A two-week trip in ‘The Holy Land’ wasn’t in my sights until I realised just how inexpensive the flights were between Tel Aviv and Luton, the jewel in London’s crown of airports. A few months of planning later, and still the closer I came to flying out, the more nervous I became. From my limited school study on the region I really wasn’t too sure what to expect, or how to present myself to anyone curious about why and how I was travelling. Did being a cyclist make me more at risk of questioning? Paranoid about being turned away at the airport, I hurriedly rushed last-minute through my documents, censoring myself. I was to be visiting Israel and Jordan. Palestine? It depends who’s asking.
(As per usual, my knowledge of both Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic being exceptionally poor, I will use transliterations to the best of my ability.)
Palestinians on Hoverboards
I had struggled uphill for the best part of the morning from Ahisamah, near Ben Gurion Airport, taking at first the old Burma Road built by the British during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1948, then the decidedly more modern Highway 1, the main artery for traffic between the capital and Tel Aviv. I reached the city’s western edges just before midday, but stopped to cover my tight Lycra cycling shorts with full-length trousers as I prepared to cycle through Mea She’arim, a neighbourhood famous – or to some infamous – for its ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community, regarded by some as the spiritual defenders of the Jewish faith, and by more secular parts of Israeli society as a privileged, insular, and even group. Signs adorned every entrance to the neighbourhood in English and in Hebrew warning against breaking any of the strict rules set here by the community’s rabbis, rules that have seen shops destroyed for selling MP4 players, journalists assaulted for using cameras, and riots against the Israeli state’s policy of conscription, which in 2014 was imposed upon the Haredim after a historical exemption for the ultra-Orthodox was lifted. Even though I had covered up my legs I was worried that I would offend the residents in some other way, and took no photos as I sped through the streets, taking no pictures. Despite being of a similar skin tone and facial structure to most of the people I saw, I had never felt like such a sore thumb. I was a bright yellow dot in a swirling sea of black frock coats, wide-brimmed hats and payot (the traditional unshaven locks worn by the Haredim from the temples), and I could feel the stares from the corners of eyes and from shop doorways as I sailed past. I had never seen so many people all dressed the same, but as bizarre as I found it, I had to push on to reach my hostel within the walls of the Old City.
Sunset over the Armenian Quarter. Just don’t suggest that they’re copying the Muslims with the whole giant golden dome thing.
The Old City of Jerusalem fascinated me long before I ever laid eyes on it. At once the symbol of an uneasy co-presence of the Abrahamic faiths and also the site of one of the longest-standing, emotionally-charged, and tensest divisions in modern geopolitical history, Jerusalem is riven in half by the 1949 Armistice Line on maps, which cuts neatly across the winding, stacked topographical contours of the hills on the edge of the Judean Desert with crisp, straight lines. Such modern conceptions, however, seemed to have no bearing on the dynamic chaos that greeted me as I wheeled my bike through the Damascus Gate. The sense of a city that had stood for more than three millennia was mixed with a strange modern twist, with the covered streets thronged with crowds of people browsing and buying from the (largely Muslim) shopowners who sold their wares from a myriad of arches, nooks and crannies. From fruit to falafels, religious souvenirs to lingerie, the clash of old markets and new goods lit up my smile as I slowly pushed past haggling women and arguing men.
This is not to say, however, that this felt like a Disneyish harmonious melange of people. Walking around the different quarters of the city (Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian), the tri-tonal graffiti of red, black, and green depicting Islamic stars, and the sideways glances of the IDF soldiers who stood behind their barriers on street corners, reminded me of what I had learned in school of the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’. No lines on a map can accurately render the passion and the emotion on either side of Israel’s deep divide, and as I looked out over the Western Wall, looking at the Dome of the Rock behind it, I wondered if something even vaguely like a two-state solution might be possible within my lifetime.
No amount of humour can cover the fact that there are huge tensions rippling beneath the surface of the city. (L) Graffiti in the Muslim Quarter (R) The Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque behind it
Just as it is wrong to characterise all Palestinians as stone-throwing terrorist supporters, so is it wrong to deny that there is a great deal of anger against the state of Israel, especially given the events of the past year. In February, an IDF soldier was sentenced to prison for 18 months after shooting an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in the head, and in July, three soldiers were killed by terrorists with guns and knives, after which Friday prayers were cancelled at the Dome of the Rock for the first time in 17 years. Talking to a young IDF conscript in a petrol station or a Palestinian café owner, as I was fortunate enough to do, will never give you an entire narrative of arguably the world’s longest-running geopolitical problem, but will only offer a window looking out onto a life that is not your own. I was not there to try and come to a more decisive judgement for myself. I was there to ride my bike, and to look through these windows, observing life in these new and strange countries. To see Orthodox priests wandering in their black robes, the impatient strides of Jewish tour groups towards the Western Wall, or young Palestinian children deftly rattling over the shiny foot-worn cobbles on hoverboards – which I couldn’t help but watch with envy, given they’re illegal in public in the UK – was endlessly fascinating: such marked difference within such close proximity I could hardly have imagined.
Two young Palestinians distracted from the quotidian skyline of Jerusalem by the lures of the modern world.
As much as I loved people-watching, or nosily staring into rooms and dark alleys away from the heat of the fading summer sun, I felt the pull of the road, and looked to the horizon. My sense that it was time to move on was cemented by an old man who sat in a marble-stepped doorway and beckoned to me in thick English: “Hello! Where you from?” “England”, I replied, having learned that the phrase ‘the UK’ wasn’t quite so well-known. The old man beamed: “Ah, England. Tony Blair!” With that mention of our nation’s illustrious Middle Eastern peace envoy, I felt the time was ripe to move on. The next morning, I rose from my rooftop bed to the adhan – Muslim call to prayer – ringing in chorus from minarets across the city at 5:30am. The metal doors of the shops rung with the clicking of the freewheel as I rode out of the city, before climbing up and over the Mount of Olives, down through the notorious separation barrier, and out towards the Dead Sea.
Some are born modern, some become modern, some have modernity thrust upon them. Hard to tell whether or not Jerusalem is the latter.