parents in israel, part 3

That Sunday, I headed over to my parents’ hotel pretty early to get a good start on our road trip. Mark and I hopped in a cab and headed over to the car rental agency, picked out a car (with a free upgrade to a larger model!) and were soon on our way back to the hotel to pick up my mom. It was a little strange to travel with parents after having gotten used to traveling with a group of twenty-somethings for almost a year now- usually, I throw a couple of t-shirts in a backpack and am good to go. This time, we loaded an entire suitcase in the car and I had to ensure that we actually had a place to sleep reserved- with comfortable beds.

The last time that I ventured to the north (which I have yet to write about!), we took a series of highways that maneuvered around the western edge of the West Bank, since rental cars are strictly forbidden from crossing checkpoints. This time, the rental company let us in on a little secret: Road 90, which is a freeway that basically follows the border between Israel and Jordan, is allowed! Most people assume that you can’t use it, thinking that the West Bank shares the border with Jordan, but apparently this isn’t the case. The road is completely Israeli-controlled, making it usable for everyday tourists like us. So, we stocked up on gas and snacks, got directions from a nice English-speaking man at the station, and hit the road.

Only about 30 minutes into the drive, we might as well have been on the moon. Signs of civilization were left behind as we were suddenly launched into giant sand dunes and tan rolling hills. Road 90 had seemingly been carved right through the huge dunes of the desert, with no consideration for the land around it. We drove for a good 2-3 hours, taking in the bizarre landscape around us. First sand, then huge groves of palm trees, fully grown and organized in flawless rows. Finally, the hills slowly turned green with lush foliage, and soon we were surrounded by beautiful fields of trees and flowers. For the majority of the ride, the land to our right was blocked off by a pretty imposing fence complete with barbed wire, video cameras, and electrical charges. Looks like they really don’t want anyone hopping the border into (or out of) Jordan! At one point, we were stopped at a checkpoint- I was pretty confused at first, and wondered if we had accidentally driven towards the West Bank or Jordanian border. Apparently, they were just checking cars and credentials to ensure that everybody there was actually supposed to be in Israeli territory.

As we approached the north, I began calling out road names and numbers from the map that the rental company had provided us. Before long, we knew that we had made it to Tiberias, the first stop on our trip, by spotting the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias is kind of a strange place- it’s supposedly one of the four holy cities of Judaism and home to tombs of sages, but you wouldn’t know it from a visit there today. Now, it’s a touristy holiday spot, complete with high-rise hotels and a few abandoned water parks. Nonetheless, the land along the sea is beautiful, and I knew of a great restaurant there to grab a bite to eat. We stopped at a place called Deck’s, which juts out over the water and offers great food, and a priceless view of the Galilee. After some salad, bread, drinks, and carpaccio, we hopped back in the car and drove around the perimeter of the sea, stopping at the other side to admire the sea, grab some rocks as souvenirs (they’re beautiful and colorful!) and do our best impressions of Jesus walking on water. It had started drizzling a little bit at this point, so we were soon ready to hop back in the car and head towards our next destination: Tsfat, the home of Kabbalah.

Tsfat (also known as Safed, Zefad, or Sfat) has a long history of Jewish mysticism, and is known for its artists’ quarter. It’s perched on top of Israel’s third-highest peak, which provides some amazing views for the drive up. It has been populated by the Crusaders, Spanish immigrants fleeing the Inquisition, Russian Hasidic Jews, and more Hasidic immigrants of the 1980’s. Today, with the popularity of Kabbalah thanks to various celebrities, the town has enjoyed a new influx of tourists. We hopped from one freeway to another through the ascending hills, surrounded by lush fields of grass and flowers, and a priceless view of the Galilee below us. The drive itself made it worth the trek. As we approached the town, signs pointed us through a winding labyrinth of roads making tight turns through the hills, slowly leading us in the direction of the city center and artist’s quarter. I had never been there before, so we eventually just chose to park the car and wander.

The town looked like most other traditional orthodox Jewish towns, with men in black suit jackets, white shirts, and big black hats leading a string of kids through town alongside groups of conservatively-dressed women out running errands. We happened upon a set of stairs that led us down into a small courtyard, with a line of artists’ galleries on one side, and a museum showcasing all of the work on the other. Our first stop was a shop inside an old building with stained glass windows and vines growing up the banisters. The artist there was a woman who spoke very little English, but was excited to show us her work and pick out a few pieces that she thought suited us best. Her father, an old man in a fedora and worn suit, stood by giving advice (of course, none of it in English) and watching proudly. After looking around for a bit, we promised to come back on our way out and continued onto the other shops.

The walkway of galleries provided art of all shapes and sizes- sculptures, jewelry, paintings, and even stencil work. The farther we walked, the more shops cropped up, some more pricey than others. The town itself wasn’t too crowded, but you could tell that the new presence of tourists had played a role in its current look- some of the shops sold evil eye trinkets just like the ones that you could find in the Old City, but for three or four times the usual price. Mark and I ended up grabbing some ice cream as my mom browsed the galleries before reuniting to check out one last sight- the cemetery. We walked down a few flights of cobblestone stairs, which fed us out into a street overlooking the hills below us and series of graves. Groups of schoolkids and families passed by us, taking in the history of Tsfat as they admired the view. Satisfied with our visit, we made our way back to the car, but not without a stop back at the first artist’s gallery. It was my mom’s birthday that week, so she indulged in a painting from the woman and her father before setting out to make our way to our last destination of the day. Artwork in hand, we hopped back in the car and set our sights on Nazareth.

