[Lest malarial hallucinations wipe away my experiences in conflict zones, I decided to share my holidays with loved ones in Israel and the West Bank. This is the first post in a series chronicling some of our experiences.]
"For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity of from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect." -Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
With Cairo a 7-hour drive behind us, we watched the sun rise over the water at the Eilat border crossing into Israel. As we took in the landscape of sharp-peaked mountains and glistening water with Jordan in the horizon, we caught sight of a soldier in khakis and a sweatshirt smoking a cigarette - with a sizable gun strapped to his back. Tellingly, this was not the most bizarre match-up of attire, circumstance, demeanor and ammunition we encountered in our time in Israel. Thus forms a recurrent theme of my travel experience in the country: militarism, religion, surprises, and a casual simplicity weaved into one.
After 16 consecutive hours of travel, the bus ground to an abrupt halt in Jerusalem, leaving us outside in the mid-afternoon with backpacks, blankets, suitcases and guitars to realize immediately that we were on starkly different territory: It was refreshingly chilly and there were hills. [I also had another belated realization: Moving your life’s belongings across an international border overland in three buses while you are slipping in and out of malarial hallucinations and feverishly mumbling that “if the postman comes, please give him his carrots” is idiotic. There is a reason there is trauma associated with years spent trudging through Sinai. Though far less biblical, it was still not wise or enjoyable in the 2000s on 3 different buses with a year’s worth of clothing and books to boot.] The fact that Cairo is flat as a pancake combined with 3 months of inhaling the aromatic blend of apple sheesha and the pollution of a city of 18.5 million meant hill-climbing caused more than one esophagus to burn and set of calves to ache embarrassingly. The contrasts to worlds we had each experienced in the past few months, whether in Cairo, Uganda or the Indian monsoon, had been apparent throughout our transition from Egypt to Jerusalem; echoing similar sentiments, a fellow first-time traveler to Israel astutely remarked that “coming here feels like stepping into the future.”
Cementing this perception of a ‘new age’ world, a long-time Israeli resident joked that “all Israel is good for is gadgets and technology.” As such, a pervasive sense of foreignness is not the first impression the country imparted; rather, it was a return to a familiar world. Wireless internet, seat belts, people who speak English and Western food and clothing chains abound. As we soon found, the futuristic quality could be mildly disturbing. A morning walk through Zikhron, one of the wealthiest towns near Haifa oozing with well-manicured quaintness, led us to an ‘ergonomic playground’ that featured aluminum-colored contraptions that should have come with a user’s manual, a list of the ways in which playing with them expands each neuron of one’s brain and an accompanying list of the hazards of adults attempting to decipher the field of play of a different generation. As I tried to dismount a spinning cylinder (seriously), I wondered whatever happened to colorful swings and a slide. I was further stunned in Akko, a small, historic town in the Northern part of the country whose tone was distinctly and understandably not in line with the metropolises we had been exploring. At a small sheesha café in Akko’s historic old city, I used a bathroom that not only had toilet paper and a toilet bowl disinfectant, but also boasted a new plastic seat cover for every visitor. To illustrate my astonishment, the rules elsewhere in the Middle East have typically been:
(1) Your favorite sheesha café likely does not have a bathroom (or two chairs that look the same and have four functional legs); if a bathroom miraculously exists, your privacy is guaranteed by a curtain and not a wall.
(2) If you are a woman, you do not use the facilities.
(3) Bring Your Own Toilet Paper (and soap, and occasionally toilet).
(4) Love the place to pieces regardless.
The list of strangely Western experiences of modernity goes on. We arrived in Haifa—on a train with plush seats and automated station announcements—late at night to find the train station empty but for dizzying graffiti and the adjacent bus station populated only by weeds, eerily connoting the opening scenes of I am Legend. After locating the proper bus stop at which to wait, a friend and I both remarked that we could have been in Ft. Lauderdale, complete with palm trees and condos. Two fellow travelers sipped beer under a modern art installation of fluorescent lighting as fountains gratuitously spewed water in similarly ‘artsy’ formations in the empty street, causing a sensation of beautiful surrealism. One of the said travel companions adamantly refused to jaywalk, for fear that he would incur the same fine his friend suffered for indulging in my favorite sport weeks earlier. As these anecdotes suggest, Israel demonstrated a type of development, urban planning and enforceable laws to govern interactions that rang familiar to a Westerner, hence not immediately accentuating a traveler’s foreignness.
And yet, I caught myself feeling incongruent at times, as if the world in which one holds on to dear life every time she dashes across the street as a taxi speeds toward her with spite only to brake at the last minute was my world, my home, my standard way of facing life. I missed my boda-boda rides on Kitgum road where the motorcycle humped over a giant dead snake and evaded a pothole a minute, leaving me covered in red soil every time aid workers’ trucks overtook the boda. I virtually expected intuitively that the process of sending an email would take half an hour and most every meal would cost the equivalent of $5, even though my travel research had prepared me otherwise. This feeling of disorientation was not just the consequence of a wave of nostalgia, which admittedly did overcome me, courtesy of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ over the holiday season. Rather, my sense of incongruousness was telling, perhaps alarmingly so, of how my fellowship work and travels have reset my internal compass of what is familiar, what is home, what is my environment, my world, my expectation of what a city looks like, of how people conduct themselves, of what defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
In the passage of a commencement address describing Harvard’s General Education curriculum, University President Drew Faust articulated its aims as follows:
to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar . . . to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.
When I first read the speech, I instantly craved this unsettling, the defamiliarization, the disorientation – and hoped for the reorientation Faust envisioned at the end of the tunnel. I know I am far from reorienting myself geographically, professionally, personally or really, in any other significant way. Yet, the first days in Israel sharply revealed that my world has been vacillating from environments in dire need of development work to those at the cutting edge of innovation, from worlds populated with relics of what the West has left in the past to Zikhron’s new age playground, from the clinic in Paicho IDP camp to the loveliest, plushest, warmest bed in which I have slept this year. I consciously experienced for the first time, and with immense gratitude, that unsettling of presumptions and defamiliarization of the familiar. Israel also facilitated my realization of a corollary: I struggle to clearly identify what my responses are to all I am learning and observing amidst the contrasting images, whether that involves expressing coherent thoughts on the effects of an experiment in microfinance or speaking with any conviction about my feelings surrounding the wall around Ramallah. I am still struggling with wrapping my sentiments around the shifts, simultaneous co-existences and contrasts, my mind around the shape of a normal ‘day in the life…’
If lifestyle were the only consideration, certain parts of Israel would seem to make for an easier transition for a Westerner than India, Egypt, Uganda, or any of the other places in which I have lived, worked and traveled this year. This realization would have made my waves of incongruousness more puzzling had it not been for my slowly experiencing two defining elements of life in Israel and the West Bank: the prominence of religion and the way the Arab-Israeli conflict can color many an interaction. Both of these ignite strong sentiments, from Akko to Ramallah and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and play a key part in setting up the (perhaps false but undeniably existent) dichotomy of belonging and otherness. It is this dichotomy that I will explore in the next post.