The Jerusalem Hills

jerusalem-sataf-view

• Population: 910,300 (804,400 in Jerusalem)
• Foreign visitors per year: 2.5 million
• Main town: Jerusalem
• Languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English
• Major industry: Tourism
• Unit of currency: New Israeli Shekel (NIS)
• Cost index: double room in B&B 350NIS (US$100), bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem 7NIS (US$2.20), bowl of hummus 20NIS (US$5.70), bowl of olives (Free)

WHY GO?
Open Up Your Eyes

Jerusalem may hog the headlines but its surrounding hillside region, aside from Bethlehem, is virtually off the tourist map. Not for long. The new Open Skies agreement between the EU and Israel means that the number of cheap flights arriving from Europe is set for a rapid rise in the coming years. EasyJet, Wizz Air and others have already bumped up their flights to Ben Gurion Airport, 50km from Jerusalem, causing national airline El Al to recently launch its very own low-cost service called UP. This sudden influx of European travellers is sure to bring big changes to this rustic region.
With its high altitude, historic villages and lush forests of cypress, pine and olive trees, the Jerusalem Hills resembles a little Tuscany in the Middle East. Indeed, gourmet restaurants, boutique wineries and chic hotels such as the Cramim Spa Resort have been springing up in the ‘Judean Wine Region’. But here the cuisine is usually served with pita rather than pasta. And word is getting out that some of the best hummus in the world is served in towns like Abu Ghosh.
Geographically, the Jerusalem Hills includes the limestone Judean Mountains (Jibal al-Khalil in Arabic) that form part of Israel and the West Bank. But despite the bad PR, travel to the region has been generally safe in recent years and many are hoping that the tourism boom will bring a peace boom.

LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCES

• Hike in the woodland hills of the Sataf Nature Reserve, home to orange groves, caves and two natural water springs, the size of swimming pools. Nearby, at the foot of Mount Eitan, picnic in style at a gourmet goat cheese farm run by an eccentric cheese maker who resembles Gandalf from The Hobbit.
• View Jerusalem as a giant at Mini-Israel in the village of Latrun, with its realistic replica models of Israel’s major sites, which are great fun for kids. Then sample some wine brewed by Trappist monks at the Latrun Monastery, with its 19th century Byzantine-style church draped in bougainvillea and surrounded by idyllic vineyards.
• Cycle one of the great routes of the world from the town of Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem along a 30km-long dry riverbed valley. The real reward for your efforts is ending the trail at the lofty Yad Kennedy memorial, near the biblical-era village of Ein Karem, offering unrivalled vistas of the seven hills of Jerusalem.

FESTIVALS & EVENTS

• The forests around Jerusalem welcome people to plant saplings for the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, from 4-6 February.
• The Jerusalem Light Festival juxtaposes the famous walls of the Old City with 3D laser shows, huge video projections and luminous installations in the first week of June.
• Bethlehem bursts into life on 24 December as thousands of wise men and women flock to the Church of Nativity to see the grotto where it is said Jesus was born. Whatever your beliefs, it’s a Christmas Eve you’ll never forget.

TRENDING TOPIC
The seductive allure of peace in our time. The ongoing struggle between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US to negotiate a peace deal continues to occupy the front pages. But in this region, peace is not just about words but actions. Volunteers can support a host of coexistence charities working in the Jerusalem Hills. Jews, Muslims and Christians already integrate on a daily basis in towns such as Abu Ghosh and the Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace) Kibbutz, a cooperative village founded by Israelis and Palestinians.

RANDOM FACTS
• The Sorek Caves, a 5,000-square-metre underground network of stalactites, stalagmites and rock pillars, was only discovered in 1968 while quarrying with explosives.
• Bethlehem in Hebrew is written as Beit Lechem, meaning ‘House of Bread’ but in Arabic it is written as Bet Lahm, meaning ‘House of Meat’.
• The new mega mosque in Abu Ghosh, the second-biggest in Israel after Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, was donated by Chechnya, as many residents claim to have Chechen roots.

DEFINING DIFFERENCE
On the way to Jerusalem you may notice your ears pop. This is because the Old City is situated in an elevated position some 760 metres above sea level, meaning the Jerusalem Hills enjoys a slightly fresher climate than the rest of Israel. But don’t be fooled, 300 days of the year, this region still roasts.

