Israel and the Golan Heights

Tel Aviv, Israel – It was tough returning to Israel from the West Bank. The streets were wide and modern, there were nice bars and restaurants to choose from, and WIFI-equipped buses shuttled me from city to city. Tough indeed. Although I enjoyed the same things I had in other places—historic towns, local cuisine, beautiful landscapes—in Israel I was dogged by a bit of guilt. A latte cost more than my lunch back in Nablus. And it bothered me that most people I met in Israel had never seen the West Bank (outside of perhaps military service), especially considering their government held so much sway there. How is life so normal in Israel, I wondered, in the face of such radical asymmetry. Halfway through my first visit to the region, I was hardly in a position to the call the game for one side or the other. But something felt deeply, terribly wrong with the vast disparity of wealth, bound together as these places were. I struggled to experience Israel in its own right and not tow these thoughts like a chip on my shoulder, but it was hard…

Tel Aviv can be a very fun city. December offered fine Mediterranean weather, and I spent days walking the warm streets of Jaffa and nights popping in and out of bars in Florentin. I found a hostel with a rooftop deck where I lounged with other travelers before going out. The nightlife seemed like a constant bar crawl: a cozy little ally bar with a handful of stools, a dive bar with live band, a hipster joint with sandwiches and board games, a chic club where DJs spun and attractive staff danced on the bar generously pouring free liquor into the mouths of patrons. In the morning, there was vegetarian brunch. The Tel Aviv I experienced was a party for young people.

But eventually I packed up my liver and bussed north to the coastal town of Haifa. In Haifa, the slopes of Mount Carmel tumble dramatically down into the Mediterranean. But it’s also a working-class town that has born some brunt of the Israeli-Palistinian conflict. I immediately liked it. Most interesting was its religious significance: long after it was the stomping ground for Elija—prophet to Jews, Christians and Muslims—Haifa became the holy site of yet another religion known asBaha’ism.

Baha’i is a 19th century outgrowth of Shi’a Islam, founded by a Persian named Mírzá Husayn Alí. In the 1840’s he became a follower of a Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad, who claimed to be a prophet in the tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The core of the Baha’ism was equality and tolerance, but Persia’s Qajar Dynasty viewed it as heresy and tried stomping out its leaders. Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad—known as the Bab (meaning “gate”)—was executed in Tabriz in 1850, and later Mírzá Husayn Alí was shipped off to an Ottoman penal colony in Acke (just across the bay from Hafia) where he lived the rest of his days as Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Baha’ism. In the 1890’s, the Bab was interred in a tomb on Mount Carmel in Haifa, which became the religion’s most holy pilgrimage site. Despite restrictions on the faith within Israel, Baha’i is reported to have grown faster than any religion in the 20th century, reaching a total of about five million adherents (largely in India, Iran, and the U.S.).

Of course, I knew none of this when I arrived in Haifa; I was there for the gardens. The Baha’i gardens—whose vertical design has appropriately won them the sobriquet, the Hanging Gardens of Haifa—are a marvel of beautiful, lush landscaping in the hills of Mount Carmel. Drawing on Persian and Kashmiri elements, they tumble down the hillside in a long cascade of palms and flowers. Observing them from below creates the dizzying effect of staring up into heaven. Tucked within the greenery is the elegant Shrine of the Bab, where two foreigners I met in Haifa—a Dutch man and his son—were completing their pilgrimage. I attended the requisite tour through the gardens and then enjoyed the hillside view of the Mediterranean and Acke, trying to imagine this region in the 13th century when it was a Crusader holdout against Muslim reconquest.

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Photo: The Baha’i gardens at  Haifi.

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From Haifa I worked my way inland to Nazareth. My first impression was that Nazareth just might be more beautiful than Jerusalem. I was smitten by the knotted hills of green trees high above town, the spattering of church steeples, and the old town’s bustling Muslim souk with all the familiar sounds and fragrances of the Levant. I found a bed in a lovely two hundred year old home that was converted into a remarkably functional hostel with a view over the city. At night I sat on pillows in the courtyard outside my room, writing by the yellow flicker of candlelight on grey stone. The evenings were chill, but it reminded me of a far-away courtyard in Urfa where I spent summer afternoons napping in the Mesopotamian heat.

