EssaysJohn Massaro

Experiencing the Middle East: Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt – part 5

by John Massaro

THE JORDANIANS CALL IT the King Hussein Bridge, the Israelis the Allenby Bridge. At the bus station in Amman they compromise, and if you want to visit what the Jordanians and the rest of the world call the West Bank, but the Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria, you go to the counter marked simply “Bridge.” The mini-bus leaves the station at six in the morning and darts around the city, picking up a few tourists at the big hotels. We drove past what I was told were refugee camps, but a quick glance could not distinguish them from ordinary villages. There was a brief stop at a building where our passports were collected and the usual details written down. Then we left and in a few minutes, without warning, rumbled over the wooden slats of a tiny bridge that didn’t deserve a name, much less the name of a general or a king. Could that creek below us have possibly been the Jordan River? I couldn’t believe we had just crossed the border, even after we pulled up to a low, square building where the driver shut off the engine and we waited in silence. Then a lanky, red-haired soldier with Hebrew lettering stitched above his right breast pocket got on the bus and said, “Good morning, welcome to Israel. May I see your passports.”

I’d been to Israel four years earlier, having flown into Tel Aviv from Athens. Not then, and not on this trip, did I have the kind of bad experience upon entering or leaving the country that the English fellow I met in Aqaba had told me about. Not that any official was really friendly. I looked forward to visiting the old city of Jerusalem again, an enthralling place that throbs with History. After breathing it in again for a few days, I went to the Hertz office in the modern part of town and rented a car for a week. I drove up and down the country and picked up several armed and uniformed Israeli soldiers who were hitchhiking. I chatted with most of them, an enlightening experience that I relate in “The Jewish Factor” chapter of my book. I also drove around the West Bank, under occupation since 1967, spending a night in Nablus, and another in a small town called Sa’ir, near Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city. In Nablus I stayed in a ramshackle hotel with an open air lobby facing the street, where I was sitting with a bunch of Arabs absentmindedly watching television, when an Israeli jeep pulled up. They must’ve noticed the different colored license plates on my car. Two soldiers came barging in but before they could say anything the Arabs pointed at me telling them I was American and it was my car. “You are American?” one of them asked me. “Yes.” “Tourist?” “Yes.” He hesitated, then said, “Have a good trip,” and they both left.

I forgot how we met but somewhere I became acquainted with a young Arab man named Mohammed Jaradat and his cousin. Both spoke good English. I gave them a ride somewhere, and he invited me to stay at his house in Sa’ir where he lived with his parents and younger brother. I accepted the invitation, but first he had some errands to run and some friends to drop in on. One of them ran a souvenir shop in Hebron, which unlike Jerusalem, 25 miles away, saw very few tourists. I saw something in his shop that I really liked – a round throw, about three feet across, with lovely folk embroidery. There were no two ways about it: I wanted this. I asked him if it was hand-woven and he assured me that it was. So he started at $70 and I came back with half that. The haggling and bluffing went on until we agreed on the final price: $45. Seems I hadn’t learned my lesson in Petra. I was happy with myself for driving a hard bargain, and he was even happier. He slapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought me a Coke, even though I don’t drink the stuff. Later that day we stopped at a simple restaurant which Mohammed liked, and had falafel sandwiches. It was only about ten bucks for the three of us, but I picked up the bill because Mohammed and his cousin didn’t offer to pay anything. This man was starting to get on my nerves. On the way to his house we visited three friends of his who ran a hole in the wall auto repair shop. They were curious about me but spoke no English so Mohammed interpreted. They seemed like nice guys. I had my picture taken with them.

We got to Sa’ir before dark, and I met Mohammed’s parents, brother and uncle. The house was modest but cozy and welcoming. His parents were very nice to me, but didn’t speak a word of English. Mrs. Jaradat was wearing a pretty dress embroidered with Palestinian folk design. I hadn’t bought anything, but I felt obliged to give her something so I offered the talcum powder I had in my pack, a rather dumb gift. She smiled and thanked me in Arabic, “Shokran.” Mohammed’s uncle was a cultured man who spoke excellent English, and we had a good talk about politics and the grim realities of living under military occupation. He told me soldiers could come storming into the house any time and arrest everyone for no reason. I told him I was much more aware of the situation than most Americans, and was learning even more now. “And what will you do when you return home?” he cynically added. “You will do nothing.”

Early in the morning I stepped outside, just to greet the new day. An Israeli armored vehicle, which appeared to be on routine patrol, came trundling down the narrow lane. A soldier leered at me but the vehicle kept going. Later, I walked through a market in Hebron, where I remember seeing the neck and head of a camel dangling from a hook, and also an Arab shopkeeper watching in sullen silence as two young Jews, probably from New York or Miami Beach, dressed in gym shorts and yarmulkes, and strapped with Uzis, wandered around. I thought of the constant tension these people live with, when they’re not unjustly arrested and thrown into prison, not to mention when their houses are bulldozed or their crops torn out. Ten years later, on February 25, 1994, the day of Purim that year, a Jewish doctor and settler from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, walked into a mosque in Hebron and shot dead 29 Arabs, wounding 125, before he was grabbed by survivors and beaten to death.

