Friday, September 14, 2007

A visit to Egypt and the Holy Land

April 26 - May 21, 2007
Misr Uma Dunia: Egypt is Mother of the World
Cairo or Al Qahira is Arabic for “the vanquisher” or “the exhausted.” In other words, it is such an exhausting experience for visitors that the name serves as a stern warning to any foolhardy visitor. Since my high school friend Chris has been teaching at an international high school since fall 2006, this was my excuse to go visit him.

Cairo has the heat of Phoenix, AZ and the traffic of Los Angeles. It is dirty, polluted and crowded with 16 million people. A city of incessant honking, Cairo’s traffic flows like a river. Its air quality makes Los Angeles air seem tame. When you return home after a day in the streets, your shirt collar will be black. (I arrived with a stuffy nose and a slight cold. It took me more than a week to recover.) I arrive on a Friday, the day of rest for Muslims in Egypt. My friend Chris advised me to look for the Fondooq (Hotel) Flamenco or “Fun duck” if I got lost. Fortunately, he greets me at the airport and quickly negotiates for a cab to take us to his apartment on the island of Zamalek, which is known as the foreigners‘ neighborhood.

The first thing the traveler learns about Cairo is the cab fare system: cabs do not use meters. One must never ask the cabbie how much the fare is; instead, you pay what you think the trip is worth and then walk away. Furthermore, you must first step out of the car, close the door and then pay through the window. It is a power dynamic. This way, you don’t argue with the driver. If he asks for more money, then you can give him one or two more pounds. If he persists, then you walk away. However, if he continues to protest, then the secret police is always around the corner. Any argument between a cabbie and a foreigner usually results in the foreigner winning.

Armwrestling with Egyptian kids
I take the subway to get a feel for the city. For such a dirty city, Cairo has a surprisingly clean subway system. I crowd into the train. While foreign visitors generally stay away from the subway system, I don’t attract too much attention. After a few stops, I decide to step off, but find myself wedged among the people. I realize that I must push my way out the train or I‘ll wind up at the end of the line. I finally get off at Dar El Salaam, which means House of Peace. I sit down on a bench. A few students pass me by and greet me with “hello.” I reply with "Asalam Alaykum" or Peace Upon You.

At the end of the platform, not far away from me is a group forming around two teenagers facing each other. Each of their friends tries to hold them back. They look like they are ready for a fight. While I can’t hear what they say, they most certainly could be saying, “want a piece of me?” The crowd moves along the platform, then up the stairs.

At this point, I cross over to the other side of the tracks to catch the train back to Nasser station, my starting point. I sit down on a seat and it seems school is letting out. Large groups of students pass me. One group greets me with some Arabic, some English. I utter the few Arabic words that I learned in my 10 week Arabic course in DC: “Ana Andy. Ana min Washington, DC fee Amreeka.” I am Andy. I am from DC in America.” After speaking with a few students, suddenly, about a dozen surround me and each one shoots off a question:

-Where are you from?
-Where you live?
-What do you do?
-Do you have moe-bile?

I respond as quickly as I can: “Made in China.” One student named Almosfra responds, “Made in Egypt” while placing his right hand on his heart. My Arabic is as good as their English, which is to say terrible.

I give out my business card to a student and write my phone number on the back along with email. Soon, every student in the group asks for my card and phone number.

Two police officers in white uniforms approach us to check on the commotion, perhaps to break up the group, afraid that they are harassing me. I say to them “Sadeek” or friend in Arabic and point to all of them. The police smile and quickly understand. They return to their posts.

After speaking -- or more accurately -- trying to make conversation with these kids, I shake hands. Lots of them. I say “tesharafna” repeatedly, or good to meet you. One of them suggests that I arm wrestle him. I do and they ask for a picture. Then a group picture. We move down the platform. One student extends his right arm akimbo and hooks my left arm and escorts me a few feet away.

Another student takes my bag, almost to hold it for safekeeping. When the train arrives, we board. They ask me where I need to go. “Nasser,” I respond.

Onboard the train, we continue in broken English and Arabic. Fellow passengers stare at us, amused that a Japanese tourist is carrying on with students. The students ask me about Jackie Chan. And ask if I know kung fu. Almosfra proposes that we arm wrestle again at Nasser. If he wins, then he keeps my watch. I agreed. I suggested that if I win, then I keep his army hat. It was a deal.

At Nasser station, we make the motions of warming up for a few minutes. I ask for two out of three tries. I win. So, as soon as I reach for his cap, Almosfra’s smile becomes a frown. He looks like he’s about to cry. I open my bag and pull out my brand new orange cap from the DC Chinatown Community Cultural Center. Chinese characters adorn the front and the English phrase “Washington, DC” is on the side. I hand him the hat and say “this is for you” as I take his army cap. His smile quickly returns.

