Tel Aviv and About

EX­PLOR­ING IS­RAEL’S MEDITER­RANEAN COAST

mailife - - Front Page - By RA­JAN SAMI Pho­tos GIOR­GOS APOSTOLOPOULOS

The grilling that my Greek friend Ge­orge and I get at Athens air­port is like a scene straight out of Home­land. We’re split up and in­ter­viewed sep­a­rately about how we met, how long we’ve known each other, what the other does for a liv­ing, if we have work sam­ples to prove what we do, if there are peo­ple we know in Tel Aviv, how we’ve met them, and whether we have their con­tact de­tails among other prob­ing in­quiries. The in­ter­view­ers then meet to cor­rob­o­rate our sto­ries and come back to each of us with ad­di­tional ques­tions. It’s an early sign that Tel Aviv is not your typ­i­cal tourist des­ti­na­tion. Even with an aware­ness of the on­go­ing Is­raeli/Pales­tinian con­flict and the as­so­ci­ated dan­gers in­volved with the des­ti­na­tion doesn’t quite pre­pare me for this pre-flight in­ter­ro­ga­tion. It’s un­like any other I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced at air­ports post 9/11. The screen­ing at LAX two years prior was a breeze by com­par­i­son. On ar­rival in Tel Aviv, the sight of pim­ple-faced teenagers decked in mil­i­tary khaki and bran­dish­ing guns (as part of their na­tional de­fence force du­ties) is no less dis­con­cert­ing but there’s a flip side to Is­rael’s sec­ond largest city, home to 400,000+ peo­ple. While many trav­ellers, in­clud­ing a num­ber of Fi­jians, will head straight for the holy sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv of­fers the in­trepid ex­plorer a con­tem­po­rary ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence com­plete with in­ter­est­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and street art, colour­ful mar­kets, an eclec­tic food, nightlife and arts scene plus sites of historical sig­nif­i­cance. We base our­selves in an AirBnB apart­ment in Tel Aviv’s UN­ESCO-ranked White City, so named for the abun­dance of beau­ti­ful 1930s era Bauhaus build­ings and set off to ex­plore on foot. Bustling Carmel Mar­ket is only a short walk away and houses an ar­ray of food and sou­venir stalls. I try de­li­cious, crumbly pis­ta­chio halva made with sesame paste and find it to be quite dif­fer­ent from our semolina-based halwa in Fiji. Ge­orge goes for a shwarma, a street food sta­ple that’s es­sen­tially spit cooked meat and salad in a wrap. Tum­mies filled, we spend the late af­ter­noon walk­ing along Tel Aviv’s sprawl­ing coast­line tak­ing in the sights of Is­raeli surfers catch­ing waves in the win­ter sun. Next day we grab a rental and drive to the Tel Aviv Mu­seum of Art, home to many a mas­ter­piece in­clud­ing works by Pi­casso, Van Gogh, Gau­guin and Klimt among oth­ers. Even though con­tem­po­rary art is more my thing, there’s no deny­ing the beauty and power in see­ing these mas­ter­pieces up close. Next we head to the an­cient port city of Jaffa or Yafo on

