Originally, my mom and stepdad Mark were planning on visiting me in Egypt during the month of February. When the protests started up, our last Skype session before the internet was blocked ended with them assuring me that they were still planning on coming to Cairo. A few days later, I was evacuated, and those plans went out the window.
Once I decided to finish off my year abroad in Israel, we started talking about reviving the original plans to visit, but rescheduling them for Jerusalem at the beginning of April. As that week approached, my mom and I joked about how I would probably end up getting evacuated before they made it over here. On the day that the bus was bombed in Jerusalem, she commented, “Must be almost time for our visit!” Even a few days before the scheduled arrival, I couldn’t really believe that it was actually going to work out, but hey- they made it!
The two of them flew into Tel Aviv on March 31st, and took a sherut (a 10-person taxi with set prices) into Jerusalem, which is only about an hour-long ride. I bused down to the downtown area to meet them at the intersection of Ben Yehouda and King George street to show them to their hotel, the Palatin right off of King George street. The journey went off without any major hitch, aside from the usual questioning by airport and El Al security. Apparently, when flying into Israel, anyone who isn’t dressed like an orthodox Jew is the odd one out.
That night was dedicated to settling into the hotel and grabbing a late dinner. The Palatin isn’t exactly a 5-star resort, but it’s in a great location, isn’t too pricey, and has a pretty helpful staff. It’s also only a 15-20 minute walk down Jaffa Street to the walls of the Old City, where we ended up walking for dinner. The Old City was hosting a big food festival outside of Jaffa Gate, where vendors had set up samples of food from all over the world. We browsed the options, walking past displays of tea, fresh juice, olive oils, pastries, vegetables, and desserts before settling on some Turkish food- I grabbed a stuffed tomato, chicken, and stuffed grape leaves from some friendly English-speaking vendors. We walked through the stone walls of the Old City, its facade illuminated with spotlights in honor of the festival.
The Old City is split into four main quarters: Armenian, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. The Jaffa Gate lead us into the Christian quarter, where shopkeepers offered everything from intricate scarves to wooden carvings of the nativity scene. By the time we got to the Old City, it had gotten dark, but the cobblestone streets were still bustling with people. We decided to camp out on the steps in front of a closed shop and people-watch while eating our late dinner. A group of young guys walked past, playing guitars, horns, and drums, while teenagers wandered by in sightseeing tours. A large crowd gathered around a set of entertainers showing off magic tricks and flips. Stray cats cast tall shadows on storefronts, introducing my parents to the first of many friendly cats in Jerusalem.
We headed back to the hotel, and I returned to the Student Village at Hebrew University pretty early that night. I had put together a long schedule for the next day, so we tucked in for the night and planned to get an early start the next morning. I really wanted my parents to be able to see Bethlehem, where Jesus was supposedly born, and figured that it would be a good way for them to see a little bit of the West Bank- it’s really touristy, so it wouldn’t be too hard for them to maneuver. I, however, am not allowed to go into the West Bank (thanks to my program’s rules), so I just provided them with a set of very detailed instructions and stayed home to bake cookies and read the Torah.
So, at around 8 AM the next morning, my parents walked down Jaffa Gate to the bus stop outside of the Damascus Gate of the Old City, which leads into the Muslim Quarter and is an area with a predominantly Arab influence. These are the only buses that lead into the West Bank. They boarded the number 21 bus and rode into Bethlehem after being stopped on the way in to allow soldiers to board the bus and check passports. A talkative Israeli student pointed out the agricultural makeup of the country’s terraced hills throughout the ride there. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, they met up with an Argentinian couple who joined their sightseeing trip for the rest of the day, and helped ward off overeager taxi drivers waiting at the bus stop. A short walk lead them through cobblestone streets lined with light blue doors, churches, and mosques, until they arrived at the Church of the Nativity, which marks the birthplace of Jesus. A series of souvenir shops cropped up as they approached Manger Square, and a young boy insisted that they promise to return to look through his shop on the way out.
