Saturday, April 28, 2012


We had been surprised when our guide, Rivka, launched into a vigorous tirade about the ultra Orthodox as soon as the tour started. She claimed their women did nothing but have babies while the men lived on State handouts while they studied the Talmud in a yeshiva. The most radical denied the existence of the State and were exempt from serving in the army she told us with disgust. It was apparent that even among those of her religion there was plenty of tension. We let her comments pass unquestioned but when we arrived at our Jerusalem hotel on a Friday afternoon we hurried to the ultra-Orthodox district, Mea Shearim, to see who she was talking about. Near the entrance to the quarter signs advised women to cover up for modesty. I complied.

It wasn't long before the Sabbath warning horn sounded. Men, wearing high boots and and caftans, held on to their fur hats as they hurried home. The large hats were brimmed with luxurious sable or martin. Even in a city of religious garb, cassocks, birettas and cowls, head scarves, crocheted caps, yarmulkes, turbans and prayer shawls, their appearance was otherworldly, as if people from16th century shtetls in dank Poland had suddenly been transported to the sun and heat of a land of olive trees and cypresses. A little boy, one hand holding his father’s and sucking his other thumb as they headed for home, looked serious and pale with his red hair dropping in a shoulder length curl on each side of his ears. He frowned at us, nosy interlopers that we were.         
The next day we rambled through crowded streets of the Old City absorbing the atmosphere within the ancient walls. Beautiful domes and spires reaching into the blue sky belied the fight for religious or temporal power going on at ground level. Christians dragged or carried large wooden crosses down the narrow Via Dolorosa. It was packed with other less overt pilgrims with Bibles in hand; tourists in brief tee-shirts, shorts and baseball caps; merchants screaming our their wares; and the Orthodox, heads down and hiding under their prayer shawls, trying to make their way to the Wailing Wall. If someone had shouted “fire,” or more likely, used a slingshot to cast a stone like David against Goliath, we would have been trampled to death in a stampede. In a small plaza, we came across a car with the windows covered with paper. The police were standing around looking at it. A bomb, a body? Just another day in Israel.

 The Arab quarter had stalls selling clothing, dried beans and fruit, sandals, and cheap videos. Idle youths propped up the walls. Elderly men with old suit jackets over their white robes, checked headdresses held in place with a cord, worry beads and canes led loaded donkeys. Women, in their long gowns and headscarves, hurried along as they did their shopping, children in tow.

We left the Old City by the Damascus Gate. An Israeli soldier with an Uzi sat in the small window overlooking the square. Other soldiers screamed at the Palestinians or drove through the thick crowds in their military vehicles with little care for anyone’s safety, blowing their horns and waving guns.  Our goal was the Rockefeller Museum, located on the site where Crusaders stormed the city in 1099. No one wanted to let us in until our motives were ascertained. We looked innocent although a guard shadowed us as we wandered the rooms empty of visitors but filled with artifacts from every period of history. On the way out we noticed that the roof was crammed with antennae of every sort, no doubt having nothing to do with artifacts from the prehistoric era. 
We walked to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the only peaceful site we found even though sirens sounded in the distance and a slight smell of tear gas wafted near the giant olive trees in the beautiful garden, the setting for betrayal.

A temporary lull in the perpetual contest for power allowed a visit to the Temple Mount where Solomon’s Temple housed the Ark of the Covenant until it was destroyed in 587 BC by Nebuchadnezzar.  Nothing is left of that temple although there are a few remains of the Second Temple built by Herod. The area fell into ruin until the arrival of the Moslems in AD 638. They cleaned it up and built two famous mosques. The mosaic-encrusted Dome of the Rock, was designed by Christian architects – a rare example of ecumenism. The golden-domed octagonal building surrounds a rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac and Mohammed temporarily ascended into heaven astride his horse. The King of Jordan was assassinated there by fanatics in 1951. The silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque nearby was built on the ruins of a Byzantine basilica.  Some years later it was damaged by gunfire and then a crazed Australian tried to burn it down.

