Fear has a smell. It’s a funny smell. It’s a heavy dose of sweat, deodorants (vanilla and strawberry), perfumes and baby powder. It makes me sneeze. Hachoo. I’m the only person in this tram who smells fear like this. The guy in the red shirt rummages through his bag. It’s a water bottle. A damn water bottle. Not a grenade, I tell myself. It’s safe to travel to Israel and Palestine and yet I can’t help but take a hard look at anyone entering the train, analyzing their movements, imagining things they would do to blow up the tram. I dream terrorism into existence. I have become paranoid and overcautious like the two Jewish settlers that I met on my way to Bethlehem. I am ashamed.
The tram stops, I step out and breathe with relief.
It’s my first time taking public transportation in Jerusalem and my last day in this city. The walk from the Old City to Yad Vashem was a long one and I didn’t have enough energy to get back by foot so the tram it is. It has been an intense day at Yad Vashem and the voice announcing the age of the murdered children still rings in my ears. It goes: So-and-so, five years old. So-and-so, seven years old. So-and-so, eleven years old. The dimension of the Holocaust is ungraspable.
So is the religious diversity of Jerusalem. To travel to this city is to see several worlds at once. It means religion is in every corner and wherever you go, you see churches, mosques and synagogues standing next to each other. Everything is so densely packed in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s no ordinary place. It’s the home of Moslems, Christians and Jews. They live side by side and on a good day, it seems that diversity is not destructive. It has become a habit of mine to roam freely around the four different quarters, getting lost and never feeling lost at all. Impromptu discoveries turn me on. I have taken a liking to surprising locals by talking in their respective language. It makes me feel closer to them. It has been so much fun to switch between English, Arabic and Hebrew even though I can only say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘good bye’ in the latter two. Every now and then, I would change into Amharic whenever I get the chance to talk to Ethiopians who are easy to spot with their white robes. You usually find them walking around many little charming alleys connected to Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus is said to have taken between his condemnation by Pilate and his crucifixion and burial. The most comical moment was, however, when I set foot on Mea Shearim, an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and listened to a conversation between two vendors, who spoke Yiddish to each other, a language very similar to German. Eventually I summed up my courage and asked them to reaffirm my assumptions about the content of their chat. The expression on their faces said it all: they looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head. I silently congratulated myself. The second time I feel like patting on my back is when I climbed up to the top of Mount of Olives, looking at the Old City with the Dome of the Rock as the most prominent landmark while waiting for sunset. It was a breathtaking sight. Serenity washed over me. When such a moment like this arrives I turn into a naïve and idealistic person, thinking that peace is reachable and maybe it’s not necessary to lead a war to have peace.
It is no fun when something goes wrong in Jerusalem. You might not witness it on the streets but as soon as you talk to people on a more personal level and you leave the ‘welcome, nice to meet you, where are you from?’ zone, you realize that mistrust lurks in every corner of this beautiful city. It comes in different forms, religion, ethnicity, politics, you name it, Jerusalem has it all. Life is especially not easy for many Palestinians. Despite all the struggles they face I find them more approachable and relaxed than Israelis who seem somewhat tense. I had the first taste of it when I walked from Jerusalem’s Old City to Bethlehem on a Saturday Sabbath. It was a long walk but I didn’t mind playing the escapist to get away from all the noises of the city. All I needed was a bottle of water. And a fedora to protect me from the sun. Bethlehem belongs to the West Bank and you have to pass the checkpoint to get into the city. Everything went well until I made the stupid mistake to ask the two people walking ahead of me where the checkpoint was. It turned out that they are Jewish settlers who live nearby. From what they told me Bethlehem seemed like in the middle of a civil unrest. After the small- talk- stage things got serious and they started to warn me about the danger of staying in the West Bank area. “Watch your baaaack, young lady,” one of them, a woman with a heavy American accent, admonished, shoving me with her arm to get my attention. It didn’t hurt much, the pain went away immediately but her words stayed. I felt uncomfortable. The checkpoint was easy to find, the security guy didn’t even give me a second look and so my walk continued without disruption. My tired feet took me from the Separation Wall decorated with graffiti, the most prominent of them being Banksy’s artwork, to the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to be born. Here is the first thing I heard when I reached the place: Arabic music. Here is the first thing I saw when I reached the place: Palestinian people dancing and singing on a simple stage. It stood in front of a building: The Bethlehem Peace Center. It bought a smile on my face. And anger. I betrayed myself and came with presumption. Worst, with the presumption shaped by the experiences of two other people. I had no one to blame for but myself; the stay in Bethlehem turned out to be great. It is a holy place but not overly religious. I took the latest Arab bus back to Jerusalem. It was empty and the wind felt good on my face. One thought came to my mind: time to visit another Palestinian city.
