Arriving in a New Place
The 70 degree weather was a welcomed escape from Atlanta’s unusual frigid air. Everything about the atmosphere was quite different: the olive trees, the street markets, the endless security checkpoints, the concrete walls, and the all too revealing butcher shops. Orthodox Jews wearing black top hats bustled through one section of the city with purpose in their step and prayer in their hearts, while a rainbow of different colored hijabs occupied another. This was the Middle East.
Despite being known as a region with a lot of conflict, my arrival was quite peaceful. Besides the 15 hour flight and exceptionally long line at customs, entry was a breeze. “And the nature of your trip?” She asked routinely, inspecting my passport.
Barely reaching the top of the counter labeled “USA Passports only,” I replied, “Just a tour of the Holy Land.” Stamping my three month tourist visa, she looked up, offered me a quick smile and said, “Welcome to Yisrael,” emphasizing the second syllable of the word. Though known as the Biblical Holy Land, war, conflict, terrorism, and death have unfortunately become socially accepted beliefs about the country. But while walking through Ben Gurion International Airport, there were so many beautiful things to behold: history, diversity, and a very different selection of pretty good food.
The flashing city lights and urban atmosphere of Tel Aviv faded away as we drove up steep hills and around several corners. With the Mediterranean Sea no longer in sight and frequent stops at checkpoints, we knew something had changed, not in bad way, just a different way. Our tour guide, Rafat confirmed our suspicions. “Salaam, welcome to East Jerusalem where Palestinians live as residents, not citizens of Israel. I will tell you more about this later. Yalla,” he said, motioning for us to exit the bus. We later learned that yalla was the Arabic word for “hurry or come on.”
The setting sun left the sky a rich burnt orange color. Noticeably different from Tel Aviv, the noisy city streets were full of young Palestinian men smoking cigarettes. They watched us with an intense uncertainty we seemed to feel tangibly. Across the dark street was The Legacy Hotel, our room and board for the night. Trekking inside the beautifully lit hotel we were greeted with a hearty salaam and chilled pomegranate juice. After two long days of travel and just a few hours in this foreign place, I was sure of one thing: the hotel name seemed to bare a lot of truth. The old city of Jerusalem seemed to be full of legacy.
Faithful Prayers & Intangible Hopes
The delicious overabundance of humus, pita bread, breakfast potatoes and eggs filled us with enough starchy carbohydrates to get us up and moving. The strong aroma and rich taste of the coffee reinforced that energy. Though we were unaware of it at the time, contrasting yet equally interesting legacies awaited our hopefully unbiased ears.
The main entry point to the Muslim quarter of the Old City, the Damascus Gate, smelled of strong Arabic coffee and golden corn.
Called Bab Al-Nasr, the Gate of Victory, by Arabs, the central location was crowded with individuals eager to tell their stories which all seemed to include an extreme longing for victory. One particular store owner didn't hesitate to tell me his story.
“This is my shop,” Ibrahim said with a strong Arabic accent. “I work here in Jerusalem, but my family lives in Bethlehem. They don’t have permits to come here and see me work. They are only permitted to come when Israel says it’s ok. The permit and ID situation is very bad here. Because we are not citizens of Israel, we cannot come and go as we please. We come and go as they please. But one day Palestinians will be able to travel freely too. Insha’Allah.”
Citizenship in Israel is in many ways a luxury. While there are only two classifications: citizen and permanent resident, the situation is far from normal. Illustrating just how different it is, Linda Gradstein of Jerusalem Post writes, “in the United States, you need a passport to travel abroad and a driver’s license to cash a check. In Israel, you need an ID card just to cross the street.” Ibrahim’s story illustrates the complexities surrounding ID cards. Citizens of Israel, whether Jewish or Arab, are allotted blue cards. Palestinians’ cards are green. But these color codes represent more than ethnicity: they represent nationality, a luxury Palestinians have not yet been afforded. Ibrahim’s sobering declaration of lack of citizenship left me wondering: if he wasn’t a citizen of Israel and Palestinians weren’t offered citizenship, where was his nationality based? The answer, displayed by a blank line following the word “nationality” on his green ID card, provided the answer. Nowhere.
