Sunday, November 6, 2011

My trip to Israel: finally an honest answer

In June of 2010 I finally took a trip to Israel, where I'd wanted to go for as long as I can remember. From Ukraine, it was actually realistic, and it was a memorable and wonderful week. Although it's now November of 2011, I'm finally posting something about it, after finding a notebook in which I wrote down all my experiences while sitting at the airport on my way out. The main reason I'm posting this is because a few relatives have asked me repeatedly to tell them more about the trip, but I feel that I have not adequately relayed everything. This post is very honest and a little more honest than I am generally comfortable with (in a publicly-accessed place) but I believe that the more honest something is, the better the writing is. I by no means believe that I am a talented writer, but maybe being open with some of my private thoughts will make my writing a little more interesting.

Some things might come across as offensive, or angry. Since then, I have calmed down about some things. My self-loathing has eased a lot since then, for example. But it is not gone by any means. I still feel conditioned to hate my Arabness. I've been sublimally and explicitly taught to do so, and I am heartbroken in a way to admit that.

Keep in mind that these are purely my perspectives – gained in a mere week – and I have no right to pretend that I have a deep understanding of a culture that I've only experienced for such a short amount of time. I am copying down, word for word, what is in my notebook from that day that I wrote it… minus a few passages that I chose to leave out on my blog. And the few things I have added for the sake of this blog post are in italics.


Here goes:

It's almost 10 pm; I'm at the Tel Aviv airport for the night (my flight back to Kiev is really early in the morning.) Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about the past week here in Israel, so I paid for this overpriced notebook… the funny thing is that I rarely get the urge to write down my experiences, but right now I really want to.

On the bus from Jerusalem to the airport tonight, this (weird but memorable/interesting) guy about my age sat next to me. For most of the ride, he was reading a handwritten paper in Hebrew that was several pages long, and he would occasionally curse under his breath (in English) and shake his head. Then, out of nowhere, he turned to me (about five or ten minutes before the bus stopped at the airport) and said something in Hebrew, pointing to the paper. After I apologetically asked him to speak English, he repeated it and started translating parts of the paper to me, which was about the very early history of Israel (about 3,800 years ago.) It turns out he is American, and living in Israel. I just listened, and tried not to laugh when he asked the bus driver to turn down the radio, and a passenger next to us tried to signal to me that he was annoying her.

Then, he asked me where I'm from, and I answered that I'm from Minnesota, but living in Ukraine. He said that if he went to Ukraine, he would kill every Ukrainian he saw, because they're all anti-Semites. He repeated that (using different sorts of vivid imagery) a couple more times, even after I told him that Ukraine is progressing and that I've encountered quite a few Jewish communities here, all fully identifying (proudly) as Ukrainians. Also, any references I've heard from Ukrainians about Jews have not been at all negative, and have been very respectful. I asked him (not confrontational at all, just out of curiosity) if he truly believed that violence was a solution, and without skipping a beat, he said that, yes, violence is needed to teach other human beings a lesson.

He then told me – even after I answered no to his question of whether or not I am Jewish – that he felt I had a Jewish soul, and that he thinks I must have Jewish ancestors and just not know it. Even though these words came from an odd guy who had some intense and violent opinions that I hardly agreed with, I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised and happy to be told that. Somehow, this bizarre stranger who knew me for five minutes got it. I can't really explain my connection to Judaism, but it's there and I've always known it's there. Yes, the irony that I'm actually half Arab might not be irony at all. Maybe I feel this deep connection that's unexplainable because of those roots. The Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East are definitely related – they have to be. A lot of the world will never fully understand that, I guess.

But to be quite frank, this trip has made me so cynical that I don't even want to try to validate that fact to myself in my mind. I know there's a connection, and I know there are way too many people who don't see that, and I'm going to stop trying to explain that to anyone in my family, or any of my friends who question it (which has happened back in the States) or even to myself.

He gave me his email address right before the bus stopped near the airport, and as interesting as it would be to talk to him again, I'm not going to contact him, simply because I don't want to spoil those last five minutes on the bus in Israel. Because… I liked what he said at the end. Maybe even those with the most violent thoughts in their head can still have a beautiful perspective of some kind.