There isn’t exactly one straight-shot road from Tsfat to Jesus’s old stomping grounds. We ended up hopping from freeway to freeway, winding our way down the hills and through various towns to get there, and ended up approaching it from a different angle than I was used to. This resulted in a little confusion (and the only time we got lost during the road trip, thank you very much!). After driving down the same couple of streets over and over again, I knew that we were in Nazareth, but just couldn’t get my bearings right when it came to finding our home for the night- the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. I knew that it was near the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is a huge church that’s pretty hard to miss. We spotted its pointed ceiling eventually and made our way there, just as it started to rain.

The Convent ended up being literally right across the street from the Basilica. It was an absolutely beautiful old building centered around a courtyard, with walls separating it from the usually busy streets of the town. The woman working the front desk could not have been nicer- she helped us check in before showing us our rooms, and kept the place spotless. The stone courtyard was full of trees, plants and flowers, with a statue in the center and columns around the perimeter. A large cafeteria was full of visitors talking, laughing, and sipping tea on its western side. The Convent itself is a landmark- it has an ancient Herodian tomb sealed by a rolling stone under the courtyard. I had reserved one room for my parents, and just booked myself a dorm-style bed in the Convent, but ended up getting ridiculously lucky and having the entire 10-bed room to myself, complete with my own shower and bathroom. Score! The entire place was spotless and everyone that I spoke to there was lovely.

After freshening up for a bit, we headed out to find my favorite restaurant in Nazareth, Tishreen, for dinner. Nazareth is known for having some of the best food in Israel, and this place really lives up to that standard. Literally everything there is delicious- you can’t order something and not be completely satisfied with it. Again, I had a little trouble situating myself and finding the place, which resulted in us walking around the streets of town for a bit and asking directions every few steps, but hey- I got to practice my Arabic! We finally found the place and settled in, ordering great seafood and some mean mint lemonade. Mark and I treated ourselves to some chocolate dessert and ice cream before heading back to the Convent for the night. I settled into my huge room and fell asleep almost immediately.

The next day, we did a little bit of sightseeing in Nazareth before setting out for the Dead Sea. Nazareth is kind of a strange place- historically, it’s known as Jesus’ childhood home, but today it’s the largest Arab city in Israel. It’s also rumored to have the region’s most beautiful women, supposedly because many of them are related to the Virgin Mary. First up on our sightseeing tour was the Basilica of the Annunciation, right next door, which is where the Virgin Mary’s house apparently stood when the Angel Gabriel informed her that she was pregnant with Jesus. It has the title of ‘largest church in the Middle East,’ and is one of Christianity’s most holy shrines. The church itself is a pretty modern place, created in 1969 under orders to create something “modern, multinational, and mysterious”, and is most notable for the murals that various countries all over the world have donated, each with its own interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus. It’s really interesting to see how the Virgin Mary is imagined to look in places like Japan and Indonesia, whose murals reflect the physical appearance of their people. The place is beautiful- we even got to stand by and watch a group of German visitors finish up mass there before seeing the facade of the land where Mary’s house stood, and eventually making our way upstairs to see the main room of the church. As we finished up our visit to the Basilica, we wandered outside and made our way towards the supposed site of Joseph’s house, which is surprisingly nearby- only a minute or two away on foot. A much smaller church stands there to memorialize the spot.

Our visit to the Basilica and Joseph’s church lead us in the direction of the souks, where small shops sold everything from nativity scenes to crosses to scarves. We wandered down a few streets of shops, browsing the goods and picking up a few souvenirs for friends and family back home. As we walked, it began to rain, so we quickly made our way back to the car and set out for the Dead Sea. A few more winding freeways eventually lead us back to Road 90, which we followed back down the border until we ran right into the Dead Sea. I was a little confused, because my Lonely Planet guidebook had said that about half of the sea was under the control of the Palestinians, and half Israeli, which I assumed would make it difficult for us to get there by rental car via the north. For some reason, though, we were able to drive right along the shore and stop at whichever entry point we wanted. A series of resort-y stops offered sea access, but only after shelling over an entrance fee. We picked one of the first ones we saw, grabbed some silly souvenir towels (which only had Israel labeled, with no borders or reference to the Palestinian Territories), changed into our swimsuits, and made our way to the water.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. It’s ridiculously salty, meaning that you automatically float, and if you get it in your eyes, you will not be a happy camper. It’s also supposedly pretty good for your skin, especially the mud from the sea bottom- the stuff sells big in beauty supply stores. The “dead” part of its name comes from the fact that it’s so salty that no life can exist within its waters. The area around the sea is also supposedly home to where Jesus was baptized (according to some believers), and where the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest copy of the biblical texts) were found. When we arrived, it was still a little overcast, so there weren’t many other visitors to the seaside except for a group that appeared to be having a great time floating and coating themselves in mud. We made our way to the water, threw our belongings on a bench, and set out to float the afternoon away. One major challenge stood in our way, though- getting to floating position from the shore is ridiculously difficult! The Dead Sea mud that everyone raves about is mushy, slippery, and almost impossible to walk on. We slowly tried to enter the water, sliding all over the place and waving our arms in the air like maniacs in an attempt to maintain our balance- this was one place where I definitely did not want to fall face-first into the water. We looked like complete idiots, but I have to admit that it was a ton of fun. Giggling like little kids, we squealed at the squishy mud beneath our feet and flailed along until we had gotten about knee-deep in the water.

