We decided to go to Israel, and we went. In those intervening three weeks between decision and flight, friends and family warned us, be careful, do as you are told, don’t go where you shouldn’t. Pat read the NY Times headlines. I asked him not to.
A soldier was stabbed in a bus station in Jerusalem, a trio shot in Tel Aviv. I was concerned enough to peruse the US State Department warnings, something I almost never do. Yet short of a Middle East war, the trip was never in jeopardy.
Tel Aviv is a modern city of coffee shops, upscale restaurants, and abundant markets. Had I arrived by parachute, I might have suspected I was in any number of smaller-sized cities in the US or Europe. Then the old town of Jaffa dashes that thought, predating Tel Aviv by roughly 3900 years.
We walk the Jaffa market every day. It is a street photographer’s paradise. An old man repairs a carpet by hand; two others sit on overturned buckets gesticulating wildly over hummus and pita and tiny coffees; two black garbed men with shaggy, gray beards haggle over the price of a trinket.
The call to prayer reminds us that Jaffa is an Arab city. We notice indications of petty, urban crime, but never feel afraid, never question our decision to come.
The second day, a taxi driver picks us up near the Palmach Museum on the farthest side of Tel Aviv from our hotel. I ask him to drop us at Tel Aviv Port figuring we will walk the length of beach back.
“Why Tel Aviv Port?” he asks.
“I want to eat lunch there. Perhaps you can recommend a restaurant.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’ll take you back to Jaffa. The best restaurants in the city are there. Tel Aviv Port is expensive and the food is not so good.”
As we ride to Jaffa he asks if we have been to Israel before. Do we like it? How long are we staying? He assures us, “It is safe here. Not like the US where you can be minding your own business and still be shot. Crime here is very targeted. And not towards tourists.”
I’ve heard this before, the assertion that the United States is a dangerous place with out-of-control gun violence. If all I knew about the United States was the front page of the New York Times or the leadoff story on the nightly news broadcast, I would draw the same conclusions.
As he enters Jaffa, I see our hotel flash by at the end of a narrow street. The taxi driver keeps going as I try to remember the turns through the crazy maze of alleyways. Finally, he stops in front of a mansion overlooking a squalid, debris strewn coastline and just beyond, the Mediterranean. “To get to Old Jaffa port, walk back the way we came for 200 meters and turn left and then right. Follow the shoreline.”
We dine on the terrace, twenty or more tiny salads–the traditional Israeli pre-meal appetizers, freshly grilled fish and vegetables, and the best Israeli red wine yet. The sky is cloudless, the temperature perfect. Unlike other restaurants, the waiters speak little English, but we manage.
As we eat, I contemplate our driver’s final words shouted from the window as he pulled away, “You can walk around Jaffa at any time. There are no problems here.”
Perhaps I am deluded, but in this moment I believe him.
Categories: The Middle East