Israel is a magical place

Magical thinking on a trek to the Mideast

On the surface, Israel is everything outsiders expect it to be: Nationalistic, obsessed with the past and segregated. But venture beyond those first impressions and you’ll discover an Israel that is the exact opposite of all those things.

"I haven’t come here as a pilgrim seeking salvation, but as an observer struggling to make sense of a country and a region where it feels as if anything — war, the fall of despots, visions of angels, even peace between Israelis and Palestinians — might happen."

By Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times, October 23, 2011

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ON THE COVER Tel Aviv, "the city that never sleeps," is the bustling cultural capital of a nation where the interplay between the religious and the secular, the ancient and the modern, never ceases to surprise. In this snapshot, taken with a camera phone using the Hipstamatic application, a man appears to be meditating in the city's Magen David Square.

Photo: MICHAEL TEMCHINE / THE WASHINGTON POST

 Tel Aviv, "the city that never sleeps," is the bustling cultural capital of a nation where the interplay between the religious and the secular, the ancient and the modern, never ceases to surprise. In this snapshot, taken with a camera phone using the Hipstamatic application, a man appears to be meditating in the city’s Magen David Square.

JUST STEPS inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what’s thought to be the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, Orthodox Christian pilgrims from Eastern Europe drop to their knees around a red marble slab known as the Stone of the Anointing.

Most of the genuflecting pilgrims are elderly women, dressed in simple frocks and headscarves, whose tired expressions make it seem as if they have trekked to Christendom’s holiest place on foot. And given the heightened level of religious devotion on display among the Christians, Jews and Muslims who pray in parallel piety here in Jerusalem’s Old City, some of them may have done just that.

But as I approach the stone, which commemorates the spot where Jesus was anointed with oils and wrapped in linen in preparation for burial, I realize the look on their faces is more like ecstasy than exhaustion. It is an intense, almost disturbing sort of joy, not like happiness but more like triumphal relief at having arrived at the birthplace of their religion.

The women pull vials of oil from their bags, dab a little in their palms, spread their arms over the stone and lay hands on it, massaging its creased surface to a high sheen in a ritual that recalls the original anointing. They bend down and kiss the stone and chant lamentations over it, surrendering to this moment of communion with the divine.

At first it feels inappropriate to play voyeur at this scene, a little like peering into someone’s living room through a crack in the door. But this is Israel, the Holy Land, where religion is a very public matter.

You have to get used to bumping into people who are so intent on siphoning the magic running through sacred stones and worship halls they don’t even know you’re there.

The women slap down trinkets and heirlooms belonging to loved ones and rub them against the anointing stone, coating them with holiness.

I step back and take it all in.  

Then I spot a clearing on the floor among the praying women. I swoop in to fill the space, kneel, slide an index finger across the stone and wait for a reaction.

But while my hand smells of resinous oils, no holy current runs through me.

That’s OK. I haven’t come here as a pilgrim seeking salvation, but as an observer struggling to make sense of a country and a region where it feels as if anything — war, the fall of despots, visions of angels, even peace between Israelis and Palestinians — might happen.

On my most recent visit, the Middle East and North Africa are still in the throes of the "Arab Spring," a democracy movement that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Meanwhile, uneasiness hangs over Israel, whose security is tied to the fate of peace agreements and cease-fires with its Arab neighbors. Israelis understand the volatile fusion of grievance and protest very well.

This sliver of a nation is crammed with 7.4 million people, mostly Jews. But Muslims, Christians, Druze and nomadic Bedouins make up about a quarter of the population. The land is riven by political fissures that go back generations and actual barriers that divide Israel proper and Palestinian-controlled lands in the form of security walls, checkpoints and restricted highways.

The tense political situation, as well as opposition among many Westerners to Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians, keeps some tourists away, which is a shame.

A visitor will be struck by how easy it is, in moments of public prayer in Jerusalem’s charming Old City, on visits to cities that hardly ever make the news, at family gatherings marking a bewildering array of holidays or on strolls along sparkling beaches, to fall under the country’s peculiar spell.

Even more remarkable is the ability of Israelis, funny and cantankerous in equal measure, to achieve something resembling calm on a landscape that is, as the "Danger . . . Mines!" signs dotting the bucolic pastures of the Golan Heights near Syria remind you, literally a battlefield.

It’s only when you start to understand the unique vibe of Israelis, who work, pray, party, bicker and battle like there’s no tomorrow, that you can fully appreciate this country’s extremes.

On the surface, Israel is everything outsiders expect it to be: Nationalistic, obsessed with the past and segregated. But venture beyond those first impressions and you’ll discover an Israel that is the exact opposite of all those things.