At this point, the lifeguard seemed to have had enough of us. “SIT. DOWN.” suddenly blared at us through a megaphone. We all looked up, perplexed at the suggestion, until he sighed and repeated the instructions. “TURN. AROUND. SIT.” Finally, we obeyed the commands, slowly squatting and lowering ourselves into the water. It was a bizarre sensation, and a little bit terrifying for a second- as soon as you sit, the water holds you up in a relaxed, leaned back sitting position. You couldn’t sink if you wanted to. We all let out a simultaneous “Ooooh!” as the lifeguard finally turned away from us, freed of his duty. I have to say, the Dead Sea is a ton of fun. I expected it to be cold, way too touristy, and kinda gross, but it was none of the above. Apparently, the water never gets very cold, and the resorts keep it clean and under control. It is pretty touristy, but it embraces it and provides a good time for everyone. We floated around for awhile, testing out swimming, floating on our stomachs, and covering our skin in smooth mud. A group of older visitors next to us had literally covered their entire bodies in mud, and were having a great time taking pictures and trying to make their way back to shore to rinse off. We took the obligatory touristy photos and finally made our way out of the water as the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds.

As the afternoon wore on, more tour groups showed up, and we had a great time just watching them enter the sea for the first time. I think it’d be a ton of fun to be a lifeguard there- it’s physically impossible to drown, and you just watch silly tourists all day. A big group of Americans soon showed up, and it was kind of nice to hear American accents and watch them squeal and laugh just as we had done an hour beforehand. A seaside cafe sold food and drinks, playing silly 80’s and 90’s music and deeming itself the “Lowest Bar in the World”. Eventually, we showered off, redressed, and hopped back in the car, ready to take on the world with freshly exfoliated skin. We took off towards Jerusalem, and about half an hour later were back to Ben Yehouda Street, near the hotel. My mom and I decided to run inside to ask the staff where the best place to park our rental car would be, while Mark drove around the block to stall. We ran in, and were back out to the street within a matter of minutes, but Mark was nowhere to be found. Five, ten, fifteen, and then thirty minutes passed, with no sign of Mark or our rental car. As time went by, it got a little colder outside, and I was still in a t-shirt and flip flops, as was appropriate for the Dead Sea, but not so much for downtown Jerusalem. My mom and I soon started to get antsy- it was cold, we were hungry, and we had no way of contacting Mark. After awhile, we questioned if he had gotten into some kind of trouble or an accident, or if he really had just managed to get lost. Almost forty-five minutes later, we had our answer. A series of one-way streets and traffic had caused him to detour almost all the way back to my dorms- thanks, Jerusalem traffic!

Mystery solved, we managed to park the car safely and headed over to grab some comfort food- McDonalds. It had been a long couple of days, so we parted ways for the night, planning to meet up again early the next morning to celebrate my mom’s birthday on our last day in Jerusalem.

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parents in israel, part 2

For my parents’ second full day in Israel, I had originally planned for us to take a road trip up to some of the sites in the north, like the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. The key to this plan was getting a rental car, as my friends and I had done a few weeks prior. When we did it, it was a piece of cake. This time, Shabbat took its toll and threw a big rock in my plans. As I searched the internet for car rental companies the night before, I was stopped time and time again by the same discovery- literally none of the companies were open on Saturdays, and would not even allow for a car pick-up on that day. It was a little ridiculous. So, I reshuffled a few plans, made some calls, and decided to spend another day around Jerusalem that Saturday instead of later on in the week.

The next morning, I met up with my parents at their hotel at around 8 AM, and reviewed our new plans for the day. We would head over to the Old City to check out the Church of the Holy Sepulcher before making our way to the Mount of Olives, and finally meet up with some of my friends and roommates for dinner that night. It would be a more relaxed day of sightseeing, which may have been a blessing in disguise after the first busy day in Israel. So, we set off to walk along Jaffa Street in the direction of the Damascus Gate of the Old City. Today, Ben Yehouda Street and the area around the hotel had taken on a completely different demeanor. The usually-bustling streets were completely empty, with storefronts closed and locked, and no cars to be seen. Nothing was open. It’s a little eerie to see a popular downtown area turn into a ghost town overnight. Such are the ways of Shabbat!

As we walked into the Old City, a couple of shopkeepers along the way told us that the Dome of the Rock was also closed today, but that we were more than welcome to check out the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Muslim Quarter was a refreshing contrast to the absence of life on Ben Yehouda Street- Muslims don’t follow the rules of Shabbat, and Friday is their holy day and first day of the weekend, so the narrow cobblestone walkways were full of people selling goods and chatting. We made our way towards the heart of the Old City, asking for directions every few steps- the Church is much less of a monument than you would expect it to be, and is nestled in between busy streets of shops that zig-zag amongst the various quarters. Finally, I recognized a few of the shops that we were passing by from when Alex and I had accidentally run into the Church a few weeks back, and noticed a small sign in the corner of a wall that pointed to the right. We emerged through the arched stone doorway into a small courtyard rife with tourists, the Church standing right alongside the other buildings of the Old City.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the holiest Christian site in the Old City, and is the site of the last hours of Jesus. This is where, it is said, Jesus was nailed to the cross, died, and rose from the dead. It’s definitely not the most extravagant church in the world, but it has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, and the meaning and emotion tied to it lingers in its presence. The church itself was placed here by the mother of Emperor Constantine, and the site has revealed graves, shrines, and various other churches. The Islamic Caliph Omar also visited the church in the 7th century, refusing to pray there to avoid causing his fellow Muslims to turn it into a mosque. The church has been victim to a fire and earthquake, and arguments over repairs have lead to an interesting compromise: the keys to the church are in the possession of a local Muslim family, whose job it is to unlock the doors each morning and secure them each night.