We take a few more pictures. He asks me, “football? Bokra inshalla hina sa’at ithnan”
Tomorrow, God willing, 2pm, here. I agreed.

We shake hands and he gives me a traditional Middle Eastern greeting of a kiss on each cheek. “Don’t forget us,” he exclaimed as he boards the train. I wave goodbye.

I really wanted to return to the platform at 2pm the next day, but I wound up going to Khan Al Khalili market with Eleni, the Greek.

Sabri, the Khan Al Khalili vendor
Sabri is 24 years old, tall, and wears an orange shirt and jeans. His hair is shaved close to the skin. A fast talker with very fluent English, Sabri escorts us around after the glass purchase. Eleni tells Sabri she needs perfume, so Sabri takes us to a perfume shop that is slightly bigger than a broom closet. Eleni then tells Sabri that she wants to buy her father a shirt. So, Sabri takes us to another corner of the market. He spends nearly two hours with us.

After his parents divorced, his dad told him, “Sabri, come to the US where it’s free--you have cars, house, swimming pool.” However, he chose to stay with his mother in Cairo.

He’s been at the glass shop for a few years now. When he needs to step away for errands, his “boys” or friends keep an eye on it. His girlfriend was Italian, but “I hate Italy and Greece” even though he’s never visited. “I’ve done sex twice only with my Italian girlfriend,” he confides in me.

I ask Sabri about prayers and if he can recommend a mosque to me. He tells me to call him on Friday morning and he will take me to a mosque.

A visit to the Mosque
I meet him after noon and we talk a little. Before we walk over to the mosque, he takes me to a little corner where a small, unofficial prayer area was set up—a washing station with a plastic green floor.

I set my bag down and follow his move: he washes his hands using tap water. I copy him. He washes his arms, face and behind the ears and neck. I remove my glasses and do the same. We then walk to the prayer area, remove our shoes and he chants some prayers. He prostrates himself. I do the same. After a few minutes, he tells me the correct way to pray. When prostrate, the nose and forehead are touching the floor or rug. The hands are flat, but not the entire forearm. On the wall hangs a large poster explaining the correct and incorrect prayer positions. It looks like a golf manual: feet apart, but not too far apart and not too close together.
-Hands on the knees with fingers spread. Sabri rubs some perfume on his hands and face.
-Left hand on the chest, right hand covering left hand, but not in a mummy position

After this “practice session,” we walk over to the mosque, a big edifice with several dozen men inside. An imam climbs to the top of the stairs of a big platform. He is dressed in a white skullcap and galabiyeh, the flowing robe of Egyptian men. We pray five times and sit for the service. I understand nothing except for “Mohammed” and “Allah,” which the imam used frequently in his fiery sermon. (As I write, there’s another call to prayer)

The Imam must be in his early 50s. He looks like a very devout and earnest man. He gesticulates with his arms: first, his right hand with fingers outstretched slices the air, conductor style. Then his left arm, with finger in the air. With eyes wide open, he screams and his voice dances. He could very well be a Southern Baptist preacher. Whatever he said, he was emphatic and animated. He punctuated a few sentences with “Allaaaah!” After 30-45 minutes or so, everyone stood up and prayed in unison. A cantor repeated a few prayer lines, sang and the audience responded with “Ehhhh-mean” or the equivalent of “Amen.” Finally, “Assalam Alaykoom” or “peace upon you” and we shook hands with our neighbors. We put our shoes on again and as we left, some men by the exit passed out round buns made of sweet bean paste. It reminded me of Chinese buns.

We return to the shop and for the next three hours, I just sit there with Sabri and enjoy tea and fateer bread (like crepes). Sabri has been working for eight years in the store. He served in the Egyptian Army for one year. He calls it the “black year” because whereas he was used to perfume and friendly, polite people, he was subjected to rude, coarse, uneducated Egyptian men. He trained in the desert and then learned a bit of computer programming. His uncle has opened a store in New York City for nine years now, but has not returned to Egypt. His other uncle has been in the US for nearly a year in DC.

Sabri had an Italian girlfriend for nearly two years. She studied in Egypt and was not religious. Sabri says he does not push his religion on anyone.

He introduces me to his friend Mohammed, but goes by Mido, a nickname for a famous soccer player. Mido is a virgin. Once, he met some Japanese girls at the market. They invited him to their hotel room for Champagne, but something came up at the last moment, so he had to cancel. He’s regretted it ever since. “That was my one chance!” he exclaimed with a big smile.

The tea man comes to collect my tea glass, even though I only drank half. Sabri complains to him and then chases after him. Sabri gives him a swift kick in the ass. He explains that the tea man has a bad habit of collecting the tea glasses before customers even finish.