The Church of the Nativity is not as visually imposing as one might expect. Its beauty lies in its history. It’s the oldest continuously operating church, originally commissioned in 326 AD by Emperor Constantine. Today, the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Catholics share the management of the church. Despite its significance, the main entrance is a door that only a small child could fit through without ducking- the Crusaders apparently reduced its size to prevent attackers form riding in. It hasn’t been remodeled with the latest technology or architectural design- the columns are faded, the ground is uneven, and its mosaics are chipped, but it’s one of my favorite sights in Israel (not that I’ve been there- the pictures look nice!). Golden lanterns hang from the ceiling, topped off with red Christmas tree ornament bulbs. Huge chandeliers grace the prayer area, candles dripping wax onto their bases. Light creeps through windows onto faded paintings of religious figures in mismatched frames on the walls. The place has character.
My parents ended up waiting in a long line of visitors in order to descend into the grotto of the church, in which you can reach your hand into a hole in the ground to touch the land on which Jesus was supposedly born. Tour guides repeatedly approached the line, offering to get them to the front for a small fee, and throwing phrases out in various languages in attempt to get the attention of their potential customers. An hour or so later, they pushed down a few stairs and into the grotto, waiting their turn in line to stick a hand through the fourteen-pointed star on the ground and touch the cold, smooth stone beneath it. The grotto is dark and lantern-filled, just like the rest of the church. Its walls are covered in dark tapestry, and the entire area only holds 15-20 people at a time. To the right of the fourteen-pointed star, a small area is dedicated to the scene of the nativity. Tour guides usher their groups in and out, offering information in every language imaginable.
After the Church, my parents stopped at a small restaurant up the street which offered the staples of Israeli/Palestinian food. They ordered falafel sandwiches, shawerma, laffa, hummus, and salad, which came with a small platter of olives and pickles. My parents shared lunch with the Argentinian couple, and were only interrupted when the Call to Prayer sounded over the square- it was Friday, after all, the major day of prayer in Islam. Interestingly enough, a large mosque stands directly across the plaza from the Church of the Nativity. Men, most carrying personal prayer mats, gathered in the streets and eventually formed neat lines all around the mosque. They snaked through the streets and alleyways surrounding the restaurant and shops, all facing in one direction: Mecca. As the Call to Prayer went through its verses, the men responded, first standing at attention, then going through the rituals of bending down on their knees and touching their foreheads to the ground. After prayer, they greeted each other and returned to their daily lives.
Full of falafel, my parents and the Argentinian couple made their way to a few of the shops in the area to pick up souvenirs before leaving Manger Square. The young man from the original shop insisted that they return to his place, and was happy to sell them a few scarves. At one point, he showed Mark to an ATM in the area, which gave mark Jordanian Dinar instead of the Israeli Shekels that you’d expect. My parents were confused, and questioned whether this was some type of scam, but made their way to another small shop which sold wood products. The shelves were lined with sculptures of crosses, Jesus, and other symbols of Christianity, all marked with price tags in American Dollars.
My parents ended up inquiring about the Jordanian Dinar and US Dollars in the area, and the shopkeeper provided an interesting response. Apparently, the Tourism Authority in Palestinian-controlled areas (i.e. most of the West Bank) strongly recommend that shops do not use Israeli Shekels in an attempt to distance themselves from Israel and emphasize the Palestinian presence. The man continued to show them his Palestinian ID cards, pointing out how his religion is listed on the card. He stated that some Palestinians are allowed to leave the West Bank on certain religious holidays (like Christmas and Easter for Christians), but only after receiving specific permission. Apparently, permission is sometimes only granted to one half of a married couple (the husband but not the wife, or vice versa), which usually results in them not leaving the West Bank at all- what kind of married couple would spend Christmas apart? I can’t speak to the truth of this statement, but it’s a thought-provoking idea nonetheless.
