Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

“I don’t know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler.” -Thomas L. Friedman Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about politics but anything that has to do with the Middle East inevitably gets political.  I openly admit I’m not even remotely an expert on this issues so I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve witnessed and heard and have no intentions of making strong political proclamations.  I’ll try to base most of my claims in pictures. Israel… what a place.  This modern state feels like an idealogical pre-teen in shoes too big for her feet, blowing bubbles and dispensing free hugs outside a supermarket while the world falls apart around it.  I don’t know if that’s a good metaphor.  It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been and despite all my efforts to figure out this country, it’s still hard to articulate why.  Obviously, some of the weirdness comes from the founding principles of the nation: as one of the youngest countries designated as a Jewish State in 1948 to be as a home for people persecuted from everywhere.  So it houses an incredibly random crowd, from really Orthodox Jews with curls by their ears, to post-army, pot-loving people with strange piercings to non-religious Jews who are proud of their past but barely visit the synagogue.  In its 60 years of existence, it has quickly become home people of various backgrounds, languages, cultures and foods.  Most occupants are Jewish, with American or European heritage. But then there’s Arabs, most of whom are Muslim but there’s Arab Christians, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Part of this tremendous diversity is reflected in the food, which features falafel, hummus, kebab and sabich (my new favorite- an eggplant, hummus, tahini, boiled egg, parsley pita creation) from the Middle East, couscous and grilled meats from North Africa but also schnitzel and pastries from Jews that fled Old World Europe. So it’s a bit disorienting to be in a place with all these random people running around, all kind of loud and obnoxious and in your face, the Israeli way.  There’s Orthodox Jews hitchhiking.  Female, teenage soldiers putting on blush and lipstick while wearing army uniforms.  Schoolboys in yarmulkes elbowing each other to get into the synagogue in a boisterous buzzing pack. Crazy drivers, so much noise, but if you speak above a whisper on a bus… how dare you?!?! (I got yelled at three times haha).  All of this insane activity is set to a backdrop of a Mediterranean coast which implies relaxation but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly going through checkpoints and there’s kid soldiers everywhere. Speaking of soldiers, security is yet another one of the many contradictions in Israel.  Based on my past encounters with Israeli security, Israel is one of the most tightly monitored and controlled countries (rightfully so!).  Despite being so uptight that they would not let me leave the country with my travel sized contact solution, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Israeli police are surprisingly laid back.  Drinking in public is supposedly illegal but it’s common to see people drinking at the beach or on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv (I don’t know how anyone can afford to drink at a bar, with beers usually starting at $7 for ~0.33 liters).  Marijuana is also supposedly off-limits but according to my friend, “everyone smokes pot” and clubs are clogged with it.  Graffiti is still illegal but municipal authorities usually turn a blind eye.  Furthermore, it’s no secret that most Israelis can successfully schmooze their way of speeding tickets and other minor violations with the local police. And then there’s the infrastructure.  Certain aspects of Israel are extremely modern and Westernized. As a country in a barren desert with few natural resources and water supply, the people had to be creative to survive and they are.  Israel has the largest number of startups per capita and the highest proportion of scientists, engineers and technicians worldwide.  Israeli companies have invented voice mail, anti-virus software, Uber app, electronic vehicle batteries, Video On Demand, and the list goes on and on… While this list (and the high...

Why the Middle East? And Obligatory Post About Israel Security

Why the Middle East? And Obligatory Post About Israel Security

Sorry it’s been so long since I posted but after writing a 300+ page dissertation and working on another publication, the last way I want to spend my free time is by staring at a computer screen.  Especially when the sun is shining on the side of the Mediterranean and there’s vitamin D to absorb!  But I didn’t come to the Middle East to just get  a tan so it is about time to start sharing my thoughts. First, where exactly am I going?  I have 3 weeks to spend exploring Cyprus, Jordan and Israel.  Why?  When I saw $367 round trip tickets from JFK to Israel, I decided it would be the perfect PhD graduation gift to myself, especially since I have a friend to visit in Tel Aviv.  But that’s not the only reason either.  I think it’s impossible not to be intrigued by Israel.  The land where three major religions are rooted.  An artificial country created sixty years ago and an attempt to provide a home for mis-matched Jews from everywhere.  A hotly contested area to this day.  The homeland of many people I’ve met along my journeys, who travel after finishing their time in the army.  A land unified by religion but according to Thomas Friedman, it’s a land where Jews can be themselves without worrying about obeying Jewish stereotypes abroad.  So they drink, wear jeans at weddings and be on a first name basis with everyone.  I love diverse nations and have always found Israelis incredibly laid back and open minded.  But I am also completely oblivious when it comes to politics and wanted to learn more about the current political situation without watching the news.  And I want to see Petra (preferably without breaking a bone or the onset of a debilitating disease which is what happened when I tried to visit similarly epic sites).  Based on my experiences in Egypt, I am not sure how much I will like traveling around the Middle East but it’ll be different, it’ll be interesting and unfortunately, with the political situation continuing to escalate, I don’t think it makes sense to wait. “Run from what’s comfortable.  Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.  Destroy your reputation.  Be notorious.” -Rumi So anyone who writes about their time in Israel almost always includes a border crossing tale.  Even Paul Theroux, one of my favorite writers, documents his bad moment in Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean.  I entered the area the Middle East through the Tel Aviv airport and I had no problem getting into the country. Border control at the airport asked me why I came (tourism and to see a friend).  That response was enough to get me a stamp on the paper passport insert that they use to keep track of your entry and exit (supposedly many Arabic countries won’t admit you if they see an Israeli stamp… Lebanon Iran, Libya, etc.).  When I told them my friend’s name was Erez, the security officer broke into a huge smile of approval and enthusiastically handed my passport, happy to hear a good Hebrew boy would accompany me on some of my adventures. I braced myself for an item-by-item inspection of my luggage and could not believe that I could pass through customs without sending my bags through a machine.  There wasn’t even a security guard to see me visit.  “Well, that was easy,” I thought to myself. While it doesn’t make too much sense to me, it seems getting in is easy part of traveling in Israel.  I was arriving in Israel on a Saturday afternoon, right in the middle of sabbat, when Israeli public transportation doesn’t operate as normal.  I didn’t buy a Jordan Visa in advance so the closest border crossing (King Hussein bridge) wasn’t an option.  After 15 hours on planes, I did not want to deal with an uncertain crossing into Jordan so a week or two I bought flights for 5 days in Cyprus, leaving directly to Jordan.  After a few hours in the Israeli airport waiting for the plane to Cyprus, I was briefly questioned by an airport security who wanted to know why I would fly to Israel, just to fly to Cyprus.  I explained my situation, showed her some documents and then she nodded and left me alone.  “That wasn’t bad,” I thought to myself. Where I ran into issues was getting out.  The Israeli airport recommends you arrive at least 2.5 hours before departure and luckily, I started the process 3 hours before my flight.  The first part of the process involved investigation.  The security guard flipped through every page of my passport and barraged me with questions, especially about my stamps in Indonesia, Malaysia,...