So, I left Beirut with harassment and arrived in Tel Aviv with harassment. Okay, I did not have a machine gun pointed at my head in Tel Aviv but the customs officer was very unhappy to see the Lebanese stamp in my passport:
Customs Officer [darkly]: What was the purpose of your visit to Lebanon?
Customs Officer [skeptically]: Do you know people in Lebanon?
Customs Officer: Did you get to know people while you were there?
Me [stupidly]: I met some people in a restaurant. Then we went to a nightclub.
Customs Officer: Where was the nightclub?
Me: I don’t know. Somewhere not that far from Hamra.
Customs Officer: What was the name of the nightclub?
Me: I don’t know.
Customs Officer [sighing loudly]: So you don’t know the name of the club or where it was?
Me [sincerely]: Honestly – these guys just took me there. I really don’t know the names.
Customs Officer: Do you remember the names of these people you met?
Me: Only their first names…
This went on for another 10 minutes. Although the customs guy found me exasperating, I think he could tell that I was telling the truth and he cleared me through. Thank God – I was worried I was going to be sent packing on the first flight back to Cyprus.
I did not get to my hotel until after midnight. I was deeply relieved to see it was a nice, normal-looking place managed by a really friendly young Romanian guy. The rest of the staff was super friendly too. I was also delighted to see that there was a little terrace out front where I could have a beer and that is straight where I headed after dropping my bags in my nice, clean room. I sat out there for about an hour and I was mystified by the steady stream of hookers coming in and out of the place. I am serious. I was beginning to wonder if I had just checked into a brothel. Two of these young girls came out and sat next to me to have a drink and smoke and, once again having my great big mouth, I started chatting with them. They were eastern European too – very pretty and animated as they talked. As they put out their cigarettes and drained their glasses, they offered to go back to my room with me on a two-for-one deal. They laughed when I declined explaining that Linda, my girlfriend back in Montreal, would probably take exception to me having a threesome with two prostitutes in Tel Aviv (this, despite the fact that Linda is Chinese and would therefore usually never pass up on a two-for-one deal…)
In any event, the next morning I went to the train station to catch a bus to Jerusalem – about an hour-long ride. I sat next to an interesting guy and we talked a bit about the political situation in Israel regarding the Palestinians, rocket attacks from Lebanon, Iran, etc. I told him that, in my opinion, because Israel has such a disproportionate power advantage over the Palestinians (and over all the surrounding countries in the region for that matter), Israel should put an indefinite freeze on all new settlements in the occupied territories to get the Palestinians to the bargaining table and actually negotiate in good faith. He wholeheartedly agreed with this although I noticed a couple of passengers on the bus give him a very dirty look for doing so. I also said I did not believe there would be peace until Palestinians achieved statehood. To this, like a Jewish friend I have in Toronto, he disagreed on the grounds that Palestinians would be safer, healthier and more prosperous if they became an integrated province within the state of Israel. I said that, while that may be so, they will never be satisfied until they have had a chance at statehood. Why not give it to them and, if their standard of life plummets to fresh new lows, they could rejoin Israel? He dismissed that suggestion as too complicated and unrealistic and besides, he quite rightly pointed out, what to do about Jerusalem? Israelis and Palestinians both claim the city as their capital and, despite the fact that neither claim is recognized internationally, neither side is likely to ever budge on the matter. That part of the conversation had run its course but when I mentioned Iran, he became much firmer. “One thing I can assure you of is this, my friend: Israel will never, ever, allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. When the time comes, even if the Americans aren’t ready to act or support us, we will take care of it ourselves.” Of this I already had no doubt and glumly thought that the world can only hope and pray that once Iran reaches the edge of Israel’s so-called “red-line” it will step back from the abyss in a way in which it can also save face, kind of like the Russians did during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After arriving in Jerusalem, it was dead easy to navigate to the Old City: a street called ‘Yafo’ leads straight to it from the train station. It was a cool street, too, with lots of little markets shooting off from it that I wandered through on my way. When I got to the Old City, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not completely overrun with tourists. It was very beautiful and, obviously, very old! It is a warren of narrow streets and alleys. For the most part, I tried to avoid the ones that were selling all the stuff to tourists. I went through all four of the quarters: Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian – beautiful, all of them. Outside of one of the Christian churches, I bought Linda a coin (it was her request for a gift) that is almost 2000 years old. Although the centuries had transformed it mostly into a blob of twisted metal, it was cool to hold something that old in your hand. And, of course, I went to the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), at the foot of Temple Mount. Although it is arguably the most sacred site recognized by the Jewish faith outside of Temple Mount itself, frankly it was just a basic wall with people praying in front of it… I just took a couple of pictures and moved on.
In the Christian Quarter, there were some hardcore Christian pilgrims singing and visiting the nine Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Suffering”), the path that Jesus allegedly walked, carrying his cross to his crucifixion. I avoided these guys and did not follow the path myself. I only mention it because I was again amazed by the power of religion. Jesus was a man who lived a short life and was a political upstart (the Romans reserved the horrible execution by scourging and crucifixion only for people condemned of treason, insurrection, etc.) Nearly 2000 years later, 2.1 billion people on this planet (almost a third of the world’s population) worship him as the son of God and some of the most beautiful and majestic buildings in the world have been built in his honor. Talk about having an influential life! More on Jesus and Christianity when I blog about Rome.
When I got back to Tel Aviv, I was tired but went for a long walk along the beachfront which, like in Beirut, was lovely. Just like in Beirut, I turned up into town and lost myself through the streets. Also, I again found that the people seemed to be happy, prosperous, content, non-stressed and friendly but I was still struck by the heavy military presence everywhere with loads of soldiers hauling around heavy weapons.
I had supper in an area somewhere, I believe, between Sarona and Florantin. I did not meet anyone this time around and so, after I ate, I just meandered my way back to my brothel, sat out on the terrace and watched the hookers come and go until I went back up to my room. There, when I logged on to my computer there were panicked emails from my mother and family in England sending me travel advisories and literally begging me not to go to Cairo (which is where I was due to go the next day). Apparently EVERYTHING, including the pyramids, was closed off to tourists and all non-essential travel was advised against. I consulted with Linda and she ended up agreeing with my family and did not want me to go either. (An Egyptian colleague at my office in Montreal, who had also advised against going, had started an office pool to see how many body parts I would be coming home in…)
So, although I was disappointed, the next morning I cancelled my trip to Egypt and booked a flight straight to Rome. I tried to look on the bright side. First, it is hard to complain about having to spend extra time in Italy, right? Second, because I had booked a night flight to Rome, I had some extra time in Tel Aviv which I used to go and visit Jaffa (the southern, oldest part of Tel Aviv famous for biblical stories) and take a swim at the beach – both of which were fun!
Okay, this blog has run way overboard so I will sign off here. When I checked out of my brothel, the Romanian manager smiled broadly and said “are you sure you don’t want to stay here in Israel with us for a little longer?” I thought to myself that I would not mind at all staying awhile longer as I did not feel I had seen nearly enough.
Thank you, Israel, I really enjoyed your company as short as my visit was…