Holy Lands

I promised some weeks ago to describe our trip. Here at last is a full, detailed narrative, not by me but by Susana Torre, who has been my traveling companion on this and many other adventures through the years. Susana drafted this as a letter to friends, and she has graciously permitted me to post this somewhat edited version for the general public.

         We were drawn to these lands for may reasons — including history, topography and current events and we also wanted to know how the regional conflict is experienced on a day-to-day basis. The research we did before traveling made me realize that the conflict was already embedded in the two checkpoints of the partition plan of 1947, which had created geographically fragmented states. It is a conflict that continues to be driven by extreme ideological positions and contradictory factors, such as very real security issues for Israel vs. the Israeli settlements encroaching on Palestinian territories, heavily subsidized and protected by the Israeli army. And Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbors, historically and currently, are also essential to the regional story, so we took advantage of this trip to also visit Jordan.

I did not want the experience of crossing the Israel/Jordan checkpoint at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to contaminate the beginning of our trip. The reported minimum of three hours it takes to clear security in a militarized and chaotic environment (after a 3-4 hour taxi drive from Tel Aviv) was more than I wanted to endure after our 5-hour flight from Madrid. So we killed some time at the airport and took the direct 50-minute flight to Amman’s Queen Alia airport. But we skipped Amman, choosing instead to sleep in Madaba, where we could start our journey with a view of the 6th century mosaic map on the floor of St. George’s church. The work of unknown Greek Orthodox monks, it is the oldest known geographical depiction of biblical territories, from Lebanon to the Nile delta and from the Mediterranean to the Arabic desert. The central and best-preserved part of the mosaic is “HAGIA POLIS IERUSALEM” — “Holy City Jerusalem” — whose Damascus Gate was the point used to measure distances to all cities in the map. Outside, the hustle of the dusty provincial town center was amplified by the visual clutter of campaign posters strung across commercial streets for candidates to the Parliament’s 140 seats (only 10% of which are reserved for women).
Having little confidence in public transportation, which was scarce and, we were told, unreliable, we hired a taxi to take us to Petra via the King’s Highway. This ancient road, now paved but still meandering, winds through the desert and up to the ridge of the eroded red landscape of Wadi Mujib, as magnificent as the Grand Canyon, before reaching Kerac. This is one of the most impressive of a series of crusaders’ castles whose ruins crown the mountains throughout the region, ghostly reminders of the constancy of wars. When we arrived in Petra in mid-afternoon the sunlight was quickly fading, coloring the hills a dull, dusty red.
Petra: Treasury. 3 Jan. 2013
We spent all of the following day in the vast archaeological site of the ancient Nabatean city which Pliny the Elder described as a center for caravan trade. We walked through the narrow, mile-long siq, whose stone walls sometimes resemble fabric pushed and pulled by wind and water. Then the stone becomes, suddenly, architecture, in the culminating view of the Treasury, the most elaborate and well preserved of the façades hewn into the sandstone cliffs that surround the site at one end of Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley). Their doorways sometimes (but not always) lead to shallow caves. The dominant use of these carved facades was funerary, so one has to imagine a vast gathering of tents or mud buildings --long disappeared-- enclosed by tombs. It is understandable why Sextus Florentinus, Roman governor of Arabia, wanted to be buried here in AD 129, where he could remain surrounded by all that beauty long after the living had departed.
On the steep climb to the High Place of Sacrifice (460 feet above the ground!) we encountered little souvenir tables staffed by Bedouin women and children, who clamber up the cliff every day. On the way down, Hanan besieged me in perfect, nuanced English learned as a child from the tourists, to please be her first client that day, so I obliged with the purchase of a small forged-iron horse and a donkey made in her village with the same tools and formal ideas as in ancient figurines. Later, we would have to hire the actual beasts to see the rest of the site when our legs could no longer support us. We were grateful for the paucity of tourists in winter, because the silence and immensity of the desert were exquisite and not to be disturbed, an experience that was even more heightened in Wadi Rum the following day.
Wadi Rum, 4 Jan. 2013
In Wadi Rum, we were Mohammed Hammad’s only customers for the daylong tour with overnight at one of the many tent camps in the desert. Mohammed’s cousin Musa -- the only Bedouin nurse in the village’s infirmary on his day off-- was our guide in his dilapidated jeep. Later, Musa would instruct us in the simple certainties of the Bedouin way of life – “man is man, and woman is woman”. And you become a man when your father leaves you alone as a child in the desert for a few days to fend for yourself.
YALLAH! “Let’s go!” he would happily scream while dropping sideways without holding the wheel to emphasize that there were no roads or traffic rules to guide our itinerary. Yet, the visitor’s experience is structured by highlights – such as a huge tree growing in the sand, a hidden spring, an exceedingly strange rock formation, or glyphs encoding information for ancient caravans -- each with a name, sometimes inspired by T. E. Lawrence’s writings or David Lean’s movie about him. While Geoff climbed the “Red Sand Dune”, I sat down and watched the red sand paint the side of a rock cliff. This slow and almost imperceptible activity so utterly transformed the cliff that I renounced all climbing opportunities for the rewards of contemplation.
Wadi Rum is the kind of place that could be called sublime, where awe, fear and an irresistible surrender of reason to sight, touch and smell, combine to stir up something deep inside. When we returned to Rum Village at sundown we learned that all the houses were inside sub-tribal family compounds, marked by waist- or shoulder-high mud walls. The exception was Mohammed Hammad’s house, ornate and decorated like no other and in its own plot, a rebellious sign of individualistic modernity, where our host is never long separated from his computer and Wi-Fi connection. Regrettably, we didn’t spend that night alone in the desert because we had to leave before dawn to catch our plane back to Israel. On this return trip we took the aptly named Desert Highway, straighter and faster than the King’s Highway, making part of the trip through a red sand storm.

