I know many people who love the Holy Lands of Israel and the Palestinian Area Terrorities. Before I visited two years ago, people shared their powerful experiences walking the roads where Jesus traveled, exploring places that seemed so far away but familiar from years of Biblical readings and retellings of the Christmas story. When names like Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem fell from their lips, it was always with a sense of awe and reverence. So…when I visited with Bones during my winter break two years ago, I was sad that I didn’t feel moments of passion or revelation. Christmas tourists were everywhere…shuttled in and out of these familiar places during whirlwind tours. Security was very tight, which is understandable, but I felt an intensity that weighed on me. I spent four days getting on and off vans…and while it was a great overview of the area, I left telling myself that I would never return.
Flash forward two years and here I am back in Israel and PAT… walking the streets…meeting the people…and finding just what makes this area so special. When I arrived, Jason set me up with some email connections with friends he met while living here. From my first communications, it was an interesting mix of people there for diverse purposes.
One of the especially great things about this visit was that my hotel was within the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem…just minutes from the busy Damascus Gate. As I walked through the narrow streets…strolling along the Via Dolorosa where Jesus took his last steps, I felt a mix of comfort and awe…wrapped in a sense of easy peacefulness. After a few days, I had my baklava guy, my falafel shop, and a place to have tea while looking at beautiful scarves. It was a fun introduction to Jerusalem and my heart quickly thawed.
The first person I met was Harry. Seeing as my dad was named Harry, I had a special affection for him before we met. Harry and his wife have lived in Jerusalem for over 20 years and have a western cultural center in Ramallah where people come to take English language classes. We traveled together to Ramallah so I could see the center and meet a few people. When I get back to Jerusalem on a month, I am hoping to reconnect and possibly teach a future English class there. Spending time with Harry gave me insights into the area that were valuable and important to know. His work was inspiring.
The next day, I visited with Jonathan who showed me around the Christ Church Guest House…a place I had heard much about from people who volunteered there. It is just inside Jaffa Gate and is not only a guest house, but also a chapel, garden, and cafe. I have booked a room for four nights when I return. Jonathan shared funny stories and gave me lots of travel tips for the area.
I spent the weekend in Bethlehem with Nova, Ira, and their son Shalom. They are a young couple doing mission work in the area. They were so cool and fun. Their house is in Beit Sahour which is a prominently Christian area. Meeting their neighbors and friends offered additional insights into life in the West Bank. We visited with American neighbors Shannon and George who they met there and it seemed like they had known each other for life. We went to an international church service on Friday night and I learned more about the “house church” movement. One night, we hung out watching the big premiere of Arab Idol…we were not very good at judging the talent.
By this point, my mind was whirling with all that I was experiencing! In a way, it is hard to write it down, because the area is so complicated…politically, geographically, historically, culturally and in every other way. I have great friends whose opinions I value that are very different from each other, so as an outsider, I find myself listening, asking questions, and trying to learn more. I have met soldiers and prisoners on both sides of the conflicts and feel their passions for their homes. I believe there are many people who are currently wanting peace far more than are portrayed in the media.
On Sunday, I spent the morning at the House of Bread Church in Bethlehem…just down the road from the Church of the Holy Nativity. The members were mainly Palestinian Christians and the service was beautiful…being delivered in English and translated into Arabic. Pastor Al Zhougbi and his family invited me for a delicious lunch where I learned more about their ministry and church. On Monday, I realized that I forgot to leave their family with a gift I brought, so I popped back on the bus and enjoyed a few special moments with Mrs. Al Zhougbi. She gave me a few jars of homemade apricot jam that looked delicious!
My last moments in Israel were spent at Or’s house. I met Or when he was a couch surfer in Chicago. He visited last year and stayed with his family, but we met for dinner with another Couchsurfer. We have stayed in touch, so it was cool to meet up with him. My flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 am so we had a great dinner of Sibich…a pita sandwich filled with hummus, boiled egg, fried eggplant and a mix of vegetables and sauces. I am dreaming about it as I write. Or was a great host and it was nice to end my time in Israel hanging out with a friend.
When I arrived at the airport, I was prepared for tight security because I experienced it during my last visit and also because my journey has been so extensive. What I didn’t think about it that my homemade jam may have looked pretty suspicious…at least enough to warrant a good check. The jam and suitcase review took about an hour with multiple scannings and reviews by many people. In the end, the team of two found two other women who took me on a back room to search me carefully including deep reviews of my clothing and seams. I loved when the guard asked the most logical of questions. After lifting my pant legs and seeing that I wore leggings underneath and multiple tshirts, she wanted to know why I wore so many clothes to protect myself from the cold while still wearing my open shoe flip flops. It was a good question and one I could only answer with a laugh.
I flew to Istanbul where I am spending a few days before heading to Erbil, Iraq. Kurdistan has a hard history but is a place where many exciting changes are taking place. I am thrilled by all of the chances I will have to learn about the area and people! Jason arrives on Friday for our two weeks of exploring together. It’s going to be great to have a travel partner with me.