The cost of Jerusalem
European budget airlines wouldn’t be European budget airlines, if they didn’t try to squeeze their targets in every possible way. So, Wizzair still charges you extra if you prefer to check in at the counter, instead of online.
But, after doing so, I was told I had to present myself at the counter, anyway. Supposedly for a ‘passport check’, which also meant that the digital document I received after my online ‘check in’, was meaningless.
The passport check went well enough, but the clerk, spotting a potential opportunity for charging extra, then decided that my backpack perhaps was too big to take on board as a ‘personal item’, my having refused to pay for additional luggage to take on board.
My new backpack was quite big, and because my old backpack, which I had replaced in Naples, was inside the new bag, as I needed it as a prop for the short films I’m shooting in preparation for my residency in northern Sweden, the bag was even bulkier than necessary.
But, sticking my sandals in my jacket, my neck cushion around my neck, and smushing up my backpack, I got away with what I had.
At the gate, airport security was picking out, ‘at random’, passengers for ‘security screening’. I wasn’t picked. Was it because I had just shaved?
But I was required to confirm the size of my backpack, again, for the narrow space allotted to ‘personal items’.
I was allowed to take out fragile items, like my laptop, and easily fit the bag in the available space.
The flight was as uneventful as they come. But, before entering Israeli airspace, flight attendants announced we were required to return to our seat and to buckle up.
Apparently, this is an Israeli requirement; In 2007 Israel began requiring pilots to enter a security code, when 180 nautical miles out, to confirm to Tel Aviv Air Traffic Control that the flight deck has not been breached by hi-jackers, and to allow time for planes to be intercepted, if necessary.
It was recognised that potential hijackers might wait until this security compliance is completed before springing into action during final approach and so, to make it more difficult for them, an additional requirement of buckling up was imposed at the 180 nautical miles distance, usually implemented by airlines as ’30 minutes out’.
I can’t imagine that having to unbuckle will stop any wannabe hi-jacker, but Israel disagrees.
After landing, at immigration, I was grilled. They wanted to know if I had a second (non-Dutch) passport, and needed to see my Brazilian residence permit. After telling them I had the intention to visit the Bahá’í World Centre, they didn’t quite believe that I wasn’t Bahá’í, and twice asked for my Bahá’í card, as all Bahá’í have a personalised number and card for being Bahá’í.
Then I was redirected to a particular area in the airport, and told to wait.
I arrived with two others waiting before me, Some 20 minutes later, a few dozen more arrived in the waiting area. The rate at which those waiting were called into a private room was about 1 per 10 minutes, but this did not happen in order of arrival.
A good hour after my showing up, it was my turn. The grilling took some 20 minutes, where the woman interrogating me got visibly agitated by each of her questions triggering little boxes of Pandora, flurries of follow-up questions.
“Where have you been in the Middle East?”
“What were you doing in Afghanistan?”
“In which countries did you work for an NGO?”
“How do you work for a Ugandan NGO if you haven’t been there for 9 years?”
Eventually, I was passed on to a more senior woman, whom was told my life story by the woman interrogating me, and told to wait again, but now elsewhere in the airport.
Five minutes later, I received my immigration card, a blue credit-card sized piece of cardboard, almost like a bus ticket with QR code, with which I was allowed to leave immigration.
A few minutes later, I managed to get one of the last trains to Jerusalem.
Finally, the weather was balmy.
In the train, a dozen, or so, Orthodox Jews, dressed up, walked by, and stopped in one of the exit areas. Then, they started to pray, not loud, but such that everyone could hear.
Several of the passengers chimed in on a number of occasions with ‘amen’, and perhaps one or two other words. This lasted perhaps a good 10 minutes.
Afterwards, they were swaying back and forth, the kind of movement you might recognise from Jews praying at the Wailing Wall.
The next day, at 10am, as I was out for a walk on the morning after my arrival, the air raid sirens went off. Everyone paused in the street, waiting for the alarms to end. Just before, I was forewarned, by an employee at my pod hotel, that the sirens would sound as a Holocaust remembrance thing.
By 10:30, I had already been mistaken three times for being Israeli.
Close to the Knesset, I was asked for directions by someone who turned out to be a South African Jew from Johannesburg, having grown up close to where I had lived for over two years. We exchanged some thoughts on both countries.
After a visit to the National Library, where I had to come to terms that the insanely crazy high prices of the cafes and restaurants close to my hotel were the consequence of only marginal markups on top of the crazy high prices of Israel, I took a very roundabout way to get to the old town, first visiting some modernist architecture in the suburbs.
Close to the old town, I stumbled upon The Garden Tomb, supposedly where Jesus was buried.
Entering the city walls, heavily armed soldiers were everywhere, mostly in groups of three. They all looked consistently bored.
Netanyahu had recently decreed that access to the Al Aqsa mosque was off-limits for tourists and non-muslims. I, quite accidentally, stumbled upon an entrance gate and was barred from entering because I was required, and unable, to say the Shahada in Arabic.
At a second gate, guards also turned me away, for the same reason.
But security at the third gate only wanted to know if I was muslim.
The dome of the Rock, and the Al Aqsa mosque, are a sight to be seen.
I visited only a few days before the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, which, I suspect, justified the relatively large crowds at the mosques. Lots of people were camping out, on the grounds of Al Aqsa, and inside the mosques it was very busy, even if it wasn’t close to prayer time, nor a Friday, with people praying, sleeping, or just chilling.
The central feature of the compound is not the Al Aqsa mosque, but the Dome of the Rock. Jerusalem in particular, and the Levant in general, have a close relationship with rocks, grottos, and caves, and the rock under the Dome is the most important one.
