Sunday, October 30, 2011

Palestinian walk

WE TOOK a leaf out of Raja Shehadah's Palestinian Walks book I gave DJ for his birthday by going on our own Palestinian walk today. Into Wadi Qelt, a valley that stretches east across the Judean desert to Jericho.

At least, I thought it was a Palestinian walk: the valley lies beyond the separation barrier, the vast concrete scar that stands sentry along Israel's perception of its West Bank border, and is the other side of an Israeli-manned checkpoint when it comes to re-entry. And yet an Israeli settlement - all smart houses, incongruous trees, and bougainvillea - overlooks the valley, which lies within an Israeli-controlled national park. "Welcome" said the sign, but the barbed wire ringed gate sent out its own message. As did our fellow hikers: where I had chosen to strap a baby to my chest, they'd opted for a gun. And not just any gun: MK 17s, or "battle rifles" according to Google.

Not that we paused to stare, opting instead to cross the stream that splits the desert valley and head up the hill the other side. The excitement of spotting the black-and-white paint dabs that marked the path was enough to lure Louis upwards, and the view across to Jordan, reward enough for reaching the top. Raf, meanwhile, was happy enough snoozing the trip away in what was his first Ergo sling outing - quite a moment, given how many hours/days/weeks he'll end up spending in said sling.

Back down and we found fig trees, palms, pampas grass and even eucalyptus (planted by the British forestry department back when we ran the show) lining the spring, which was invitingly cool for a paddle. And yes, more armed hikers, which begged the question of why there was a sign forbidding shooting. Unless it's a given that errant Palestinians are fair game. Certainly that's the impression the settlers give, arming themselves whenever they leave home, even to pop to the shops.

To an outsider, the trip summed up the complexities of the thwarted peace process. From the ambiguities over who controls which parcel of land, to the hostilities between the people that share it, the only thing that's easy to understand is the current stalemate.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Visit Palestine

At Hisham's Palace; note the flag

IT WAS Raf's third; and - embarrassingly - Louis's ninth, the UK excluded. I'm talking countries, or I would be if things hadn't gone so awry in 1948. We had wheels, serious jeep wheels, and felt we should see more of the state they call Israel than just the view from Tel Aviv's golden sand into the Med.

And so, instead of turning left to the beach, we turned right to East Jerusalem, and beyond. To Jericho, to be precise, which is thought to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Or one of them, although given it lies in the middle of a rocky desert, and didn't seem to have a whole lot going for it beyond masses of bananas and an over-priced cable car, I struggled to see why. More pertinently, it's in the West Bank, making it part of the Palestinian Territories, or, for kiddie country tally purposes, Palestine.

It certainly felt like another state: we might not have needed our passports, but we did pass through a Palestinian-controlled checkpoint. Israeli number plates (yellow, as oppose to Palestinian green) meant we got stopped, but saying we came from England saw us waved through. Not that they'd have stopped anyone with our liberal credentials. I mean, Robert Fisk is a colleague! Once through, the striking red, black, white, and green of the Palestinian flag hung from every possible vantage point. Per capita, it's a close call who waves more: Israelis or Palestinians.

Louis was under strict instructions not to repeat the faux pas he made on our first weekend: shouting "I love Israel" while sitting at an East Jerusalem cafe. (To be fair, he was reading it from his new mini Jerusalem jigsaw we'd bought at the Garden Tomb's gift shop. In the interest of BBC impartiality I'd hoped to find its Palestinian equal but all we came home with was a - free - camel.) DJ attempted to explain why affirming his affection for Israel would go down quite so badly, but short of deploying the Steamies vs. Diesels Thomas the Tank analogy I'm still working up, I'm not convinced Louis got it. And why should he, when even after my crash course in Middle Eastern politics I'm still struggling.

It sounds basic, but I found the lack of Hebrew on signposts striking. Especially when Arabic is liberally scattered throughout Israel, even if in the case of place names, it apparently just translates the Hebrew equivalent, rather than using the Arabic version of a town: so, Acre, for the northern coastal crusader town, and not Akko, as it's known in Arabic. Everywhere was also vastly more poor, albeit not quite on the scale of Gaza, which DJ likened to Dar-es-Salam after his trip there last week. Everywhere, that is, apart from the isolated pockets where the US has splashed its cash in a futile attempt to dull its pro-Israeli bias. Thus the site of Hisham's Palace, an archeological gem from the 7th century, had been newly tarted up with US money; as had the odd road.

The only tourists were religious ones: it was one in, one out to the cave atop the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is reputed to have invented willpower, defying the Devil's attempts to make him break his 40-day fast. Fun as the cable car ride was up there, I fear we got more of a kick out of the political tourism than the religious stuff. That said, Bethlehem is also in the West Bank, so I guess we'll get another chance to combine the two.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Outsider

"Olden times cars"
Jerusalem March: as snapped by a 3yo

IT'S BEEN an odd week in Jerusalem. The never-ending Sukkot holiday - there are still two days left, and even then Shabbat looms on Friday night - has turned the city into one big party yet I've been left feeling my ticket got lost in the post.

It's mainly the Jewishness, which all the Sukkot-related customs has underlined since the festival began almost a week ago. It's impossible to step outside and not be reminded about the many ways I don't belong. And I'm not talking about one of the orthodox areas; even the local playgrounds, rich in expats, only serve to underline my outsider status simply because my reasons for being here differ so much from everyone else's. Take the American grandma who deigned to chat to me: her family come every year for Sukkot because her three sons all attended "yeshivas" (religious schools) in Jerusalem.

The influx of tens of thousands of Americans has exacerbated the weirdness: in the city centre, it's more common to hear a Yankee accent than someone speaking Hebrew. What with the vast American presence and Sukkot trappings - the shelters, the orthodox dress code, the constant visits to the temple, palm leaves and lemons in hand - I swear the city resembles a living theme park. Or one of those living history museums that the Americans are so good at, like the one in Plymouth, MA, where the Pilgrim fathers wander round in full 17th century garb. It's an usual town where men in giant busbys and satin frock coats outnumber those in jeans and trainers. By some degree.

The prisoner swap has added to the undercurrent of bizarre. It isn't often the Israelis and Palestinians have cause for concurrent celebrations but this is one of them.

Despite so much going on around us, it's been hard to find something to join in with. But I thought I'd managed today. The Jerusalem March is a day-long affair that starts with various groups hiking different routes around the city and culminates with the roads in the centre shutting down for a parade. We skipped the hike - I figured I walk most of the city most days anyway - but turned out for the parade, which kicked off a couple of streets from our flat outside the YMCA. It started well: two 1940s Army jeeps, several "olden times" cars, including one "just like the speedy car" he lost the day before (oops), three rubbish trucks (oh, the joy!), two fire engines, and a mini flotilla of motorbikes.

The marching soldiers weren't bad, although luckily Louis isn't the type to get excited by the guns. But then things went downhill. The parade's theme was something about welcoming foreign tourists - presumably to fleece them by charging through the nose for everything - so the procession comprised various different nationality OAPs waving their country's flag and banners praising God while tapping tambourines and shouting how much they love Israel. (Mini point of interest: massive Finnish contingent, small German one.) No wonder Louis wanted to retreat to the Y playground. I'm looking forward to everything getting back to normal, whatever that is, next week.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The flak jacket workout

A sukkah
Rugalech in the sukkah

YOU'D THINK with all the hills, not to mention a baby to lug round and a loaded buggy to push (either with shopping, or Louis, or both), Jerusalem would be the perfect place to shed the post-natal pounds. But that would be to overlook the vast array of baked Israeli delicacies. So far, Louis's top pick is the rugelach: a sort of smaller, sweeter sibling to to the pain au chocolate, which he scoffed today in a sukkah. Finally. Their preponderance around town make chores a breeze, especially in the market where they only cost 1 NIS (barely 20p). The downside has to be their calorific punch. But I'm figuring that if things get desperate I can always add a spot of resistance training to my daily workouts by borrowing Daddy J's flak jacket. Weighing in at 10 kilos-plus, it could provide a totally new kind of new Mum exercise regime. Forget the Haredim guide to parenting (and you will want to after listening to this piece DJ did for the Today programme with Kevin Connolly about groups of ultra-orthodox Jews hurling abuse, and worse, at young girls at a school just outside Jerusalem), I'm thinking the flak jacket Jerusalem workout could be my ticket finally to cash in on the lucrative new parent market.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sukkot and Christmas

