An Innocent Abroad in Israel
Do you remember your first hangover?
The after-effects of a bit too much White Lightning or Thunderbird, consumed in haste round the back of the garages behind the fish shop, before jumping on the bus at the Mill Inn and heading to the school disco?
Perhaps it was as a result of necking your mate’s dad’s Ace lager, his mum’s Lambrusco and his Granny’s QC sherry while they were away on holiday?
Maybe you woke up in disgrace after being sick out of your bedroom window on to the roof of your parents’ conservatory (not naming and shaming but let’s just say the guilty party is a very close relative. Called Robert).
However, I’m willing to bet my life savings that your first experience of alcohol-related regret didn’t involve being rescued by nuns.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I awoke to the deafening sound of church bells. I found myself laid on a pile of cushions in a cool shaded gallery on the upper floor of a convent in the old city of Jerusalem. The late afternoon sunlight cast shadow patterns through the latticework window screen onto the ancient flagstones which made my headache even worse. With every chime, I felt like my skull had been carved open. I thought I was going to DIE.
For some bizarre reason, the fourteen year old me had thought that a convent school trip to Israel would be a good opportunity to meet boys. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it wasn’t. There were only two boys on the trip, both a few years older than me. The first was a bit of a drip and more interested in a vivacious dark-haired temptress from St Anthony’s; I don’t recall the second speaking during the entire trip. The John Taylor/Simon le Bon lookalike I was hoping for did not materialise but as ever I remained optimistic.
Nuns on the run
I can safely say I did not “pull” under the watchful gaze of Sister Michael and Brother Dennis, however I did get to neck the best part of a bottle of Hock on the roof terrace of the Bethlehem Star Hotel*, whilst tucking into a pale-coloured meat of uncertain origin. Hence the headache. Hence the vomiting. The next morning I had been escorted up to the convent by kindly nuns after almost passing out at the Hadrian Plaza or Pavement, near the Ecce Homo arch, where Christians believe Jesus was condemned by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Hock still makes me throw up, even now. That and Martini Bianco, after I drank an entire bottle at the Lower Sixth Christmas party, but that’s another story.
I had been invited to tag along with a school group from St Anthony’s, alongside my oldest and dearest friend Alison. She was five years older than me and “sophisticated” ; she’s still both of those things, and though we now live on opposite sides of the world, she’s still my best friend. Having never been abroad other on than two family trips to Mallorca, I jumped at the chance when my parents agreed. Israel at that time was in permanent state of conflict; the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) was at the height of its activity, and a tourist bus had been bombed at Nablus a few years before. Bombings and shootings were not unusual, but the suicide attacks which would plague the country for years had not yet begun.
Things were bloody grim at home – we were 4 months into the year-long Miner’s Strike and my parents thought it would be good for me to escape the pretty desperate situation that we and many other Seaham families found ourselves in, for a short time at least.
I immediately fell in love with Israel. There is nowhere else on earth quite like it. The mish-mash of cultures and religions – Jewish, Christian and Islam, and all their various denominations and factions – and the thousands of years of history, layer upon layer of ancient civilisations, all crammed into this small country, assaulted my senses and provoked my curiosity.
The Holy Bits
However, my fledgling hangover meant that I missed most of the “holy bits” of both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Who goes to Israel and misses the Church of the Nativity, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? That would be me. Who goes to Israel and doesn’t get to see the mighty desert fortress of Masada, where 960 Jewish rebels under siege from the Roman army were said to have committed suicide in around 74AD? Yup. Me again. I was mortified and dreading explaining to my very Catholic parents and Grandfather why I hadn’t seen any of the “Holy Places”. Heat stroke was the official explanation. It still is, until they read this.
Jerusalem is incredible. It is difficult to take it all in, to get to grips with this multi-faceted city, to absorb all of the sights and the sounds and the colours and the smells. Buildings constructed during the time of the Crusaders and Saladin jostle for position between Roman remains and glittering tower blocks. Jerusalem is ancient yet cutting edge, reverent yet vibrant, a city of contrasts and of conflicts, now divided in two by the concrete monstrosity that is the Separation Wall.
My visit pre-dated the construction of the wall by decades. Even to me, a naive, impressionable 14 year old who’d seen nothing of the world, the conditions in which many of the Palestinian people lived were appalling. I found the juxtaposition of great wealth and grinding poverty both astounding and upsetting. I’d never seen that before; as an adult I know it exists in every town and city the world over but I was profoundly shocked by it at the time. I remember an elderly Palestinian lady coming in to clean our hotel room just as we checked out; we gave her a packet of chocolate biscuits we’d bought and no longer wanted, and she sobbed with gratitude.