Souvenir shopping eventually lead to plans to see some of the graffiti on the separation wall between the West Bank and Israeli territories- graffiti can only be found on the Palestinian side. Upon seeing my parents and their new Argentinian buddies, the taxi drivers excitedly fought over who would get the profit- some bragged that they knew exactly where to take them, while others offered to take them to even better sites. The one common denominator was that all of the taxi drivers knew about the appeal of Banksy graffiti. Banksy is an anonymous English graffiti artist who has traveled the world to make his mark. He’s well known for his satirical pieces and dark humor. Recently, he was the subject of a film (‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’) which was nominated for an Academy Award. Most tourists who are interested in seeing the separation wall are specifically looking for Banksy graffiti, so my parents settled on a driver who offered to take them to three separate pieces. He raced through the hills of Bethlehem, speeding past beautiful rolling hills of the green landscape.
Before long, my parents were being driven along the separation wall, and were exposed to their first bouts of graffiti. They saw a spray-painted, stencil image of a peace dove wearing a bulletproof vest and a young girl patting down a police officer. Further adventures along the wall took them down a few narrow streets, and the driver eventually parked between some homes and the wall. The buildings ended up being United Nations buildings and bases for the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which is an organization dedicated exclusively to assisting Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants. The UNRWA has a series of refugee camps throughout the Middle East, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was amazing that they were able to see camps and signs of the organization so close to where I’m studying- I had literally just written a paper on the relationship between the UNRWA and Israel a couple of days beforehand. This is just another example of why studying abroad is such a cool experience. You literally see the topics you’re studying before your eyes.
The wall was sprayed with various quotes and images. The drivers allowed their passengers to get out and take pictures, while they stopped for a cigarette break nearby. Across the street, a truck full of young men in uniform watched as my parents observed the wall. Eventually, a couple of young Palestinian boys ran up to my parents and the Argentinians, asking what they were doing there and where they were from. They eventually asked them for money. Every time I hear about little kids doing things like this, I always think back to one quote that I read on the separation wall- “What is this teaching our children?” The effect of the conflict is unquestionable.
The taxi drivers eventually took my parents back to a bus stop, where they boarded a bus to take them back to Jerusalem. The drivers pulled the typical trick (“No, we said it costs 50 Shekels each way, not total!”) before submitting to the lower cost and driving away. Given the heightened state of security in Israel and the Palestinian Territories at this time, it was surprising to hear that the checkpoint was comparatively easy- a soldier just boarded the bus and asked everyone to flash their passports once again, while those without the proper paperwork disembarked the bus and crossed the border on foot. The bus returned my parents and the Argentinians to the bus stop outside of the Damascus gate of the Old City, and I met them there to continue our adventures for the day.
That day was Friday, which means that sundown would bring the first day of Shabbat. Friday is the sabbath (or holy day) of Judaism, and Shabbat is a tradition which goes along with it. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, observant Jews restrict themselves from a wide variety of activities- making fire (which includes turning on and off lights), exchanging money, and using cell phones and computers are the most noticeable ones. So, prayer on Fridays is kind of like the equivalent of going to church on Sundays- it’s a bigger deal, and prayer on Friday at the Wailing Wall is like the big kahuna of Judaism. The Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) is known as the most important religious shrine for the Jewish people. 2000 years ago, it was built as a retaining wall to the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock is and Second Temple was), but following the destruction of the temple, Jews prayed to the outer wall instead- rabbinical texts claim that the divine presence never left the wall, making it the most holy of all Jewish sites. The Wall was lost to the Jordanians in 1948, but reclaimed during the Six Day War, when Israeli paratroopers fought their way directly to its location.
