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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Seeing Israel... through African eyes

[The following is a guest post by 'My African Correspondent'.  I was tempted to make small edits and/or correction here and there, but I think you'll agree that reading his original text allows you to 'hear' the charming lilt of his Kenyan accented English and to better experience his innocent excitement.]

I know, it's weird that I should have this obsession about Israel.  It's rare to have a 12-year old boy stand at 'departures' at an airport and watch a bunch of passengers headed for Israel board an El Al plane surrounded by numerous IDF soldiers, and from that moment develop an obsession. It's also rare to have an African coming from a third world country, and not exactly living a King's life visit a developed country with all opportunities available, yet barely even look at the classifieds section of the Jerusalem Post newspaper (only English newspaper I saw while in Israel).

Why? Because 'I think' I have an understanding of the contemporary Israeli society. You see, very few countries have managed to create the kind of diverse society Israel has created, having in mind, that no man is equal!

The minute I got the Visa to Israel, I stood there for a minute and thought "Is this it?", I thought it comes with something more, like a congratulations from the Israeli Ambassador after which the Israeli national anthem is played… It had taken me years to get this piece of note on this booklet! I was excited but tried not to show it, back here walking around overly excited will definitely have someone follow you, thinking you have not less than $ 1,000 on you. I placed my passport somewhere safe and walked out of the embassy like nothing had happened.

Day 1

I arrived at the airport way ahead of time, it was the first time I was to board a plane and I didn't want to miss this for anything, not traffic and definitely not my mum asking me "why I want to go and get bombed?". After a while I boarded the plane and before long I was experiencing something new!, 8 hours later and it didn't take a genius to realize that we were approaching Eretz Yisrael, everyone wanted to have a peek as we entered Israeli airspace. I was calm, trying to pull a its-not-my-first-time look but couldn't help it as we started descending on the Ben Gurion airport airstrip.

As the plane touched down, the passengers clapped, and I thought to myself "thank you very much" :-) Of course they were congratulating the pilot for getting them to Israel safely, something this lady from South Africa seated next to me explained was a tradition, she had obviously noticed that I joined in the clapping long after it had started.

I was in Israel.

Everything was different! The kind of stone used for construction in Israel is somewhat lighter in color than the one here, most buildings, especially from the plane seemed 'whiter'. As I approached the immigration booth at the airport I thought, whether or not I was to be granted permission to enter Israel, I was in Israel!! my experience then I assumed had been enough. I had been to Israel.

Since I had done a lot of reading about Israel, I sort of knew my way around, I boarded a train and sat across two Israeli girls who had a conversed in Hebrew non-stop, being a mr-know-it-all at the time, I pulled out my Hebrew phrasebook and tried to understand what they were saying. That got me very frustrated! My frustrations snowballed as I noticed that no one really bothered to know who I was, or what it had taken me get to Israel (that was pretty selfish, but I thought a pat on the back would be in order), for a second, as I headed to board a bus at the central bus station in Tel Aviv I felt like yelling "hey its me, I made it!!".

Day 2/3

10 hours of sleep and I was ready to explore Old Yaffo, the weather was perfect for me and I couldn't help smile as everyone spoke in Hebrew all around , I occasionally resisted the temptation to shout out some phrases I could understand but saved it all for the manager at the hostel where I was staying, I realized that it got to a point where she was beginning to show how irritated she was every time I uttered some broken Hebrew and expected some positive response for my effort, I obviously sucked at being Israeli, two more attempts of my multi-lingual experiment and I would be sleeping with the O'leiy Tzion street gang of stray cats!

A walk on the Tel Aviv tayelet (Hebrew word for promenade) from Jaffa and the view of the cosmopolitan Tel Aviv city is amazing! On one side a perfect view of the Mediterranean Sea accompanied by a warm breeze, and on the other, bustling modern buildings landscaping the sea side. A military helicopter made its way south along the beach obviously on patrol, and I couldn't help think of the people that worked round the clock to ensure that everyone in this and some other part of the country were safe. A walk down Ben-Yehuda street and AC DC's back in black is playing on my ipod, the track obviously complements the hip western-like style adopted by the numerous Israelis I walk past, both young and old. Meanwhile Trep, must have been on the other side of the see-saw thinking, what have I done!