But the only violence that we wanted to see was not in evidence:  the dark and dreary Church of the Holy Sepulcher where priests and monks from six Christian communities regularly battle it out with brooms over who controls what piece of the building. The Franciscans, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopians, Copts, Armenians and Syrians were otherwise occupied that day as we tried to think holy thoughts in a circus atmosphere with dozens of guides herding their noisy charges around the sacred monument. Jesus would have turned over in his grave, if He had one.
Near the King David Hotel, where Jewish terrorists blew up one wing in 1946 killing many British soldiers, shop windows were loaded with silver menorahs and other Jewish ritual objects. Next to the Dallas Kosher Oriental “Restaurent” with a cowboy on a horse painted on their window, we found a small shop with old coins, Roman glass and other antiquities. Resting by the door was a basket containing partial pieces of opalescent glass. Lured by blue green patina, we picked up a piece and bought it for a small sum. It was the top half of a bottle or a jar. When we looked at it more closely we could see that it was packed with ash from some ancient disaster.

Down, down to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. We shared the ever-shrinking Sea with war veterans covered with scars trying to ease their aches in the greasy-feeling mineral warmth of the buoyant water. Masada’s rocky outcrop, where Herod’s fortress once stood and the Zealots held out against the Romans, loomed over the Sea. As we rode to the top in a cable car, soldiers in training were running up the steep path. Pieces of Roman columns lay on the ground. Roman numerals, still clear, showed which piece should be connected to its mate. When we looked over the sides of the fortress, the desert soil revealed the outline of Roman encampments and the ramp used by their army in AD 73 to end the three-year siege. When they entered the ruins, the Romans found 960 bodies of the Jewish Zealots who died rather than submit to Rome. 

Worn out with an overdose of violent history, we were happy to head to Eliat, Israel’s Red Sea port and playground, stopping at the purported site of King Solomon’s mines where Egyptians mined copper as early as 3000 BC, long before Solomon existed. We climbed the high rocks and then, back at the bus, watched as several of our tour group overestimated their climbing abilities, unable to find their way down. Time was passing and the sun was setting. Glenn climbed up to lead them back from their mini adventure.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Bone to Pick - Part I

The weather at home was cold and damp. We wanted to go someplace warm and dry. On my lunch hour I contemplated the travel brochures displayed in the window of a travel agency next door to my office. Mexico, the Caribbean…or where? Lured inside by the thought of sunshine, I spotted the agent who looked like a pixie with her gamin haircut. She wore a tunic and brown hose with little green suede shoes that curled up at the toes. I asked her for some ideas, expecting from her appearance to be sent to rainy Ireland. Instead, she said a stack of flyers for a tour of Israel had recently arrived. “Would you like one?” “Why not?”

The itinerary of the two week tour covered all the tiny country from the Lebanese border and Golan Heights to the Red Sea. Tipping the scales in favor was the opportunity to see the cradle of Christianity and a day trip to ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery, home of the Burning Bush, located near the tip of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. We had been in Egypt several years before to see the standard sights but hadn’t had the time to leave the Nile Valley. The next lunch break I handed over my credit card.

We landed in Tel Aviv at dawn. We had hours to start looking around before meeting the tour group; not a minute to waste. Buildings from the 1930s designed in the Bauhaus International style were glowing white in the morning sun. Awnings over the stalls in the Carmel Market sheltered piles of fresh fruit and vegetables and other odds and ends typical of the Levant – spices, nuts, dried fruit and olives in burlap sacks. We wandered to the ancient town of Jaffa. The Greeks believed that Perseus on his winged horse rescued Andromeda from a rock in the harbor. In Biblical tradition, it was founded by Noah’s son Japheth after the Flood and was where Jonah was cast ashore after his adventure with the whale. As part of its great trading history, it served as the port for the cedars of Lebanon used in the construction of Solomon’s Temple. By the time we arrived it was a picturesque suburb filled with souvenir shops, a flea market and restaurants for tourists.

When our group met in the lobby, our guide introduced herself as Rivka. Fluent in Arabic along with Hebrew, Swedish and English, she had served as a translator for prisoner exchanges after wars with Egypt and was an expert in local history. Her flock was an odd assortment of Americans all with different motivations for the trip: elderly Jews who would stay on after the tour to try to find their relatives, young non-observant Jews wanting to see Israel with the ease of a tour, a couple on their honeymoon who dragged their new Burberry coats along in the heat everywhere they went, an  elderly Sunday school teacher desperately trying to understand the New Testament about which he seemed to know nothing, the nominally Christian  like ourselves, and a youngish man in brown polyester with shifty eyes and cowboy boots who lurked on the fringe and kept to himself. Each of us would incorporate our own backgrounds and motivations to see Israel through different lenses.

