The check-in for El Al airlines at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle is a forgotten outpost at the end of Terminal 2 manned by two young Israeli Army officers carrying semi-automatic weapons. There is an interrogation point before check-in and the airline staff wait, faces blank with boredom, for one person to shuffle through every ten minutes.
As a woman travelling alone it takes me even longer to get through. At one stage a customs officer disappears with my passport and I get so nervous that I feel as if I am actually hiding something. I’m finally waved through 20 minutes before the flight is due to take off, and as I rush through security I pass a sign that says, “El Al: It’s not just an airline, it’s Israel.”
When I get to the gate the flight isn’t open yet, but as I join the back of the queue I hear my name being called. I’m told I need to go through an extra security procedure. A guard escorts me into a restricted area, where I am taken into a small room and patted down while my hand luggage is checked for explosives. The female officer is cool but polite: “Can you take your bra off without taking your t-shirt off?” she asks. Apparently they need to test my bra for explosives. This is the first time I have been searched before a flight, but the only thing I’m really worried about is missing the plane. “They will wait for you,” she says. They do, but I am the last person on and I can feel everyone’s eyes on me as I rush to find my seat.
When we land Shabbat is about to start and the last flights of the day are listed on the arrivals board: 4:50, 4:55, 4:48… there are no flights landing after 5 pm. All the shops in the terminal are shut and it feels like early in the morning rather than sundown. I race to get a cab and feel a sense of exhilaration as we pull away from the curb.
“Why you come to Tel Aviv?” my driver asks.
“For a holiday, some sunshine…”
“We have more then 300 days of sunshine a year, but we have difficult neighbours,” he says, looking at me in the rear vision mirror.
Tel Aviv is a city ablaze with colour and light: the blue sky goes on forever and the washed-out cream buildings are punctuated by purple and pink bougainvilleas exploding on every street. The city is intoxicating and completely alive. Heat rises from the pavement, even at night, and the people glow from days of endless sunshine. It feels a world away from the cold light and grim stares of the airport.
In the suburb of Neve Tzedek the bars are crammed with people and every night feels like a weekend, despite the six-day working week. I meet up with my fellow traveller, our photographer, on the first night, and we find some new friends and spend two nights of riding around on bikes, light-headed from shots of arak.
On the Sunday we meet our tour group and spend the day exploring Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv. Our guide Danny has a geography degree, a goatee and eyes that are always smiling. In the evening our bus heads north to Haifa and, tired from our day of walking and full of falafel and pastries, I fall asleep in my seat. My fingers are sticky from the sweets.
I wake at dusk and can see the Mediterranean on the horizon, power stations, and lines of lights from the traffic reflected in the bus window. Danny sits up the front and explains our plans using a laminated map that he pulls from his backpack.
We don’t arrive in Haifa until well after dark when our bus slowly climbs up a steep hill to our hotel, following the countless bends in the road. Tomorrow we will see the Baha’i temple and its surrounding gardens, but tonight we sit outside, eat maklubah and drink local wine.
Israel is home to almost six million Jewish people, but it is also the Holy Land for many other religions: Baha’i, Druze, Islam, Christianity — and the countless denominations of the latter. Each of them has a claim on this slither of desert and over the course of seven days we get to know these religions and visit their places of worship. We follow the story of the Old and New Testaments and see the sites where things may or may not have happened. Nothing is certain and many of the churches we visit are brand new, recently erected on the holy sites that pilgrims have visited for thousands of years.
We are not pilgrims — I guess we’re tourists in the midst of them all — and it feels like a huge stage production — except this show has been playing for thousands of years and no one knows when the final curtain will fall.
Our days are packed with sightseeing and it’s tiring taking it all in: Roman ruins, the Sea of Galilee, the Baptismal Site, the fortress of Masada. It’s always hot.
We stop to relax only when we reach the Dead Sea, the strangest place of all: it’s more than 400 metres below sea level and the water is slick and dark, like oil. Deckchairs line the shore, and although there are the sounds of the beach — laughter and splashing, a Bob Marley album playing in the bar — it looks like a post-apocalyptic lakeside resort. The air is heavy and all the colours look faded — the dust from the desert has taken over.
On the way to the campsite (our accommodation for the night), we stop to buy wine at a kibbutz. It’s deserted save for two young female soldiers sitting on a swing set, machine guns casually slung over their shoulders. That night we feast under the stars and I sleep the best I have all week. We wake in time to take photos of the sun rising over the mountains.
We finish our tour in Jerusalem, where everything we have seen reaches a crescendo — it’s the perfect endnote to the trip. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — an exalted relic from the era of the Crusades — there is a frenetic, almost climatic, energy. It’s a place of worship but, with the swarms of people and cameras flashing continuously, it feels more like a theme park. Being alone in a place like this would take your breath away, but the commotion is a distraction.
We head to the Wailing Wall just before Shabbat and, although there are no shrines or gold statues, seeing the worshippers en masse, in their Friday best, is more mesmerising than any man-made construction. The wailing from the men’s section echoes throughout the square and as the light fades a sea of black hats bobs back and forth as if in a trance.
The next day we lug our bags to the bus stop and head back to Tel Aviv — back to the 21st century. In just six hours time we are drinking wine and eating hummus and freshly baked bread in a bar off Rothschild Boulevard. We could be in Darlinghurst or Brooklyn: everyone is young, beautiful and smiling and the DJ is playing old Motown records. We’re laughing with our new friends and talking about what people always talk about: work, food, family, love, travel, plans for the future…
We also talk about Palestine, about Gaza, because it’s just 70 kilometres away and that is what foreigners want to know about. We want to know, ‘Why?’ We come here with ideas and opinions only to change them over and over again. There might be two sides, but there are many many stories.
Our friends tell us that Israel is a haven not only for the Jews, but for other people as well. In Tel Aviv there are many Sudanese immigrants. They escaped a genocide that will leave a deep scar in history, though perhaps not Western history. The most able young men leave their lives behind and walk through the desert, up to Egypt and across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel. They don’t come here for religious reasons; they come here to escape certain death. Their presence here is polarising, though — for many Israelis it is all too familiar a story and one that requires empathy, but for others their presence is a threat to Israel’s thriving economy and the sanctuary it provides for young families.
My new friends want to help — they are involved in a new community centre for the Sudanese that has just opened and we go to the welcome event. The Sudanese men perform a jumping dance, much like that of the Maasai, and all the kids sit on the roof of the centre with big grins on their faces, teeth glowing in the dark. A Malaysian woman (who is apparently a local karaoke champion) performs ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ from Footloose and the crowd whoops and claps along. Later we lie under a canopy on a friend’s rooftop and YouTube theme songs from eighties movies and TV shows.
The next morning I am on the beach and swimming in the water, it’s tepid and crystal-clear. I eat an Israeli breakfast (the meal they do best) and in just six hours I am back in Paris. Less than one week later, rockets are launched from Gaza into Israel and the latter retaliates with airstrikes. I text one of my new friends to make sure he is OK.
“Yes. The situation is bad, but it has always been,” he replies. “We just had the third siren in Tel Aviv.”
On the news there are pictures of rubble in Gaza and Israeli tanks. No one knows what the future holds, but life goes on in the present.
Photos: Robbie Whitehead