Growing up on a steady diet of Leon Uris and Lapierre-Collins, I’ve always been fascinated by Israel/Palestine. Reading the Old Testament when I was older intensified the fascination. So naturally, when my mum-in-law offered to plump the entire family an an all-expense paid trip to the Holy Land, I was first in line, clutching my New Community Bible and my Lonely Planet in my hand and warbling Daliah Lavi’s Jerusalem into the ears of the jaded gents at the desi immigration desk.
Driving across the border from Jordan, the first sight of the Star of David fluttering upon the Israel flag is stirring. The Israeli government gives you the option of a stamp on your passport or a disposable paper visa (in case you want to visit countries not ‘friendly’ with Israel), and after much heated discussion, we decided to bravely Take the Stamp.
The Sea of Galilee
The children kept a lookout for the lurking Masood (their on-purpose mangling of ‘Mossad’) but Galilee was gloriously, sumptuously biblical and very peaceful. On a cruise upon the Sea of Galilee (the official water upon which Jesus walked), the sailors surprised us by playing the Jana Gana Mana and hoisting the Indian flag in our honour. They did point out the Golan Heights with perhaps too much proprietary pride though, stressing they’ve been occupied and administered by Israel since 1967 when they were captured from Syria during the Six-Day War.
The City of David
The Lonely Planet credits the Seven Arches Hotel with the best panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem—and sure enough, as we tucked into the inevitable pita bread, 15 kinds of bell peppers and hummus (the warring in the region has spilled into food too, with the Association of Lebanese Industrialists seeking a hummus patent, claiming the Israelis have ‘stolen’ their national dish), we could see glistening before us perhaps the most contested territory on earth—the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims everywhere as the site of the Prophet’s miraculous night journey into Heaven—built bang in the centre of the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish Holiest of Holies, the place which Almighty God, Yahweh himself, chose for the Divine Presence to rest.
Present-day locals seem marvellously chilled out about all this. A spirit of brisk enterprise operates in the flea markets lining the Via Dolorosa—the most solemn street in Christendom, situated in the heart of the Muslim quarter. You can pick up hands of Fatima, stars of David and crucifixes for the same secular price of 2 shekels each, while T-shirts with ‘Israel’ typed inside a Google search window and ‘did you mean: Palestine?’ written underneath put you back 10 shekels. All buildings in Jerusalem have to, by law, be built using the same creamy-ochre, rough-textured Hebron, making it difficult sometimes to tell if you’re standing inside Pontius Pilate’s house or a mobile-phone recharging booth.
The West Bank Romeos
We make the ‘border crossing’ over the grim, graffiti-festooned walls and deep trenches of the West Bank Barrier without any hiccups. Bethlehem is situated in here, and nobody wants to interfere with cash-flush Christian tourists eager to visit the Messiah’s birthplace. This side of the barrier, things seem grubbier and quieter. There is dirt and debris upon the roads and everyone’s indoors saying their prayers. But soon, the men and boys emerge (everybody looks like Salman Khan here, comments my ma-in-law’s PA, the only Muslim in our group.) Deprived of the sight of beautiful local ladies, the Palestinian men make a beeline for the women in our group, magnificently ignoring accompanying children and husbands. “Ride my camel, bootifil India!” implores one. “Lots of camels in India,” I reply, waving away both man and beast, “even my father has six camels.” “My father has 6,000,” he returns promptly, bold eyes outrageously flirtatious. “C’mon, India, let ’im carry bootifil lady today, eh?”
Ticked off by our menfolk, they retreat to serenade us with all three stanzas of Dil deke dekho from afar. They even suggest India’s a dangerous place to live in (so many bombings)! Finally they wander off, discussing a local municipality election—people are fiercely political here, and both the militant Hamas and more peaceable Fatah have equally loyal supporters.
No fighters, us
Winston Churchill’s words (we shall fight on the hills, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the streets) spring to mind often as the AC bus bearing our family group, ranging in age from 2 to 72, trundles through the deserts and hills of the Promised Land. But as everyone makes up as quickly as they fall out, we bear no resemblance to the thankless bickerers Moses led through the desert for 40 years.
The Dead Sea Sting...
Lemme tell you something the guide books won’t. The water stings your tender bits. Many dead sea dippers emerge clutching their nethers in bewildered agony and hurtle towards the showers not five minutes after getting into its slimy grip.
Adwoman-turned-writer Anuja Chauhan is the author of the The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora; E-mail your diarist: anuja.chauhan AT gmail.com