The ‘Noble Rock’ that the temple was built over is supposed to be the place where God created the world, as well as the first human. It is also believed to be the site where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son, and, as the place where God’s divine presence is manifested more than in any other, the place towards which Jews turn during prayer. For Muslims, besides the above, it is believed that the Night Journey of Muhammad began from the rock as well.
Also, Muhammad and his followers first prayed in the direction of the rock, though this was later changed to the direction of Mecca, perhaps because he could not curry favour with the Jews living in and around Jerusalem.
(Incidentally, Bahá’í pray towards the location of the founder of their faith, who’s remains reside at his shrine in Acre, in northern Israel.)
There are many other churches and shrines that are centred around rocks, grottos, or slabs of stone. The Garden Tomb I had already visited earlier, the Garden of Gethsemane has a basilica containing ‘The Rock of Agony’, Jesus was supposedly born in a ‘manger’, but this turned out to be a cave, and, later, in Nazareth, sites related to Jesus and Maria also were caves and grottos.
I’d speculate that this fascination with rocks, grottos, and stones, dates back to megalithic times. Judaism and Christianity are perhaps just the iteration that survived.
Meanwhile, it is clear that, with all the ‘living past’ tangibly visible, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking the Christ, and the legends of the Old Testament, are real.
In Jerusalem, much more so than later in Haifa or Tel Aviv, I found a constant mix of stress, exploitation, and oppression in the air. This might seem obvious, but can only be experienced first hand.
The city feels safe in that I didn’t feel I had to worry about petty crime, but the constant awareness did feel like a continuous anticipation of something cataclysmic.
At the university campus I had visited earlier, at a cafe, I had ordered a coffee and a pastry. I asked the lady working there something in English, which she didn’t fully understand. When she went looking for a word, multiple people in the cafe, some at the other end of the room, filled in the blanks for her, while no one was looking up from what they were doing. It felt like everyone had realised I was the outsider, constantly monitoring my behaviour to make sure nothing would run out of hand.
On my second day in Jerusalem, I decided it was time to visit the Occupied Territories. I first walked over to the Mound of Olives, to shoot one more video in preparation for my Swedish residency, and then, through immense Jewish cemeteries, past grassy hills with shepherds and sheep, through 5km of affluent and somewhat boring suburbs, I slowly entered hilly, and pretty, countryside.
Then, entering Palestine was effortless, though it required a walk through a narrow, tall, concrete corridor, but no checking of documents.
On the other side, a taxi driver latched on to me, and I decided that the hours in the sun I had walked to get there, on sandals that were giving me blisters, were enough for the day.
The Church of the Nativity, the popular tourist attraction in Bethlehem (in Palestine), is, like the whole of Jerusalem, immensely touristy. In the church, the supposed birthplace is a many pointed metal star embedded in a rock, which everyone bows down for, to touch.
Driving around Bethlehem, I caught glimpses of The Wall, and almost missed the famous Banksy.
On the way out of Palestine, I had to go through a similar narrow passage as when I came in. High concrete walls, but now also full-body turnstiles that were blocked after every 40 people, or so, moved through. When they locked in-place, someone, typically, was stuck inside.
Then, a second set of turnstiles admitting perhaps 10 people at a time. This was followed by a biometric ID check, if your document allowed for it, with some heavily armed security patrolling the area.
I was reminded of crossing into east Germany in the 1980s.
At the ID check, not clear what I was supposed to do, I asked one of the guards.
“What do I do with a Dutch passport?”
“Come with me!”
Not sure if this meant another grilling, instead, I was chaperoned through the system, with no one looking at my passport.
For my video project, for which I was on my way to northern Sweden, I wasn’t yet too happy with the videos I had shot on my first two days in Jerusalem. Ideally, in the videos I shoot, there are things happening, to look at, in the background, or on the sides, but because no one is keeping an eye on the camera when I’m being filmed myself, I also can’t have the place where I film to be too busy, as that could result in someone bumping into the camera, or just grabbing and running away with it.
So, on the day of my departure from Jerusalem to Haifa, I went and shot an early scene in a prominent shopping street. It was still reasonably quiet, and though some people noticed the camera, all seemed reasonably fine.
But, what if Israeli gun-wielding security was going to question my actions? What if they were going to ask for my ID? “Born in Iran!?”
Then, a bit over halfway through, a black man walked towards the camera, very much acknowledging the presence of the device. He walked around the camera, to me, and asked what I was filming. Beckoning him to take a few steps back to limit my camera recording the conversation, and to speak softly, he made a comic jumpy apology, implying the interaction was going to be fine.
He turned out to be great; a philosophy teacher from France, having lived in Israel for 27 years and having taught at Harvard, amongst other places.
I tried to tease out where he was from ‘before France’, but he would not budge. He was, he insisted, ‘from Paris’. When I told him I’m from Iran, he was overjoyed.
Earlier, when in an interaction with Palestinians they discovered I was from Iran, I was told “God is great! Take the power!” Now, Shalem, which was the man’s name, wasn’t as overjoyed, perhaps, but his, and the response to my hailing from Iran, from other people I met along the way, was consistently positive.
We had a long conversation. During that, a group of Israeli security, at least not with machine guns, took up residence right beside us, clearly curious about what was going on, but I purposefully and completely ignored them, as we continued our conversation with lots of jokes and lots of laughing.
After a while, the security still present, I checked the video and realized I had shot enough. I packed up my gear and we exchanged names and numbers, continuing in a joking way. We discovered we had to go in the same direction, and Shalem grabbed my hand to drag me along, as we left. I could feel the eyes of security probing our backs as we walked away.
At some point, I had asked Shalem about Israel. “Ah, this place is the most free in the world! In France, in the USA, they are all racist, here, no! You can be free, do whatever you want!”
I didn’t bring up the plight of Ethiopian Jews, or Palestinians, in Israel.