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EasyJet drops Amman, favours Tel Aviv

29 January 2014

easyjettailfinEasyJet is pulling out of the Jordanian capital Amman. The route, which launched in March 2011 with flights from London Gatwick, will be withdrawn in May 2014, with the last flight departing Amman on Sunday 4th May. It was the only route easyJet maintained to Jordan.

UPDATE: Venture, a Jordanian business magazine, covers the story here, quoting me.

On the other hand, easyJet is continuing its policy of going big into Israel. It already flies to Tel Aviv from Manchester and Luton (as well as Geneva and Basel). As news of the Gatwick-Amman cancellation slipped out, easyJet announced that from April 2014 it will be adding a new route to Tel Aviv… from Gatwick.

Then it announced another new route to Tel Aviv from Berlin, lauching February 2014. Then another, from Milan (starting March 2014), to add to Rome-Tel Aviv (launched September 2013). There are rumours of Paris launching in summer 2014.

Why? Well, easyJet has published figures on its website – from a survey of easyJet passengers to TLV done in July 2013 – talking about how “Tel Aviv’s appeal as a popular leisure destination has been growing”. That’s undoubtedly true. Good for Tel Aviv – it’s a great city, they have great beaches, great food. And (more to the point) great PR, the kind of shiny, happy PR that turns heads away from bad stuff. Holidaymakers’ heads. Travel writers’ heads.

Tel Aviv also has a rock-solid base of two-way VFR. Airlines like VFR.

For Jordan, this is an unmitigated disaster. I’ve been hearing that easyJet may have pulled out because of a hike in taxes imposed by the Jordanian government on air travel. Everyone departing Amman’s Queen Alia airport now pays JOD40 (£35/US$56) in ‘embarkation tax’, plus another JOD6 (£5/US$8) in ‘terminal usage fee’ – with both charges hidden in the total cost of an airfare. Maybe easyJet felt that these were pushing its fares too high for its own comfort. Maybe the sweeteners, financial breaks and enticements that many airlines seek from governments, public authorities and airports to serve their destination weren’t forthcoming from Amman – but were from Tel Aviv. I’m not an aviation analyst. I don’t know.

One thing’s for sure. After 3 years of flying London-Amman, easyJet couldn’t make the numbers work in their favour. They have no sentimentality. They pulled out. And the chitchat that says they’re considering launching into Aqaba instead sounds to me like the callowest, straw-clutchingest kind of wishful thinking.

I’ve heard rumours that the palace was furious that Jordan lost easyJet. Who knows what the truth of that is. But you could hardly blame HM if he blew his top.

With Jordan’s tourism industry – like its whole economy – in desperate stagnation, the last thing the country needed was this kind of withdrawal of international business confidence.

And travellers are now forced back to a 1990-style duopoly, controlled by the dead hands and high fares of the legacy carriers. Low-cost connections to European markets are essential. Arguably more essential for Jordan, at this stage, than a short-term gain in tax receipts at the expense of throttling medium- & long-term economic growth.

Easy came. Easy went.

The beauty of ice

8 December 2013

snowkingswayI was blind. Alone.

Before I started I knew it might be bad. People were saying the buses weren’t running. When the bus drivers can’t make it, it’s bad.

Petra is high. But every road out of Petra is up. To the north and to the east, you have to climb to the crest of the mountain ridge before you can drop down onto the great plateau that slopes east out of Jordan to the Euphrates. To the west is only a sawtooth wall, poetic and impenetrable, its back warmed by the Wadi Araba sands, a thousand metres below.

I had an appointment on the beach, south, in Jordan’s corner of Arabia. At the door of this hotel, on my right, down the hill and behind Petra’s invisible valley, Aaron’s Mountain hid behind swirls. On my left, the uppermost end of town disappeared into the same clouds. I was safe enough here, beneath a grey-grim umbrella. But I had to go.

The verges turned white at the last petrol station. Within five minutes I was down to walking pace, inching over resistant snow with hazards flashing. Drivers were churning past me up the hill, flashing. Drivers were whomping towards me down the hill, flashing.

I could see a snow bank on my left. I could see white nothingness on my right. How cold was it really, in such a blizzard? Instantly I cracked the window, everything in the car yelled at me to close it again and focus.

