It’s possible I’ve posted this picture here before, because it’s one of my absolute favorites from the trip. Hiking up to the Mourne Wall this day last year was a good reminder that wall-building is a very old practice, undertaken for any number of reasons, almost an instinctive, territorial urge. Because of this, it is at once completely understandable and extremely strange that we are using this old technique for 21st century conflicts.
March 14, 2012 was split between two different countries, and two vastly different modes of travel. The first, Cyprus: warm, palm trees, airport with wifi, food and drink on the plane, well rested and light. The second: the United Kingdom: cold, poor, tired, dark, hard floor of Heathrow Terminal 1 with no 24-hour places to eat.
My first hours in the UK were rough and tense. The following morning (it doesn’t make sense to distinguish by something so arbitrary as dates in this story) I boarded a flight to Belfast which landed in a dense fog and cold mist. It was a bitter beginning to the last leg of this journey; in my run-down state, I cringed at the industrial streets of Belfast, imagining shadows around corners and in doorways.
My 24 hours in transit between these opposite corners of Europe, shifting focus between the massively different, dividing conflicts in each wasn’t exactly a typical approach to island hopping.
A year ago today, I went for a walk in the North. I recall eating a Turkish pizza for lunch on a patio in the pale but warm winter sunlight. I was told repeatedly, all over the island, that I was visiting Cyprus at the exact right time of year. A month earlier, and it would be too cold and rainy. A month later, and the lush green hillsides I had been admiring would be parched by summer heat. They were right, the weather was excellent during my stay-the best of my entire trip.
I was oddly delighted to find this little cafe less than 50 feet from the Buffer Zone in Nicosia. A lot of the buildings near the BZ were dilapidated and graffiti-covered, their owners having fallen prey to economic hardship when the UN made their location less than desirable. But here was one small establishment making the best of it by styling themselves after one of the most infamous icons of the 20th century. I had to smile.
The parallels between Nicosia and Berlin are so obvious that it is a legitimate marketing tactic to draw a comparison between the UN Buffer Zone and the Iron Curtain. Trading a little historical accuracy in exchange for name recognition, oddball kitsch, and a hip-sounding analogy seems like a decent deal to me.
There is also a prominently placed sign near the Lidra Street crossing, just above the police hut. It bears the name of the city in Greek, followed by “The Last Divided Capital” in English, French and German. The languages suggest that the sign is intended for tourists, but it’s not a marketing ploy; it reads like an epitaph. What, then, is the purpose of the sign? To remind visitors of the severeness of the Cyprus problem? To place Nicosia in the historical record? To align the city with other ‘reunified’ capitals as a message of hope? It made me feel better to note that this sign was affixed to plywood, propped between two buildings; it looked temporary.
I lived three blocks from the most famous Shuk in Jerusalem, and it was fantastically convenient. At first, I was super nervous to buy food there because I had no language skills to tell shopkeepers that I wanted some broccoli, or worse, to hear how much I owed them after they weighed the produce on their scale. But I got over it before too long, I was regularly using a mixture of English and pointing to buy fresh fruit and veggies, pita bread, small sweets, and once, this excellent Taybeh Beer. (I still haven’t seen these in the States…) Mediterranean cuisine is probably my favorite in the world; it spans so many regions and cultures, and is by definition fresh and light. One of the best things about Jerusalem is the variety of foods it has brought close together through a tangled but delicious history.
Last year on this day, I went on a wild goose chase around the Palestinian Territories just north of Jerusalem. The result was a meeting with the man pictured above, whose struggle with his property status, the wall, the Israeli army, etc. was so similar to that of another man I’d been trying to find, that I’m still not sure whether or not I missed my true target. This is remarkable and telling in and of itself, but what I didn’t discuss last year was how I got here in the first place.
Word of mouth is always a tricky thing to chase. I must have been feeling extremely adventurous because I headed to Ramallah with a vague description of a man who’s house was entirely surrounded by the wall and lived in Biddu, or some village close by. The promise that “everyone knows who he is” obviously emboldened me.
Ramallah was loud and busy as I began the delicate process of finding a cab-it’s tricky because you have to first speak with the cab boss, who is always shrewd and never the actual cab driver you will be assigned to. So when I asked for a driver who spoke English, I was not entirely surprised when I discovered, a few minutes after driving out of town, that I had been lied to.
The cab driver was decent and earnest, but we simply could not understand each other. He drove in the direction of Biddu and for the next hour and a half, we picked up an assortment of people that the driver knew in small villages along the way, most of whom spoke a little English. Between myself, the driver, and various guests, we took some guesses at locations to investigate. Was it a Christian monastery on a green hillside? Nope. Down this road? No, try the other side of the bridge.
Eventually, we found someone who seemed to understand my quest and directed us to a small house surrounded by red dirt. Its front door was overlooking a shallow green bowl of land filled with olive trees and cordoned off by a section of the wall. The house wasn’t exactly surrounded quite like I understood from my source, but I was willing to settle.
No one was there, so we drove into town where the homeowner was at work in his shop. I suddenly found myself sharing lunch with 5 or 6 other Palestinian men: pita, tomatoes, yogurt, and some kind of meat. They were generous and I was surprisingly hungry. Eventually, I spoke to this man; he spoke excellent English, luckily.
It literally took a village to lead me there and the path was strange, but not unpleasant, though I’m still not sure where it took me. And I can’t believe I ever thought I’d find where I was trying to go.
I just checked, and I didn’t take a single photo on any of the Sabbaths I spent in Jerusalem, which is not entirely surprising, but an impressive fact. I did, however, do a good deal of reading on Saturdays, finishing the entirety of Middlesex and part of Let the Great World Spin. These novels were a wonderful escape from the often-depressing political articles I read every other day of the week. I also recall reading a publication by Breaking the Silence which was excellent, but not relaxing, and it occurs to me that I perhaps should have considered it a form of work.
After 4 years at a rigorous college where I was a double major, this whole not-working thing was sort of a delicious challenge, and it grew to be something I took refuge in. My friend Mori, who I was living with, is the most active activist I have ever met and works his butt off for 6 days a week. But many times, I heard him turn down an invitation for a Saturday protest or action, his philosophy being that the day of rest enabled his other work. By this time last year, I had developed a deep respect for this philosophy, and understood its necessity.
I sometimes feel uncomfortable or insecure when I don’t have a clear objective at a given moment. I guess you could call this a good habit, but I think it sometimes gets in the way of what could be valuable reflection or wandering. Trying out Shabbat was a nice step to slowing down, if only a little, if only for a day.