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Jerusalem - Powerfully Multipolar

Last week when I asked people on instagram whether they would like a post on Jerusalem or Venice, I honestly was surprised that 70% voted for the contentious holy land! On reflection though, I realize it is not that surprise. Jerusalem was always a lot of conflict but ever more so in the recent weeks with interesting politics emerging within and outside the region! Anyway, I think it is time enough (I visited in 2014) to pen my thoughts and impressions of this place as an utter outsider with no vested interest from a political or emotional standpoint but with a huge curiosity from an human perspective. 

First, why did I visit? Although some of my closest friends are semitic and I have lived in proximity, although know none personally, to muslims all my life, the conflict of Israel vs Palestine was little more than a tertiary interest as it played in everyday politics. I for the most part related jewish to those I knew and islamic to Pakistan. So, I did not have an active interest in seeking out and visiting Israel, even though I have always wanted to visit its neighboring Arabic region for a very long time. For me, I am certain, a part of it is that the politics did not affect me enough (my friends were not practicing members of the religion or particularly vocal about Israel itself) and, perhaps, a bigger part of it, was that the jewish cuisine as available in New York, is utterly deplorable. 

As has been my experience many times over at this point, an opportunity presents itself that allows me to visit a place that I would not have under my own volition, because of negative and very skewed (based on food I have sampled!) preconceptions, and I totally slammed by how wrong I was... in all my judgements!

Israel was no different. I was offered the chance to visit the country as a guest of the Ministry of Tourism of Israel (read my previous posts on Tel Aviv and a quick food summary) and who says no to that?! :) Once I had seen Tel Aviv, I was sold. This country was hugely interesting because the people were unlike any I had ever met. Their history (both WW2 as well as the baggage and persecution of being jewish over centuries), present and always in-hanging future made for a deeply curious culture.

Below, I have divided my experience into topics of food, people and my impressions and what I learnt of the city.


Food

First of all, as I learnt in Tel Aviv, Jewish food is NOT what you get in the kosher delis and restaurants of NYC. Then again, Tel Avis is a lot more liberal to the point of relishing pork and so perhaps not the best representation of a traditional cuisine. However, the point that was driven home well was that 'Jewish cuisine' while sharing some common points of tradition, was largely adapted to the region the people lived in and reflected the same. Israeli cuisine was therefore a confluence of many cultures coming together and melding in a common spot. Another point of note was how down right delicious the quality of food and ingredients were.

I had divine experiences there and along the coast of the country and, even with the additional constraints of the religious city, it was mind-blowing how good the food was! The same constraints that result in appalling and overpriced experiences in NYC were simply not limitations but boundaries of Jerusalem's kosher cuisine!

Everywhere I went, from the down to earth Jerusalem market vendors to the upscale dining room of the Dan Hotel Jerusalem, food was spectacular, cooked with passion (agnostic of religion), fresh and delightful.

In particular, I was fascinated by how much fine dining you can do even if your spices are restricted to salt and pepper, and you could not pair dairy with meat. My dining experience at the Dan Hotel was above excellence when you consider these! No, roquefort melted steaks nor was there béarnaise sauce but the meats were perfectly cooked, elegantly seasoned (just salt and pepper) and delightfully presented! It was a true gem.

On the opposite spectrum, for a true experience of the local cuisine, I highly recommend eating your way through the MachneYehuda market. In a surprise revelation, I found that the market houses both jewish and Palestinian vendors in adjacent stalls and they all get along just fine. There are indeed subtle differences in the same product sold in by each culture but I just could not understand how they got along so well in the market and a mere short distance away was the highly conflict area of THE WALL!!!!! Why?!

Note: Kishk, a dried yogurt and bulghur powder, is a favorite of mine, ever since I first tasted the eponymous soup courtesy of Bethany. When I spied it at a stall in the market, I enthusiastically bought it and later when I posted it on Instagram, I was corrected that this was the Palestinian version and not Israeli. At the stall, though, I would not have been able to say that they were muslims or jews! 

'Palestinian' Kishk

 

 

 

 

 

How different is it from Lebanese?

And, can it really not be Israeli?

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Chicken Shawarma!

 

 

 

 

 

                    Dan Hotel

                     one of the starters at the meat restaurant.. Divine!

All the sweets in the market! Not all.. But oh look at them!!!

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The best little restaurant in the city is the eponymous Machneyuda inside the market. The food is inventive, little and the atmosphere very festive! I had lunch and dinner here on the same day and was happily blown away by both. They also have a sister restaurant, Palomar, by Chef Yossi Elad (one of the trio behind the restaurant in Jerusalem) in SoHo, London, that I would also recommend.


People

Indeed, isn't a place nothing but its people? 

If so, Jerusalem has a multiple personality disorder!

We all know the dichotic divide of religion. But, what I learnt when I was there was even more divisive and something you don't hear about much, because it is political only in the domestic sense. And, is unique to this religious city.