The next morning our tour commenced: baggage out by 7 a.m., group on the bus by eight.  The complex, entangled layers of history were immediately on display; a palimpsest where one civilization rubbed out another. Hatred and violence were a constant, never-ending theme at every site. We tramped through Iron-age sites like tiny Meggido (Armageddon), Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and their mosaics, Crusader castles, ancient synagogues, mosques and churches and those of more recent times. Our Sunday school teacher entertained us regularly with, “I didn’t know that!!”  The man in brown polyester sat in the back of the bus, alone.

In Haifa, the Persian flower gardens of the oft-persecuted Baha’i sect overlooked the site where a few boats managed to bring Jews to the Promised Land after running the British blockade after World War II. We stopped at the Lebanese border where a sign painted on a rock said Beirut 120 km, Jerusalem 205 km. That was the physical distance, but the mental distance seemed more like from there to the moon. We were near the entrance to a railroad tunnel, part of the tracks built in the Ottoman era. I expected Lawrence of Arabia to ride out leading his Arab insurgents on their stallions. Instead, a wedding was in process. The groom was attended by his fellow soldiers dressed in battle fatigues and carrying Uzis; the bride was in a shiny white gown covered in ruffles and flourishes. We joined in wishing them well while wondering about their future.

Back in the bus, the TV was turned on. CNN was showing pictures of tanks being hauled on low-boys toward some threatened destination. I looked out the window:  there were the very tanks. Rivka assured us there was no problem, but our evening’s destination, a kibbutz, was in the same direction. On arrival we were treated to a view of their bomb shelter and a children’s playground with a half-buried Syrian MIG where it came to rest after being shot down. The current shooting was near the next kibbutz to the north. We were restless thinking about the stress of living in such an unstable environment and worrying that the current fighting might come our way.

 More Middle-East politics confronted us when we viewed Israel from the Golan Heights. We drove half-way up the mountains on a road lined with signs warning of landmines. We stopped at a viewpoint. Above us were communications towers and below us was the country. The Jordan River looked to be a creek. Nearby was an Israeli monument to the fallen, small pebbles of remembrance instead of flowers scattered on the flat surface. Wreaths made of dried grasses and wildflowers hung on black steel anti-tank barricades. 

Safed, the center of Jewish mysticism was next on our itinerary. On the way we passed burned out buses and trucks from the 1947 war when Palestinians were forced out. Our strange cowboy-booted companion bought piles of rams’ horns and, in an uncharacteristic burst of volubility, told us that they were for a new sect he had founded in prison. No one could think of anything to say other than, “that’s interesting,” while picturing men in black and white stripes blowing on the horns in an exercise yard. Not wanting rams’ horns, I spotted a copper coffee pot that I thought had Arabic calligraphy as a decoration. After hearing the price, I countered with a slightly lower offer. The vendor looked at me and said, “If you want it, lady, pay the price.” I meekly paid. Later I looked more closely at my purchase - it wasn't calligraphy, it was a dragon and the spout when turned upside down was an elephant's head. Where did this object come from? Was it fake, was it real from some exotic place. Who knows? 

Nazareth has an enormous Franciscan church honoring the Virgin Mary with the nave lined with gigantic mosaics picturing her in the costume of the country that donated the panel. The Japanese donation was eye-catching with Mary in a kimono. Rather than view the church, two elderly Jews wandered off. We waited on the bus while Rivka searched the narrow streets and passages. By the time she found them they were hysterical with fear at being lost among local Palestinians. She led them back to the bus where they sobbed and comforted each other on the way to our next stop.         

We arrived in golden-hued Jerusalem, the medieval center of the world and the holy city of various aspects of God. It was a Friday; the Jewish Sabbath started at sundown.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stomach Troubles

Wilson Airport in Nairobi was busy though it was barely dawn. Single-engine planes lined up for takeoff, one after the other. “Where are they going?” I asked. The answer: “To Somalia, to deliver khat.” Bags and bundles of the narcotic herb were being loaded into other small planes while I waited along with several United Nations staff to fly to Lokichokio.

After an hour’s flight near the Rift Valley, we landed on a runway where some of the parked planes had bullet holes to show for their efforts to provide aid in the protracted conflict in southern Sudan. The settlement, no more than 20 miles from the Sudanese border, was populated by the native Turkana tribe, Sudanese refugees, termite mounds, herds of donkeys and goats, and aid organization offices. Turkana people wearing only a few beads sat in front of their grass covered huts, without interest in us. Dispirited refugees squatted in insufficient shade provided by stick-roofed shelters.