The sites within the church are organized in various “Stations of the Cross”, including where Jesus was supposedly stripped of his clothes, nailed to the cross, crucified, taken down and handed to Mary, and the stone on which his body was cleansed. The final station is the Tomb of Jesus, and the namesake of the church- the Holy Sepulchre. My parents and I made our way through each of the stations, admiring both the shrines and the other visitors around us. Faithful visitors to many holy sites are almost an attraction in and of themselves- it’s not uncommon to see people rubbing themselves on an ancient rock, kissing walls, muttering to statues, and silently weeping. We waited in line to touch the rock upon which Jesus was supposedly cruxified, standing amonst the gold and mosaic shrines filling the room. A priest stood nearby, lighting candles and urging visitors to make their visit short and sweet. He reminded us that the significance of this experience cannot be captured in the hundreds of pictures that we take- it’s “in here,” pointing to his chest.

As we walked around the inner circumference of the church, we ran into a procession of monks singing and trailing incense through the air. Their voices echoed off of the cold stone walls around us as they paused at various points along the walkway. We were eventually allowed to move past them, continuing to look at ancient portraits on the walls, singular candles illuminating dark corners, and heavy lanterns hanging from the high ceiling. The Holy Sepulcher was easily recognizable due to the huge mass of people waiting to go inside it. Tourists of all ages huddled together in a line that snaked around the dark cube that housed the tomb. We stood for a few minutes, just watching the people around us and taking in every inch of the room before turning in to examine the huge, empty center of the church, which was closed off and reserved for special occasions. A flawless, glowing portrait of Jesus covered the domed ceiling, presiding over the only tourist-less spot in the church.

We continued to explore the various nooks and crannies of the place for awhile, following singing priests into various rooms and standing as close as possible to English-speaking tour groups with guides. I watched as a young woman instructed her son how to kneel and pray alongside the Holy Sepulcher, while he seemed more interested in blowing out candles. As we made our way out of the church, more and more tour groups snaked inside- we had gotten there right in time! By then, it was early afternoon, so we stopped at one of the many cafes tucked along the walkways of the Old City to grab a bite to eat and something to drink. It was a beautiful day out.

Eventually, we peeled ourselves away from the shade and wound our way back out of the Old City, crossing the street outside of the Damascus gate to enter the Arab bus station. We hopped onto a bus that would take us towards the Mount of Olives, somewhere that I had seen from afar, but never actually visited. The bus dropped us off at the top of the mount, near a couple of churches and cafes directed at the tourists that often come to visit. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go to get the best view, and upon asking a local restaurant owner, he urged us up to his rooftop. It did have a pretty nice view, but the weather was getting increasingly windy, and we didn’t want to pay to eat there- we had just grabbed food in the Old City. So, we bought a couple of waters, talked to a nice German couple (mostly about Arnold Schwarzenegger), and made our way down along the street.

Finally, we saw the view that we were looking for. A small pavilion extended out over the mount, looking over the thousands of graves that had been scattered over the land for centuries. This is supposedly where God will start to redeem the dead when the Messiah returns on the Day of Judgement, so many Jewish people have chosen to be buried here, with the current count at somewhere around 150,000 graves. This makes the Mount of Olives the world’s oldest continually used cemetery- some graves were desecrated during the Jordanian occupation of the area, but most are still intact. It also provides a great view of the Old City. From here, we could see the Dome of the Rock and the rest of the Temple Mount. It was a beautiful view, but the wind was getting a little unbearable- our only picture has hair being blown all over the place.

We were ready to leave pretty quickly, and faced the next task: finding a taxi. This is a pretty common issue at touristy sights. The drivers know that you’re stuck there, so they can hike up the price and you can’t really do much about it. A couple of men assured us that they would call a taxi for us, insisting that we only wait for five minutes until their friend arrived. Ten, then fifteen minutes later, we were getting antsy and tired of talking to this guy about the wrestling scene in America. We started walking back down the path until we luckily ran into the taxi that we had been waiting for, and made our way back to the hotel. The parents napped for a bit, and I worked out the final pieces of our plan for the next few days. I had originally booked us rooms for that night at the “Sisters of Nazareth Convent” in Nazareth for our trip to the north, which sounds a little silly, but actually comes highly recommended. Ever since I had called to reschedule that day, the Sisters had been trying to contact me to confirm the new plans. I had been busy inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and on the mountain, so by the time I was able to call them back, the Sister that answered the phone sounded like a worried grandmother. “Sophia, we’ve called three times today to talk to you! Are you okay? Are you still coming to visit tomorrow? We look forward to seeing you!” I couldn’t wait to meet these women and see what this place was like.