This whole experience has opened my eyes and closed my mind in more ways than expected. Well, one could say it has closed my mind, but it has also opened my mind to things I never would have wanted to think about. The next thing I'm going to write about still makes me feel kind of numb but very sad at the same time, but I want to get it down on paper for some reason. Maybe writing it is my way of accepting it.

Yesterday, I dedicated most of the day to seeing the parts of the Old City I still wanted to see, like the Dome on the Rock and the view of the Mount of Olives. The Dome on the Rock area closes to tourists for a lot of the day, so eventually, all of us visitors were told to go out the nearby gate, which led us to outside the wall. I was excited because I had been determined to get up to the top of the Mount of Olives to see the view of Jerusalem from there. It was a twenty-minute walk up, and it was so hot and therefore difficult, but it was so worth it. I stayed up there awhile and eavesdropped on part of a tour, but finally strayed away because of a salesman tirelessly trying to bombard me with trinkets and a ride on a camel.

So, again, I was on my own walking back down the hill, past the Jewish cemetery, and eventually leading me to a very deserted area. It was the middle of the day and the Old City was just across a very small valley with a grove of trees, so I didn't think twice before crossing the valley, alone, back towards the walls. But then, I saw him, a 13- or 14-year-old boy, chubby and strong, with a very sweet-looking, round face. He was Palestinian and literally seemed to appear out of nowhere. I walked a little more quickly when I saw him watching me closely, but he caught up to me and asked me how I was. My automatic response, for some reason, was to pretend I didn't understand English, so I said, "I don't understand" and kept walking. Although he had such an angelic face, something about him made me anxious. He said, "No English?" but again asked how I was after a few seconds. He kept lagging behind but then running up the steps and catching up to me, and he shook my hand and then said, "I love you," and started trying to kiss my arm, and when I tried to pull away he put his hand down my shirt and wouldn't let go. I tried to get him off of me, but he grabbed on very forcefully and then let go and apologized.

I started to continue walking, ignoring him, but a few seconds later, he caught up again, said he was sorry, and grabbed me again, this time in a different place… (and then put his other hand down my shirt again.) I started screaming and kicking him off of me, and finally he let go and ran back down the steps into the valley, towards an adult man who was apparently down there the whole time, watching us. I still had a little ways up the path towards the Old City walls, and I was scared and shaking and angry. I know it was very minor, but even though I logically know that what happened yesterday doesn't even begin to compare to what many other people have had happen to them, I still feel a little shaken up by it.

That's all it took to make me more paranoid in general. So, when I got back into the walls, I found myself walking through the Muslim Quarter and hating every one of the people in it. All I wanted to do was find the Jewish Quarter because I knew I would feel safe there, and I was really panicked when I kept walking through the market booths manned by Arabs. Needless to say, that incident had a pretty negative effect on me, and I now feel this new … hatred (I really want to avoid that word, but what else can I use without lying right now?) … towards Arabs that I've never felt before. It gives me a sense of self-loathing but also a sense of sick pride that I can hate being affiliated with the Arab culture and be perfectly emotionless about said hatred. I'm definitely not proud of it. Nothing about my feelings right now are logical.

I know that boy wanted to make me feel afraid, and to warn me that I wasn't welcome in his territory. I know that his anger stems from fear and isolation, maybe. I know all of this, but I find myself not wanting to sit near the group of Palestinians that I see right now in the airport waiting area. And I know why I feel that way - that's the vibe put out into the air here. It's a negativity that is so clearly all-consuming in this country. I've never felt something like this in my life and I'm ashamed and I hate myself for being Arab. Why did I get stuck with this stupid heritage?

