Wednesday, January 03, 2007

October 31, 2005: Holy Land...Reflections thus far

Where to begin, where to begin...I've been in the Holy Land for almost 10 very full & busy days...I had hoped to send out updates & news more frequently because there is just so much that I'm seeing & experiencing, but after the long days of touring & all of the great Arabic food that we're eating, I've been mentally exhausted. This has been a very unique time to be here...I arrived just before the conculsion of the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles (considered one of their biggest annual celebrations--see photo @ the Wailing Wall--seperate photo e-mail) & right in the middle of the great Muslim fast of Ramadan (see photo of street outside our's like Mardi Gras!). I knew what both were vaguely, but now I've gotten to experience how the people truly celebrate them. I've learned that we only see a small part of the story of this city and the life of the people in the news & on TV. Yes there is tension between ethnic groups, yes the city & country is divided into zones (some with guarded checkpoints), and yes everyone lives every day knowing that anything could happen at any moment! But we only see a fraction of the real drama that continues to be written of this holy place, as I've discovered. The people are considered to be the "living stones" dwelling within the ancient stone walls of the Holy City, and they have their story to tell, just as the ancient walls of the city do...

We are staying in a hotel in the Muslim section of the Old City, just outside of the Old City walls. When I arrived at the airport my shuttle (or Sherud as their called locally) wouldn't take me to my hotel but dropped me off about half a kilometer away, because they don't want to go into the Muslim section, being Jewish. So it's 5:30am when I'm dropped off, just after sunrise, I haven't slept in about 24 hrs, dog tired, carrying two packs down (I later found out) the busiest street in Jerusalem (or at least the Muslim section) Sahlahadeen Street. I'm getting stares & looks from the "early risers" opening up their shops, etc., as I'm trying to find my hotel. Now you also should know that my tour coordinators warned everyone explicity many times not to travel alone, even during daylight hours, in the Old City due to safety concerns. So, I've already been conditioned to think that being a blond haired, blue-eyed American will make me a target for either robbery or acts of violence...well the opposite couldn't be more true! Of course there are a healthy number of scammers & pick pockets at some of the most popular tourist spots, but with enough vigilance & street savvy, one can easily trump their tactics. But the Palestinian people in general, whether running into them on the street, in their stores or as apart of our formal tour, have been very warm, open, sincere & very hospitable. Many are very interested to just talk to someone from another country, find out how the media portrays the situation in Israel, share their own story & make a genuine connection with another human being. I've experienced everything from being invited for coffee & dessert with a shop owner that shares the same passion for Orthodoxy iconography (religious/devotional art) to being shown some of the hidden spots & aspects of the Old City only the locals know about...all because the people are very open & giving. My experiences at the holy sites as a pilgrim (which I'll begin with the Holy Sepulchre tomorrow & send out subsequent e-mails about the others) & with the people trying to immerse myself into the culture as much as possible, has been very enriching & fruitful.

I've met & spoken with some of the Israeli military police when I've been lost or needed directions. They've been very nice & helpful and oddly enough, most were Americans or had lived in America for some time (see photo). Our hotel is right down the street from one of their main stations in this section/quarter...we see them everywhere, but I haven't seen anything that would explain why they patrol with such heavy armament (even armored vehicles) or in such large groups. The group of guys that allowed me to photograph them wanted me to tell everyone back in America (with a smile on his face making a joke) that they were really "mean & ruthless". Most of the Palestinians that I've been able to speak with at length (whether Christian or Muslim) express regret & sorrow over the current situation between Israelis & Palestinians here. They talk nostagically about how the Palestinians have lived for generations, Christian & Muslim side by side in peace, love & harmony, even inter-marrying, and about how that seems like a reality that will never return. It's a very, very sad situation today...many have lost or been seperated from loved ones, their homes/land, and/or their businesses/livelihood due to the unchecked aggression being practiced. Networks of "Berlin Wall" style fortifications & check points seperate entire towns from each other & even run through communities...right down the middle of the street (see photo of the "Wall of Shame" as it's known locally). There are holy sites no longer accessible or even existing due to the violent acts from both sides, leaving the Christians that live here stuck in the middle. I know these are strong words, but as I mentioned...we only see what they want us to see in the has to come here to see & understand the full story. Now, this is only part of the drama being played out every day here, the other half we all know from the media so I don't feel the need to re-hash it. I don't mean to digress into politics, especially of such a sensitive nature, so I'll share only what I've observed & witnessed, not my own thoughts & perspectives...I'll leave that to the political pundits & propagandists. But I mention this to not only raise your awareness, but because I've experienced it & suffered from its's all apart of life & the experience in the Holy Land, even for a pilgrim. This will be interwoven into my experiences at the different holy sites as I send them to you, starting tomorrow...I just wanted to check in since it'd been awhile, let you know that I'm safe, enjoying myself, this place & all it has to offer immensely, & will do my best to put it into words to share with you!



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