Post-nap, the parents and I headed over to Mount Scopus to see my dorm and the university. It was still Shabbat, meaning that buses weren’t running from downtown to campus, and our choice in taxis was limited. We ended up with a guy driving a Mercedes who blasted Fleetwood Mac the entire ride there. I walked my parents around the Student Village, showing them my dorm apartment (which ended up being much smaller and more institutional-looking than my mom expected from our Skype dates) and the local cafe. Eventually, we decided to walk to the university to look around while we waited for my roommates to return home. I walked them past the cemetary that I pass every day on the walk to school (lovely, right?), showed them the great view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, and finally approached the entrance to Hebrew University. The campus itself was closed for the day (again, for Shabbat), so we couldn’t actually go inside, but we got the general idea of things.

I wanted to show my parents the “Arab neighborhood” that lies adjacent to campus, so we walked about 15 feet to the left of the main entrance into campus that I walk through every day. This neighborhood is called Essaouia, and the main windows of Rothberg International School look out over it. It’s a bizarre view for students at an Israeli university to have- the homes there are noticeably less luxurious than the ones surrounding the neighborhood, and you can distinctly see the high, grey separation wall weaving through the land. As we stood on the street, a couple of young boys saw us and started walking in the other direction, past a car with broken windows. We stood for a few seconds as I started to explain that this was the view that we had from the International School, when all of a sudden, a couple of rocks came flying through the air at us. The young boys had gone into their neighborhood, and were now responding to our presence in a less-than-welcoming way. We panicked, as Mark started rushing further down the street, and my mom yelled a few terms at them that I won’t repeat here.

I yelled at my parents to come back towards the main street that we had walked to campus on, and we were soon out of the range of fire of the rocks. I was completely caught off guard- this had never happened to me or any of my friends before, and my parents and I had not even ventured into questionable territory. We were literally seconds away from a main entrance into my campus. I had friends who went into Essaouia regularly to visit a local family that they had met there, to play with their kids and have tea. As I look back on the situation, a few things come to mind. First of all, these were young boys, which I always see as the most troublesome group- in Cairo, I got used to having bored kids follow me around or try to get my attention in various ways. And again, the phrase “What are we teaching our children?” comes to mind. Also, from their point of view, we probably didn’t look like their favorite type of person. We were a white family standing in front of Hebrew University, which provokes a few implications. I wouldn’t be surprised if they assumed that we were there to intrude upon their neighborhood, or just to see how much worse off they have it. I’m not excusing the act- it was unacceptable- but there is meaning and a reason behind it. Some part of me feels as though throwing rocks just goes to show the desperation of their situation. Do these kids have any other way of communicating their anger, or gaining understanding about the conflict?

So, we made our way back towards the dorms, a little shaken by the turn of events. This was also the second time that some act of retaliation had occurred in Jerusalem since I’ve been here (although on a much, much smaller scale)- first the bus bombing, and now rock-throwing. I had officially experienced more violence here in Jerusalem than I had in the West Bank, yet my program insists that I stay here. Go figure. Anyway, soon enough, we were back at my dorm, and my roommates arrived for dinner. We hopped in a couple of cabs and headed down to Ben Yehouda Street, hoping to find a restaurant that would reopen at the end of Shabbat that evening. After walking around for a bit, we came across a nice Italian Restaurant that was already full of customers, and chose to eat there that night. We indulged in pasta, garlic bread, and almost everything else on the menu- having parents in town is always a good thing! It was great to have them meet the friends that they had only seen in pictures up to that point. After dinner, we walked down the street to grab some ice cream, walked around Ben Yehouda Street for awhile to talk and watch some street performers, and eventually split up. The parents made their way down the block and back to the hotel, and my friends and I shared a cab back to the dorms.

That’s it for part 2 of the ‘Parents in Israel’ series- next up, a road trip to the north!

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back in jerusalem

I’m back after a very adventure-filled spring break! It’s crazy to think that I’m in the final weeks of my year abroad- only two more weeks of school, and one week of finals until this semester is done. I’ll be busy working on papers and studying for exams this month, but will update as much as possible. I’m starting to think that I’ll just have to play catch-up with blog posts this summer- there’s still a ton of mini-excursions from this past semester that I haven’t written about, not to mention my trips to London and Morocco, and now Egypt and Ethiopia. Keeping this thing updated is like taking an extra class! I definitely have my work cut out for me.

Anyway, these few days back have been eventful already. Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day here in Israel, which was obviously a pretty big deal. I first noticed the impact when I returned from spring break a few days ago, only to find that there were Israeli flags everywhere– on dorm buildings, fences, poking out of cars, and all over campus. Yesterday, every one of my professors spoke about it. One made an interesting comment about the difference between the Remembrance day in Israel and in other parts of the world. In other countries, it’s more of a religious event, focusing mainly on Jewish people. In Israel, it’s much more nationalistic. The main ceremony at Yad Vachem (the Holocaust Museum) involves flag ceremonies, hundreds of soldiers, and heads of state. Every flag is raised at half mast.

