Children playing in the streets of Jerusalem.
The scorching desert sun is searing my flesh as I stand on the side of the bitumen road. One of my arms is holding a cardboard sign scrawled in black texter, my other is stretched out with my thumb pointing to the sky. The young boys selling fruits next to me yell the Arabic word for Jericho – “Ariha” – at the passing cars, trying to help me to get a ride out of the capital of Palestine. They nag the cars that pull over for fruits and question them if they are heading in my direction. Eventually, we find one; I lug my far too heavy backpack into the van amongst a sea of cardboard boxes and I squeeze into my seat. We exchange a few words in Arabic and a few in English and I’m on the way to the oldest city in the world, twelve thousand five hundred years in the making.
One of the many walls dividing Israel and Palestine. Bethlehem, West Bank.
I’m six weeks into my travels through the Middle East, a trip not so many embark upon, making it that much more enjoyable for me. I’ve seen a lot of tourists and a lot of touristy places in the past year and I had a yearning for something a little more authentic and as painfully cliché as it sounds - ‘off the beaten track’. It just so happens however that I arrived at a relatively tumultuous time, even given the generally chaotic nature of the region. The past weeks have seen the most bloody and violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in recent decades. I was caught up between protests and at a point was somehow the focal point of chanting during the ‘Day of Rage’ prescribed by some factions of Palestinians. I’ve been a stones’ throw away from Syria, where the sounds of gunfire are clearly audible. The thing is I really enjoy the buzz and excitement of danger. But it’s not just the adrenaline, I’ve learnt a lot from these seemingly unorthodox incidents.
Here are some of my experiences in the Holy Land and further. At times it can be pure chaos and turbulence, but others it can be incredibly peaceful and tranquil. One day it’s military shooting tear gas at rioters in the street and the next is people coming up to you, touching your face and welcoming you to their country. Welcome to the Middle East.
UN guards patrolling the Israeli-Syrian border.
But first, coffee
I’m sitting amongst a sea of plastic chairs all facing out to the street in the city of Ramallah, the capital of Palestine. In front of me sit multiple cups of Arabic coffee, the rich smell of cardamom advertising the passers-by of the cafe’s presence. To the left and right of me sit many Palestinian men. As we sip coffee we delve into politics and religion. Their lack of deep conversational English is bolstered by their passion and persistence. A smile goes a long way. We discuss the tensions of Israelis and Palestinians, which is an ever-present topic in this part of the world.
I won’t go far into politics, but it’s very eye-opening listening to these peoples struggles. People literally just want to live in freedom and peace. They want their families to be safe and they want to raise their children in a country where they can be proud of their heritage, support their own beliefs and enjoy their lives. It’s a motive I’ve seen and heard a lot of in this part of the world. People often who have the least want the most humble of things. Not money, fame, prestige or success. Just health and peace.
After ninety minutes, we say our goodbyes and I walk off, slightly caffeinated and highly appreciative.
The ‘Day of Rage’
It’s a relatively normal day in Jerusalem, a city famed over millennia for religiosity, history and pilgrimage. I’m scoffing down my customary breakfast of falafel and hummus pita as I learn that today there has been a ‘day of rage’ urged for by Palestinian authorities. It was to protest the security measures put in place by Israel at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque, after a Palestinian killed two Israeli police officers days before hand. Considered the third holiest site in Islam, the Palestinians found the measures as an increasing vice grip by Israel on their freedoms, particularly religious ones. Last night violence erupted when protesters hurled rocks, firecrackers and even Molotov cocktails at police. I was warned to avoid the Lion’s Gate entrance to the walled city of Jerusalem, which is where the protests raged last night and would be gathering today.
I packed my bag and made my way to the Lion’s Gate.
I try to enter into the Temple Mount – which is considered by Muslims where Muhammad made his way up to God, for Christian where Jesus was crucified and by Jews as where the Second Temple was built. I’m turned away from the entry as I’m not Muslim and there is a small section of time where it is open for visitors. The kind soldier told me where to go and when. There were no protests there, just a few people sitting around on prayer mats maybe fifty metres inside the city walls. The heat caught up with me and upon noticing a vacant carpet space I asked some local kids if I could sit with them. They happily obliged and as I sat, one approached me and began asking me where I was from and what I was doing here. I explained and he in turn explained why he was there. They were silently protesting the metal detectors that now sat in front of the Al-Aqsa mosque and would not move until they were removed. Streams of media passed by us, waiting for something to happen and snapping the occasional photos of the fifteen-or-so Palestinians (and me) sitting along the wall. I didn’t necessarily agree with either party whole-heartedly but I sat with them in solidarity, understanding how it affected Palestinians in their religious freedoms.