Today while walking around central Jerusalem and then past the park by the Scottish church, I instinctively tried to avoid even walking past Palestinian guys. I'm ashamed to have to admit it, but I can't avoid it or pretend I'm not having those horrible thoughts. I can't believe how naïve I was before this trip in believing in Noa and Mira Awad's (evidently overly idealistic) song, or at the very least, finding it inspiring. I also can't believe I had no expectation of anything like this tension being so plainly visible to me while in Jerusalem. But it's all so real and not exaggerated in the news. It's true that a Palestinian guy walking down the street in Western Jerusalem can get strip searched in public while being circled by police and being forced to lie on his stomach on the pavement, no dignity allowed. It's true that while walking through the markets and in the streets in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City alone, a girl like me wearing non-Arab clothes will have a "F**k you" thrown by a teenaged boy. And it's true that the Arab men will stare at a girl dressed like I was as if I'm a slut. It's evident that young teenager will think his anger is justified enough to sexually assault someone walking through his territory. And, most of all, it's quite true that the division is in very tight quarters and that the division is very, very strong.

And yeah, I'm sure I was right all along that tons of people living in Israel want peace, but I now am at least starting to understand all of the reasons other than the good-hearted, simple desire – it is also because people just want to be able to walk down the street without feeling as if they have to look over their shoulder, or without having to answer to security guards just to walk inside a mall. I'm guessing that people just want to be able to walk alone in daylight in Jerusalem without having to keep in mind which streets "belong" to the "others." It's exhausting! At least, it was for me (since I don't have a clear map of the city in my mind.) Even just feeling that for a couple of days took something out of me; I can't imagine how much it takes out of a person living here. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what my impression is.

Somehow, one of the most beautiful and sacred places is also frightening.

Sitting down in a park to take a rest (in broad daylight, by a major road, with a lot of passerby) can mean being approached by a man who decides he has every right to grab your hand and rub his hands up your arms. Walking down the "wrong" territory can mean getting stones thrown in your direction (yes, this happened! All I wanted to do was walk.)

Anyway, my mind is being opened to the reasons people hate each other. I'm starting to see why and even think it might be justified, considering what I have seen in just a few days. I hate it that it seems to make some sense now.

Well, now that I got some of that frustration out, I'm going to write down the amazing things about the trip! Despite all that I wrote above, I am in love with this beautiful country, its people (minus the individuals I referred to), and the culture. I will come back here, each time getting a closer look at this place and loving it more and more.

Fellow PCV Jessie connected me with her old co-worker, Liron, who lives in Tel Aviv. Her husband is Shaul. They generously let me stay with them, and I'm so glad I got to meet them.

On Friday, I got into Tel Aviv at about 4:30 am, and I was supposed to go to Liron and Shaul's place at 9. So, since I had awhile, I took the train towards Tel Aviv and ended up getting off at Hashalom even though that was evidently pretty far before I should have gotten off. My ticket was in Hebrew, of course, so what did I know? But I wasn't worried – this would give me time to walk around and experience the morning before most people were awake. So, I got my first taste of Tel Aviv at that hour; it was really nice, despite the fact that I had no idea where I was going and I couldn't find a map of the city anywhere (I ended up having to take a taxi to Liron's, oh well.) So, after meeting Liron (and right away loving her) and sleeping for a few hours, Liron came home from her class and took me to Jaffa to see the market. We also went up on the zodiac bridge, and I finally got to see that famous beach/city view of Tel Aviv that I've always dreamed of seeing.

Afterwards, Shaul's family was getting together for a big dinner in Quesarriya, which turned out to be incredibly beautiful. The dinner was at this restaurant by the water, and we had endless plates of unbelievably amazing food. It was the perfect first day in Israel, cause I got to talk to people from here the whole day, and feel nothing like a tourist. Shaul's family was so welcoming and I instantly felt at home with them. After that dinner, we went home and Daniella (who lives in Jerusalem – I'll explain how I know her) and her friend Lital came to Tel Aviv to hang out with me that night.

Back story is that I met Daniella at a hostel in Switzerland in 2008, and we have kept in touch since then. We even met up in Germany a few months after we met. Although I've spent a total of 5 or 6 days with her, she's one of those people I feel like I've known for a really long time.

On Saturday, Liron and Shaul took me to their hometown near Tel Aviv, where we went to their friend's pool party. The best part about that was when we all played water soccer and we were all on top of each other trying to get the ball – it was just funny because I didn't know any of them. But, like with Shaul's family, I didn't feel at all like an outsider or like a "new" person.

