Tel Aviv, Israel: The Otherside

Tel Aviv, Israel: The Otherside

By: Rad Wood


The wall separating Israel from the West Bank is more than a simple barrier.  It’s a portal, dividing two distinct worlds; one modern and developed, the other past over by time.  Thomas and I crossed this portal at the Jalabi checkpoint, six miles north of Jenin. Similar to the crossing at Kalendia, we made our way through a series of locked turnstiles and concrete pathways, through numerous passport checks and under the watchful eye of multiple soldiers.  Along the way, the soldiers separated us, allowing me to pass through a turnstile and locking it before Thomas could follow.  Also like Kalendia, all of our interactions with the soldiers were through bulletproof glass windows.  The entire experience, again, like Kalendia, reminded us of walking through a maximum-security prison.  But this time we were unwanted inmates, forced to answer questions as to why we had been in Jenin.  What were we doing there?  What did we have in our bags?

At the final passport check—there were three total—the soldier took my passport and asked me to wait at a set of chairs off to the side; I was not allowed to cross yet.  As I waited, a plain-clothes soldier carrying a machine gun walked around a path of metal scaffolding, ten feet above the ground.  He monitored the people below crossing the border.  Seeing that I had been singled out, he walked to the scaffolding directly across from me.  He turned to face me and pointed his gun in my direction.  Any comfort I still felt in this concrete prison evaporated.

I instinctively looked down and away from him.  Yet I couldn’t help but steal glances in his direction.  The way he pointed his gun at me did not feel malicious. It was more like an unconscious habit he had developed when monitoring a “situation.”  In this moment, I was the situation.  Thomas soon arrived to the final checkpoint.  He too was asked to wait with me on the chairs of to the side.  He too became a situation and quickly noticed the machine-gun-carrying soldier pointing his weapon in our direction.  We tried to act normal, making small talk, but it was clear we were both thinking of the soldier above.

The soldier behind the bulletproof glass window called us back, handed us our passports and allowed us to pass into Israel.  Thomas and I exited the checkpoint, quietly discussing the gun that had been pointed at us for what seemed like forever, but must have been only a matter of minutes.  It is hard to describe, but the gun pointing had soured our moods. We did not feel like talking, anymore. Our quiet conversation ceased as we hopped in a taxi.  We rode to the closest Israeli town, only ten minutes away, in relative silence.  We did not linger long in this small city where our taxi driver dropped us off.  Instead we caught a shared minivan—a sherut—toward Tel Aviv.

On the Israeli side of the portal everything was different, save for the weather; that remained cool, grey and damp with the occasional shower.  There was a western familiarity to the Israeli side that was not present in the West Bank.  The roads were new and well kept, the cars were modern and of the same makes and models in Europe, there were usable sidewalks, with many pedestrians strolling past green spaces.  Moreover, the people were a rainbow of white (European), brown (Middle Eastern/North African) and black (Ethiopian/Eritrean).  Israel felt European.  It felt somehow American.  And in that feeling there was a familiarity.  And in that familiarity there was a comfort.  One aspect of Israel that did not feel familiar and thus did not bring comfort was its militarization.  Soldiers with machine guns were ubiquitous—waiting for buses, walking down streets, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  This would take some getting used to.  But I was not in Israel long enough to ever acclimate to this difference.  In fact, as I write this I hope to never acclimate to such a situation—militarization is not in tune with liberty and democratic nations must always think first in terms of cooperation and not in terms of the canon.

As Thomas and I rode the two hours to Tel Aviv, we rarely spoke.  The late afternoon turned to early evening and the sky changed from grey to black.   We both put in headphones and listened to iPods.  I stared out the window into the darkness.  When we arrived in Tel Aviv, the disquiet of our border crossing had faded with the miles.  We exited the Sherut and entered a large international city.  In a few hours, we had traded the dirt roads of a refugee camp for the bright lights and loud noises of the western world.  Thomas pulled out his phone and mapped our route to the hostel.  We struck out into the Tel Aviv evening, passing through an Ethiopian neighborhood and into an industrial zone, and trading the bustle of the central district near the bus station for the relative quiet of the side street where our hostel sat.