So, an hour or so before sundown, we made our way into the Old City through the Damascus Gate, which leads directly into the Muslim Quarter. The Muslim Quarter is a little bit different from the others- there are vendors set up on the ground, on planks of wood, and various tables selling fresh bread and produce, cell phone chargers, toys, and socks- you could literally find anything you need, and cheap! The streets are bustling with women, their hair covered by hijabs, and old men with thick mustaches and leathery skin, wearing red or black checkered kufiyyas on their heads. Kufiyyas are a type of scarf that are specific to the Arab countries of the Middle East. Men normally wear them on their heads, held down by thick black ropes traditionally made of camel fur. Recently, they’ve become popular amongst younger crowds as scarves. The color and pattern symbolizes solidarity with certain countries- red is generally for Jordan, and black can be representative of Iraq or Palestine, depending on the pattern. They’re sold in almost any place where there’s an Arab population, but they definitely make a political statement.
We settled down at a small cafe next to the gate to grab some drinks while we waited for the sun to set and relaxed for a bit. A tiny table and stools outside put us right next to the walkway, providing some great people-watching. Mark and I got some “local” beer, Taybeh, which is the only Palestinian beer, and is manufactured in a small town in the West Bank. My mom settled for some mint lemonade- it was delicious! The cafe owner was a charismatic older man who spoke perfect English and did everything he could to ensure that we were happy. Even when my mom mentioned her allergies and sniffly nose, he brought out his “home remedy”: pure lemon juice, and then a shot of pure vodka to “clear the sinuses”. My mom opted for the lemon juice, and Mark took one for the team by drinking the vodka. From that day on, every time we passed the cafe on our way into or out of the Old City, the man waved and asked how my mom’s allergies were doing. Funnily enough, they actually improved post-lemon juice!
We made our way through the crowds in the Muslim Quarter and walked down one long, straight path that leads directly up to the security gate of the Western Wall and Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located). We flashed our passports, went through metal detectors, and had our bags hand-searched before walking into the open plaza that stands before the Wall. To our left, the Wall stood, with the tip of the Dome of the Rock just barely visible behind it. Straight ahead, the ancient walls were lined with exits out of the Old City. We still had a good amount of time to go before prayer would really pick up- there’s no specific event to wait for, just a culmination of people and activity. So, Mark put on one of the community yamikas and made his way into the men’s side of the prayer ground in front of the wall. He wrote a small prayer on a slip of paper and wedged it into the cracks of the wall, alongside thousands of other pieces that have been left here by visitors for years. My mom and I made our way to the right side of the partition, walking towards the woman’s section where people were pressed up against the wall, whispering prayers and gingerly holding their hands up against the stone. Like the others around us, we walked away backwards to avoid turning our backs to the wall before meeting up with Mark again in the general area behind us.
We sat on some spare steps until sundown, making conversation with fellow visitors and watching people trickle in. As the sun began to set, volunteers began walking around the grounds, advising people not to take pictures or use their cell phones out of respect for the rules of Shabbat. The space in front of the wall began to fill with people- some of the orthodox wore long black robes or suits, with large black flat-brimmed hats. Others wore large circular hats made of fur. Small groups sat with personal Torahs in front of them, following services lead by rabbis. Young men formed circles, singing cheerful Hebrew songs and dancing with linked arms. My parents had been a bit wary of the Wall, since it is easily assumed that prayer would be a solemn event- it is a landmark of the destruction of the Second Temple, a tragedy in the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, prayer at the Wall has a feeling of celebration and unity, as Jews from all over the world join together in one place. As we were getting ready to leave, a huge group of young boys formed a circle outside of the main prayer area. They linked arms and hollered songs, as some danced in the middle before rushing off as a group to join the prayer at the wall.
Afterward, we made our way back into the main alleyways of the Old City and decided to stop somewhere for a late dinner. We ended up walking past an old Armenian Church, with tables set up as part of a restaurant in the courtyard. It was a beautiful evening, so we sat outside and admired the structure and artwork of the church while eating shish kabobs, shishlik, salad, and hummus. Exhausted, but full, we made our way back to our respective homes to get some sleep for the night.
This post only covers my parents’ first full day in Israel- I have a lot of writing to do! I’ll pause here for now, and update further over the course of my spring break. Happy Passover!