Saturday, August 22, 2009

New blog location

http://joelveldkamp.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This One Time In Egypt...

This will probably be my last post on this blog. I have been back in the United States for over eight months now (which is really, really hard to believe), but I still have a few random stories that I never got around to telling – stories that I think you might all enjoy, but that, more importantly, I don’t want to forget.

So here, without further ado: Random stories from Egypt.

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One of the first things Dr. Dave told us when we got to Egypt was to avoid writing about political or religious issues in our blogs or our e-mails, because the Egyptian authorities might be monitoring them. While I was in Egypt, I scrupulously followed this rule, not wishing to create trouble for MESP. (Yeah, I know, I wrote a ton about Turkish, Syrian and Israeli politics – but not while I was in those countries). Now that I am safely back in the free world, I want to share a few stories. (To be clear, the judgments I make in the paragraphs following do not represent the views of MESP, the CCCU, Dr. Holt, Mr. Koko the shwarma man, or even Dilwati, the diseased cat the Flat 6 girls rescued from the street in the first few weeks of MESP. They are my personal opinions.)

I don’t think I made in clear in the blog before, so let me make it clear now: Egypt is a full-blown dictatorship. President Hosni Mubarak has held power since 1981, when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists for making peace with Israel. Mubarak was vice president at the time, and quickly took the reins. Conveniently, Mubarak never got around to appointing his own vice president. Free speech and free press are very limited, elections are rigged, and torture by the police is not uncommon. Religious freedom is officially guaranteed, but Christians are discriminated against in ways large and small. (One large way was when the government idiotically ordered all the pigs in Egypt slaughtered in response to the swine flu outbreak back in May. Muslims don’t eat pork, so guess which religious group the pigs belonged to?) Now that Mubarak’s health is failing (several news editors got imprisoned for reporting that fact), it appears that he’s grooming his son Gamel for the job of dictator-for-life, trying to build a dictatorial dynasty, just like Kim Sung Il, Hafiz Assad and Saddam Hussein.

Despite all this, the Egyptian government is a valued ally of the United States. Ever since Egypt became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel in 1979, the U.S. has given Egypt over $2 billion in military and economic aid annually. For better or worse, in a region as critical to the world’s oil supply as the Middle East, the U.S. values stability and peace above human rights. I suppose when one looks at Syria, Iran, Libya, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, a dictatorship that respects Israel’s right to exist, doesn’t pursue WMD, doesn’t commit genocide and keeps the Islamists at bay seems pretty nice by comparison.

Police are everywhere in Egypt. Some of them wear all white, others wear all black. I don’t know the difference between them exactly, but they all wear stylish berets, and most of them carry automatic weapons. This was a little disconcerting at first, but I got used to it. Someone once told me that the police don’t always keep the machine guns loaded, that they’re more for show than anything else. I hope this is true, because it was not at all uncommon for us to see policemen sleeping at their post.

The only time I can honestly say I was scared in the Middle East was the morning after we got back from Luxor. Austin and I were walking on Shahin street to the fruit stand to buy breakfast for the flat, when we saw three guys wearing jeans and T-shirts walking towards us. They were all carrying machine guns. Machine guns with police uniforms I was used to. But machine guns without police uniforms? Holy crap!

They did not, however, start shouting “Allahu akbar! Al-mot li Amreeka!” gun me and Austin down, force us into an unmarked van, or even spit in our direction. They smiled broadly, said, “Hello, mister!” and kept walking. I may have said “Hi” back – I’m not sure. If I did, it probably sounded very weak and trembly. I now think they were probably off-duty policemen, not Egyptian Islamic Jihad members.

Tourism is an extremely important part of Egypt’s economy. In the 90s, Islamic extremists killed scores of Western tourists in an attempt to hurt the economy and bring down Egypt’s secular government. So while the police may be a corrupt annoyance (or worse, an oppressive force) to ordinary Egyptians, they were very protective of us westerners. (Brian, my roommate the quadrilingual spearfisher, says that this isn’t the case in all Third World countries – a policeman in Mozambique once tried to arrest him for essentially nothing). There was always a white-clad policeman sitting in a plastic chair outside the building where I lived – as often as not, sleeping with his head rested against the muzzle of his machine gun. There was a police hut outside the wall around the MESP villa. We got used to greeting them on our way to and from class. Whenever we went somewhere on a tour bus, we had to wait for a police escort to arrive before leaving. They weren’t always prompt, so this got old pretty quickly. By the time we took our trip to Alexandria, we decided to split up into groups of three or four for the train ride, so as not to attract unwanted police overprotectiveness. Ridiculous.

On the weekend we went to Luxor, Mubarak came to Luxor to give a speech. We didn’t get to see him, because that was the day we went to the Valley of the Kings. But all along the streets of Luxor that day, black-clad policemen stood at attention, and huge banners and posters were hung throughout the city to welcome him.

There’s more, but I don’t want to put it on the internet. Ask me sometime if you’re curious.

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During my homestay week, I was riding around Cairo with my host brothers Shady and Samer and their cousin George. They had stopped the car at their other cousin’s house, gotten something out of the trunk of their car to drop off, and we were about to leave when Shady, in the driver’s seat, said, “Samer! Shanta maftooh.” Samer got back out of the car and slammed the trunk door all the way shut.

Now “maftooh” means “open,” and that much was obvious. But “shanta” means “bag.” A little confused, I asked Samer, “Shanta yanni [means] trunk?” Samer nodded. “Yes, shanta.” After a pause he said, “Shanta also means bag.”

So I wasn’t totally off. The Egyptians call their car trunks “bags?” That’s dumb.

Wait a second…

Don’t we all pack our “trunks” before we go on a trip? And for that matter, don’t we wear trunks to the pool?

Not so dumb after all.

Learning a new language makes you a lot more aware of how weird your own is.

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One of the many music videos I saw in restaurants in Cairo. I think this guy is the Michael W. Smith of the Muslim world. Check it!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhwdEtO5fJE&eurl

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The night of the soccer game, Austin and I went to buy a “bebsi” (there’s no “p” sound in Arabic) from the khosh (a drink and snack stand) near our flat. It was past 11 o’clock, but this is Egypt, so the khosh owner and his family were still there, sitting on milk crates and talking. An elderly man in Muslim garb struck up a conversation with us. When we told him that we were American Christians who were studying Arabic and Islam, he tried to convince us of the truth of Islam. It went something like this.

Egyptian Man: What do you think is the biggest difference between Islam and Christianity?

Joel and Austin: Well – Jesus. We believe Jesus is God. Mohammad says he wasn’t.

Egyptian Man: So you don’t think Mohammad was a prophet.

Joel and Austin: Well...no.

Egyptian Man: Let me tell you something. In your Bible – your Bible! – there is a verse that says that if any man says he is a prophet, and is not, God will strike him and his family dead!

Joel and Austin: OK, sure, if you say so.

Egyptian Man: Mohammad said he was a prophet, and God never struck him down. He had a huge family, and many descendants, and today, Mohammad is the most common name in the world. So according to your own Bible, he must have been telling the truth!

Joel: Well, have you ever heard of a man named Joseph Smith?

Egyptian Man: No.

Joel: In America, there was a man named Joseph Smith who claimed to be a prophet. He started the Mormon faith over a hundred years ago, and still has many followers. God never struck him down.

Egyptian Man: Excuse me! This is what the verse says. I am simply using your Bible.

Joel: Well, maybe that verse [I still don’t know which one he’s talking about – theology majors?] was part of the Old Covenant, for the people of Israel only. Because there are plenty of people in the world who claim to be prophets and aren’t struck down. What about the man who claimed to be a prophet and started the Bahai faith [A 19th century Muslim offshoot]?

Egyptian Man: No, he was killed! The president of Iran killed him!

Joel: Oh, really? [Crap!]

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On one of my first days in Agouza, the “low battery” light on my fancy electric razor turned on. I then realized that I had left the charger for my razor at home. So, since I was thousands of miles from anyone I knew personally, and in a Muslim country no less, I decided to grow out my facial hair for the first time in my life. I was never very pleased with the results, and now, when I look at pictures of myself from those months, I’m surprised that I actually looked like that. I grew plenty of hair on my chin and a nice mustache, but nothing but whiskers elsewhere. I had no means of trimming it, so it grew long and unkempt on my chin and upper lip without (as I had hoped) ever thickening in other places. By the time we left for travel component, both my facial hair and my scalp hair was getting out of control. So when I saw a barbershop while walking through Agouza one night, I stopped in and asked for a shave and a haircut. The barber didn’t speak English, but one of the other customers did, so he translated for us. Guys, if you’ve never had a straight-edge shave, I highly recommend it. It felt amazing, and afterwards, my face was so smooth that I couldn’t stop rubbing it.

Between my own limited Arabic skills and the other English-speaking customer, I managed to explain what I was doing in Egypt to the barber, and talk about politics a little bit as well. The barber told me that he didn’t like Bush (no, really!), but he liked President Carter a lot. Carter negotiated the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, so hopefully that’s the reason. I’m not a big fan of Carter myself, but it’s always nice to find people on the “other side,” so to speak, that want peace too.

The next day at the villa, Tara took one look at my face and exclaimed, “Il-hamdulillah!” (Thanks be to God!) That hurt just a little.

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During my time in Cairo, no fewer than four people – my host brothers, a Sudanese refugee in my English class, and another MESPer’s host sister – asked me if I was Asian. The last time, when I answered in the negative, she insisted, “Not even a little?” To which I said, “No, I’m 100% white!” In retrospect, that doesn’t sound very sensitive. It’s not that I was offended by the questions, just a little surprised. My eyes are pretty dark brown, and my aforementioned facial hair did grow out fairly dark. But still. My skin is totally white, my eyes are completely round, and I’m frickin’ six foot two (which is really tall in Egypt). I may not be an Aryan master specimen, but you don’t get much whiter than Joel Veldkamp. Ana mish faahim. I don’t understand.

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Multiple times in Egypt, I was chastised for my “hard” handshake. In America, a firm handshake is a sign of confidence and respect, and I have cultivated my handshake. Egyptians have a far more sensible reaction to a firm handshake: “Hey, stop hurting my hand, jerk!” My host dad was the only person to give me the Egyptian double-kiss. It caught me off-guard, but I didn’t dislike it.

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One day towards the end of the semester, I left my wallet in a shop on Shahin street in Agouza. (It was a bad morning all around – I was behind on my papers, I couldn’t make myself understood with Arabic, I couldn’t find what I needed for the flat, etc.) The shopowner chased me down the street to return it to me before I even realized it was gone. I had hundreds of Egyptian pounds in it, money I had planned to spend on last-minute souvenirs at the Khan al Khalili marketplace. I’ve never wished I could speak coherent Arabic as badly as then. “Shokran! Shokran awi!” was all I knew how to say – thank you! thank you very much! Egyptians are awesome.

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Most taxis in Cairo only seat four passengers, and apparently just before we arrived, a law was passed requiring everyone in taxis to wear seat belts. So for the sake of my taxi drivers, I tried to always wear my seat belt, even when the “seat belt” had no buckle, and I had to simply drape it over my shoulders.

Occasionally, though, we felt cheap and tried to squeeze five or more people into a taxi. If the taxi drivers were in a good mood, they’d let us. On the way back from the Pyramids, Jeff, Brian, Danielle, Grace and I were crammed into a taxi, and we got stuck in traffic. A policeman walked up to the cab and started talking to the driver in Arabic. We were like, “This isn’t good.” But the driver handed something to the cop, and he walked away. Assuming he had bribed the cop, we tried to pay him extra when we got to our stop, but he wouldn’t take it. This might have been because the taxi broke down in the middle of the square where we got off, and he was kind of embarrassed.

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The professor who taught our Islamic Thought and Practice course was Dr. Chahinda Kareem, a middle-aged Egyptian Muslim professor from the American University in Cairo. Our group met her for the first time at the Ibn Tulun Mosque, an eleven-hundred-year-old mosque that she gave us a tour of. Dr. Dave introduced her by explaining that, as a rule, the CCCU requires all professors in its study-abroad programs to be Christian, but that he got them to make an exception for Dr. Kareem. Before the tour was over, I (and most of the group, I think) had fallen in love with her. She kept her brown hair uncovered, wore spectacles, and smiled and laughed easily. She spoke with a beautiful British accent, and was such a good lecturer that I always strained to catch her every word.

At the same time, she was a very demanding professor. She gave lectures twice a week, and we had to know everything she talked about. I learned more about Islam from Dr. Kareem than all the other books and articles I had read before her class. Her exams were essay tests of the hardest kind: she listed a topic, and told us to explain it. She gave me a B on my first test because I didn’t explain “enough.” On the next test, I wrote down every single fact I could remember from the lectures. That finally got me an A.

Dr. Kareem was as devout a Muslim as one could hope to find. Her love for God and for her religion was obvious from her lectures. But she did not engage in outward displays of piety demanded by Muslim extremists. She proudly refused to wear the headscarf, and laughed about the teenage Egyptian girls she saw wearing tight clothing and kissing in public, who thought of themselves as “religious” because their hair was covered. And she openly expressed her fears for the Muslim ummah (worldwide community), because of the tide of violent extremism.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Kareem was her description of the Muslim feast of Ashura. This feast commemorates the martyrdom of Mohammad’s grandson Hussein, a Shia saint. (We later visited his shrine in Damascus). Contrasting the Egyptian and Iraqi styles of marking the event, she said, “We have a feast, they beat themselves.” I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

There is a verse in the Qur’an that commands Muslims to “enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong” (3:104). In Saudi Arabia, this verse has given rise to a special police force that goes around “forbidding the wrong” – hitting people with sticks when they see them behaving immorally. Dr. Kareem once visited her son in Saudi Arabia, and wore a headscarf (but not a veil) out of respect for local laws. While she was waiting for her son at a mall, a man came up to her and hit her with a stick. “Cover your face!” he said.

Not realizing what was going on, but surprised and angry, Dr. Kareem grabbed the stick out of his hand and hit him back. “How dare you hit a woman!” she yelled.

The policeman was shocked, and a small crowd gathered as Dr. Kareem’s son came running up. “Tell your wife to cover her face!” the policeman said to Dr. Kareem’s son.

At this, Dr. Kareem shouted at the policeman, “And you are blind as well!” And the crowd started laughing. Dr. Kareem continued, “Anyway, I’m an Egyptian, not a Saudi Arabian, and I will not cover my face!”

Embarrassed, the policeman left the scene, and Dr. Kareem’s son cracked up. And when we heard the story, so did we.

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Dr. Kareem, talking about anything ridiculous or foolish (e.g., certain Muslims eating with their fingers because that’s the way Mohammad ate): “(sigh) For God’s sake!”

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One of our last homework assignments before we left for Turkey was to write a paper about a specific passage in the Qur’an (for Dr. Kareem’s class). For this paper, we had to interview three Muslims about their beliefs. My flatmate Jeff and I kinda-sorta put this off until the last minute, and the Saturday before our papers were due, we set out into the streets of Cairo to find some Muslims to talk to. (I was extremely blessed to have been assigned the host family that I was, but if I had been assigned to a Muslim family, this task would have been a lot easier.)

I am not good at walking up to strangers and initiating conversation. In Egypt, the task was both more daunting, because of language and culture barriers, and much easier, because Egyptians are so much friendlier and so much less individualistic than Americans. But once the conversation was initiated, we consistently ran into two problems: the Egyptians we spoke with either 1) could not or would not talk about the Qur’an with us unless they could look at an Arabic copy of it (I had only my English translation), or 2) insisted that we go to Al Azhar University and ask our questions to the clerics there. We tried to explain that no, we want to know what it means to you (that was an explicit part of the assignment), but often to no avail. As it turned out, we approached close to thirty people who could not help us, before finding three in a row who were willing (although the last two also advised us to go to Al Azhar).

