It took me a while to decide. In fact I went back and forth on this for several months. My emotions were strong in both directions... I really should go. No, really, I cannot, it's not right.
My girlfriend has a mixed background, half Chinese, half Middle Eastern. Part of her family is from Jerusalem and she even spent several years in Israel.
The time had come for her family to go visit, and they expectantly invited me to join them. On one hand, it should have been a no brainer. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins were looking forward to meet me. Mayah felt strongly about it and I, as you probably figured by now, love traveling. Oh and I love culinary traveling even more.
I hope you remember though, this was Summer 2014. Israel was leading a very polarising campaign against Hamas, in Gaza. I won't pretend I took no position. I see why Israeli civilians felt unsafe with rockets falling periodically on their current territories. They wanted to put an end to it. But what the Israel government, and parts of the military, ended up doing in Gaza, as well as what it does every day, is wrong, and I could not condone it. Also, I am Italian. Europe doesn't feel the need to almost unconditionally support Israel as much as the US does. Really there are whole books written about this. I won't get into it too much. My only point is, it took me a while to decide.
What follows is a snapshot of the little Israel I was fortunate to see, as well as a few places across the border.
The first place we visited was Jerusalem. One of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.
I guess I identify as freely spiritual at best, but I was born into a moderately Catholic family, and grew up with the classic movies about Jesus, set in Rome occupied Jerusalem. All the way from colossals like Ben-Hur, to Monty Python's Brian's Life. Seeing it in person tickled that part of my child mind that had all those images memorized, and it weirdly felt like coming home.
Jerusalem is an intensely spiritual place. It is a pivotal place for three of the major religions (with all their variations and flavours) in the world, and the result is that the old city is split into quarters. The Jewish one, the Christian, the Muslim, and one that is more historical and cultural than religious: the Armenian.
Millions of tourists and pilgrims flock into the City and the Holy Sepulchre every year. We had to squeeze through dense crowds to be able to catch a glimpse of this holy place.
Even as a culturally detached person as I am, it made a certain impression to see the Via Crucis, the places I was taught about so much, where the passion of Christ took place. It is now a bustling market in the Old City, where people of diverse backgrounds sell their specialties.
The smell of spices, bread and turkish coffee impregnate the air, and the foodie in me could not help stopping and marvelling at all the delicacies.
|Oh... the bread...|
|Turkish coffee... I could get used to it|
|A mountain of spices|
As I said, this was a family vacation, and Mayah's family really made me feel welcome and put efforts in trying to show us as much as they could in the short time we had.
|Family feast in Bet Shemesh|
We were able to visit Bet Shemesh and Tel Aviv as well as Yafo, the medieval coastal town. Bathing in the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea at sunset is something I hadn't done in many years, and it will always be in my heart.
|performers in Tel Aviv old train station|
We swam in the Dead sea. It is amazing to float so high in the water. Pro hint: don't shave. The salt will not be kind to your micro cuts. Also, pay attention to the currents, the water seems calm but but it can drag you far away from the shore, and it is impossible to swim fast with most of the body floating up.
We also climbed the Masada mountain, an impressive fortress on the cliffs, where a whole mass suicide took place. Read: a relative majority voted to have everyone (men, women and children) murdered except for a couple of survivors who managed to hide. The event made an impression on the sieging Romans, and for some twisted reason it has been hailed as heroic through the generations, all the way to today.
|the Dead Sea Scrolls|
Almost a year later, I haven't changed my mind on the constant conflict in the area. But in the end, I am glad I went. Not just because I had a great time, and it was way more peaceful and safe than the US media made it appear. But rather because I got to see how gritty, weird, complex and diverse Israel is, with all of its idiosyncrasies. In many ways, it is more real. And to me, that is more relatable and endearing.