Middle East – Top 5 Destinations!

No. 1 – Jerusalem, Palestine

So here it is folks, the final destination on my Top 5 list. To recap, I visited 7 different countries this summer and over the past few weeks have been counting down my favourite places. The final list is:

No. 1 – Jerusalem, West Bank
No. 2 – Amman, Dead Sea, Petra & Wadi Rum, Jordan
No. 3 – Cairo, Egypt
No. 4 – Beirut, Lebanon
No. 5 – Damascus, Syria

Of all the places I had planned to visit prior to my trip, I was most looking forward to Jerusalem and the West Bank; yet, I knew it would be the hardest to get into. In the course of its history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to go there!

I planned my trip to accomodate the border entry challenges, such as visiting Syria and Lebanon prior to the West Bank, but even then as I entered the border I was fully prepared to be interrogated and even turned away. Upon consulting several of my friends/contacts who had previously attempted to enter Jerusalem – especially after visiting other Arab countries – none were lucky enough to do so, for various reasons. So needless to say, I was utterly shocked that not only did I enter, it took me less than 2 hours at the border (most people need around 8); the border officials actually apologized for even that; and they insisted to not stamp my passport so I could visit the region in the future. All this makes me think I’m on some kind of list somewhere, but the good kind!

When I did enter Jerusalem, I went straight to the Old City. Despite having an area of only 0.9 square kilometer, the Old City is home to sites of key religious importance, among them the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque (for Muslims), Temple Mount and the Western Wall (for Jews), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (for Christians). It was a truly unique experience to see people from the entire globe flock to this tiny area with so much anitcipation, fervor, and spirituality. At the hostel where I stayed, I met people of all nationalities and religions taking in the history and spirituality of the place, discussing their commonalities and differences (in a rational way), and vowing to contribute in some way to the future of such a significant city. It was mesmerizing to hear the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer), followed by church bells within a few minutes of each other. It made us feel that we can live in a world full of differences and share our unique points of view which contributes to the mosaic of life.

The old walled city, a World Heritage site, has been traditionally divided into the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters. During a tour of the different quarters, I happened to be wearing a cap with the Canadian flag on it. On my previous trips I had learned the mistake of leaving out my nationality (even the Kiwis took to me differently once they found out I was Canadian, not American); and seeing most tourists, especially our southern neighbors, travelling as Canadian imposters prompted me to showcase some kind of Canadian-ness myself. (As a side note, this technique was also a lifesaver in the Arab countries, where merchants otherwise mistook me for a wealthy visitor from the Gulf states and offered me many ‘gifts’, including women, which I had to politely turn down). So during the tour of the Old City, it turned out that half the visitors were Canadian. As we walked around the city trying to avoid the plethora of merchants, we would turn them down with a polite “no, thank you”. To which our guide quipped, “Only Canadians do that – say thank you and sorry – you’re so damn polite!”

I started chatting it up with one of the Canadian couples, and found out the wife works in Ramallah, with children. I had previously planned to venture into the West Bank but with the help of her contact – and the courage of an Australian mate, the only tourist willing to venture out with me – I decided to hit Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron; areas that are heavily guarded with military check-points and considered the ‘other side of Jerusalem’. Ramallah itself was quite unique, bustling with energy and enthusiasm. Surrounded by the Wall showcasing graffiti by local and international artists speaking out against apartheid construction, the people of Ramalla were young and vibrant, not dejected and grief-stricken as I thought they would be.

During my visit to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, I made a point to visit the Palestinian refugee camps there which were unforgettable sights. But the Palestinians living in the West Bank were in another world altogether; forced out of their homes and villages, living in horrible camps, and restricted to sub-human travel and work conditions. My Australian friend was shocked at how much scrutiny the locals had to face when crossing the check-points, especially the young adults.

Today, the status of Jerusalem remains one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which is why visiting Jerusalem was a dichotomy for me. On the one hand I was captivated by the uniqueness and history of the place, especially when visiting the Dome of the Rock and Alaqsa mosque. When I entered Islam’s third holiest site for the first time, I almost broke into tears and later was lucky enough to attend Friday prayers there. But then I also saw the thousands of Palestinians not allowed to do so, locals as old as sixty and as young as six held at check-points by the Israeli millitary. In fact, this double standard was present throughout the Old City as well as Jerusalem in general. Israel’s illegal settlements have uprooted local Palestinians to the point you can’t even tell this was once their land. Most of Jerusalem outside of the old walls looks like any other European city, while Palestinians are banished to refugee camps elsewhere. Even within the Old City are modern shopping malls and cafes, deliberately designed to showcase to the world that Jerusalem is the capital.

But there are signs of hope, especially among Israeli Jews, who sympathize with the Palestinians’ struggle. One of the highlights of my trip was visiting a village called Bil’in with local Israelis. Hundreds of Palestinians, Israeli, Spanish, French and other international supporters were resisting the construction of the Wall and showing solidarity with the Bil’in non-violent demonstrators. (Check out http://palsolidarity.org/tag/bilin for more info on Bil’in).

As I reminisce catching the amazing sunrise from a rooftop across the Dome of the Rock, I am reminded of both the hostility and warmth of Jerusalem. During my visit to the the Alaqsa mosque, an old man on a wheelchair was resting under a tree when I was taking some photos. He called me, said a few words in Arabic welcoming me to Palestine, and shook my hand. As I turned around to walk away, I noticed the gentleman had popped in a candy in my hand, an Arab tradition where the elders often hand out candies to small children. At that moment, I myself felt like a small child, dwarfed in age and experience to what the local people were enduring on a daily basis. But still, they were taking it all in stride and hope, something I believe we can all learn from.

Today, as Muslims welcome the month of Ramadan (fasting from sunrise to sunset), let us remember those who are less privileged, to whom fasting is not an option during the rest of the year. Let us vow to help ourselves to help others – regardless of their race, nationality or faith – to make the world a more just and peacefull place to live in. As the famous quote says: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

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