The ironic thing is, we had already been to Al Azhar – and it was a pretty frustrating experience.

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Al Azhar University is one of the oldest universities in the world, and was once the center of Islamic learning in the world. Lately, it’s lost some of its credibility over (fairly justified) accusations that it is a puppet of Egypt’s secular government, but it’s still a pretty big deal. Muslims from all over the world come to Al Azhar to study.

If I hadn’t been told that Al Azhar was one of the leading universities in the Islamic world, I wouldn’t have guessed it by walking around its campus. I long ago got used to the fact that Egyptian nice was American middle class, and Egyptian middle class was American ghetto, but you’d think the premiere Islamic institution in the world would have nicer facilities.

Anyway, the first item on the Al Azhar agenda was a Q&A session with one of the university’s leading sheikhs, who spoke through a translator. We quickly discovered that this was not so much a “Q&A” session as a “reassure the Americans” session. In the sheikh’s Weltanschauung, the world is virtually free of problems. Christians and Muslims get along terrifically in Egypt. There’s no problems between America and Islam. Women are totally equal in Islam. Al Azhar is not controlled by the government – where did you ever get that idea? Christians and Muslims don’t need to dialogue. We’ll do our thing, you can do your thing. All the problems come from a few people who misinterpret Islam, who apparently phase in and out of the universe without cause, like quantum particles. Who knows where they came from? Weird. Anyway, no need to worry about them.

At one point, he did this denial-of-reality number on a question about the killing of “apostates” (Muslims who leave the Islamic faith – usually for Christianity), and Dr. Holt interrupted him outright. “This is not believable,” he said. Go Dr. Holt, I said silently. On another question about relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, the sheikh went into the standard Egyptian-Muslim “The Christians are our brothers – end of story!” rant. We later found out that during this rant, the sheikh said, “Christians and Muslims fought against Israel together in the October War!” but that the translator left that sentence out. Apparently it was too much for our delicate American ears.

After the whitewashing session, we got to eat lunch with some students from Al Azhar. I landed at a table with my flatmate Jeff, my debating partner Scott, Barrett the intern, and three Al Azhar students: one from Bangladesh, one from Zambia, and one from Waziristan, the region of Pakistan that is essentially ruled by the Taliban, is probably where Osama bin Laden is hiding, and that is nearly-constantly being bombed by American Predator drones. The man from Waziristan was studying to be an Islamic judge back there. Scott and I spent most of our time talking to the student from Zambia. He was a very nice man, and spoke English very well. (I think Zambia used to be an English colony?) He asked us if there was religious liberty for Muslims in the United States. We said that yes, for the most part, Muslims in the U.S. were very free, although there were some anti-Muslim prejudices in America. He then started talking about struggles for Muslims in the UK. One of the things that bothered him was that Muslims weren’t allowed to broadcast the call to prayer in the UK, even though Christian churches were allowed to ring their bells. Internally, I began to revise my earlier answers about religious liberty in America. Well, if you meant “free to bellow in Arabic over loudspeakers thirty-five times a week,” then I guess American Muslims aren’t that free after all.

Austin and Danielle had a less pleasant experience talking with an Al Azhar student who demanded to know why Americans thought bin Laden was behind 9/11, when it was “obvious” that the Jews were responsible. Austin tried to reason with him: “But bin Laden has said that he was behind the attacks.”

“Well,” the student said, “if you accuse somebody of something long enough, eventually they’ll give in.” Remember folks, Islam is the light.

(OK, maybe that last jab was uncalled for on my part. But I can feel the frustration in my gut even now, eight months later. Is it willful ignorance, cultural malaise, or plain paranoia? I have no idea, but it makes me sick.)

Here’s a great picture that I think sums up Austin and Danielle’s experience:


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The Al Azhar experience was part of a twofer of frustrating encounters with Muslims. The second half of that twofer came when some writers from IslamOnline.com came to talk to us for a day at the MESP villa. We split into groups to discuss various topics. The organizers announced that the first group would be discussing democracy, the 2008 election, and the Holy Land. CJ (I think) said, “Oh, is that all?” and the whole group bust out laughing.

But then, since they hadn’t come to discuss interfaith issues so much as present a united front against any “misunderstandings” we might have about Islam, too much material wouldn’t be a problem. I was in a group with one of the IslamOnline writers discussing women’s issues. He started off by explaining that, in Islam, a Muslim man could marry a Christian or a Jew, but a Muslim woman could not marry a Christian or a Jew. The reasoning behind this was that the Muslim man could protect his wife’s religious choice, but the Muslim woman might be forced to convert by her husband. We asked why a man could be trusted to stay a Muslim, but a woman couldn’t. He didn’t seem to understand the question. So it went. Eventually, in the course of the discussion, he pretty much told us that Saudi Arabia’s government was not theocratic enough for his tastes. That, I think, is when I tuned out.

We then gathered as a mass group again so all the “discussion” groups could share what they had “learned.” Our Muslim friends were only too happy to share what we had “learned”: no problems here!

In fairness, my experience was probably tainted, because by this point in the semester my tolerance for unproductive interfaith discussions was running dangerously low. I was sick and tired of bashing my head against the wall of Islam. So I didn’t put very much into the meeting that day. Hopefully it was beneficial for some of the other MESPers. I just wanted to eat, go back to my flat and listen to decadent American music on my computer. Which I did – but not without giving my eternally patient roommate Brian an earful. He was good about it.

Sura 109:

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Say: O you that reject Faith!

I do not worship that which you worship,

Nor will you worship that which I worship.

And I will not worship that which you have been wont to worship,

Nor will you worship that which I worship.

To you be your Way and to me mine.

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For our weekly service project, my flatmate Jason and I taught a class in conversational English to a group of about ten Christian Egyptian adults, at a place called the Episcopal Training Center. I feel bad about never blogging about it, because it was one of the best experiences I had in Egypt.

When Jason and I arrived at the Center for our first class, we knew about as much about our job as you do now. We headed to the “teacher’s lounge,” an annex about the size of a freshmen dorm room, and met a British man who was also teaching English there. We asked him if he, well, knew what we were supposed to do, and he suggested we look through a stack of books for ideas. Hoo-kay. Class is in an hour.

To our pleasant surprise, most of our class already knew English fairly well. They just needed help with the finer points: conversation flow, idioms, expressions, etc. Let me tell you, nothing is better for your self-esteem than teaching your first language to other people. You’re automatically an expert. E.g.: “How do you pronounce ‘congratulations,’ teacher?” “Well, let me explain...”

Every Tuesday night, we gathered in the stuffy third-story classroom to talk about conversational English. I was really grateful to have Jason with me. As he always does, he kept the class entertaining. He also kept us both on track with the task of making up the curriculum as we went along.

Sometimes, they taught us a little Arabic as well. They took special pleasure in teaching us the word “ishta,” a slang word that literally means “sweet,” or “creamy,” and is used the same way as the English slang use of “sweet.” “Da ishta, ya ragel” – “That’s sweet, man.” For some reason, it always cracked them up when I used it. Micah Schuurman has confirmed the definition of ishta for me, so they weren’t pulling a fast one on me, unless it’s a fast one they pull on all foreigners. Maybe it’s just funny to hear people who know almost none of your first language to use your language’s slang.

As the weeks went on, we came to know our students really well. Usama, the man whose family lived in hours away in the town of Beni Suef, who worked in Cairo, but went home every weekend to be with his family. (He’s nothing at all like his most infamous namesake). Fayqa, the woman who followed her brother’s lead in converting from Coptic Christianity to evangelicalism, and was working translating Arthur C. Clarke potboilers into Arabic. Suzie, the woman considering a marriage to an Egyptian-Australian man. All our students were very gracious to their totally inexperienced teachers, and we probably learned more from them about Egypt than they learned from us about English. They always made a point of accompanying us home from class on the train, usually even buying our (20 cent) tickets for us. We tried to stop Usama from doing this multiple times, to no avail.

As the 2008 election drew nearer, Usama asked me on one such train ride who I was voting for. I told him I was voting for McCain. Unsurprisingly, like nearly all Egyptians, Christian or Muslim, that I broached the subject with, Usama was for Obama. He asked me why McCain. Thinking that, talking to an Egyptian, I would have to give extra good reasons to vote Republican, I automatically went into defense mode. I talked about social issues, defense, the economy, healthcare, etc. Finally, Usama just said, “Ok, ok, those are enough reasons,” and smiled. Every now and again, it’s good to talk to people who don’t take politics as seriously as I do.

Towards the end of Ramadan, we asked Usama if he was looking forward to spending the next few days with his family. The end of Ramadan is followed by three days of feasting, which this year was followed by a three-day weekend commemorating Egypt’s Totally Glorious Victory over Israel in the October 1973 war. Us MESPers were looking forward to the vacation, and I assumed Usama was too.

In response, Usama told us that he didn’t know if he could go home yet, because the end of Ramadan was determined by a certain lunar observance Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia had to make. He might have work on Wednesday; he might not. At 10 PM Tuesday night, he still didn’t know. I momentarily forgot my cultural sensitivities, and exclaimed, “That’s ridiculous!” Thankfully, Usama is a Christian. He exclaimed in return, “I know!”

Our students took us out socially twice during the semester. The first time, Usama and Fayqa took us to the famous Khan al Khalili market, where we had been once before. There, they treated us to the drink of paradise, tea with mint leaves, for the first time. Usama smoked a shisha at the cafe where we had tea, but we didn’t partake because of the MESP covenant. I now regret that, since I later broke the MESP covenant multiple times. (Shh). We also had Egyptian dessert pancakes (I forget exactly what they’re called, but they were awesome.) Usama helped Jason get an “Egyptian price” for a galabaya (Arab man-dress) from one of the shopkeepers, which was wildly entertaining to witness. If you don’t know Jason personally, it’s hard to describe the sight of him exasperatedly yelling at the shopkeeper and pretending to walk away while Usama smiles impishly and pretends not to be paying attention. If you do know Jason personally, you are now jealous of me for getting to witness it. Ba ha ha.

A few weeks later, Fayqa and Alverra took me to the Coptic Church of the Holy Virgin in Maadi, a region in southern Cairo. The Church marks a place where Joseph, Mary and Jesus are supposed to have stayed during their flight into Egypt. The church is right on the Nile, and contains a huge Bible that was found miraculously floating in the Nile in the 1970s, open to Isaiah 19:25: “Blessed be Egypt my people.” The Church also has a well that Mary supposedly drank from. (Apparently, Joseph and Jesus didn’t get thirsty during their stay.)

Fayqa is an evangelical, but Alverra is a Coptic. As we walked through the shrines in the church, Alverra would kiss the icons while Fayqa and I watched politely from a few steps away. As a foreign Christian in a Muslim land, I usually found any Christian presence comforting. When I was in a church or a monastery, or interacting with Middle Eastern Christians, I felt at home. I counted Coptic and Evangelical Christians alike as compatriots, for lack of a better word. But I have a feeling – actually more than a feeling – that there’s more tension between Middle Eastern evangelicals and Middle Eastern Orthodox than meets the eye. Some of my Egyptian Evangelical friends complained to me on occasion that the Copts treated them like apostates. And if I were a Copt, I might resent evangelicalism a little bit. If you ask the Copts, they haven’t changed their church at all since it was founded by St. Mark himself. And then these Westerners come here with their version of Christianity and tell us it’s superior? (My host brothers’ church was awesome, but aside from the language, it could have been any church in America.)

While we were at the church, the sanctuary was being decorated for a wedding. As we were leaving, we saw the bridal party approaching. The groom and his bride were holding hands, leading a parade of friends and relatives through the night up to the church. It seemed like a fun way to get married.

One of my goals in the Middle East was to buy a Bible in Arabic. At the Church of the Holy Virgin, I found a pocket-size one for seventeen pounds (three bucks or so). The Arabic text in it has tashkeel (markings indicating short vowel sounds that most Arabic writing doesn’t have), which is nice for a newbie like me, but it will still be a long time before I can make heads or tails of it. On the train ride home that night, I tried to sound out Genesis 1 with Fayqa’s help. She was patient. I was pathetic. Arabic is hard.

One of the hardest parts of the class was when students asked for extra help. One woman in class was near-desperate. She said she had to learn English better for her job, so she could start going to conferences with English-speakers, and offered to pay us to give her private lessons. It was out of the question; not only were Jason and I busy with our own schoolwork, and preparing for a month-long trip through the Middle East, but the woman already spoke decent English, and there was no way I could help her improve noticeably in such a short time. I know English, but teaching English is still new to me.

After our last class, Fayqa, Suzi and Usama accompanied us on the train back to Tahrir Square, as usual. At our stop, Jason and I embraced Usama. Then, forgetting myself again, I went and gave Suzi and Fayqa hugs too. I heard a few snickers from the other men on the train. (The Egyptian subway has cars set aside for women. Women are allowed on the other cars, but most of them ride in the women’s cars.) Oh, embarrassment. Fayqa got off at the same stop, and reassured me that “We don’t care what they [the Muslims] think.” Good?

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This one time in Turkey (changing gears here a little), we were eating a continental breakfast in a hotel in Ankara. The TV was on, but there were no subtitles and I don’t speak Turkish, so I was mostly ignoring it. (Though I’m pretty sure it was a news channel.) Then a music video came on. The music was dour and dark, and the video showed pictures of the carnage in Iraq, intercut with pictures of President Bush.

I saw at least two more of these videos in Ankara. Turkey may be secular, democratic and westernized compared to its neighbors, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking the Turks are all psyched about Israel or the Iraq War. The gulf is wide, and the wounds are deep.

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One of the last cab rides I took in Cairo was from Cilantro’s back to my flat. Cilantro’s is a two-story, extremely overpriced coffee shop that caters to Westerners, complete with metal detectors, uniformed waiters, and free wireless internet. Austin and I had gone there to upload some photos and relax after handing in all of our papers for Dr. Dave.

I’ve written before about taxi drivers trying to rip us off, assuming (correctly, at first) that we were naive Americans who didn’t know the standard fare. Don’t get me wrong - most of the taxi drivers I encountered were great, friendly men, and some were just competitive. But a select few were definitely trying to cheat us. (I should mention something I learned but never wrote about here: the government has refused to raise the standard cab fare to keep pace with inflation, so all the meters in the cabs are set to unlivable fares. All Egyptians understand this, so the drivers just turn off their meters, and Egyptians willingly barter with their drivers for just fares.)

Anyway, Cilantro’s is not that far from our flat (in fact, it’s within walking distance if you’re in the mood and have an afternoon to kill). We usually paid our drivers five pounds for the ride. The driver on this trip asked for thirty pounds (about $5). At the beginning of the semester, I would have gotten all flustered and floundered about for a slightly less absurd settlement. This time, I surprised myself: I laughed in the driver’s face, said “La’, hamza kwayyis” (No, five is good) and handed him a five-pound note. To my pleasant surprise, the driver laughed too, took the money, and drove off. Ah, now we understand each other.

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When we returned from travel component, Jason and I tried to arrange a get-together with our students. A few of them corresponded with us via e-mail, and we agreed to meet on a certain night at the entrance to a mall called CityStars. Little did we know that CityStars is a gigantic mall with at least eight entrances. So the whole get-together part of the adventure didn’t pan out. But an adventure it was!