Mohammed managed to squeeze a few more favors out of me the next day. His “hospitality,” though not that of his kind parents, came with a price tag. I was fed up with being his personal chauffeur, and at the first opportunity to get rid of him and his cousin while concealing my true feelings, I got rid of them. His last words, spoken to me with an insincere handshake, were “Remember us, Johnny.” Twenty-nine years later, in 2013, while reading about the facts on the ground in the Mideast on an alternative news website, since they’re censored by the Jewish media, I learned that a Rafat Jaradat from Sa’ir, age 30, was found dead in an Israeli prison. It makes you stop and reflect.

To give you the whole picture, I’m sure that not all and perhaps not even most Israeli soldiers who are assigned to the occupied territories are cold-blooded murderers, though some certainly are. Probably most of them don’t even want to be there, and would avoid military service if they could. I once read the account of a Palestinian prisoner in a detention camp who witnessed a violent argument between a soldier who enjoyed torturing Arabs for sport and another who was outraged by his behavior. During the most recent aerial massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, some Israeli pilots refused to take part, calling their then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a terrorist, which he is, of course. But personally, I see no hope of Jewish nature changing so that anything like peace will come to the Middle East.

After dropping the rental car off I strolled around Jerusalem. In a souvenir store display, I saw the same coverlet I had bought in Hebron for $45 – I mean the same exact thing – selling for $12. No wonder that bastard was so thrilled with that sale! This also meant that these items were not woven by hand, but mass produced. But it was still very attractive to my eye, so I bought another one to give to my dear Aunt Rose, who was always fascinated with my travels and loved to hear my stories. That Christmas Eve, as was the tradition, our families got together for a large gathering and I brought the throw to give my aunt. I regaled everyone at the dinner table with the Tale of the Two Throws, which ended with laughter all around when I told my aunt, “I’m giving you the $45 one.”

Before preparing to leave the country, I took one last walk through Jerusalem’s old city, which is surrounded by a wall of two and half miles going back to biblical times, but rebuilt over the centuries after earthquakes and wars, the last construction being completed in the sixteenth century, so it still looks quite ancient. Jerusalem will always be a unique and magical place in my mind. How much has happened there in the last 2500 years! Walking past the many Arab shops and stalls, catering mostly to tourists, I saw some nice waist-length winter jackets of thick wool – quality stuff. As I said, I’m happy to pay someone a fair price, but this haggling business with Arabs, always playing head games, gets to me. But here you are, you have no choice, unless you don’t mind getting fleeced. So he starts with $70, I come back with $20, figuring I’ll pay $35 tops, having no idea what his cost was, and here we go. After the usual back and forth he makes it clear that $50 is his final price, end of discussion. I insist on $40, a little more than my original ceiling. “You want it for free?” he says sarcastically. I suspect that it’s the usual psyche job I’m accustomed to by now, but I’m not sure. “Forty,” I say, standing firm. No dice. I walk away, thinking he’ll call me back like the dagger guy at Petra. He doesn’t. I keep walking and nothing happens. I walk until I’m almost out of sight, and now I know, or I think I know, that $50 is a fair price, that he’s not going to laugh behind my back when I’m gone. I go back, pay him $50, and take the jacket. Him, no smile, no thank you. I’ve had that jacket for 37 years now. It still looks sharp, but I only wear it when it’s very cold out and I dress up. It still fits perfectly, and man is it warm. It was worth every penny.

I took a bus to Haifa, Israel’s main port city, where I bought a ticket for an overnight passenger ferry on the Poseidon Lines to Limassol, Cyprus. The ferry stopped running in 2001. Cyprus is a large island in the Mediterranean which is Turkish in the north and Greek in the south. A longstanding territorial dispute erupted into war in 1974 The Greeks and Turks still have no love for each other, but the island has been peaceful since the late seventies. Adding to the drama, however, is that many Lebanese, fleeing the Christian-Muslim conflict and the periodic Israeli aerial slaughters of civilians in Beirut and other cities, have settled in Cyprus. Lebanese, probably more than from any other Arab country, have emigrated around the world and established successful businesses.