Market after market lined the stoned walls of Damascus Gate. Shopkeepers called out to us to stop and buy, to support their families back home. “Only 20 shekels,” a shop owner would say only to be immediately followed by another owner rebutting, “I’ll give it to you for 15 shekels, best price around. No high American tourist price!” The street markets had everything you could think of: scarves, ornaments, t-shirts, leather sandals, fruit juice, tea, traditional coffee blends, fresh baked bread, and authentic silver and gold. It was in many ways a great convenience and at the same time, a sophisticated trap for American consumerism. It was also the sole livelihood of many families.
At the end of the Damacus Gate was The Western Wall, more specifically known as The Wailing Wall. The Kotel, as it called in Hebrew, is the spiritual epicenter of Judaism. The remaining wall of the historic temple built by King Solomon, it is a symbol of both divine right and promise for Jews. As we approached it, Orthodox Jews rushed past us to find a spot on the wall to pray.
Adorned in tallits, tefillins and kippahs, the men huddled around the wall, ceremonially and rhythmically bending forward in prayer. Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. The sound of their prayer captured our attention, and though they weren’t praying to us, it felt as if they were praying for us. As the melody rose off into the sky, a small crippled Rabbi moved toward us. “The Shema is our promise. It is a reminder of our survival and God’s blessing. Listen to the words,” he said. Readjusting his cane, he closed his eyes as he recited the words in English. “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God. The Lord is one.” Opening his eyes, he continued, “Only Adonai could have delivered our people from the Holocaust, the same Adonai that gave us this land.”
As the rabbis continued their prayer, shoppers continued looking for deals in the marketplace and shopkeepers kept bargaining for the welfare of their families. Such opposition adjoined so close together. So many prayers and so little resolution. Small raindrops fell from the sky as I watched the scene in front of me and thought of the encounters behind me. I resolved that the heavens wailed at such a sight, as the clouded sky continued to cry tears of rain.
A Name & A Place
As if the universe knew we needed some glimmer of hope, the sun returned to its rightful place in the sky early the next morning. A hilly and bumpy ride through the city and up the mountains led us to our next destination.
Yad Vashem was the kind of place people went to pay respects, not necessarily to enjoy. Sobering and emotionally heavy, the Holocaust Museum was architecturally designed like a concentration camp: hollow, dark, cold and terribly claustrophobic. Even more reminiscent of what Jews called HaShoah, the catastrophe, there was only one way in and one way out. In other words, to begin the journey was to endure it, to the end.
Exhibit after exhibit told of similar horrors. In each harrowing tale, women, men, children, the entirety of the global Jewish family ached for the same things: the survival of their identity and a land and a place to call home. The museum’s very name echoed such desires. Yad Vashem.“Does anyone know the significance of the name,” Jaimie asked as we stood outside the immaculate building. Squinting from the sun in our eyes, we looked at each other with puzzled faces. I tried to recall some of my Hebrew lessons. I knew shem meant name, but had no idea what yad meant. After waiting for one of us to speak up to no avail, he continued. “The actual translation of the phrase means “a memorial/place and a name.” We nodded in agreement as though we were aware of the meaning before he told us. “As you walk through the exhibits, remember that: a name and a place.”
The end of the visit left us shocked and without words. The Holocaust was one of the world’s worst tragedies. Walking toward the bus, my love for Jewish culture and survival grew significantly. Despite it all, the Jews had certainly found a name and a place for themselves: the nation of Israel. “Now,” Rafat, our tour guide from the other day said, “we will go see more people looking for a name and a place. Yalla!”
Our bus pulled just outside the gate of what looked like some type of camp. At the very top of the gate was a large key. “This is Aida Refugee Camp,” Rafat said. The families here are from three different generations. Their homes have been stolen and their nationality tarnished.”
Exiting the bus, our eyes were immediately drawn to a group of Palestinian teenagers. They stood in front of what resembled a chalk board. Several names, written in white chalk were listed, 264 names to be exact. I remembered that number just like I remembered the Jewish 6 million. They were the names of the children killed in Gaza during the summer of 2014, a frightening three months before this trip began. Neither the 200 nor the 6 million deserved death yet that is what each of them received.
