Saturday, May 06, 2006

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Last night we had Shabbat dinner at Janet's house near Tel Aviv: only a 30 minute drive when the traffic is minimal. Dinner was great and we enjoyed seeing Janet, Abigail, and Ethan, her son who is in the army.

Ethan was home for the weekend from his job in communications support in the armored vehicle corps. He mentioned (fortunately not while we were eating) that the food in the army is not only terrible, but really filthy. During his time on kitchen duty, he saw food served that had just been cleared of cockroaches, or that had just been picked up from the floor where someone had dropped it.

Today we arranged to meet some friends in Jerusalem, around an hour from here including a stop for gas. So you see how small this country is! Again, we chose a day/hour when traffic is minimal, which makes all the difference.

According to plan, we met at the Museum for Islamic Art, whose purpose is "to promote within the Israeli public an interest, appreciation and understanding of the cultural heritage and artistic achievements of the Islamic peoples." The other museum goers -- including our friends -- all did appear to be Israelis, including some wearing kippas (skull caps, mark of religious Jews). The admission is free on Saturdays, so that a person observing the rule against using money on Shabbat would be able to visit the museum, though I couldn't say whether this was the case of any specific other attendees.

The museum included a special display of artifacts from the Berber peoples of North Africa, including Jewish people. The women of these tribes do all the work: they make their jewelry, weave rugs and clothing, cultivate and harvest crops, and so on. The extensive documentation didn't say what the men do.

The woven rugs, blankets, and shawls on display were stunningly beautiful. Many have typical oriental-rug type diamond and triangle patterns, but others are startlingly modern and abstract looking, with beige backgrounds and a few assymetrical geometric lines or patterns in neutral dark colors. Photographs of women showed the use of the massive jewelry in the display cases: breast plates, chokers of inch-high amber beads, amulets to ward off the evil eye, and headbands with dangling beads or hammered metal work. Most women are tatooed with elaborate designs on their faces hands and bodies.

The permanent collections include ceramic tiles, bowls, pitchers, and chess pieces; glass objects, jewelry, and calligraphy on paper or tile. The documentation about the history of Islam in various regions is very informative.

For lunch we proceeded to the American Colony Hotel. The route from the museum to the hotel passed by the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and at one point we could see the Mount of Olives. I was thrilled to see the walls and to see the many people pouring out of the Damascus Gate and Herod's Gate after doing their Saturday morning marketing in the Old City. Plump Arab women in long black gowns with white lace head coverings were carrying new brooms and mops. Adult men with marketing bags, young men in jeans, and teens and children in school uniforms were walking on the sidewalks.

Unfortunately our friend is very uneasy about going to East Jerusalem, of which we were just over the line, and she was very edgy as we drove around looking for the hotel. The fact that we had made a wrong turn and did not exactly know where to go made things worse. Our friends had to inquire, in Hebrew, for directions from several Arab men -- most seemed quite willing to help, though a few were unwilling or unable to answer their questions.

The lunch buffet is extremely nice. A cold buffet has green salad, cheese, ham and roast beef to slice (yes, ham in Jerusalem), smoked and plain salmon, hommos, and every imaginable type of Middle Eastern salad. I especially liked the salmon, the okra in tomato sauce, the potato salad, and the crisp-crusted bread. From a hot buffet I had stuffed grape leaves, rice pilaf, "cigars" (a type of rolled pastry), various meat balls, and some roasted potatoes. I didn't try several casseroles with mushrooms, meat and pasta. I was barely able to taste a few selections from the dessert buffet. We ended with Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom and highly sweetened.

We ate in a beautiful cooling garden with a fountain and an ancient olive tree. A sign on the tree states that it has been there since the hotel was founded over 120 years ago. In the lobby is a list of famous visitors, from Lawrence of Arabia to Bob Dylan, from Ingrid Bergman to Winston Churchill -- politicians, Middle Eastern military adventurers, writers, artists, movie stars.

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