Then I was blind. What was road? What was verge? Was that the snow bank, or was it the cliff edge? I sat for a while and thought about possible futures. Then I inched a nine-point turn, the gale nosing at my wheels like a labrador, and went back to huddle with humans in the foot-stamping town down the hill.

I took no photos that day.

The following day on the same road, after the blizzard had eased and the gritters had got through, I took some pictures on the climb out of Petra, around Taybeh village:

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Then I stopped somewhere past Rajif village at the highest point of the ridge, where I knew, without seeing, that the land yawned away to the south and west, completely exposed to the weather.

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As I sat in the silence, the gale rocked the car to and fro on its springs.

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When I stepped outside, my first thought was for my own mortality. Out here, as the wind literally howled in my ears and every sliver of exposed skin shrieked, my life felt fragile. I wondered, if lost, how I might not die. The corners of my eyes cracked with horizontal wind-blown tears. I dare not venture more than a few metres from the car. I dare not let the car cool down too much. I dare not let myself get really cold, in case, when I sat back inside and turned the key, there were only illuminated orange symbols of apology.

Then I saw beauty.

 

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If you doubt the power of the winter wind in Jordan, see what it did to ice here.

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I wanted to spend more time looking. I didn’t want to spend more time looking.

I left a thank you.

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And within ten minutes, I was down the steep slopes of Ras An Naqab and rolling along a desert road under powder-blue skies, warmed by the huggable sun, my head full of the ice on the heights above.

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The Round Trip

14 November 2013

roundtripmapI’m not sure when I first read Yuval Ben-Ami‘s travel writing. It was almost certainly on a recommendation from my friend Lisa Goldman, who I met one motor-mouthed evening at a pavement café in a mildly hipster part of Tel Aviv during the pre-hipster autumn of 2009. I was there to research this story for the Independent, and Lisa made me realise just how big it could be, just how far I could keep on digging down and down into rotten roots, where the kernel of the issue lay. I didn’t go deep. Why? I’m not sure. It’s complicated. Because I didn’t think I could. Because I wasn’t being paid much. Because I was scared of really writing something. Because I felt like I was pretending at journalism.

The story had bounds. Lisa, like many of the people I met on that trip, talked of the big old wide open choppy swirling sea.

We tell ourselves we can’t do things, or needn’t do things, or shouldn’t do things, so that we can turn round to ourselves later on and say, ‘If only.’

Anyway, Lisa was writing for +972 magazine, and so was Yuval, so it probably came out around that time. Then sometime after Tahrir and all that followed in 2011, Lisa tweeted Yuval’s brilliant ‘September Journey‘ – read it, all of it – and then his ‘Christmas Journey‘, both about travel in the (Un)Holy Land, and I was hooked. I wanted to be Yuval’s friend. I wanted to travel with him. I knew some of the places, I even felt like I knew some of the people, but I knew none of the stories, none of the interior glow. Nobody I know writing about Israel and Palestine writes with Yuval’s compassion. His straightforwardness and lack of self-conscious inhibition disarm you, then catch you, then kick you out of the park. He bottles up whole worlds into dense, heady little paragraphs. He does things I wish I did. He writes things I wish I wrote. I hate heroes, but Yuval Ben-Ami is a hero.

Have a read of this, from earlier this year. Or this one.

I should add, I’ve never met him. We’ve never spoken. We’ve emailed once or twice in, what?, three years. My stake in Yuval’s success is precisely zero. So don’t roll your eyes at what follows.

Yuval has a new book out. In 2012 he did ‘The Round Trip‘ – travelling around the borders that Israel thinks it has, but, well, you’ll see. Here he is introducing the idea. I love it. It’s sparkling stuff, from beginning to end. The whole thing is online. You can read it anytime. But don’t. Click here for a much nicer e-book version, spread over 300 pages. Perfect for your iPad.

In case you need any more encouragement, here is part of the introduction Yuval has written especially for the e-book, pasted here with the publishers’ permission.

My favorite word in the English language is “circumnavigate.” As with many things, perhaps all things, my Israeli identity plays a part in this. Hebrew is not as particular a language as English; it is short on single words that carry such complex meanings. I remember learning that English actually has a word for traveling around something – in particular sailing around a mass of land – and being fascinated.