I was fortunate enough to visit the Dome of the Rock, revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. I was luckier still to enter the beautiful Al Aqsa mosque, with its glittering silver dome, exquisite mosaics and intricately woven carpets, which was subsequently closed to non-Muslim visitors for decades. I stood at the Western Wall of the Temple Precinct, sacred to the Jewish faith, and perhaps better known by its popular name, the Wailing Wall. I was shocked to see young female Israeli soldiers, little older than me, patrolling the streets, armed with machine guns. I loved the hustle and bustle of the market in the old city, and the pleas of the shopkeepers – “You come in my shop, I know Kenny Dalglish!”.
We were made so welcome by people of all faiths and backgrounds but what intrigued me most about this country was not its Christian, nor Islamic nor Jewish history, but its most ancient origins. I’ve always been something of a history geek and was mind-blown by a visit to the archaeological excavations in Jericho which had revealed evidence of human occupation on that site for millennia. I sat in the shade of some palm trees outside a roadside café, drinking the freshly-squeezed juice of oranges grown nearby and I contemplated the fact that people were probably doing something similar in that very spot around 8000 years ago.
Back in Jerusalem, I walked the length of an ancient underground watercourse, constructed by Hezekiah King of Judah, in the 8th Century BC, to secure the city’s water supply, under threat from invasion by the Assyrians. With other members of the group I waded through thigh-deep water in total darkness through the tunnel, in places only the width of a man’s shoulders, giggling and splashing as we made our way back into the sunlight and into the pool of Siloam. Here, according to the Christian Gospel of St John, Jesus restored the sight of a blind man.
A simple kindness
I have so many incredible memories of that trip. I swam in the Dead Sea and emerged, skin salt-coated and silver; I sailed across Lake Gennesaret, perhaps better known as the Sea of Galilee and sat on the shore at Tiberias, dangling my feet in the water while tiny fish nibbled at my toes. A visit to Nazareth and its exquisite Basilica of the Annunciation was unforgettable; I paddled in the warm Mediterranean at Caesarea, seeking refuge from the sun under the stone arches of a Roman aqueduct. When we headed north for a few days, at night I lay awake listening the distant rumble of shelling in the Golan Heights on the border with Syria. It seemed so close but yet it gave me no cause for concern – it was someone else’s war.
Among all the wonderful things I experienced on this trip, one stands out.
While staying in Bethlehem, as darkness fell one evening our guide, the ancient, effervescent and extremely knowledgeable Brother Dennis, took us out of our rather plush hotel and down the narrow back streets. We made our way past the rubbish which clogged the gutters, over open sewers and into a maze of honey coloured buildings, some of which were built at the time of the Crusades. At a darkened doorway, an elderly Palestinian Arab gentleman appeared and greeted us, and led us into his home. It consisted of one windowless room, contructed of stone with a vaulted ceiling. The room was empty but for a worn carpet and a few cushions scattered around. Outside a stone staircase led to a sleeping platform, open to the stars and the warm night air.
There was no furniture, no television set, no nothing. We sat, cross-legged on the carpet; the gentleman’s wife appeared, smiling constantly, with tray upon which was placed a dish of boiled sweets which she handed round to each of us with great ceremony. These people had nothing, yet what little they did have they were delighted to share with a party of privileged English schoolchildren. I can’t even begin to tell you what an impression this made upon me at the time.
Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, has changed hugely since my visit. The disputed West Bank area has been carved in two by the construction of the vast concrete wall hundreds of kilometres long, designed to separate Israelis and Palestinians. It’s still not finished, and probably never will be; some Palestinian towns are virtually encircled, and over 100,000 people find themselves “on the wrong side of the wall”. I can’t even begin to comprehend how much Bethlehem has changed since I was there.
Millions live in extreme poverty, under varying degrees of state control, some with little or no sanitation, no access to basic services and ridiculously high unemployment; in the former refugee camps which have now grown into cities under Palestinian control in Gaza, and in the smaller camps scattered throughout the West Bank, it is a thousand times worse. Millions of words have been written on the subject of the wall, the reasons for its existence and the effect it has had upon the communities it divides (on BOTH sides).
I often wonder what happened to the old man who was so kind to us, and to his family.
Go see Israel for yourself; form your own opinions. You may see things that will shock you to the core; but you will also meet warm, friendly people of every faith, and none. Don’t be discouraged by those who say, “It’s not a good time to go”. People have been saying that for thousands of years.
Just don’t drink the Hock.
(This article was originally published in 2017, revised 2021)
*You can still stay at the Bethlehem Star Hotel, now in the Palestinian Territories. There’s a gripping account of life there during the height of the conflict in Ben Granby’s book, “Welcome to the Bethlehem Star Hotel”
For up to date travel tips, have a look at the Lonely Planet site https://www.lonelyplanet.com/israel
MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION/HISTORY)
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017)