Having escaped the bustling streets in favour of nursing a strong macchiato in the wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, I got talking to a girl on the next table who, it turned out, worked for the Palestinian News Network. Mentioning this blog, we got talking about the challenges of writing about the conflict here in the Middle East.
“The easiest thing to do is just choose a specific, small incident and use that as a way of reflecting the wider issues. Otherwise there are just too many angles; it’s tempting to want to write about the whole damn thing, but you’ll only end up losing your reader, and probably your argument, in the process.”
I’m therefore approaching this article with some trepidation. Having had such a mind-blowing experience, with my understanding and viewpoint evolving and shifting on virtually a daily basis with every new conversation, it’s proving difficult to know where to start.
However, what’s top of mind for me right now is the massive number of ways this place challenges and defies any and all expectations and prejudices you might hold about this land and its people. Here are a just a few of the ways my eyes have been opened, which might help you too if you’re thinking of travelling to this region.
Expectation 1: Israel is unsafe for travellers.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong. I can honestly say I have never felt more safe travelling around a country than I have here. When I asked whether I should be careful about pick-pockets in Jerusalem’s bustling old city (as you would in London, Barcelona, New York…) I was laughed at. And when a friend mentioned that a couple of rockets had just hit Be’er Shiva from Gaza, I looked around the chilled Tel Avivian bar we were in and realised that these kind of occurances didn’t even register on people’s nervous systems.
Maybe it’s because everyone speaks English. Maybe its because people are pretty friendly and always keen for a chat. I don’t know. But I can honestly say that the only time security crossed my mind was when a friend from England might text / email imploring me to ‘stay safe’.
Expectation 2: People of different religions can’t live alongside each other
At sunset every Friday, hundreds of Jewish people from the secular to ultra-orthodox pour into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city and make their way on mass towards the Western (Wailing) Wall. When they have finished their prayers, finished off their catch-up chats with friends and rounded up their children, they walk back towards Damascus gate to the soundtrack of the Muslim call to prayer.
The next day, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is said to have been built on the place where Jesus died and was resurrected), Greek Orthodox monks wait for the midday call to prayer for the Omar Mosque to finish before ringing the church bells, while pilgrims step in the (alleged) steps of Christ down the Via Dolorosa, dodging Arab market stall owners intent on selling them scarves/sweets/really good shwarma.
I’m not saying it’s a vision of multi-cultural harmony. I’m not saying people from different religions and backgrounds sit around in circles holding hands and singing “all you need is love”. But every day, the most hardcore followers of the world’s three theistic religions go about their business with a respect and tolerance for one another which, I think, is a pretty amazing achievement.
Expectation 3: Israelis are a bit scary
They interrogate you for hours at the airport. Their eighteen year olds carry guns on public transport. They don’t seem to have a word for ‘thank you’. They are racist and hate all ‘Arabs’. These were all things I had been told before heading off on my trip, and I would be lying if I said it hadn’t coloured my perception of what Israelis might be like.
Imagine my surprise.
Yes, I was asked more questions at Ben Gurion airport security than I would have been if I was departing from, say, Frankfurt or Rome, but to be fair I had just travelled in from Egypt just after the revolution. And the security guards seemed really sorry about having to hold me up and made sure I was fast tracked through the rest of the airport so I didn’t miss my flight. And on my way into Israel over the land border with Egypt at Taba, the major question the guy at Passport Control wanted to know the answer to was whether I liked Cliff Richard. Because he did. A lot.
Yes, the military kids carry their guns with them on public transport, which is undoubtedly a bit weird, but as one of them told me; “we get really shouted at if we don’t look after them. And we travel a lot – what are we supposed to do; dismantle them and pack them in our back packs? Where would we put our clothes?”
I have no idea what the word for ‘thank you’ is in Hebrew. But I can tell you they definitely know it in the English.
And as for their attitude towards the ‘Arabs’, saying Israelis hate all Arabs is like saying British people hate all immigrants. If you read the Daily Mail you’d probably think it’s true, but speak to anyone with half a brain and you realise that most people aren’t that one dimensional.
Expectation 4: The West Bank is a war zone
Let’s be clear; there is some very dark stuff happening in the West Bank. People’s homes are bulldozed. Some children’s classrooms are covered in bullet holes. The Separation Wall has cut ordinary people off from their land, or worse, their families. There are still many UN supported refugee camps. Unemployment is rampant. Everyone knows someone who has been killed.
But the thing that struck me most about the West Bank is the incredible power people have to carry on as normal under trying, sometimes desperate conditions. Given these are a people under occupation, people are still starting businesses, going to school, relaxing in cool bars and cafes, sending their kids to dance classes. Parents I spoke to talk about how they hope their children will go to university one day. Children I spoke to were desperate to test our their English and talk about football.
I’m about to use a massive cliche, but I don’t care. Here it comes. People are people are people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re going through. For the most part, people pretty much want the same things; happiness, a relative degree of security, a good life for their children and something to laugh at once in a while. Even in a ‘war zone’.