Strangely, when I look over “The Round Trip” ahead of its publication as an e-book, I find that this word is missing from it. Why would I not use “circumnavigate,” my favorite English word, in a record of a circumnavigation? Perhaps I felt the word conjured too strongly a romantic nautical image, which does not really suit Israel and Palestine. Though the journey begins along coastal dunes, it later drove me into a fair bit of barbed wire – too much barbed wire for beautiful words.

It’s not a sad book, I don’t think, but it may be troubling, and this may be where its merit lies. “The Round Trip” started off as the third in a trilogy of travelogues, written for +972 Magazine. That it is the first of the three to come out as a book may be because the +972 team and myself found that it was the most troubling of the three. We feel a need to present our concerns for this land. It is the one true home we have, a home which is in fact a strange island growing further and further detached from the rest of the world. … The emotional experience of the Round Trip – which swung between this deep sense of worry to enchantment with this land’s richness and uniqueness – remains encapsulated here.

Oh, and you’re absolutely right. The e-book costs money.

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Chaos theory

24 October 2013

Aerial shot of a particularly messy car park, right?

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Almost. That is, in fact, the main Nile Corniche road running north-south through central Cairo, as seen from my hotel balcony earlier this year. I watched for ages.

Try and figure out what each driver is trying to do. Such spirit. Such a delicate dance between order and chaos.

Here’s a wider view. It’s even better.

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And this is what I saw when I lifted my head.

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Mother of the world, they call Cairo.

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CNN, Anthony Bourdain and me

20 September 2013

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain launched the new series of his ‘Parts Unknown’ travel cookery show on CNN this week with an episode titled ‘Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza’. You can watch it here:

It’s had pretty positive reviews. The Washington Post thought it was “so good“. The Open Zion blog called it “groundbreaking reporting“. Amer Zahr, in +972 magazine, said: “Something amazing happened on CNN last night. Palestinians were portrayed as human beings.” The Jerusalem Post was tighter-lipped, glossing over the tougher issues, but even Jewish news site JTA found something to be enthusiastic about. Travel site Skift enjoyed it too.

Alongside it, CNN Travel published this piece, a punchy little travel round-up written by me and commissioned to complement Bourdain’s show. Originally, it ran like this, under my byline. But shortly after it appeared, I asked CNN to remove my name. Here’s why.

“Edgy issues”

Last month, a senior editor at CNN Travel approached me to write “10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel”. I wrote back accepting the commission, but alerting the editor to the fact that the piece would inevitably raise controversy. It’s impossible to avoid politics when writing about culture and travel in that part of the world, but I would pick my words carefully – and the editor was very supportive. “Don’t shy away from edgy issues for appeasement’s sake,” he wrote.

Then I raised the issue of Palestine – if I’m doing ’10 Things To Know’ about Israel, how about a parallel feature on Palestine? The editor’s response was that they “didn’t need a Palestine-focused piece right now” because my piece would accompany Bourdain’s show, which “will be purely shot in Israel (I think)”.

He sent me a draft treatment for the Bourdain show. But of 14 scene descriptions, only 4 were in Israel. The rest were in Palestine – 3 in East Jerusalem, 3 in the West Bank and 4 in the Gaza Strip. I suggested retitling the piece ’10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine’, but didn’t hear back on that idea.

Garbled

I filed the piece shortly afterwards. Here it is, as I wrote it. I asked then, and several times afterwards, if I might be allowed to see the final edit before it goes live, to check all is well: this stuff goes out under my byline, after all, and though I have no objections to the edit process, sometimes things become garbled by mistake.

That didn’t happen. The first I knew about my piece being published was two weeks later, when someone on Twitter copied me into a link. Here is CNN’s version (it’s since been altered from how it first appeared). As soon as I read it I saw problems – factual errors that had been introduced, wordings and interpretations I would not use myself.

I wrote a quick email to the editor with half a dozen changes. That was fast-tracked up to one of CNN’s executive producers, who replied positively, adding that my piece had gone through numerous edit authorities within CNN, including Middle East specialists and legal teams, to ensure accuracy. He acknowledged, though, that I was right, errors did remain. He made three of my corrections, but disregarded the rest.

With hindsight, at that stage I should have provided a line-by-line analysis of the piece, pointing out every problem and every error, and providing rewrites.