Actually, it was a pretty typical big mall experience, with an Egyptian flavor (an Eye of Horus above the entrance we used, Egyptian restaurants in the food court next to the McDonald’s, Egyptian obelisks stretching up through the mall’s eight stories, etc.) The real shock was finding a place like that in dirty, crowded Cairo. The prices were outrageous by Egyptian standards, and maybe even by American standards in some stores. We saw of lot of well-off people there; it was definitely inaccessible to most Egyptians. Aside from a novel in Arabic I bought to motivate myself to keep studying at home, we didn’t buy much.

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For our last weekend in Egypt, we headed to a Coptic monastery south of Cairo called Anafora. I know I say this a lot, but it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s in the middle of the desert, not quite as isolated as the Desert Rose Hotel in Siwa, but still far away from the lights and bustle of Cairo. In the center of the monastery is a white three story structure that we used for meals and other gatherings. The rest of the compound is filled with tiny white huts that are connected, so you can run to your friend’s house by rooftop. Pools, palm trees and gardens fill the sandy land inside the compound. Maybe the best part was the lack of electricity. Only candlelight and desert air to fill the nights.

In every sense, Anafora is a refuge from the rest of the world. The peace and restfulness of the place made it a perfect place to get ready to say goodbye to each other and reenter Western civilization. To do this, we were assigned the simple task of making up skits about our reentry, and ended up laughing ourselves to tears with the results. (A fat Austin throwing away a giant stuffed snake representing a sub sandwich will always stick in my mind, as will Jason squawking, “I’m a Christian-Muslim hybrid now!”).

For over three months, the thirty-four of us had been each other’s world, for all intents and purposes, and we were perfectly comfortable with each other. It’s difficult to explain, but I feel as close to some of the MESPers as any of my friends back home. We spent our copious free time that weekend playing games, singing songs, and horsing around on the roof of the main building.

After our final candlelight meal of chicken, we gathered in one of the huts to hold “encouragement circle.” We sat in a circle, and for each person, three other MESPers spoke up to say what made that person great. It was a wonderful experience, one that I will remember for a very long time.

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One of my favorite Egyptian foods is “fatah.” I have no idea how to spell it, but it sounds like “fatah,” so just take it for granted that from here on when I write “fatah,” I’m talking about a wonderful food, not the Palestinian guerrilla group. And it is so wonderful. Barrett the intern showed us the best place to get it: a sidewalk restaurant in Mohandiseen. (Mohandiseen is a slightly-more-upscale neighborhood close to Agouza – the name means “the engineers.” And when I say “sidewalk restaurant,” I mean, they put out a bunch of card tables and plastic chairs on the sidewalk and called it a restaurant.) Fatah is, essentially, juicy chicken, rice, and spices in on a bowl with flakes of bread at the bottom, served with garlic sauce and a Coke. Ya Allah! God is so good to have made food as amazing as this, and given us taste buds to match. I never did manage to finish a whole bowl, and I’m sure it gave me diarrhea once or twice, but hey, what didn’t? Barrett used to live in an apartment close to the fatah place (as we called it), and became close with the restaurant workers. He told us that he learned most of his Arabic at the fatah place, just talking to Egyptians there. Sometimes, I am slightly jealous of Barrett.

Anyway, our last night in Egypt, the MESP guys celebrated the only appropriate way: going out for fatah, playing Age of Empires II long into the night, and putting off our one and only flat-cleaning session of the semester until the morning.

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OK everybody, what’s the worst part of flying? You know the answer: staying up all night the night before desperately trying to assemble your belongings into two suitcases so that they both total 50 pounds. I thought I succeeded the night before we left. I thought wrong.

After our “Ma’a salaama” (goodbye, lit. “Go with peace”) party at the villa, we got on the bus for a final time and headed to the Cairo airport for our midnight flight back to Washington, D.C. We hugged Dr. Dave, Barrett and Andrea goodbye and walked into the terminal to check out our bags. Both of my suitcases were a few pounds overweight. The English-speaking Egyptian man working the Lufthansa counter told me there would be some extra charges, and, resigned to my fate, I followed him into a back room filled with desks and cubicles.

The man gave me a seat across from his desk and left to attend to other business while I contemplated my doom. At the cubicle to my left, a Mexican man was desperately trying to get the stone-faced Lufthansa employees to accept his credit card. To say the environment was uncomfortable is an understatement.

The man came back and told me that my passport was “weird.” (To avoid complications crossing into Arab countries in the future, we asked all the officers at Israel’s borders – Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli – to stamp a piece of paper instead of our passports, a request they are used to. So there are no Israeli stamps in my passport, which is nice for travel purposes, but my passport appears to show that I teleported from Jordan to Egypt in the fall of 2008.) But I was in luck, he told me. He would overlook that, and also overlook one of my overweight bags, and only charge me for the other one. Sounds good, right?

“The extra charges will be 900 pounds,” he said. I was floored. Then I remembered that Egyptian pounds are worth far less than dollars. I was relieved for a second, then did some mental math, and was floored again. $150? For three extra pounds of weight?

A breath away from reentering the world of American straight-forwardness, I had hit a final snag. I was in no mood to argue. I just wanted to get home, and I had hundreds of American dollars in my backpack. I gave in.

To this day, I have no idea if I was treated fairly, or if I was victimized by Egypt’s culture of corruption one final time. I was too tired to check into Lufthansa’s policies when I got home. The fact that the man tried to put me on the defensive about my passport, and then pretended to be my friend by overlooking the other overweight bag, makes me extremely suspicious. All I know is that when Austin was told his bags were overweight, he put on his cutest face, told his bag-checker, “I have no money, I’m a student,” and the man winked at him and let him go. Needless to say, I was in a sour mood for the first leg of our journey.

Our flight arrived in D.C. several hours late, and I missed my connecting flight to Detroit – a fact I didn’t realize until I had said my goodbyes to all the MESPers and gone to the Northwestern counter. Thankfully, I ran into Andrew, who knew that Austin, Cassi and Emily had booked a hotel room, and had gotten their number. So us five MESPers got to spend one final night together. We all passed out at 7 PM Eastern time watching TV. At 2 AM, I woke up, not sleepy at all. As I stared at the dark hotel room ceiling, I heard Austin stirring next to me. “Are you awake, Austin?” I asked. As it turns out, we had all woken up at the same time. All of us started laughing. We turned the TV back on, and the first commercial I saw was for Subway’s five-dollar footlongs. “30 pounds for a sandwich?” I exclaimed out loud. “Who would pay that?”

My journey the next day is a blur. I remember I was completely exhausted, and that all three of my flights were messed up some way or another – mechanical failures, delays, etc. After my last flight was delayed, I left a message on my parents’ answering machine to let them know. When I got home, my mom played it for me. She couldn’t understand half of what I said, and I couldn’t make it out either. Apparently I was so tired I was talking gibberish.

I also remember that every time I heard someone speaking English in the various airport terminals, I turned my head to see which of my friends was talking. I hadn’t heard anybody but the MESPers speak American English for four months, so who else could it be?

Coming down the escalator in the Des Moines airport to see Dad, Mom and Stella waiting for me there is a memory that will last for a long, long time.

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It’s now been over eight months since I got back, but mentally, I don’t think I ever really left the Middle East. For months, I would have daily flashbacks to my favorite Middle Eastern locales. I missed those places and the friends I had made there so much that it ached. I spent hours organizing and looking at my pictures, making videos out of the recordings I had taken, writing this blog, trying to make falafel, and reading all I could find about the Middle East. I did two independent studies on the Middle East – and speaking of that, taking 20 credits that semester was a bad call. (I finished with seven As and my first C in college or high school. I pulled it together in every class but one.)

I still don’t know if my homesickness for the Middle East is a sign of a permanent calling involving the region, or just young-20s wanderlust, but I intend to find out. I’m keeping up with my Arabic studies, and I’m praying about returning to the region for a while after I graduate in May. Trusting in Allah’s plan is very hard sometimes, but if I learned anything in the Middle East, it’s how important trusting in him is, because making sense of it on our own is hopeless.

“I am the LORD, and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right.

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.’”

- Isaiah 45:18-19, 22-24

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Travelogue: Al-Quds, Filistine, wa Isra'el

Day 15

Jerusalem! We arrived here today by bus at about 4:00. Few things, I think, can help one appreciate Israel's tiny size, and thus, the inherent absurdity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, better than a bus ride from Jordan to Jerusalem. We crossed the whole West Bank in forty-five minutes, tops. It was like driving from my house to Ames.

For those of you who aren't intimately familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let me grossly oversimplify the relevant aspects: West Jerusalem is Jewish, East Jerusalem is Arab, and is part of the West Bank - the territory left over for the Palestinians after they and the Arabs got their farkles (Dr. Dave’s word) handed to them in the 1948 war. When the Arabs got their farkles handed to them again in 1967, Israel took over control of the West Bank. Knowing that they would eventually have to withdraw from the West Bank to make peace, Israel decided to ring the eastern side of Jerusalem with Jewish settlements, hoping that this would allow them to annex all of Jerusalem into Israel proper at the end of the day.

I knew all this before I came here. What I didn't realize was how little land all that complexity actually involves. We crossed the Jordan, and within minutes, we could see the Palestinian stronghold of Jericho in the distance. Seemingly a few minutes later, we were passing by the largest Jewish settlement, Ma'aleh Adummim. Then we were driving through some Palestinian villages, and then bam! We drive underneath a tunnel and come up into East Jersualem.

So, to go back to the Iowa analogy, imagine that the Jews live in West Des Moines, Cumming and Norwalk, and the Palestinians live in Des Moines and Ames. Also, immediately north of Ames is another country. (Just imagine.) Now imagine that the Jews build and inhabit Johnston, Ankeny and Altoona, and then expect the Palestinians to be satisfied with Ames. A) You can't make a country out of Ames, and B) why the farkle are you all fighting over a lunchbreak’s worth of driving time?

So, back to the tunnel. Dr. Dave said, "We're going into a tunnel now. Be prepared for a dramatic view on your left when we come out." We all eagerly looked out the window, ready for some drama. When we came out, all we could see was a big wall along the highway. Then, all of a sudden, the wall was gone, and the Dome of the Rock popped up out of nowhere, along with all of Jerusalem. "That, beloved," Dr. Dave intoned, with obvious satisfaction, "is the kingdom of heaven." Dr. Dave pointed out other minor sights to us on the way through the city: the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, etc.

We are staying at a hospice run by the Austrian Catholic Church in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. (Yes, that Old City - the one in your study Bibles. We walk through the Damascus Gate to get to West Jerusalem, which corresponds to the Fish Gate in my study Bible’s maps). Historically, and theologically - well, it's the Old City of Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa is right outside our hospice. The Western Wall is at the end of our street. The walls that surround us were built by the Romans and the Ottomans. Politically, it's beyond fascinating. The Old City is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish. The Muslim and Christian quarters are the biggest. Almost everyone here is Arab, and the shops display pictures of Arafat and pro-Palestinian T-shirts. But many Jewish nationalists are committed to Judaizing Jerusalem, and have bought property in the area. They can be seen defiantly walking around in their kippas (or yarmulkes in Yiddish) and hoisting the Israeli flag high from their houses. (Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former prime minister, now in a coma, bought a house right next to the Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter. It’s decorated with two-story Israeli flags and a huge iron menorah. Not one for subtlety, that Sharon.) And of course, given the church’s tendency to build churches at every place Jesus is known to have spit, there are churches everywhere. From the roof of the hospice, we can see the whole Old City and beyond. The Dome of the Rock is a long football pass away, and the skyline is dominated by three things: minarets, crosses, and Israeli flags. It's a wonder there isn't more violence here.

After we got settled in, Dr. Dave took us on a brief jaunt around the neighborhood. We stopped by the Western Wall (security there is pretty tight), then took us back past Mt. Zion (where David's tomb and the Upper Room are located), through the Armenian Quarter, past the King David Hotel, the site of an infamous Zionist terror attack in 1948, and up to the 1948 Green Line that marks the start of West Jerusalem.

I think I'm going to like it here.

On the way, we went into an art shop owned by an Orthodox Jew right by the Western Wall. He's a friend of Dr. Dave's, and he gave us a quick spiel on his beliefs. When Alvin and Melissa and I went to a Conservative/Reform synagogue in Sioux City last semester, the rabbi was pretty doctrinally apathetic. It didn't take me long to figure out that I believed in the Jewish Bible more than he did. This guy was completely different. His attitude towards the Hebrew Scriptures was almost (dare I say?) Christian. He sees the establishment of the State of Israel as a fulfillment of the prophecies in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and believes that the hour of the world's redemption is near. He said, "The mission of the Jews is to reveal God to the world through the way we live." Sound familiar? He invited us to come back and talk to him anytime, and I plan to.

The difference between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem (including the Old City) - separated only by a four-lane street - is night and day. West Jerusalem might pass for Chicago, except for the Hebrew signs. East Jerusalem is like - well, it's like Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, and every other Arab city I've been in. Dirty, confused streets, lots of carts and vendors, excitable people congregating all over the place, and food that's about half the price of the food on the West side. Mind you, these are only two hours' worth of impressions, but I think they'll hold pretty well.

CJ, Josh and I explored West Jerusalem on our own for a bit, found a good falafel place, a sweet guitar player performing in the middle of a city square, and, thanks be to God, an ATM that accepted my bank card. This country isn’t under any U.S. sanctions! “I love Israel!” I shouted out loud.

Hilarious story of the day: this morning at devotions in our hotel in Amman, Austin left our group to go grab Dr. Diaa from his room. While he was gone, Dr. Dave told us that when we got close to the border, he was going to ask us if we had all remembered our certificates of circumcision for the border crossing, and just to play along. Well, he did, and we did, and poor Austin was pretty freaked out for a few minutes. I don't really blame him - Israeli border security is pretty frustrating (although they didn't deny us entry because of our Syrian stamps, which is more than Barrett can say about Syria).

Day 16

Today, we visited Yad Veshem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum. It is situated in West Jerusalem, a short cab drive away from the Old City. (A Palestinian cab driver took us there, and an Israeli driver took us back. Interestingly, the Palestinian driver spoke better English.) The museum overlooks a huge forested valley, with prosperous-looking neighborhoods topping the hills in the distance. It’s appropriate, I think, for Israel’s holocaust museum to showcase the beauty of their new national home – kind of a big “**** you!” to the Nazis. A many-pillared archway you walk under to get to the museum entrance is inscribed with Ezekiel 37:14 in English and Hebrew: “I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.”

The museum was somewhat similar to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC that I visited this summer. The biggest difference is that, for the Israelis, the issue is intensely personal, and it shows in the museum. One of the first things we saw on the way in was a rack full of forms in English, Hebrew and Russian (I think). Visitors can fill out the forms with information about a friend or loved one killed in the Holocaust, so they can be added to the museum’s records.

The museum is built in the shape of a long, long triangular prism. In the main hall, two oppressive cement walls angle up towards each other and meet at a skylight. The psychological impact of that architecture is impressive.

The first thing you see on entering the museum is a silent video projected on a wall. The video shows kids playing in a prewar Jewish community in Europe, and it’s accompanied by slow mournful music. Your gut clenches, because you know what’s coming next.

There are too many stories in the museum to grasp. The place is full of little screens showing videos of survivors telling their stories in Hebrew, with English subtitles. What struck me again about the Holocaust is how systematic, accepted, and long it was. People criticize the international community for not intervening in Rwanda in 1994? That genocide lasted a hundred days, and was accompanied by a breakdown of the Rwandan social order. The Holocaust went on for six years, and was methodically implemented, stage by stage, by a (somewhat)-elected government, with the acceptance and support of much of Europe. The depth of humanity’s evil is astounding. Who could line up a bunch of kids at the edge of a trench, and then shoot them randomly, so they fall in, some dead, many wounded and wailing? Answer: we all could.

