When I visited Rwanda in 2010 a large sign stood proudly at the border crossing announcing ‘Investment YES, corruption NO,’ a bold statement I thought, from a dictatorial police state guilty of political imprisonments, journalist assassinations and involvement in the neighbouring and never ending Congolese war. Upon entering Israel last week a similar sign appeared before me. At the Yitzhak Rabin crossing, outside the picturesque seaside town of Eilat, three white doves on a blue background were painted above the gates. Without knowing better I could have believed it.
Behind me, a group of Jordanian taxi drivers leaned against their cars smoking cigarettes, talking loudly and hoicking and spitting just as loudly. The last city in Jordan, Aqaba, which had looked impressive on the drive in, was now dwarfed by Israel’s Eilat and resembled nothing more than a village in comparison. Finally, as if Mother Nature herself was conspiring, an overcast morning ensured most of Jordan was under shadow and cloud and the rising sun beamed a golden path westward towards Israel.
As far as border crossings go I was prepared for a long one, not quite the ordeals of Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia in 2006, but I had been warned. After passing through metal detector number 2 it was time for a bag search. What struck me most about it was not that it happened, of course it was going to, but it was the sense of entitlement that came with it. In Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, my bag searches were always accompanied by a request (or an order) and I was able to unpack and repack myself. In Israel it was,
‘I need your bag,’ and without further ado there she was unzipping, unpacking and swabbing as if it was her own. It took extra long because she was teaching a new employee how the swabbing was done, so she had to pull everything out and swab every inch of the inside and outside of my bag. Finally, as they attempted to stuff everything back in I said I would take it from there thanks very much and repack it myself. At passport control there were the usual questions of why are you here, where are you staying, how much money do you have, can I see your itinerary etc, although my favourite was, as she was flicking through the pages of my passport, ‘Stuart, where is Burundi?’
Eilat is more like a statement than a town. It felt like the Miami of Israel – the beach (if you can even call it that coming from Australia) is lined with bars, deck chairs and bare skin and I even spotted some trendies juggling cocktail shakers on the sand. All over town there are cafés, big name hotels, shiny white buses and even… McDonalds, because that’s why I came to the Middle East! After a week in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Eilat sprang at me like a jack in the box.
From Eilat I travelled north through the Negev desert, past the Dead Sea and over the twisting and turning mountain highway to the holiest of holies, Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, as a non believer, I suffered from a serious case of ‘the Dexters.’ The affable serial killer and family man, Dexter Morgan, often describes himself as having no feelings, rendering him almost non-human. He is easily able to distance himself while others around him grapple with guilt, anger, sadness, despair and elation. As I wandered around some of the most Holy, revered and sacred sites in the world, observing the devout of the devout (or the ‘rich enough to get there’ devout or the ‘lucky enough to be born near there’ devout or the ‘fortunate enough to be allowed in by Israel’ devout) that is exactly what I felt – nothing. I was Dexterfied.
In the Holy Sepulchre, Christians touched their foreheads to, rubbed their hands on and even kissed what is probably by now a very dirty stone slab, some wept uncontrollably after doing so; at the Western wall Jews rocked back and forth like institutionalised mental patients, chanting and whispering – to a giant concrete wall; finally, at the Haram ash-Sharif, Muslims poured over a book they have grown up with their whole lives – surely you would want to read something different, just for a change? Inside their Mosque sat another important rock.
It was such an odd and disconnected feeling to be surrounded by people were so completely and utterly consumed by ‘something,’ unable to control their reactions and so outwardly thankful that they had made their journey to see, touch or feel whatever it was. I reached into myself in an attempt to also feel something, if it was so powerful how could I not? Just like Dexter, there was nothing there. No feelings, a hollow. No piety, no reverence, no overriding thankfulness or urge to worship a long dead person’s name or kiss a rock or recite a prayer.
After bewilderment, my strongest feeling was not fear, but definitely unease. Being around people that devoted to rocks, walls, statues, places where things may or not have happened and where people may or may not have walked, prayed or died was kinda creepy. These are not your fair weather worshippers, these guys are hard core. I guess the history of the world and region is evidence of what they will do to defend those beliefs and the institutions, governments and politics which are intertwined with them.
To finish, let me borrow some words from our Dearly Devoted Dad and Dismemberer, Dexter Morgan, ‘Life is good. I’m not at all unhappy – I’m quite content to go about my life believing in nothing, with no fear that there might be something more out there…’ and so I continued on from Jerusalem, to the West Bank in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – and as fate would have it, my bout of the ‘Dexters,’ would find it’s cure there…