But I didn’t. As a Middle East journalist I felt very uncomfortable at being placed on the record as saying things about the Middle East I did not believe and would not myself write – but I didn’t want to cause trouble. I let it lie.

That was September 11th. Two days later – still ahead of the Bourdain show airing – my piece had become the second lead item on CNN’s main US news front page. Heaven knows how many views it was getting. That was gratifying, but also unnerving, to have things which I knew were inaccurate and misleading being so widely read under my byline.

I should have acted then. But it was Friday evening and I was tired. This was a major global media client who had been very supportive in emails and explicitly appreciative of my skills in writing the piece. I didn’t want to sour a relationship. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I left it alone, and went to play with my kids.

Good manners

But by the end of the weekend it was nagging away at me too much. Late Sunday night I emailed the editor, asking for my name to be taken off the piece. The alteration was made within hours.

Since then, further changes have been made, correcting material introduced during the editing process. At this writing, the most recent change was made less than 12 hours ago on 19th Sept, nine days after the piece went live.

Meanwhile, many of the 1,100+ comments – made before my name was removed – attribute editorially-introduced errors and distortions to me. Almost all the commenters are barking mad, but you can’t blame them for thinking I wrote what appears under my name. I’ve also had a string of personal emails from similarly froth-mouthed right-wing nutters, objecting to various bits of the article. A pro-Israel media monitoring group has published ’10 Things CNN Needs To Fix”, criticising me for things I did not write, and their deeply flawed analysis has since been republished by the Jewish press in the US. I couldn’t care less about all this – it’s mendacious rubbish, most of it – but it’s all salt in the wound.

I know deadlines are tight. I know editors are under pressure. I also know that editorial departments have immutable, company-wide standards to follow (I’m not surprised CNN couldn’t stomach calling the piece ‘Israel and Palestine’).

Writers need editors – editing is absolutely vital for good writing, and the lack of it sticks out a mile (this blog post, for instance) – but editors also need writers. Editing should be a meeting of equals. Both parties have unique skills and perspective to bring to the final product. The hopes and interests of both should be respected throughout.

What CNN wanted here wasn’t a bylined piece at all. They wanted a small slice of travel knowledge – which, in truth, anybody could have got from googling – wrapped in CNN’s take on the basics of the Israeli-Palestinian political situation. I’m gratified they came to me, but disappointed they then felt free to put words in my mouth.

My sense is this kind of thing is getting worse, as editors are squeezed from two sides by shrinking budgets and increasing workloads. Writers are treated as copywriters. Freelance contracts demand all rights. I think publishers imagine they get away with this scot-free, but they really don’t. First, they lose respect from writers. Then, because of that, they end up buying worse copy. That, sooner or later, will kill them.

Contracts are another argument, but down at the coal face, as an editor, if you like what I write, run it. Tweak if you really need to, for clarity’s sake – but once you start moving things around, changing meaning or emphasis, and (especially) adding new material of your own, surely it’s basic good manners to tell me before you go and publish it under my name?

And if your deadlines can’t accommodate authorial review, then at the very least, show me your final version and give me the yes/no option of approving or removing my byline before it goes live.

You wouldn’t dream – I hope – of standing up in public announcing “In this situation, Matthew Teller would say…”

It’s my name, for heaven’s sake. As a writer, it’s all I’ve got.

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I’ve posted my original “10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine” here. CNN’s version is here.

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CNN’s Israel-Palestine travel intro

20 September 2013

See backstory here.

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10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine (original)

By Matthew Teller – my original below, CNN’s version here

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The Holy Land makes for inspiring, depressing, fascinating, confusing travel.

To some, the chunk of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is all Israel. To others, it’s all Palestine.

For most, though – as so often in this region of shifting truths and manipulated histories – it’s a bit of both.

Things are rarely black and white. The country is painted as a war zone, but it isn’t: most of the time, in most situations, travel is safe, comfortable and rewarding.

But you need to come prepared. Take the place at face value, and not much makes sense. What you see is often less telling than what you don’t see.

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1: When you visit Israel, you’re also visiting Palestine

The sovereign state of Israel came into being – apologies for the euphemism, and for glossing over the previous few millennia of history – in 1948, on a sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast, in the northern hills and the southern deserts, including the western districts of Jerusalem. This is where Israeli culture and the Hebrew language still dominate.