The nationalist thread in the museum is a bit strong. All the maps label the British territory of Palestine as the “Land of Israel.” The Jewish groups that fought back against the Nazis, from the Warsaw Ghetto to the sonderkommand in Auschwitz, are lionized. One of the quotes on the walls in the Auschwitz exhibit is from a rabbi just before he was gassed: “You will never destroy the Jewish people!” In one of the videos, a man recounts celebrating the Passover in the camp with a friend. They had no bread or wine, so they simply retold the story: “Why is this night different from all others?” “Because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer.” How to make sense of those sayings in a concentration camp? The man decided that, in the Exodus, God had delivered the Jews from spiritual slavery into spiritual freedom, and “no one can take that away from us!” Then he and his friend told each other, “Next year in Jerusalem!” the traditional Passover slogan of the Jews in diaspora. The man in the video then proudly announces that he made it to Jerusalem within a year.

The Allies take quite a beating in the museum. I wasn’t surprised to see them criticized for turning away Jewish refugees in the early days of the war, or for refusing to bomb Auschwitz’ rail lines. I was surprised to see Roosevelt and Churchill criticized for refusing to negotiate with Hitler. Apparently, the Allied declaration that the only acceptable outcome was unconditional surrender precluded negotiations on “side issues” like stopping the slaughter of Jews. It’s fascinating how different peoples can interpret the same events so differently.

Next, the Allies are lambasted for refusing to allow Jewish emigration to America or Palestine after the war’s end. The Jews who defied the British by settling in Palestine after the war are portrayed heroically. The main exhibit ends with a video of the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948.

The most stirring part of the museum comes near the end – the Hall of Names. It’s a huge circular vault that extends far above and below floor level. The vault is filled with shelves, which are filled with black binders, which are filled with the names of the dead. It impacted me in a way that I don’t think a simple list could. About half the shelves are empty – they’re still adding names, I guess.

At the end of the main hall is a balcony that offers a breathtaking view of green, lush, West Jerusalem. Again, I think it’s fitting (and probably intentional) that the long exhibit of Jewish suffering ends with a magnificent view of the Jewish triumph – their resettlement in the land of their fathers. And let me tell you – it is a beautiful land. If only they could triumph at making peace in it.

The last thing I saw at the museum was the Hall of Remembrance. It’s separate from the main hall by a ways. Essentially, it’s a dark room with a granite floor inscribed with the names of all the camps and massacre sites, with a constant flame lighting the place from the front. It was raining, so I had my hood pulled up when I went inside. The man at the door nodded at me in approval. It was only when I was inside that I saw the sign announcing that all male visitors must have their heads covered, and a box of kippas by the door. I guess the hoodie counts.

Something that only struck me after we left Yad Veshem: All the exhibits were in Hebrew and perfect English. Nothing that I saw was in Arabic, even though one-fifth of Israelis are Arab, and there are occupied Arab lands ten minutes away from Yad Veshem. Why not? Why is the museum designed for Israeli and American visitors, and not Arab visitors? Who are they speaking to?

After we returned to the Hospice, Austin, Adam and I set out to the Western Wall for a second visit. We put on the cardboard kippas they provided for us, and got to go up close this time. There were lots of men with huge beards chanting, reading the Torah, and rocking their heads back and forth. (How’s this for white man bliss – I didn’t notice that there were no women praying close to the wall. Emily D. had to tell me later on that the women who come to pray are separated into a different, smaller section by a fence.) Austin and I stuck prayers in the wall like thousands of Jews before us. I addressed mine to Jesus. I hope that doesn’t cause a riot later.

After that, we wandered through the shops of the Muslim quarter for a while. We witnessed our first tussle between Palestinians and Israeli cops in a narrow road close to the Western Wall. We saw some men shoving each other, and then a young Palestinian boy tugged on Austin’s sleeve and said, “The road is closed to Muslims.” He offered to show us another way, and when two more cops with big rifles approached, we agreed. The boy showed us the way back to the Damascus Gate, and we paid him a few shekels for his trouble. Not sure what it was all about, but in Austin’s words, it was time to haul butt, not ask questions.

Today, we saw our first group of Christian pilgrims walking through the streets, carrying a small cross and singing in Spanish. The first, and probably not the last.

Observation: whenever we try to speak Arabic with the Palestinians, they can tell we’ve studied in Egypt. Many of the words we use are distinct to Egyptian Arabic, like the words for “yes,” and “how much?”

Day 17

Today is Barrett the intern’s birthday; at the request of his girlfriend, Brian and I brought him breakfast in bed. Good times.

Today is Friday, so the Jewish Sabbath (shabbot) begins tonight. This morning, we heard from Ophir Yarden, a politically liberal Orthodox Jew (an Israeli paradox, pretty much), who tried to explain to us all the different forms of Judaism in Israel, in preparation for the shabbot celebration at the Western Wall tonight. I mostly learned that Judaism is extremely complicated.

Afterwards, Barrett took us on a walk up to the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is on the east side of the Old City, which places it squarely in East Jerusalem. Depending on your political stance, that makes it either part of Jerusalem, the eternal, indivisible capital of Israel, or part of the West Bank, which is illegally occupied by Israel. Either way, it makes MESP’s insurance company nervous, and we’re only allowed to go halfway up the Mount of Olives. But from the Old City, we can see the proud Israeli flags hoisted over the Jewish settlements on the Mount (most of the people living on the Mount of Olives are Arab).

There are four churches on the side of the Mount of Olives we were allowed to visit. First was a Armenian Orthodox/Greek Orthodox Church holding the tomb of the Virgin Mary and the “grotto of Gethsemane,” a cave where Jesus supposedly retired to pray occasionally. Across the street is the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations, which marks the Catholic church’s traditional location for the Garden of Gethsemane. Up the Mount a ways is a Russian Orthodox Church with golden domes marking their traditional location for the Garden. And halfway up the Mount is the Franciscan Church of Dominus Flevit, which means, “Cry of the Lord,” and marks the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19. Unfortunately, on this visit, all four churches were closed, so we resolved to come back later.

But the view from the Mount of Olives is one of the most spectacular views I found in the Middle East. The entire eastern side of the Jerusalem’s Old City is visible. Most of the western side of the Mount of Olives is covered in ancient whitewashed Jewish tombs. To the south, you can see the Arab neighborhoods standing over the old City of David. Across from the Kidron Valley, the ancient Ottoman walls of the Old City rise above yet more tombs, and past the walls, you can see the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Dormition (where Mary died), and the buildings of West Jerusalem. In the middle of the Old City wall is the Golden Gate, a gate that used to lead into the Temple Mount, where Jewish and Christian tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem, and where Jesus most likely rode through on a donkey during his triumphal entry. In the 13th century, the Muslim Ottoman rulers of Jerusalem, eager to ward off Messiah-pretenders, filled in the Golden Gate, and started a cemetery around the Gate. (Touching a grave makes Jews ritually unclean.) The Gate is still filled in to this day.

According to Zechariah 14, Jesus’ feet will touch down on the Mount of Olives at his return, and split the mountain into two halves. Standing on the Mount of Olives that day, staring at all the tombs and the filled-in gate, I could almost imagine the sky darkening, the earth shaking, Jesus descending to the mount, and then charging down into the Kidron Valley, bringing an army of the dead behind him, and blasting through the Golden Gate to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. George Romero has nothing on the Bible.

(FYI: Christians aren’t the only ones expecting Jesus to return to Jerusalem. As I was writing this travelogue in Des Moines, I came across this passage in The Body and the Blood, an excellent book by Charles Sennott that we were required to read on MESP, which I haven’t finished yet:

In the Islamic eschatology, a false messiah, who will be a Jew, will conquer the world. But in the end, Jesus – whom they call Issa – will return to defeat this false messiah in a battle near Jerusalem, after which Jesus will slay all the swine, smash all the crosses, and proclaim Islam the world’s sole faith. (Pg. 326)

So here, we may say, is the fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam: in Christianity, Jesus is the Creator of pigs. In Islam, he is the destroyer of pigs.)

After we reentered the Old City (the gate leading from the city to the Mt. of Olives is St. Stephen’s Gate, named for the first Christian martyr, who was stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem), we saw a big sign along the road announcing “Birth Place Virgin Mary.” Austin, Esther, Kaeli, Sarah and I had been under the impression that Mary was a native of Nazareth, but having nothing better to do, we decided to check it out. Like Ananias’ house in Damascus, this house, “The House of the Righteous Ancestors of God, the parents of the Virgin Mary, Saints Joachim and Anna,” according to a sign there, is twelve feet below street level. Unlike Ananias’ house, however, this house had a still lower level. Both levels were seemingly carved out of stone, and filled with flowers, icons and offerings of money. I got the impression that Mary was born in the basement, while the living took place in the upper level, but I’m not sure.

On the walk back to the Austrian Hospice, Austin and I bought kippahs for our visit to the Western Wall tonight. Mine is knitted and white with a blue Star of David sewn into the center. It might be my favorite piece of Middle Eastern headgear I acquired this semester. (It has to compete with my kheffiyah and my Iraqi flag hat.) We also came across a covered lane labeled “King Faisal Street.” King Faisal was the king the British installed in Iraq – a kind of consolation prize for the Arabs who had fought with the British against the Ottomans in World War I, and had hoped for a unified Arab nation under Faisal. His brother, Abdullah, became king of Jordan. According to the shopkeeper on the corner, King Faisal Street used to be known as “The Street of the Prophet,” because the prophet came that way on his Night Journey to the Temple Mount.

This afternoon, we had a debriefing session about our visit to the Holocaust Museum. Andrea the intern shared a story about her MESP semester several years ago. When she returned to Egypt after her travel component, she shared photos from Israel with her Egyptian host family. When she came to the photos of Yad Veshem, she was shocked to find that her educated host parents had never heard of the Holocaust. Later, Dr. Diaa explained to her that the same is true of most Egyptians. I wrote earlier about the anti-Semitism we ran across in Egypt. To me, it was one of the most disturbing aspects of the semester.

As sunset approached, we made our way to the Western Wall. I carried my new kippah in my pocket until we reached the wall’s plaza. (Wearing Jewish headgear in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter = not good idea for na├»ve westerners to try.) When we got there, I put on my kippah, and the girls and guys in our group split up and headed down into the fray. And what a fray it was! Jewish men of all ages were crowded down by the wall. Some were reading their Torah from wooden stands erected all along the wall, some were rocking back and forth as they chanted their prayers, some were dancing in big circles singing songs in Hebrew. It was sweet. Thanks to my kippah, most of the men there probably thought I was Jewish. At least one man from Brooklyn who stopped to talk to me did. I explained that I was a Christian, but was trying to show respect for the holy place. That seemed to satisfy him; at the very least, he didn’t scream “Imposter!” and club me with a Torah scroll. In fact, he stayed to talk with me and some of the other MESP guys. He had been raised a secular Jew, but after visiting Israel, decided to stay and study at a yeshiva (Jewish seminary-type thing) in Jerusalem. “This place is amazing, man,” he said, referring to the Temple Mount. “Every prayer in the world, said by any person, comes here before it goes up to God.” I asked him if he thought the temple would be rebuilt. He did, but he wasn’t of the let’s-blow-up-the-Dome-of-the-Rock school of thought. He thought that the world was approaching a time of total enlightenment, when every person would see the world so clearly that free will would become a non-issue; that every person would see every choice perfectly and make the right choice every time. When that happens, he said, the temple will be rebuilt. I guess we’ll see.

After our visit to the Wall, Jon, Scott and I went out looking for good food, and discovered it: Ramanda Pizza, in the Christian Quarter. It’s a great place, if you’re ever in the area. We also accidentally ran into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was crucified and buried. It was closed, so we decided to come back later.

Day 18

This morning, on the road outside the Damascus Gate, a man handed me a booklet entitled, “The Truth Is…,” decorated with stars and planets. Its author is Tarik Ben Shehab, a Muslim evangelist, who wrote the booklet to help Jews and Christians discover “the way of life that is most acceptable to our Creator. A way of life that will provide you success in this world, and in the Hereafter, and save you from the torment of the Hell Fire.”

Some highlights [sic, sic, sic, sic, et al]:

• “If God, in the shape of Jesus, as the holy letters owners allege, died and was buried for three days and three nights, can you tell us who take care of the world and the creatures during that time? Who was controlling the world then?!”

• “In the Bible, there are very strange and awkward stories about many prophets as worshipers of false gods and accusing them of incest, rape and adultery, although all prophet were sent by God for the guidance of mankind. [Tarik here proceeds to detail the seedier aspects of the biblical stories of Lot, Solomon, Aaron, David, Noah, Amnon, Judah, Absalom, Ezekiel, Reuben, etc., periodically interrupting himself to apologize to God for reprinting the sordid tales.] Can any sane or even insane man believe such bawdy stories that besmear the reputation of God Messengers and prophets? Peace be upon all of them. These lines are in their Holy Book (How can it then be Holy?!) How could they attribute such deeds to one of God’s pious and pure prophets. How could they say that David spies on loin his neighbor’s wives while they were naked inside their houses… Then he conspires to send distance the husband of the woman far from the city to call her and to rape her… My question is: How could David then be accepted in the genealogy of Jesus when it started with a person who committed adultery? God forbid it! …Human hands, all too human, had played havoc with the Bible.”

• “Christians say that: ‘The Father (F) is God, the Son (S) is God, and the Holy Ghost (H) is God, but the father is not the son, the son is not the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost is not the father’. In simple arithmetic terms, if F=G, S=G and H=G, then it follows that F=S=H, while the second part of the statement suggests that they are no equal. Isn’t that a contradiction to the Christian dogma of Trinity in itself?!”

After reading that, I said to myself, “Self, we never really thought about this before, but this whole Trinity thing is less-than-straightforward. Let’s be Muslim now.”

Just kidding.

In all seriousness, I found it hilarious that the author of the tract thought that simply pointing out the paradox of the Trinity would be enough to dislodge a Christian like me from his faith, as if I had never thought about it before, as if I hadn’t, in fact, struggled with the idea of the Trinity for my whole life. Has the man ever talked with Christians before? Does he have any understanding of how we think about God? I wonder how often Christian attempts at “playing offense” in apologetics miss the mark similarly.

One final thought (and maybe it will display the same ignorance as Mr. Tarik): for all the pride Muslims take in keeping their prophets human and not making gods out of them like those crazy Christians, they don’t actually treat their prophets very humanly. David was tempted by a beautiful woman? How could that be? He was a prophet! And Mohammad…boy oh boy. When artists in New York put a crucifix in a tank of urine, Christians write nasty letters to the editor. When cartoonists in Denmark draw Mohammad, Danish embassies across the world go up in flames. When a reporter covering the Miss World pageant in Nigeria in 2002 said that Mohammad would have picked a wife from among the contestants, the resulting riots killed over 200 people. They say he’s a human, but try treating him like a human (e.g., drawing his face, or implying that his life is not a perfect guide for every single situation, or saying his name without adding “peace be upon him” afterwards), and you’ll be in a heap of trouble.

I keep venting my prejudices on you guys, and you’re so great about it. Thanks.

Back to the story.

When the man on the street handed me that booklet, we were waiting for our bus, because today, we went to…Bethlehem!

First we went to Mt. Scopus, a Jewish enclave northeast of the Old City, and the location of Hebrew University. Mt. Scopus was actually held by the Israelis in the 1948 war, and remained a Jewish territory throughout the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank. On maps of Israel, the Green Line curves into and out of Jerusalem – plus a little green circle around Mt. Scopus. It’s a little confusing.