His friends ask me to write their names in Chinese, so I spend the next hour or so doing this. It occurs to me that the Egyptians are quite fond of Chinese people and their writing.

Sabri invites me for a game of soccer the same evening. I tell him I am no good. “Don’t worry. Neither are we.” He and his buddies meet once a week to play a game. Sabri tells me to return about 9:30pm. “Bring a camera, wear good shoes and a white T-shirt,” he advises me.

I return about 9:40pm. I am afraid that they may have left without me. However, when I get to the shop, they are still there. They begin to close the shop and warm up for the game. I meet Zayman, Sabri’s friend who has an Ipod and is swaying to some Hip Hop music. They ask me how many pushups I can do. They then take out some Hashish joints and offer them to me. I politely refuse. They explain that it is custom to smoke before a soccer game. It is the Egyptian way.

I am tempted, but think of a future confirmation hearing when a senator may be asking me about my previous drug use. Would I respond by saying, well, “I’ve never knowingly broken the laws of my country. And that one time, well, I didn’t inhale.” Better safe than sorry. They pass the joint around and then blow some smoke into my face. Cough. Cough. Cough. Laughter. We leave for the soccer field about 10:30pm.

We walk through the narrow alleyways of the market. All the tourists have gone. Vendors are cleaning up. Eating a late dinner. Mido offers his right arm and I loop my left arm in his. He tells me that “even though I’ve only known you for a few hours, I feel like I’ve known you a long time.” We turn and twist through the walkways. I catch a glimpse of some men and women dancing on a rug to the tune of music. Sufi mystics, perhaps? Mido explains to me that after hours, the market is very different. These vendors are more relaxed and feel like they can dance in the comfort of their shops.

We reach the soccer fields and divide up the group. I play for about 15 minutes, then Sabri sends me to the sidelines, where I stay for the rest of the game. We win 7-2.

After the game, the winners drink Coke, Pepsi and Sprite. The losers drink water. It is now about midnight. Sabri asks me, “It is late. Maybe you want to return to your friends and rest? If you want, you can come to our neighborhood and drink with us.” By drinking, Sabri meant chocolate, yoghurt, more Sprite and Coke.

At a local café, we enjoy hookah and watch American music pop videos with Jayzee, Beyonce’ and Shakira. No women are in the Café, which are still the domain of men. It is now about 1:30am and Sabri and Mido hail a cab for me. They pay for my cab fare in advance. I thank them and bid them “Maesalama!” or Good-bye.

The driver, like most Egyptian cab drivers, is extremely friendly, but has very limited English. He tells me that he’s visited the US before. He was part of a tour group that went to New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC and Tennessee. He then turns toward me and raises his right thumb while saying “Bush. Yeah!” He has a big smile. I am shocked and do not know whether he is serious. I reciprocate, raise my right thumb and say, “Hosni. Hosni Mubarak. Yeah!”

When we arrive at my apartment, I pay the cab fare again. The driver is silent. I bid him a good night.

A visit to El Alsson International High School
Chris and I catch the 7:05 am school bus, which is a 30 minute ride to the International High School. The students come from rich Egyptian families who can afford the annual 30,000 Egyptian Pounds (LE) tuition. To give you an idea of how much this is, the average Egyptian family makes about 300 LE a month.

I sit next to Hanan, a quiet little girl, who later asks Chris about me: “Is he married? Is he teaching at the school? He‘s so nice.”

In class, I give a short presentation on the 2008 Presidential race. I begin with a short anecdote about Mitt Romney‘s leadership. I discuss the importance of fundraising and ask the students for some ways of raising money. One student recommends “steal money.” I ask him, “so, you’re entering politics, yes?”

On the way home from school, the kids on the bus pepper me with questions:

-Have you ever eaten Monkey?
-Do you know Kung Fu?
-Why do they kill babies in China?
One girl asks me, “In China, parents make their kids stay up on New Year’s eve for good luck, right? According to the book of traditions.” I tell her that this is news to me.

Yehia, a precocious nine year old Egyptian boy with a big smile tells me, “in Australia, if you use counterfeit money, you go to jail.” Born in the US, he came to Egypt when he was four years old. He proudly explained, “We have three villas in the US. Whenever I visit America , I stay in one of two villas or the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”

The kids want me to write their names in Chinese, so I spend the rest of the bus ride writing as many names as possible. I promise to return next week to finish writing names.

