Where to begin? Mum often nags me to write – to put my thoughts and emotions to paper, to spew out the couscousy mesh of experiences that have been blended into a single stretch of memory – and thus to immortalize the symphony of incidents, stories and smells that accompany me throughout my journeys. ‘Anything, anything at all’, she pleads and reasons. But I never seem to have the desire or the discipline to dedicate the few hours required to put pen to paper. So here I am now – on a bus from Tel Aviv back to the kibbutz, with a few hours to kill, my laptop, and a lump in my throat from not being quite sure how to summarize the past few months, or how to unpack my thoughts.
What is the most suitable way to describe the people I have met, and the gems I have gleaned in a faraway land described by many, simultaneously as ‘holy’, ‘heavenly’ and ‘hell’? How to relate to the people here that I simultaneously love and despise – like the young man, shut off from the world with music blasting through his headphones, who sneaks in front of the ticket machine at the train station, and grabs a ticket that he didn’t pay for – or the young woman who rushed to the aid of an elderly lady who dropped her shopping bag in crowded Jerusalem? How to thank the proverbial Israeli on the street, who insists on inviting me over for Shabbat dinner, “whenever you’re in city X!”, despite having just randomly met me on the street. And how can I even begin to detail the many random acts of kindness – a stranger, in the right place at the right time, bridging the invisible bridge that separates people, and running to the assistance of another.
Which is the best way to describe the uncomfortable feeling I get, when I hear one of my kin preaching hatred against perceived enemies of our people – real or imaginary, or the silent applause during the many moments of social harmony: religious and secular Jews, together celebrating the 60 year anniversary of a local council in the Negev; or the large billboards in Gush Etzion that promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Watching Ethiopian and Russian kids playing soccer in the street, hearing Americans ordering hummus in Jerusalem, watching an impromptu performance of Japansese pilgrims singing in Zion Square, or feeling the heat, as I sunbake amongst a sea of Frenchmen on a beach near Achziv.
How can I begin to explain the time an entire Egged bus erupted into laughter, when an Arab transport van pulled up beside us – with a podgy middle aged man seated cross-legged on the floor between the seats, happily smoked a nargilah and smiled back at us – the mystical plume of smoke that he exhaled, dancing toward the heavens, as if he was relaxing in Abu Gosh. Or the frustration of being screwed around with by the army – that constantly changes my draft date, and insists that all communication be done through faxing? How to picture the warmth and hospitality of the Beduins of Aramsha – a small village that straddles the Lebanese border, or the way that residents of Bnei Brak purposely avoid me with their eyes during a Shabbat afternoon stroll? How to describe the multitude of faces, cultures and personalities that forge this country for what it is – an unprecedented melting pot, instigated by one of the boldest state building projects of the 20th century.
How to express the sheer outpour of otherworldly senses when the sun kisses the pluvial horizon between Gaza and Rafiah, and bids these shores farewell with a spectacular show of colours in the sky – orange, blue and violet? How can I colour with words the jungle-like Wadi’s of the Upper Galilee, and the wild meat cows that roam free, and follow each hiker with their distinctive, pitiful stares? What on Earth is more blue than the Kinneret when viewed from the Golan Heights, or more yellow than the gigantic bees that lap up the water of the kibbutz pool, and then fly off in a hurry to pollinate the fields of the Western Negev desert?
Living in Israel from the inside is nothing like living it from the outside. The headlines continue to ramble on, inexorably and increasingly sensationalist, whilst on the ground, people trudge on, like a backpacker trekking through waist-deep mud: slowly, tiredly and assuredly forward – warding off the hardship and difficulty that surrounds. For in a place so compact and laden with history, which snares the hearts and minds of so many around the world, it’s really easy to get carried away in a biblical fantasy land of prophecies and conflict. It’s a land that brings out the best and worst in people – those guided toward kindness by their beliefs, and those who seek salvation in terror, destruction and death.
Perhaps on this auspicious occasion, at the height of the Arab spring, and Israel’s increasingly difficult political situation it has to be said: Too often Middle East is portrayed as a black and white narrative of hollywood-esque proportions, a game of good vs evil that each side reframes and repackages to suit their bias. The truth however lies in fact this troubled neighbourhood is plagued by many shades of grey, with each opinion offering an element of truth, and an element of sweet illusion. Often I find that the most zealous voices are those of people who have never set foot in the holy land, whilst those who live the reality, lead the moderate voices of peace.
Sure Israel has changed me. There was a time, in the first few weeks, when my heart would open up to every beggar in the street, as I foraged my wallet for all the spare change I could find. Today I join the mass of people who nonchalantly pass them by, choosing to ignore, reasoning that they should get a job, and passing on the assumed responsibility of helping them onto the next stranger. There was a time that I would wait politely in line, whilst the onlookers who pushed in front of me, looked back and giggled at the ‘friar’ (‘loser’ in Hebrew), who clearly has no idea about Israeli society. I remember the days when seeing a wind-torn Israeli flag fluttering in the middle of the desert aroused all kinds of emotional nostalgia and reinforced my sense of purpose here. And how could I forget the tiring bus trips at night, when I would stay awake and rest my head on the window, gazing out to the lights of distant settlements and villages that dot the inland hills; an intense spiritual sense like that of my first visit to the Kotel.
Indeed, as my initial excitement turned to disillusionment, which in turn became a sort of rebellious-teenager apathy, I found myself increasingly sceptical and disconnected from the values that initially brought me here. Whilst now, I find myself in a consolidation of sorts – having sobered up both from the initial thrill this country offered and the mild disappointment that followed.
There was a time when my heart skipped a beat each time I would come across ancient Israelite ruins – and each time I gazed out across the Shfela, the coastal plane, and imagined the ancient wayfarers and merchants that traded spices between the Phoenician north and the Philistine south. There was a period when seeing an Israeli soldier on the train filled me with pride, and almost always led me to make conversation – as I took the role of the excited ‘oleh hadash’ teenager – both astonished and envious.
Yet despite it all, I still feel that I belong here. A humid summer night in June comes to mind: we had just crossed back into Israel from Taba, Egypt, and although the surrounding mountains and the deep dark sea remained the same ominous mountains and sea, the distinct sense of anxiety, and foreignness that accompanied me through Egypt suddenly dispelled across the border. Sure the customs officers cursed in Hebrew, the taxi driver tried to rip us off a few extra shekels, and the size of the Israeli flag, flying white and blue, was no less impressive than her Egyptian counterpart over the border. But I felt at home, and I still do – and that is a feeling that is hard to come by.