From the top of Mt. Scopus, we could see Ma’ale Adummim, the largest Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, to the southeast. Due east of Mt. Scopus was an unsettled area known as E1. The Israeli government has slated it for settlement development. If those settlements are built, Arab East Jerusalem will be almost completely surrounded by Jewish settlements, and cut off from the rest of the West Bank. Since the Palestinians are unlikely to accept a state without East Jerusalem as its capital, this will only make peace more difficult to achieve.

From Mt. Scopus, we took a bus ride through Ma’ale Adummim. It’s a completely different world from the Old City or East Jerusalem. (Not that we got to see much of East Jerusalem.) Huge houses and condos with red roofs, red-brick sidewalks, lush gardens and trees and flowers and lawns, light posts with classy globes at the top. I can see why non-crazy, non-peace-hating people would want to live there.

From Ma’ale Adummim, we drove back through Jerusalem, south to Bethlehem. The road we took ran alongside “the wall,” the massive barrier Israel is building through the West Bank to separate the Palestinians from Israel and the settlements. The rationale for the wall is to protect Israelis from suicide bombers, and the results are hard to argue with. In 2003, fourteen suicide bombings resulted in Israeli deaths. In 2004, there were eight. In 2005, 6, in 2006, 2, and only one in 2007. At the same time, by cutting off all of Jerusalem from the West Bank, and by annexing large swaths of Palestinian land (about 10% of the West Bank) to encompass all the settlements, the wall is doing great harm to the Palestinians. Bethlehem, a Palestinian town (30% Christian and 70% Muslim) only a few miles from Jerusalem, is half-surrounded by the wall. Ominously, the road we took to Bethlehem had huge cement barriers erected every couple of yards, to protect the road from Palestinian rocket attacks. (My mom was not happy when I mentioned that last detail.)

Our bus brought us to Bethlehem University, a university set up by the Catholic Church that serves mostly Muslim students. There, we met a group of Palestinian college students. We split into groups of six or seven, and the students showed us around their town.

I was in a group with Kaeli, Brian and Sarah, and our Palestinian guides were sophomore hijab-wearing Muslim girls named Aya, Sejah and Hadaya. They showed us around their tiny campus, and then took us through their city. Bethlehem is a small town of about 35,000 people, situated in the hills of Judea. And when I say hills, I mean hills. Big ones. (Well, big for an Iowa kid.) Not at all how I pictured it. The steep streets were filled with cars, pedestrians, mules, and food vendors. Old white buildings cling to the hills, with mosques and churches scattered throughout. (According to a National Geographic article I’m reading right now in the States, there are 100 mosques in Bethlehem – or one for every two hundred or so Muslims.) I have a hard time telling Jews and Arabs apart physically, but I can tell the difference between a Jewish town and an Arab town in a second. Interestingly, I saw a lot of Christmas lights. I think they leave them up year-round for the tourists.

Today is November 15, which is celebrated as Palestinian Independence Day. Apparently, on November 15, 1988, Yasser Arafat gave a speech declaring the independence of the Palestinian people. If anyone was looking for a clue that this was a totally symbolic declaration, the speech was given in Algeria.

Still, Bethlehem was decked out in Palestinian and Fatah flags, and huge posters of Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. (Fatah is Arafat and Abbas’ political party/militant group.) I also noticed several posters of children flanked by machine guns, with the Dome of the Rock in the background. I think they were “martyrdom” posters, honoring youths who had been killed by the Israelis, or blew themselves up to kill Israelis. (Pictures of all this are on Picasa.)

Aya, Sejah and Hadaya took us in a cab to their favorite pizza place. (On the way, we passed a sign directing travelers to the “Shepherds’ Fields.”) Brian and I ordered calzones, which surprised us by being gargantuan. Over lunch, we talked to our new friends about life in Bethlehem. Recently, Sejah’s aunt’s house was destroyed by the IDF, who claimed that there was a terrorist inside. Apparently, this happens with some regularity. They referred repeatedly to “the invasion” – e.g., “During the invasion, there was a 24-hour curfew. We could only go out for a few hours every five days to buy food.” Eventually, I gathered that the “invasion” was when the Israelis re-invaded and occupied Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank in 2002 in response to the 2nd Intifada. They told us about the difference between green IDs and blue IDs. Blue IDs are for Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, which Israel treats as a single city, West and East. Blue ID holders are allowed to move between Jerusalem and the West Bank freely. The rest of the Palestinians are issued green IDs, which restrict their movement into Jerusalem and through the West Bank checkpoints. One of the students told a story about sneaking into Jerusalem to pray at the Dome of the Rock with her friend’s mom, who has a Blue ID. On the way to the pizza place, I had seen a Palestinian Authority police station. I asked them about the policemen, but they dismissed it. “They are just there to say, ‘We are here.’” they said. “The Israelis are really in charge.”

Aya, Sejah and Hadaya were great hosts. Later, Danielle told me that some of the Palestinian students in her group were members of Fatah or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The latter is a pretty hardcore terrorist group, and the former isn’t exactly holding peace parades. I didn’t ask my hosts where their political allegiances lay, and in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. They’re great people who made me feel very welcome in their hometown, the birthplace of my Savior, and I’m glad I could get to know them a little bit as people, not as Hamas- or Fatah- or PFLP-supporters, or none of the above.

After lunch, we went to Manger Square in the center of town, which is bordered by the “Bethlehem Peace Center,” the Bethlehem Municipal Authority, the Church of the Nativity (the traditional site of Jesus’ birth), a huge mosque, and a strip mall full of trinkets for tourists. The Peace Center was decorated with a huge banner from the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities that read, “Congratulation: You Win Today Above One Million Tourist Here In Palestine.” I half expected the banner to continue, “Click here to claim your FREE* iPod!” Pretty nice that they passed the one million mark on their “independence day,” eh? It looked like they were setting up for some kind of show – there was a stage set up, Palestinian dabka dance music playing over the loudspeakers, and girls dressed in dancing costumes. But we left before anything really got going.

The Church of the Nativity, I’m told, is the oldest continuously-used church in the world. It was built by the Emperor Constantine, destroyed in a riot, and rebuilt in the mid-500s. The church looks every bit its age. On the outside, it looks pretty much like a stone-block box with crosses on top. A large blue sign on the outside announces the Palestinian National Authority regulations for church visitors: “Enter to the church in descent attire.” “Enter with respect and correctly.” (OK, enough making fun of the language barrier on my part.) “No weapons of any kind are allowed inside.”

The entrance to the church where the Christ was born, surprisingly, is not a huge set of majestic doors. It is a tiny hole in a stone wall that you have to duck your head to walk through. Inside is a darkened, dusky sanctuary without any pews, but with plenty of ancient pillars, wooden rafters, and an altar completely decked out Eastern Orthodox-style. Some of the walls on the inside are decorated with ancient frescoes; most of them are covered in fading white paint.

Next to the ancient sanctuary is a smaller, super-nice, modern Catholic sanctuary called St. Catherine’s Church. (The Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church and Armenian Orthodox Church share – or compete for – control of the compound, and celebrate Christmas mass on three separate days.) In St. Catherine’s, there is an entrance to the catacombs that lie underneath the original church. Down in these dark tunnels, there are several altars and hidden rooms, as well as a group of small tombs behind a grate. According to tradition, some of the babies killed in Bethlehem by King Herod are buried there.

During “the invasion” of 2002, a group Palestinian militants and civilians holed up in the church for a month, while the IDF laid siege to it outside (turning the “peace center” into a headquarters). Using robotic sniper rifles lifted over the church compound with cranes, the Israelis shot and killed seven terrorists and the church’s mentally retarded bellringer, and wounded twenty-two others. Exploring the church, I found an open-air courtyard where I figure some of those killings may have happened, but there were no signs of violence in the church that I could see – just lots and lots of tourists. The wait to see the grotto where Jesus was actually (supposedly) born was multiple hours long, and we didn’t have that kind of time.

Before we left, I checked out the tourist shops along Manger Square. The prices were outrageous by Middle East standards, and they were all in American dollars. When I bought olive-wood Christmas ornaments for my brothers and sister and paid in shekels, the shopowner had to get out a calculator to convert from dollars. Tourism, it’s easy to tell, is a huge part of the economy here, and the Palestinian Authority must be very happy to have at least one holy site on their side of the Green Line. Since violence isn’t really conducive to tourism, it’s no wonder that the mayor of Bethlehem proposed a truce with Israel during the 2nd intifada – until Arafat threatened to put “ten bullets in his chest,” that is.

On the way back to Jerusalem, the bus took us right up to the security wall. It looks pretty grim up close. We passed by a huge guard tower with tiny windows, which linked two arms of the 8-meter high grey cement wall, which was topped with wire, and decorated profusely with graffiti protesting its existence. No matter what you think of it, it’s a pretty depressing sight.

Day 19

Today, we walked through the Jaffa Gate on the west side of the Old City, across the Green Line and the Hinnom Valley, into West Jerusalem, to visit the Menachim Begin Heritage Center. Menachim Begin is quite the character. He started out as the commander of the Irgun terrorist group in Palestine in the 40s. Irgun viewed itself as the “Jewish underground,” and fought against the British “occupying” forces and Arab militants. Its two most infamous attacks were the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (which the British were using as a command post) and the massacre of the Arab village of Deir Yassin during Israel’s War of Independence. When the war was over, Menachim Begin ordered Irgun to disarm in favor of the more legitimate Haganah, which became the Israeli army. Begin then served as the leader of the opposition right-wing Likud party until 1977, when he was finally elected prime minister. As prime minister, he signed the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation (Egypt), encouraged the settler movement in the West Bank, and began Israel’s disastrous war in Lebanon. So he’s a fairly controversial figure. The Heritage Center is privately run by his supporters.

Weirdly enough, while we were waiting for our tour to begin at the Heritage Center, I met a Jewish couple from Des Moines. “Is there anyone you know in Des Moines that you know that we might know?” they asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, going mentally to the first place I normally go to figure out connections. “Do you go to church in the metro?”

“Well, we’re from the Jewish community,” they replied. I internally smacked my forehead. But as it turned out, they did know the superintendent of my (Christian) high school. They offered to call my parents to let them know how I was doing, and I gave them their number. Then we started talking about the MESP program. I told them what we were studying and where we had been. I casually mentioned that we were going to have the Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg speak to us tonight. “Oh, so you’re getting a left-wing perspective then,” the woman said.

Ooh. Was that a touchy subject? “Well,” I offered, “this afternoon we’re going to hear a leader from the settler movement.”

“Oh, so you’re going to get the extreme right-wing perspective too,” she said.

Please stop judging me! I shouted inside my head. I’m a conservative too! You just don’t know it yet! “Yeah, I guess so,” I said, and mumbled something about how the politics of the region were so complicated.

We were split into two groups for the tour. I went in the second group. Later, I learned that my new friend, who had gone with the first group, had lectured my fellow MESPers on how their strapping young Israeli tour guide had been serving his country in the IDF “while you were all off getting your education.” (All Jewish and Druze Israelis are required to serve in the military for several years once they turn eighteen). I think I am probably to blame for that lecture. Anyway, they never did call my parents.

The Center was interesting, but we definitely got the gloss, especially on Palestinian issues. Probably the most interesting part of the Center tour was when we entered a room that had been decorated to look like the small apartment Begin and his wife lived in for decades while he was the minority party leader. I stood by the wall; most of my group sat on the couches in the room. The tour guide then proudly announced that the couches were the actual couches from Begin’s old apartment – which, when put together, doubled as his bed. At least two of the girls on the couch visibly shifted at this announcement. Awk-ward.

After the tour, as I told my new friend, we met with a leader from the settler movement. He was very articulate, and a nice man with a good sense of humor, but like a lot of Israelis, I think he’s seriously in denial about Israel’s situation in the region, particularly its ability to hold on to all the land and remain a free, Jewish state.

We had the afternoon free, so Brian and I decided to explore the Old City a little bit. We discovered the best humus restaurant ever – my mouth is watering right now at the thought of it – and then set off for the “ramparts walk.” At the Jaffa Gate, you can pay eight shekels to go up onto the walls of Old Jerusalem and walk more than half the way around the city. By complete chance, on the way to the Gate, we ran into some of his friends from San Diego, a couple from his church who were touring Jerusalem. We decided to do the ramparts walk together.

The walk reminded me of how weird a city Jerusalem is. You start out on the wall by the Jaffa Gate, with a splendid view of gleaming West Jerusalem, full of nice white buildings and cranes building more nice buildings. Then you get to the north side, and you see East Jerusalem – dirty, mosque-filled, with food vendors and sidewalk shops everywhere. Sandwiched behind and between a bus station, a crappy apartment building, a parking garage and a cemetery on the north side is a hill with two giant holes in it, somewhat resembling the eyes of a skull, which some people (though not most historians) think is the hill of Golgotha. You get to the east side of the Old City, and you have a fine view of Mt. Scopus, cut off from the rest of Arab East Jerusalem like a walled fortress. Finally, you have a splendid view of the Mount of Olives, itself a battleground: Jewish settlements with the Star of David flying high, Arab homes, thousands of ancient Jewish tombs, and a hotel that King Hussein of Jordan built on top of some of those tombs during the Jordanian occupation. And all the while, behind you, is a city stuffed to the gills with ancient churches, mosques, and apartment buildings. The ancient walls of Jerusalem are the fence for some people who have made the roofs of their apartment buildings into backyards.

Brian and I got off the wall on the other side of the city, at St. Stephen’s Gate. Just inside this gate are the excavated pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the crippled man in John 5. (In reality, not just tradition.) The pools are really deep, and you can walk down into them. (They’re mostly empty now.) Walking where Jesus actually walked is a concept that’s hard to get through your head. I can’t say that being there was a moving experience, or that I grasped that this was the place where the story I’ve known my whole life took place on anything but an intellectual level. I’m glad Christianity doesn’t place a huge emphasis on “holy places.” I’d make a lousy Jew or Muslim.

That night, we heard from Gershom Gorenberg, a famous Israeli historian of the settler movement. As my fellow Des Moinesers said, he’s a little left-wing, but I think he’s simply a realist. He emphasized to us the impossibility of continuing to rule over millions of Palestinians, especially considering their far higher birthrate, and summed up his position as, “Israel cannot keep all the land and remain both Jewish and democratic. It has to pick two.” He wants his country to stay Jewish and democratic, and I can’t blame him.

Day 20

Today, we heard from a representative from the Israeli foreign ministry and a US diplomat from the American consulate in Jerusalem. Most of these speakers come to meet us at the Austrian Hospice, which is pretty nice. Usually, they get dropped off outside the Damascus Gate, and Dr. Dave and/or Barrett go to meet them and bring them here.

Afterwards, a big group of us – Sarah, Julie, Chelsea, CJ, Tara, Jeff, Whitney and I – went for another hike on the Mount of Olives. First we saw the Armenian Orthodox/Greek Orthodox compound at the base of the mount. Inside the compound is an underground chapel that holds Mary’s tomb. It’s an empty grave encased in glass inside a giant decorative box covered with tapestries and candles. Most Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, but that three days later, her body was “assumed” into heaven, leaving her tomb empty. Mohammad claimed to have seen a light over the tomb of Mary when he ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount.

The compound also contains the “grotto of Gethsemane,” which (if I understand correctly) is a cave where Jesus used to pray, but a different place from the garden where he was arrested. The Garden of Gethsemane is across the street, in the Catholic Church of All Nations. The Church of All Nations was built after World War I on the ruins of two previous basilicas, using donations from nations across the world (hence the name). Inside the gates of this church is a grove of olive trees. Some of these trees are incredibly old and twisted, and archeologists say that they might actually be two thousand years old. Conceivably, those trees were witnesses to Jesus’ agony before the crucifixion. The rock where Jesus sweated blood (traditionally) is inside the Church, in front of the altar.