At the time of our arrival in Israel, Thomas and I had planned to stay for three days only.  All in Tel Aviv.  We would then head to Cairo and beyond.  In the end, we were not meant to follow this plan.  Instead I would remain in Tel Aviv for a week, Thomas for a month.  It just kind of happened that way.  Life moved forward and we remained.  And during my time in Israel, I found a beautiful friendly people and a beautiful friendly place.  Although Thomas and I remained in Tel Aviv for different amounts of time, our initial reasoning for staying beyond our planned three days was the same—getting to Cairo proved difficult.

On Getting To Cairo

Israel and Egypt are neighbors—they share a land border.  Israel and Egypt have known diplomatic relations—they have embassies in each other’s countries.  Israel and Egypt have a well-documented peace agreement—they each receive billions of dollars in US aid as a result of this agreement.  Despite these many contacts, however, it can be difficult to traverse between the two countries.   Would you like to fly?  Thomas and I did.  The flight time between Cairo and Tel Aviv is less than thirty minutes.  Simple enough.  Go online and book a ticket.  Not so fast.  The online search engines only showed flights to Cairo via Amman Jordan.  These tickets were pricey—nearly three hundred dollars one way—and cumbersome—they all had long layovers in Jordan, we would lose a day in travel.  This did not make sense to me.  Why couldn’t we fly direct? I thought Egypt Air would fly to and from Tel Aviv.  Indeed I had googled such a flight and Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv website, indicated that such a flight existed.  But when Thomas and I went to the Egypt Air website, no such flight could be found.

Thomas, undeterred, did some further research online.  He soon discovered that Egypt Air did in fact still fly between Tel Aviv and Cairo.   It did so through its wholly owned subsidiary Sinai Air.  Word online was that after the revolution in Egypt, the government did not want to appear to be on good terms with Israel.  One of the measures it took was to stop Egypt Air from flying to and from Tel Aviv.  This was form over substance, however.  Sinai Air would now fill this void.  But Sinai Air tickets could not be purchased online.  Indeed, everything we read online told us that Sinai Air tickets could only be purchased in cash, in person at a Sinai Air office.  Apparently Visa isn’t everywhere you want to be.  Moreover, the plane would be unmarked.  A simple white plane with no indication of airline or national affiliation.  As Thomas and I pondered why Sinai Air would fly unmarked planes we could only deduce they were hiding—most likely from potential terrorists who might attack a plane coming from Israel.  The airline sounded shady.  And, therefore, intriguing. Lucky for us there was a Sinai Air office in Tel Aviv.

Thus on our first full day in Tel Aviv, Thomas and I found ourselves in the upper levels of a very confusing office buildings walking into a tiny room with carpeting that had not changed in decades facing a young Egyptian girl, who sat behind a desk that had not changed in decades.  She was friendly and welcoming.  We told her we wanted to buy a ticket to Cairo.  She told us the price, “That’s $320 American cash.” When was the next flight, we asked, “We have one tomorrow morning (Friday) and then the next flight is Sunday.” This didn’t jive with our plan.  We wanted to get to Cairo on Saturday.  If we left the next morning, we would only have had a day and a half in Tel Aviv.  If we waited till Sunday, we would miss Thomas’s friend from Oxford who was visiting Cairo over the weekend.

The flights were inconvenient and very expensive.  But it was a direct flight, which saved us travel time.  Plus flying in an unmarked plane would be an experience. Thomas turned to the young woman, “Is it true that the plane is unmarked?”  The woman nodded, “The situation is not good.”  We understood her to be referring to the situation between Israel and Egypt.  I gave her a sympathetic nod.  We continued to discussed our options.  “We could always take the bus through the Sinai Peninsula,” I suggested.  Thomas and I considered this option.  This would let us leave Friday night or Saturday morning, which would give us more time in Tel Aviv and ample time in Cairo to meet Thomas’s friend.  Furthermore, it would be much less expensive.

Thomas, however, was leaning toward taking the morning flight. I was not.  Instead of deciding on the spot, we agreed it would be better to take the night to think on it.  Thomas’s friend Russell was meeting us that evening and was considering going with us to Cairo.  It would be good to get his input.  Before leaving, we asked the young Egyptian woman how we would pay for the next-morning flight, if we didn’t purchase it now.  “Bring the $320 cash to the airport tomorrow morning and you can buy it from our desk there.  But make sure to arrive three hours early.”

