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The Promised Forbidden Land

Posted by on Jun 23, 12:20 PM
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What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold; what you give in sickness is silver; what you give after death is lead.
-A Jewish proverb

Damascus is said to be the “oldest continuously inhabited city on earth”. It feels that way. Following a week of violent illness induced by some army of bacteria that had carefully concealed itself in something I had imbibed somewhere – I don’t know where – I was finally able to enjoy the adventure in Syria again, the frequency of my visits to the toilet gradually subsiding from every ten minutes to an acceptable three times a day. The open-air terrace of a quiet and funky guest house was our home for four nights. Damascus is the city that Saint Paul visited immediately Dead Seafollowing his apparition and conversion; where he was baptised and later lowered from the wall in a basket by night to escape his end at the hands of the infuriated Jews. Over a thousand years later this same city was besieged by the crusaders. Had they won Damascus the crusades almost certainly would have been successful; since they did not, the crusades inevitably ended in failure. There is more to tell about this city than I have the time and space for so I will leave the rest to the history books and the occasionally dubious annals of Wikipedia.

Our $16 value-visa (a visa costs $130 if you apply for it in at the Syrian embassy in the U.S. – as one is officially supposed to do) to Syria was money well spent; however, the 15-day visa itself was nearly spent. In exchange for more time to do other things, we took luxurious coach ride to the capital of Jordan: Amman. Monastery of Saint GeorgeImmediately the change in scenery was apparent. It was not so much the landscape, which was painted the same dull brown, but the lack of roadside litter, which in Syria covers the roadsides like so much perpetual filthy snow. A few days in Amman were enough to see that the Jordanians (who are mostly Palestinians) are a subdued, reserved, refined people in comparison to their neighbors up north, whose cowboy-like, unabashed gregariousness more than twice put me off (“Weelcome! Weelcome!”). I hold in high esteem the astounding generosity and unparalleled helpfulness of the Syrians, but sometimes I just wanted to be alone. I digress…

There is not too much to say about Amman. We did not visit Wadi Rum. We did eat _felafel: lots of felafel; and a desert called a href=“” target=”_blank”>chnafa: A gooey layer of cheese topped with crispy, sugar-syrup-infused goodness and crushed pistachios. Pastéis de Belém, watch out… You have competition!!

I made the heinous faux pas of using the name “Israel”…

DonkeysA long descent to the Jordan River near the Dead Sea and into the infernal climate of the bone-dry desert was our path to Israel. Amman lies at 900 meters (around 3000 feet) above sea level, the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth – lies at 422 meters (around 1300 feet) below sea level. One can guess at the temperature differential. It was about 45C (120F) in this lower ring of Hades when we arrived, and the agenda was to pass over the Allenby Bridge into Israel as quickly as we may. Asking the way to the bridge from several different people on the road yielded no fruit. I made the heinous faux pas of using the name “Israel” when asking for the border and the Scorpionpoor persons uneasily broke eye contact and hastily replied “I don’t speak English.” My mistake: I should have used the name “Palestine” (75% of the population in Jordan is made up of Palestinians – refugees or descendants of refugees). As a side note, one cannot Jerusalem Signeven murmur “Israel” (or anything about Syrian politics) in Syria in public without risking a conversation with the secret police. Some American students in Damascus recently used to refer to the place as “Disneyland” when the subject came up in conversation, however the Syrian KGB have learned that one, too.

A car filled with Ultra-Orthodox Jews inadvertently led Randall and I to the bridge. We were informed that the bridge had closed an hour before. It was one o’clock in Bilal Abu Khalafthe afternoon. “Come back tomorrow between 8 and 12,” said the official. “8am.”
“Can we camp here?” I asked, the area being relatively clean and quiet, by in ternational border standards.
The official, surprised: “No! This is a military zone. You can camp in the Dead Sea area. There are a lot of places there. You can camp for free.”

Yoram, Holy SepulchreIt was the hottest part of the day, and we floated (one could not sink in this critically salinous water if it were their utmost intention) for a long spell just off the muddy shore of the garbage-covered public beach. This saltiest of water left me feeling as though my skin were coated with oil. I took a fitful nap in the shade of my bicycle. Apparently it is impossible to remove the thick, oily-feeling layer of salt without a shower, so each of us paid to hose ourselves off with water from a tank-truck in a makeshift shower stall built from old canvas on the beach. We found a banana plantation to camp on and the workers there proved that marvelous Arab hospitality is not exclusive to Syria by filling us full of sweet tea, pita with tuna fish and a large communal dish of stewed chilies and tomatoes in olive oil, as if it were expected of them to treat us as honored guests.

A shortcut through Jericho, a Palestinian territory of the West Bank where Israelis are not allowed to visit…

The Israeli border officials were nearly all well armed, very young and attractive. If you haven’t guessed it, Syria and Israel are not the best of buddies and our appointed officer, a slender, dark haired Jewess, was highly interested in the Organsminute details of our sashay in Syria. Satisfied with my answers, we were finally allowed to begin our way to Jerusalem, at the height of the day. “Welcome to Israel,” we were greeted with smiles. A shortcut through Jericho, a Palestinian territory of the West Bank where Israelis are not allowed to visit (there is very little risk for tourists), on an anterior road into the mountains lead us above a stunning desert gorge that was spotted No Israeliswith the ancient caves of Christian hermits, the climate being too fierce and barren for all but the most penitent. I don’t know if the caves are still in use. However, there is an active Greek Orthodox Monastery, the Monastery of Saint George, planted in the gorge that is only accessible only by an impossibly steep road.

