The West Bank

No trip to Israel would be complete without going into Palestine.  In 2002, Israel started resurrecting a wall around the West Bank which basically runs separates some parts of the suburbs of Jerusalem from Jerusalem.  There are certain entry and exit points in and out of the West Bank.  All Palestinians must have permission to enter Israel.  They have to go through check points which can take hours to get through.  People line up at 2am in the morning in order to get through so that they can reach work in time.  I was there during Shabbat, so I didn’t see the lines.  Palestinians are not allowed to fly out of Israel from Tel Aviv.  There was a man we met who was Palestinian who had a Canadian passport.  In order to use his passport, he has to go into Jordan.  The first time that he did that, they stamped the passport saying that he was Palestinian so that he cannot enter Israel on that passport.  Within the walls of the West Bank, there are Israeli settlements that are growing which means Israel is continually taking their land.
Basically, imagine that in Toronto, a wall was built around its boundaries separating the GTA from Toronto and everyone who lives in the GTA would have to get special permission to enter Toronto and then have to face line ups worse than rush hour on the 401 everyday to get to work.  Have to travel 1.5hrs to visit family that once took them 10 minutes to get to because they can’t take the most direct route because the wall blocks that route.  That is Israel and the Palestianian Terriorities.

The Pilgrimage

Old Jerusalem is a city full of history, a city meaningful to 3 different religions, a city conquered 38 times in history.  Walking through the narrow streets of Jerusalem was amazing to see the Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian quarters mix so fluidly.  For the Muslims, it’s the third most important site for them; the Jewish people the most important site and for the Christians it is a meaningful spiritual journey.  The most famous walking tour is the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christ walked before being crucified.  This is not THE ACTUAL PATH, but it is a spiritual journey that most Catholics and Orthodox believers partake in.  I walked the path, which was interesting and it ended at the Holy Sepulchre Church, a church originally built during the Byzantine Empire over what was believed to be the site of the crucifixation.  What I saw in that church perplexed me. 
 
When you enter, you go up these stairs and this is supposed to be Golgotha, where the cross stood.  There pilgrams lined up to crawl into a box with a picture of Jesus and they kissed it.  Then you return back down to where you enter and what I saw bewildered me.  I stood with my mouth open for 10 minutes in awe.  There was a stone on the ground and people were bowing down to it and placing their souvenirs (crosses, candles, keychains) on the stone.  One man placed his child on the stone.  We went to find out what people were doing…The stone is where Jesus was annointed after he died, but this isn’t the original stone.  People place their souvenirs on it so that they may become holy.  Therefore that man made his son holy by placing him on this stone. 
 
Then we went to see the tomb.  It was a proper tomb with ordornments inside.  Obviously not the real thing.  But did I really expect to see the real thing?  I would have preferred so much more to see a hole in a mountainside rather than what I saw in the Holy Sepulchre.  Actually a hole in a mountainside exists at the garden tomb.  Not the actual site because it’s not old enough, but for me, a much more spiritual journey.

Israel- The Interrogation

Going to Israel on a passport with a Lebanese stamp and a Visa from Iran, I knew that I would have problems getting in.  Passport control said to my mom "you can go through" and to me "you can go to the room back there."  First, I met with one guy who just took information from me.  He asked me if I planned to go into Gaza Strip, Jericho, Bethlehem…  So I said, no to Gaza, yes to Bethlehem, and possibly to Jericho. 
He said Why? 
Well I’m Christian and….
You’re what???  Are you Christian on your mom’s side?
Both.
Well you need to tell your parents to change their name!
 
Then he passed me onto three people…one to record everything I said, a good cop and a bad cop…we’ll call the bad cop, the bitch. 
So the bitch led the interrogation.  She started by trying to figure out my father’s roots.  She was astonished that I lacked all knowledge of my family backgorund.
"How do you not know where his origins are from (yet she didn’t know where Trinidad was)?  How do you not know any information on your grandfather?"
"He died before I was born."
Then she got into my middle eastern travels.  The bitch tried to trip me up with Lebanon after I had told her where I had visited.
"So you didn’t just go to touristic places in Lebanon?"
"huh?"
"You went to Baalbek"
Baalbek is where hezbollah is based, but it is also where one of the best preserved Roman ruins in the middle east are. (but there is a hezbollah souvenir stand in front of the ruins where you can get your hezbollah t-shirts, key chains, and mugs)!
When I told the bitch about the ruins, she said Oh I didn’t know.  Yeah right.
They grilled me about how I moved around in Iran and Lebanon, how I communicated, who I met, if I’m still in touch with them now.  I even had to give names. They couldn’t believe I went on my own.
Finally after an hour, my ordeal was over and the good cop welcomed me to the country and wished me good travels. 
Next time, if there is one, I’ll get a second passport so that I don’t have to go through that again.
 