That night, Russell arrived and we discussed our options—the pros and cons.  If we took the early morning flight, our time in Tel Aviv was basically over, but we would get to Cairo directly and with plenty of time to meet up with Thomas’s friend.  But it was an expensive option, costing $320.  Now, if we took the bus, it was a long ride—between nine and fifteen hours depending on whom you asked—but it was cheap—between $30 and $50 dollars depending on whom you asked.  Moreover, it gave us more time in Tel Aviv.  But, on the other hand, the bus traversed the Sinai, which posed a couple of problems.  First, we needed a visa in advance.  Although we could fly into Egypt without a visa, a land crossing via the Sinai to Cairo required a visit to the Egyptian Embassy.  Otherwise, the Egyptian authorities would not let us leave the Sinai Peninsula.  Second, the Sinai was a wild west of sorts at the moment.  Many Bedouin gangs there were known for kidnapping westerners for ransom.  After much discussion, Russell and I convinced Thomas that the Sinai crossing was the best option.  If we couldn’t fly in an unmarked plane, at least we could cross a desert filled with gangs of known kidnappers.  What was travel without a bit of danger.?

Thus, on my second full day in Tel Aviv (Friday), Thomas, Russell and I hopped a taxi and made or way to the Egyptian Embassy to start our visa process.  Online it said that the Embassy would issue the visas in a matter of hours.  Saturday morning we would be on a bus heading toward Egypt.  Our taxi dropped us off a block away from the Embassy.  We joked and discussed Egypt as we approached the embassy’s entrance.  An entrance that was locked, for the weekend.

We silently read the sign outside the embassy, which informed us of its office hours—closed Friday and Saturday.  In that moment, we remembered that we were no longer in Canada or America, we were in the Middle East.  The Muslim Sabbath is Friday and the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday.  Thus the weekend in Israel is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday.  To the majority of the population in Israel, Sunday is just another day of the week.  In fact, it plays the dreaded role of Monday, the beginning of the workweek.  In that instant we realized we would not be on a bus traversing the Sinai the following day.  Nor would we make it to Cairo in time to meet up with Thomas’s friend.

Tired of the failed attempts, Thomas almost immediately declared that he was not going to Cairo anytime soon.  He would stay in Israel until he felt it was time to leave.  Russell and I would not give up on the Cairo idea so quickly.  With people reentering Tahrir Square to protest against the new proposed constitution, Egypt was going through a historic time and I was interested in bearing witness.   But, in the end, it was not to be.  Over the next few days, Russell and I joined Thomas in deciding to spend more time in Israel and putting off our Cairo trip for another day. This is how it came to pass that my three days in Israel turned into seven.

On The City of Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is a modern city.  Not in the sense that Tokyo or Seoul are modern cities, but in the sense that it has existed for barely a century and much of its population growth has occurred in the last several decades.  In turn, the city is a discordant mix of this more recent growth.  Certain neighborhoods are dominated by the simplistic architecture of the seventies, others contain the high-rise condos of the last twenties years, while still more held the signature of all international cities—sky scrapers.  And yet, for those who like old cities, the ancient port city of Jaffa still stands on the southern edge of its modern sibling.  It’s stone streets and stonewalls still filled with people, especially Tel Aviv’s Palestinian population.  Indeed the Muslim call to prayer from the Mosque in Jaffa could be heard throughout parts of Tel Aviv.  Moreover, large markets, similar to the many souks I had visited around the Arab world, dominated different neighborhoods at different times of day. Tel Aviv’s western façade had a distinctly Middle Eastern flare to it.

And all of this sits on the edge of the Mediterranean.  But not like most of the Mediterranean towns I have been to in Italy, the Balkans and Lebanon where the coastline is rocky and difficult to maneuver.  In Tel Aviv, the coastline is predominantly sand beaches.  The sandy beaches stretch for miles accompanied by a large paved promenade where pedestrians jog, walk, lounge around and people watch.  The waterfront is a public space used by so many.  It is not uncommon to see young people walking toward the beach, from the concrete interior of Tel Aviv, dressed in wet suits and with surfboards under their arms.   Or to watch parents holding hands with their swimsuit-dressed children as they leave the beach for city streets, after a short afternoon of swimming.