I had also heard that there would be a moment of silence in the morning that day, but wasn’t exactly clear on the details. A friend that I met up with while walking to school filled me in on the process- a siren sounds throughout the country, and everybody stops to stand at attention. He described driving along a major highway on this day last year, where cars all came to a stop and passengers stepped out of their cars to stand for a minute or two together before resuming their daily lives. Sure enough, as I neared the campus, a tone began to blare from what seemed like every direction. It wasn’t the kind of siren that I had expected, like those that you hear during a fire drill or announcement. The sound was almost eerie, low and pulsating through the air. Every single person around me froze at attention, and cars stopped on the street before their drivers got out to stand alongside their vehicles. It was like being in a photograph. I did see one person continue walking in front of me, headed off-campus. This is one of the controversial aspects of the Remembrance Day- most of the Arabs, or Palestinians, don’t stand still during the siren. I normally try to empathize with both sides, but this is something that doesn’t sit right with me. While the Holocaust was a contributing factor which eventually led to the creation if the State of Israel (which many Arabs disagree with), this day marks the murder of millions of human beings, regardless of whether they’re Jewish or not. The fact that the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians prohibits some people from standing in remembrance of the victims is really unfortunate. This should be something that surpasses modern politics.

Remembrance Day was also notable because of the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I woke up that morning to my roommates excitedly discussing the news- “Did you hear that they got him?” I had my Radical Coexistence class that morning, in which my professor started off by discussing the implications of this recent news. Like many others, he questioned the American reaction of rowdy celebration. Coincidentally, we had just started talking about the role of justice and ethics in politics. He compared a tone of vengeance (which he described as ugly, but honest) to the tone of justice that was common when discussing bin Laden’s death. In his view, this type of language could be extremely problematic and confusing- could we speak of international justice or morality beyond state lines, as connected to some universal philosophy of justice? Is taking out bin Laden better described as an act of revenge than an act of justice? We spent a good part of the lecture just exploring the implications of the development.

The death has also had a noticeable impact on Americans in general. The day before the news broke, I got an email from the US Embassy in Cairo reporting that the travel warning had been relaxed for Egypt. It stated that things were calm enough for visitors to return to the country (except for the occasional large Friday protest in Tahrir), and assured tourists that things were back to normal. Only hours later, we received an email that stated the exact opposite. Because of “anti-terrorist actions” taken in Pakistan, it stated, Americans were to avoid places popular with tourists (and Americans specifically), and even went so far as to warn us to stay inside our homes and hotels until further notice. I thought that last piece of advice was a little bit of an overreaction, but it was strange to see how quickly a situation can change nonetheless.

Aside from that, there’s also the almost-daily updates on the Palestinian front regarding Fatah and Hamas, and Egypt’s growing involvement with the conflict. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this progresses- it’s been a crazy year already, and there’s no signs of things slowing down from here. As for me, I may not be staying in my “home or hotel until further notice,” but I will be working on papers (and updating the occasional blog post) for the next few weeks. Until then!

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spring break

In two and a half hours, I’ll be done with class and officially on spring break until May 1. In 12 hours, I’ll be waking up and on my way to Egypt! Hebrew University students are taking advantage of the break in all kinds of ways- traveling to Thailand, Greece, Jordan, hiking through northern Israel, or getting ahead on schoolwork. I have chosen to return to Egypt for a little over a week, and then fly to Ethiopia for the remaining days of break.

Almost all of the Cairo evacuees are returning to Egypt for the break- we’re all curious to go back and see how things have changed. It’ll give us a chance to do all of the things that we missed out on during the evacuation process, like properly saying goodbye to friends, buying souvenirs, and visiting favorite sites one last time. I’m planning on spending some time in Dahab, a beachy town in the Sinai that’s basically a less-touristy Sharm al-Sheikh, before moving onto Cairo. This will all be done over land, via bus- we’ll ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, then Taba to Dahab, and finally Dahab to Cairo, if all goes according to plan. I’m pretty sure this is the closest you can get to a Middle Eastern road trip.

From there, a couple of friends and I will be flying to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for about a week. The decision to go there basically centered around two main qualifications: Where can we fly from Cairo, and what’s cheap? The cost disqualified most of Europe, revolutions ruled out most of North Africa, I had already been to Morocco, and the Israel stamp in our passports ruled out Lebanon. I’ve also already made plans to go to Jordan in the beginning of May. The final choice came down to India and Ethiopia- we finally figured that you need much more than a week to properly visit India, so Ethiopia it is! We’re hoping to visit some ancient ruins, the Blue Nile waterfalls, and a few villages, but we’ll see where our adventure ends up taking us.

So, I’ll be traversing over northeastern Africa with a backpack and a few friends for the next couple of weeks. Until next time, shalom Israel, salam ‘alekum Egypt, and teanaste’lle’n Ethiopia!

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parents in israel, part 1

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!

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life in jerusalem

Just a few notable things that have cropped up recently :

The prevalence of UC Santa Barbara students abroad. Within the first week or so of classes at Hebrew University, I had met at least three or four other UCSB students, and had multiple people tell me that they’re shocked at how many UCSB students are abroad. It’s cool to know that one of the facts that I say to visitors while giving my tour at UCSB (that we send the most students abroad out of any UC) is true and noticeable.

Exercise classes at the gym. Each international student at Hebrew U is given 10 “points” to use for activities- the points themselves don’t cost anything, but different trips cost between 1 and 3 points. Unlimited access to group classes at the gym cost 1 point for the entire semester, so I definitely took advantage of it. The classes are great- they offer yoga, pilates, zumba, and aerobics, among other things, but the group setting is a little silly. Most of the instructors only speak Hebrew, and when they do speak English, their knowledge of terms for body parts is usually a little questionable. So, ‘ankle’ ends up meaning ‘wrist,’ and right means left, and vice versa. Also, the gym isn’t only for Hebrew U students- most of the attendees are usually Israeli women in their 50’s and 60’s who gather to gossip and socialize. Between the language barrier and age difference, Hebrew U students are definitely the odd ones out.

