A Brief Moment of Clarity in the Middle East – Israel and Jordan

Israel and Jordan

I recently had the wonderful opportunity of traveling to the Middle East with a birthright trip. For anyone who doesn’t know, Birthright is an organization affiliated with the Israeli government and private donors that funds “free” trips to Israeli for Jewish youths. I use quotations around “free” because as a bit of a foreshadowing technique; everything has a price. After the 9 day birthright tour around Israel, I had the opportunity to travel through Jordan for 6 days with my sister Robyn. This post will be my account of the trip in its myriad facets and details. I do not claim to be an expert on Middle East politics, religion or culture; this is simply an account of my experiences of each country as seen through my filters and lenses.

I do not want to focus all that much on the sites seen, more on my impressions of the culture and experience of travel. In Israel we went up north to the Golan Heights, stayed on a kibbutz, went to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed, the dead sea, stayed in the Judean Desert in a tourist Bedouin camp, went to Yad Vishem holocaust museum, a few select natural areas such as hiking, caving and a bird reservation, and saw other various touristy places related to the brief history of Israel. This region of the world is so rich in human History; here in the US if something is 200 years old we think it is ancient! In this region of the world it was very common to see 2000 year old dilapidated structures and think “no big deal”.

Before jumping into the meat of the discussion, I would like to share some insight gained during the first 2 days of the trip, during which I was stricken with travelers’ diarrhea from what I suspect to be a tainted falafel. If you are healthy right now please take a moment, stop reading, feel your body in its glorious normality and be thankful! I had not been sick like this for many years and had forgotten what it was like to live with an insufferable bodily malady. “Human beings have an infinite capacity for taking things for granted” is a favorite quote by Aldous Huxley that comes to mind while thinking of this situation. I found this quote to be a most profound realization regarding the states of our bodies. Only when your skull is pounding with indefatigable pain and the tension is unbearable do you become aware of the ever present, yet most taken for granted fact that you are even in possession of a head! During my time stricken with illness I felt my world close down upon my suffering, sulfur-burping, tumultuous body. I was not interested in others’ well-being; I could only focus upon my own suffering. There was no philosophizing, no deep abstract thought, only a very vague awareness of my external surroundings and an acute awareness of my gastrointestinal tract and its persistent “watery habits”. In recovering, I began to feel the most wonderful rejuvenation of spirit, energy and passion! I remembered to myself…”oh yes, this is the mysterious world that we live in!” This experience of illness made me feel compassion for the suffering sick people in the world and people closer to my life as well, because I directly felt it. It is so easy to play lip service to other people’s suffering because always we reside in our own private island universes of consciousness. However when the suffering is your own, this isolation feels particularly acute and simple acts of compassion go such a long way in the ever futile attempts at bridging those gaps. Robyn simply asking me “how are you feeling” with a look of genuine concern visible in her eyes was enough to slightly elevate my spirit. When in revolt, the body can be a most disagreeable place for a human consciousness to reside. With that insight out of the way, let us proceed:

The birthright experience was new for me for several reasons. Firstly, I have never traveled before in a group environment. When traveling in a group one basically assumes the role of a passenger; subjugated to the role of a mere spectator. No effort is made in planning logistics, no thought given to how we must actually get from A to B, see the sights, arrange schedules and keep food and sustenance in our bodies simultaneously. I felt myself become a consumer of a pre-arranged, prepackaged travel experience where schedules had probably been worked out months in advance and there was so little room for flexibility that at times I felt like some sort of ungulate animal being herded from one pasture to the next. The tour experience left me feeling that I did not really connect with Israel all that much. I did not have to schedule busses, look at maps of roads and cities, wander around getting lost and asking local citizens for help; all the things that make travel tedious… but also immensely entertaining, interesting and informative. From my memory, the best travel experiences usually happen when one is simply wandering around with no agenda, open to whatever may chance upon their more open and aware consciousness. Take for example after the birthright trip was over and we were alone in Jerusalem, my experience of having a heated, profound philosophical discussion with two young orthodox Jews at a falafel stand at midnight! Or chance happening upon a group of Jewish settlers protesting outside a police office that opened up opportunities to talk to locals and gain insight into their way of life and world view. These chance occurrences that make travel so rewarding and rich can never happen in a canned tour-experience where every poop is meticulously planned!

