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Sep. 24, 2020
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Middle East journey filled with the unexpected

By Pamela A. Keene 
 
Lakeside Senior Reporter Pam Keene and her husband Rick Fulgham spent three weeks in the Middle East recently. They visited Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Here is the first of her two reports.
 
When friends found out we were headed to the Middle East right after Christmas, the first thing they asked was: Why? The easy answer was it was a chance to learn more about this age-old part of the world, to look back at its long history and perhaps to learn more about the prevalent unrest there. What we found was much more complex, exposing us to ancient kingdoms, modern history, and many people who have the same hopes and dreams we do.
 
I had been to Israel, Palestine/Bethlehem and Egypt 20 years ago, but this trip was a first for Rick. 
We arrived in Tel Aviv Airport after dark and were met by our driver. He navigated the highways, soon crossing the border into Palestine, where the scenery abruptly changed: buildings lying in piles of rubble, stacks of discarded car carcasses, streets – if you could call them that – rampant  with potholes, no traffic lights. Our driver got lost three times before finding our hotel. 
 
Although we had a rocky start, going to Palestine helped give us a more complete picture of this part of the world and the depth of the people, the places and the struggles that have long plagued this part of the world. For centuries three religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – have been forever entangled. We had a 360-degree living view of four countries tightly connected and intertwined in our three weeks of travel. 
 
Our time in Palestine exposed us to the rawness of the countryside that’s mostly desert, hillsides with rows of gray-green olive trees and centuries of religious and cultural history. Our Palestinian trip leader Abi had earned his graduate degree in Biblical history. He skillfully wove a tapestry of Old and New Testament history with modern-day Palestinian sites in a country where Muslims, Jewish people and Christians all live together, sometimes not peacefully. 
 
We visited the ancient sites well-known from the Old and New Testaments, including the Mount of Temptation where Jesus was tempted three times by Satan before beginning his ministry. We saw the Shepherd’s Field, where at Jesus’ birth the shepherds’ journey to the manger took place. We visited Hebron on the West Bank, the site of the Sermon on the Mount, Jericho and the settlement of Battir with 4,000-year-old stone terraces that still serve as the city’s irrigation system. 
 
Faith on display
Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, lies within the borders of Palestine, despite the recent answer on Jeopardy quiz show that said Bethlehem was in Israel. We visited there five days after Christmas, where the mixture of Christianity, Judaism and Islam was evident in a surreal sort of way. Manger Square is bordered by the Church of the Nativity on one end and a mosque on the other. Partway between, a 30-foot artificial cone-shaped Christmas tree stood with bright red and gold ornaments. A nativity scene at the base of the tree was a focal point for many selfies taken by people who seemed by their dress to be of all three religions.
 
At noon, the Islam Call to Prayer pierced the air in Manger Square over loudspeakers mounted on the nearby minaret a kind of shock to my system as the voice blared out sing-song words I didn’t understand. Our trip was filled with these types of juxtapositions, which as an American drew my attention to the vast differences between the people who live in this part of the world.
 
As we interacted with people along the way, however, it was evident that the citizens in the Middle East, no matter their religion or nationality, were welcoming and receptive to our being there.
We found some unexpected connections in Palestine, where we lunched one day on roasted chicken and oversized taboon bread, served with olive oil and thyme. The hand-crafted fresh humous was also amazing. Humous and taboon bread became a staple of mine for most of the trip. 
 
Outside the building ancient Roman columns stood to remind us that the country had once been part of the Holy Roman Empire. To our surprise, when we drove up, a huge white disk – probably eight feet in diameter graced with the trademark A of the University of Alabama – greeted us. 
 
What a great conversation starter with the owners, whose nephew was currently playing for the Crimson Tide. They, of course, were following US college football, especially in 2019, when Alabama played Clemson for the National Championship. 
 
Our time in Palestine also included a visit to a Jewish settlement, where ex-patriot Jewish people from the United States and other parts of the world, created their own oasis inside the borders of Palestine. The modern village with brick homes looked British, with well-groomed front lawns and flower gardens. 
 
We spent about an hour in conversation with one of the senior members of the settlement, who tried to explain how people living in the settlement had reached out to the neighboring Palestinians to initiate blended sporting events as a way to build bridges between them. However, because of the long-standing mistrust between the two cultures, the program was not successful. Several members of our group expressed their skepticism and doubt, making for an “interesting” exchange and even more follow-up conversations among our group as our travels continued.
 
Border crossing
As we journeyed into Israel, we got our first experience with the complexity of border crossings. Israel is separated by a large concrete wall; crossings between countries are strictly regulated. Armed guards at barbed-wire ringed checkpoints carefully inspected our drivers’ documents and used mirrors to inspect the undercarriage of our vehicle. 
 
Israel’s travels began in the young city of Tel Aviv, founded 70 years ago. There our Israeli trip leader Sharon shared modern-day history, even recreating a tableau of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to show us how it happened. Rabin Square contains markers showing where Rabin, his security guards and the assassin were standing on November 4, 1995. It was moving and revealing as members of our group stood on the various markers reenact that day.
 
We explored the seaside city of Jaffa, visited the Sea of Galilee and the port at Caesarea, built by Herod the Great. He was considered in his day to be progressive, constructing fortresses and cities. However, his legacy instead was the death of hundreds of infants in his attempt to kill the King of the Jews when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 
 
Three days before we were to board our ship at the port of Haifa for the Suez Crossing, we learned that a major storm was brewing in the Mediterranean. The captain decided we would leave Israel a day early to try to beat the worst of the storm. As such, our Suez Crossing was moved up one day, which required approval by the Egyptian authorities who own and manage the Suez Canal as a major economic driver for the country.
 
Suez Crossings are strictly scheduled. Every vessel travels in a procession of sorts, typically around 20 to 25 in each direction that depart at approximately the same time from each end of the canal. They pass in the middle, using a newer part of the canal that actually separates the two lines of vessels from both occupying the full width simultaneously. All passages are scheduled weeks and sometimes months in advance.
 
The trip down the coast of Israel to Port Said took place overnight, so we slept through 8-foot seas and 40-knot winds. Some of us had dinner, but many of our fellow travelers missed both dinner and breakfast: seasickness took on a whole new meaning. 
 
Our arrival just after dawn in Port Said was a welcome relief; our ship hovered behind the breakwaters where the winds and the seas were more calm as we waited for other scheduled vessels to arrive to begin the Suez Crossing. By late that afternoon, we were on our way to Egypt and the Red Sea.
 
Next month: The journey continues with Egypt, Jordan and The Old City of Jerusalem.

Posted online 1.30.20
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