It was time to head to Jerusalem and I called Trep up and informed him when I would be arriving.

The Tel-Aviv central bus station is an interesting area, and you wouldn't want to get caught in the wee hours of the morning doing some touring there. The need to restrict immigrants visiting Israel with dubious intentions is obvious when you walk around this part of Israel late into the night.

I booked a ticket with a friend I had met at the hostel who was also touring Israel, in 20 minutes our bus parked at departures. I couldn't help notice the numerous soldiers waiting to catch a bus at the bus station, a couple of Israeli Ethiopian female soldiers caught my attention a number of times but I dared not to stare too much at them since they were carrying weapons, not that I meant any harm to them or they were welding their guns in a manner to suggest that I would be a victim but, I was not quite adjusted to the number of M-16's I saw with soldiers almost everywhere I went.

The trip to Jerusalem was interesting, along the way we came across the burnt out wrecks of home-made armored vehicles and civilian trucks used in 1948 to deliver supplies to the Jews living in Jerusalem at that time, this road I thought is a significant symbol to the independence of the Jewish state of Israel, and serves as a significant reminder of the will of patriotic Israelis, that Israel is here to stay and no man should ever succeed in an attempt to make Israeli Jews extinct. As we made our way into the city a mixture of predominant religious and secular folk could be seen about their business. I boarded my first moneet (taxi) in Israel there and after negotiating our fare we were on our way to the hostel (a sister hostel to the hostel in Tel Aviv).

I met more friends at the hostel and we had a 'multi-continent' dinner, 3 guys from different continents, US, Europe and Africa. We obviously had a lot to share, one thing we had in common (among others) was that Israeli ladies were difficult to approach, they either carried weapons (soldiers) which dissolved the motivation to strike a conversation, for obvious reasons or they spoke their native language too much making us wonder if they spoke any English at all, apart from the British guy, no one had bothered to ask, it became apparent to me that most Israeli youth speak English or Anglit as you may have it. Enough Said!!!

Day 4

Part of my day found me exploring the Old city and the numerous shops along Ben-Yehuda street amongst other streets. That evening I met David and he gave us some well needed Israeli hospitality by taking us (me and the friend I had met at the hostel) to his favorite restaurant, after the first culture shock meeting (I obviously wanted to give him the African American 'street' hug but figured what the heck! I might as well show him some Kenyan 'love'). I threw a couple of unnoticed glances at David's well tucked-in glock and was tempted to ask him to empty his cartridge and let me have a James-Bond moment, I've gladly never caught a gun before and never might, in self-defense. It became apparent to me that David might not want to carry his weapon but is forced by circumstance. I met lulu, energetic as ever and Jordan, mature and responsible, we gladly accepted an invitation from David to accompany him to the vet and I couldn't help notice how Jordan was keen on David's driving, she keenly stood between the driver and passenger seat and was tempted to clear the traffic for David in a number of occasions.

Day 5

Thursday morning found me headed towards Ein Gedi. We boarded a bus and I sat next to a German tourist obviously headed towards this part of Israel for the first time, we silently but pleasantly enjoyed the countryside together. I noted that the country buses were very comfortable and were driven at pace sufficient enough for first time tourists to have a good view of this hilly beautiful country. The Dead Sea and expanse desert were breathtaking but I was anxious to get back to Jerusalem on time so as to meet David, I had accepted his invitation to sleep over and have some home hospitality from the Bogners.

I caught the last bus to Ein Gedi and on my way back I began to realize that my stay in Israel was about to end, it was a feeling I can equate to pre-school when I suddenly realized that (after two weeks) school was a must, I constantly inquired as a child why I had to leave home and go to school but I received a firm and sometimes painful answer that school was important and that it was a must! My visa was to last for three weeks but I had to report back to work in 3 days.