In regards to my prior foreshadowing of the birthright context of the trip, in my opinion, this trip is entirely designed and executed in such a way as to rally support for the Jewish state of Israel. The “discussions” we had regarding the Israeli-Middle East conflicts were entirely one sided with Israel always portrayed as the victim of atrocious random acts of violence with anti-Semitism always as the root cause. I barely heard the word “Palestinian” mentioned and all other aspects of Israeli culture outside of Jewish interests were carefully omitted. With this said however, was I surprised or disappointed in the least? Of course not! This was the price of the “free” trip and I was certainly expecting a fair amount of proselytization and dogma to come raining down upon our young, impressionable minds. However like water whisked from a duck’s back, this ideological acid-rain was swept away from my being where it could not pollute my mind with its toxic half-truths. Others on the trip I fear were more porous to the subversive and insidious methods of indoctrination and false representation. The truth of the matter for me was that I had an amazing “American experience” in Israel. I was toured around with 40 Americans, speaking English, always encouraged to be with my American group mates (for safety of course!), talking about American politics, American issues etc… The most difficult aspect to consider in dissecting this experience in an objective way is the fact that this experience was very pleasurable! I very much enjoyed the cohesiveness of the group; I had many profound conversations and felt all the nice emotions that come from being in a pleasurable socially cohesive group. And so it becomes necessary for me to separate the experience of Israel with the experience of the group. For if one is not careful, one may make the mistake of associating all those warm fuzzy group memories of laughing, sharing meals, and doing activities together with the actual experience of Israel itself. And hence, in this light I maintain that through the tour experience I had an “American experience” in Israel, and actually did not experience very much of the country, its people or its culture.

What I did experience and do feel qualified to comment on was the sense of tension I felt while traveling in Israel. In the bus stations, in the markets, on the streets, people on the whole seemed aggressive, intrusive, rushed and stressed. Even whilst touring the religious sites I had at times a general feeling of unease. It is difficult to describe but I believe that this feeling I was having may have been an effect of the omnipresent public displays of militarism. Everywhere we went I saw assault rifles, tanks, and soldiers in uniform, military vehicles, military helicopters flying overhead, barbed wire, and signage warning of military presence. Coming from the U.S. which is definitely a peaceful location, these outright displays of weaponry and militarism were downright shocking. I just never felt comfortable in that environment. Of course I questioned the Israeli’s about this military presence and heard repeated back to me over and over the same justifications; safety, national security, “We have learned from the past” etc… I am not going to pass judgment on this aspect of Israeli culture as I have no idea what it is like to live in a community where suicide bombings are a somewhat normal occurrence, however I will say that I was struck by the, in my opinion, seeming contradiction between the profound religiosity of the state of Israel and the outward displays of militarism.

Here is an example: At the western wall in the old city of Jerusalem I witnessed orthodox Jews by the hundreds lining up to touch their sacred pile of rocks; a location in which they achieve a closer connection to God and the divine. Now correct me if I am wrong but I believe at its core level of interpretation, like most religions actually, Judaism preaches peace, kindness, love for brothers and the whole “thou shalt not kill” litany.  The contradiction I speak of is then that here I witnessed Jews screaming at the top of their lungs the sacred passages from the Torah, tears streaming down their faces as they professed their love for the divine in this holiest of holy places. And then… inconspicuously, slowly and menacingly lurking not twenty feet behind these divinely enraptured men prowls a military soldier fit with bandoleer, flack jacket and an assault rifle ready to put a bullet in someone’s head. But of course this was all justified when I proposed my interpretation of the situation to people living there. It appears to me that all the preventative measures to stop the violence in the region were being made by increasing the means to wage violence! I wonder how many people in the country are aware of the possibility of addressing the underlying issues rather than just fighting fire with fire. This goes for both sides of the conflict by the way, although I can only comment on what I saw.

One thing I very much enjoyed about Israeli (and it was very similar in Jordan as well) was the food! These countries are doing something right in the way they view cuisine, community and health. I witnessed many small and large open air markets where families were buying their days-worth of fresh breads, produce, meats, dairy products and other little knickknacks. As a vegetarian and general health food lover I was definitely interested most in the produce markets. I did not have access to viewing the means of production of this produce so I cannot comment on the sustainability of Middle Eastern agricultural practices however I can rightly say that the produce I sampled from the local markets simply tasted incredible. Imagine a tomato that actually tastes and looks like a tomato! Not some rubbery, bland, pale-pink circular object where you’re not sure if you should eat it or play racquetball with it, but actual tomatoes! All other produce was similarly better. Compared to the U.S., the choices for healthy food consumption were also of a much higher standard. Everywhere I went hummus was available, along with some assortment of fresh vegetables. I think there is just much more emphasis put on fruit and vegetable consumption as a culture, and it shows; it was very rare to see overweight people. Healthy options were just much more present everywhere we went. In doing a quick Google search for disease statistics I learned that for every 100,000 people, 78 die of cardiovascular disease in Israel, compared with 129 in the U.S. (age standardized death rate – 2009) Obviously we cannot draw any conclusions from this statistic I am just mentioning that it is interesting. When viewed from the perspective of the healthier food options available and the much more physically active lifestyle emphasizing walking and public transportation, this statistic gains a bit more weight… (no pun intended).

Now Israel is a first world, modern developed country, so of course I saw the ubiquitous large corporate owned grocers peddling the usual stocks of processed garbage, however on the whole, the middle eastern food economy seemed to be much more reliant on the fresh market experience. I saw local vendors selling their locally produced goods in a community space, which is so much more than just a shopping experience, but a social and community building experience as well. This is something we need much more of in America if our country is to survive…literally. I will save that topic for another blog post though. I had wonderful experiences in the markets, of people watching and interacting with locals. I even had a fine local Jerusalemite gentleman offer me a free therapeutic bee sting, which I gratefully accepted. Nobody had ever offered me a bee sting before; so in the spirit of adventure and novelty I accepted. After explaining to me all the benefits I was to experience along with a quite detailed description of the pharmacology involved, he gingerly placed a honey bee on the back of my neck and with a sharp pain I felt the stinger being repeatedly jabbed into my exposed flesh! After the initial pain wore off I actually did feel a tremendous boost of energy and well-being. Placebo? Perhaps…we will just have to wait for the scientists to come out with the next randomized – double placebo controlled clinical trial to tell us if this man’s claims were “true” or not. It was true for me.