Jeff Seidel’s. My initial excitement about finding a place to do free laundry has turned into me spending embarrassingly large chunks of my time there. Some of this isn’t voluntary- even when you do sign yourself up for a 1-2 hour time slot to do laundry, there are usually other students there still finishing up loads, or random people who have shown up to wash clothes unexpectedly. So, laundry usually ends up being a 3-4 hour adventure. The bright side is that Jeff’s also has good, free internet, and better yet, free cookies!

Egypt. I mentioned in a previous post that I was asked to compile an overview of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution for my Comparative Politics class. It’s really basic, and doesn’t go into details or my personal experience, but covers a few key events and people that aren’t always discussed in the media. Click here: egyptrevolutionpptnew

Internet. About twenty feet from my dorm room, there’s a small cafe that offers (comparatively inexpensive) food, drinks, music, and most importantly, free internet. My apartment chose to not pay for internet for the first month or so that we were in Jerusalem, for various reasons- Sloane and Analucia’s laptops were broken for awhile, then we were too busy with schoolwork and weekend trips, and finally we were waiting until the beginning of a new month so that we wouldn’t have to pay the full month price for just a week or two. This resulted in some creative maneuvers to find internet access. We managed to get the password to a friend’s internet in the building next to ours, and mooched off of that for awhile until his roommates found out and changed the password- it was nice while it lasted! The most consistent solution was to run down to the cafe for awhile and use their internet. At first, we tried to pay them back for the free internet usage by buying a coffee or serving of french fries while we were there, but eventually, we were there enough that they didn’t mind our presence for a few minutes while we checked our e-mail. After a few weeks of this, it got a little embarrassing- they all recognized us and we were spending waaay too much time there, and Skyping from the cafe was always interesting thanks to their music choices. But hey- it worked! As of last week, I’m proud to say that my apartment is finally internet-enabled.
The cafe also offered a place to practice our Arabic. A few of the guys working there spoke it fluently, and often welcomed us with an “Izzayik?” (how are you?). We ended up making the mistake of assuming that everybody working at the cafe was Arab and spoke Arabic- a couple of the guys ended up getting angry at the fact that we assumed they were Arab, when in fact they were 100% Israeli. Oops.

Media attention. Over the course of our first couple of weeks in Jerusalem, we started getting requests for TV and newspaper interviews. Yoni, our academic advisor, served as the medium through which various media outlets contacted us, and for awhile, we were scheduling a few meetings a week with the press. They even had “press packets” for us! The interviews were always interesting, to say the least- most of the interviewers either didn’t speak English as their first language, didn’t know any background about our story, or were desperately searching for a quote from us about how anti-Semitic Egyptians are. We ended up in the Jerusalem Post, Channel 9 News, YNet, a couple of French and Russian news channels, and I was interviewed for the UCSB school newspaper (the Daily Nexus) and the UC Education Abroad Program newsletter. Aside from direct media interviews, we’re also getting requests to comment on our experience in classes and in meetings with Israeli Middle Eastern Studies students. It’s been kinda cool to get our fifteen minutes of fame out of this, but I’m glad it’s over.

Break-ins. When we first moved into the dorms at Hebrew U, the madrachim (resident advisors, or counselors) warned us about the necessity of locking our doors. Apparently, there had been a series of thefts within the student village. I didn’t think much of it, but made sure to lock both the front door and my personal room whenever I come or go. Within the first few weeks here, I started hearing stories that made me question the motives of people around the dorm area. On a couple of occasions, one of my roommates has heard somebody try to open the lock to our door, and then quickly turn and rush down the exit stairs upon realizing that somebody was home. Sloane also walked into the living room on one occasion after hearing the door open, only to find that a book on the table had been rotated slightly and that the zipper pull to her laptop case was swinging back and forth. Within the last week, money and a book has also gone mysteriously missing. None of these instances have proven anything, but it has kept us on our toes.

Falafel! One of my favorite places around here is a tiny falafel place right next to the dorms, on the way to Jeff Seidel’s. It’s Arab-run, which means that the guys there speak Arabic (…and Hebrew, and English) and they get really excited when you even attempt to speak Arabic with them. I go there every week or two, usually on my way to do laundry or grab free cookies. The guys have started recognizing us by now, and are always a lot of fun. Today, I stopped by to grab some food, and determinedly walked up to the counter to say, “Wehid falafel, min fadluk!” (One falafel, please!). The guy half-smiled before reaching behind the counter and picking up one single ball of falafel. I realized my mistake as he quickly corrected me: “Wehid falafel pita,” before beginning to pack falafel, salad, pickles, and french fries into my pita. They guys working there always make us repeat the Arabic words for each ingredient as they put it in- I ask for french fries, and they respond “batatas,” insisting that we repeat before it’s served. A couple of times, Shannon and I have attempted to tip them for their kindness, but they always insist on putting more french fries (I mean… batatas) in our pitas in return. Today, one of the guys even gave me a fresh strawberry from his own box. It’s a great place to have nearby.