The eastern parts of Jerusalem (including the ancient walled Old City), plus a kidney-shaped piece of land either side of Jerusalem, and smaller chunks around Gaza and in the Golan region did not form part of Israel in 1948, but have been occupied by Israel since 1967. That occupation is deemed illegal under international law. These areas are where Palestinian culture and the Arabic language are strongest.

A Palestinian state, should one ever materialise alongside Israel, is likely to be centred on that kidney-shaped territory, known to most of the world as the West Bank.

Pockets of Israeli culture thrive across the West Bank in “settlements” – Jewish-only townships whose presence contravenes international law. And pockets of Palestinian culture remain strong across Israel, from the urban clamour of Jaffa and Haifa to rural hamlets in the countryside and desert.

When you visit as a tourist, you’re visiting two nations overlaid on top of one another. See only one, and you see only part of the whole picture.

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2: Terms of engagement

Onlookers frequently cast the conflict here as between Jews and Arabs, but since some Jews are Arab, and some Arabs are Jewish, that’s not quite right.

Axe-grinders on both sides like to evoke an enduring death-struggle between Muslims and Jews. But historically no such struggle existed.

In truth, the problems of the last century or so are political – and it’s worthwhile knowing who’s who.

Most Israelis (a political identity) are Jewish (a religious identity) – and most take pride in their country’s ethnic diversity: European Jews, Russian Jews, African Jews, American Jews and many others mix more or less freely.

(There’s a reason for that: if you can satisfy Israel’s religious establishment that you’re Jewish – according to complicated rules of birth, ancestry or conversion – you instantly become entitled to Israeli citizenship and state benefits.)

Palestinians (a political identity) – most of whom are Arab (a cultural identity) – are chiefly Muslim, but there are substantial minorities of Palestinian Christians and others. Many face restrictions imposed by the Israeli state on their movement, rights and access to services.

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3: Centre of the world

Medieval texts called Jerusalem the centre of the world. Few people forget their first visit to the Old City at Jerusalem’s core, still encircled by the crenellated walls built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538.

Within this tiny area, roughly 1km square, the Via Dolorosa – walked by Jesus – leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reputedly where Jesus was crucified and buried.

Steps away, Jews pray at the Western Wall, the last structure remaining from the Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans.

Nearby, the Al Aqsa mosque, mentioned in the Quran, stands alongside the golden Dome of the Rock shrine commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey.

In terms of religious significance, that’s quite a plateful. And in amongst the holy sites, daily life roars on: souks crowd the narrow, stone-flagged alleyways, children go to school, libraries jostle with restaurants.

For some, it can be too much. Around 100 tourists each year succumb to Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychiatric condition linked to the city’s atmosphere of intensity. Sufferers typically show signs of prolonged agitation and religious fervour, spending days – often dressed in white robes (typically a hotel bedsheet) – declaiming religious verses or preaching public sermons on moral purity. Most recover.

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4: Wall-eyed

Do a walking tour of East Jerusalem, such as those run by Green Olive Tours, or make a pilgrimage to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem – where Jesus was born – and you’ll run into Israel’s infamous security barrier.

This eight-metre (26ft) high wall of concrete was built to stop Palestinians moving freely between the West Bank and Israel proper. It mostly runs inside West Bank territory, rather than on the boundary line.

With its armed guards, watchtowers and fortified gateways, it’s as stark a symbol of Israel’s military-enforced occupation as you could dream up.

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5: Bubble city

An hour away from Jerusalem, down on the coast, secular-minded Tel Aviv swings along amid beach parties, designer brands and hipster attitudes.

During the Jewish shabbat – the day of rest, which runs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – West Jerusalem remains quiet in prayerful contemplation but Tel Aviv lives the high life, seaside promenades crowded, stores busy and lounge bars packed.

This hedonistic city, gazing west into the Mediterranean sunset, has also carved out a new identity as a gay capital, offering a uniquely accommodating welcome to LGBT visitors and residents alike.

In a country where the Jewish religious establishment generally calls the shots, Tel Aviv embodies a bubble of liberality and easygoing apathy. That’s great if you want to party – but Tel Avivians are also renowned for sticking their heads in the golden beach sand and pretending everything in the garden is forever rosy.