The eclectic mix of architecture gave Tel Aviv an edginess.  Thomas said it reminded him of Berlin in that way.  I agreed.  It was not a beautiful city in the classical sense.  But its confluence of different time periods made the city an attractive place to stay.  And its people were equally eclectic–a mix of Europeans, Middle Easterners and Africans, a mix of religious Jews in their traditional garb and secular Jews in their western dress.  Indeed I soon discovered that I looked more Israeli than Arab.  This was because of two reasons.  First, over fifty percent of the Jewish population in Israel are Misrahim—Middle Eastern Jews.  Thus most of the population in Israel looks similar to me.  Second, and equally as important, my long curly hair pulled back in a top pony and my western style of dress was not out of place in an International city like Tel Aviv.  Whereas in the West Bank and Lebanon, my style stuck out as somehow different.  Thus it was more than once that Israelis approached me, speaking in Hebrew.  I would always disappoint.  But I did it in style.  Having taken a semester of Hebrew in undergrad—my college girlfriend was Jewish—I had a very limited vocabulary, but could say: “anee lo yodeah Evrit”—I don’t know Hebrew.

During our week in Tel Aviv, Thomas, Russell and I ventured out into the different neighborhoods, drinking coffee at hipster cafes in trendy neighborhoods, walking through markets in the old city of Jaffa, eating hummus at Palestinian restaurants, strolling the promenade along the Mediterranean and all the while talking—about the Israel and Palestine and so much more.  It was a unique experience and one I enjoyed so much more because of my companions.

By this time Thomas and I were good friends, having spent two weeks together traveling Lebanon, the West Bank and Israel.  And Russell proved to be the perfect addition to our group.  Russell and Thomas knew each other from growing up in Toronto.  Like Thomas, he had been studying at Oxford for the previous year. He was tall—six foot four—with light brown hair and light brown eyes.  He had a handsome angular face that did well with the ladies and a deep voice that grew deeper when he laughed.  Russell’s family was Jewish, from Europe.  This too was similar to Thomas, whose father was a Russian Jew.  But, unlike Thomas, Russell was raised Jewish, bar mitzvah and all.   After attending the University of Toronto, Russell had started a company with a couple of friends.  A few years later they sold it for a large sum of money and now he was living how he wanted to—studying in Britain and traveling the world.  He would work again when he figured out what he wanted to do.

The three of us seemed an unlikely group to travel through Israel together, but we were fast friends and were constantly planning where to go out to or what sites to visit together.  And when one of us broke off from the group, the other two could normally be found together.  For example, one day Thomas wanted to chill at the hostel, do some yoga and maybe surf a bit.  Russell and I, deciding we wanted a culture experience, left Thomas in Tel Aviv and took a day trip to Haifa and Akko in the north to visit cities with larger Palestinian populations.  Like all people in Israel, we spoke of the conflict often—trading perspectives and ideas on how the peoples could overcome their differences.  Indeed the trips to Haifa and Akko where Jews and Arabs lived in the same cities in large numbers were great examples that the current impasse was not unbridgeable.

As noted above, Thomas, Russell and I took in many different parts of Tel Aviv.  But the one aspect of Tel Aviv we explored more than most was its nightlife.  In our seven days in town, we had no less then three evenings that spilled into mornings.  It was easy to stay out till four or five in the morning without trying.  Such is the nightlife in Tel Aviv.  We would bounce between bars and clubs till we were too tired to continue.  It made for an expensive week, Tel Aviv is not a cheap city, but the music was great, the people were good looking, the dancing was continuous and the ambience at the places we went to made us stay out later than we should have.  On one particular evening—Thomas was not with Russell and I on this excursion—we made the great decision to hang out at the beach with our Aussie, European and American friends that we had met.  Thus we did not return to our hostel till the sun was rising and our eyes were closing.  But the nightlife was fun and contagious.  It reminded Thomas and I of our time in Lebanon.  We decided that the Lebanese and the Israelis had a lot in common, especially when it came to partying. Both peoples saw the sunrise more as a goal to party till than as a time to wake up at.