REGIONAL FLAVOURS
Think hummus is just a dip? Well, not in the Jerusalem Hills, where hummus is considered as holy as the Western Wall or the Dome of Rock. No town worships this chickpea dish more than Abu Ghosh, dubbed as the ‘Capital of Hummus’ by the Guinness Book of Records (it once held the world record for the biggest portion of hummus, which weighed four tons). Here, hummus is usually served hot, like a bowl of thick soup, with tahini, herbs, pita bread, green olives, pickled cucumbers and finely chopped salads.

Dada is Zed & Other Stories

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Overview – Dada is Zed & Other Stories

Dadaist poet TZ is troubled by a bad dream in Zurich, 1917. Jesus arrives in post-9/11 London without his luggage and tries to survive just 24 hours as an alien. Bob Dukhovny fights to get his 88,133-word Holocaust novel published. And Tom Zimmerman shuffles in and out of reality in a Tel Aviv office.

Lonely Planet author Dan Savery Raz creates tales of alienation and displacement in Dada is Zed – a collection of short stories set in Tel Aviv, London and elsewhere. Aside from the title story, the collection includes ‘Shuffle’, ‘The Guilt of Gindi’, ‘Lost Luggage’, ‘Homeless’ and ‘Rejecting Rejection’.

Dan Savery Raz is co-author of Lonely Planet’s ‘Israel & the Palestinian Territories’ guide and has contributed to other travel books such as ‘Street Food’, ‘Happy’ and ‘Best in Travel’. For more details, see http://www.danscribe.com

“Edgy, smart, and slyly funny, Dan Savery Raz’s stories of bewildered lost souls are pitch perfect. Savery Raz loves his characters and after you read these tales, you will too. A gem of a collection. Don’t miss it.”
Joan Leegant, Author of Wherever You Go and An Hour in Paradise

Dada is Zed on Amazon

Dada is Zed on Google Books

The Last Stanza

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Overview – The Last Stanza

The Last Stanza – An Anthology of Poems from Tel Aviv is the first book from StanzAviv, a creative collective of writers associated with Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University. STANZA members (or ‘Stanzites’) come from Israel, USA, UK, France, Canada, Latvia and beyond.

Israel is a dramatic place and the poetry in this selection is humorous, political, tragic and inspiring. Topics range from seeking refuge, travelling in Africa, war, love, meditations on existence, being Jewish at Christmas, internet banking, waking up drunk on a riverside and more.

Most poems in this ‘Stanzology’ are in English, plus there is a section in Hebrew. The Last Stanza was published in 2011 and the Kindle Edition is available on Amazon.

All profits from this book go to the ARDC (African Refugee Development Center), an NGO in south Tel Aviv that provides shelter, education, counseling and advice to refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.

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Here is the Introduction from the book…

Introduction

Most of us reading this book are not likely to be refugees. We have no idea what it is like to leave a country we love because we may be killed if we stay. We hear the word ‘refugee’ almost daily in the news, but what does it really mean? According to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is: “A person, who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

But, as always when defining groups of people, there are grey areas. Aside from refugees, there are millions of stateless people, people in limbo, returnees and asylum seekers. The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are often confused, but in general an asylum seeker is someone applying for refugee status. The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution goes back thousands of years. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have been forced to find refuge in different parts of the world.

When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, following a wave of immigration after the Holocaust, it was stated that this new nation “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex… and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Today, due to its location and being one of the few democracies in the Middle East, over 1,000 people from troubled African nations try to cross the Egyptian border every month to seek asylum in Israel. Not everyone makes it across.

Those that do make it to Israel, find that it is not some abundantly wealthy Promised Land, but a small country, the size of New Jersey, with 60 per cent of its landmass being desert. Not surprisingly, they endeavor to head north to Tel Aviv. The ones that make it then have to battle with the barriers of bureaucracy, language and finding shelter. This is where the ARDC comes in.

