Friday, 24 July 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part I–Tel Aviv

world-map israel


And what a week it has been. On UTM we have finally finished ‘Among Armenians’ and so it is time to shift our attentions elsewhere, to the land that first attracted me to Armenia: Israel.

I wrote this travelogue many years ago and have kept it in storage until now. That’s been largely due to the fact that anything about Israel/Palestine, (when you feel the need to add slashes into country names you know you’re on dodgy ground), seems to invite controversy and awaken strong feelings. And more than any other conflict in the world, this one tends to result in you falling one side of the fence or the other. And so it is that I am accused of being Pro-Palestinian by Pro-Israeli friends and Pro-Israeli by Pro-Palestinian ones. All I try to do is sit on the fence but in the Middle East fences tend to be spiky.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this exploration of what is, in my opinion, not the most beautiful country in the world but undoubtedly the most fascinating. When I wrote this travelogue back in 2010 I considered it to be the best that I had ever penned, the first decent travelogue. Looking back, I feel I have improved but it still holds up well and I hope you agree.

Oh yes, and I said that this has been a big week for me: I booked my flights to Cuba for next January. Time to get practising my Spanish. Soy Matt. Tengo uno hijo…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers








This is an account of a journey, undertaken during the early months of 2009. Although one single journey, it falls into two distinct parts and that should be appreciated when reading this account which is somewhat different to my other travelogues because of it.

The first part of the journey is a pilgrimage, a religious pilgrimage. I have never made any secret of the fact that I do have a faith that I take seriously and in none of my writings does that come across more than in Book 1 of this work. It is unashamedly Christian and laden with religious references. This is deliberate. It is not an attempt to convert, but merely to convey some of my feelings as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Pilgrimages are extremely different in character to normal travel and hopefully this comes across in the account. If you are not religious, please bear with it, it will be worth doing so.

The second part of the journey is also a pilgrimage, but this time a secular one. Twelve years before this journey, I travelled to the Holy Land as a young man to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz. It was an experience that changed my life and part of my reasoning in returning was to reflect on that experience now that I am a father, a husband, older and, hopefully, a little wiser. References to those earlier travels permeate throughout the entire account, but particular this latter part. The second half of the account, like the journey itself, is an entirely different experience to the religious pilgrimage that proceeds it. I just hope that you the reader, manages to find something of use and enjoyment in both.

Finally, I wish to talk a little about the writing of this account. It was begun only a month or so after the trip concluded using notes compiled during the journey, but then left and not completed until midway through 2011. In the intervening period, Tom had grown up considerably and Thao and I had separated. During the journey itself, I had no intimations that we would ever part, but through the writing of this account, it became obvious that in many respects, we were already living in separate worlds back then. I was focussed on God and my memories; she just wanted to look after the baby and get home. The absolute non-engagement of her in the experience in which she was present in body is deafening in its silence. Those comments are not criticisms of either her or myself, merely a statement of fact.

Last of all, I wish to thank certain people who helped make this travelogue, the trip and all my former Holy Land expeditions special. There are too many to name in person, but below is a short list of some of the prime movers:

Thao Nguyen

Lenin (Brian Connellan)

Paul Lewis

Yankalei Shemesh

Sara Shemesh

Zohar Shemesh

Tom van den Ouden

Christoph Geiser

Simon Woods

Heather Nolan

Adrienne Netto

Elton Netto

Pepi Kovatcheva

Simeon Kovatchev

Andrei Kovalski

Maija Spektor

Pavel Serebryakov

Fr. Tony Rigby (for the Holy Land pilgrimage book)

Paul Daly

Bela Kadar (for use of the photos)

Matt Pointon

Smallthorne, U.K., May 2011


Every trip starts with a journey. You need to get to wherever it is that you’re going. Rarely though, do you get there before you’ve arrived. This trip however, was different. We were going to Israel, to the Holy Land, and we got there the moment we arrived at the gate in Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2.