I met David and Yonah that evening, Yonah was catching up on his twenty winks ahead of his busy day the following day , we headed to Efrat and there I met the rest of the Bogners, the reception was affectionate and I was careful not to get into an emotional whirl and start crying. Ariella and Gilead impressed me with their friendly and mature personalities, they obviously had many questions about where I was from and I gladly answered them over dinner. Zahava like David wrote fed me within an inch of my life, she is charming and kind, on my way to the guest room I realized that Chez Treppenwitz had been the most welcoming place I had been to while in Israel.

Day 6

It was time for me to head to Tel Aviv and after a fulfilling breakfast over which I expressed my gratitude for the cordial hospitality I received from the Bogner's, we headed to Jerusalem with David on the way, I got a glimpse of the level co-existence between the Israeli Jews and Arabs. This was not the only effort I saw to try and integrate these communities, I saw numerous businesses in the old city and other part of Jerusalem and  Tel Aviv owned by Israeli Arabs, I even rode on a bus on my way back to Tel Aviv that was driven by an Israeli-Arab. To me, I think its was a matter of whether the Arab neighbors can co-exist with Israelis, it's still not clear to me how someone could contemplate of annihilating the citizens of Israel. And yes, even if a Jewish terrorist unfortunately attacks Palestinians, targeting the Israeli civilian population is not a justified means of action. Israeli military installations are not 'mixed' with civilian public facilities, its obvious that even if Hamas were to be given weapons that would precisely target military personnel and Installations in Israel, they would aim them elsewhere and come up with an excuse to justify their actions grrrr! Enough said!!

There's something special about the Jewish Sabbath day in Israel, every Israeli seems excited to get home on time and as dusk nears they part with their friends and colleagues wishing each other 'a good rest'. Not much goes on around the Sabbath and a number of shops are closed, David had made sure I had enough food to last me during this period in case the shops in my area were closed.

Day 7

Part of my Friday evening and Saturday had me reminiscing how lucky I had been to have a perfect trip. Although I missed out on the waffles from my friend Jameel from the Muqata (Hat tip for the idea to guest blog) I headed to the airport thankful, thankful for the incredible time I had in Israel.

Here are a few points I noted about Israel during my stay:

1.      Israel is perfectly safe and the notion that most people have about it being a mine field is an inaccurate perception of life in Israel.
2.      While in Israel, learning some common Hebrew phrases will go along way helping you get some assistance. Israelis rarely tell foreigners (from my experience) "I don't know!", even if you get a "go straight, take a left and a right then 3 lefts" they'll be to make an effort to assist you.
3.      If the police stop you and ask for your identification, don't be intimidated, help them identify you and you'll be on your way in no time.
4.      There's always a just course you can volunteer to participate in while in Israel, from assisting the roughly 700 Sudanese refugees settle in Israel to merely showing a city sweeper some respect by placing your rubbish in a rubbish bin.
5.      Don't overstay the required time you have indicated on your passport, especially if you are from Africa, the authorities will get you, one way or another.
6.      Expect to gain some serious weight while in Israel, one week of a delicious home cooking, falafel, schwarma, and sweet pastries, and I definitely gained more mass.

Posted by David Bogner on April 8, 2008 | Permalink

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Oh, this is beautiful. Would he be interested in seeing a kibbutz next time? I can't compete with cuisine Bogner but I'd do my best...

I'm glad he enjoyed his trip and was not disappointed.

Posted by: Lila | Apr 8, 2008 1:56:12 PM

...Or you can come to Modiin!

Seriously, I am so glad you enjoyed our beautiful, precious land. I hope you can come back soon, and in the meantime, spread the good word about us!

Posted by: Baila | Apr 8, 2008 2:51:25 PM

Great post!

Posted by: Ari | Apr 8, 2008 3:29:02 PM

Leshana haba'ah be'Yerushalayim! ;)

Posted by: Liron | Apr 8, 2008 4:36:12 PM

Always wondered what it would be like to do this.