The Sukkah at the Gilat Shalit vigil

AT THE risk of offending two faiths in one swoop, I've decided Sukkot feels a lot like Christmas. The emphasis is on eating and drinking and the sukkah decorations - the paper chains and gaudy metallic garlands adorning the temporary shelters that have popped up in every available bit of outdoor space - are just like the ones festooning homes throughout December. The sukkah itself, with its palm frond thatched roof and flimsy walls, might have its roots firmly in the Old Testament but is distinctly Bethlehem stable if you ask me. Then there's the "lulav" - those palm fronds: all the talk here has been of crop fails and escalating prices because the post-Arab Spring Egyptians have refused to meet demand (handily fitting neatly into the Israeli isolation story Daddy J is working on in Istanbul for Today as I type). All very reminiscent of Christmas tree price hike stories (seriously, I swear we paid £60 for ours last year), even if Britain hasn't fallen out with Norway.

Everyone in their Sukkot best for the Temple today reminded me of the few trips I have made to church on the 25th, with people dressed up in their new outfits. The one glaring difference is I've never seen the streets of London congested with people spilling out of church the way that Jerusalem's city centre was today after late morning prayers. Again, I was astounded at the high proportion of Americans: the airlines must have cleaned up with ticket prices last week. And walking through town, on our way to the park, the air reverberated with the noise of people clinking dish upon dish out to their sukkah (as instructed by Moses, meals have to be taken in the sukkah for the duration of Sukkot). I half expected to hear the Queen start talking after they'd done eating.

Once in the park, Gan Sacher, the city's largest and just up the hill from the Knesset, the vibe was distinctly secular, with groups of Russians competing to out-shashlik each other with their BBQs. Until, that is, a group of proselytising Haredim turned up, lulav and etrogs in hand. One by one, they went round all the picnickers around us, making them do the Sukkot thing of waving the lulav around. Funnily enough, they gave us a miss. Which means we still need to seek out one of the many sukkot erected by the city's Kosher restaurants: Louis is desperate to join in somehow so I've promised we'll find a falafel or such like to eat under the palm fronds. Either that or perhaps we can pick some up half price and build that indoor camp after all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sukkot and shopping

IF SHOPPING is the new religion, then imagine the frenzy when shopping becomes a Biblical imperative. That's what happened today, as the clock ticked down to another major Jewish holiday. Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, a seven-day extravaganza of a harvest festival has a shopping list longer than an Orthodox hemline before the serious business of eating and drinking can commence. And raucous singing, judging from the din outside our flat tonight, audible because Shabbat-esque rules on day one mean the 16 lanes of traffic have fallen silent.

God apparently told Moses to tell the people to stock up on all things leafy to build special shelters ("sukkot" in Hebrew) to remind them of the dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Then there are the lemons, or "etrog": giant, knobbly affairs that get waved around during prayers. Or else. Cue frantic scenes across West Jerusalem as its entire Jewish population, and half of America's too judging from the accents and jetlagged children around, rushed to fulfill Moses' commandments.

The scenes in Jerusalem's Haredim quarters of Ge'ula and Mea Shearim made Oxford Street on Christmas Eve look peaceful. What I was thinking taking a buggy up there God alone knows. Stall upon stall of "lulav" sellers flogging myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds lined the tiny pavements, each surrounded by gaggles of frock coated, black hatted Haredim peering at each and every twig to check the biblical perfection of its shoots. The oddest thing was that in contrast to your typical consumer clientele, the Haredim out shopping were almost exclusively male. Given their general attitude towards women, I can only presume the fairer sex couldn't be trusted. This meant that my cunning disguise, of maxi dress, cardigan and headscarf - flesh being taboo - was for nought because simply being female made me stick out like a sore thumb. Not to mention Louis's shortish back and sides, or the boys' lack of matching striped shirts (I noticed some families prefer horizontal, others vertical, I know not why).

Being a kid after my own heart, Louis was keen to max the consumerist elements of the festival, and demanded that we too stocked up with palm fronds. But fun as the sukkot look squeezed into every available bit of residential outdoor space, from roof tops to balconies, I reckoned that a palm frond camp was probably beyond me, although I must admit I'm regretting it slightly now. Instead, we made do with our very own sukkot jigsaw, a 70-piece number for which I paid far too much. Still, it killed some time before the DVD went on. Not sure what Moses would make of it though.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The ultimate pre-school field trip

IN ONE of life's more ironic twists, this trip to the Holy Land has come up just as we're supposed to be applying for schools for Louis. "Ironic" because the only good ones near us are massively oversubscribed Church of England schools, and our agnostic son stands precisely no chance of getting a place. Somehow the christening never happened, and as for Sunday church attendance: well, it felt wrong given the motivation would have been for the wrong sort of educational reasons.