We arrived in Ben Gurion Airport in the morning on Shabbat, when public transportation closes down. But we did find a sherut (shared cab) to take us to Jerusalem. It was raining lightly, an anticipation of the impending storm that would leave that city and all major highways leading to it paralyzed two days after our arrival. We stayed in a grand old guesthouse in the old city’s Armenian quarter, near the Jaffa Gate and the turbaned stele marking the tombs of Suleyman’s architects, whom he had executed because they had left the grave of King David (a prophet of Islam) outside the city walls. The old city is a labyrinth of streets with entrances to courtyards surrounded by dwellings, with the exception of the colonnaded Roman Cardo and the Jewish quarter. All synagogues and one third of the quarter were destroyed when Jordan occupied the city after the 1948 war. It was rebuilt, when Israel took control of the city after the Six-Day War (1967), to include the big plaza in front of the Western Wall and to create public open spaces and modern apartment buildings clad with the same stone as the old.

Ethiopian Monastery, Roof of The Holy Sepulcher Church   

Old Jerusalem impressed us as a kind of hospice, where each group of inmates, wearing exaggerated identity markers, is locked inside its own religious and existential truth. You see them all over, at all times of day and night, alone or in groups: Armenian monks in pointy headgear mimicking the shape of Mount Ararat; Haredi men dressed up for the Shabbat in huge flattened fur hats; Catholics in tunics dragging full size crosses along the souvenir market that now occupies the Via Dolorosa; Greek Orthodox priests in tall cylindrical hats and chest-size silver crosses. You don’t see the Ethiopian monks on the streets, as they seem to spend most of their time inside the diminutive mud huts of their monastery built on the public access roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Inside the church, a variegated mob engaged in various rituals. Many believers seemed to be in a kind of orgasmic ecstasy, prostrated over a stone the length of a human body, frantically rubbing on it the plastic bags containing their purchases. It is said to be the stone where Mary washed Jesus’ body after it was taken down from the cross.
Armenian monk
How do they know? Saint Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine, was largely responsible for establishing the now accepted map of Christianity’s sacred places when she traveled to Palestine at her son’s behest to recover relics. She relied on oral traditions almost 300 years after the facts, and on her suspicion that pagan temples had been erected over places revered by Jesus’ followers to erase the memory thus located. I left convinced that Old Jerusalem should belong to no country. A place so fiercely disputed for centuries should be strictly administered by a neutral international agency, not subject to the pressures of power politics (as if this was actually possible).
Outside the old city there is a modern Jerusalem, where a park-like precinct including the Knesset, the Supreme Court and various administrative buildings, stake Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as the state’s capital. At the Israel Museum, also within the precinct, we ran through the fierce rain to enter the subterranean gallery housing the Dead Sea scrolls found in Qumran, considered the work of the ascetic Truth searchers known as the Essenes (2nd C BC to 1st C AD), a model for current-day haredim. I very much wanted to see Yad Vashem, the matrix of all modern memorials to crimes against Humanity, but we encountered its forbidding gate locked up due of the snow storm, the worst in two decades.
In Tel Aviv we felt relieved to find another side of Israeli society --the democratic, argumentative, self-doubting, sophisticated, ethnically mixed, outward-looking one. The people we encountered eschewed certainty, believed in dialogue and toleration, and were generally critical of their government’s policies regarding the occupied territories. Tel Aviv is a dynamic and ambitious city where the “garden city” urban fabric of the central district, proposed by Patrick Geddes in the late 1920’s became populated by the largest concentration of Bauhaus-inspired buildings anywhere in the world. Not all are well designed, and many are in disrepair, but they reminded us, along with the kibbutz movement, of the optimistic, modern Nation-building during the State of Israel’s first decades. Within and outside this core, huge new residential and hotel towers, many on the waterfront, are drastically changing the scale of the city, threatening to replace much of the old neighborhoods, like Neve Tzdek, or block public access to the boardwalk.