The ARDC was founded by refugees for refugees. It is a small NGO with a humble headquarters on Golomb St, near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv. In many ways, it is a remarkable place. It comprises an office, activity room and a small storeroom where people can get toilet paper, tampons and clothes. Nearby, it also offers shelter for pregnant women, victims of rape and orphans. The ARDC completely relies on the help of volunteers, who often tend to be olim (new immigrants to Israel). Funding is a challenge and ARDC struggles to find the rent for classrooms to teach Hebrew and English. Plans for an ARDC library were, for want of a better word, shelved. So it is fitting that all profits from this anthology will assist the ARDC with its educational projects.

Israel is a country of many languages – Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, Tigrinya (spoken by most Eritrean refugees) and more. It is a land where languages intertwine; on the streets of Tel Aviv it is not unusual to hear sentences in ‘Hebrish’ or ‘Gibberish’. Of course, English is widely spoken between different populations and is the main language of poems in this anthology, which unites some of the best new writers in Israel.

Poetry is a language of its own. Robert Frost famously said that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Readers have their own interpretations of poems and each new reading can produce new interactions. In poetry we encounter a myriad of meanings, unconscious influences and what Roland Barthes would call ‘intertextuality’. Some poems require us to look at the nature of language itself. In Touched with Fire, Jack Hydes said that “Poetry is literature at its best. Sometimes a poem is immediately enjoyable… At other times a poem may be so delicate and subtle in working through a complex idea that the reader has to read it several times before the ideas become thoroughly understood.”

Despite such complexities, poetry can also be universally enjoyed. You do not need to be a student of literature to enjoy poetry. It was on this basis that STANZA, a collective of poets and musicians based in Tel Aviv, was created in May 2009. STANZA events, usually held in a bar, provide a platform for poets and musicians to air their work. Tel Aviv is not short of poets. When STANZA began, poets seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. Perhaps it is Israel itself that inspires such poetry. After all, this land has brought forth generations of poets from the ancient Psalms of David to Israeli poets such as Bialik and Alterman.

Israel is a dramatic place and the poetry in this selection is humorous, political, tragic and inspiring. Topics range from seeking refuge, travelling in Africa, war, loneliness, meditations on existence, internet banking, being Jewish at Christmas, the life of a cat, waking up drunk on a riverside and more. The Hebrew translation of the anthology’s title, The Last Stanza, is HaBeit HaAcharon, which literally means ‘The Last House’. For thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, Israel and the ARDC really is their last point of hope.

Themes of hope, displacement and alienation are commonly found in poetry and there is a wealth of classic poems on refugees including ‘Refugee mother and her child’ by Chinua Achebe, ‘Refugee Blues’ by WH Auden and more recently ‘We Refugees’ by Benjamin Zephaniah, which ends with this verse: “Nobody’s here without a struggle/ And why should we live in fear/ Of the weather or the troubles? / We all came here from somewhere.” Sometimes it is all too easy to forget the words of the last stanza.

Behind the Scenes with a Lonely Planet Author

Desert - Avdat

Desert Discoveries
Behind the scenes with a Lonely Planet author in the Negev

I received the commissioning email from Lonely Planet on January 8th 2009 while the Gaza War was still raging. The good news was that I was selected to be one of the four authors of the new Israel & the Palestinian Territories guide book. The catch was that I needed to go on a research trip through the Negev desert, which was still under fire. Of course, as a travel journalist, this was an opportunity too good to miss. After all, Israel is the land of the Bible and Lonely Planet is the bible of travel.

Before my ‘holy quest’ I downloaded and read the expansive 80-page Author Manual. Lonely Planet authors have to adhere to a strict set of rules – no free meals, no free nights in luxury hotels and no special treatment. Authors travel incognito and are required to personally visit every place they write about, ensuring they get real first-hand travel information, rather than relying on the internet or PR spiels. After reading the manual, I was more than daunted by the task ahead of me. The Negev is by far the largest region in the country, spanning 62 per cent of Israel’s landmass, so uncovering every good hostel, restaurant and Bedouin tent was going to be a challenge. After doing some research on bus timetables, it became clear that there were only two real ways to travel through the Negev – camel or rental car. I went with the latter.

Armed with my blank notepad, laptop and Kibbutznik hat, I left my home in Tel Aviv and set off on the month-long journey in early March. First stop was Be’er Sheva – city of students, soldiers and not much else. My first impression was ‘what on earth am I going to write about this place?’ There appeared to be nothing of interest to travelers, just high-rise apartment blocks and air-conditioned malls.

