Return to the Land of Felafel

After a long hiatus, I am back. Back to the Levant, back to the land of za’atar, fresh pita bread for a song, and a diet largely of yogurt and chickpea products, back to a place where the word for lamb is “kharouf” not “a’loush,” egg is “baydh” not “a’thaam,” and everything is “mneehh.”

I’m also back abroad, far away from family and friends, trying to come to terms with life in a very different place once again.

I’m sort of half-settled in Nablus and so I figured I’d return to my long-lost, usually inconsistent travel blog. I’m going to push myself to write something every Friday but we’ll see if that actually comes true . . .

I left America on Friday the 26th and had a whirlwind tour of Copenhagen on my way to Israel-Palestine. I had about a 20 hour layover with Norwegian airlines, which was just enough time for a little impromptu Camino reunion with Christina and Rikke, my two Danish travel companions from summer 2009. Did I eat a Danish? I did. Did I drink aquavit, despite being told that only old people drink it? Age never stopped me. Did I ride a bike everywhere and look at beautiful old buildings, palaces, and statues of Hans Christian Anderson and the Little Mermaid? Of course. Did I spend half the time longing for socialized medicine and education, fuel-producing trash incinerators, and dedicated bike paths parallel to the street? How could I not??? Denmark’s wonderful and someday I hope to spend more than an afternoon there.

On to Jerusalem, still one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. I often found myself accidentally walking the stations of the cross or almost walking into restricted religious areas before Israeli soldiers had to shoo me away. One can go to the Western Wall (the Kotel) and hear Jewish prayers mix with the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque on the other side of it while church bells peel softly in the distance. One can also see fasting Palestinian men selling T-shirts that say “Chicago Blackhawks” in Hebrew to tourists seemingly oblivious to the levels of irony that laced within the whole spectacle. I saw Hebrew street names crossed out in the Muslim quarter and Arabic street names crossed out in the Jewish quarter. I saw a monk walk down the street in full robes through the middle of nightly Ramadan celebrations. I exchanged knowing looks with the chef at Abu Shukri’s, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant and the best hummus I’ve ever had, over a group of Goth-dressed Brits who had just finished eating there (“these aren’t real people are they?” he asked) — so both pentagram-lovers and Pentecostals seem to be drawn to this place. I saw Israeli soldiers looking extremely bored, albeit often with a nervous undertone, at guard posts throughout the city (including a great moment where I saw one just casually biting into a pink popsicle while trying to maintain an aura of toughness). I spent an evening hanging out with some bored kids working at a juice stand and rekindled my love for lemonade with mint as well as gained a new love for coconut milk with almonds (something that sadly seems to have not crossed the Green Line, since I haven’t found it in Nablus thus far). I befriended both the Palestinian hostel workers fasting during the day and the visiting Orthodox Jewish American preparing to stay up all night praying. I walked a lot, I thought a lot, I listened to a lot of Mahler (I’m reading a chapter about him in my book on 20th century classical music) and This American Life (including re-listening to their great episode about fatness from 2016, reminds me of getting lost in the woods in southern Portugal last summer).

I spent a lot of time sleeping and getting my bearings by sitting on the roof and looking out over the minarets, church steeples, and satellite dishes that dot the city-scape. I did get to do the two things I’d missed out on last time: finish walking the ramparts and enter the Dome of the Rock complex (either the “Haram al-Sharif” or the “Temple Mount” depending on who you’re talking to). Both, needless to say, involved gorgeous views and mass confusion.

It was an especially interesting time to be there given that it was both Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting to commemorate the delivery of the Qur’an) and Shavuot (the Jewish holiday commemorating the delivery of the 10 Commandments) in which some orthodox jews will stay up all night praying to make up for the ancient Israelites who fell asleep while awaiting Moses return from Mount Sinai. At one point, a little after sunset, I walked through the middle of two opposite-moving streams of humanity flowing through the streets of the city — mostly Orthodox Jews heading back from their sunset prayers at the Western Wall crossed paths with Muslims heading towards the Al-Aqsa mosque for their post fast-breaking prayers (al-Isha’a). As always, there seem to be three types of people in Jerusalem: religious locals who walk with determination, clueless tourists who are constantly lost and always get in the way, and Robert, trying to look like he knows what he’s doing and knows where he’s going, yet still basically clueless as all the other foreigners.

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