There’s a telling passage in a memoir published last year by the NBC Middle East correspondent Martin Fletcher, "Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation." Writing about covering conflicts here and meeting Israelis on his coastal sojourn in preparation for the book, he argues that "the tangled and complex stories" of the country’s people "defy the accepted simple narrative of Jews against Arabs."

"One man’s triumph is another man’s sorrow," Fletcher writes. But "no Jew or Arab should celebrate too loudly, because sure as hell, his turn could be next."

This is a land divided, but the realities of its people are tightly bound.

On three visits to Israel, what has struck me is the bittersweet sense of possibility just within reach but untapped. That its people live like there’s no tomorrow, as Fletcher puts it, may not reflect nihilism but shrewdly calculated hope.

TRANQUILLITY AND peace of mind come in cherished rations for the people of Israel.

Boisterous reverie, on the other hand, comes easily.

It is the end of the Jewish Passover holiday, and I’ve been invited to a garden party at the home of a Moroccan-Jewish family in Hadera, a town north of Tel Aviv.

In Morocco, the occasion is called Mimouna, and it’s customary for Jewish families there to throw open their doors to friends and neighbors, and celebrate the end of a period of reflection and restrictions against leavened bread with a festival of doughy delights. The tradition lives on among the Moroccan-Jewish households of Israel.

In the backyard of the family’s home, platters of colorful sweets and pastries line a long, candlelit table set with bowls of butter, dates, jams and honey.

Holiday lights stream overhead, and percussive North African dance music fills the air. The hosts have even placed elaborate Easter baskets, a decidedly Christian and Western symbol, throughout the yard to further lighten the atmosphere.

The main attractions of the Mimouna party are a deep-fried, doughy pastry called sfinge, and moufleta, a fried flatbread that comes out of the kitchen steaming hot and stacked like pancakes. The women cooking up these treats indoors shake their hips to the loud music and tell jokes in Hebrew as they serve up the food.

The idea is to tear off a piece of the moufleta, dip it in the condiments and enjoy. In practice, eating a moufleta creates a finger-licking mess. But nobody’s feeling particularly self-conscious.

As relatives and friends file in, shot glasses are filled and refilled (and refilled) with vodka as community gossip shimmies around the table.

Is this a sign of everyday existence or just a snapshot in time, destined to fade with the next reports of rockets fired into Israel from militant strongholds or controversy over Israeli settlements?

Is it magical thinking, as the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said might have put it, to regard the party as anything but a respite in a not-so-cold war?

I’m too woozy from shots and sugar to ponder these questions tonight.

The next morning, I’m off again to Jerusalem.

IT DOESN’T take long to understand why Israel’s seat of government, perched high in the evergreen-clad Judean hills, is such a flash point. It is a largely Jewish city that happens to be located at the heart of the overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East.

From Jerusalem’s walled Old City, it is only 44 miles to Jordan’s capital Amman, 48 miles to Gaza City by the Mediterranean coast, 135 miles to Syria’s capital Damascus, 145 miles to the Lebanese capital Beirut and 246 miles to the Egyptian capital Cairo. Ramallah, the West Bank’s bustling chief city, and Palestinian refugee camps may be worlds away politically but lie just a few miles down the road as the crow flies.

There’s probably no better place to witness Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims than the majestic, golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine covering the believed location of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, where he met with Moses, Jesus and Abraham and received instructions from God. The building sits on the Temple Mount, which happens to be the holiest spot in Judaism. Non-Muslims can enter the complex, but not the shrine itself, for only an hour after lunch on weekdays.

A welcome serenity sweeps across the expansive plaza that surrounds the octagonal shrine’s dizzyingly ornate blue, white, yellow and green porcelain base. Arab children play soccer on the pavements. Clusters of vacationing Muslim women, covered head to toe, pose for pictures. A man with freshly washed bare feet orients his internal compass toward Mecca, kneels with his forehead touching the ground and completes his afternoon prayers.

But Israel can feel as if it’s spinning on two alternating axes, one religious and the other decidedly secular.

Jerusalem’s intensely religious character presents a stark contrast to other parts of the country. Certainly its atmosphere differs from the nudist hideaways of Ga’ash Beach on the coast, the rolling vineyards around the Sea of Galilee with its tourists wading hip-deep in the lake where Jesus is said to have walked on water, the minaret-studded Muslim towns up by the border with Lebanon and Eilat’s sweltering Red Sea resorts. The contrast is especially vivid in Tel Aviv.

"ONLY TWO kinds of creature get fun in the desert — Bedouins and gods," Mr. Dryden warns British Lieut. Col. T.E. Lawrence in the classic film "Lawrence of Arabia."

If only Mr. Dryden could see Israel’s simmering, cosmopolitan cultural capital today.

If Jerusalem, overcrowded with religious devotees in traditional dress, is wrapped up in the past, Tel Aviv, full of pretty young things, designers and entrepreneurs, is preoccupied with the here-and-now.

