Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Faithless Pilgrim: Jerusalem

A typical street in the old city

Israel is the best city for wanderers in the world! When I am alone this is how I travel – with a map in my pocket I wander down a random street and see where it takes me. Not practical in many places, but in Jerusalem it is perfect. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem wandering the maze of stone alleys that is the old city, and every few minutes I would stumble into some ancient holy place.

Nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of faith, I think. In one day I followed Jesus' footsteps along the Via Delarosa, touched the western wall, saw the dome of the rock and wandered the mount of olives. I am a faithless pilgrim, bewildered by the deep belief of those swaying or singing or crying around me in their holy places. And though I lack the faith to grant me such a powerful reaction Jerusalem is filled with an inexplicable joy. I am in love with the diversity of the place – my last evening I perched on a rooftop and listened to Shabet songs, church bells and Ramadan fireworks as the sun set. It was a moment of perfection!

Now I can understand the importance of Jerusalem, and why it is the center of so much love and so much hated. But I read something on way here which argued that the conflict and cruelty that have surrounded this city, the great evils committed to capture it for the glory of God is a kind of blasphemy. If people behave in a way repulsive to the commandments to love their fellow man for the sake of Jerusalem, it becomes idolatry – the stones lose their holiness when they are soaked with blood. The peace I saw here: Muslims and Jews worshiping just blocks away from each other, headscarves mingling with Hassidic fur hats was beautiful but it is a fragile thing. Like an infant who one night may simply stop breathing. I do not have a god to pray to, but as I leave the city I pray for peace.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

How Can I Keep From Singing? Palestine

A mural at Dehashem Refugee camp. 

Never have I been to a place so profoundly hopeful and devastating. I began my trip to Bethlehem by visiting a refugee camp, which tore apart all the expectations of poverty and hopelessness I hold with this place. Dehashema refugee camp began as a tent city decades ago, and now blends easily in with Bethlehem – a neighborhood decorated with murals and scattered with schools, shops and medical care centers. A cultural center proudly displayed trophies won by the camp sports teams, and advertised social services and psychological care. No where were the starving children scratching in the dust – the camp was not home to victims. As I wandered between apartment buildings and chatted to curious children I was struck by the reality of the place. Everyone here had been through incredible hardship, but supermarkets open, children go to school, people met married. A powerful reminder of the strength of human resilience.

Many of you know I want to work with refugees, hopefully in psychological care. It seems a dream most days, but today I saw a model of my future. It has never been so real.

Then I went to the wall. The wall between Israel and Palestine creeps, ugly and imposing against the edge of town, garages and businesses huddled just yards away from the angry concrete expanse. The amazing thing about the wall is the open gash the graphetti on it show into the soul of Palestine. Slogans of hope blur into images of the dead, bible verses next to commandments to 'burn this wall'. This is Palestine. This odd balance of hope and hatred, the future stalked by a crippling past. A refugee camp that has become a welcoming town. A swastika shakily scrawled on a wall. The smiles and bright eyes of children in my taxi as they play with my bracelets and shyly tell me their names. The furious repetition of the word 'yahud' (Jew) in the Ramadan sermon broadcast over the sleepy town. Bethleham is a mystery, a paradise, a timebomb.

I came to Israel for understanding. I wanted to know why this scrap of sand and stones has caused so much death, so much hatred, and yet is so loved. Every minute in Israel has been amazing, but I leave with more questions than I came with. I only know I want to come back. I want to return to Bethlehem, and walk on the bits of concrete where there once was a wall. I want to tell my children how I saw the wall, and the sinister towers that guard it, but that now – thank god, thank god, thank god, there is peace. Having been to Palestine, I want this future so much it aches. But, having been to Palestine, I do not know if it will ever be.

(Update: I am leaving for Germany tomorrow! I have been adventuring at such a breakneck speed I have not had time to write as much about Israel as I wanted – look for a post about the beautiful Jerusalem in the next few days.)  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Waaaaadi Ruuum: Land of Adventures!

After running through Petra our bus took us to Wadi Rum: the most beautiful desert in Jordan and, in my opinion, the world. We immediately hopped into the back of a pickup truck with our Israeli friends from the bus and bounced and screamed across the desert, swerving through the sand on a race to catch the sunset.

And what a sunset! I have never seen such a beautiful one, the sky and the mountains stained red by the sun as shadows danced across the mountains. Breathtaking!

And as night fell our whole camp turned into a party with music blaring from loudspeakers and everyone dancing together under the stars. To my delight they played Salsa music (truly, it's everywhere...) so I bullied Saif into learning. Perhaps in revenge he taught me a complicated Jordanian dance (for me) and the sight of a white girl shuffling through the steps after a line of Jordanian men was very amusing for the onlookers! After the music died down, I went out into the sand to look at the stars. I have never seen so many, they filled the sky until the darkness almost disappeared.

The next morning I couldn't sleep, and wandered to a nearby to watch the sunrise. It was so beautiful it ached. It seems like time has ceased in this land, and the sun shifts and plays across the sand isolated from the rest of the world.

Our last stop was Aqaba, a seaside town within view of Israel and few kilometers from Saudi Arabia. It was stiflingly hot, but we cooled off swimming in the sea and riding boats around the crystal blue waters. And I fell of a speeding Banana into the red sea!

