A Weekend in Israel

Just over a month ago I took a trip to Israel to visit my friend from McGill, Berina. She is currently studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. The whole trip was pretty last minute; I booked about a week in advance after somehow finding a cheap flight. It was an amazing weekend, and I wish I had been able to spend more time there.

I left downtown Istanbul around 17:00 on a Thursday evening in order to take a bus to the farther of Istanbul’s two airports, Sabiha Gökçen. An hour into the bus ride I started to worry I wouldn’t make it on time; Istanbul’s rush hour traffic is truly unbelievable sometimes. Just as I was starting to give up hope that I would arrive in time to board my flight, the road opened up and I made it – nearly two hours after departing. I don’t care how bad DC rush hour is; in two hours you can almost make it to Pennsylvania. But in two hours all I had managed to do was go from one place in Istanbul to another.

Luckily the airport was pretty empty and I managed to get to my gate with some extra time – only to find that the flight had been delayed almost an hour, forcing me to buy some absurdly over-priced airport food. The flight finally took off and we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International around midnight. As I am sure you know, Israel takes security very seriously. I actually arrived with the expectation that on the way back through I would be extensively scrutinized. I did not expect to have issues on the way in, however. I approached the passport control officer, she asked me the usual questions (how long is your stay, who are you staying with, etc.) and then she saw my Turkish student visa. She asked me a few questions about it and everything seemed fine. Until she picked up the phone. I couldn’t understand what she was saying because I don’t speak Hebrew, but I did hear a variant of “Turkey.” Another officer appeared behind me, and I was told to follow him. I reached for my passport in before doing so, but she informed me that they would be holding onto it.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in this position, but losing contact with your passport is an unpleasant experience. Especially in Israel. The thing is, if they stamp your passport, you are barred from every Arab country but Jordan. For someone who studies the Middle East this is a serious concern. The only way to undo it is to apply for a new passport once back in your home country. But what else could I do? I waited nervously (but trying not to appear as such) with a few other unlucky travellers. After 20 minutes, a third person emerged with my passport and said I was clear to go. I thanked them and started to walk towards the exit while simultaneously flipping through my passport to see if I had been given a stamp. Thankfully I got the standard detached visa slip.

Because of the delayed flight and issues at passport control, I had to wait another hour and a half for the next train to downtown Tel Aviv. When I stepped out of the station, I was taken aback by the multitude of Israeli soldiers. Every IDF soldier carries their firearm, an assault rifle, with them whether on or off duty. From there I took a taxi to Tel Aviv University, where I stayed for a night before heading out the next morning to meet Berina in Jerusalem.

As I had been warned, getting onto the bus was a trying experience. If you don’t push to the front, you simply won’t get on. I learned this the hard way and had to wait 10 minutes for a second bus after being squeezed from the first one. It worked out though: I started talking to a girl who didn’t seem to be Israeli only to find out that she was a student at McGill also currently on exchange. It was really nice having someone to talk to on the bus, which took about an hour. Israel is such a small country that you can hop on a bus or train and get almost anywhere pretty quickly.

After meeting up with Berina and dropping our stuff off at her friend’s apartment, we got lunch at an adorable cafe and explored the city a bit before everything started closing for Shabbat. We walked through the Shuk (market) and admired the architecture, tried marzipan (absolutely wonderful), and picked up some challah and other items for Shabbat dinner. But what would Shabbat be without going to synagogue? Berina did some research on where to go, and decided to take me to a synagogue that operates in a bomb shelter nestled in one of the neighborhoods. Because men and women sit separately, I was on my own. I sat towards the back and just tried to take everything in. But before too long an American who had lived abroad for a large part of his life took me under his wing. He went to the library to get me a bilingual prayer book (an interesting read given the fact that English reads left to right and Hebrew reads right to left) and made me get up and dance with everyone. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to experience it.