Before we left home, I had found a small Israeli tour-operator eager to show life on the West Bank, and we signed on for two day trips — in the company of Yamen, a lively and humorous Palestinian guide with Canadian citizenship.
Palestinian authority territory area A ahead. Entry to Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli Law.” So read the sign at the crossing point. A law openly broken by many. The taxi with Israeli plates that had picked us up at the Jerusalem YMCA left us at the bridge with the huge warning signs. From that point onwards Yamen would take us to Jericho, Qumran, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea the first day, and to Camp Aida, Bethlehem and Ramallah the second. On our way to the 5th and 6th century cliff-hanging Greek Orthodox monasteries (St. George, Mar Saba) we heard the long litany of big and small ways in which the Israeli government make the lives of Palestinians miserable and anxiety-ridden. Restriction of movement between cities; access forbidden to Jerusalem; being forced to fly from Jordan to go abroad (even if you are a Canadian, like Yamen’s wife, but married to a Palestinian); being forced to close down shops that face the separation wall; confiscation of land or forbidding their use for cultivation if it adjoins a Jewish settlement; unreliable water supply; searches at checkpoints, and so on. Yamen was proud of having been Banksy’s contact for the implementation of the Flower Thrower and the girl registering the Israeli soldier, his well-known murals on the separation wall. The wall has become, on the Palestinian side, a gallery to display the work of the world’s best-known street artists as well as those of amateur graffitists. Another Berlin Wall waiting to fall.
We found submerged in the Jordan River four of the many Russian tourists we had encountered, covered only with wet T-shirts acquired at the shop near the place where Jesus had been allegedly baptized. The young Jordanian and Israeli soldiers guarding their respective banks could not take their eyes off the spectacular blonde and the only man, who was using his iPad inside the river to document his own baptism.
There seems to be a construction boom going on in Ramallah, perhaps in anticipation of the city becoming the capital of some future state. We stayed to have dinner with one of Geoff’s former academic colleagues, an Israeli Palestinian (raised as a Catholic) married to an American. He is an anthropologist, as critical of Al Fatah and Hamas as he is of Israel, convinced that those two competing Palestinian authorities are both in corrupt complicity with the State of Israel to administer the colonies and manage the conflict.
The snowfall had also paralyzed traffic in Ramallah. In the morning, young men were staging a battle with snowballs around the new fountain surrounded by giant lions (made in China) that marks the town center. Finally a friendly young man found us a taxi that took us to the Kalandia checkpoint, where we arrived just in time to switch to an Israeli sherut to take us back to Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers checked our I.D. inside the bus, saving us the unpleasantness of crossing the oppressive, jail-like long corridors on foot.
Banksy: Flower Thrower, on the security wall, Bethlehem
Geoff and I differ on when the conflict is likely to be resolved. I feel it could take another generation or two, when the Israeli and Palestinian children that are now being educated together will grow up and challenge the incrusted enmity, set aside the mutual grievances, have the courage to demolish or turn over some settlements, and tear the wall down. Geoff believes that it could happen sooner — the politicians bent on keeping the conflict going are widely discredited among their own constituents on both sides, and the tremors of resistance (more visible in Israel, with its greater freedom of expression, but present in subtler form in Palestinian territory) could become an upheaval.  
 Either way, it would also help to recognize that the 19th century notion of nation-state with defensible boundaries would make no sense in the 21st. And that other ways exist to define place for an “imagined community”, such as “The Arc”, a proposal by Douglas Suisman that uncannily echoes my own thinking on this subject: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9119/index1.html

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