Jerusalem is a crazy place, and not only because of the well documented Jerusalem Syndrome: a phenomenon where foreign visitors suffer psychotic delusions, believing that they are figures from the Bible – Jesus himself, or the Virgin Mary.
Israel’s health ministry records around 50 cases a year (!) where a tourist’s delusions are so strong that police or mental health professionals are forced to intervene. Many more incidents go undocumented on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.
So I went there last weekend, for four busy days as a mid-season break, with some welcome sunshine and temperatures that made me forget about the dark days of November. I had no time to prepare and draw an itinerary. All I knew is that I was in for some sunshine, chickpeas and a place like no where. So I took the passenger’s seat – quite literally – and let the locals take the lead. The Lord and I were very lucky, as we were guests of two friends, both diplomats, who took us around and let us travel seamlessly through the Jerusalem and its neighbours.
In the space of few days, we were exposed to a very different world to the one we are used to. If where we live danger is represented by cars and domestic accidents, there things take a different level.
The best way to capture what we experienced, is by impressions, themes and places.
First the queue. Arriving at the airport means passport check, which takes a long time. I have a particularly large share of bad luck when it comes to picking the queue, and we ended up in a very slow one. Luckily I also have sharp elbows, I haven’t turned into a Brit yet and jumping the queue doesn’t make me feel ashamed. The first similarity with Italy.
Religion. Jerusalem is like the Disneyworld on steroids of all religions, and I hope no one gets offended, but no place in the world represents the three major monotheistic religions in such proximity. Jerusalem is a disputed city under military surveillance that attracts faith, hopes and spirituality, but also a special kind of madness. It is mad approaching a sacred place and having to go through security checks. It is mad that the most sacred places are treated as a canvas for selfie sticks and that plastic bags, iPhones and tacky “made in China” items are rubbed against anything that is a sacred symbol.
Weapons. The soldier patrolling the street is a 21 year old girl who carries a massive rifle and takes a selfie, looking fierce and sexy. It is mad that I can walk around and pass smoothly through checkpoints because I am sitting in a car with a diplomatic number plate, while the lovely man called Sami, who was our guide in Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity cannot leave his city, leave alone his country, and that for certain groups of Palestinian is nearly impossible to pass through the checkpoints.
Divisions. Not only religious but territorial. Israel is divided into regions, “Area A” (larger cities under Palestinian Authority control) and “Area B” (smaller villages that are, in simplified terms, under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, sharing Palestinian and Israeli security control and includes the vast majority of the Palestinian rural areas), and “Area C,” the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control.
The Med. Jerusalem reminded me of Italy, of the Mediterranean all together and for that very simple reason, I felt at ease.
People. With the exception of the kind guide Sami, everyone I met was two things: expat and strong-minded. Amongst them an American young lady who just resigned from her job at the Embassy, as she doesn’t want to work for the Donald.
Peace and olive trees. We went for late lunch to Hosh Jasmin, an organic farm and restaurant set on a hillside in the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala. Great food, relaxed service – maybe a bit too relaxed for our habits – and beautiful setting, overlooking the valley. We had a drink in the garden and then moved to the restaurant’s porch overlooking terraced olive groves and winding paths and valleys. It was peaceful, you would never guess a checkpoint is only a walking distance away. A large group of Italians was having a family gathering inside and spent the afternoon eating and singing.
Food: it is a bit like boarding the chickpea express, and I was pleased to discover that the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi are difficult to achieve even there, where allegedly all ingredients should easily be found at the market. He wrote a book called Jerusalem, but even the locals find his list of ingredients too long and challenging to source.
The Book: Jerusalem: the Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Montefiore takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation. Now that the peace process appears to have finally collapsed, Montefiore’s book indicates that the Jerusalem syndrome of the comparatively few may well affect us all.
Verdict: I will be back. Next time I would also like a flavour of Tel Aviv.