Make Hummus Not Walls
When I was a kid, I read a lot of books. Fantasy has always been my favourite genre: I read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Deltora Quest, Harry Potter. All this childhood reading coincided with Sunday school and as a result I thought about places like Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the same way as I thought about the kingdom of Narnia, or Hogwarts.
I’m not an idiot. I know that they are real places, however, they always felt like they had an unreal quality in my imagination. So when I decided to travel to Israel the itinerary seemed just a bit mythic.
In reality, it was still pretty goddamn bizarre.
Israel is a mass of contradictions. It could be an incredibly frustrating place to be in. Awful injustices and ignorant hatred surrounded by churches, synagogues, mosques and the ruins of ancient civilisations. But there was also a lot of beauty and history, which I don't think I appreciated until I visited. It’s a challenging place, certainly, but I learned so much and had my eyes opened.
To get to Jericho we had to pass through a military checkpoint. Generally you’d need to produce passports and visas but we were in a big bus and our driver told the guard that the bus was full of Americans and they let us pass. This is a checkpoint that confines Palestinians to the West Bank, restricting their ability to work, study and access their homeland. But if you have a tour bus full of Americans you can go where you want. The guard, by the way, was an eighteen-year-old doing compulsory military service. She had a machine gun slung over her shoulder and was snacking on strawberries behind the barrier.
We reached our hotel, a mammoth structure in the middle of nowhere. Once a thriving casino, now a rundown shell. Maroon-clad porters clamoured for the right to carry bags from the shabby reception. I felt guilty for not being able to do more, for taking up one bed in a hotel that had a hundred rooms standing empty.
In the morning we walked into the centre of town past houses where goats and donkeys grazed in front yards and chickens ran amok. The markets were full of fresh produce from the farms filling the region; the parts that aren’t desert anyway. We wandered through the market and an old man handed me a fuzzy green almond. He demonstrated how to eat it by biting off the end with the stalk and then dipping it in sea salt. Green almonds are tart and bitter and juicy on the inside. Almonds, fun fact, are part of the stone fruit family, and not really a nut: crack open the interior of a peach pit sometime and check the resemblance.
The Golan Heights are near the border with Syria. Lush, green, and covered with coils of barbed wire. It was a confronting day, and one that brought the reality of this trip into focus. This was no longer just a fanciful trip to see cities from childhood stories.
This man dressed in the traditional Druze style sold me a jar of tahini mixed with honey along with a handful of fresh apples. He sliced one up on the spot and we dipped the crisp slices into the paste. It was sweet and nutty, crunchy and creamy. A little like peanut butter but… different.
I ended up in Jerusalem on Good Friday. I didn’t plan it that way, it was just how the dates worked out in the end.
The streets were packed with pilgrims, monks and nuns as they traced Jesus’ final path through the old city towards the supposed site of his crucifixion. Everyone pushed and shoved in a most un-Christian manner in an attempt to try and touch the rock inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On the Shabbat the elevators in our hotel were put on a setting where they simply ride up and down, opening on every floor. This means that Orthodox Jews don’t have to press any buttons. Leavened bread was out of the question too. I scooped up my extra creamy hummus with a flatbread. There was a tiny fizz to each bite; a result of the bicarbonate soda used to soften the chickpeas. Every serving of hummus I tried was a little different, but it was delicious every time.
In every corner of this crowded, complicated country I found myself frustrated, and then fed. Often both at the same time. I’m not here to dress things up, it’s a fucked-up situation, but travelling through helped me to gain a better perspective. Everywhere I went I found a way to further understand this divided place through the generosity, and hospitality of the people.
That’s why I travel: to open my eyes, broaden my mind and fill my belly.