In those days I never stayed in a hotel above the one-star level, but despite trudging through the streets of Limassol I came across nothing that looked cheap. I gave up and decided to check out a hotel that probably rated two stars, nothing fancy. There were some newspapers and magazines scattered around the lobby that were printed in Arabic, so obviously Arabs ran the place. The receptionist told me it was $40 a night, which was way over my budget. I asked him if he knew of anything cheaper, and he told me that there was no such thing as a cheap hotel in Limassol. Reluctantly, I gave him $40, he gave me a key, I washed up and left my pack in the room, grabbed a free map and some tourist literature from the rack, and hit the streets. Before long, I saw two modest hotels on a quiet side street. I walked into one and inquired about the price for one night. It was $14. I told them I’d be back. This time I was furious. Still stinging from that $45 I’d paid for that couch cover, I marched up to the desk and told the receptionist that I was fed up with constantly being lied to by “you people,” told him I was leaving, and demanded my money back. I hadn’t used anything in my room except for a towel. He stood there stone-faced for a few seconds, then without saying a word he opened the cash register and refunded my payment.

* * *

Chronologically, Egypt was the last Arab country I visited, in 1990, not counting the peculiar United Arab Emirates in 2016. Morocco, which I’ve written about elsewhere, because it deserves its own chapter, was the second to last. I’ll tell you about Egypt here, which I visited four years after Morocco. I had expected hassles galore in Egypt, especially after the Moroccan experience, and also since it sees so many tourists, or used to anyway. It was always my observation in Europe that the more tourists there are, in Paris or Florence for example, the more they’re sized up as cash cows and the less they’re liked. But Egypt wasn’t like that at all, not even teeming, chaotic Cairo, the Arab world’s biggest city, and before Covid, swollen with foreign visitors since it’s so close to the Pyramids. Yes, there was some haggling over stupid things, even bottled water, but I didn’t have a single unpleasant confrontation in the country.

I did the usual sightseeing thing in Egypt, north to south. The one main road hugs the Nile River, which flows deep into Africa. From Cairo I took an overnight bus to Luxor, a distance of 400 miles. It was one of those mid-size buses with about 25 seats. I was asleep in my seat around 2 AM when I was wrenched awake and heard screeching: the bus was swerving out of control. Has this ever happened to you? It happened to me once before on I-90 in South Dakota, when a man who had picked me up hitchhiking fell asleep at the wheel around dawn after driving through the night. What goes through your mind, compressed in three or four seconds, is, this vehicle might overturn and I might be seriously injured or killed. There’s nothing you can do but ride it out. Well, the bus did not flip over. The driver regained control and we were rolling again. I suppose a stray camel might have wandered onto the road, but more likely he fell asleep.

Taking a cruise down the Nile is the thing to do in Egypt, and I wanted to do it. I’d looked into trips by felucca, a small wooden sailboat that accommodates seven or eight, steered by a local who also cooks meals on board, but I had a hankering for a little more comfort for a change. There were about fifteen cruise boats of different sizes and classes tied up at the dock in Luxor, and I approached one, smaller than the rest, where I saw crew activity. It was one of those “boutique” type vessels, not my style, but hey, just this once? The captain was accessible. They were leaving that afternoon, sailing all the way to the famous huge rock-cut temples in Abu Simbel, just north of the Sudan border, four days and three nights, pretty much the standard cruise. I asked him if there were any empty cabins and he said yes. I offered him $150; I was prepared to pay twice that much. I was amazed when he immediately agreed. It was cash in his pocket that his company would never know about, and that’s a lot of money in Egypt. The cost included all meals served buffet style on board. This was an absolute steal – a joke, really. I say steal, but nothing was stolen. The company lost nothing, I won, the captain won, and the guide would get one more tip. It was win-win-win.

This was a swanky Abercrombie & Kent tour, the only time in my life I’ve ever traveled in pure luxury. Two separate groups, about thirty people altogether, had booked it. One was a bunch of queers from New York; they didn’t flaunt it, but anyone could tell. The others were Australians, who seemed to lead affluent and sheltered lives, but they were okay to hang out with for a few days. Rafiq, the guide, was a soft-spoken family man who seemed very uncomfortable around the boys, keeping his distance from them the whole time, as did the Australians. We stopped several times to visit this and that ancient temple. Each time we stopped, vendors descended on us, aggressively hawking souvenirs, which happens everywhere in poor countries. Just people struggling to make ends meet, but the boys weren’t used to it and didn’t like it. “I hate when they do that,” one of them squealed.

I must say, I really enjoyed this cruise. I saw several feluccas each day, and was glad I wasn’t on one. We had a much better view of village life on the river bank from high up than you could possibly have at water level. I had my own room and bath. A canopy shaded us from the hot September sun and the air conditioning blasted out onto the open deck. The food was excellent. There was an open bar. What a deal.

Since the road ends at Aswan, about the halfway point of the cruise, I flew from Abu Simbel back to Cairo, and two days later flew out of the country. I liked Egypt, and had a much easier time there than in Morocco which, nevertheless, is more fascinating. But if you had limited opportunities in your lifetime to travel, and could only visit one or the other, which would I recommend? Hmm. Apples and oranges, I suppose.


* * *

Source: End the Shots

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