Well, I’m back by popular demand. I’m finally home in Des Moines and several readers have complained that my blog has not had a proper measure of closure. I apologize for my delinquency. I will now attempt to summarize the events of the past 30 days or so and bring some kind of finality to this four month journey.
I believe at the time of my last post I was just finishing packing up my flat in Agouza. That next day we had the Ma’Salaama (go in peace) party and twelve of the twenty-four MESPers got on a bus and after some opposition from the tourist police (really, could we have expected anything less?) headed to the Cairo Airport for the last time. On April 27, there in the middle of the night on a familiar road in Agouza a long series of goodbyes began that would not end until I said my final goodbye to my dear friend Barrett at JFK on May 18. It was something like a breaking of the fellowship. Heartwrenching really. I hate goodbye.
Bright and early on April 28 Monica, Ulasich, Dena, Josiah, Kroeze and I got on a bus headed toward the Israeli border at Taba. The ride through the Siani desert was beautiful, easy, and uneventful. The border crossing went smoothly with only one small incident of racial profiling. The Israelis didn’t believe Monica was born in Texas they actually laughed when they read her passport. What’s so unusual about an Egyptian born in Texas? Or maybe its just that Texas, in general, is a funny place. They think they’re a separate country.
We came in through Eliat a beach town where modern Israel is in full swing. In Israel everyone, men and women alike, serve in the military. And after you have served in the military you are allowed and even encouraged to carry guns. Let me tell you, after the modesty of Islamic Cairo it was quite a shock to see some girl in a bikini with an M16 slung over her shoulder. Welcome to Israel, everyone, where the security is for real.
We arrived in Jerusalem after dark that night and successfully navigated our way to The Hebron (formerly Tabasco–there were copyright issues) Hostel that we would make our home for the next seven days. We met Denny and Barrett there. It was rather cozy all eight of us in that little dorm. Ibrahim, the man in charge (we think), is obessesive compulsive so that works out nicely; the place is absolutely spotless. The place is located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and it looks something like the set of City of Heaven. Orlando Bloom really is very talented.
Gosh, we did a lot in those seven days a sunrise hike to Masada, Mt. of Olives, Dead Sea (revisited), Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the Wall, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Arafat’s grave, Via Dolorosa, Garden of Gethsemne, Church of the Holy sepulcher, the ramparts, Nad Yashim (Holocaust Museum), East Jerusalem, the Knesset (the very disappointing Israeli parliament building), and an Orthodox Jewish Neighborhood in West Jerusalem. Wow, I bet that was boring to read.
So here are some of my impressions of Jerusalem. The weekend we arrived just happened to be Easter and Passover, so the city was absolutely teeming with pilgrims. We were witnesses to organized religion at its best (imagine my voice dripping with sarcasm). The Church of the Holy sepulcher is located in the heart of the Old City. This single building claims to house the location of the crucifixion and the tomb. Geographically speaking this seems unlikely. Denny says its commemorative. Okay. So, we went there on Good Friday–it was packed. I won’t lie there was pushing and shoving and a little bit of shouting to control the crowds swarming the tomb. I got pushed by a bishop. I suppose I was in his way, but a simple “excuse me” would have achieved the same end. All the same, who else do you know that can say they got pushed by a bishop in the Church of the Holy sepulcher on Good Friday, no less?
Walking the streets of the Old City we found ourselves behind two Orthodox Jews. We knew they were Orthodox because they dress all in black in suits reminiscent of the 15th-16th century and wear side curls. We watched one of them stop twice to spit in baskets of crosses that were being sold on the side of the road.
The Dome of the Rock is the third most holy site in Islam. It is a building that commemorates Muhamad’s Night Journey to Jerusalem. Its that huge golden dome that marks the skyline in any picture you see of Jerusalem. We visited that sight one afternoon, it really was remarkable, a place of peace for the Muslims of Jerusalem who were having picnics and playing together. You could almost forget the conflict of the place. That is until a small child you just had a relatively civil conversation with throws a rock at you as you walk away (no injuries were sustained in this incident).
I tell you those three incidents to tell you that a lot of what I saw in Jerusalem was rather unsettling. I felt perfectly safe, but the air in that city is thick with tension. So when you ask me, “how was Israel/Palestine?” And I answer, ”it was weird,” that’s what I am referring to. We experienced the checkpoints that are restricting Palestinian movement and saw the wall (to the Israelis “security fence” and to Palestinians “apartheid wall”). The wall is a massive cement slab marking the hills of Jerusalem, bigger than the Berlin Wall, it is costing millions of dollars per meter to build, but the Israelis claim it is temporary considering it is direct violation with International Law. An air of desperation marks the West Bank–I’m not really surprised as they are effectively being walled into a prescribed area of Israeli choosing.
We spent our last three days in the North. We rented a car and headed to Ibillin where Abuna Chacour’s (the Palestinian Christian father) parish is. We spent some time with that wise man, visiting the school, and chatting with some of the volunteers at the Mar Elias Educational Institute. Abuna’s goal is reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews. I have much to learn from men like him.
Next stop was Tiberas where we spent some time at the Sea of Galilee visited Capernum and the Mt. of Beatitudes. Our drives in the Galilean countryside were breathtaking. Someone remarked that they understood why Jesus chose to hang out there so much. On the morning the boys took us to the airport in Tel Aviv we stopped at Nazareth. The church there has mosaics of Mary donated from countries around the world. Interesting how the mosaics from Asia represented Mary as Asian, the Europeans see her as white, and the Africans colored her skin dark. What kind of cultural lens do I view my Christianity? Gosh, and I thought I was being so objective in this fading age of reason…
So was my journey to the “Holy Land” a spiritual experience? The answer is yes. But the answer is yes because I spent my time with these six remarkable people. Because we enjoyed nature together. Because someone strapped on the headlamp each night before bed and read to us from the Bible. Because I got to see Abuna Chacour again. Because of laughter. Because I’m memorizing the Sermon on the Mount. The sights were interesting, but they did not thrill me the way these other things did. I want to go back–there is some much more history, politics, and religion to take in. So many more people to talk to. So many more stories to hear.
That went a lot longer than expected and I haven’t even brought you back to Cairo. I’ll finish up on another day. Hold out just a little longer for that promised closure.