It seems odd to have to prove to Israel’s very nationals why a 23-year-old girl would want to outlive the stresses of her last year in college in their country for the remnants of summer 2012.
Even when their Mediterranean beaches are world famous, their Tel Aviv nightlife rivals many hotspots around the world, their Jewish population combines incredible cosmopolitanism and diversity – Ethiopians, Russians, Colombians, French, etc. — and their land area safeguards places like the west coast of the salty Dead Sea and crystal waters with amazing coral reefs and and marine life just some feet away from the shore of the southernmost town of Eilat, Israelis would still ask me: “So, why Israel?” My best shot at avoiding any crude explanation of my visit there was, “Why not Israel?” But my go-to response for my closest friends or for that handsome Yemeni hookup from Netanya was (and please forgive my young-adult cliché): I am on a quest.
Anyways, if you are, like me, having a quarterlife crisis and are suddenly uprooted from any belief ingrained to you by your parents, church, school, or The Daily Show, you sure will find some ghosts in any corner of Israel to remind you that you have been here before, maybe in some other era, maybe with a beloved someone.
As I serpentined the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, I could only think of how to fathom the extent of memory left behind by thousands of souls before me who have come to this place for forgiveness, for a petition, for power or for glory. Everything is encircled by stony walls puzzled together after war and then reconstructed, to be destroyed and rebuilt once more.
First, you enter the Time Machine — as I call the Old City — through one of its seven gates. You are here: Jaffa Gate. You lift your eyes high to spot the Tower of David to your right hand, but you choose to tread down the straightest road in front of you. David (Al Bazar) Street shepherds all tourists in a line. The tourists soon become prey to loud-mouthed shopkeepers who cat-talk ladies into trying their jewelry for a good price, “just for you.” You wheel slightly right and slip further down until you once again see up: “Wailing Wall.” Make a right. Wait in line past a TSA-style scrutiny, and you are there: the heart of the world. “This is IT?” Your thought interrupted by a pale red-head: “Miss, you have to cover up. Here, this [blue] cloth is free. You cannot go inside like that.” You try to shun that statement given that you’re conservatively wearing loose jeans and a black spaghetti strap shirt, and walk down the stairs into the Blue. The Israeli flag hangs down its pole hiding David’s star in the middle of the Kotel. People here pray: men on the left side; women on the right. You bake slowly and lonely in a hot August afternoon, and then it strikes you: Keep looking.
Second, you trail down the same path as before to the Kotel, but above the crowd and the Wall, you see a ramp. It’s high up. There’s a two-hour line that runs outside the walls of the Old City into it. Do it. You make it past the two hours and the paranoid search of the Israeli security point into the Temple Mount. There. It lies golden in front of you – the Dome of the Rock. You gaze and stare, then gaze again and stare again. It’s too beautiful. Tiles and tiles perfectly coordinated to send you a message – in Quranic Arabic. You don’t understand the words, and you don’t need to. Play a while with a horde of Palestinian children, and it settles: no peace here. Keep looking.
You maze through the country.
The northern port of Haifa lures you high atop the Carmel and prompts a visit to the Bahá’í Gardens – an architectural monument to the Bahái’í Faith – which teaches that all religions (Abrahamic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) come from the same “Source.” You’re amazed to stand atop and follow down some stairs onto symmetrical lines of fresh grass compounds and bundles of kaleidoscopic flower colors inviting you to curiosity. You check the place out: Nope. Not here. Keep looking.
You go a bit Roman and you hit Caesarea, between Haifa and Tel Aviv. (By the way, you’re co-piloting a rented car with three Colombians, an Argentine, and a Chilean to get there from Haifa.) Yet another hippodrome, a theater, a Crusader church, and a desolate minaret all jut into modernity. They rest alongside busy restaurants and coffee shops that welcome tourists to a promenade that leads them to peek at the port King Herod built in honor of Caesar Augustus. All this history just winds away your hopes of relief into the Mediterranean’s sulphuric blue. Keep looking.
Then you arrive. It’s in Tel Aviv. Everything and nothing is in Tel Aviv. What way to torment! Ulises is you, Ulises from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. You settle in Giv’atayim with a sweetheart. Blonde and blue-eyed, he makes you cringe in delight every time. Focus, you! The outskirts of Tel Aviv are just, again, the start point. Scout the city:
Check out “The White City” lengthening Rothschild Boulevard and Bialik and exhibiting Bauhaus architecture brought by German Jews early in the twentieth century. It’s a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization “site.” Eat well and much. You’ll need it to last the night in Florentin, the bar and club area where Hedonism and Debauchery drink and toast to life. Anything goes here. Hipsters welcome. After a full night’s drunken fest, you walk hung-over along the Tayelet promenade, and the dawn’s beachy mist reminds you that you still have to get home in the middle of the Sabbath. No buses run, no restaurants are open, no hope of food or drink to recover unless you get home, fast (because hopefully you’ve stocked up your fridge on Friday).
You’re done with touristy stuff, now on to the nuts and bolts of it. Walk all of Arlozorov all the way to Petah Tikvah, as Ulises did, past Rehov Hamelekh, then back in a circle to Hayarkon Park. Thirst and sweat coach you to the belief that you’ll find it. I never will. I can travel the Ages and stroll the universe with his arms locked with mine; I rush to that moment when I cross the town of Dan, when I rest with him again under the starry sky of Buenos Aires, two years ago. I realize then, it’s never been about Ulises questing for his lover Claudia all over Tel Aviv or about Jerusalem with its timeless spirit of IT or a High spirit waiting for me in Haifa. Bolaño directs me to southern Beersheva for a final encounter with him and the Desert – timeless sage. By late November, my hopes now devoid of sobering guarantees to put this love to rest, and my mind edging on madness, I didn’t go to Beersheva. Peace is there.
Image source: Susan Urrutia, Daily Californian Contributor