From the 20-somethings who throng patio lounges set in Rothschild Boulevard’s futuristic Bauhaus buildings to children riding bikes along the undulating wooden boardwalk of the city’s northern seafront to the Arab servers animatedly barking out orders at the famous Abu Hassan hummus emporium in the adjacent city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s easygoing spirit comes as a breath of fresh air.

Still, even in this aggressively modern city, the country’s complexity is on full display.

The golden sands of Tel Aviv’s coastline, a gift brought in by sea currents from Egypt’s Nile Delta, offer the perfect backdrop for contemplating the crazy interplay between enchanted nostalgia and refuge-seeking aspiration that characterizes Israel.

The country today is shaped just as forcefully by human currents — Jews fleeing repression in Europe and North Africa, Palestinians uprooted from homes and towns in countless land disputes, and smaller streams of yearning immigrants such as the Black Hebrews, who emigrated from cities like Cleveland and Detroit and settled among the ancient spice-trading routes and stunning natural craters of the vast Negev Desert.

But to get a wide-angle view of Israel’s evolution, which is marked by the ebb and flow not just of exiles but of emperors, legends and libertines, find a hilltop perch in Jaffa overlooking its 4,000-year-old port.

Tumbling down toward the water is a picturesque village full of cobblestone streets and taxing stairways that some believe were built by one of Noah’s sons. St. Peter took shelter in Jaffa, and the Egyptians, King David, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, Napoleon and the British all fought over it.

Pan across the choppy waters to where the prophet Jonah fled from God (only to be swallowed and spat up by a whale) and where Poseidon chained Andromeda to sea rocks. Stretching northward is Tel Aviv’s procession of high-rise hotels, condos and sunbathers more interested in catching a tan.

Or spend the afternoon roaming the narrow side streets of the bourgeois-bohemian district of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s original settlement after Jews drifted out of Jaffa’s Arab-dominated neighborhoods a century ago, and retreat into a world of tiny, pastel-colored houses, art galleries, cafes, workshops and million-dollar apartments.

The hairpin turns of a journey around this perpetually on-edge nation will induce the lightheadedness that comes not from fervent prayer but from having your expectations turned upside down.

Like Tel Aviv, the coastal city of Acre, a 90-minute drive to the north, offers something surprising. On a previous visit to Israel, I arrived in the city at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The town is notable as one of the few places in Israel where Muslims and Jews live more or less in harmony.

On this summer evening, though, its walled old city was chaotic with celebration as Muslims marked the end of a month of fasting. Whole families rolled down the narrow streets on horse-drawn wagons blaring Arabic-language pop songs while vendors served up spicy kebabs, luscious baklava and fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, and well-dressed couples sipped tea on covered terraces overlooking the pounding surf. Groups of young men chilled on the streets in plastic chairs, sucking on flavored-water pipes and spying cute young women out of the corners of their eyes.

Like the Mimouna party, the mood was unabashedly cheerful.

Maybe this is what normality in a conflicted land looks like, after all.

ON THE WAY from Eilat to the ancient, "rose-red city" of Petra in southern Jordan this spring, the scenes roll by like a Technicolor dream.

We emerge from a gorge lined with craggy pink mountains streaked with vertical black-granite stripes into a sea of orange sand. A wind storm kicks up swirling clouds of dust that make the jutting rock formations of the distant Wadi Rum look like rampaging giants, a spectacle that surely must have impressed the real-life T.E. Lawrence, who crossed that desert during another great Arab revolt.

Walking with my head upturned in amazement through a dramatic, mile-long gash in the towering sandstone cliffs, where the Nabateans carved iconic temples 2,000 years ago and Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in a 1989 summer blockbuster, I’m again reminded of the sheer romance of travel in the Middle East.

Returning to the border crossing with Israel, though, I’m snapped back into reality when I am told to step into a private side room for "secondary screening."

An Israeli border agent orders me to spread my arms. He methodically rubs and squeezes his way up one side of my body and down the other, then slides his hands down the inside of the front and back of my jeans, before waving his handheld metal detector against those same private areas for good measure.

He gives me the all-clear, with no explanation.

But I don’t let the experience ruin my travel high.

A verse in the biblical book of Hebrews says, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

The Jews and Muslims of Israel don’t place much faith in the stumbling diplomacy playing out at the highest levels of government, but at street level — in the markets, in hummus joints, in mixed towns and at recent multiethnic demonstrations against the rising cost of living — little breakthroughs offer glimmers of what’s hoped for on a grander scale.

So I decide it’s more fitting to freeze-frame on the last thing I saw as I walked out of Jordan into Israel, a giant sign with a single word written in Arabic, Hebrew and English and depicted by flying doves:

Peace.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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