The isolated airstrip was used to air drop food to desperate Christian and animist Sudanese under attack from the Moslem Janjaweed militia. This militia, made up of nomadic tribesmen, was supported by the Sudanese government who used them as a proxy to drive out the sedentary farming population and force them to surrender the land rich in resources. Janjaweed means “devils on horseback,” an apt name for the massacres and rapes they perpetrated. The militia sometimes pursued aid workers along with the rebels. Another bloody game in which the innocent starved.

The airport consisted of a fuel dump, small control tower and several rub halls, huge tents that aid agencies use to store emergency supplies. The tents held tins of cooking oil and grain and legumes ready to be triple bagged and loaded on an old twin engine Canadian Buffalo airplane, a design known for its ability to take off and land on short airstrips. Sweating workers were slinging 120 pound sacks of food into the plane’s cargo area. The sacks were to be air-dropped as the plane flew at an altitude of only 1600 feet to help ensure the bags didn’t break on landing. Food aid monitors had already marked drop points on the other side of the border awaiting the delivery. Village headmen were ready to gather the bags and oversee distribution to women who had registered their families, the amount doled out depending on the family size and ages. Did I want to go on a flight? Yes I did, but with no authorization from the Sudanese authorities, it was too much of a chance. Instead, I watched the plane lumber down the airstrip and take off over the brush covered hills to return empty an hour or so later.

Lunch was served in a cafeteria used by the aid workers where Western food was supplemented by local food for the Kenyans. I was hungry after the early start and scooped up spicy goat stew, tough but tasty. The aid workers’ simple accommodations had insect ridden thatch-roof huts and communal showers. No TV. Only the most adventurous and self-sufficient took these jobs and even they didn’t stay more than a year or two. Part of the reason for my trip was to talk to these workers to assess the need for expanding our counseling service which attempted to assist them in coping with the rigorous and dangerous conditions. A need for the program was obvious when women food aid monitors told me about running for their lives and hiding in the scrub for days to escape the Janjaweed marauders before being rescued.

Mission accomplished and dusk falling, I was glad to get on the 20-passenger plane for the flight back to Nairobi. Fellow passengers on the homebound leg were a few UN workers and several extremely tall, thin and blue-black Sudanese, silent and dignified in their white robes and turbans.

My hotel was the Norfolk, with little plaques on some room doors where Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemmingway had slept, although Ernest was said to have spent most of his time in the bar. I sat on the veranda in the early evening watching business people relaxing over bottles of Tusker beer and vans rolling up, sliding open their doors and gathering up Americans wearing their brand-new safari outfits. They were all trying to look like Robert Redford in Out of Africa as they ventured out to the bush for a few days’ sightseeing in the game parks. Across the street, students were loudly protesting some issues at the nearby university. The power went out.

The breakfast buffet the next morning was extravagant in its variety and I assumed the fruit had all been carefully washed. Within two hours I was vomiting uncontrollably and having the DTs while lying in the UN infirmary. Although the doctor wasn’t much impressed I had visions of a lonely death while being besieged by imaginary wild animals and ghosts. So much for my brave African adventure. After the more unpleasant symptoms abated, the office director’s wife hauled me off to their home where I slept off the remainder of the problem, dozing with the faint smoke of the mosquito coil keeping me company.

My rescuers were hosting a party that evening. I managed to pull myself together and lurch out into the garden to make a late appearance. The house was a fortress: guards with their leashed German shepherds, broken glass topping the garden walls and bars on the windows. Talk at the party turned to the dangers in Nairobi where the chief of security for the UN had been murdered in a carjacking. Out of the corner of my eye I could see two men leaping over a hedge. Good God, were we going to be attacked? No, it was the guards on patrol.

The next evening, I waited for an old unmarked taxi to take me to the airport. It was too dangerous for a UN vehicle to drive the route after dark due to the many carjackings of their desirable nearly new SUVs. The airport was in disrepair. Empty sockets stared at me in place of ripped out video monitors. The flight back to the bounty and peace of Rome gave me time to think about the unhappy lives of those caught in the middle of never-ending violence.
Excerpt from Coins in the Fountain
Photo of Sudan courtesy BBC