After nearly half a night of much-needed sleep, I was awakened around 4:30 am by the Fajr call to prayer. The PA systems employed by every mosque I’ve been to around the world all seem to have one thing in common: all-out volume is far more important than what a full, even frequency response is. As a result, the calls to prayer always seem to greet the listener with a piercing sound of a nasally AM transistor radio set at a volume best described as WAY TOO LOUD. While not exactly soothing, it does practically guarantee that everyone will be awake for the prayer within the first five seconds of the broadcast, and—since there is no Snooze button—everyone will stay awake. After only a short eternity, the PA system lining the streets clicked off, and I was allowed to fall back to sleep within milliseconds. Thankfully, just over an hour later the PA clicked loudly again, and I knew what was coming: the Sunrise Prayer.
Mark, Jefe, and I congregated in the kitchen of the flat and had bit of breakfast: coffee, bread, and the most wonderful breakfast drink I have ever experienced: lime juice. We had to get some food into our bodies because we had yet another “big day ahead.” We would be heading to Bethlehem.
We walked down to the bus terminal just outside Damascus Gate of the Old City and caught a ride to the border checkpoint south of Jerusalem. Walking into the concrete block building, we got in line with our paperwork in hand. Judging by the number of M-16 rifles shouldered to the guards, we decided against pushing our way to the front and instead waited patiently in line to increase our chances of crossing the border successfully and with the least mortality. Read more
We headed out through the gate of the Augusta Victoria hospital and onto Martin Buber Street; I was awestruck by what was upon me. I could look down across the valley and see—just a few thousand yards away—the Dome of the Rock. I checked my handy pocket map and, to my amazement, it showed that we were standing on the summit of the Mount of Olives. The Old City was standing firm, as it had for the last couple years or so, its ancient fortress wall protecting it from any intruders. Any intruders but us, I hoped.
We walked the steep hill into the Kidron Valley and stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane for a little break. (Walking downhill is hard.) I looked around the property and was impressed at the relatively small footprint that the garden had, yet it was certainly a peaceful place. with birds chirping and the breeze whistling through the cedars. Orange and purple flowers littered the landscape and conifers shaded and cooled the rocky soil. (Anyone with any sense of beauty would have immediately known the floral varieties on display. I know them simply as “flowers.”) There were several olive trees in a grove in one section of the garden. They were twisted and knurled, almost square in their dimensions. The trunks were fat and thick; their limbs were tightly woven into themselves, like a tugboat’s hopelessly knotted mooring line. The leaves were delicate, a light drab green that was the definition of “olive.” Mark called the attendant over and asked (in his broken Arabic) how old they were. The man thought for a bit and replied, “Maybe three thousand?” Suddenly, I felt a bit less significant to the world. These very trees were older than Jesus. Read more
The three of us were crammed into the van with five other passengers as we left Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and headed out into the flat lands of Israel. The scene was strangely like traveling through California’s Central Valley with the 4-lane concrete motorway straight and smooth. On either side of the highway were vast fields of produce; cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes extending all the way to the foothills in the distance. The soil was naturally arid, irrigation bringing abundant life; without it, the floor of the plain would revert to the brown barrenness that it had been for centuries prior. In another 45 minutes we would reach Jerusalem, but first we would have to climb some 700 meters in elevation.
As we ascended into the hillsides, the cooler climate of the higher elevation allowed conifers to grow with surprising success, considering the lack of rainfall; a few at first, followed by stands, then small forests. Weaving through the trees, we turned off at an interchange and headed around a traffic circle. Suddenly, we were transported into tan-colored, endless suburbs.
Our driver seemed to know where he was going: a right, followed by two lefts. Two more rights and another half-dozen or so lefts and we reached the first stop: a nondescript concrete block of flats. The driver confirmed with Passenger #1 that this was The Place without ever needing to extinguish his cigarette. He finally ended his phone conversation in time to help pull Passenger #1’s luggage out of the back doors. Back in the driver’s seat, he slotted the Sprinter into first gear, checked his mirrors, took a drag on his smoke, and dialed his fourth call as we pulled into the street.
It was all becoming a bit overwhelming. I was on my way to spend two weeks exploring Israel and Palestine, with the help of another high-school friend, Mark. Mark and his wife Andrea were teaching English in a Palestinian high school for a couple of years and were apparently suffering from some sort of food-borne illness that made them lose all reasoning processes of the brain. Why else would they invite me to come over and stay with them?
The logistics were on the sketchy side, as well. Our mutual high-school buddy Jeff would be flying up from Honduras (where he had been living for a year or so)through Dallas-Ft. Worth to Newark, NJ. I would be taking the train from Pennsylvania to Newark International Airport and meet up with him with an easy 3 hours to spare before our flight left for Tel Aviv. We would catch a taxi in Tel Aviv to take us up to Jerusalem. No problems that I could foresee. Read more