Jerusalem is the religious capital of Judaism (Among others I know. But, let us just stick with just that one religion for the point I am making.). So, it houses the religious Yeshiva students and their families who with the privilege of being students of religion, spend their time learning and not earning and also not paying taxes. So, they and all their family is supported by the state and from the taxes paid by the non-student jewish population and, guess, what the Muslims residing here! Now, one would wonder why that is a big deal. But, when you consider the size of this segment in itself but also their wives and their many children per family (because contraception is disallowed in the religion), you realize it is a divisive burden even with the city's jewish society. {a recent article on that here}. 

Now, imagine the woes of the muslims, who are already rather poor and struggling to support their own families (sometimes large for well, the same reasons) and paying for the non-earning other religion students. Just that alone would be cause for raising  tension in any other society. Here of course there is a larger issue at play that overhsadows these belittlements!

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The Muslim Quarter

 

Adjacent to the machneyehuda market, you can walk through a beautiful cobblestoned alley of arches up to the muslim area. It is far from affluent and you do see the hardships of the people in plain view.


Impressions

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Just like Tel Aviv, there was no visible overt tension simmering in the city, even with the proximity of the conflict zone. The vendors in the market from both religions happily coexisted, were friendly to each other and equally warm to visitors. They certainly did not seem to be operating from under the pall of an imminent war attack!

And, perhaps, in that lay the deep distinction from the other city of the country. While in Tel Aviv, I perceived a frenzied energy that served as a the steam outlet of all that pent up tension, here life was rather unremarkably normal on the surface. Despite the looming presence of the Western Wall and all its emotions, that even as an utter outsider with no ties, I was overwhelmed by!

One of the defining moments of my trip to the country was at the Western Wall. Otherwise also called Wailing Wall {The Western Wall, Wailing Wall, or Kotel, known in Arabic as Al-Buraq Wall}. Honestly, had I not witnessed and felt myself, I would not have placed much merit in that name. But, here is where I was totally taken by surprise. The practice apparently is to write a wish in a piece of paper and wedge it in one of the cracks between the stones of the wall. Typically, people asked for safety or news about their family members. The idea was as much about mourning as hope. Anyway, I went in skeptical, because well I have no history to the place. I wrote my wish; I don't remember what it was. The experience of what happened was much more impressive than that wish itself. 

As I walked to the wall, at one point, I felt overtaken by a dense wave of energy - an incredibly sad one. And, I found myself uncontrollably crying, tears streaming down my cheeks without control, even as my brain was trying to make sense of what was happening. Rationally, there was no great sorrow my life to evoke that extreme, uncontrolled reaction. So, I simply could make no sense of it. I continued my walk to the wall and then closed my eyes. Interestingly, at that moment I felt a sudden, warm, enveloping embrace of love from the people in my life and suddenly, I felt stronger and I was okay! Mind, none of this was real; it was in the realm of undefinable energies - both the sadness as well as the love leading to upliftment. To date, I cannot explain it. And, to date it remains one of the most magical moments of life - a time when I knew that no matter what I would be okay.

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Where Are The Christians?

Although I did not meet any Christians or see a church, presumably there is a segment of Christians here as there are in Lebanon and surrounding Arab region. Afterall Christ is as much their ancestor of Christianity as Judaism, and arguably of Islam as well!

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The other defining moment was my visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. It is rather a moving museum and intended to be so. For those who have ties to the religion and/or the war, it is intensely emotional and upsetting, but even the casual visitor or a mere student of history cannot walk through it, without feeling the weight. In particular, the "Remember the Children" exhibit of candles, commemorating the loss of 1.5 million children during the holocaust, is haunting. But, this was not my epiphany. This is expected. 

The real epiphany was about what the existence of the museum and its set up itself stood for. It was a "Never Forget" epitaph and the "We will not let the world forget" symbolism. I felt it was not a place you went to lay your sadness in peace but a place that reignited the feelings of victimization and let the flame of retribution continuously alight.

And, yes, this burning flame is well supported by immensely wealthy donors of the cause. It reminded me that retribution at the end of the day is a luxury of the wealthy and not just the righteous!

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In which case, can we ever have peace in the Middle East.....

Sadly, I think unlikely.... not until the monetary scales tip in balance.

Coming back full circle to where we stand today, even though the notional of Islam sympathizers may outnumber that of pro-Israel supporters, the latter's collective power is immensely stronger, both economically as well as politically. Therefore, for a real solution, that balance has to tipped to equal. With division even within the Arabic world and their own inter-religious issues, the non-involvement of the Asian contingent in the region's troubles, there is less and less backing for the underdog here, the Palestinians. 

We can only wait and see what happens. But, I hope that one day we can learn to not carry the burden of vengeance and fear of the past onto the future and realize we are all just people trying to live - survive, enjoy or luxuriate....!

In many ways, my Jerusalem visit (and thinking back to it while writing this post) reminded me that what happens in the Middle East in many ways is a leading indicator of what could happen to the human race at large. If we will allow fear, power and revenge drive our future or let love, understanding and empathy lead the way....


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