Yet here we are in the birthplace of two of the world's three biggest religions, living in a city that Muslims consider their third holiest. Just getting through a day here requires a religious sensitivity that is completely absent from life in London, even, I'd warrant, for the majority of parents whose kids attend some sort of faith-based school. And a simple sight-seeing trip, to the Wall, for example, has me in knots trying to explain what it all means to a three year old when even I'm not that sure. Heck, (and I just had to delete "Hell") I'm even rusty about my Old Testament stories; hardly surprising when all I can dredge up from the recesses of my mind is one junior school production of Joseph.

But Louis will go home knowing more about the big three than most children pitching up at one of the CofE schools that turn him down. Our impromptu trip to the Garden Tomb on Saturday (our trip east in search of bustle to escape the Yom Kippur shutdown had us seeking serenity pretty darn fast and this was the nearest to a park our particular bit of East Jerusalem had to offer) means he can already weigh in on the controversy surrounding Jesus's resurrection. (The controversial bit being where he actually temporarily lay, for fellow heathens like me.) Give me a couple more days and we'll have Calvary ticked off as well - that' s provided I can tear us both away from the water slide at the local swimming pool.

Where, I'd like to know, is the bit on the schools' application form marked "field trip"? Doesn't three months immersion in the Holy Land trump a couple of half-hearted Sunday morning church services? I'm guessing not......

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur at the Wall

WE JUST had one of those ultimate Jerusalem moments. Standing by the Western Wall at sunset on the eve not just of Shabbat but Yom Kippur, as the call to evening prayer at one of the Old City mosques mixed with the gentle wailing of the devout Haredi at prayer, Israel sniper overhead silhouetted against the darkening night sky, there it was: the essence of what all the fuss is about. I'm sure if I'd craned my neck I could have seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre too.

Despite being but one of a swell of tourists, it felt like snooping to witness one of the most religious sights at arguably the world's most religious site, yet I couldn't tear myself away. A Louis in tow gave me an excuse to linger because he was fascinated by it all, begging me to take him up close. I was shy to barge in, but seeing his interest, an old lady gestured me in to the bit segregated for women - or "for mummies, little boys, and babies, but not daddies", as Louis put it.

He already knew about the religions festival because I'd had to explain why we were dashing to the shops yet again at lunchtime to buy a last bottle of milk before the Shabbat shutdown, but once at the Wall I think the lack of music and bands confused him. You see, the last festival we were at was a street festival in SE1, and before that, watching Lenny Kravitz at a music festival in Hyde Park. Which left me rather stumbling for words to try and explain what everyone was doing, gently rocking back and forth, prayer book in hand, and for what purpose. Telling him people were wishing for things that they wanted made it all seem horribly materialistic, especially when he started confusing it with the time we threw a penny into a wishing well.

But he nailed it eventually: "Like no killing," he said. Exactly. Someone get him a seat at the peace talks.

A tram fan

FORGET THE Dome of the Rock or the Western Wall, Jerusalem has a new top attraction. Especially if you're three. But, this being the city that it is, it's not without its controversies.

The Jerusalem light railway, or the tram to Louis, divides opinion because the first (and thus far, only) line runs from the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem (the Arab bit) to Mount Herzl in the west. Which to your clueless observer (hitherto me) might sound unifying, but granted that settlements are illegal - because they sit on land captured by Israel from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the 1967 war - riles those who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestine because it tightens Israel's grip on the disputed territory.

Not that you think about the potential political implications of a bright, shiny, new tram if you're three. All you want to know is when you can ride it and whether you'll see "where the trams sleep" at the end of the line. I answered the first question by jumping aboard with them both but despite giving Louis free rein as to when we got off, we only went as far as Damascus Gate at the edge of the Old City before heading back up the hill in the other direction to the shuk. He immediately wished we'd stuck it out longer because he spotted - joy of joys - a track splitter up ahead.