The Great Pyramids of Giza
The climb inside the Great Pyramid has been described as claustrophobic. As I climb, I grip both wooden handrails. Wooden slats about a foot apart on top of the stones help visitors to climb. I can only imagine in ancient times that the pyramid builders would enter with slaves in front carrying a torch and slaves behind them with a torch, while they used ropes to climb. After about 10 minutes of climbing, at the very top, I bend down and squat to cross a 15-20 foot space to enter the chamber. It is dark and musty. Two phosphorescent lights hang on the wall. A few tourists are inside, but they are impatient and leave quickly. An empty sarcophagus lies at the end of the room. I don’t know when I will return, if ever, so I stay a while and try to absorb everything around me, to rest and enjoy the quiet.

A few moments later, a group of four Frenchies arrive. The man – in his late 40s, climbs into the sarcophagus for a few minutes to rest. Once he gets out, the others follow. The woman, standing against the wall, stretches out her arms like she is at a church service, ready to receive the holy spirit. The gentleman begins to sing a French song. He has a very beautiful voice that sounds quite professional. His voice reverberates around the room, which, surprisingly has good acoustics.

Reny, backstreet boy of the Pyramids
We begin to make our way to the Sun Boat Museum, dedicated to the boat that would take the dead to the underworld. Soon, a young boy begins shadowing us about 20 feet away.
“Hello! Where are you from?” he greets us in a loud and friendly voice.
“Alaska,” I reply, trying to alternate my answers. I was tired of telling people I am from CA.
He introduces himself as Reny, a student. “I will enter the faculty soon,” he adds enigmatically.
He wears a black T-shirt and jeans. His skin is dark chocolate.
He carries with him a spiral notebook and pen. From a small town three hours away, he rode three buses to get to the pyramids.
“I am also a singer, dancer and painter, but my parents don’t know.” He lists the songs he liked and offers to sing a backstreet boys song.

When we arrive at the Sun Boat Museum, I take out my cash, wanting to give him a one pound tip for singing us his backstreet boys song. He refuses.
“If you love me, you won’t give money to me,” He objects.
I try a second, and a third time. He refuses. I put my money away.
Chris and I buy our tickets and thought that Reny would leave.
Instead, he follows us. “Please wait me!” he pleads, as he goes to the counter and pays his two pound ticket. We pay 40 pounds each.

Inside, Chris, a bit annoyed, walks ahead of us. Reny tells me that if the police see him talking to me, they will “beat me and take my credit card.” He pleads with me not to turn him into the police, “Please don’t give up me.” I promise him I would not.

He opens his notebook and shows me all the email addresses he’s collected from tourists in the past months. The other pages of the book are reserved for verbs and vocabulary.

As we walk around the great boat, Reny points to the photos on the wall and tries to explain a few of them. I point out some misspellings in the captions.
Reny asks me, “Where’s your friend?”
“He’s in the bathroom,” I reply. “Where are your friends?” I inquire.
“I haven’t any friends,” he explains. “I am very happy to meet you today.”
Reny usually comes to the Pyramids once a year, but this year he’s visited 10 times.

Outside, as we walk, camel drivers accost us for rides in the desert. I tell them that I want to eat camel, not ride them.

Reny sings us some more songs, including one in Arabic. He has a decent voice.
A tourism police officer on a camel approaches us and yells at him not to bother me. I respond that he’s a “sadeek” or friend.

We approach the exit road and at this point, I take out five pounds and offer it to him. He refuses three times. I insist. He says, “the police will see you.”
So, I turn my back to the police and give it to him. He reluctantly accepts it.
He still follows us as we walk down the road.
I take out my water bottle and offer it to him. He refuses. I insist and he finally takes a few sips.
I am amazed by how tough he is—to be able to talk so much, sing several songs, yet not carry any water. I tell Reny to keep the bottle of water.

Reny asks me, “do you go to zoo?”
I have not. He asks me if I want to accompany him to the zoo tomorrow. I ask him to email me. I learn later that at the Egyptian Zoo, one can pet the animals.

We shake hands and get into our cab to go back home. I checked my email later, but Reny never contacts me.

Cairo vs. Luxor
Luxor and Cairo are cities where the fruit at kiosks are presented in a beautiful way. They hang their bananas one bunch above the next on one pole or line—almost like it’s growing naturally on a tree.

It is a common occurrence that I am greeted with English ie “Hello. Where are you from?” I try to respond in basic Arabic.

The minibuses and vans that circle the city for locals never close their doors. Perhaps, they are kept open to cool the car and to facilitate the boarding and exiting of the bus?

Men shout. Boys shout. Women shout. Old Women shout. Everybody shouts. They shout to greet each other. Men in galabiyehs shout to their friends. It may sound like they’re fighting, but they’re not. They are just having a friendly chat.

Bus trip to Gebel Mousa or Mt. Sinai
My original plan was to fly to Israel; however, my friend Monica, who visited Egypt 25 years ago, advised me to take the bus. I would see more of the country, she explained. Besides, it would be much more interesting. Heeding her advice, I bought a bus ticket to Mt. Sinai, on my way to the Israeli border.