Starving for Ramadan

I ended up being in Iran during Ramadan.  Although I could eat and drink secretively, I felt as though I were fasting too.  Fruit and nuts could only sustain you so much.  Amazingly though, I noticed many people in the streets eating and drinking.  This apparently is new because years before it would never have happened.  In fact, so many people were drinking openly, that I started to get sloppy and started drinking openly.  Once this guy and I were drinking water as a mullah (religious leader) walked by and gave us the dirtiest look.  My hats off to the people who were fasting because it was so hot and I don’t know how they could survive without drinking water.  Not many people I met were fasting.  "Only 50% fast and the other 50% pretend  to fast," I was told.  For those that did fast, it was torture for them because it is so hot and they can’t drink, wet their face, chew gum etc. It was an interesting experience to be in Iran during Ramadan, but I won’t ever again travel to a muslim country during ramadan. 

Fully Covered in Iran

My adventure to Iran started the week before I went when I went to a market in London to get my scarves, long sleeved tops that went to mid thigh and I was introduced to the arm sleeves.  Kind of like leggings for the arms so that if your sleeves rise up, your arms still remain covered. 
 
Then I got to Iran and discovered a lot of liberal young women who were pushing the envelope for freedom from rules.  My friend had a good laugh when I showed her the arm sleeves- don’t wear them.  Her mom told me to push my scarf back and show some hair.  Some women still wear the chador esp in the small towns and villages.  But then there are women wearing tight fitting manteaus, tight jeans and stilletto pumps.  More and more hair is being revealed while wearing the scarf. There were even women offering orgies to male tourists!
 
With all of the liberalism, I could still detect the inequality.  I noticed when walking around with a male traveller, that everyone was saying hello to him and chatting to him and not to me.  I even told him that I was jealous.  Then I realized that they were probably talking to him because he was the man.  When hanging out with another guy, I noticed if we both pulled out money to pay for something, his money would always be taken and not mine.  The one time I got my money out before him, he was given the change!
 
As in most middle eastern countries, men have certain ideas of how western women behave.  I had a guy approach me on the street and ask me for a kiss. When I showed him my makeshift wedding band, this wasn’t sufficient enough for him to leave me alone "just one kiss."  The all time first for me, was having my ass squeezed and properly squeezed as 2 guys rode by on a bike.  I wanted to curse them, except it’s not much fun when they don’t speak English!

The Misunderstood People of Iran

I thought for Iran I would talk about the people that I met there.  For those that were able to speak English, they were quite concerned about the West’s impression of them.  Did we think that the Iranian govt represented who the people were?
 
All throughout my stay, I met people who showered me with kindness.  From my friend’s family in Tehran, to the lady who sat beside me on the plane from Tehran to Shiraz, who gave me a ride to my hotel all the while, trying to get me to upgrade to a better hotel that had a better reputation.  "Miss Marcia, I don’t think this place is a good place for good people"  While wondering the narrow streets of an old city in Yazd, a family who didn’t speak any English invited us in for tea and dates.  When trying to enter into a large mosque, a lady who didn’t speak any English guided me around to the different doors trying to get me in.  She was so cute, asking me my hotel and when I told her I didn’t have one, she invited me to stay at her home.
 
There were lots of people trying to practice their English with tourists.  I spent one day with two boys and a girl who wanted to practice their English.  They were the only people that I met who were happy with their president.  In response to my question about the demonstrations, they replied "well some people were just trying to stir things up."  They were so proud to be Persian and of everything Persian including hamburgers and pizzas 🙂  Then there were the sexually frustrated college students.  All they wanted to talk about was masturbation and homosexuality.  "Is it true that in Europe, guys don’t masturbate because they can have sex whenever they want to?  They just go up to a girl, talk to her for a couple of minutes and get lucky?" Mind you these guys favourite movie is American Pie.  No wonder they think like that!
 
Meeting different people was the highlight of the trip.  A trip to Iran would reveal to anyone very friendly, kind hearted people.

Lebanon

As the Lebanese go to the polls today to vote, I sit and reminisce about my time there.  Last week I was in the mediterranean country soaking in the sun and bathing in the sea.  Lebanon was different from other middle eastern countries that I have been to.  Beirut was very liberal and modern, known for its night life.  But all this modernism and progressiveness didn’t have an impact on the behaviour of men.  Still they cat call at you worse than the construction men.  Had one episode of total inappropriateness but was able to handle my own.

As for the danger factor, there was none.  The worse experiences were having to deal with the taxi drivers.  Once when a driver was trying to extort double the price out of us, we threw down what we wanted to pay and jumped out of the cab and ran.  There were some rallies leading up to the election.  One happened very close to where we stayed..a Hezbollah rally and you could hear the gun shots going off in the air. 

Lebanon itself has a lot of roman ruins to see.  The best one set in the stronghold city for Hezbollah, but there was no problem visiting as they make it into a tourist attraction where you can buy t-shirts and other paraphernalia.  They have the mountains and are known for their cedar trees.

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