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6: Signs of conflict

Israel has military conscription, which means you’ll often see young, college-age men and women in uniform, an automatic weapon slung over their shoulder, travelling between postings on public transport.

Having that weapon dangle inches from your face on a crowded bus while its owner laughs with her friends takes some getting used to.

Expect airport-style security at hotels, malls, bus stations and other public buildings, with metal detectors at each entrance and guards searching bags.

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7: Leave the city behind

For the best of the Holy Land, get out into the countryside.

The West Bank is crisscrossed by walking trails. Many are devoted to nature, some – such as Birzeit’s Sufi Trails – to culture.

One of the best is the Abraham Path, linking the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron in a two-week trek – also manageable in shorter day-stages, with overnight stops at homestays and rural guesthouses.

Israelis have a long tradition of nature tourism, centred on national parks, wildlife reserves and forest walks, including the stunning Jesus Trail, which coils through the hills above the sparkling Sea of Galilee.

To stay, plug into Israel’s network of ‘zimmers’ – rural B&Bs ranging from farmstays to exclusive country retreats.

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8: Red, Med and Dead

Israel is hemmed in by sea.

For the Red Sea, go snorkelling and beach-bumming in Eilat.

For the Med Sea, aim for the stunning cliffs at Rosh HaNikra.

And for the Dead Sea, float your cares away at Ein Bokek, where the salty waters of this inland lake effortlessly support your body.

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9: Just deserts

Don’t miss the vast, scorching desert that fills Israel’s southern third – known as the Negev in Hebrew or Naqab in Arabic.

Head to the engaging Kibbutz Lotan, an agricultural community in Israel’s deep south run on environmentally sound lines: they have fine ecolodge-style cabins for visitors to get a flavour of frontier life.

But despite the camels and the tents, few of the Negev’s hippyish ecotours have much to do with the original inhabitants of this desert. To meet them in person, book ahead through Bedouin Hospitality – a social enterprise founded by civil rights activists – to be hosted among bedouin tribes and hear stories of desert life.

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10: Prickly on the outside – and the inside

Sabra is the Hebrew word for cactus fruit – prickly on the outside, sweet in the middle. It’s also how native-born Israelis proudly describe themselves.

The metaphor is very apt: social graces aren’t high on Israel’s list of priorities, and service in shops and restaurants can be brusque. But if you peel away the prickly exterior of contempt there’s generally warmth and affability beneath. Maybe even a smile.

Yet in terms of tourism it’s almost as if the sabra has been reversed. Travel in Israel seems sweet: everything works, the history astounds, landscapes wow. But dig below the surface to peel back the ready-supplied narrative and you soon encounter the prickles of competing histories, neglected places and untold stories.

Intriguingly, the same word in Arabic, saber, connotes patience and tenacity: tough hedges of cactus are still used to mark land boundaries across the West Bank, and the idea is linked to a key concept in Palestinian self-identity – sumud, meaning steadfastness or quiet resolve.

One plant, two peoples, three interpretations. So typical.

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“God Is Shy” – a story from Syria

30 July 2013

Last night (29 July) the news came through from Syria that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a highly respected Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, had been kidnapped. Rumours began to swirl on social media, first about his kidnapping, then about his supposed late-night release.

At this writing (30 July) it’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or where Father Paolo is.

This is no ordinary abduction (if abduction it is). Since the revolution began in Syria in 2011 Father Paolo has campaigned vociferously among the Syrian people and the international community for a peaceful democratic transition. In 2012 he wrote an open letter to the UN’s envoy Kofi Annan. Then the Assad regime expelled him. He has been living in exile since – and continues to call for ‘victory without revenge‘. His is a voice of sanity amid the madness which has engulfed his adoptive country.

For news of Father Paolo, and the appalling war in Syria, follow the independent media project Syria Deeply.

I have never met Father Paolo. Middle East writer and campaigner Daniel Adamson – a good friend of mine – has. Daniel wrote the following story in 2005, after visiting Father Paolo at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa outside Damascus. He has given me permission to post it here. Read it. It’s beautiful.