Finally, we headed back to the Church of Dominus Flevit, halfway up the Mount of Olives, where tradition holds Jesus wept over Jerusalem during his triumphal entry and predicted its horrific fall in AD 70. The church is really a tiny chapel surrounded by a lush garden with a sweeping view of the Old City. The chapel was designed in the shape of a teardrop. On the inside, draped across the pulpit, is a white banner with “peace” written on it in Arabic, Hebrew and English. There is no crucifix in the chapel, only a simple cross resting on an altar in front of a semi-circle window that gives a perfect view of the Old City.

The garden outside the chapel isn’t the Garden of Gethsemane in anyone’s tradition, but there were plenty of places to sit down there, so we chose to sit there and read the story of Jesus’ arrest from the Bible I had brought along.

Later, we went exploring in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The Jewish quarter is far smaller than the Christian or Muslim quarters, and it has a totally different feel. Mostly, everything is just nicer. There’s no graffiti on the walls, the apartment buildings are classier and better kept-up, and some of the streets are lined with big sycamore trees. Whereas the tourist shops in the Muslim quarter will sell anything – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian – in the Jewish quarter the shops sell exclusively Jewish stuff. Everything is more expensive, too, but I guess no place is perfect.

Day 21

Today, we heard from a Palestinian Christian official from the PLO’s negotiations department, and an Israeli diplomat who worked on potential peace deals at the informal Geneva peace conference. The Palestinian official’s presentation was very effective and interesting, but (I thought) pretty skewed. I used some of the information he gave us to write my papers, and at the same time used my papers to disagree with him quite harshly. I wonder if he honestly believed some of the things he said. Maybe, as the representative of the fairly corrupt and authoritarian Palestinian Authority, he was just doing his job, or maybe as a Palestinian who’s sick to death of occupation, he truly believes his own propaganda. Human beings are complex things.

Today is also the day I bought my infamous “Free Palestine” shirt. There’s no conscious link between the two.

Day 22

Do you ever walk in on the tail end of a super-awkward conversation, and then desperately want to know the rest of the conversation, but you don’t want to ask what they were talking about because the awkwardness is still hanging in the air?

OK, so imagine you’re walking through the ancient tunnels underneath the Muslim Quarter, next to the underground portion of the Western Wall. You’re taking pictures, so you’ve fallen a little bit behind the group. When you catch up to the rest of the gang, you hear the tour guide saying, “Well, I’m sure he was really unbiased. And well-informed.”

Uh, what?

Later on in the tour, when our tour guide – a twenty-something Jewish girl from Connecticut who’d emigrated to Israel – discovered we were all Christian college kids, she asked us, “So, are you all future peacemakers or something?” Almost in unison, we responded, “Insha allah.” (God willing). Which is, of course, a very Arab thing to say.

Now the context, which I didn’t learn until that night.

That morning, we heard from a Catholic priest who’s been working in Jerusalem named Father Bouen. Thomas was asking Father Bouen a question, and started out by saying, “We’ve been in Israel for about a week now...” Father Bouen corrected him: “You’re not in Israel. You’re in occupied Jerusalem.” He then told us that using the correct language was important, because if we called occupied Jerusalem “Israel,” we were effectively supporting the occupation.

Fast forward to the tunnels tour. While I was not there, our tour guide asked us, “So how long have you guys been in Israel?”

Jon responded, “We’re not in Israel.” And, even as the implications of what he was about to say and who he was saying it to were slowly dawning on him and everyone around him, he blurted, “We’re in occupied Jerusalem.”

Tour guide: “Oh. Who, uh, who told you that?”

Jason: “A Catholic priest!” [You know, a representative of the church that persecuted Jews for almost fifteen hundred years, didn’t exactly rush to help during the Holocaust, and didn’t recognize the state of Israel until twenty years after Egypt did so.]

--At this point I catch up with the group.--

Tour guide: “Well, I’m sure he was really unbiased. And well-informed.”

Can you feel the tension?

In my book, Jon gets massive props for saying that, even if he didn’t mean to. And it wasn’t as bad a slip-up as my attire of choice at the Israeli border a week later.

Anyway – the tunnel tour!

What tunnels you may ask? Well. Apparently, there used to be a big valley between the residential areas of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount – the Tyropoeon Valley. When the Ottomans came, they wanted to make the city more defensible, so they filled in the valley with layer after layer of arches, built on top of each other, until the valley was essentially level. The Muslim Quarter was built partially on top of these tunnels. So the Western Wall of the Temple Mount stretches all the way down to the bottom of the original valley. For a nominal fee, you can take a tour of the tunnels that go right alongside the Western Wall underground. Which is what we did.

Here’s something I didn’t know before the tour: the Western Wall is not sacred because it’s the only surviving wall of the temple. It’s a retaining wall of the temple mount, built by King Herod, and in fact, the northern, eastern and southern walls of the Temple Mount are still intact. (I’ve seen the southern and eastern now.) The Western Wall is sacred because it is as close as you can get to the Holy of Holies without actually going onto the Temple Mount. For many centuries, Jews were banned from the Temple Mount by the Romans and Christians, who turned it into a garbage dump. Later, the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the ruins of the temple. Only in 1967 did the Jews retake control of the Temple Mount – and then the rabbis decided that going on the Temple Mount was a violation of Torah law, because you risked desecrating the holy places with your uncleanness. So for two millennia, and until the Temple is rebuilt, the Western Wall is as close as Jews could get to the Holy of Holies – also known as the “Foundation Stone,” the first stone God created when he made the earth. Also the rock where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. And the rock where Mohammad lifted off the ground to go to heaven. (Hence “Dome of the Rock.”) The place on the Western Wall that is directly opposite the Foundation Stone is down in the tunnels. It’s marked with a sign, and there’s a little alcove with prayer books and chairs for Jewish worshippers.

At the end of the tour, we climbed some stairs, and popped out through a stone wall onto St. Stephen’s Gate Street in the Muslim Quarter, the same street we had already walked down half a dozen times. We had walked underneath almost the entire Muslim Quarter on the tour. There’s a lot more to the Old City than meets the eye.

Also today, Jon, Austin and I set off to explore the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the bulk of the historical evidence suggests Jesus was crucified and buried. We had found it by accident earlier, so it was rather frustrating that we had to search the Christian Quarter for about half an hour before we ran into it again. You’d think it would be easy to find, but the Old City is a cramped, strange place. You can’t see anything, no matter how holy or historic, past all the apartment buildings and shops, and the roads don’t go in straight lines. Finally, in a lane filled with crucifixes and really strong incense for sale, we stumbled into an out-of-the-way archway that had “Holy Sepulcher” inscribed above it. We headed through the archway, down the stairs, and into the courtyard of the place where God died.

Not that it looks like that anymore. Golgotha was once outside the walls of the Old City, but now it’s at the center of the Christian Quarter. The hill of Golgotha has an ancient church built around it. You climb the hill by way of a set of stairs inside the church. At the top are two ornate altars – one at the spot where Jesus was nailed to the cross, one where the cross was stuck into the hill. The original hill can still be seen through glass, and pilgrims wait in line to kiss the rock of the hill underneath the altar (if the priest doesn’t force you to hurry up.) At the bottom of the hill is the “Stone of Anointment” – a flat slab of rock with a dozen lanterns hanging over it, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. To the left of the Stone is a huge domed chamber with a giant stone box in the middle. This box is the tomb of Christ (or at least was built on top of it.) You can walk inside the box if you’re willing to stand in line for two hours, which we weren’t. For me, it was enough just to be there.

Our Western Wall tour guide wasn’t the only Israeli we rankled today. Tonight, we took a bus to Mt. Scopus, to visit Hebrew University and meet some of the students there. Mt. Scopus can be seen from the Austrian Hospice, but due to security checks, the trip to Hebrew University took over half an hour. Hebrew University, a Jewish island on the Arab side, is virtually a fortress. Huge cement walls ring the campus, which is already elevated above the rest of Jerusalem. The buildings are constructed so defensively they almost fold in on themselves – walls at weird angles, small windows, large basements. The interior of the campus is almost completely shielded from the rest of Jerusalem by buildings. It’s a pretty campus, but dang.

The student who gave us a tour of the campus took us to a perch that overlooks the Old City, and pointed out the place in the valley below where Jordanian forces massacred seventy Jews in a hospital convoy during the 1948 war, in retaliation for the Deir Yassin slaughter. Later, we walked by the cafeteria. Outside the cafeteria is a tree planted at a 45 degree angle to the ground. The students told us the tree was a memorial to the nine students and professors who were killed in the cafeteria when an Arab construction worker blew himself up there in 2002.

After the tour, we met with a larger group of Israeli students, and broke up into small groups, just like we did at Bethlehem University. Unlike in Bethlehem, however, we weren’t given a chance to hang out and get to know our Israeli peers. Instead, we were handed a sheet with discussion questions – lighthearted topics like, “What do you think of the wall?” “Should Israel have withdrawn from Gaza?” “Does America have the right to interfere in Israel’s affairs?” Oi! It was rough. The Israeli students we met with were nice and all, but they were, understandably, pretty defensive about their country. In Israel, everyone is required to serve in the military for two or three years once they turn eighteen, so while we were all at the same place academically, the Israeli students were years older, and had already served their country. Some of them fought in the Lebanon War in 2006; some fought in Gaza before that. And now they’re living on the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A half-dozen terrorist groups have them marked for death simply because of their race, and if the terrorists ever get the upper hand over Israeli security, they’ll be the first to experience the consequences. And here I come, a 20-year-old American schmuck, traveling outside North America for the first time in my life, having lived in perfect safety my whole life, and I’m supposed to tell them how I think their country should be acting?

It was a bad format, to say the least. In Bethlehem, we were free to explore the city with our peers. If we had been split into groups with the Palestinian students and saddled with questions like, “What do you think of Hamas?” or “Is suicide bombing justifiable?” or “Who’s to blame for the 2nd intifada?,” it would have been just as awkward. I suspect that the student leaders who organized the meeting were less concerned with cross-cultural interaction than with helping to clear up any “misunderstandings” we might have about Israeli policy.

At any rate, the students in my group didn’t give any ground. The Palestinians aren’t really a people. They were offered their own state, but they need the war to define themselves. The Palestinians can’t go to the homes they had before 1948, but neither can the Jews. History moves on, and we should just get over it. Since they all took such a hard line, I assumed they must be right-wingers. Later, I asked one of them if he was going to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, the most hawkish, right-wing candidate, in the upcoming February elections. He gave me a look that said are you crazy? and said, “No. Never.” He was a liberal! He and his friend, who had also been in my group, proceeded to rip into Bush, Reagan and Sarah Palin, and talk about the huge dangers of global warming and the trickle-down theory. Israel is as diverse politically as the United States, but when it comes to security, there’s a lot of unity. When the attack on Gaza started in late December, I read that 95% of Israeli Jews supported it. I guess when suicide bombers are targeting your malls and rockets are landing on your towns, national security debates become a little less theoretical.

After the incredibly awkward meeting, we all took our bus out to a bar in West Jerusalem, where we could be more relaxed. (Our Israeli friends drank; we had Cokes.) I was a little surprised when the guy sitting across from me started talking about his female roommates. And I got the chance to correct his impression of Cairo, where he’s never visited. During our conversation about why none of the MESPers were drinking, he asked me if there were a lot of bars and clubs in Cairo where we could go if it weren’t for our program’s rules. “Isn’t it a Western city?” he asked. Maybe by the standards of the Arab world.

Day 23

Today we took a lightning-fast bus tour of the Golan Heights, Capernaum, and Nazareth. We piled on the bus in the morning and drove north through the West Bank and Israel alongside the Jordan River up into the Golan Heights, a green plateau between Israel and Syria northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Before the 1967 War, the Syrians would shell Israel from the Heights. So in the general butt-kicking that was the 1967 War, Israel made a point of capturing the Golan Heights (along with the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.) Syria tried and failed to take back the Heights in the Glorious Arab Victory of the 1973 War. (They, along with Egypt, managed to inflict serious casualties on the Israelis for the first time in history – hence the “victory” handle.)

Since then, the Golan has been pretty quiet. All the same, driving through the Heights, I felt like I was in a war zone more than I had anywhere else in the Middle East. The first rest area we stopped at, just south of the Heights, featured some old Jordanian tanks as decorations, painted an Israeli white and blue. At one point on the way up, we were close enough to Jordan to see a Jordanian flag flying high from a military base on a hilltop on the other side of the river. Once we got into the Heights, it wasn’t unusual to see Israeli military convoys driving around – jeeps, hummers, tanks. We passed by old fortifications used in the war, and multiple bombed-out mosques covered in Hebrew graffiti. We drove through a stone roadblock and past an Israeli war memorial. At one point, our Dutch tour guide, Vince, pointed out the window to the left and said, “See the yellow signs? That’s an active minefield.”

Our destination was Mount Bental, a hill near the Syrian border with the Heights. It was used as a bunker by the Israelis during the ’67 and ’73 wars, and now serves as a lookout point for tourists, featuring postmodern art sculptures by one Yoop de Yang, a magnificent view of Lebanon, Mt. Hermon, Syria, and the UN-controlled DMZ between the Israeli lines and the Syrian lines, and the “Kofi Annan” coffee house. (“Annan,” I’m told, is the Hebrew word for clouds. So you get “Coffee in the Clouds” and a nifty dig at the former UN secretary-general at the same time). Mt. Bental was surrounded by multiple anti-tank ditches, huge ruts in the ground that apparently are hard to drive tanks over. We were there on a cloudy day, but the view from the top was indeed breathtaking. Mt. Bental and Mt. Hermon rise above the mostly flat surrounding plateau, and we could see the shadows of the clouds moving across the land. Vince pointed out a valley to the east of Mt. Hermon where the Israelis and Syrians fought a huge tank battle in 1973.

The Israeli bunker was mostly preserved, which was a lot of fun. The old trenches, barbed wire and machine gun nests are still there, and you could go inside the hill to see the old living quarters and lookout posts. I got a great picture of Syria seen through a narrow window in the side of the bunker.

After Mt. Bental, we drove south towards the Sea of Galilee, and stopped to see a bridge that links Israel to the Golan Heights over the Jordan River. I don’t know what it looked like in Bible times, but today, it looks like a creek. Hardly a reliable natural boundary. But, hey, it’s the Middle East. Any water is good water.

From there, we headed to Capernaum, on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum, as far as I could see, is essentially a museum/archeological dig run by the Franciscans. There’s a monastery, a big ‘ol statue of St. Peter holding the keys to the kingdom, and a lot of flower gardens. There’s also a remarkably well-preserved synagogue from the fourth century, which is built on top of the synagogue Jesus preached at. You can still see the stones from that synagogue. We also saw a ruin which is claimed to be Simon Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was healed by Jesus. Instead of building a gigantic church on top of it (like they have everywhere else), the Catholics here were really considerate and built the church above it. It’s a church shaped like a flying saucer which is held above Peter’s house by huge pillars. You’ll have to look at the pictures of it I have on Picasa – it’s pretty amazing.

When we were done looking at those sites, we had a whole fifteen minutes to spend at the Sea of Galilee. It’s pretty small – I could almost see the opposite side – and it’s surrounded by green hills. Barrett pointed out one hill that seemed to have a giant “U” cut into it. He told me it was the “Horns of Hittin,” where Salah al-Din massacred the Crusaders in a decisive battle. While we were down by the water, goofing off like the bunch of college kids we were, tormenting crabs and jumping across rocks on the water, a huge bank of dark clouds rolled in over the Sea, and then parted just a little, letting in streams of brilliant sunlight. It was quite a sight.

