First and foremost, Ramadan karim to all my Muslim friends and anyone reading this blog. August is an insanely hot month everywhere I’ve lived – be in Indonesia, Israel or Canada – and I wish you all a good month and please, stay indoors as much as possible!
Now, it’s always daunting writing a post after such a long hiatus. I feel that if I update too often, my posts aren’t interesting; but if I don’t update often enough I end up with massively long posts, just like this one promises to be.
So, from the top… As most of you who read the news should know, Israel has been gripped by housing protests that have taken the nation by storm. Don’t be fooled, it’s about a lot more than housing. In any case, the protests began here in Tel Aviv along Rothschild Boulevard about the high cost of housing and lack of availability. They escalated and are now about everything. When I visited on the 22nd, there were all sorts of causes out and about – the first one I came upon was one against army refuseniks. Anyway, my friend invited me to help/watch her friends set up a clinic at the center of the protests, so we ambled along Rothschild together, impressed by the dedication of the protestors in the extreme heat. I was also greatly amused (in a positive sense) by the numbers on the tents, as if they were apartment numbers. People had brought out their couches, were reading newspapers and working on their laptops, and a communal kitchen was set up near where the clinic was going to be. In the last couple of weeks, the protests have escalated – with tent cities popping up all over Israel and marches in which over 150,000 people across the country attended.
Despite this, my week was relatively calm and I didn’t do much, just enjoyed the beach a little, worked, and prepared for my upcoming weekend in… yes, Jerusalem! Aren’t you surprised.
Actually, I took Thursday off work so I could visit the al-Aqsa mosque compound. I caught the 8am bus to Jerusalem and so began my adventure. After walking to the place I was couchsurfing at, I caught a cab to the Western Wall from which the tourist entrance to the mosque compound begins. When I opened my bag to pay the driver, I realized my wallet was not in my bag! Deeply apologetic, but determined not to miss the brief visiting hours to the compound (Sunday – Thursday, 7:30am – 11:00am), I insisted I’d pay him back and gave him my phone number. He demanded my book as well and I happily obliged. Then I stayed on the compound until I was kicked out, and boy is the Dome of the Rock beautiful. Next time, next time I will find a way to get in!
Then I wandered around the Old City with a lovely Italian woman living in Germany that I met at the mosque complex. She and I had a lovely chat and stumbled upon what I think might have been a young man’s bar mitzvah with drumming and horns being blown. It was wonderful. All the museums we tried to enter were closed, so we ended up at Jaffa Gate and parted ways – her to meet her husband and me to meet my young friend from the Old City who has been mentioned before. Together, he and I walked back to where I was staying – a half hour away – to see if my wallet was there. In the meantime, the taxi driver called me twice and yelled at me “you give me money now! This is not good!” My friend tried to talk to him and was shocked by his comportment, “he is not a good man,” my friend told me. Wallet found (after a brief panic and some tears), we returned to the Old City where I headed to the Austrian Hospice for dinner alone.
The Austrian Hospice is absolutely beautiful, with a peaceful garden and a nun who took my order. I bumped into the German lady again and we spoke for a while until I had to go meet a friend of a friend for a gay rights parade in Jerusalem. Stepping out of the hospice was like culture shock, in the two hours in the garden I had forgotten about the crowds and the heat outside. My boyfriend was worried, “great,” he told me, “you had to pick the one cause that all sides in Jerusalem rally against.” He was right, but no violence broke out – we just had to deal with a very nasty stink bomb that was thrown into our midst, apparently by someone ultra-orthodox. The parade itself was fun and I met a wonderful group of young Jerusalemites, probably some of the best company I’ve had so far.
The following morning, at 3am, my friend from Canada arrived. After barely enough sleep, she and I headed to the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Me’a She’arim. We expected to see a lot of ultra-orthodox but certainly did not expect the crowd we came across. A rabbi had been killed a few days earlier and everyone was walking towards his funeral. There were thousands and thousands of people. My friend got yelled at – twice – for wearing a skirt cut off just above her knees and I was screamed at to get out after taking a photo of a man putting up a poster (it wasn’t Shabbat, so my photographing him wasn’t a religious violation). It was all part of the experience, however, and I cannot, in any number of words, explain what it was like to be surrounded by thousands of ultra-orthodox Jewish men in black coats and hats and little curls behind their ears. After a while, feeling uncomfortable and hot, we left and headed to the Old City to visit the Western Wall and wander around.
We joined the Friday evening Christian procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, smiling awkwardly when we didn’t know the hymns everyone was singing and exclaiming repeatedly at the site of monks, and nuns, and priests, and everyone else. We were, unfortunately, 2 minutes too late to enter the tomb Jesus was placed in after he was taken down from the cross. Maybe my fourth attempt to enter will yeild some results?
We had supper at the Austrian Hospice again – the food isn’t really all that good but I would still recommend it to anyone because of how beautiful and peaceful the garden is and how incredible the view from the roof is. We sat on the roof watching the sun sent over the Old City, listening to the Muslim call to prayer from all different directions (it’s really so beautiful, I love it), and were lucky enough to see fireworks go off over the Dome of the Rock.
The following morning we headed to Hummus Lina, supposedly one of the two best hummus restaurants in the Old City – its competitor is Abu Shukri. Needless to say, the hummus was absolutely delicious and it felt so good to sit in an air-conditioned room. After wandering around aimlessly, unsure of what to do (yes, it is time I buy a guide-book to Israel and, specifically, Jerusalem) we stumbled upon Zedekiah’s Cave, just outside the walls and the Damascus Gate. It was beautiful, for the most part my friend and I were the only ones there and we enjoyed the caves immensely. We then decided to head to Ir David, but it got too hot so we sat instead with security at the Western Wall for two hours and watched drama at the entrance unfold (an orthodox man with a strange square package that he claimed was a book but set off the metal detector, a tourist with a very large pocket knife “for picnics”, and a number of orthodox men and women refusing to pass through the shomer shabbat metal detectors because it was shabbat). We then called my friend to suggest a place for dinner and sat in a square in the Old City to eat.
Though the food wasn’t that great (I’ve eaten better falafel and pita pretty much anywhere), the company was lovely. The men working there were friendly and we ended up sitting for three hours talking to them. In that time, I was unknowingly married to one of the men (and was called “wife of ___” the rest of the night) and a young 15 year old was offered as a husband to my friend. We both enjoyed the conversation immensely and were plied with tea, coffee and lemon juice on the house. Finally, we had to insist on leaving at 9:30 because it was so late and we needed to be back in Tel Aviv by 11. We quickly visited my friend to see the lights strung up for Ramadan in the Old City (which are so beautiful, I wish I had had the time to see more) before rushing to catch the next sherut back to Tel Aviv.
Best weekend ever. Or so far.