the south­ern end of Tel Aviv and wan­der its labyrinthine pas­sage­ways ex­plor­ing old churches, monas­ter­ies and mosques. Af­ter liv­ing for three months in Athens (which is pre­dom­i­nantly Greek) I find the mul­ti­cul­tural mix of Is­raelis, Arabs and Africans and their dif­fer­ent lan­guages, smells and sounds makes me think of Fiji. We’ve barely sat down at the Old Man and the Sea for lunch when a waiter ap­pears with a smor­gas­bord of at least 18 side dishes in­clud­ing falafels, hum­mus, tab­bouleh and the like along with warm oven baked pita bread and a pitcher of le­mon­ade. He makes a great show of bang­ing the dishes on the ta­ble, which adds an el­e­ment of theatre to the meal. There’s so much food that we forego or­der­ing mains and the side dishes keep get­ting topped up so quickly as they run out that we can barely keep up. Just be­fore sun­set, the city goes into Shab­bat (Ju­daism’s day of rest) and an eerie si­lence de­scends upon most ar­eas. Not so in Jaffa, where the streets are lined with the lively bars, eater­ies and night­clubs that go all night. Tel Aviv is not called the ‘party cap­i­tal’ for noth­ing. We get up early the next morn­ing and drive a few hours through desert land­scape to the Dead Sea, stop­ping along the way to pick up some dates to snack on. Turns out the Dead Sea is ac­tu­ally a 605 km2 lake shared be­tween Is­rael and Jor­dan. I guess some­how ‘Dead Lake’ doesn’t quite have the same ring. As is cus­tom, we walk back­wards into the highly saline wa­ter then slowly lower our­selves un­til we’re float­ing on our backs. It is win­ter and the wa­ter isn’t the warm­est for a Fi­jian but the sun sort of makes it bear­able for a lit­tle while. Af­ter­wards, Ge­orge and I cover our­selves with mud from the lake banks then wash it off un­der out­door show­ers. From here, we drive to Ein Gedi, an oa­sis and na­ture re­serve with sev­eral walk­ing trails. The drive of­fers awein­spir­ing desert and Dead Sea views, im­pos­ing moun­tains and Jor­dan in the dis­tance. From Ein Gedi we head for Jerusalem, ar­riv­ing in the late af­ter­noon and go straight to the West­ern Wall, the an­cient lime­stone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Built some 2000 years ago, to­day it is an im­por­tant re­li­gious shrine. We ar­rive to find ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish men dressed in head to toe black with tall hats rock­ing back­wards and for­wards on their heels, mov­ing their heads in prayer and oc­ca­sion­ally press­ing them­selves against the Wall and kiss­ing the stones. There’s a sep­a­rate sec­tion for women fur­ther down, the two sexes sep­a­rated by a par­ti­tion. Af­ter­wards we wan­der the Old City’s labyrinthine tun­nels, by­pass­ing the touristy stalls hawk­ing the usual Chi­nese, In­dian and Ba­li­nese tchotchkes (baubles) now found in tourist traps

the world over. We try but are re­fused en­try into the Tem­ple Mount and the Dome of the Rock as ac­cess is lim­ited to spe­cific times of day. The divi­sion of and con­trol over this holy site for Jewish, Chris­tian and Mus­lim peo­ple has been one of the pri­mary rea­sons be­hind the on­go­ing con­flict in the Mid­dle East. News of a rogue ter­ror­ist at­tack the very next day in Jerusalem that kills four Is­raeli sol­diers and in­jures a dozen oth­ers reaches us on our last day in Tel Aviv, bring­ing the re­al­ity of life here close to home. Leav­ing for Cyprus to get a flight back to Sin­ga­pore via Doha in Qatar (due to the lack of di­rect flights be­tween Is­rael and many Arab States), I go through yet an­other rig­or­ous se­cu­rity check and a fair bit of ques­tion­ing. My vis­its to Mus­lim coun­tries are ques­tioned: “Why did you go to In­done­sia and Malaysia?” I keep my cool, breathe and am pa­tient with the count­less queries. But when a mud mask I bought at the Dead Sea is taken away for weigh­ing de­spite fit­ting the 100ml cri­te­ria, I’m a lit­tle irked. It later oc­curs to me that they were likely check­ing to see that its con­tents hadn’t been changed. Tel Aviv, Is­rael and its rig­or­ous en­try and exit screen­ing re­quire­ments may mean it’s not the hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion of choice for ev­ery­one, but it’s cer­tainly a travel ex­pe­ri­ence that takes you well out of your com­fort zone.

Fiji pass­port hold­ers get a three-month visa on ar­rival in Is­rael.

The view of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

Tel Aviv of­fers a mix of ar­chi­tec­tural styles rang­ing from 1930s Bauhaus build­ings to ul­tra mod­ern sky­scrapers and ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

A ca­sual eatery at bustling Carmel Mar­ket

The spread at Old Man and the Sea

Ben Gu­rion Air­port

Ortho­dox men at the West­ern Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City

A hot dessert/drink hy­brid with cin­na­mon and nuts

The Dead Sea

Trendy hip­ster art at Jaffa

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