And so the next morning I took the bus from the Arab bus station at Damascus Gate to Al Ezariya and got a taxi to sun- drenched Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. The ride was a short one, there was nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction. After visiting Hisham’s Palace, the cable car took me to the Mount of Temptation offering an amazing view over the landscape with the Judaean Mountains in the background. Everything looked so ancient and archaic. The final destination of this ten minute ride is the old Greek Orthodox monastery located at the top. It looked like part of Mount of Temptation itself. Here in Jericho the uneven economic development between Israel and Palestine has become more than obvious. Of course it is not a new fact but it’s simply different when you see it with your own eyes. They are so close and yet so far from each other.
“How much is the flag?” I asked the souvenir shop assistant after arriving at the cable station again. “The flag is invaluable,” he said and I realized that I have entered the political zone without intending to do so. In fact, he took out a piece of paper and explained why the entire city of Jerusalem is Palestine’s capital and not only the Eastern part of it. I chose to remain silent and left the shop with the flag of Palestine in my bag. On the day I left for Tel Aviv airport it laid in my suitcase next to the flag of Israel that I bought in Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. Yes, at heart, I’m an optimist.
The adventure in Jericho didn’t end here because just the moment when I thought it will be ending soon I met my most interesting encounter of the entire trip: Ran, an Israeli vagabond/musician wandering around in Jericho, a Palestinian territory. While we waited for the shared taxi back to Jerusalem Ran, who comes from Tel Aviv, gave me an insight into the Jewish life that he doesn’t belong to anymore. He seemed carefree for someone who has been going through a spiritual bankruptcy. After we took a stroll around the modern part of Jerusalem, Ran stayed close to one of the Old City’s gates to perform there the next day. We were strangers and perhaps because of that we talked about everything. Life. Love. Family. And even Vietnamese identity in Israel. In fact, he even knew and talked about Vaan Nguyen who is an Israeli poetess of Vietnamese origin. He gave me another missing piece of the puzzle that is Israel, helping me get closer to reality. Like photo shots of a scene from different angles.
One of Tel Aviv’s most obvious angles is that it is beautiful, secular and much more liberal than Jerusalem. And it has something that many other metropolises don’t have: a beach. Still, it’s too ordinary as a city like many of its counterparts in the Western hemisphere. At night I lay awake, listening to the sound of planes leaving or arriving at the airport. It’s disturbing because the war in Syria is probably not even a 1-hour flight away from here. I toss and turn and somehow I am glad to see that it’s a new day now. Time to go to the airport. I have been told that the security procedure would take a very long time. In fact, you might enter Israel quite easily but the way to get out is a complicated one. It goes from answering questions at the check-in booth to having your belongings checked thoroughly. Everything is under scrutiny. I arrive at the security screening zone and leave immediately after seeing how other people’s bags are being controlled. Something is wrong. I sit in a corner, open my suitcase, place the flag of Palestine inside a book and go back to the waiting line.
The plane leaves the airport on time. Tel Aviv is now a tiny point. In a few minutes it will disappear from my eyes. I take the last photo.