On the Hostel

An important part of our stay in Tel Aviv was our accommodations.  We stayed at the Florentine hostel, which sat in an industrial neighborhood two blocks away from the trendy Florentine neighborhood, with its chic cafes, bars and restaurants.  Thomas had picked it and it proved to be a winner.  The hostel was a three-story structure that sat across the street from a large industrial scrap metal yard and next door to a couple of small manufacturing plants that made zippers and other odd assortments.  In the evening, and on the weekends, the neighborhood was quiet and empty.  During working hours, it was a loud cacophony of the different machines banging, cracking and slamming products into reality.  We learned this at eight in the morning of our first day in Tel Aviv.  We awoke to what sounded like a garbage truck out front continually compacting its load with a large smashing device.  But it wasn’t a garbage truck.  It was a machine in a shop next door, producing something at a decibel level not conducive to sleep anywhere within a hundred yard radius.  We were fifty feet away.

The bottom floor of the hostel was vacant.  It was a long hallway that led to a staircase.  The hallway was adorned with signs about traveling through Israel and provided space for people to park their bicycles.  The second floor had around five rooms ranging from a single to an eight-bed dorm.  It also had two bathrooms, which were made in the common Middle Eastern manner where the toilet and the shower are not divided.  Up the stairs on the third level, there was the check-in area, which had a small common space with a computer for guests.  To the left of check-in was a hallway that had a large space where the volunteers stayed as well as a few more rooms for hostel guests.  Outside was a large roof-deck that was mostly covered by a large white canvas tent—it had been raining a lot.  Under the tent, there were no less than five couches, a couple coffee tables, a large dinning room table with several chairs and a couple of bean bags.  This was the area where guests mingled.  Outside the tent, was a small open-air space with a couple of hammocks and chairs that could be used when it was nice outside.

Ari, a young former IDF soldier, owned the hostel.  He was bald and appeared to be in his mid thirties.  He dressed trendy and spent most of his time in fancy clubs hitting on models.  He had two full-time employees who ran the hostel—Ron and Melissa, who were two of the nicest people I met in Israel.  They were both locals and knew a lot about Tel Aviv and the surrounding areas.  They proved great resources in recommending places to eat, places to visit and how to get around.  In addition to Ron and Melissa, there were around four or five volunteers, who stayed in the hostel for free in exchange for work they did.  It was hard to tell at times who was a volunteer and who was a guest.  This was mostly because some of the volunteers were partying all the time and not very helpful.  The hostel also had many long-term guests.  Some were, in fact, no longer guests, but had become friends of Ari’s.  These people, Ari let crash for free on vacant couches or free beds that were not rented.  There were at least three men in this category.

If I had never left the hostel, my time in Tel Aviv would have been interesting.  Florentine hostel was a place where seemingly incongruous people all hung out together.  There was a young Belgian Jew who had come to join the IDF and was staying in the hostel for a few weeks before training started.  There were Jews from the States who were at the hostel while they explored Israel for the second or third time, having already gone on their birthright trip.  There were guests who were from Tel Aviv, who were escaping failing marriages or staying while they looked for a permanent apartment.  There were Europeans working for nonprofits in the West Bank that documented abuses against Palestinians.  There were backpackers from Australia, the US and Europe who were just in the city to see the sights and experience Tel Aviv.  There were devout Zionists talking with pro-Palestinian activists.  There were devout Christians and Jews drinking with atheists.

Occasionally the conversations would turn to the conflict, but more often they were about food and bars and famous sights, or they were about the many places the backpackers had visited before.  When Thomas and I were alone or with Russell we would often talk of the disparity between what we saw in the West Bank and what we saw in Israel.  The conversations were somber at times, but hopeful at others.  We would talk about how genuine and nice people on both sides of the border were.  If only these people could meet in a vacuum, removed from all the history and hate, they would enjoy one another.  We knew this to be the truth.  The difficulty was ever making it happen.