After the Sea of Galilee, we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes, which is the traditional location of the Sermon on the Mount. The Franciscans have been here, too: they built a smallish octagonal chapel on the hill, and filled it with palm trees and gardens. Kaeli took out her Bible and started to read the Sermon on the Mount, and a group of us gathered to listen.

Finally, we drove through Galilee to Nazareth. Galilee is a lot greener than Judea, and a lot more Arab than most of Israel proper. Large parts of Galilee were set aside for an Arab state in the UN partition plan of 1947, but when the Arab armies tried to wipe out the Jews, the Jews put an end to that idea. Still, it’s interesting to be driving through Israel and see huge minarets jutting up from the hills.

We drove through Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, but didn’t stop. (We were in a hurry.) Finally, we got to Nazareth. Nazareth today is split into an Arab section and a Jewish section (known as Upper Nazareth). We visited the Arab section, where the Catholic Church of the Annunciation is. The “Annunciation” in question is Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah. The current version was built in 1969, and is really beautiful. The first floor of the church is built around an open archeological dig containing a house from first-century Nazareth. It may or may not have been Mary’s house, but according to archeologists, Nazareth at the time of Jesus probably only had 150 families living in it, so the odds are relatively decent. (Nazareth today has over 35,000 people. I often think we don’t realize just how much the world has grown in the past few millennia. According to the textbook for one of my politics classes this semester, invasions and conquests are less likely today, because the increasing population and complexity of most countries is making it harder and harder to do, which is why even the Soviet Union and America, and Israel for that matter, have such a hard time doing it.)

The second floor of the church contains the actual sanctuary of the church, which is pretty in a non-traditional kind of way. The sanctuary (and the church courtyard) display paintings of Mary from around the world. Most of them are pretty, but I personally thought the American Mary was frickin’ ugly. USA Mary is made out of gold and tin foil, and hovering in the air in front of a background of flames. “Dr. Doom Mary,” I called her.

After the Church, we had some time to explore Arab Nazareth. We found some great food and ice cream places. Most of the stores have signs in Hebrew and Arabic. It’s probably the nicest Arab town I’ve been to.

Then it was back to Jerusalem, for another night of sleep in the city where Jesus conquered death.

Day 24

Today, we had a tour of the Old City from a brilliant American tour guide named Brian. (No relation to my awesome roommate.) First he took us to the area around the Temple Mount. He showed us some steps at the south end of the Temple Mount, which used to lead up into the Temple, and told us that teachers of the law would gather on those steps to teach the people, which makes it very likely that Jesus taught on those same steps. He also showed a place where an arch in days past connected the Temple Mount to the rest of Jerusalem across the Tyropoeon Valley (most of which was filled in by the Ottomans). Brian told us that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, a group of Jews gathered in the Temple Courts under the leadership of a false Messiah named Jesus, who told them to sing psalms to fight off the attackers. It didn’t work so well, and the Jews stampeded down the ramp, many of them falling and being crushed. The arch isn’t there anymore, but there are paving stones from the first century, where archeologists found the bones of some of those poor souls. Brian also showed us a replica of the stone from the pinnacle of the temple, where they used to blast the trumpet to announce the beginning of the Sabbath, and where Satan brought Jesus to tempt him. The stone was thrown down by the Romans, and is now kept in a museum somewhere. The replica is pretty cool though.

After that, Brian took us to the City of David. The original city of Jerusalem that David conquered from the Jebusites is now outside the walls of the Old City, on the southern slope of Mt. Moriah. Today most of it is covered by an Arab neighborhood, except for the Israeli archeological park there. Brian took us through Hezekiah’s tunnel, which was built by King Hezekiah to carry water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, so that the water supply would be protected during sieges (II Chronicles 32:30). The tunnel is long and dark and still has water running through it. We took off our socks and shoes and waded through the 3,000-year-old tunnel, all the way to the Pool of Siloam. It was kind of claustrophobic and creepy, because there were a limited number of flashlights and we couldn’t really see where we were going. I’m afraid I swore at Brian C. once for trying to scare me, but he definitely deserved it.

After the long odyssey through the darkness, we came up into the light at the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus told the blind man to wash to be healed (John 9:1-12). Archeologists didn’t discover this pool until 2004, amazingly. My childhood imaginings notwithstanding, it wasn’t like a pool you could swim in – it was basically a narrow stone rectangle filled with water.

From there, we went up to a collection of recently uncovered ruins in the park that some believe to be the site of King David’s palace. It’s covered in a giant canvas, and you can walk around the ruins on a raised walkway. From the top, you can see down in the Kidron Valley and across to the surrounding hills. I might have had the same view that David did when he saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof. Brian says you can’t just “see” the Holy Land like you see Disneyland, because new things are always being discovered. Brian also pointed to an area of ground covered in ashes and burnt dirt. He claimed that it was the spot where Arab militants had burnt down one of the archeology buildings in the park. In the Middle East, archeology is a pretty contentious subject. (The most extreme Muslims won’t even admit that the Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount.)

One more thought: The City of David is tiny. Check it out on the maps in your NIV study Bibles. You can walk around the whole Old City in a couple of hours, max, and the City of David is a fraction of that.

Finally, Brian took us north of the Old City to the Garden Tomb, Protestantism’s answer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Discovered in the 19th century, it’s a tomb cut in the side of a hill that looks vaguely like a skull, thanks to the holes and depressions in its side. Golgotha – the place of the skull? Maybe. Currently, the “mouth” of the skull is covered up by a bus station and the top of the hill is covered in barbed wire. A green minaret blocks the view a little, also. But some Christian organization bought the site with the tomb, and has restored what they believe to be the original garden. (According to John’s gospel, Jesus was crucified in a garden, and placed in a tomb in the same garden.) If you block out the barbed wire fence running along the top of the hill the tomb is cut into, the tomb is exactly how you might picture it: a little rectangle cut into a sheet of tan rock in the hillside with a stone-carved resting place on the inside. It may not be the actual site, but it probably looks a lot more like the actual site did than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher does. A crude cross is carved into the rock outside the tomb entrance, and a red cross is painted on the inside of the tomb, which some take as a sign that this was a Crusader worship place long before the Protestants discovered it.

After going inside the tomb, we gathered in one of the canvases in the garden and Brian led us through some worship songs and performed communion – the only communion we had during the semester. We were briefly interrupted by the call to prayer. As we were walking out, I heard something I didn’t hear last Friday night: a siren announcing the beginning of the Jewish sabbath. Christians have bells, Muslims have singers, Jews have sirens. Go figure.

To end the day, we stopped at the best kofta place in Jerusalem, a stand outside the Damascus Gate. I’ve never had onions quite so juicy, pita bread so warm, or beef so sizzling. Mmmm.

Day 25

Today, Brian the tour guide took us to see some sights in southern Israel. First we went east from Jerusalem on the road to Jericho, and stopped at an old Crusader castle. It’s not nearly as impressive as the Krak de Chevaliers – it’s just a few crumbling stone structures half-buried in the Judean sands. But it’s on a hill from which Jerusalem, Hebron and Ramallah are all visible, which is pretty cool.

Next, we drove south through the West Bank, back into Israel proper, past the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the most important archeological find of the 20th century (“Look out the window guys!”), and finally arrived at the ancient Masada fortress. This might be my favorite place in Israel. King Herod built the fortress on a huge stone mesa almost as high as the Sears Tower on the west shore of the Dead Sea. When the Jews revolted against the Romans a generation after Christ, Jewish rebels seized the fortress and held it until 73 AD, three years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The Romans eventually built a huge earthen ramp all the way to the top. When it became clear to the Jews that the Romans would take the fortress, they killed their families and drew lots to see who would kill whom and who would be stuck killing themselves in the end. And the next morning, the Romans entered the fortress and found a bunch of dead Jews.

Not surprisingly, Masada plays a huge role in Israel’s sense of identity. IDF soldiers used to be sworn into the service at Masada, pledging, “Masada shall never fall again.” (Eventually, it was decided that this was too death-cultish, and today IDF soldiers are sworn in at the Western Wall.) Before we went up to the top of the fortress, we watched an introductory video in the museum at the base of the mesa. The video featured a narrator interviewing various Israeli archeology professors about Masada’s history. It was originally recorded in Hebrew, and the version we saw was dubbed over in English. Well, no translation is perfect, and when discussing something as morbid as Masada, that becomes obvious. At the close of the video, the narrator approaches one of the professors on top of Masada and asks his opinion of the Jewish fighters’ mass suicide. The English translation of his response went something like, “Well, clearly they were facing capture and slavery at the hands of the Romans. Slavery or death. What would you choose?” At this point, the narrator turns to the audience and gives us a meaningful stare. (And I thought to myself, “Well...slavery?”) In Hebrew, it’s probably really inspiring. In English, it’s really, really creepy. There’s a fine line.

After that rather awkward introduction to Israeli-government-sponsored-ultranationalism, we hiked the 350 vertical meters to the top along the infamous “Snake Path.” (Josephus Flavius: “He that would walk along it must first go on one leg and then on the other; there is also nothing but destruction in case your feet slip, for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind.” There’s a guardrail there today.) The view from the top of Masada is completely worth it. You can see miles of flat desert in every direction, plus the slowly-disappearing Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan beyond it. You almost get a sense of vertigo.

Looking around the base of the mesa from the top, several huge squares can be seen in the ground, along with a thin line running all the way around Masada. These are the remains of a wall and fortresses built by the Romans. The ramp they used to break into Masada is still there too. Kind of eerie.

It was at Masada that we learned the difference between archeological sites under Egyptian jurisdiction, and sites under Israeli jurisdiction. Upon getting to the top, and seeing a bunch of 2,000-year-old stone walls lining the edge of the mesa, we naturally ran over and climbed up on top of them to get a better view of the sweeping deserts before us and the 1,000-foot drop below. Later, we found out that there’s a 1400-shekel ($350) fine for climbing on the ruins. Oops. Luckily, no one called us on it (although I believe Brian got yelled at).

In its time, Masada was home to not only a military fortress, but a winter palace for Herod named “Gondor.” (Completely serious.) Gondor came equipped with huge water cisterns and food reserves, not to mention bath houses, which explains why the Jews were able to hold out for so long. Today, the bath houses are still mostly intact, but most of the other walls have crumbled a lot. Still, it’s not too hard to imagine Gondor in its glory days. The view was nice, that’s for sure. There were also ruins of an ancient synagogue and Byzantine monastery at the top, which was pretty cool to see.

After we climbed down from Masada, we drove north a ways to En Gedi, a beautiful oasis in the dead Judean hills. It was here that David hid from Saul (and cut off a piece of his robe in a cave where he was relieving himself – see I Samuel 24.) Today, En Gedi is an Israeli national park. The oasis is located in a wedge cut out of the hilly desert. Springs at the top of this wedge turn into waterfalls and streams that run all the way down to the Dead Sea, making the whole area green and lush. En Gedi is also home to some of the coolest wildlife I’ve ever seen – the hirex, which is an adorable chubby tree-dwelling rodent, and the ibex, which is like a miniature horned goat. They are native to Palestine, but went extinct in the area during the millennia between the Jewish exile and the restoration of the Jewish state. So Israeli special forces teams raided Iran to steal some of their ibexes and restart the population. How cool is that?

Brian, Jon, Barrett and I went swimming for all of fifteen minutes in one of the pools, before the rangers yelled at us to leave because the park was closing. No matter. After hiking up Masada, it felt amazing.

Day 26

Sunday. Aaron, Whitney, Cassi and I walked to San Savior Catholic Church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City to attend the services there. The priest who delivered the mass was an Iraqi refugee, who was kind enough to introduce himself to us. Other than that (and the fact that it was in Arabic), it was a lot like the Catholic services I’ve gone to in Alton with Jake and Piper. From its internal design, the church could have been in America.

After the service, we met up with a group of Palestinian Christian kids our age who attended the church. (Andrea the intern arranged the meeting.) They took us back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and were able to explain a lot of the things that had confused me the first time I was there. Later, they took us to a really great shwarma restaurant run by Christians near the Jaffa Gate. After lunch, they promised to take us to their favorite secret hangout places. To my mild surprise, we headed out west through the Jaffa Gate into West (uber-Jewish) Jerusalem. We visited an extremely expensive mall in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), and then walked to a park on the other side of the valley. On the way, we passed the King David Hotel, which Menachim Begin and crew bombed in the forties.

The park was pretty nice. It had lots of athletic courts and flower-covered walkways. Like true college students, we spent most of our time on the playground. I was surprised to find a small-scale replica of the Liberty Bell in the center of the park. (Later, I discovered that the park was named “Liberty Bell Garden.”) Later, we found a rest area along a sidewalk that overlooked the Old City and the hills beyond. We taught each other stupid old school youth group games and played them until the sun went down. I’m pleased to report that even with a cultural divide in place, such games are pretty good at bringing out people’s personalities. Or maybe Palestinians are just a lot less reserved than Americans. Probably both.

When darkness fell, we headed back to the Old City, acting pretty juvenile on the way – climbing on walls, skipping through the streets singing Arabic songs – you know, dumb stuff like that. Along the way, I noticed that some of the elderly people passing on the street giving us sidelong glances. And all of a sudden, I felt a newfound connection with these brothers and sisters of mine. They’re Palestinian, I’m American. But when it all came down to it, here we were, a bunch of obnoxious Christian teenagers rampaging through West Jerusalem, annoying all the old Jewish people. Classic.

Day 27

This might be my favorite day of the semester. Our last full day in Jerusalem, I seized it with a relish.

In the morning, Barrett the intern took us to visit the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. There are two entrances to the Temple Mount: one for Muslims, and one for infidels. The infidel route is a huge covered ramp that runs from the south entrance to the Western Wall plaza, up past the Western Wall, and onto the Temple Mount. On the wall beside the metal detectors we had to go through to get onto the ramp, there was a huge green sign declaring, “Announcement and Warning: According to Torah law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site. – The Chief Rabbinate of Israel.” Too bad I’m a Christian, suckas! Everything is permissible!

The ramp afforded us a nice view of the Western Wall on the left side, and Israeli archeological excavations on the right side. Halfway up the ramp, there was a huge stack of police riot shields. Always prepared, and for good reason.

The Temple Mount today is covered in a huge white platform, with the Dome of the Rock at the very center, and the Al Asqa Mosque at the southern edge. The Dome of the Rock, as I mentioned before, is a shrine built over the rock from which Mohammad ascended to heaven via winged horse and met with all the prophets. Jews believe that this same rock is the Foundation Stone, the first part of Earth God created, the stone on which Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and the site of the Holy of Holies of the First and Second Temples. That last part is pretty much known to be true, but I can’t attest to the rest. Being built over the ruins of the Jewish temple, and designed vaguely like a Christian church, the message of the Dome of the Rock is pretty clear. But in case you didn’t get it, the Muslims have inscribed a passage from the Qur’an around in the interior of the dome:

“O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not 'Three' - Cease! (it is) better for you! - God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son. ... Whoso disbelieveth the revelations of God (will find that) lo! God is swift at reckoning!”

Not that we were able to see the interior of the Dome. Only Muslims are allowed inside. We did peek through the doors, though.

I didn’t notice it at the time, but Britta and Brian told me about it later, and I found it in some of the pictures I took: the western side of the Dome of the Rock has some bullet holes in it. I think it’s from a 1982 machine gun attack by an American-born Israeli reservist, which killed two Muslims and wounded nine more. Security, I think, has improved noticeably since then. Besides the metal detectors and the riot shields, we saw several armed Israeli soldiers stationed on the Mount.

