Friday, 14 August 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part IV–Exploring the Old City

world-map israel


The other day I was messing about on the internet as one does when I came across an article entitled ‘30 ways in which living in Israel has ruined you for life’. As such articles often turn out to be, this was not the best piece of net journalism that I’ve ever stumbled across, but there were a few of them that I found myself nodding along to. 1). In Israel it is socially acceptable to yell at people – definitely, and 8). Direct public involvement in every aspect of your life – ditto. 20). Wallah and yallah become the centre of your vocabulary this also rings bells, as too did 26). Six-day working week – now that can ruin anyone. But generally speaking, this is Nedida’s list (she’s the blogger) and not mine. So, how has Israel changed me, the Top 5:

5). You actually know what people are talking about when they pontificate on social media about the Arab-Israeli conflict and know just how biased and misinformed their pronouncement are, (whatever side they prefer).

4). You forever long to be sat around a campfire with a bunch of weird international hippies drinking cheap lager or vodka.

3). The Bible is more than an abstract book about bearded guys and camels in a land of palm trees and square mud huts. Nazareth and Bethlehem become real places just as familiar and flawed as Nottingham and Birmingham.

2). You learn that being polite is not a virtue, it’s hypocritical and it is far better to be blunt and straight with anyone. Very blunt and straight.

1). You realise that the bad guys can be really good and kind and the good guys can be arseholes because in fact, there are no such things as good guys and bad guys, only people.

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



Thursday (continued)

Back in Jerusalem, we took a walk around the Old City. Thao wanted to see the Dome of the Rock, (or “Golden Temple” as she termed it), so we headed to the Wailing Wall from where one gains access to the Temple Mount itself. Thao was also acutely feeling the absence of Vietnamese victuals and in particular, rice, so she declared that she was cooking that evening. So it was that our stroll out to some of the holiest places on earth was lengthened by various detours and forays into shops that might sell rice.

1909522_155237165304_2132501_nMy first trip to Jerusalem: At the Wailing Wall with Simeon, Elton, Adrienne and Pepa

Of course, I had been to both the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock before. Back on my very first visit to Israel on February 22nd , 1997, I’d gone to both with Elton and Adrienne, Pepa and Simeon, and I still have a framed photo of us all stood in front of the wall on the wall behind my writing desk. More powerful however, had been the visit a year later when it was just me and Pepa. It was Christmas 1997 and she was in a difficult period of her life. After booking into the hostel, we had gone to the Wailing Wall and simply sat there in silence for around half an hour. The holiness and power of the place was all-consuming and I have respected it ever since. The following day, Christmas Day, we climbed up onto the Temple Mount itself, but this time could not go into the Dome as we had done previously, and instead had to make do with photos outside.

1909522_154328010304_359710_nPepa and I, Temple Mount, Christmas Day 1997

But back to 2009, I’d explained to Thao beforehand that we were going to the holiest place on earth for the Jews, their #1 temple you might say. When we got to the Wailing Wall however, she was less than impressed.

“Where?” she asked.

“Here!” I declared.

“But there’s no temple here,” she replied.

Looking out across the vast plaza in front of the Wall, one had to admit that she had a point. There was no temple in the normal sense of the word.

“The temple is over there; that wall is their temple.”

“A wall?”

“A wall.”

“Stupid!” She was most indignant. Praying to a big stone wall evidently does not make much sense to the Oriental mind. I decided to explain.

“Well, they used to have a temple, up there, where the Muslim Golden Temple is now, but they got beaten by the Romans in a war and it was knocked down.”

“Why don’t they build it again?”

I looked up at the big golden dome. “Because the Muslims got there in the meantime and built their temple there instead.”

She looked at the dome too. “Isn’t there room for two temples up there?”

I recalled the vast, windswept expanse of the Temple Mount with the tiny Dome of the Rock in the middle. There was room up there for a dozen temples if they were so inclined.

“Maybe the Muslims wouldn’t like it if they tried to build one?”

She sighed. “Ok then, why don’t they build the temple here instead?”

I looked at the huge plaza in front of the Wailing Wall. There was room there for a Temple of all Temples.

“But the temple must be there, not here!”

She sighed again as if talking to a child. “In Vietnam, if they build something where the old temple was, we just build new temple again next-door, no problem.”

“But this is not Vietnam!”

“Like I’m say to you, stupid!”