VirginWe climbed into Jerusalem late in the afternoon, parched and dizzy from want of food. I had not acquired enough food in Jericho for the punishing climb to the holy city and was reduced to eating melted butter and shooting honey with protein powder. Providentially, Randall met some Canadians from Vancouver who took us out for some juicy hamburgers and beer, then Turkish coffee at their flat. We had the good fortune to stay with exactly the right people near the Holy City for several days. Yoram and Tali are relatives of Haim Bar, of whose character we will elaborate on in West Bank Wallsubsequent posts. They are an endearing and profoundly interesting couple with two young daughters in the military and themselves in a state of semi-retirement. Yoram, the victim of an accident involving a ladder, took us for two private, most exceptional tours of the Old City at the risk of further damage to his his person. We visited each of the quarters of the city, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Holy Sepulchre, and all the rest and absorbed a most in-depth commentary. Another place of note was the shop of an Arab friend of his, Bilal Abu Khalaf, who during renovation of the floor discovered that he was standing on the roof of a the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Maggiore! The floor of his textiles shop is now made of glass with lighting underneath so that the customers can see the archaeological wonder underneath.

TaliThe documentaries of Yoram’s were cut with care and full of insight into the ethnic and religious struggle in this monumentally significant vortex of civilization. “Holy Fire” delves into the controversy of religion in the old city of Jerusalem, the most holy city of Judaism and Christianity and one of the most important also for Islam. Using mainly interview footage to shed light on the issues he exposes the sociopolitical intricacies of the places that these communities are in strife over. “The Olive Press” tackles the question of the “Settlers”: Orthodox Jewish nationalists who build their own settlements in the West Bank and other Palestinian territories with the intention of…well…you will just have to watch it!

HaimOn the way to Nazareth via Tel Aviv we stayed with Ran Pergamin and his wife Daniella, and did not ride “some of the best singletrack in Israel” that lies just outside his back door. Not yet. We did put down some delicious beer and meals. A hot 140 km in the saddle makes a frosty mug that much more satisfying. Well-recovered from the previous ride we took an easy spin to Nazareth, which was for me an unexpected treat. It is the largest Arab town in the Israel that is home to a large Christian minority. The Christian Arabs of the country are in the most difficult position of all; pressured in matters of faith on the part of their Muslim neighbors and at the same time not loved by a portion of the Jews as a result of their ethnicity. So one could say that these people are in a sort of crossfire.

Maoz Inon, co-founder of the Jesus Trail and a young Jewish entrepreneur, formed a relationship with the an Arab Christian family in Nazareth (not a common occurrence) and over some time renovated their 200-year-old mansion into a world class guesthouse. Our stay of two nights at the Fouzi Azar Inn set the new standard for me in terms of guesthouses. Nothing was wanting, and the mansion is inviting, clean, well-equipped and architecturally superb. A hearty Arabian breakfast in the dining room prepares one for the comprehensive tour of the Old City led by a staff member and kicked off by Suraida, one of the Fauzi Azar Inngranddaughters of the inn’s namesake. I had the great pleasure of finally meeting Haim Bar in this inn. A former acquaintance from Randall’s past life as a barista at UBCC, Haim may just be our biggest fan… at least our biggest fan in the Middle East! In the months leading up to our visit to Israel Haim tirelessly arranged more exciting opportunities and hospitality in the Holy Land than we could hope to take advantage of in the time we had allotted; he met us at the Fauzi Azar (a stay which he had also setup for us) with a freshly baked cake from his dear wife Michal, whom I had yet to meet. During these two days there was ample time for us to visit the holy places of the city and taste “the best hummus in Israel” in preparation for the next leg of our Holy Land experience: The Sea of Galilee!

This post was composed at 40,000 feet above the Persian Gulf and Iraq on our return to Istanbul from our connection in Dubai.


  1. thank you!
    My heart pounding now. (haimglish?)

    — haim bar · Jun 23, 01:19 PM · #

  2. I sent you a private mail :)

    Thank You turned us part of the journey
    You are unique people
    Love & Kisses & Health & Peace
    See you soon …

    — Michal.R.Bar · Jun 23, 10:16 PM · #

  3. Thanks, you two, for making it such a memorable time in your little country. It was tough to leave…but I’m sure we’ll be back someday.

    I’m getting all teary-eyed. ;)

    — Andrew Leese · Jun 24, 12:13 AM · #

  4. Very nice. wellcome to Israel. you have a geographicale mistake – Jericko is not a part of Palestine it is all ISRAEL. But it is claimes to be Paletinien and I srael gave it up for peace (…. a worng idea)…

    hope you will come again.

    — Eyal · Jun 24, 07:39 AM · #

  5. אייל
    בבקשה שלח לי מייל פרטי.
    אני חייב להגיד לך משהו שלא במסגרת זו.



    — haim bar · Jun 24, 09:24 AM · #

  6. my email:

    — haim bar · Jun 24, 09:29 AM · #

  7. Eyal, I see your point, but Jericho, to my knowledge, is officially in the West Bank and is a Palestinian Territory. As for the West Bank being an autonomous region…well… officialism aside, things are more ambiguous. Per my experience it is at least nominally autonomous but (de facto) under the care or broad control of the Israeli state. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it looks like both you and I are correct when the situation is viewed in the two different contexts.

    — Andrew Leese · Jun 25, 12:32 AM · #

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