We made some great friends on the tour, which brings me to now! I am staying with my Israeli friend Yasmine in a small Arab town in the north of Israel with our friend Semah, a Belgian girl who was also studying Arabic in Jordan. I am amazed by the hospitality of Yasmine and her family, who seem genuinely delighted that their daughter was followed home by a couple of students. Today to Jerusalem!  

With my new friends on the boat! Yasmine is in front and Samah opposite me. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where the world begins and ends: Petra

I have left Jordan (in Israel now), but in my last weekend I went on a whirlwind tour of all the amazing sights of Jordan by bus with Saif! 

One of the most breathtaking moments of my life: rounding a bend in our rattling bus and finding myself at the edge of the world. The landscape around Petra... I cannot describe it. An eternity of sand and stone which stretches out forever like the cradle of the world.

Truly I can see how the old testiment was born in this land. A desert scattered with rocks and sudden cliffs, and the jutting red mountains of stone so weathered they look like bones of some giant beast. This landscape must surely have had a hand to create it. But this hand, this god, is as vengeful and untamed as it is magnificent. Beautiful, terrifying, and very very near. In every step. In the land of Abraham the stones speak the tongue of this ancient god. I begin to understand how modern faith came from this place. Where every blade of grass and drop of water is a gift, is it little wonder faith here is strong.

And Petra... where do I begin? Walking into Petra is like walking into the heart of the earth. The dusty road is swallowed by curving red cliffs which undulate like living things. The walk to the ancient city is long and dusty – interrupted by the occasional carriage or donkey – but I cannot stop smiling because the rocks are the most beautiful I have ever seen.

When at last I catch sight of Petra it explodes in golden sunlight through the cliffs. As always, that first moment as you stare at something as famous as Petra is one of disbelief, and the reality of it slow filters in along with utter amazement that such a thing can truly exist beyond postcards.

But Petra is so much more than a single ruin... it is a lost world. Beyond the treasury is a labyrinth of caves and temples and even a vast red roman theater. As we clambered over cliffs and stared out at this ancient city I felt we were wandering through a beautiful skeleton. I would have given anything to see it alive, the city as it must have been when the people who carved homes from mountains still lived in it.

Petra battles Ankor Wat for the most incredible place I have ever been. I am so sad we only had a few hours to explore before we got back on the bus to go to someplace maybe even more amazing... Wadi Rum: the most beautiful desert in the world! Will post about this tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


My Adventure this week: the Roman Theater! 

The place is a playground of history: I loved clambering over the dusty stones and imaging the thousands of years they have witnessed.

I was amazed by the scale, the engineering (I could hear the footsteps of playing children on the stage from at least three stories up), and the geometry. The way the Roman architects blend straight lines and curves, and the play of sun and shadow across this landscape of shapes was stunning.

Another week in Amman and I am finding patterns. As life takes a definite shape the world starts to make sense, fitting around the obstacles thrown up by my American expectations. Culture shock: that nagging shadow in your head that looks at something different and says 'but that's just not how it's done.'.

Arabic, too, is a language of patterns. Arabic is not so much about learning the order of words but the patterns of letters that surround them -- prefixes and suffixes can hold the key to a sentence. As my infamous spelling skills attest, this is not easy for me. My driving reason for coming to Jordan was to save my relationship with Arabic (never did I imagine I would be grateful for my first 'C' grade). But incredibly, I am making great progress. I can't really take part in other's conversations yet, but I can chat with Taxi drivers and new acquaintances, and hold a halting conversation with my infinitely patient family.   

The other day I realized with shock I have less than a week to go. I will leave for Palestine/Israel this Sunday after visiting Petra and the sea. I am so excited for another adventure, but also terribly sad to leave this one...  Time has a strange quality here. I cannot believe I have been here more than 2 weeks and yet I feel I have lived here forever... 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Layers of Empire (and ketchup and mustard)

Today's adventure: Jabel al'Qala: the mountaintop roman ruins

The ruins are desolately beautiful. Scattered pieces of empires, piled on top of one other as tribal kingdoms gave way to Romans who gave way to Byzantines. And now the place is surrounded by a new empire – whatever they will call us in a thousand years.

In truth, this modern empire was my favorite part, just staring out at the vast expanse that is Amman. The sand colored buildings blend together like a desert. From the mountaintop the cacophony of the streets is lost in the wind and the city seems still and ancient as the giant columns which lie like bones in the dust. I can't photograph this feeling – the partial city-scapes can't show the vastness– the way Amman seems to envelope of the world.

I couldn't capture the scale, but this picture shows how oddly seamless the ancient and the modern are here.

My host brother Saif with the old roman theater in the background, and me with Amman.

I am tenuously making sense of my life here. Life in Amman avoids movement during the day at all costs. I am quite sure the daytime opening hours of Jebel al'Qala were the reason it took a week of constant begging to get me there. But night is for adventures. Saif and I usually zip (or putter, depending on the traffic) through the city at night with his friends. We get coffee here, shwarma sandwiches there, or fetch dinner from a hole in the wall hotdog place called 'Wazzup Dog,' which is spattered in graffiti, caution tape, and 'BEWARE THE DOG' signs.

I know by the time I feel really at home here I will have to leave. But, for the little time I have it, I love this life.