God is Shy

Father Paolo dall’Oglio and the monastery of Deir Mar Musa

By Daniel Adamson, 2005

When Paolo dall’Oglio was a child his father gave him an illustrated book on the life of Saint Paul. In its pages he found old-fashioned black-and-white drawings of the Middle East: desert-dwelling Arabs, bedouin tents, the impossibly old cities of Palestine and Syria.

For a boy growing up to Catholic parents in 1950s’ Italy, these were images of a land far, far away. But they gave Paolo his first glimpse of a world that, many years later, he would make his own, and his first inkling of an idea that would determine the path of his life: Christianity is an Eastern religion.

As a young priest in the Society of Jesus, Paolo made his way from Rome to the desert, tracing the journey of his faith in reverse. In Damascus he heard of a monastery abandoned in the mountains to the north and, looking for a quiet place to pray, he made his way up to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa.

Founded by early Christian hermits on the site of a Roman fort, this monastery was already old when the new faith of Islam pushed the Byzantine Empire back into Anatolia. Protected by its extreme isolation, the monastery survived centuries of bedouin raids, the rise and fall of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the incursions of Mongols, and even the collapse of Byzantium itself.

But it could not survive the birth of the modern world. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the last monks died or drifted away, and fifteen centuries of monastic silence faded into the older, deeper silence of the desert.

In the summer of 1982, Paolo found nothing more than a shell. The roof of the church had collapsed, the Byzantine frescoes were fading in the sun, and goats were penned inside the stone walls. He spent ten days alone, praying and walking in the desert. When the time came to leave, Paolo knew that in Deir Mar Musa he’d found his home, his work, and his reason to be in Syria.

Over the last twenty years he has restored the monastery – not as a historical monument but as a living centre of Christian prayer, work, and hospitality in the heart of the Islamic world. The six monks and nuns who form the community now keep their own goats and tend their own gardens down in the valley; they’ve built a dam across the gorge to hold the winter rains, and created a library of books that range across the world’s religious traditions.

In 2003 the restoration of the church’s twelfth-century frescoes was completed at last, and it is here, watched by the severe, candlelit faces of saints and apostles, that Paolo holds the evening mass.

The celebrants, guests along with the monks and nuns, sit barefoot on the carpets as they did in first centuries of Christianity. Slowly people settle into the flickering semi-darkness. Silence. After so many years of empty, desert silence, this is the full and present silence of human prayer. It feels like the stillness of water, like the surface of water undisturbed.

An hour passes. Quietly at first, music touches the quietness that has gathered in the church; psalms and prayers follow, sung in the Arabic that, centuries ago, displaced Aramaic as the language of liturgy here. Bibles are handed round for the day’s reading, candles re-arranged, and Paolo, wearing his white smock, seated cross-legged at the low wooden lectern, asks and answers the questions that arise from the text, shifting easily from Arabic to French, English to Italian.

At the end comes the lifting and blessing of bread and wine, the passing round of the glazed earthenware goblet and the little plate with its pieces of unleavened bread. Do this in memory of me.

Spiritual ground

In this nightly celebration Paolo leads his community towards the stillness at the centre of monastic life. It is not a social event, a sermon, or a ritual enacted for its own sake. It is a reaching back towards the meaning of this place, towards the spiritual ground on which the monastery was built so long ago. Without it, Deir Mar Musa would rapidly lose touch with its original reason for being, for silence does not always prevail here.

Every year the monastery is visited – invaded might be a better word – by hundreds of people from across the world. Most of them are what might be called ‘spiritual refugees’ from a Europe that has lost its faith: young backpackers who come up here for a day, a week, a year, looking for something to which many of them can give no name at all. In the summer these travellers, combined with the bus-loads of local schoolkids who arrive with their teachers or their priests, can turn Deir Mar Musa into something that feels more like a youth hostel than a monastery.

But Paolo would not turn anyone away. “I have learnt that hospitality is a spiritual attitude,” he says, “as well as a moral imperative.”

Alongside this sense of hospitality is the hope that some of these young people might feel called to stay at Deir Mar Musa for a lifetime. But it is not easy, in the twenty-first century, to find people with a vocation for the celibate life of a desert monk. Only six young people, Syrians and Europeans, have made that commitment over the last fifteen years. Others have come close. Paolo told me of a French boy who had embarked upon his novitiate only to fall in love and leave with one of the girls staying here.