And with that she walked off, leaving me to think that whilst culturally insensitive she definitely was, at the same time there was a lot of common sense in what she said. More sense in fact, than one usually heard from Jerusalem’s religious authorities, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

1928273_147058060304_5283621_nThe Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock

We were not allowed up to the Dome of the Rock so we moved on into the Jewish Quarter. I have to admit that this is my least favourite part of the Old City, not because it is Jewish, but because it is new. That’s not the fault of its residents of course – the whole area was flattened during the fighting in 1948, proof if it were needed that it’s not just the Jews who go in for clearing out people who’ve lived in the same houses for centuries. Most Jews that I have met are decidedly proud of the job that the Israelis have done in rebuilding the quarter after it was recaptured in 1967, but I beg to differ: the houses are too modern in appearance and in amongst the creamy Jerusalem stone, there’s an awful lot of concrete.

What is remarkable, however, is just how different the atmosphere is in the Jewish Quarter to those of the Arab, Christian and Armenian Quarters. In an instant all the clutter and chaos is gone, replaced by affluence and order. We stepped into a shop to buy some food and I found charitable leaflets asking shoppers to donate presents to Israeli soldiers “protecting our land” alongside those for a local synagogue or yeshiva. Hebrew is totally ascendant and Arabic noticeably absent. These people are not only Jewish, but serious about it.

On my last visit to the Quarter on Christmas Day 1997, I stopped at a restaurant for a falafel. The establishment in question did not sell falafels, but the next-door one did so I ordered from them instead. They however, did not sell any tea, so I went back to the original restaurant for my cuppa. I then sat outside at one of the tables shared by both establishments to enjoy my snack, when the proprietor of the first restaurant came rushing out to me shouting “No! No! No!”

“Why?” I asked, somewhat mystified.

“Meat and milk!” he declared, (Orthodox Jews cannot drink milk within six hours of eating meat, vice versa though, it’s only an hour).

“But this is a falafel, there’s no meat in it!”

“Yes, but that restaurant, that is a meat restaurant!”

“But this is not meat!”

“No matter, meat and milk! No! No! No!”

“But I’m a Christian anyway, I can eat meat and milk!”

“Just go around the corner and eat them,” advised Pepa quietly, who had lived in the country long enough to know not to argue.[1]

This time there was no stopping for falafels – or milk – and we strolled straight through, down the elegant Cardo – the restored main street of Byzantine and Roman Jerusalem – back to the poky, chaotic and yet less-sterile Arab Quarter and our hotel where Thao was eager to cook up her Asian meal. I retreated to the room with Tom to keep him entertained and wait, but within half an hour I was confronted by an irate Vietnamese woman who was still struggling to cope with the realities of the Middle East.

“That woman, that crazy woman!”

“What woman?”

“That Sarra. She say when we come here, ‘Use the kitchen, it’s for your cooking, no problem,’ but now when I’m cook she’s complaining, says that the kitchen is only for small food like toast or soup, not to do big cooking. But I am the guest here, I am Vietnamese, Vietnamese cannot eat toast and soup, we need rice and seafood! Crazy woman this Sarra, I’m tell her she is crazy!”

Atheists and observers of the Middle East often declare that all of the world’s problems, (and the problems of that small corner of the world in particular), are solely due to religion, a force that the world would be better off without. At that particular moment however, the antagonisms between Jew, Christian and Muslim seemed slight compared with those caused by women, whose bickering always seems to be behind any woe. Unable to confront such formidable opponents, I bid a hasty retreat to the terrace to leave Buddhist and Muslim to fight it out to the death in the kitchen. There on the terrace, I enjoyed the tranquillity of the evening in the City of Peace, one of the most violent places on earth. Taking out my rosary, I meditated over the events and sights of the day; the Nativity, the Shepherds, the Magi, the miracle of the Milk Grotto, the Security Barrier – good versus evil, the Palestinian girl at the checkpoint, the tragedy of Israel which has been plagued by violence ever since its establishment. I recalled the words of my good friend Paul Daly, an active supporter of the Palestinian cause who would talk over the issues of the day in the pub and talk about a victory for the Israelis for a defeat for the Palestinians, and thought, no, no and thrice no, Paul, you have got it all wrong. In such a conflict where brother is set against brother, there is never any victory, for either side, only defeat. If only the men with the power could see that, then there might be a glimmer of hope. At the moment however, like 2,000 years before, the peacemakers are not listened to and instead crucified, metaphorically if not actually.

Why does man never learn?

Next part: Hebron

[1] To be fair to the restaurant proprietors, discussing the issue with Paul Lewis back in England, he informed me that they could easily have their license to run a Jewish eating establishment taken off them for compromising with gentiles such as myself and that can cost a lot of money, which perhaps explains why they were so serious about it.

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