Parents!! My mom and stepdad Mark are currently en route to Israel for a week-long visit. This is their second attempt at coming to visit me- the first was supposed to bring them to Egypt in early February, but that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. There’s only about 12 hours left until they’re due to land, so hopefully nothing dramatic will happen before then! (Protesters, take the day off for me.)

 

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when blogging strikes back

This blog has caused quite a ruckus during the past week. At this point, I’m a little hesitant to update it at all because of the level of censorship that I feel I now have to maintain, but I’d rather write a modified blog than none at all.

Basically, my post about my visit to Ramallah ended up incriminating me and my friends, much to my surprise. Somebody (who I believe subscribes to my blog) read the post and immediately forwarded it to the University of California Education Abroad Program, who then contacted Hebrew University. Literally the day after I posted it, I received a call from one of my friends who had also visited Ramallah with me, who told me to come to Yoni’s office as soon as possible. He had also been asked to contact everyone else listed in that post. I had a midterm at 12:30 PM, but had no choice but to meet with Yoni at noon that day.

I didn’t understand why I was in trouble- I assume that I’m allowed to write what I wish, and had no idea how Hebrew University got ahold of this blog. I thought that we were going to get another security talk about how we need to be careful in the West Bank. Instead, Yoni sat us down, with a printed and highlighted copy of my Ramallah post on his desk, and informed us that EAP completely forbids all of its students from visiting the West Bank altogether. I honestly had absolutely no idea, which I know sounds ridiculous, but is the truth. We had never been told outrightly not to visit that area. Never. Yoni had given us a security briefing within our first few days in Israel, but he’s our advisor for Hebrew University, not for EAP. Hebrew U has completely different guidelines than EAP does on this subject- they only “recommend” that students avoid the West Bank and urge caution during visits. It’s not illegal to do so, so they can’t prohibit it. Visits to Ramallah and Bethlehem are pretty common amongst students here.

We visited Ramallah during our first weekend here, which was also before we had a chance to meet with our EAP advisor, Jonathan. (This ended up being a major point which helped get us off the hook.) Even so, when we did meet with Jonathan a week or two later, he never explicitly told us to avoid the West Bank, either- only to “read the guidelines,” which he gave us a link to online. The “guidelines” consist of a 30 page PDF file. The West Bank restrictions are listed on page 19. Jonathan reviewed the information regarding insurance and grades- Yoni even stated that they chose to review the insurance information for the sole reason that they realize that students usually do not actually read the guidelines-  but nothing was said about the fact that a popular trip to the West Bank can get you kicked out of the program.

So, I obviously didn’t read them before or after the EAP orientation, which was my mistake, but given my situation, not too shocking. Before the orientation, I was being evacuated from Egypt, living out of a suitcase in Barcelona, and frantically trying to complete paperwork for Hebrew University. All of the evacuees basically had to piece their lives back together. It’s not a surprise that I didn’t take the time to meticulously read through 30 pages of rules, most of which were identical to those stated by EAP Egypt and Hebrew University. I had no idea that the two programs differed so greatly on this one point. This eventually resulted in the visit to Ramallah, as well as my blog post about it last week. I’d also like to point out the fact that if I had known that visits to the West Bank were banned, there’s no way that I would have blogged about it so openly. I knew that my EAP advisor at UCSB had the link to this site, and I have no idea of knowing who’s reading this- it’s not the greatest blog in the world, so I assume it’s mostly friends and family, but who knows?

Long story short, Yoni supported us during this whole fiasco, and laid out the situation for the EAP directors. He told us that we were at risk of being kicked out of the EAP Israel program altogether, and at this point it was just a matter of proving that our situation warranted an exception. I wrote a letter of apology to EAP basically stating that I meant no disrespect towards the security regulations (which I understand are in place for our own good), that this was an honest mistake, and that I appreciate all that they’ve done to accommodate us at Hebrew University. My opinion of the complete ban on visits to the West Bank is an entirely different story, but I’m going to chose to not write about that here. I do understand that EAP Israel was only re-started last year after its suspension following the Second Intifada, and that the West Bank ban was probably a stipulation to get the program re-started. Regardless, I still don’t really understand why the regulations weren’t made clear. Is there any legitimate reason why this wasn’t stated explicitly?

The whole situation was basically up in the air for a few days. EAP didn’t immediately provide a response in the midst of dealing with the Jerusalem bus center bombing. I removed my Ramallah post in the meantime, while the ‘view count’ on my blog spiked. Last night, I finally received an e-mail from EAP which basically consisted of an image scan of an official UCSB letter, stating that I will be allowed to stay in the Israel program “at this time” and that this warning will be added to my EAP file. We were off the hook this time, albeit after a good amount of convincing. Throughout this whole dilemma, I mostly felt bad for Yoni- he’s ridiculously busy to begin with as a professor and academic director, not to mention the fact that he was dealing with the bombing simultaneously. This was the last thing that he needed on his plate.

So, life goes on in Israel. I’ll keep blogging, albeit at a slightly more censored level. I’ve re-posted my account of Ramallah- I have nothing to hide, but there will be no more posts about (…or visits to) the West Bank. No more names will be included in posts. And for future reference, if there are issues with what I’m writing, please contact me directly. I’d like to assume that my blog readers are here to share my experience with me, not to use my content in malicious ways. I’m not writing with an agenda, and I hope that nobody is reading with one. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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