Seven days in the Mediterranean4 min read . Updated: 14 Feb 2020, 03:50 PM IST
A writer travels with Palestinian friends through Israel to discover warm hugs, delicious hummus and a few surprises at the Wailing Wall
When I reach the border in a car hired in Amman, the Israeli officer at the Jordan River Border Crossing asks me how I knew the friends I was going to visit. Their paterfamilias was studying with my father in Geneva, I tell her, and when I was nine I had lived with them for a month in Rome. She lets me through. In the parking lot, I meet Adam and Asmaa, Palestinian friends who drive me to their home in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.
The day after, we head south to visit the Israeli family. I’m worried about how they’ll react to Adam and Asmaa. I know they are no big fans of the Palestinian cause, to put it mildly. But we are welcomed with hugs, warm smiles and a yummy brunch of local fruits, cheeses, fresh bread and good wines. I feel quite the UN diplomat for a moment. Adam and Asmaa get along splendidly with my long-time friends. I can relax, and feel a happiness settle in my chest.
The feeling doesn’t last long. On our way to Jerusalem, a police officer stops our car, looks at me sitting in the back seat and points to my chest. “Seat belt!" he yells. “I didn’t know…," I say. “You don’t know, but I know!" he barks while slapping a ticket on Adam’s hand. Aggressive start.
When we reach Jerusalem, a young thug in a pimped-up ride almost runs me over as I gesture to him to wait while Adam parks. We walk to the Wailing Wall and run into a Yeshiva student with a bloody nose, swollen lips and a red stained white shirt. He is screaming: “I will f#@k all the Arabs!" He says a Palestinian sucker-punched him and tries to take revenge on a tiny pink stuffed camel which he wants to rip apart. Failing to do that, he throws it on the ground. Shaken, we reach the Wailing Wall and recover from the crowds at the Holy Sepulchre by having some delicious hummus.
At night, we dine at Raisa restaurant in the trendy Flea Market in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. An ambulance disrupts our feast as we watch a doctor trying to revive a patient. Later we discover the man in the ambulance died of bullet wounds during a shoot-out between drug gangs.
The morning after, as we have brunch on the beach in Jaffa, Adam points to three girls in hijab, as they chat facing the sea. “It has become a more common sight, the religious clothes, because when you lose all rational hope, you turn to religion." He tells me that Jaffa, which is still 70 % Palestinian, is becoming gentrified. With anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, many Jewish American and Jewish European buyers are purchasing safe get-away homes in this neighbourhood, driving up prices.
Adam leans down to pick up a broken tile from the shore. Palestinian homes were razed here decades ago, he says. The debris was bulldozed to create artificial bluffs now blanketed with bright green grass. With the tides, slowly the tiles are resurfacing. His brother Amir, who lives nearby, comes to collect them with his children. They are recomposing the floors as an art project puzzle at the Palestinian National Museum.
Soon it is time to fly south, to Eilat, cross the border back to Jordan into the city of Aqaba, rent a car and glamp at the UFO hotel in the breathtaking desert of Wadi Rum, where The Martian and Lawrence Of Arabia were filmed. The day after, I drive up to the ruins of Petra, a 2,000-year-old village dug from sandstone mountains. As I hike down from a monastery, I run into a very young guide, smoking with passion while riding a donkey—Petra is celebrating its one million tourists last year, after the IS scare has subsided in the Middle East.
On my last night of this perambulation of the Dead Sea, I stay at the posh Ishtar Kempinski hotel in Swaimeh, which offers salty mud baths by the shore. I dine on a terrace with a night view of the lights beyond the 1994 Treaty Line, which cuts across this sea. There’s Palestine, over there, and Israel, beyond the hills. I think of the feeling of violence that’s lingering within me. The student’s bloody nose, the aggressive cop, the driver trying to run me over, the shoot-out, the story of the Palestinian homes in Jaffa, the sense of constant tension in the air. I’ve grown up following this conflict on the news and through people involved in it—wars, terrorism, hopes fading quickly into disappointments, crystallizing into cynicism.
It would be easy to give up on this troubled corner of the world. But when I think back of Adam playing with my friend’s children and Asmaa chatting with the Jewish Israeli ladies in their home by the beach, during that brunch filled with joy, for a moment I still want to believe things can change, one day.
Carlo Pizzati is a political analyst and the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent is Bending Over Backwards—A Journey To The End Of The World To Find A Cure For A Chronic Backache (HarperCollins).