On The People We Met

We met so many great people while we were at the hostel.  I spent time smoking shisha on the balcony with an American whose dad was Mexican and whose mom was Jewish.  This man would also coordinate trips to Abu Hassan, the best hummus restaurant in Tel Aviv.  I  went with him to Abu Hassan on two occasions.  It never got old.  I spent time hanging in the hostel with Gabriel, the volunteer from the Netherlands who was a former MMA fighter. He had a thick Dutch accent that reminded me of Amsterdam.

There were day and night hangouts with the many different Aussies.  Harry, a modern dancer staying at the hostel while he trained with a famous Israeli dance troop, was already good friends with Luke, an Aussie backpacker visiting from London, when we arrived.  Thomas, Russell and I chilled with them on the roof deck, and went hummus eating with them more than once.  There was also the Aussie trio of Josh, Jo and Sarah, all from Melbourne.  These three were our card-playing posse.  Many an evening were spent playing shithead at the hostel or a café in Florentine.  We also went out dancing and out to dinners with them and, occasionally, with their Israeli friend Adi.  At times, the solo Aussie Samantha would also join us with the other Aussies or alone for hangouts at the hostel or nights out on the town. While in Tel Aviv, Russell, Thomas and I seemingly always had an Aussie companion.  Even  late-night jam sessions on the roof deck where Russell played the guitar as we drank ouzo and chatted had the usual Aussie flare with Luke and Sarah hanging out.  Tel Aviv was familiar in this way.  It reminded me of my many Aussie friends and my time in Australia.

And, of course, there were meals and nights out with Ken.  Or, as Thomas and I called him, Captain Ken.  Ken was a former air force pilot who flew helicopters.  He had left the military three years before and had been traveling across the globe ever since.  He had an amazing story.  But he like to tell it, and give his resume, a bit too often.  At first, I enjoyed him.  Later, I tolerated him.  And, in the end, I accepted him for the Ken he was.  Thomas did none of these.  Captain Ken was not his cup of tea.  I could see where Thomas was coming from.  When the Captain began demanding we leave a bar because the girls were not pretty enough for him to hit on, I knew we had completely different evenings in mind.

On one afternoon, Harry, Luke, Gabrielle, Thomas and I went to the beach to train in MMA under Gabrielle.  After twenty minutes of throwing each other around, while Thomas did his best to not participate and Gabriel did his best to make Thomas into a killing machine. We headed for the sand, where Harry gave Luke and I modern dance lessons, on how to pull off rolls and back handsprings among other moves.  This was the first and only time we saw Harry dance.  His movements were magnificent.  Even in the deep sand his body would gracefully take flight before softly returning to earth.  Luke and I were not nearly as graceful.  We trudged and tripped and fell our way through the lesson.  All while Harry gave continuous encouragement and as Gabriel and Thomas laughed from the side.

When we weren’t out on the town or walking around the city looking for the best hummus.  This crew of new friends would lounge around the roof deck, drinking and playing cards—mostly shithead—, or watching YouTube clips—mostly parodies about Australians, “STRAYA DAY!”  At the end of the seven days, I had a handful of new friends with whom I had covered most of Tel Aviv.  I had also gotten to know the Florentine hostel and its staff very well.  What was scheduled to be a three-day stopover had turned into a weeklong adventure.  Each day I would wake up, walk upstairs and tell Ron or Melissa I wanted to stay another day.  This often resulted in a game of musical beds, in which I was forced to move because a new guest had already reserved the bed or room I was staying in.  But it was all a part of the experience.

I did this until I didn’t.  Until one day I awoke and, after speaking with Russell, decided that we would leave Tel Aviv and go to the West Bank. I had had a wonderful experience living in Tel Aviv, swimming in her ocean, eating at her restaurants, drinking in her bars and walking through her streets.  It was now time to move on.  There was still so much to see and explore.  I wouldn’t soon forget the magnificent city of Tel Aviv and all it had to offer.  We bid farewell to Thomas and made our way to the bus station.  And, as Russell and I drove off in our Sherut headed for Jerusalem and then the Kalendia crossing, I was excited about my return to the West Bank.  I looked forward to hanging with Rami and Steve again.  I looked forward to experiencing the West Bank lifestyle again.  I needed to remind myself that not every place in the area was as beautiful and functioning as Tel Aviv.  It was time to cross back through the portal.