Being brand new - it only started running in August - it made for a pleasant half an hour or so even if we couldn't get on the first one because it was so crowded. But there were plenty of fun signs to spot while we waited (road signs giving wheeled vehicles a run for their money on the excitement front for Louis right now). And the ultimate bonus is it's free to ride on because it's still being tested, which means that along with the massive bunches of herbs once we made it to the shuk it's pretty much the only thing that's good value in Israel. I predict we'll be like the homeless on the Circle line as was, riding it up and down, before next week's out.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Swings and Roundabouts

THREE DAYS down and the Old City may still elude me, but boy am I notching up my Jerusalem playgrounds. Happily for all three of us there are two beauties each within about seven minutes from our flat. Not that Raf's quite up to clambering up a rope ladder, but given the speed he backward crawls along the leather sofa I wouldn't bet against that happening before our stint here is up. He's happy enough sling snoozing while Louis scampers around though.

As guide books seem to have a thing against taking small people on holiday (see bwb posts passim), we're on our own when it comes to scouting them out. Some, like the multi-slide affair in HaPa'amon (or Liberty Bell Park, so named for its replica of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell), are obvious. Others, like the smaller one in Solovkov Park (pictured), less so. And others still, like one I stumbled across a block or so off the main drag in the German Colony while Louis grabbed a surprise late afternoon buggy nap on our first day, require a poke around the back streets. They're the ones I like best: where families spill out of their homes at the end of the day to congregate for a mass gossip while their kids run off yet more of their steam after a day at the 'gan' (daycare).

So far, we've mainly hit the playgrounds in the early afternoon, when they're all but deserted. The most Israeli new mums can take off is six months, of which only three are paid (by the government rather than their employer) so 'gan' places are in high demand, and there's a distinct absence of any little people around until their mothers have finished work for the day. Which will make it much harder to find Louis any little playmates. The poor child was so desperate for someone other than me to talk to today that he monopolised a brief Skype chat I had with a friend. Goodness knows how he'll cope when it really is just me and them 24/7. I'll find out soon enough though as DJ's first trip looms large next week. Perhaps if we can hit the after 'gan' crowd, and I can find out the Hebrew for 'slide', and 'my turn', Louis will manage to strike up a conversation or two on the climbing frame. Now where's that Hebrew-for-kids app?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yom Kippur and kids

TALKING OF fasting, we'll need to come Friday, and not just because I'll have run out of cash by then. It's Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which caps ten days of reflection since Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. It's the holiest of Holy Days, all the more so this year since it falls on Shabbat. The gist is abstinence: from eating, from driving, from pretty much everything bar intensive praying. That much is clear from the warnings I've had regarding making sure we've got enough food in, and giving sight-seeing a miss for 24 hours. We're talking a total national shut down, from the borders to the roads (although I'm told that the more secular minded take to their bikes and blades).

But what is rather more hazy is where that all leaves an avowedly secular Louis. (My attempts to explain why I'd donned what was effectively a curtain to nurse Raf in a market cafe today by talking about people's religious beliefs had him zoning me out even quicker than usual.) Where, for example, does the Torah stand on playing? Are climbing frames out? Swings frowned upon? And just what do the city's growing number of Haredi inhabitants do with their vast broods in between those five visits to the Temple? I'd like to see them try and make Louis sit still in contemplative fashion all day long. Come to think of it, if they could swing that, then perhaps the Haredi guide to parenting is the book for which the world has been waiting. I can see it on the bestseller lists now.....

Monday, October 3, 2011

Babies who fast

TWENTY-FOUR hours into life in Jerusalem and I'm no nearer thinking up a new name for a blog. With two tiny people in tow, I saw scope in the Wailing Wall or something about needing to Settle them in our own little corner of one-time Palestine. Then there was the Advent Adventure we'll be having come December. That's "we" as in my very own Angels in the Holy Land (son #2 is a Rafael after all).

But all those, and others, lacked the neutrality I sought as the unofficial plus one of a BBC producer. (It's an unaccompanied post, so we're not really here.) Not that Auntie exactly has a reputation for detachment in these parts. I swear the immigration guy was about to wave us through until Daddy J mentioned the "B" word. Then it was all, "Why were you born in Istanbul?" and "What was your father doing there?".

So babieswhobrunch it is, and will remain, although if the evidence of last night's shopping foray is anything to go by then babieswhofast might be more apt. Admittedly it was 10pm in a posh mini-market in one of the city's better-heeled neighbourhoods, but £6 for a box of Weetabix? The good news for Louis is that henceforth he'll be able to have olives for all three meals rather than just two.