Then, we went to Liron's parents' house. Her dad is one of the sweetest people I've ever met. He owns a shoe store in Tel Aviv and loves it because he loves people, and spends his days interacting with so many different people from different places. After hanging out at their place for awhile, we went home and their friends Alma and Oren came over and we had fish and chips and watched a World Cup game. I have to say again – I LOVE Liron and Shaul!

On Sunday, Shaul had to work and Liron and I went for a walk with Chuka the dog, and we ate at this cool hippy restaurant and then I left for Jerusalem. Daniella and I met up, and I met Gili and her dog Polly. That night Daniella and her roommates had a party, which was great. As Rudy would say (and I'm now stealing), I want to run off into the sunset with both Lital and Lea. Haha, Rudy, if you happen to ever see this, thank you for that phrase! Lital is so genuine and kind, and Lea is crazy and hilarious. So, yeah. I actually think that the party was my favorite moment in Jerusalem. I really liked the group I got to know.

The next day, I walked through the Old City all day, which was interesting but, as I found out, slightly intimidating, especially while alone. Then, that night, Daniella, Gili, Polly and I went to a humus place and I got to eat the best humus I've ever tasted. The next day, Tuesday, I did more of the Old City and Mount of Olives, and I went back to Daniella's early and slept. I also had a great conversation with Moran, Daniella's roommate.

That night, Daniella, Gili, and I went to a new frozen yoghurt place and watched part of a movie. Today I saw Daniella for about 30 seconds in the morning before she had to go to school, and unfortunately I had to leave Jerusalem earlier than I thought. So, I left a note and had to come here to the airport without saying goodbye/thank you.

Anyway, today I walked all over the center of Jerusalem and then went to the Scottish church, from where there was a great view of the city. My one regret about the trip is that I didn't go to the Dead Sea. I really wish I had made that more of a priority. But I guess the good thing is that I saw just about every part of Jerusalem that I had been hoping to see (minus the Israel Museum, which was closed for some reason.) Now back to the airport.

The past couple hours were interesting. I was sitting writing in this and a security guard came up and asked what I was writing. I know that the security in this airport is very tight (for good reason, duh), but it made me feel weird. It got even more fun after that when I checked in. Here, they scan your bags first and then you check in. So, all my stuff was put through the scanner, then taken to the next station where they pick apart everything, opening all the zippers and going through all your belongings. For most people that's it, and they can continue through to check in. But for some reason, I was flagged (I got this special sticker on my bag after it went through the scanner, which I noticed that no one around me got) and I was taken into a separate room and into a curtained area. I had to remove my sandals and get patted down. I thought that was it, but no, the lady escorted me back to my bags, to the check-in counter, to the baggage ticketing counter, to the ATM downstairs when I discovered they didn't take debit cards for baggage fees, back upstairs to the baggage ticketing, where she waited in line with me, back to the check-in counter, and all the way to the passport control. Neither of us spoke to each other, but I really wanted to ask her why I was being followed everywhere. Obviously that question was not going to be asked or answered.
I'd like to think that it was completely random.


In Tel Aviv

View from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

Views of the Mount of Olives


  1. Wow, that's terrifying. And amazing. I'm in awe of your bravery, I wouldn't have gone alone.

    (Kaitlin, from Augsburg)

  2. Thanks Kaitlin!
    Luckily I never felt completely alone, because I have such great friends there who I know would have been able to help me if I had been in real danger.
    It is overall a great place and I highly recommend for people to experience it! But... maybe don't walk in that valley. :)

  3. I am very proud of your ability to fight back and get out of that situation . . . and your honesty here -- often the best way to heal. You lose some innocence and gain strength and wisdom at the same time.

  4. hey Asch
    The first half of this was the best thing that I have read of yours. Interesting and well written.
    I myself didn't really enjoy Israel, the country has a male dominated energy where women take on duties and traits of men because of the continued wars and struggles.
    all those identifying themselves as hebrews/ oppressed Palestianians/ others as anti-semites or themselves as victims, it is all just human ego.
    very sorry to hear about your experience, I guess your intuition was right about the angelically faced boy.
    Cheer, Rich
    Travel Adventure Stories