The six hour bus trip would become a nine hour bus trip. Along the way, our bus driver stops a few times for ½ an hour each to smoke some hookah (water pipe). A couple of times, we stop in random parking lots just to rest for 10 minutes or so. We pick up Bedouins. Lots of them. We cross through a series of checkpoints, about five total. Each time, a stern-looking man--sometimes in uniform, sometimes not--boards the bus to examine our IDs.

Arrival in St. Katherine City
It is 7:45pm when we pull into a traffic circle in St. Katherine City. The last rays of sunshine disappear. A few others and I get off. Two men pull up in a white van. They want to take me to a Bedouin camp. I thank them, but refuse.

I see two men in running gear jogging toward me. They speak a little English and direct me to the restaurant area. They reassure me that this is a very safe area. I walk for a few minutes. Suddenly, the white van pulls up again. The same two men offer me a piece of cookie and want to take me to a Bedouin camp. I take their cookie and swallow it quickly. It’s very sweet. Their camp is just across the way. After a few minutes of talking, I get into the van and they whisk me off to their desert oasis.

At the Foxcamp Bedouin Camp or Youth Hostel, I meet Hillary, an English woman in her early 40s. She’s been in the Sinai 2.5 years, working with Bedouins. Ali, another British guest is about 24. He sports a buzz haircut and is dressed in a galabiyeh, the Egyptian robe. He’s been traveling for 6 months following the trail of Alexander the Great. Ali has been studying Arabic for four years at Exeter University. Of 35 students who began the Arabic class with him, only he and one other student are still pursuing the language.

A small group of Bedouin well-diggers are also staying at the camp. I try to talk with them with Ali serving as the interpreter. They travel the Sinai helping people to dig wells or deepen existing wells. Their group leader is an amiable man with calloused, but warm hands. He speaks only a few English words. I offer him my help in their efforts. “I am not very strong and only have a few hours to help you tomorrow. I may work like a woman, but please tell me how I can help,” I explain to him. He responds that I can simply bring him water in the morning.

Climbing Mt. Sinai: following camels in the dark
Mt. Sinai is known as Gebel Mousa in Arabic or Moses Mountain. After dinner and chatting with Abdul, the cook, I leave the camp about 2 am and begin walking toward the mountain. It is dark. As I walk along the road, buses pass by. I reach the security check point where hundreds of pilgrims are ready to ascend the holy mountain.
Mr. Security: “No bomb, ey?”
I reply, “I love Egypt and Egyptians, so no bomb.”
As I continue along, I see and hear Koreans, Egyptians, and languages from all over the world. A flurry of flashlights and torches lights up the ground.
I hear an Italian group and strike up a conversation. They are from Venice. Maria tells me that she, her sister and friends are here with a tour group. She has studied Arabic and wants to visit more Arabic countries.

Bedouins are lined up at key parts of the trail by the coffee and tea stations and accost the pilgrims. “Camel? Want a camel? Camelo? Ciao!” The prices for camel rides decrease proportionally the higher you ascend.

Maria responds, “La-shookrun,” or no, thank you.
I walk with Maria and her sister until 5:30am when we approach the summit. I take a rest and meet a Chinese Indonesian family. Daylight arrives about 5:40am. The view is panoramic and breathtaking.

One group of Philipino Catholics gathers in a circle, hold hands and pray and sing.
Most other pilgrims snap away with their digital cameras.

It is wonderful to see so many people from all over the world gather in one place that links them all.

The next day, I miss my bus, so after one more day, I catch the bus to NuWeiba. When I get off, I see no connecting buses. A cab driver offers to take me to the border for 100 LE (about $20). I bargain him down to 90 LE. He speaks no English except for numbers.

We pick up two men. The first one asks me about my religion. I try to explain that I am “mish deanee” or not religious. He doesn’t understand. He asks me, “do you have gift for me?” as he smiles. I give him my business card.

The driver asks me if I am a Muslim. I reply no, but I “bihab Muslim wa Mohammed wa Allah.” I like Muslims and Mohammed and Allah.” He needed no further prompting. He turns off the regular music and puts in a cassette tape of Koranic chants for the next hour as we approach the border. Once we arrive, he asks me for a $3 tip. I refuse, saying, “you’ve done nothing to earn the tip.” Instead, I give him a US flag pin. He accepts it and in turn gives me his business card, asking me to call him again when I return the following week.

Interrogation at Taba Border crossing on Shabbat
Israeli security layer #1:
“Hello. Why are you coming to Israel?”
“Who do you know?”
No one.
“Where have you been?”
Cairo, Egypt
“Where do you work?”
At a PR firm.