This gate you see, was different to all the others. Most were full of the pasty-faced, waiting to get a tan, clad in shorts and football shirts, ready to hit the beaches of the Canaries, the Balearics, the Costas. A few had businessmen waiting at them, suited and tied, passing the hours before tying up that important deal in Frankfurt, Tokyo or Singapore. This gate however, was, as I said, different. At this gate all the men had beards and ringlets whilst the women were well-covered. They held their prayer books in their hands and bobbed up and down facing a wall. Israel might boast some great beaches and bars in Eilat and Tel Aviv, but something told me that this lot weren’t on a lads’ holiday. Nor too were they headed for Tel Aviv’s central business district to complete a takeover or merger. Israel may be a party land and a business land, but above all it is the Holy Land and in Manchester Terminal 2 we had already arrived, for all those waiting had their eyes and ears tuned into the Almighty, not mere human concerns.

I was no different to these other travellers in that faith was the primary motivation for my journey, but the cross around my neck betrayed the fact that whilst we all prayed to the same god, we did it in slightly different ways, for as well as being the Promised Land of the Jews, Israel is also holy to the Christians, Muslims, Baha’i, Druze and Samaritans. Many faiths flock there and coexist, not always happily, within the borders of that ancient land.

For me though, the pilgrimage was not only religious, it was also very secular and personal, for just over twelve years previously, I had boarded a plane at Gatwick to take me to Tel Aviv. It was my first dose of back-packing, of real travel, and it marked the start of a passion for such travel that has stayed with me ever since. Despite infuriating me in so many ways, political and cultural, social and environmental, Israel has retained a very special place in my heart and after completing religious duties, I would be taking my son and wife to the place of my enlightenment, a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, for the very first time.

On board we got chatting to a young lady who, like us, had a baby in her arms. The majority of the plane’s passengers she explained, were in the same party. There was an Hassidic wedding on in Beit Shemesh and the Hassidim on board were all friends or relatives of the happy couple from Leeds or Manchester, the two traditional centres of Judaism in the North of England.

As this was a pilgrimage more than a holiday, I decided to start as I meant to continue and so I pulled out my rosary and prayed for the trip to come, concentrating on past pilgrimages and also on Tom who was, after all, the reason for the whole expedition, even if he himself was unaware of the fact.

Thao and I had wanted a child for years, ever since our marriage. Despite trying though, one had not come, nothing at all. Then, in 2005, she’d got pregnant. She’d got excited and started making plans; I’d got excited and started making plans, but then, as with so many pregnancies, especially first ones, she’d miscarried. We were both devastated, but particularly her. Worse than that, there were complications; she had pains that continued for months and required several hospital visits. It was at this time, in the depths of despair over our lost child, that I made my promise to God: if He blessed us with a child, then I would make the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre to say thank you. Still we tried, still we waited and then, just as we thought it would never happen, in 2008 Thao fell pregnant again. This time though, there were no miscarriages and on Christmas Day 2008, he was born. Two months later he was christened Thomas, (after his godfather and the saint who doubted for I’ve always believed doubt to be most healthy), Việt Anh, (which is Vietnamese for “Vietnam and England” which requires no explanation).

I’m not saying that his birth was a miracle. For a healthy young woman to give birth to a healthy young baby is not even unusual, let alone miraculous, but for us he was, and still is, a miracle, and his choice of birthday only serves to confirm that. However, with joy comes responsibility and, since I’d made that promise, well I then had to go and keep it…

I was not the only one who decided to pray on that flight. Not content with their exhortations in the airport, midway over Europe all the male Hassidim lined up in the aisle and, taking the lead from the one at the head of the line, went through an impromptu service. The Thomson flight attendants with their trolleys full of duty free looked bemused; one imagines that such things do not happen on the more standard Manchester-Lanzarote route.

At Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport everything had changed since my last visit a decade before. A sparkling new terminal had been built and the horrendous queues of the olden days were no more. My mind went back to my first visit, my arrival on January 17th, 1997 when I was met by the Shemesh family, friends of Paul, my father’s best friend, a Stoke-on-Trent Jew who visited Israel annually. Back then I was a different person to now; younger and far less confident. I’d hardly travelled either and had only agreed to go to Israel because I knew that there was the safety net of the Shemeshes to catch me if I fell. Prior to then, my only independent travel outside of Britain had been to Corfu and a day in Albania.[1] Now I had almost fifty countries under my belt, five of which I had lived in, and with that experience comes confidence. I did not need any Shemesh to meet me at the airport now, but I was still grateful for the fact that they had been there on that fateful day over a decade before.

Sailing through the customs with ease – the only thing that hadn’t changed was that the officials are still some of the sexiest in the world – we transferred downstairs to take the train into Tel Aviv. This too was new; in the olden days you had to take either a taxi or a bus but now there was a rail link direct into the heart of the city. As a lover of trains, I approved. Israel’s rail network has traditionally been very poor, so much so that I’d only ever managed one train trip on all my previous visits, down the coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv, but in the intervening decade the country has undergone a veritable rail revolution, with services being restored to Jerusalem, Beersheva and Ben Gurion Airport, and track capacity being increased on the main coastal trunk route. It’s not all finished either, for there’s a high-speed line under construction between Tel Aviv, the airport and Jerusalem and extensions planned for Dimona and Eilat amongst other destinations. I was impressed by it all and I wasn’t the only one, for when the diesel locomotive pulled into the station, its engine’s roar amplified ten-fold by the concrete walls, Tom bounced up and down excitedly. Hopefully, he too was beginning a lifetime’s love affair with trains and travel…?

Things were less impressive however, when we alighted at Tel Aviv’s Savidor Station and caught a taxi to our hotel, Momo’s Hostel on Ben Yehuda Street. Tel Aviv is a bland, colourless, concrete city which one finds difficult to like. The best description that I have ever read of the place is that by Paul Theroux:

No other city in the entire Mediterranean looks more like an American concoction than Tel Aviv. It is wrong to compare it (as many people did) with Miami and its tangle of suburbs. Tel Aviv was both more sterile and less interesting, and it was strangely introverted; its streets were lifeless, its different cultures, and its tensions, masked… Somewhere on the east coast of Florida there must be a city that Tel Aviv resembles, a medium-sized seaside settlement of ugly high-rise buildings and hotels, a shopping district, a promenade by the sea, not many trees, a white population watching gray [sic] flopping waves under a blue sky.”[2]

All I can say is, if that is the truth, I never want to visit Florida.

Dating entirely from the 20th century, Tel Aviv lacks an identifiable centre and instead seems to consist solely of rows of concrete apartment blocks with shops underneath. As we rolled along the streets, the meter ticking over and the Arab taxi driver talking of the Champions League, (he was an admirer of Chelsea because of their Israeli manager, Avram Grant), my mind was cast back to my very first visit when Sara and Zohar Shemesh showed me round the centre of the city with its Druze market and expensive shopping streets. I’d wondered then if there wasn’t more to it, if I was missing something, but I am still looking for it if there is, for all my subsequent visits have revealed naught of note.

Even all of this however, did not prepare us for the hotel which was, in a nutshell, awful. Thao was enraged – and rightly so – yet I protested that it had seemed alright on the internet and besides, the staff were friendly. She however, has higher standards than me, but eventually we both agreed that since it was for one night only, we would make do and, after dropping off our bags, we got out as soon as we could, going for a Japanese meal at a nearby establishment called Supper Sushi as a sop towards an irritated Indochinese, before then going onto the beach, Tel Aviv’s one great draw card, where we drank beer as Tom slept whilst gazing out over the waters of the Mediterranean, the moonlight glittering on the waves.


Next part: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

[1] See ‘Albanian Excursions Part I’.

[2] The Pillars of Hercules, p.387-8

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