The Shuk amidst the pre-Shabbat rush
The Shuk amidst the pre-Shabbat rush
The Shuk after shutting down for Shabbat
The Shuk after shutting down for Shabbat

The next day we went to the Old City with the aim of experiencing the Arab and Christian quarters while the rest of the city was shut down for the holiday. We hit several of the major sites, including Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Damascus Gate before having delicious shawarma in an Arab neighborhood just outside of the Old City

At the Western Wall on Shabbat
At the Western Wall on Shabbat
My tour guide and me just outside the Old City at the Damascus Gate
My tour guide and me just outside the Old City at the Damascus Gate

From there we hiked to Hebrew University for a fantastic view of the city, after which we did some shopping (including poor haggling) and getting knafeh (cheese pastry soaked in syrup).

The view of Jerusalem from Hebrew U
The view of Jerusalem from Hebrew U

That evening we stopped for some falafel before departing Jerusalem for Be’er Sheva, the tech capital of Israel and home to Ben-Gurion University. The next day, Berina graciously took me around her city despite having probably toured it several times before. We went to the monument built in remembrance of those Israeli soldiers who died in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Then we headed to the Old City for lunch. The ride in was interesting; relatively new immigrants, including many Ethiopian Jews, living in poor conditions. Their integration has been fraught, as the events of this past week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demonstrate.

Monument to the Negev Brigade on a hill overlooking Be'er Sheva
Monument to the Negev Brigade on a hill overlooking Be’er Sheva
At the Monument
At the Monument

That afternoon I took a train from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv for the last part of my journey. The trip afforded me a view of the stunningly beautiful countryside. Upon arrival I checked into my AirBnB and then headed to the beach to grab a beer and watch the sunset. After the sun went down I walked to Old Jaffa for dinner along the water.

Sunset in Tel Aviv
Sunset in Tel Aviv

I got up early the following day in order to see as much as possible before my flight back to Istanbul. I started in Dizengoff Square and from there headed to the Carmel Market to get some breakfast – more marzipan, a croissant, and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

The fountain in Dizengoff Square
The fountain in Dizengoff Square

Then I walked to the Great Synagogue only to find it closed. But the neighborhood around it is one of the nicest in the city, with a promenade that is great for people watching. After that I headed south to Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood to be settled outside walled Jaffa. The buildings are adorable and the neighborhood is very up-and-coming after going through a revitalization period about 10 years ago.

Some of the buildings of Neve Tzedek
Some of the buildings of Neve Tzedek

My final stop was for lunch, back in the neighborhood in which I stayed, but not before walking along the beach with a short-sleeved t-shirt and no shoes. It was by far the warmest day I had experienced at that point in the semester: 79 degrees Fahrenheit. That combined with sitting outside for lunch actually gave me a sunburn.

The final chapter in this story is the airport security on the way out. Everyone I talked to beforehand underscored the importance of getting to the Tel Aviv airport at least 3 hours before departure. I did just that, arriving at 1:30 for a 4:30 flight. The first round of security takes place before you even check in at the counter. In my case, two different agents questioned me. After you get your boarding pass you make your way to the traditional security line. I was directed to the wrong line at first and then had to be escorted to the correct one where I was asked to take certain items out of my bag. I went through a metal detector, then was instructed to empty both of my bags. The security officer went over every single item and every corner of each bag with a bomb residue detection wand, asking me questions at the same time. It was at this point that they took two of my toiletry items. I actually protested because I knew for a fact they were the correct size (100 mL) but the agent informed me that it had to be below 100 mL. Of course they did not take the 100 mL Dead Sea lotion I bought in Jerusalem… After my bags were searched I was told to have a seat to wait for the body scanner. Apparently I had a hot spot on the image because I was directed to a small private room in which I had to remove my shirt. The agent had his hands down my pants before he decided I wasn’t actually harboring a bomb. This process took over 2 hours, hence the necessity of getting to the airport early. And, of course, I did not have my passport for the entire bag and body search. I finally made it to my gate only to find that, yet again, my flight was delayed… A not so fantastic end to an otherwise amazing weekend.

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