Lila ... Thanks. There's always a next time.

Baila... Thanks. I will, I always do. :-)

Ari... Without David I wouldn't have done it.

Liron... Bli Safek! once is never enough! :-)

Posted by: Rami | Apr 8, 2008 6:09:39 PM

Thanks for sharing, especially after you had kept us waiting for the sequel.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Apr 8, 2008 6:10:54 PM

That was a very nice story. I enjoyed it.

Posted by: Jack | Apr 8, 2008 6:33:51 PM

I have a silly grin on my face and tears in my eyes from reading this beautiful post. Thank you "African correspondent" for reminding us of all the good reasons why we live here and love this country. In the day-to-day runaround we tend to forget the good things here.

Posted by: annie | Apr 8, 2008 8:18:49 PM

A wonderful end to a riveting story. David kept us on the edge of our seats with this one. But it isn't the end is it? You'll be back for sure.

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Apr 8, 2008 8:43:09 PM

What a wonderful post. I am so glad you enjoyed Israel. When I visit, I enjoy the people THE MOST, even though the land is really amazing. Israelis are truly fantastic people and I'm so glad you had a good experience of them. Well done Bogner family for demonstrating true Jewish hospitality and love for this sojourner! Please return soon.

Posted by: Noa | Apr 8, 2008 9:45:15 PM

When David wrote about your trip, I wished he had gone into more detail. Your guest post gave me my wish!

My daughter and I will travel to Israel this summer for the first time. We already have plans to visit with the Bogners (and Jameel and Gila too!) Your post only made me want it to happen that much sooner! Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: orieyenta | Apr 8, 2008 10:08:52 PM

Beautifully told, Rami. Thank you for sharing your trip with us.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Apr 8, 2008 11:24:58 PM

Really nicely written. Though most Israeli's are very hospitable, I don't think I'm too biased to think that from what I hear, my brother and his family go up and above basic hospitality and provide a 5 star home away from home! Glad you got to experience it.

Posted by: val | Apr 9, 2008 2:54:31 AM

Magic*

Posted by: Aryeh | Apr 9, 2008 3:24:55 AM

Rami: Reading your descriptive travelogue made me remember -- in a very meaningful way -- my first trip to Israel (in the summer of 2002). Even after aliyah and living here 4.5 years -- I still can not get over my good fortune to be here.

I know that I speak on behalf of everyone here at Chez Treppenwitz when I say your guest room awaits! It was so nice to get to know you. We look forward to future opportunities, and will stay in touch in until you return!

Posted by: zahava | Apr 9, 2008 10:03:50 AM

So beautiful, thanks for the guest post.

Posted by: SaraK | Apr 9, 2008 5:31:35 PM

Hey Trep - why not hyperlink his hat-tip? :-)

Mr. African Correspondent: Well done!

Posted by: Jameel @ The Muqata | Apr 9, 2008 7:42:35 PM

Beautiful! Dave, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would enjoy seeing pictures of you with your Kenyan friend! How about posting some pics?

Posted by: Marsha in Stamford | Apr 10, 2008 6:00:45 AM

"along the way we came across the burnt out wrecks of home-made armored vehicles and civilian trucks used in 1948"

i couldn't believe it when i read recently of a proposal to remove the trucks from the side of the highway

"Expect to gain some serious weight while in Israel"

that's not a joke in reference to africans in israel. the shift to a western diet and a sedentary lifestyle is wreaking havoc with the health of ethiopian olim. diabetes, for example, was almost unknown in ethiopia and now in israel ethiopian olim have the highest incidence of it.

RAMI:

nice post. maybe we'll get to read something by you again.

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Apr 10, 2008 6:33:35 AM

Rami: it sounds like you couldn't have picked a better "doorman" to usher you into Israel. I am happy, also, that you got to fulfill a dream so large. G-d bless you and yours.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Apr 11, 2008 7:53:23 PM

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