Throughout my travel life I have always felt that it was important to maintain, as best as possible, an observational attitude towards the places I have visited. I don’t feel it is my place to interject my personal feelings towards the customs, culture or political and religious climate of the places I have chosen to visit. After all, I think one of the wonders of travel is seeing things that are different from your own world. It is what makes travel such a rewarding thing for me. Most travelers would agree that the world is becoming too generic. Inserting your own beliefs or customs can only alter the local culture and contribute to global sameness.
I say observational and not objective because it is not always possible to be objective. I know that some things are wrong. I have seen poverty, racism, class division and a host of other things that were uncomfortable to observe and at times outright offensive personally. I think that most people have an ingrained desire to help others that they perceive as less fortunate or treated unfairly. I understand the desire to help children or animals or anyone that is a natural underdog. However it is my belief that at some point you are practicing activism, not tourism. I often have to remind myself that I am an outsider and because I do not have to live with results of the actions that are taken in a place I am visiting, perhaps I should not interject my opinions.
At the same time I have always had trouble with tourism that alters the reality of a place so that we don’t have to see what is really happening. It seems to take away the general purpose of travelling. I’m not sure that living in a gated community or staying in some fenced off all-inclusive resort that does its best to hide the reality of an area serves a visitor well. Frolicking in some white sand Margaritaville that was created solely based on some Disneyesque version of reality is not for me either. It is true there is an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas. It is attractive and fun to see, but you can’t be confused that it is the true item. I do understand that suspending reality for a few days could be seen as just taking a break from your normal routine. I enjoy a few nights disguised as a high roller in Vegas or a couple of nights of room service in an enchanted palace-like hotel pretending to be a Raj era sultan as much as anyone.
I find that by attempting to remain observational you often begin to see an issue from both sides. It has served me well and has created learning experiences from some unpleasant situations. It helped us get through and not feel overwhelmingly frightened in our last few days in Istanbul. We were involved in a tear gas incident near Taksim Square during a protest. A major suicide bomb attack that killed several German tourists happened literally 20 feet from a bench we had lunch on just a week before. I understood a good number of the reasons these things occurred which made them easier to comprehend. I still found them unpleasant and regrettable but because I understood the situation, these experiences gave me a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Because I stayed observational, I was better able to control the fear and panic that might have overwhelmed me otherwise.
We arrived in our new city of Jerusalem after an adventurous, but short journey from Istanbul. Security was strong in Istanbul but even more so at the Tel Aviv airport. Guns are displayed everywhere in the airport. The wall that separates the Palestinian Territories from Israel is clearly visible along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Much of the conversation between the tourists in the shared taxi (called a Sherut) was about the recent increase in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. I was well aware of ongoing troubles in Israel but, to be honest, I was not familiar with the recent stabbings of Israelis that have taken place almost daily in the last few months.
We found our new apartment just after dark after quite a search. The neighborhood is old and not well marked and locating our address in the fading light was not easy. We had not put too much thought into where we were going to stay in Jerusalem. We basically selected an apartment based on price and location within walking distance to the Old City. We live in the Musrara neighborhood about one block from the original division line between Palestine and Israel. The neighborhood was originally founded in the late 1800’s by wealthy Arabs who wanted to live outside the confines of the Old City’s walls. When Israel was founded in 1948 battle lines were drawn between East and West Jerusalem in this neighborhood and most of the original occupants moved out. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war both East and West Jerusalem are one area under Israeli control. Many of the once grand houses have been transformed into apartments and the neighborhood has a bit of an art colony feel.
Walking through the neighborhood the next morning, bullet holes were clearly visible in some of the cement block houses near ours. Scars from the past no doubt. The ultra-modern tram line marks a clear line between predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and predominately Israeli West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is much nicer developed with modern stores and apartment buildings. Sidewalks are wide and cafes are busy with well-dressed people enjoying their day. East Jerusalem is much poorer in appearance. Stores are smaller and cafes are less trendy. The streets are dirtier and the streets and sidewalks are not well kept. There seems to be a clear economic division between the communities.
We spent our days wandering the Old City. The relatively small walled area is holy ground to 3 major religious groups. We enjoyed visiting the highlights from each over our days. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be where Jesus ascended to heaven was amazing. Seeing the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located gave us a unique look into the lives of Islamic residents of the area. It was awe inspiring seeing the Jewish people worshipping at the Western Wall, which is as close to the location of the Solomon’s First Temple as they can be, and considered their most holy spot on earth. All of these areas are within a 5 minute walk of each other.
