I sat up in bed abruptly, staring into the darkness, craving a cigarette and considering my current situation. Never could I have foreseen being in this company in this country. Never, ever.
I was sharing a bed with a Danish Somalian guy who worked in political affairs at the United Nations and a Danish German biochemist chick. We had all met the night before and ended up having a wild, drawn out party together that began at a food festival and ended up with all three of us jumping on the beds of a hotel room like properly mature adults, somewhere in between having danced our hamstrings to shreds in a club that looked like a tomb, beneath a palace.
We were in Bethlehem. Yes, you heard me, where baby Jesus was first put in the manger and where those donkeys carried all those men so far to reach.
Yes, Palestine. A war zone – eating falafel and smoking shisha and dropping it low to club music from five years ago.
Anyway, this story isn’t actually about my scandalous late night behaviour in foreign countries, it’s about a conflict that seems to have somehow disappeared amongst the reams and reams of Australian anti “boat-people” propaganda and our seemingly tired apathy toward anything related to the Middle East.
I didn’t initially travel there to cover this, I travelled there because I was sitting on a rooftop in Zanzibar a couple of weeks before and it occurred to me that the flat roof skyline and distant early morning ring of the call to prayer reminded me of what I thought the Middle East might be like, and I was into it. So I booked a ticket to Egypt and went a few days later. Which may seem like a raucously uninspiring reason, but here I was, listening to stories of conflict and getting far too caffeinated on cardamom coffee, and immediately I was involved.
Getting there was no simple springtime stroll through a field of daisies that are just opening so the bees haven’t arrived yet and winter is not quite over so the snakes are still hibernating. In fact it was the complete reverse. There were no daisies, just dust whipping my cheeks in the wind, men with guns checking passports in the middle of the night, dead camels on the side of the road and Egyptian cities that have collapsed into ghost towns with wide roads and desperate hotel managers after tourism in the country has dropped 95% since the civil unrest of 2011.
I spent four hours at the land border of Israel coming from Egypt, mostly sitting alone wondering what was happening, but also getting interrogated as to every last detail of my public and personal life. I still don’t really know why, but reports are that it happens all the time, especially if you are vaguely Arabic, which I am not, but also if you are quite young and alone, which I was. Still am.
This was directly after hurtling through the desert in a car driven by a slightly pissed off middle aged man, not pissed off for anything I had done (I’m pretty sure), but because the general psyche of most Egyptian men it seems, is slightly pissed off. Either that or resting bitch face is a serious problem in this part of the world. He let go of the steering wheel every now and again to light a cigarette, disregarding blind corners that swung between the orange rock mountains that rose violently out of the flat orange desert – a stark contrast to the blue blue Red Sea.
Yikes that’s a lot of colour. And a hectic day.
Anyway, eventually I negotiated my entry to Israel and was in Tel Aviv by midnight.
My taxi driver from the bus station yelled at me for no apparent reason and threw my luggage on the curb when I climbed out at my hostel. He was so angry at me for hopping in his Taxi, anyone would have thought being a Taxi driver in this place didn’t involve driving people around and my request to do so was so demanding and extraordinary that it justified him attempting to break the valuables in my flimsy backpack. Meanwhile dudes with topknots flew by on fix gear bicycles and lines into clubs in small alleyways had me confused as to whether I was in Melbourne or not. But then all of the street art had upside down writing and I couldn’t read the road signs, or anything for that matter, and then I knew I was somewhere far far from home.
It really wasn’t what I had expected, Israel. Even the stray cats are in good condition. Everything is organized and there is wifi everywhere. There are pastries for days in cafes and more lollies in the markets than could possibly enter your imagination. Craft beer and uniform clad young people carrying M16s like everything is fine, hopping on the bus and sitting down next to you, weapon prodding you in the leg with no apology like its as normal as the old lady talking loudly on the phone in Hebrew two seats away.
Tel Aviv sits on the Mediterranean Sea, and although it is positioned only an hour from the conflict that has been going on since Israel was birthed back in 1948, the city holds no hint of such events. I partied, roamed the streets eating enough pita bread to sink a battle ship and being generally ignorant about what split cities, holy cites, stabbings, shootings or any kind of wall. It was blissful after being lost in a remote African village for a few months prior.
My whole world was about to be ripped apart, my heart wrenched violently from my chest and my whole idea of what Israel is came dramatically crashing down around me.