In Nazareth I visited two different Churches of the Annunciation—one Catholic and one Greek Orthodox. Each marks the spot where it’s believed the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the Son of God. Of the two, the Greek Orthodox church is far more impressive, with its 18thcentury frescoes and gilt chandeliers. Down in its murky, cluttered depths a young European woman was standing atop a ladder lightly petting the noses of saints with a brush—a student of restoration completing her internship (probably the coolest internship I could imagine). By contrast, the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation is a wretched 1960’s structure that stands prominently over a central part of town. Two very different approaches to a relatively similar thing.

In the evenings I sat at a bustling downtown cafe enjoying shawarma or felafel as the muezzinissued a call to prayer. With a Muslim majority and large Christian minority, Nazareth was a fascinating little world within Israel. I could have really enjoyed staying longer, but I had my mind set on a destination still further north.

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PHOTO: Beautiful Lake Tiberias, a.k.a. Sea of Galilee.

Probably my single favorite thing about Israel was yet another luxury: getting a rental and traveling by car. I hadn’t done this in months, and I relished the freedom of not relying on public buses or spotty hitchhiking. Just outside Nazareth I picked up a small Mazda and set off north on Highway 90, past the idyllic Sea of Galilee where Jesus performed miracles and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Eventually I turned west for a quick stop in Safed, a densely Jewish village once home to a vibrant Muslim community. Today Safed draws loads of Israeli tourists to its pleasant hillside arts quarter, and I enjoyed poking around the lovely blue and white Beit Knesset Abuhav (synagogue). Back on the highway, I followed the eastern slope of the Naftali Range and cut west on Highway 99, soon dipping into the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights is a ten-mile-wide strip of basaltic plateau on the Israel-Syria border. Once a rural Syrian province under Damascene control, it was occupied by Israel following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (the same war that cost Jordan the West Bank and Egypt the Sinai Peninsula). Israeli settlement construction began apace in the 1970s and by the 1980s annexation had begun apace. Even so, the land acquisition was never sanctioned and peace still belongs to a 1974 armistice. Over a hundred thousand Syrians fled the Golan Heights during the 1967 war, and today the 40,000 population is roughly split between Israeli Jews and Syrian Druze (an 11th century offshoot of Shia Islam largely endemic to Syria). Although a small portion of Druze has accepted Israeli citizenship, in many ways the region is still a Syrian outpost within Israel.

Driving the Golan Heights is a fascinating and creepy experience. I headed eastward, crossing the headwaters of the Jordan River, and followed the road as it rose gently, winding around the magnificent 13th century Nimrod fortress that looks south over the region. I passed a rather poor looking Syrian village, where several women walked about in mandil, the white headscarves often worn by Druze. Somewhere along lonely Highway 98 I began passing long stretches of wire fence tracing the shelled remains of a Syrian structures long since damaged. Taking inventory of the old walls riddled with bullet holes, it looked as though the war was just yesterday. Rickety buildings crouched on the horizon, wanting finally to collapse. An old stone mosque with a sadly mangled minaret languished in a field. One wall had fallen and it wore bullet holes and graffiti.

Israel struck me as a beautiful, complicated place. I was drawn to the Golan Heights by an intellectual—perhaps grossly intellectual—fascination with living history. In some ways, these places reminded me of the decayed medieval Armenian city of Ani in eastern Turkey, frozen in time. And yet as I passed these poor Druze villages I was also reminded that the conflict here is far more immediate, and that its effects will continue to be felt for years and years to come—long after my travels end and the wars recede from the front pages of the news.

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PHOTO: A memorial in the Golan Heights to Israeli soldiers killed in the 1967 war.

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I spent December 31 back in Jerusalem with my friend Zina who had flown from Ukraine to join me for a week or two of travel. On New Years Eve we sat on the stones outside the old city’s Jaffa Gate with bread, some blocks of cheese, and bottles of wine. We lit sparklers that Zina brought (and which I distributed perhaps too generously to passing children) and walked up crowded Jaffa Road shortly before midnight. Thousands of young people were out, waiting for midnight to arrive. Nothing really happened when midnight arrived, except that we danced around with the last of the sparklers and the last of the champagne and the last moments of that year. And everyone hugged everyone else.

It was a good conclusion to a good year. Eight months earlier I’d left my home in France. Back then, I might not have believed that I’d still be in the Middle East when January 1st arrived, or perhaps even that I’d still be traveling. But in fact, I was only barely halfway through my trip. And it was as it should be. That year I didn’t make any resolution at all on New Years Eve—this was precisely how I should have been living my life all along.

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