Jerusalem on a Shabbat is as close as the initial sequences of 28 days later as it can get. Empty streets, only a few hours before riddled with busy pedestrians and erratic motorist, stretched in every direction. No buses, no trams and almost no pedestrians: only our lonely taxi, gliding towards the place where, according to some tacit agreement, the sherut left.
The road to Tel Aviv ran downhill, past thick pine forests and omnipresent road works, and the driver took it upon himself to break the speed record for a Mercedes van, clocking 160 km/h as us dozen passengers, sandwiched in the cabin without seatbelts, hung on, knuckles white and a false grin on our faces.
Tel Aviv welcomed us wearing its worse robes. Unkempt streets with small heaps of garbage here and there, lined by buildings that must’ve been declared inhabitable before the decorators had the time to finish painting the third floor, or before they arrived at all. Despite all that, it felt alive. And, already, it felt different from the place we’d just left.
We stayed in a small house south of Jaffa’s port, opening on a whirlwind of shabbiness and manicured landscape: across the road was a bakery, nothing more than a yellow tin shack covering an underground workshop with a brick oven; then a coarse path led us to a seaside promenade shaded by palms, which in turn ended in the port, a collection of ramshackle warehouses, moored rust buckets and seafood restaurants. It was like Hackney before the arrival of the wealthy eggheads, when things were decrepit and not made to look so.
Old Jaffa lied clung on top of the small hill, a tangle of stone alleys that have now become artists’ studios, kebab shops or locations for an Ethiopian wedding’s photo shooting. Cats oozed in the corners, barely batting an eyelid as we passed by.
Our walk continued along the seaside, by one of the many city beaches. Kingdom will come, the Judaic tradition says, only when every single Jew will have respected the Shabbat at least once, but it seemed that the memo hadn’t managed to arrive to the coast, for everyone seemed to be out doing stuff: playing on the beach, bouncing along some reggae music, doing a barbeque, generating as much entropy as possible in the car park.
All around us the three things that were almost ubiquitous in Jerusalem – weapons, the stern clothes of religious zealots of all congregations and walls – were non-existent. There wasn’t an armed man in sight and, on the beach, women in hijab or in full swimsuit helped their toddlers playing in the surf whilst girls in bikinis made out of dental floss played volleyball nearby. We were still an hour away from Jerusalem and its checkpoints, Bethlehem and its walls, but it felt like being in a completely different country.
We left Israel the following day and, until now, I’m still trying to understand and digest one of the most polarized places I’ve ever seen. The Israel of cafes, of welcoming, friendly people will always remain dear to me. The Old city of Jerusalem is probably the best Middle Eastern city I have ever seen by a long shot. But there’s no denying that I found a deeply disturbing side to all this: the provocations and lack of self-doubt that certain fringes of the Israeli society are putting in place. Think of the man who wore the symbols of his faith stubbornly in front of the Muslim women at Al Aqsa, or at the many beautiful settlements that dotted the West Bank, nestled above miserable Arab villages, or the daily routines of the checkpoints that we saw on our way from Bethlehem. It’s true, for every Israel’s fault it’s possible to find another one in the Palestinian’s side, a hellish situation where none has a speck of dust but both have a plank in their eye, but I can’t help but wonder if Israel – the richest, the most educated, the most democratic of the two parties – couldn’t do the first step.
We were sipping a coffee at Ben Gurion airport, on our way to Istanbul, when I asked my father, always an optimist, whether he believed that the Holy Land would finally be at peace. He stared out of the window for quite a while, up to the point that I began wondering whether he’d forgotten to reply, then looked at me and answered.
“It’s sad to say it, but I think we’ll be sending men on Mars and things would still be kicking off over here”.