On the eastern side of the Temple Mount, the huge white platform ends and drops off into a wooded area that’s filled with old broken-down mithrobs and, well, trash. Also, I noticed that some stickers and posters with Arabic writing had been plastered on some of the walls of the Dome of the Rock and the other structures around it, some of which had been partially scraped off. Even though I’m not a Muslim, that kind of bothered me. C’mon, people. Really?

When we had seen enough, Andrew, Scott, Chelsea and I left the Mount through a tunnel that leads back to the Muslim Quarter. Once we had gotten our bearings, we set off to explore the Armenian Quarter. (If you’re confused about why there’s an Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, I was at first too. Apparently, Armenia was the first nation to become Christian, thirty years or so before Emperor Constantine converted, and huge numbers of Armenians made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and have remained there ever since.) We had been told that there was a museum to the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, and since we had heard all about that in Turkey, we decided to check it out – but it was closed. We did see plenty of posters detailing the genocide with maps, figures and contemporaneous news reports. We found the art shop of the world-famous Sandrouni brothers, and a church built in the design of a synagogue by a group of British Christian Zionists in the early twentieth century.

From there, we went to explore the area just south of the Old City known as Mt. Zion. It’s not actually Mt. Zion from the Bible, but people call it that for some reason. It was inside the walls of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, but like the City of David, it’s outside the Old City (as defined by walls the Ottomans built in the 16th century.) Unlike the rest of the Old City, Mt. Zion was held by the Israelis in the 1948 war, and there’s a lot of Jewish stuff there. We passed by a building with a sign that read: “The Sephardic Synagogue of Mt. Zion, Estab. During the War of Independence 1948.” We also passed by a mini-Holocaust museum, which we didn’t go into.

First we visited Dormition Abbey, a church built on the site where Mary the mother of Jesus died, or “fell asleep.” It’s a beautiful church. I’d seen it before, both from West Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, because it’s really tall compared to the rest of the Old City. It has a huge blue conical dome and a separate white clock tower. On the inside is a huge sanctuary filled with blue light from stained-glass windows. According to sacred-destinations.com, there’s also a “lower-level crypt,” which is “the traditional site of Mary’s home and death.” We didn’t see that crypt. (Man, that woman had a lot of houses.)

Our primary mission in Mt. Zion was to find the Tomb of David. When we started seeing all the Jewish buildings and found a bronze statue of David playing a harp, we figured we were on the right track. Mt. Zion is a less-than-straightforward place, however. Once, we thought we had found the right place when we wandered into a building off the narrow alleyway marked with a sign that read, “King David Psalm and Prayer Room.” The man standing by the doorway told us in broken English that the tomb was upstairs (I think). We stepped inside, and found a lot of paintings and a tiny well labeled “Holy water,” but no stairs anywhere. We stood around awkwardly for a few seconds, drew a pail of holy water, dumped it back in, and left, but not before the old man tried to get us to make a donation – which we declined to do. If you’re confused, well, so were we.

Finally, we turned a corner and by chance ran into a room marked with a small brown sign, “Ministry of Religious Affairs: Tomb of King David.” Score! We walked into the room, which was covered with low vaulted ceilings. Like most Jewish holy places, the women and the men have to worship separately, so Chelsea took the hallway that led to the women’s half, and the rest of us donned the site’s complimentary cardboard kippahs and headed into the men’s section. David’s tomb is a giant coffin covered in a blue cloth decorated with Hebrew lettering, crowns, a ram’s horn, and, oddly enough, a violin. The stone wall behind the coffin is blackened, possibly from fires in earlier conquests, or maybe just centuries of worshippers burning candles there.

After the Tomb of David, our secondary mission was to find the Upper Room, the traditional site of the Last Supper and Pentecost. It took us a long time, a lot of wandering, and one exit used as an entrance for us to realize that the Upper Room is on top of the Tomb of David. (Crazy coincidence, huh?) In fact, we actually walked through the Upper Room without realizing it, because it’s filled with Islamic inscriptions and artwork, including a mithrob pointing towards Mecca. The Muslims had turned it into a mosque honoring the tomb of David (one of their prophets) in the sixteenth century. Realizing our mistake, we returned to the Upper Room to take pictures and enjoy our hard-won discovery.

I later found out, a) according to the Bible, David is buried in the City of David, which is relatively far east of “Mt. Zion,” b) the structure that contains both “the Tomb of David” and “the Upper Room” dates only to the Crusader period, while some parts of it may date to a 1st or 4th century synagogue or church. In other words – not quite. Sometimes Holy Land sightseeing can be discouraging. At least those places have been revered as the real thing for centuries, which is still pretty cool.

After seeing all that Mt. Zion had to offer, Chelsea, Scott and Andrew headed back to the Old City. I had heard about the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, which holds some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and really wanted to go, but it looked really far away on the map and no one else wanted to go with me. So I said to myself, “Self? When are you going to be in Jerusalem again?” And I decided to walk there by myself.

If you’ve never explored a totally foreign city by yourself with only a tourist map to guide you, I highly recommend it. Not only is there always cool stuff to see in a foreign city, but you feel super adventurous and hardcore. It took me an hour to get to the Museum, walking streets I had never seen before and hoping that they corresponded to the ones on my map. But my first stop in West Jerusalem was a huge windmill on the hill across the Hinnom Valley. As a Dutchman, its presence in Jerusalem had mystified me, and I felt it calling to me my whole time in Jerusalem. I climbed the hill where it sat perched, and discovered that the windmill was part of some Israeli heritage site. According to the sign there, it’s part of Mishkenot Sheananim, “the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem (1860). It was successfully defended by the Haganah during the disturbances of 1929, 1936-1939 and during the War of Independence. Its strategic location greatly enhanced the Eastern defenses of the city.”

West Jerusalem is a pretty amazing city. I walked for miles through residential areas that looked a lot like some nice Californian suburb (give me palm trees, nice houses and unflat ground, and I think California, OK?) until I came to a four-lane road, beyond which the city simply stopped. In its place was a huge valley filled with trees. In the heart of the valley was the Monastery of the Cross, an eleventh century church built over the place where the tree that Jesus’ cross was made from originally stood. (According to tradition, of course.) On a hill to the northwest of the valley is a huge boxy warehouse-like building with a huge Israeli flag flying from it. Readers, place your bets on what this structure is – NOW!

Knowing the general direction I needed to go, and figuring that a wooded valley was just as good as a four-lane road, I set off into the woods, came up on the other side of the valley, and by sheerest good fortune, found the Israel Museum. Most of the exhibits were closed, but after four weeks of sightseeing, I wasn’t in the mood for regular ‘ol museum stuff anyway, and the biggest attractions were still open, so I paid the entrance fee and headed in. Not having any weapons on me, I didn’t stop by the desk below the sign announcing, “CHECK WEAPONS HERE.”

The first sight inside the Museum is a huge scale model of Jerusalem as it existed in AD 70. The second sight is a fountain that looks like a huge white Hershey’s kiss, built next to a huge granite wall. The white and black represent the apocalyptic struggle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness,” as described in the theology of the Essene sect in Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The huge white Hershey’s kiss is, in fact, the Shrine of the Book, which keeps fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display. Photography inside was banned, but I got to see the Temple Scroll, a twenty-something-foot-long scroll detailing how the Essenes thought the Jewish Temple should be built and run, and many other scrolls composed by the Essenes. The Shrine also houses the oldest known copy of the book of Isaiah. Dated to 100 BC, it’s a thousand years older than any other known copy. I didn’t get to see it, but I did get to see its replica. If that weren’t enough, the Shrine also holds the Aleppo Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible in the world, dating to the 10th century. I couldn’t see that either, but I learned a lot about it and its near-miraculous history of survival.

For lunch, I bought a hog dog with hummus from a stand near the museum whose owner was listening to “Holiday” by Green Day on the radio. It was delicious. I then set out to confirm my suspicion that the gigantic warehouse I had seen from across the valley was, in fact, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament building. My suspicions were confirmed. Two points for all you bright people out there. Israel has the best military in the world, the coolest archeological sites in the world, and the ugliest parliament building in the world.

The entrance to the Knesset was blocked by huge glass doors and fifteen-high-foot fencing. I sat down on a stone wall near the entrance to consult my map and plan my next move. This earned me a visit from one of the M-16-wielding security guards. (A while ago, this might have fazed me, but now I’ve eaten at cafes where teenage Israeli girls at the table next to me had M-16s slung over the backs of their chairs.) “What are you doing?” the guard asked me. “Just resting,” I answered, and then decided, oh, why the heck not? “Are tourists allowed to visit the Knesset?” I asked. Yes, they are, he said, waving his arms around at the obviousness of this fact. “I mean, go inside?” Ha ha, nope. I decided to continue on.

I had walked north a ways, but I figured I was still pretty much due west of the Old City, so I decided to cut eastwards through the wooded valley again. On the way, I caught sight of the Chords Bridge, a huge white asymmetrical bridge that is the tallest structure in Jerusalem. I didn’t feel like walking further to get a better view, but I can say I saw it. Other sights I saw: a Conservative Synagogue (conservative Judaism is not recognized as “real” Judaism by the Israeli government), and a huge banner hanging from an apartment building that showed a stereotypical Native American face and read, “Ask me about land for peace.” Ouch.

I also saw the U.S. consulate. (The U.S. embassy is in Tel Aviv, since the U.S. doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.) I took a picture of it, but a guard approached me a few seconds later, made me delete the picture, and asked me to flip through the other pictures on my camera to satisfy him that it was the only one I had taken. I was glad he didn’t see the several pictures I had taken of the security at the Knesset entrance. I’m not sure he would have liked that.

Finally, I made it back home to the Austrian Hospice. After that adventure, there was only one thing on my Jerusalem list that I hadn’t yet accomplished: walking all the stations of the Via Dolorosa. By this point my legs felt like jelly, but I said to myself, “Screw that!” and set off on my own again.

Following the map I had earlier purchased from a shopkeeper for five shekels, I found the chapels of the condemnation and flagellation near St. Stephen’s Gate, and walked the Via from there. I got lost a couple times, but it was fairly easy to get back on track, because there always groups of pilgrims passing through the streets following the Via, and I could shadow them for a while. One thing that threw me off was the fourth station (where Jesus met his mother on the way to the cross). It was partially hidden by a shop, and heads-up to whoever takes care of this kind of thing: I think it’s been vandalized. I saw the metal circle with the Roman numeral IV on the alley wall, but the arch in the wall that should have shown a sculpture of Jesus meeting Mary contained only broken cement. I also got lost by the ninth station. I was walking along the road that divides the Muslim Quarter from the Christian Quarter, and missed the ramp that leads from the road to another road built on top of the houses of the Christian Quarter, until a young priest showed an elderly American couple the way, and I discreetly tagged along. At the top of the ramp, I could see one of the houses on the top level of the Muslim side surrounded by chicken-wire fencing embroidered with a defiant Israeli flag. I had stumbled on a settlement.

The raised road took me towards the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which contains the final five stations) from a totally opposite direction than any I had walked before. This time, I could actually see the church’s domes from the ground level, and I realized that the gold crosses on top of the domes contained prisms at their ends, which glinted red in the fading sunlight. I also ran into a Palestinian kid who wanted me to play football with him. I consented for a few minutes, and probably disappointed him with my skills, and then continued on my journey.

I put that entire mini-pilgrimage into an album on Picasa, which I humbly recommend you check out. The Via is indeed a moving experience.

Tonight, I went out for pizza in West Jerusalem with Thomas, Brian, Britta, Jason, Jon and Josh, some of my favorite MESPers. The pizza was great, and for some reason, we all remembered our favorite DC Talk songs at the same time and started singing them. Ah, youth. On the way back, Jon and Josh encountered some Christian American tourists who intimated to them that Obama was the antichrist. No offense guys, but – and I base this on several experiences – American tourists can be really, really stupid.

We topped off the night by watching the horrendous, yet hilarious movie The Happening (and reenacting it afterwards), and the excellent, yet depressing movie Munich, which is about the 1972 attacks on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and the Israeli response to those attacks. Both purchased in Syria, of course.

The place where God dwelled with his people for generations, the third holiest place in Islam, the place where Mary died, the place where David is (probably not) buried, the place where Jesus and his disciples (probably didn’t) celebrate the Last Supper, a Jewish windmill, the oldest copy of Isaiah on earth, the Israeli parliament building, two run-ins with Israeli security, the Via Dolorosa, awesome pizza, great friends, and a Stephen Spielberg movie. Not bad for one day in Jerusalem.

Day 28

This was our last day in Israel, and we spent it by seeing everything in Israel we hadn’t already seen. We first drove to the northern city of Haifa, near Mt. Carmel, where Elijah owned the prophets of Baal. Like West Jerusalem, Haifa is a pretty modern city, situated right on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. (As opposed to Alexandria, which is situated right on the crappy Mediterranean Sea.) Driving into Haifa, we passed a Google corporate building. No joke.

In Haifa, we met with Archbishop Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Catholic who wrote the famous book Blood Brothers about his experiences in the 1948 war and his life after that. He was a wonderful man, who welcomed us warmly and told some amazing stories about reconciling Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. But there were some things in his book that frosted me off, and some of the things he told us frosted me off some more (if I have a right to be frosted off by a man whose ancestral village was destroyed by the Israelis). One was his audacity to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. That, I feel safe in saying, is a morally bankrupt comparison. Another was his claim that Jews got along fine in the Middle East before the “Zionists” came in and created all these animosities. Can true reconciliation be based on lies? (I say “lies” because I’m not going to insult Bishop Chacour by calling him ignorant.)

On our way out of Haifa, we passed by the famous Ba’hai gardens. The Ba’hai are a Muslim offshoot who believe that all religions are from God, and that humanity is moving towards a golden age based on interfaith cooperation. The gardens consist of magnificent palm tree terraces with white walkways leading up to a splendid domed building at the top of a hill, and are meant to evoke thoughts of paradise. Israel is probably the only place in the Middle East where the Ba’hai aren’t persecuted mercilessly.

From Haifa, we drove south to Tel Aviv/Jaffa, which is also on the Mediterranean. Jaffa is an Arab town, which corresponds with Joppa, the city where Jonah caught an ill-fated boat to Tarshish. There, we could walk past 16th-century Ottoman mosques and police stations, and eat awesome Arab food. (If you haven’t realized this yet, most Arab food is awesome.) Only a few miles to the north is Tel Aviv, a Jewish town established in 1909 which is now the second-biggest city in Israel. Since Jerusalem is so fought-over, Tel Aviv often functions as the de facto cultural, economic and political locus of Israel. Most countries keep their embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv. When the Iranians get the bomb, Tel Aviv will be the first city they aim their launchers at. (Smile! Obama is president.)

The bus dropped us off in Jaffa, and we arranged to meet it again in Tel Aviv. Starting in Jaffa, we made our way north to the meeting spot by way of the beach. On the way, Brian, Thomas, Jon, Josh and I took some time to go bodysurfing in the huge waves. It was great, at the end of our Israel adventure, to just enjoy a city without exploring sites of deep political and religious significance.

Day 29

We drove back to Cairo, by way of Eilat, the Israeli port city on the Red Sea. I got interrogated by Israeli security for wearing a pro-Palestinian T-shirt at the border crossing. That’s just how I roll. The details are here.

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Are you still here? Bless you friend. May Allah preserve you and bring you back to the land of our fathers. It took me over a month to write this last installment, off-and-on, and I’m afraid it’s so hopelessly detailed that no one but me will take an interest in it. That’s OK with me, because I still have the ghosts of memories to flesh out these words. If you’ve found an interest in it, than I am doubly thankful. I still hope to post a few extra stories from Egypt and some final reflections on this blog, but right now, there’s some much-neglected homework I have to get to. Thanks for taking this journey with me. It means more than you know. Salaam ‘alaykum.