pull out my pen and am instantly stopped by a pious lady. Writing is forbidden on the holiday. The lady, a volunteer with the Wall’s religious authorities, is here to keep order.
For want of another choice I pull out one of my +972 business cards. It is already inscribed with a wish of sorts: that we will all be able to continue and freely voice that which we perceive as truth. The comment I made in parentheses above may soon become illegal, now that the Nakba Law passed at the Knesset. Can the lord of Wailing Walls save us from more such laws? It’s worth a shot. I say a psalm, fold the card and stick it in a crack between the ancient stones.
On exiting the Wailing Wall complex into the Muslim quarter, a gaming arcade appears on my left. It’s full of kids who were left here to pass the time while their parents went to pray at Al Aqsa.
A few older Palestinian guys compete with me at the punching bag. No doubt: It would be unwise to focus the next war on hand to hand combat and have me out as sole Israeli soldier. My fist gets a score of 550. Ahmed, who runs the place, gets up to 870.
When I ask him about the future, Ahmed gives a long answer that shifts between various options. At first he says: “Everything will remain the same.” Later he suggests that a decade of “hudna” (general ceasefire), is possible, and would facilitate long term agreements further down the road. Finally he becomes determined that a war is to erupt, a major world war, driven by international economic crises.
Ahmed is aware of the contradictions, and blames his East Jerusalem status, which is not identical to an Israeli citizenship, and isn’t a Palestinian citizenship at all. “Look,” he says, “We fall between the knives here. I don’t even know where I belong.”
He certainly isn’t alone. All of us have to strain our necks to see an inch ahead. This is just as true at the end of this month then when it started. It’s time to go up on a really high roof, as lofty as can be found, and take a really good look around.
I know just the roof. The Leonardo Plaza’s chief security officer got back to me and approved my visit. It’s time to head out of the old city in the midst of the post-Friday-prayer human Yang Tze.
Out, through Damascus gate, and over the narrow traffic island used by religious Jews to avoid East Jerusalem on their way to daven at the Wall.
Then into sleepy West Jerusalem and its curious combinations.
I stop by the park to give Erez a bottle of water, then head for the hotel. The chief officer assigned a guard to accompany me to the top. “It’s an amusement park of the mind up there,” he tells me as we depart.
Which it is indeed.
Every single ingridiant that figured in this month’s fancy recipe can be glimpsed from here. Here is the King David Hotel, West Jerusalem’s fanciest and a favorite with the tycoons who enraged so many Israelis. It is graced by the separation wall, which enrages so many Palestinians.
Here’s is the dead of the desert, appearing behind the buildings of Abu Dis, home to families like Uda and Nuf Al-Azazme, who are to be uprooted.
Here is central Ramallah, Area A, the forbidden zone which got me into so much trouble.
Here is our government’s corruption in the flesh. The Holyland Project, a real-estate godzilla that was approved thanks to a bribe to Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, later Prime Minister of Israel, today a defendant in multiple legal prosecutions.
Here is the protest tent in which supporters of the Shalit Family come to show their displeasure with the government’s failure to free the abducted soldier.
And here, to me delighted surprise, is a new tent city that did not exist there a month ago. Should we hope?
Finally, here is the source of all our troubles and of all our aspirations: The Dome of the Rock, acropolis of pagan and later of monotheist Jerusalem. The 8th century monument encloses a rock. To Jews this rock is the setting of the binding of Isaac, the site of the wrecked temple’s holiest chamber and first stone of creation. To Muslims that rock is the setting of the binding of Ismael and the site of Mohamed’s ascension. They consider the grotto beneath it to be the passageway of all souls on their way to the afterlife. In short, here is the unsplittable nucleus of our entire story.
I didn’t quite expect all of this, and as we descend I get to thinking we should really go up on rooftops more often.
Hold on, this isn’t over. I know this post was full of photography, but feel as though I owe you all another snapshot. The very first portion of the journey was illustrated by a striking painting of Jerusalem at sunset by American painter James Fairman (1826-1904). It would be only sensible to climb now to the top of Jerusalem’s own rooftop, the Mount of Olives, and create a photographic tribute.
Here is what comes out.
Sadly, I seemed to have climbed the range north of where Fairman’s easle stood, so the sun itself is absent from the photo. This leaves me no choice but to turn seaward, to where the centers of both East and West Jerusalem are snuggled together, and make my own variation on his theme.
I think it came out rather lovely.
Thank you so much for joining me on this trip. Your reading eyes did mountains for this project. Special thanks to those who pitched in and also for those who commented and shared. I really am so grateful.
For those of you who are on this soil: I’ll be celebrating the end of the road by giving a performance of travel songs at Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 club. It’ll take place on Tuesday, October 4th, at 10 pm Tel Aviv time (which is always a bit later). The cover charge is 30 shekels. Come and bring friends!