Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Day One: Arrival in Tel Aviv, Sherut to Jerusalem, Ser-vees to Ramallah

After two security checkpoints and twelve hours in the air I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport – just outside of Tel Aviv, Israel – yesterday evening. It wasn’t an unpleasant flight, to say the least: my standby status worked to my advantage and landed me in a cushy first-class seat replete with hot towels, mahi mahi, red wine, and an overall pampering that may have been deserved if I had actually paid the exorbitant cost of a first-class ticket.

My seat-neighbor to the right was a peppy 63 year-old from Idaho who had wild success with a business that “liquidated” leftover food assets and sold them to correctional facilities. He said his claim to fame was that Paris Hilton refused to eat his bologna while in jail. He believes in the value of commerce to bring people together (“I was taught to hate the Chinese” was his preface), and thus is hoping to start a joint Israeli-Palestinian business venture in which Israeli textiles would be embroidered by legions of Palestinian women. After polishing off the last twenty pages of his book, Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour, he gave it to me to read, saying it was an excellent introduction to the conflict and “a real page turner.”

Perhaps one of the reasons he had thought it necessary to give me the book was that by the time I boarded the plane, I had already switched into an I’m-just-a-tourist mode of being. This was so that by the time I reached Israeli customs, I had practiced my story and betrayed nothing that would have any good Samaritans reporting me to the authorities in Tel Aviv. (Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but then again, maybe I’m not.)

Not that I plan on doing anything illegal, or that the organization I’ll be volunteering with, ICAHD, is some sort of armed terrorist group. It is simply that the Israeli government, given its (somewhat contrived) perception of endless threats to Israel’s existence, would logically try to keep people opposed to its policies out of the country. Therefore the concept of free speech – some would argue this is out of practical necessity – is not nearly as respected as it is in the US. The country has no formal constitution, but does have a special Military Censor, which is not shy about using the powers at its disposal. I’ve also been told that on occasion, Israeli customs will ask you to log into your email, then browse around at their leisure.

So with that in mind, I took exhaustive steps to cover my tracks once I got in.

    -Any emails or chats containing the terms “Palestine, Palestinian, Israel, Israeli, West Bank, Ramallah, Zionist, Occupied Territories, Chomsky, Finkelstein, Hezbollah, Jewish state, IDF” were deleted. All emails from my friends in the West Bank were deleted.

    -Any Palestinian numbers were deleted from my computer; the absolutely necessary ones were scrawled in my notebook under the heading “Health Insurance #s.”

    -Any pages of my notebook that had anything Israel/Palestine-related written upon them were torn out and thrown away.

    -I brought with me a tourist’s guidebook to the area and left Post-It notes strategically throughout it to mark places that I have no real intention of visiting (i.e. the Israeli Air Force museum).

    -I found a person in Tel Aviv to be my “friend” who I was “staying with,” he was ready to validate my story to the authorities if they called him.

    -Most exhaustively, I spent hours inside my own mind conceiving every possible question that they could ask me, and my appropriate answer, and then their logical follow up question, etc. Fortunately/unfortunately I’m a terrible liar, so this kind of planning was necessary to keep my mind at rest if I wanted to arrive at customs without having soaked myself in a telling mixture of piss and sweat. If discussion of politics was unavoidable, I had started out with the intention of acting like a gung-ho Zionist (Arabs are lice, Jews are an eternal victim-people), but opted for the more palatable “can’t we all get along” impotent peacenik approach to the conflict which attributes no responsibility to anybody and is probably quite common among fun-seeking international travelers.

After an interminable walk through vast corridors of marble and glass (a skateboarder’s wet dream, I’ll say), I finally arrived at the dreaded Passport Control area. To my surprise the booths were staffed, without exception, by women. They were in uniforms of light blue shirts and dark pants, all looking in their twenties or early thirties.

I stepped to the front of the line; one beckoned to me from behind glass. Here it was, the moment of truth.

“Shalom.”

“Shalom. What is the purpose of your trip?”

“Fun, really. Seeing the sights, learning new things…perhaps some skateboarding.”

“Are you traveling with a group?”

“No, but I am meeting a friend here. He lives in Tel Aviv.”

And with that her stamp met my passport and with the same dispassionate half-glance of a McDonald’s cashier that had done something for the ten thousandth time, she gave me a “Have a nice day.”

***

On the sherut, or shared taxi, from Tel Aviv, I sat in silence for the greater part of the trip – as did everybody else – and felt a queer mixture of comfort (beautiful weather, comfy seat) and fear (“Wow, I’m really here, in Israel, sitting amongst these Israelis that have little clue that there is a Palestinian sympathizer in their midst.”) Hebrew chatter from the radio filled the air as I beheld the road signs that issued directives in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Once in Jerusalem the blonde gentleman next to me ventured some conversation and I obliged, giving him as little as possible without appearing suspiciously bereft of plans or personality. He was from Arizona – I soon realized that almost all of the people in the van with me were full-time Americans not long ago – and said that he liked Israel because “it is more real, more direct…sometimes to the point of being rude, but I prefer it to America, which is so…superficial.”

I mentioned that my family was worried about me coming here, which must have pressed a well-worn button in the mind of the white-bearded man an aisle ahead. “You know where the most dangerous place in Israel is?” he said with head cocked so at least one eye could meet mine. He beckoned toward the windshield. “More people have died on these highways than in all the wars since 1948!” (It was unclear if he counted Arab casualties; my suspicion was that he didn’t.) Then, he moved onto the subject of terrorism, his face getting slightly redder with each syllable: “In Israel, we’re ready for the big one. You think 9/11 was big?...That’s the problem with America, they’re not ready like we are.” Luckily I had missed the “Doomsday Drill” earlier that day, the existence of which seemed a perfect explanation for this fellow’s attitude.

After a series of tepid, agreeable responses calmed the man down and some time passed, I turned to the former Arizonan, now Jerusalemite to my left and asked him what Israelis thought of Obama. He said there “was a great deal of respect for electing a black man,” but people were still taking a “wait and see” attitude. I wonder how they would have felt if Obama was an Arab – would the respect still be there?

Still I had trouble disliking them. Here were ordinary people returning home from visiting their loved ones, lugging their bags around like any other exhausted traveler, proud of their country, willing to help a clueless foreigner.

I was the last passenger dropped off, perhaps because I was the only one wanting to go to an Arab quarter of town. Night had fallen at this point. At the Damascus Gate in the Old City, I asked an older Arab taxi driver where the service (pronounced “ser-vees”) to Ramallah was. Following his directions, I rounded a corner where I was approached by a young Arab taxi driver with gelled hair and a tight t-shirt. He was already speaking English – “Sir, you need a ride? Where do you need to go?” I told him I was looking for the service bus. He glanced off to the side and said that the buses weren’t running this late. How much was the taxi fare? “150 shekels.” (About $40 US.)

“150?!?” I was told that the bus there is only 6.50!”

Then he began to try and cut a deal with me, and I recognized this person as someone I’ve seen before, the hustler, the salesman. I sensed that unmistakable mixture of eagerness, fear, and slickness, and I moved on. I figured the old man would have told me if it wasn’t running. Sure enough, further down the road I sighted the 18 to Ramallah on the way out, and I flagged it down, paying the much more reasonable 6.50 fare, awkwardly shuffling through the tight lane with a pair of backpacks and a skateboard.

Once in Ramallah I met with my friend-of-a-friend and new roommate, a dashing British lad of about my age. We walked amongst garish street lamps and stray cats down a steep hill to my new flat, where I met my other two roommates, a Palestinian man and a German woman.


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