All of a sudden they picked up their prayers mats and scurried outside the gates of the city. I followed them and in doing so, passed armed guards who tightly clung onto their assault rifles and tear gas launchers. The man I met who could speak English turned to me and asked, “You are Australian, right?” I replied yes and then something I never expected happened.
He started screaming out to the crowd in Arabic and all I could understand was the word “Australian” repeated about four times. It was a rallying cry and people were all staring at me. From what happened next I presume he was saying I supported their cause. People came up to me shaking my hand and wishing health for my family, myself and for all Australians. They gave me bottles of water and I had cameras in my face. This snowballed into more chanting and the yells turned aggressive. I felt it could erupt at any moment, and I snaked my way through the crowd to the refuge of a small chair, away from the growing chaos. Next thing I know the Muslims begin their prayer – serendipitously all facing me - and I manage to snap a few incredible photos as the guards above closely monitor the proceedings for any violent dissent. I eventually make my way out of the simmering tensions (to which I would find out later erupted as I presumed) to the old city. I pass the alerted soldiers. The gates of Jerusalem envelop me and I walk back through the safety of the walls – however momentary and haphazard that safety may be.
“The last bus left three hours ago. You have to wait until tomorrow at 3:00pm.”
Exhausted after travelling for 11 hours across two countries to get to Egypt, this was the last news I wanted to hear. I slump my backpack over my shoulder and consider my options. The border town of Taba has only three hotels – all with a price tag of over $300 a night. I also can’t afford the $70 taxi to Dahab. I realise that my only logical option is to sleep in the park. After some inspection by police officers who offer very little help, I decide to take a tea at a local eatery. I explain my situation to my waiter, Mohammed, who ensures me there’s nothing to worry about and to sleep at the restaurant instead of in the park. He says it is not a very safe part of town and that I can use the pillows on the carpeted floor of the cafe. Thankfully, I accept his offer and continue drinking tea in the night, periodically chatting with the incredibly hospitable Egyptian and in Arabic with some young boys intrigued by my presence.
Around 11pm, I decide to retire to my sleeping quarters and fashion a system that protects my most sacred belongings by tying my bag to my body. The cafe is still buzzing; loud Arabic pop is intersected with the growls of local cats, the bubbling of shisha pipes and the looping clink of glass tea cups on tables. I try my best to sleep through the hubbub, but it turns out that won’t be an issue anyway. Soon, the owner arrives, telling me that I can’t sleep here and that it’s a problem because the police will fine him and me if I stay. Mo informs me I can still stay, I just can’t be seen to be sleeping.
It’s 2:00am, I’m immeasurable amounts of tea deep and Mo and I are chatting into the night as we fight off the throws of sleep deprivation. The non-stop cafe has an incredible stream of customers given the tiny size of the town. Mo keeps apologising to me, saying how sorry he is and that he’ll make it up to me when I’m in Cairo (his hometown). I tell him, “Look you tried your best for me; your heart is in the right place.” He’s touched and he eventually goes off to the mosque for his prayer at 3:30am. I consider sleeping in the park but it’s super dark and close to the police station so I return back to the cafe and continue my upright defiance of sleep. Mo returns with breakfast: fresh bread with herbs, cheese, sweets and some iced tea. We discuss war. Just west of where I am in the North Sinai Governate are ISIS militants, who are currently battling Egyptian authorities. Egypt has faced some battles in its time and this is one of its fiercest. The Australian Government advises against visiting Egypt at this point in time, especially where I am. Mo, like so many others from the Middle East, dreams of peace. A world without guns. He, like me, would like to travel but can’t because his passport automatically blacklists him from so many countries and that’s not even considering the economic factors. We say our goodbyes and I face my fears by heading to the park to sleep (albeit for an hour).
Night lights over Ramallah, West Bank
It inspires me to have more humble and less selfish desires but at the same time makes me so grateful of the things I take for granted in Australia. I think one of the worst misconceptions we can make as Westerners is that they are different to us. So look around. If your house isn’t crumbling from terrorist attacks, your family is safe and there’s food in your fridge be grateful because there’s people on the other side of the world that would die for what you have. One of my favourite quotes has summed up my short but eye-opening time in the Middle East:
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no man about his religion – respect him in his views and demand he respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and in service to your people. Show respect to all men but grovel to none. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault is yours.” - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief