I have had reservations with writing publicly about my connection to Israel because of the immediate negative connotations it conjures up for many people; Because of the intense media scrutiny; Because of the shocking hostility I have experienced over social media; Because of the deep sadness, volatility and complex cultural associations that is inextricably linked to it. Because, because, because…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed. I am wary. Wary of putting myself out there and sharing too much online. (Perhaps that’s why I usually let my photos do the talking instead.)
And yet, here was an opportunity to share another side. To share the beauty, warmth and intensity of a country that I have half my roots in – and only that. Not because there is nothing else to say; I am well aware there is a LOT else to say. But because these are just some things I’ve seen…
We trail through the back streets of Jaffa, the dust kicking up behind us. Occasionally I look up at the beautiful crumbling buildings: their chipped walls, faded window shutters and plants snaking round the iron bannisters. Locals sit on plastic chairs in random huddles, playing cards or putting the world to rights. I shuffle along, lugging my cameras.
Sleepy stoners nod as we pass, while music drifts in and out of smoky alleyways. And I realise we’ve made our way into Florentin.
With one small turn, we suddenly find ourselves in an entirely different neighbourhood all together. The buildings are lower, stone and plaster turn into metal and brick, graffiti adorn almost every single wall, and makeshift bars and galleries are squeezed between tiny warehouse spaces. Sleepy stoners nod as we pass, while music drifts in and out of smoky alleyways. And I realise we’ve made our way into Florentin.
We stop for a quick coffee or juice, I can’t remember, at the only drinking hole we stumble across amidst the Friday lull. And then we wander on… Soon it becomes clear that the streets have become more gentrified – orange trees line the pavements – and I spot a graffiti sign that reads, “I think I’m going crazy.” I want to reply “we all do” but I snap a picture instead. People sit alfresco, smoking and drinking tea nana.
Spent from the endless roaming, we decide to head back home for some rest before the inevitable mighty dinner that awaits us that evening. We jump on some city bikes and take the route along the coast, making it just in time for sundown on the Tayelet. With a warm light breeze in the air, we whizz down, swerving between the mass of people that are all leaving the beach at the same time. The penetrating, almost violent, giant orange mass illuminates the sky; and I know even after all these years of coming here I’ll never get used to that.
I am taking a trip to the Dead Sea – it’s actually my first time. We set off from Tel Aviv early in the morning, jumping in a van driven by our guide for the day. On the way we pick up friends from Jerusalem and then excitedly make our way into the desert. Soon enough the cars drop away, the buildings disappear into the distance, the roads curve up into the mountains and we can start to see the sea. After a few twists and turns, we steer into a vantage point and pull up. The landscape is surreal: hazy and powdered, indiscernible in detail yet rich in variety of hues. The sea, land and sky bleed into each other, making the horizon almost non-existent. And there’s a thick translucent dust that hangs in the air above the water – we’re told it’s minerals, but I’m too distracted to take in the science, because it truly is breathtaking. Something’s in the air indeed.
The landscape is surreal: hazy and powdered, indiscernible in detail yet rich in variety of hues. The sea, land and sky bleed into each other, making the horizon almost non-existent.
We jump back in to the car and continue to the Masada… Which is epic and sweeping, just as expected. We take our time walking through the ruins and absorbing the endless desert views that surround us, imagining what it would have been like in all its glory. At one viewpoint we yell out into the canyons, hearing our booming echoes bounce from one side to the other. We stop for a quick lunch break of falafel sandwiches and then venture on to our next stop. En route we have to pass through a checkpoint, and although it’s less severe in comparison to others, the thud back to reality is heavy for me. In Tel Aviv, you feel somewhat estranged from the conflict but out here it comes back into focus…
We drive on a little further until we get to Ein Gedi. Unfortunately we’ve hit a tourist pile up, and it’s the first time that day I feel like a visitor, as opposed to a traveller. We walk amongst throngs of people, jumping over narrow slithering streams and balancing on rocks. But then somehow we manage to find a completely secluded waterfall off the path, and immediately strip off, running into the freezing water.
Soon we find ourselves rushing to make it to the Dead Sea while we still have light. We zoom by small palm tree oases and race against the sun, until finally, we reach the shore. We strip off once again and smother ourselves with mud from the water banks. After letting the mud dry, I step into the salty murky waters. I can immediately feel a slight burn from the cuts on my feet. I wade out and slowly sit back into a floating position. It’s a strange sensation. I lie there staring at the dusty sky, the water tingling while I breathe in the musky odours, and my body feeling lighter than it’s ever felt before… Before long the sun starts to go down, so we get out of the sea, take quick showers and crack open some beers. The sky settles into a misty pink and the sea a deep, dark purple. And I think, this place looks anything but dead.
Back in Tel Aviv, we grab breakfast on Dizengoff and stroll down, taking in the Bauhaus balconies and beautiful old trees – their thick roots wrapping around themselves. The cafes are heaving and the smells are intoxicating. It’s a busy, vibrant morning, and I suddenly remember how different it was last year during a particularly volatile time. How stilted and tense the atmosphere was; the hushed arguments and anxious waiting between sirens. Perhaps there will always be this dichotomy…
The cafes are heaving and the smells are intoxicating. It’s a busy, vibrant morning, and I suddenly remember how different it was last year during a particularly volatile time
We amble along, eventually getting to the pastel bungalow-lined streets of Nevet Tsedek. We weave through the neighbourhood, admiring the quaint houses with their jumbled cacti collections. We stop in front of one in particular – I notice a small hand-drawn sign that reads “home is where the [heart] is,” and the sentiment feels loaded.
Afterwards we drop by my grandparents for one last visit. My grandma stuffs us with delicious Yemen food, while my grandfather regales us with recent stories from his daily market visits. As per usual, there’s a little bit of shouting and a lot of laughter. We sit back with some coffee and watermelon, hoping to cool off under the fan before we have to brave the heat again.
Later I wind up on a rooftop somewhere. It’s dusk, which is my favourite time in every city, but especially this city. A faint pink and blue haze lines the horizon and I look out at all the little white rooftops, illuminated by the shifting light – they call it “The White City”. As always, I am ready to leave, exhausted and full, but with a longing that will wash over me like salt water once I’m home again.