So with the tour ending; Robyn and I headed on to Jordan! Again, I do not want to focus on the logistics, just the general impressions and choice experiences.

As if being expelled from prison (no I joke it wasn’t that bad!), we suddenly found ourselves standing on a street corner in Tel Aviv, at midnight, with only a brief sketch of a plan. I cannot emphasize enough the differences felt between traveling solo and with a group. Suddenly we were in control of our own destinies! We promptly booked it for an overnight bus ride to the southern Jordanian border where we crossed and began the Jordanian experience in Petra. In my experience, the necessity of planning logistics of travel makes for an infinitely more rich connection with a location of travel. Pouring over maps and bus schedules together, Robyn and I intimately became acquainted with the relative locations of every town, parish and province we visited. Language also became an absolute necessity as surprisingly very little English was spoken in most of Jordan. We learned key phrases in Arabic and had huge amounts of fun testing them out on the unsuspecting populace. The regular script went like this: we would be walking though some market, down some street or at a restaurant and would strike up a conversation with the local baker, market vendor or taxi driver for example. We would basically exhaust our memorized greetings and conventionalities quite quickly and would both quickly whip out our cheat sheets for more linguistic reinforcements! We would usually then proceed with a little routine explaining that we were brother and sister; with this little episode culminating, much to the delight of our usually gracious host, with us calling each other the names of random farm animals! What fun we had, especially with the Lonely Planet Arabic phrasebook that we found! I must say that the best of these experiences culminated in me asking a local Ammanian taxi driver whether or not we could breast feed in his taxi. It appears that a bit of scatology is a good joke in all global cultures!

Before leaving Israel for Jordan, I would casually inform Israelis that I had met that I was planning on traveling in Jordan. For the most part my plan was met with casual acceptance, but on occasion, to my surprise, this phrase was met with skepticism and condemnation. The comments ranged from “Be careful!”, or “it’s not very safe there”, “you will get robbed in the desert” to outright “you should not go!” I wasn’t sure exactly why these comments were being made, as no specific eye-witness accounts had validated these fears, but I heard rumors of theft, violence and an inhospitable climate for tourism presented by the Arab culture. Of course upon further questioning of the prognosticating travel scrooges; they had never actually been to Jordan, but apparently had heard enough horror stories to warrant spreading their well informed and researched opinions. (yes that is sarcasm).

What I discovered in Jordan was completely the opposite! I was absolutely floored by the Jordanian hospitality. Walking through the busy streets and markets of small Jordanian towns and even in the larger cities, Robyn and I were constantly peppered with “welcome to Jordan”! and “please come have tea!” I also cannot reiterate enough the outward effects of making a simple effort of memorizing a few key greetings in the native language as a means to open up conversations and opportunity for cultural exchange. “Ahlan wah Sahlan” (basically, this means welcome), mish mushkila (no problem) or Shukran habibi (thank you my darling, (this one was a real winner)). Through experimenting with Arabic we demonstrated an interest to learn about Jordanian culture and way of life that was very well received. These choice words in Arabic were overwhelmingly met with smiles, which followed with the Jordanians usually trying out a little bit of English, and boom we were suddenly being invited to have tea with them, or out to dinner, or handed a fresh falafel or invited in to photograph the bakery and the flour mill. Scenes and demonstration of openness and hospitality like this repeated themselves over and over again. Of course I do think that our adventurous constitutions and somewhat gregarious personalities (at times) facilitated these cross cultural exchanges (we were definitely consciously seeking to engage people). However in talking to other, more seemingly reserved tourists, they had also experienced the Jordanian hospitality.

So by the end of this Middle Eastern adventure Robyn and I were feeling overwhelmed and somewhat exhausted with experience, logistics and insight. Although definitely still open to eating more hummus and foul! In my experience and opinion, much of the real insight is gained upon post-travel perspective and cogitation of events that occurred. When in a novel environment, totally overwhelmed by stimuli and information, in order to simply keep one foot moving in front of the other, a necessary sacrificing and narrowing of consciousness must take place. This narrowing of focus becomes centered on the external experience of the novel world. In the face of such a sensory deluge, little energy is left for integration in the moment. It is only upon quiet reflection and contemplation that experiences can be integrated and the minute particulars of obfuscated memories teased out of the mayhem. Which leads me full circle back to the purpose of this blog. In writing this post, I have seen events in a new light, reminisced over fantastic memories, thought of different perspectives and in many ways relived portions of the trip; all doing so in a medium that allows me to share these thoughts with whoever cares to read. I look forward to more insight, adventure and connection with amazing people on our amazing planet. We are so blessed!

Shukran Habibi!