Smart People at the Mercy of Idiots

There is this fantastic group of book stores in East Jerusalem on Salah Al-Din Street  called the Educational Bookshop. It’s a little oasis of intelligence, humor and free speech. Actually it is three oases – one location at 19 Salah Al-Din Street, one just across the street and one at the American Colony Hotel. I would call the folks who run and work at the book shops renegades or rebels, but they are among the most intelligent and well-spoken people I’ve met in these parts.

Run by generations long-established Arab Jerusalemites, the owners of these shops are highly aware of local current events. They are always interesting to have an intellectual conversation with, even if you don’t leave one of their shops with a book. They sell mostly English titles that emphasize politics, geopolitics, current events, and regionally “controversial” subjects. Whatever that means when you’re in a region that nearly every opinion, big or small, has the potential of being controversial.

The Educational Bookshop also often hosts or facilitates author events. While in their American Colony Hotel location last week, I asked one of the owners, Mahmoud, about the lag time for announcing events on their email list.

“Why is it that you so often only send out event announcements the day of the event?” I asked, annoyed. “I mean, it makes it impossible to just drop everything and go to the event or book reading. And I’d really like to go to some of them.”

“Oh, that’s simple,” answered Mahmoud, a sharp-witted man with strong opinions and perfect English. “The authors who come from other countries sometimes have trouble passing through customs if the Israeli authorities know in advance about their plans. So they ask us to keep it quiet until the last minute.”

I paused, incredulous. For a journalist who has covered this region on and off for the last six years, it seems I am still naieve about the reality of life here. This is a place where Palestinians can be thrown in jail – for a long time -for doing something like writing poetry and clicking like on a Facebook post. Case in point is the story of Dareen Tatour.

“Are you serious?” I blurted out. “Nice freedom of speech. What a joke.” I was having one of those days where I just wanted to go home to America.

“Yes,” he answered, completely deadpan. He had the look of a man who got the same three questions about fifteen times a day from foreigners about “the situation” in Israel.

Luckily for me and everyone else, an upcoming author boldly decided to announce his arrival one week in advance. The author, Toufic Haddad, has written a book called “Palestine Ltd, Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory“. Mahmoud described it to me as “the most important book of the year” and it retails for about NIS140 at their shops (a special rate they negotiated). Toufic will be giving a talk at the Issaf Nashashibi Cultural Centre in Sheikh Jarrah, above the Gallery Cafe, at 6:30pm on Wednesday December 7. It’s free.

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Bring the Doughnuts

If you’re anywhere near Israel or West Jerusalem during December, you are going to come across at least one doughnut. These tasty, beautiful little monsters can be found everywhere – in coffee shops, at the mall, wherever your heart desires. It’s all part of a Jewish tradition of eating fried foods to commemorate a miracle at the Temple. The story goes that there was only a small amount of oil left to burn the wicks in the lamps, yet they kept burning for 8 nights – thus the roundabout connection to Hanukkah.

The rest of the year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Jewish Israeli (or anybody else) who is in love with the idea of donuts. Certainly nothing approximating the general cultural reverence they enjoy in America. A doughnut shop that sells almost nothing but deep friend pieces of dough with a missing middle and mediocre coffee you can drink on the road? Not happening. In my neighborhood in West Jerusalem, which is chock full of Americans, the best I can find is some semi-stale specimens stuck in the back of one neighborhood grocery store next to the tortillas and loaves of bread.

Aside from the obvious issues with doughnuts and tortillas being sold side-by-side, the doughnuts aren’t covered and I often see store workers tossing them about with their bare hands. I’d love to introduce those dainty, thin plastic “self-serve” grabbers to Israel, but I don’t think it would catch on.

So in the meantime, here’s to avoiding the calorie binge that one doughnut represents until after Hanukkah has passed. Thankfully, I will be in Europe until after the New Year. I hope they enjoy treats that are less caloric for Christmas and New Year’s.

Sounds on the Wind

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Monday morning and I’m up early to get in a couple hours of work before the family awakens. As I stand in front of the coffee machine in my kitchen to make a strong brew, I hear a faint sound drift in from the small, sliding window that’s been left open. It sounds like music. Or singing. Maybe someone talking. I’ve been away on vacation in the U.S. for a few weeks, so it takes a moment to register that I’m hearing the Muslim morning call to prayer. I strain to hear it, but the sound wafts away on the light Jerusalem breeze. Something about the sound is a comfort, or an intrigue. I go to the floor-to-ceiling sliding windows in the living room – the windows that face in the direction of the holy city of Bethlehem – and open them toward just enough to put my head outside. A lone stray cat sits docile next to the street. The three-quarters moon shines clear and bright over the mostly sleeping city. The only other sound are a few loud air conditioning units rattling away, but I quiet my mind and focus on the sound and this time I can hear it. The singing voices of men fades in and out, weaving its way mysteriously into the subconsciousness of the city. I breathe the cool night air that is coldest just before dawn, and let my heart swim in the beauty that is Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Old City Ramparts Walk

Scant information exists on the Ramparts Walk around the perimeter of the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the most popular tourist sites in Jerusalem, the Old City is filled with exotic smells, flavors, and history. The Ramparts Walk is a way to see the Old City and the new city from a high vantage point. You can start at multiple locations, though the easiest to find is at Jaffa Gate.

Entrance fee is NIS16 for and adult and NIS8 for a child (at least 8 years old is recommended) and the hours are 8am-4pm Sun.-Thurs., though you can enter right before 4pm and still get out at your leisure.

Just to the right of the entrance to Jaffa Gate is a small sign with an arrow:

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The southern entrance to the Ramparts Walk at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

Follow that alongside the outer wall of the city until you reach a tiny metal gate and a staffer who will take your money.

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The entrance gate to the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

If you come at the end of the day just before closing, your ticket is good for the following day. Taking the Ramparts Walk about 1 hour before sunset is an incredible way to see east and west Jerusalem. Really sturdy shoes are a must. There are railings, but take your time and don’t rush as the stones can be uneven and slippery at times.

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A portion of the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

All along the way there are historical markers with explanations of the area. You can descend at several different points, though the closest from Jaffa Gate is about 25 minutes.

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A portion of the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

Easter Travels to the Holy Land on the Cheap

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This is the time of year people are making plans to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land for Easter. One thing not to leave to the last minute is hotel arrangements. Some of the best and most popular hotels in the region (which are often the most affordable, too), are booked six months to one year in advance.

A common option for those who want to pay less who can live with fewer amenities are hostels. The easiest place to start for booking a hostel is the website for ILH, the Israel Hostel association. Though their site only has options for Israel, it’s a fast way to check availability and book online.

As a backup if you can’t find a hotel in your budget and all the hostels are booked (as they often are during the most popular holidays like Easter), there is always the option of camping. A little-known goldmine of places to stay throughout the country are national parks. There are no books in English that guide people to the country’s campgrounds, but a very reliable place to start for rates and park hours and locations is the website of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website.

If you have the gear and are willing to rough it a bit, camping might be the most affordable option. As long as the rainy winter is over!

The view of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)
The view of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

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