Israeli security layer #2: x-ray machines
Israeli security layer #3: Two female border agents question me. The first one is in her late 20s, blonde and pale. She has a very serious demeanor. A silver star rests on her left breast. The second one, a brunette, wears heavy mascara, but has a slight smile.
“Who do you know in Jerusalem?” the blonde begins her questioning.
No one, but I have a few contacts.
“Can I see your contacts?”
I flip open my notebook to show them my contacts and phone numbers. They are in the same notebook that I use for my Arabic class.
“So you are studying Arabic? Why?”

“Do you have an itinerary? Can we see it?”
I show them my e-ticket printout.
“Where have you been?”
Alexandria, Luxor, Sinai.
“Where are you staying in Israel?
I show her the two youth hostels that I found on the internet.

“Why do you travel alone? Why don’t you travel with a friend?”
I’m very independent and it’s hard to coordinate with a friend who can take off this much time.
“How much money do you have with you?”
1600 Shekels. (about $400)
“Can we see your shekels?”
I place the money on the counter.
“That’s a LOT of shekels for one week,” she commented, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.

At this point, the group behind me urged the border agents to hurry up as sunset was approaching, marking the beginning of Shabbat or the Sabbath, the holy day for Jews. The border agent did not seem to be concerned at all.

“Do you have any other payment besides cash?”
Yes, a credit card. I show her my Chase visa.

“Do you intend to visit any Palestinian-controlled areas like Gaza?”
“Why not?”
I don’t want to die.
They release me and I enter Israel.

Eilat, Israel
Eilat is the most famous resort city in Southern Israel. After two weeks in Egypt, where most of the women are covered, it is quite a pleasant shock to the system to see so many scantily clad women with their navels (and more) exposed. The cab driver deposits me at the Red Sea Hotel.

“Isn’t getting laid the best thing to do on trips abroad?” Yitzhak, the 67 year old manager of the Red Sea Hotel asks me with a broad smile. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Yitzhak has lived in Israel for well over 40 years. An engineer by training, he tells his life story to me over a beer. He is a serial smoker: with a cigarette in his left hand, he is unshaven, balding, and very skinny. He coughs occasionally.

“My problem is chasing women. In two weeks, my girlfriend returns.”
“So, you’ll have two weeks of freedom?” I inquired.
“No, I’ve had three months of freedom,” he corrected me.
“Best thing to do is to date married women because they usually keep it quiet.” He advised me.
“You’re a hedonist!” I declared.
“I like alcohol, sex and basketball. My fantasy is to have a glass of whiskey in one hand, for her to blow me, and watching the MaCabees win by one point with a three point throw, so we’ve had lots of practice!” He said matter of factly. But, this happened only once.

On prostitution: once a week or so, “if a guy comes to me and asks for a whore, I call her and she comes and for 250 Shekels, he has a good time.” She tips the guy at the counter 50 shekels. At this point, he clarifies the legal definition of pandering.

The next day, I take the four hour Egged bus to Jerusalem.

The Old City
Jerusalem’s Old City is a place where you feel the large stones of the narrow alleyways with every step you take. It is a place where the vendors know your nationality before you open your mouth. Where as soon as you respond to the “hello—where you from?” you are one step closer to buying from them.

Where Israeli Military patrols come through hourly. Where school kids pass by with a guardian in front and a protector in the rear with a rifle strapped onto the shoulder. Where groups of Israeli soldiers, all with their side arms, lounge for tea or lunch next to tourists. It is a place both enchanting and overwhelming. Where everyone sells the others’ religious symbols. That is to say, Muslim vendors hawk Catholic prayer beads and crosses; Christian vendors hawk Torah scrolls and key chains. Jewish vendors hawk postcards of Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Where Observant Jews touch the Mezuzah on the side of Jaffa Gate as they enter the Old City as a reminder of the role of the 10 Commandments in their lives. Where a trio of Orthodox Jewish men, with black hats and black coats walk by, speaking Hebrew or Yiddish. Where the Russian tourist strolls by, with her belly button winking at you.

Into the Judea Desert
I sign up for a day tour to Masada, the Dead Sea and Jericho. As we enter the Judea Desert outside Jerusalem, our Palestinian Christian tour guide explains that the old name was “Valley of the Shadows.” And for good reason. In Roman Times, our guide continued, “rubbers would kill you for your donkey.” He repeated himself. Now, of course, the area is much safer.

We stop for a few minutes and get out of the van. The guide points to a distant spot on the horizon. “That’s Nabit Mousa—the site where Muslims believe Moses died and was taken to heaven by angels.” Now, the site is used for a drug addiction recovery center. It is ideal since it is very hard to find narcotics in the desert.