The Old City is divided between four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. There are no signs to distinguish the different areas but they are easily identifiable. The Jewish area is nicely constructed with recently renovated buildings surrounding nicely excavated sites of Roman Era ruins. The Armenian area is smaller and mostly walled from tourists. The Christian area is filled with businesses and religious organizations. The Muslim area seems rougher and not as nicely restored with tiny alleys and tiny houses stacked in every formation on top of each other. The ancient markets are located here as well as most of the tourist souvenir shops.
The city is filled with soldiers at many corners. They are heavily armed and number in groups of 2 to 10. We saw our first uncomfortable incident when the soldiers grabbed a young looking Palestinian teenager and proceeded in roughly searching him. It was difficult to watch as it did not seem provoked and went on for some time. An older Palestinian man commented to us while shaking his head that “they treat us like animals”. The boy was sent on his way.
A couple of days later we were sitting outside the Damascus Gate enjoying the late evening sunshine with families and shoppers in the area. We went up the steps when suddenly many soldiers went running past us toward the gate. Sirens went off and it was apparent something had happened. We continued on our short walk home as more sirens blared as police rushed to the area. We looked at the news and saw that an Israeli teen had been stabbed by two Palestinians right in front of where we had been sitting just moments before. It was difficult to imagine such a peaceful scene getting so bad in only seconds after we had left. Luckily the young man was only slightly injured.
We were having our lunch next to the Western Wall on a sunny Friday afternoon. A local Jewish man was explaining to his visiting family that the reason so many soldiers were present was that the Muslim prayers were taking place on the Temple Mount and when they were through the worshippers needed to be “controlled” so they wouldn’t start a riot. It was disturbing because of the contempt that he said it with, especially since children were in his group.
We have had many discussions in the evenings about the situations that we witnessed in the short time we have been here. It seemed like each day we witnessed something that left us feeling uneasy. The tension in the city seems palpable. People appear and act uncomfortably. Smiles and laughter are not common. We asked an un-busy cab driver we were talking to on the Mount of Olives when tourist season picks up. He told us sadly that it never gets busy anymore. The tourists don’t come now.
Yesterday was our worst day yet. At Jaffa Gate we decided to go on the Rampart Walk along the Old City walls. The route leads from Jaffa gate around to Herod Gate on the northern side of the walls. It was a pretty day and we were enjoying the excellent view from the top of the wall. As we neared New Gate we began to hear lots of sirens. We could hear gun shots followed by explosions from the direction we were going. Within second more sirens could be heard coming from nearly every direction. We continued on toward Damascus Gate. The roads outside the walls were being blocked and police and soldiers were everywhere. As we continued, it was apparent that that everyone’s attention was focused outside the gate. Guns were drawn everywhere and people were blocked from the area.
As we continued to approach we could see from our birds eye view the tragic scene below. 3 Palestinian youths were lying on the ground in pools of blood. A young female soldier was being rushed to an ambulance. Hundreds of police were everywhere and photographers were hurrying past us on the walls to get the best views. Hundreds of bystanders were gathering in the street below and curious residents were peaking from nearby apartment windows. To be honest, we didn’t know what to do. We stood and watched the scene from above. I can’t really say we were scared. It just seemed unbelievably sad. The three dead boys looked so young. They didn’t look evil. Later we learned that the soldier girl had also been killed. She didn’t seem old enough to be in uniform, much less to have lost her life.
I have read the story of what happened. I suppose the conclusions are different based on who is telling the story. I understand the issue from both sides. I feel compelled to pick a side. I am having a hard time being observant. What I saw was tragic and someone must be to blame. Someone must be right and someone must be wrong. What I do know is correct is that 4 very young people are not going to live full lives and that is very sad.
Much of the current troubles in the world seem to radiate out from this area of the world. I am trying my best to be a good traveler and stick to my goal of being observant. It is hard to be objective. I see wrong on both sides. It is difficult for me to see any good in any of this.
I do know that Jerusalem has a unique opportunity to set an example of how the rest of the world could live. If they could figure out how to get along within the tiny confines of the walled Old City then surely the rest of the world could use them as an example and find a way themselves. I know that the situation is difficult and we all feel as though we must pick a side. I hope for the young people here that the people in charge at least make an effort.
As I write this, many sirens are passing outside our house and are headed toward the old city again. It doesn’t seem as though they have figured it out yet.