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Sarah: The hospitality of the Middle East

April 4, 2011

I never have been good at keeping a diary and a blog following my journey in Israel appears to be following the same pattern. A lot has gone on since last writing, a lot that cannot be articulated or perhaps even fully understood by myself but I will try, just focusing on the hospitality of this nation.

My friends and I say this quite often but Jerusalem is the craziest city in the world, I think I can say that as a fact. It is such a mixture of technology, “third world” characteristics, religion, diversity and unfortunately a lot of tension. However, there is something about this region that just breeds hospitable people.

About a month ago now two of my good friends, Paula (also my roommate) and Diocelyn spent the weekend in Haifa, which is the third largest city in Israel in the north of the country. We had a wonderful time exploring the Bahai Gardens, a religion I knew nothing about, and just speaking to people in the city. One of our favorite parts of the city was a small little falafel joint we were persuaded into eating at and where we ended up spending almost two hours just chatting with the owner, Rami (mostly in Hebrew!) We were delighted by the co-existence in Haifa. In Jerusalem it is rare for an Israeli-Jewish institution to recommend walking through Arab neighborhoods but in Haifa the employee at the hostel in fact recommended this and many Jews seem to utilize the resources in these neighborhoods. Haifa instilled some hope in us that peaceful living is possible. Everything in Haifa just seemed overall more calm and less tense. When we were walking along the boardwalk we decided to make friends with these group of guys who were listening to music and smoking hookah and they were delighted to invite us to hang out for a while. They even kept telling us to stay in Haifa for another night. Finally, we said goodbye to these guys, who were Arab (I only say this because I want to emphasize that the friendliness does not only apply to the Jewish community) and eventually made our way to the bus station, but this appeared to be a hard task and we eventually found ourselves at what looked like the correct bus stop to get to the Haifa Bus Station back to Jerusalem. We waited and waited and no bus seemed to be coming. Then we hear all this loud music and two ecstatic men go cruising by, our eyes cross and we see it is our new friends. Of course they came back and gave us a ride to the station, music blaring and the car is cruising but no questions asked, we were now friends and friends help each other out. I have seen this mentality in the majority of people in this country/overall land (including the Palestinian Territories.)

I have now connected with two of my mother’s friends from her trip to Israel in 1973, who now live here,0 and the Middle Eastern friendliness bug has definitely reached them as well. Another wonderful hospitable weekend I had was two weekends ago when me and three girlfriends were set up in a random home for Shabbat Dinner in the Old City in Jerusalem. This was such a beautiful home and they prepared such a beautiful meal for us and others, whom they had never met before. The hostess said that “G-d decides who will come to Shabbat every week” and I love that mentality. At the dinner there was a lot of talk about all Jews being family and that is why Israelis are so rude, because we have to love each other no matter what. I like this analogy but I also hope in Jerusalem we start to see all people as family, because we are human beings who pray for peace.

The next day after this Shabbat Dinner, six friends and I headed out to see Bethlehem. I liked Bethlehem more as a city than Ramallah, but wow it is easy to see low-poverty and high population areas when the streets are completely taken over by people. Initially we just walked around, got lunch and a few of us spent a long time in a gift shop and made friends with the owner. The owner went on to tell me his religious journey, leading up to his current belief that G-d does not exist because of the lack of peace in the region. We said goodbye and went on to visit The Church of the Nativity, which was unpleasantly crowded and I do not see how any Christian could feel spiritual there. After that we wanted to check out Herodian’s Palace, but of course all cab drivers wanted to charge the “rich Americans” an absurd amount to go there. While searching for good deal we ran into our friend from the gift shop who pointed us to an area where he knew we wouldn’t be ripped off. As soon as we got down there probably a dozen men surrounded us wanting to take us, most of these men spoke Arabic, little English, little Hebrew. All of a sudden another guy shows up who speaks English and becomes our mediator. We choose a guy and off we go, then I notice this mediator, Khalid, has joined us. I thought perhaps the driver and he were friends but nope he just wanted to help show us around. After exploring the palace together he invites us over to his home, in a nice small village in Bethlehem, and makes us tea. His sister is so excited to meet all of us and quickly makes us tea, we also meet the baby of another woman he lives with. It is so beautiful to see how welcoming and friendly strangers can be. We say goodbye to Khalid at the bus stop where he waits with us to make sure we are safe. I hope to visit him again when my mother comes to visit in 10 days! On the bus home we also make friends with a group of students from E. Jerusalem who study in a university in Bethlehem. The checkpoint coming back from Bethlehem was much less intense than the checkpoint from Ramallah. Not sure why. However, I really hate these checkpoints and really hate this wall. Diocelyn asked Khalid what his vision of peace in the region is and I agree with his answer completely, “No peace with settlements, no peace with checkpoints, no peace with war.”

And the hospitality never stops, immediately after Bethlehem my friend Lee from my Ulpan Class had me and Paula over for an amazing vegetarian Korean dinner. This past weekend my friend Abbie, Paula and I spent the weekend at the nicest family, the Barmuchas. where we were force fed until we couldn’t move and treated just like family. Today, I went on a field trip with my Ethiopian Jewry Immigration to Israel course, where we visited two absorption centers and ate delicious Ethiopian food and coffee until we were stuffed.

The politics of this country may be ugly but they are the most hospitable people I have ever met.

And now some visuals:

Diocelyn, our friend Rami, myself and Paula
Our Bethlehem group with our friend Khalid in the middle
The amazing dinner my friend Lee made!
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