In one of his more memorable statements, a disappointed Paolo explained that although God may draw people towards the religious life, He does not force His will onto anyone: “God” he said, “is shy.”

Love Islam

That comment is typical of the odd and unexpected ideas that enliven Paolo’s conversation, thrown out in an imperfect English that is often more expressive than a native speaker’s could ever be. His Arabic, on the other hand, is flawless. It is hard not to smile at how completely this bearded Italian priest has absorbed the language and identity of the Middle East. “We Syrians…” he will declare loudly in a public meeting. “We Semites…”

Driving away from Deir Mar Musa with Father Paolo at the wheel of the monastery’s jeep, I asked him what was in his mind when he was first sent by the Church to study Arabic in Beirut and Damascus. Did he know that his identity would be entirely re-cast by the culture of the Middle East?

“I came in the first place to try to become Arabic, to try to assume as deeply as possible the Islamic culture, and to see what happens to Christian faith when it is exposed to the cultural, human, religious value of Islam. I was sent to love Islam and Arabs. It was as clear as that.

“My mission was to go and love, to go and understand, to assume the culture. That was the way I understood the Christian mission at that time. To be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth means to be sent all over the world, and wherever you find yourself you are called to love the people, to deepen your knowledge of their culture, to try to understand their culture, to look for the values of that culture, to discover the richness of that culture, and to perceive the activity of the holy spirit in that religion. You have to try to understand what the spirit of God is doing in this place, and to look for what role these people have in the history of human spirituality, in the history of salvation.”

A more conventional priest might have sunk beneath the weight of such a mission. To become Arab? To love Islam? Paolo swam. What began as a study has developed into something much more profound: an immersion in the culture and faith of the Middle East so complete, so sustained, that Islam has soaked right through Paolo. Though it has never displaced his belief in the person and meaning of Jesus Christ, Islam has become a part of his own faith.

This is something that goes way beyond the term ‘dialogue’, implying as it does the exchange of views between two separate and distinct sets of beliefs. As a young priest, Paolo felt instinctively that Islam would be the next big question.

“Somebody”, he said in an interview in 2004, “had to go into this question so deeply as to be within himself a kind of answer.”

Minority

As we reached the end of our drive, Paolo drove the point home. “I believe in Islam,” he said.  “I believe in its spirit, I believe in its beauty, I believe in Islamic prayer, I believe in the Sufi traditions, I believe in the Islamic pilgrimage, I believe in the Islamic aesthetic, I believe in the Islamic fire of jealousy for the One God. But I remain a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and I believe there is a place for the Christian minority in the Islamic world.”

These are not empty words. At Deir Mar Musa, Paolo has created a community that receives hundreds of Muslim guests every year, each one welcome to stay the night, to drink tea, to share a meal or pray in the church. This was not, perhaps, what the Bishop of Homs had in mind when Paolo first proposed the restoration of an early Christian monastery in the desert. Paolo laughs.

“They wanted me to be a goat, an old Syrian goat!”

The bishops were not alone in their reservations. In the early years many of the locals found it hard to understand exactly what was happening up at Deir Mar Musa.

“Some thought that I was just new kind of proselyte, and they were not completely wrong. Some believe that I’m more Muslim than Christian, and they’re not completely wrong. For a long time people thought that I was up there to look for gold and treasure, and they were not completely wrong either: the church and the frescoes were a marvellous treasure.”

Despite the suspicions and the naysayers, Paolo – through sheer force of personality – has made Deir Mar Musa into a living reality. With its unique forms of worship, its armies of young travellers, and its doors wide open to the beauties of Islam, it may seem an unconventional kind of place.

Looked at another way, the ideas that Deir Mar Musa represents – Christianity, monasticism, hospitality, fraternity between Syrians of different faiths – all have a long history in Syria. None of them is alien to this place, and in that sense Deir Mar Musa, even in its new form, stands firmly on the ground where it was built fifteen hundred years ago.

Perhaps this is the real reason that Paolo has been able to breathe life into the ruins that he found twenty-five years ago.

“I believe in traditions,” he says. “And the oriental tradition is rich and full of value. The fourteen centuries of common life between Christians and Muslims is not something to be cast aside lightly.”

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