Juliana, a Brazilian gal forgot her passport. Our guide advises her to speak only Portuguese and the security guards will leave her alone.

A Visit to Masada Fortress
We take the cable car to the top. A hardy group of five and I decide to walk down the mountain. The panoramic view is spectacular.

About 70 CE, the Jewish people, fed up with occupation, rise up against the Romans, who in turn, send in the troops to crush the rebellion. Their slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and surrounding areas was thorough, as chronicled by the famous Jewish-Roman Historian Josephus Flavius: “They piled mounds of corpses in the street and drenched the city with so much blood that in many places blood extinguished the flames.”

It took the Romans a few years to crush the rebellion. Toward the end, Josephus wrote, “And no one shed a tear at the tragedy and no one eulogized the dead, because hunger had subdued all of their human emotions.” After the city was conquered, there was one place that still held out against the Romans: Masada, or “Fortress” in Hebrew. It had become a focal point for rebels in the desert and the die-hards fighting the Romans.

Here’s the basic story, according to the Let’s Go Israel 2003 guide book:

Masada became a refuge for surviving Zealots…With years’ worth supply of food, water, and military supplies, the 967 men, women, and children held off 15,000 Roman legionnaires through a five-month siege. The Romans called in their best engineers to construct a wall and camps in a ring around the mount…they built an enormous stone and gravel ramp up the side of the cliff, using Jewish slaves as laborers in order to prevent the Zealots from shooting them.

When the defenders realized that the Romans would break through their walls the next morning, the community leaders decided that it would be better to die. Their leader Eleazar said, “unenslaved by enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with wives and children” rather than be captured by the Romans. Because Jewish law forbids suicide, ten men were chosen to slay the others, and one chosen to kill the other nine before falling on his own sword…The following morning, when the triumphant Romans burst in, they encountered only smoking ruins and deathly silence. The only survivors, two women and five children, told the story of the Zealots’ last days to Josephus.

Understandably, new recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces are sworn in at Masada with this pledge, “Masada shall not fall again!”

Dead Sea
We visit the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi for one hour. It is the only place along the Dead Sea that has no entry fee. Our tour guide explains that Queen Cleopatra used products from the Dead Sea for her cosmetic needs. She had to look good for Mark Antony, after all.

Before we enter the sea, we are advised not to stay in for more than 15 minutes at a time or we’ll turn into raisins. Every few minutes, I hear a loud scream after some hapless floater swallows some salt water or it enters their nose or eyes. The future of the sea is not promising as it is slowly losing water each year. Our guide adds, “We don’t want to lose the Dead Sea as it’s very important to us.”

As the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem means "House of Meat" in Arabic or "House of bread" in Hebrew. Either way, it means food. I walk from the military checkpoint to the Church of Nativity, and got lost in the marketplace. At one point, I ask five Palestinian Policemen with very big guns for directions. After I utter the magic words "Asalam Alaykum" smiles appear on their faces and they gladly help me.

The Arabs are so much more colorful in their greetings than we are.
I offer them the morning greeting: “Sabah Al kheir.”
The policeman responds, “Sabah Al Nur” or “A morning of light to you.”
I respond, “Sabah al full” or “A morning of flowers to you.”
He responds, “Sabah al ishta“ or “A morning of cream to you.”
I finish with “Sabah al yasmin“ or “A morning of jasmine to you.”

Shabbat dinner with the Rabbi
At my youth hostel, I meet David, a Catholic pilgrim from Austin, TX who is on his seventh trip to the Holy Land. He is a Mexican-American in his early 40s and currently lives in Utah. Married with three children, he is a firm believer and likes to come for three weeks annually to “reconnect and to renew” his faith and spirituality. David invites me to a Sabbath Dinner or “kid-dooosh.” He pronounces the Hebrew word “kiddush” (the breaking of the Chala bread and drinking of the Kaddim wine after prayers) with a strong southern twang. We first go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site in Christendom. It is said that Jesus was buried here and rose three days later.

David serves as my tour guide; he shows me the marble slab that Jesus lay on after the crucifixion. He kneels and kisses it. Next, we view the rock that Jesus sat on when he was crowned with thorns; the hole in which his cross rested in; the tomb of Constantine’s mother; the rock which cracked after the earthquake following the crucifixion.

We walk over to the Western Wall. It is a warm afternoon sun. Pilgrims fill the plaza. We meet Rabbi Mordechai and a few others who are finishing up their prayers. The Rabbi is from Chicago and has lived in Jerusalem with his family for more than 20 years. A jolly man, perhaps in his 50s, he wears a long white beard and a solemn black outfit, in the tradition of Orthodox Rabbis. The group begins the Kiddush and shares with us grape juice, cookies and nuts. They sing some songs. One gentleman in particular is a robust cantor. He seems to be the unofficial cheerleader of the group. After 15 minutes or so, the Rabbi announces to his minions that “I’m having a Shabbat meal at my house. Anyone is welcome to join me.” We follow our host and start walking toward Damascus Gate.