Walking through the refugee camp, Rafat started telling us about the Palestinian refugees that called this place home. But one by one we squinted our eyes and covered our noses. Something foul was in the air. “That’s tear gas,” Rafat said, noticing our faces and sniffing the air at the same time. “It was probably sprayed about two hours ago, yalla,” he said motioning us onward. The gas eventually subsided but I couldn’t help but wonder: what could have happened that resulted in tear gas being used in a place of protection such as a refugee camp?
According to most, the Palestinian Refugee problem began somewhere between 1947 and 1949. 1948, the year Israel became a nation, is largely considered the year most Palestinians fled their homes with the hope and expectation of returning someday. Today, the number of Palestinian refugees is said to be close to the number of Jews affected by the Holocaust. Handala, a cartoon character, remains a symbol of the struggle. Barefoot, scarred and faceless, he has been searching for a name and a place for over 50 years. A common inclusion in street art painted all over the Separation Wall surrounding the Palestinians territories, the icon is a way to remember the struggles of Palestinians like Yad Vashem is a way to remember the Jews.
Nearing the end of our tour of Aida, Rafat pointed toward a small shop. “Inside this shop,” he said standing in front of a mural depicting Handala and the names of the children living in the camps, “you’ll find keys. Actual keys to Palestinian homes. These keys have been sold or given away. Why would anyone give away the key to their home?” He paused as a group of children ran back and forth kicking a soccer ball. “Because the hope of returning home has long past.”
Feeling the weight of it all, I purchased a key and put in my bag right next to my keepsake from Yad Vashem.
Wellsprings of Life
Hassan’s family lived in Hebron, one of the more conflicted areas of Israel. But despite the overwhelming presence of Israeli Defense soldiers, he met us with a huge smile, eager to share his home with us. “Welcome to my humble stone,” he said bowing slightly as we laughed at his refreshing humor. He stood in front of what looked like a cave that had steps going upward behind it. “Today, we are going to eat on my family’s roof and wave to the Israeli soldiers as they watch,” he said sarcastically. We followed him up the steep concrete stairs.
The initial steps were the hardest and short in length. In fact, the entire space through which we walked upward was extremely narrow. There were no railings to hold on to, just concrete slab walls to the left and to the right. After about 30 steps up, we walked through a small garden area across from a small bedroom. “This way,” Hassan remarked as he noticed us slowing down. Eventually, the clear blue sky welcomed us to take part in what felt like another world. Up on the roof, we saw the entire city of Hebron.
School buses passed through the streets, women on roofs near and far washed clothes, and the Muslim call to prayer echoed throughout the city. As we sat down, a smiling woman served us aromatic tea as she quietly whispered “welcome,” to each of us. Sipping tea, we took in the breathtaking view. A small child ran up and down the stairs joyfully. We were amazed how he conquered the deep stairs with ease. “The Israeli government,” Hassan said, motioning toward the watchtowers, “tried to take our family home by bribing my family and I with American citizenship, but how can we leave our home?” We nodded in unspoken agreement as the woman came around offering each of us another cup of tea. Pointing to a huge tank behind the place where Hassan stood, I asked, “What’s that?”
“This is our water tank. Palestinians do not have free flowing water all the time, the Israeli’s control it. That’s why you see all the women washing clothes on the same day. They wash when the water flows freely. When it does not, we use what is in our tanks.” Sipping the tea, I looked over the city once again. Sure enough, house after house, had tanks on tops of the roofs.
“More tea?” Hassan’s cousin asked again, holding the platter with ease. I thought of the significance of their sharing tea with us. Despite being in a place where water was so limited, tea was offered willingly and frequently. This act of kindness reminded me that extremists, whether Palestinian or Jewish, did not represent the region. The region, despite its conflict and complexities, was made up of simple people with big dreams and deeply rooted passions—people like me.
Hassan spent the rest of the night making us laugh as the sun set on what was a beautiful day. He kept us entertained while we ate a delicious meal prepared by his mother: chicken, Shepherd’s salad, fresh pita, humus, rice, and vegetables, picked from a neighbor’s garden. “I learned a lot English from American movies after I left school, movies like The Hulk, Spiderman, and Fantastic Four. I like superhero movies.” His wife smiled as she shook her head. The setting sun caught us laughing as we watched Hassan reenact scenes from the movies. Having such a wonderful time, I almost forgot about the watchtower just a few feet away.