After nearly 30 minutes of a brisk walk, we arrive at his home in a quiet suburb. It is about 2pm. I count at least 40 people waiting for him in his dining room. Everyone is seated at narrow, thin tables. Somehow, we manage to make room for another 10 guests. Every 10 minutes or so, another few guests would arrive at the door. The Rabbi does not turn them away. Instead, he cheerfully welcomes them and says, “Come on in! We’ll just set another table. We have plenty of room.” In total, perhaps 70 people or more crowded into the dining room, which was designed for only 20 or 25 people at the most.

The Rabbi is a generous host. His waiters – most likely his family – prepared lots of food, which float on trays above our heads. Chicken. Roast Beef. Tuna. Salad. Fruit. Pie. The generous servings are punctuated with abundant singing, prayers and announcements. If there were room, I’m confident the attendees would dance. By about 4:30pm, the Rabbi announces that some people have to leave, so he requests that we “be respectful of others and leave quietly.” However, dinner would begin at 7pm, so he encourages us to return at that time, or stay as we begin reading the entire book of Psalms. David and I look at each other and take this as our hint to leave. We thank the Rabbi for his hospitality and depart.

Final day in the Holy Land and return to Cairo
Sunday morning 6am. I catch mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with David. I then sprint to the Western Wall to pray and to leave my message for God: “Give me the strength to believe.” I search for a crack in which to leave my message.

Since the wall fills quickly with messages from pilgrims and worshippers, they are cleaned out weekly and buried. The idea is from the earth we come, back to it we return. Since the name of God is on those messages, it cannot be destroyed. It is now 7:30am. I walk up the ramp to the Temple Mount. I am greeted by five security men with very big guns. I greet the groundskeeper. “Asalam Alaykum!” His face lights up with a smile.

I make my way up the stairs past the arches, circle the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Muslims believe this is where Mohammed ascended to Heaven in 621 AD for a night journey. Built in the 7th century by the 9th Caliph, it is visible for miles.

Border crossing at Taba
Ana* (I never got her name, so I’ve given her this name for this travelogue), a Jewish woman living in Australia is on travel by herself. In her mid to late 40s, she has dark shoulder length hair and pale skin. She has been waiting for six hours at the border crossing. Her travel agent told her the bus would arrive about 1pm, so she’s been here since noon without any food. During her six hours here, she received special treatment from very lonely, bored and horny Egyptian border agents who rarely ever come this close to foreign women. They asked her questions like, “So, what is your favorite position in bed? Do you like to be on top?” Those were the tame questions.

While we wait for our passports to be stamped, Mike, a New York lawyer currently teaching law in Jerusalem, tells me that our tour guide Moustaffa Mohammed wants him to bring over a can of coffee and $1500 in cash to the Egyptian side. Mike feels very uncomfortable about the request, so refuses.

After an hour of processing our passports, we finally make it to the Egyptian side and prepare to depart for Cairo. However, Moustaffa motions for Ana to come over to him. Could it be visa problems? She disappears for 20 more minutes. When she returns, she carries with her two big plastic bags of cigarette cartons. Our dear tour guide forgot to buy them earlier, so asked her to go back through the border to purchase them at the duty-free shop. The rest of the group sighs.

We arrive in Cairo about 1:30am. My ticket agent told me to expect an 11pm or midnight arrival, so I was not too disappointed. However, she informed the rest of the group that they would arrive about 7 or 8pm. So, naturally, they are livid. Shortly before we arrive at the Sheraton Hotel, Moustaffa pulls out an envelope and explains, “Can you kindly give a baksheesh (tip) of 10 LE each? This is the custom of Egypt. Thank you.” When the envelope returns to him, he receives only about 20 LE.

Outside the bus, he asks me to intervene. “You seem to have a good rapport with the group. Can you please tell them to give a tip? That’s the way we do things in Egypt.”
I explain to him the group is angry. Very angry. Especially at him. At this point, the group disperses. Most hail cabs to their hotels for the night.

When the driver hands me my bag, I give him a 10 LE bill, knowing that it is not his fault that we are late. I return to the apartment on Zamalek, pack my bags and depart for the airport.

The writer Nawal El Saadawi says of Cairo in her autobiography Walking Through Fire, “The moment that I arrive there from a journey abroad, I want to leave again. The moment that I am ready to depart, have climbed into the plane, I feel like jumping out and running back.” Now that I’ve spent some time there, I truly understand this odd sentiment. And I hope one day you will, too. Insha’ allah!