But the more time I spent in the city, the more I learnt about its fascinating history. Be’er Sheva is mentioned in the biblical books of Judges and Samuel, the hilltop ruins just outside the city at Tel Be’er Sheva date from the early Israelite period and it was the site of key battles during WWII and Israel’s War of Independence. Somehow I had to squeeze five thousand years of history into 250 words. I quickly learnt that the real work of a guide book author was not writing, but careful editing. A few days into my trip I was joined by Yaniv, my cousin-in-law and co-pilot for a week. We drove through Dimona on the way to Maktesh HaGadol, one of three notable craters in the Negev. Yaniv pulled over on the highway to point out the site of Israel’s no-longer-secret nuclear weapons facility. “This whole area is radioactive,” he told me. Naturally, I wondered why a group of schoolchildren were hiking on a field trip so close by.

Continuing south to Sde Boker, we arrived at Ben-Gurion’s Desert Home, kept as a museum since his death in 1973. Inside, photographs of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and a map of Israel provided his inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice the book left lying on the coffee table – N.S. Khrushchev’s memoir on his 1959 visit to America, Let Us Live in Peace and Friendship.

Nearby, while walking around the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research campus I met Ronit Arbel, a student on the MA Environmental Engineering program. After five minutes of talking, I asked Ronit if I could interview her for a new section in the book called ‘Local Voices’. Fortunately, Ronit agreed and was a terrific interviewee. She explained how she studied with Chinese, Kenyan, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Argentinean, Russian, Jordanian and Palestinian students in Sde Boker. She said that water shortage is a unifying global issue and how great leaps were being made in researching membranes and bio-films. It seemed the pioneering spirit of Ben-Gurion, who once called the Negev ‘the cradle of our nation’, was still alive.

Inspired, I went back on the road again. My quest was to find a genuine Bedouin tribe. During my trip I came across a number of Bedouin tents claiming to be ‘authentic’, but they all felt like tourist traps. That was, until I was tipped off that there was a real Bedouin family living off the main highway near Avdat. Pulling into the camp, I was surprised to be greeted by a grey-bearded man called George, a Zimbabwean guide who lives with the Kashkhar family.

Eventually, I was taken to meet the Sheik of the tribe in his tent. Not quite knowing whether to greet him in Hebrew, Arabic or English, I shook the Sheik’s hand and drank the customary three cups of Bedouin coffee as old George explained the history and hierarchy of the tribe. ‘At last,’ I thought, ‘I am sitting face to face with a real desert nomad!’ But then my illusion was shattered when the Sheik’s cell phone rang and he picked up.

desert - mitzpe ramon

Perhaps the biggest revelation of the whole trip was Maktesh Ramon, a 40 km-long erosion cirque, a geological phenomenon. Standing on the lookout, it was impossible to imagine how millions of years ago this giant dustbowl was once an ocean. The Dead Sea may be the lowest point on earth but, in my opinion, Maktesh Ramon should be a contender for one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Often passed by on the way down to Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon is perhaps Israel’s biggest secret. This small town is gradually developing itself as an adventure tourism destination with companies offering cycling, desert buggy and 4×4 trips. The old industrial area had been transformed into a holistic backpacker haven and Isrotel were building a new luxury hotel on the edge of the maktesh called Genesis.

However, I chose to sleep at the peaceful Alpaca Farm, a few kilometers from town, home to over 400 lamas and alpacas from the South American Andes. These docile, multicolored creatures freely roamed around the farm, mingling with groups of visitors. When the farm closed at 6 PM, I was left alone with my new fluffy friends. The Negev has an extraordinary array of wildlife and at Mitzpe I saw an ibex (yael in Hebrew) and a desert eagle. Overall, my stay on the farm was pleasant, except in the morning I awoke to find that my rucksack had been ruthlessly ransacked by mice. The evidence showed that they had eaten my entire supply of bread and Bamba. Although this incident set me back slightly, I forgave nature and was even inspired to write a poem about this ‘farm of harmony’.

I became quite attached to Mitzpe Ramon but there was still so much to see and do. Driving down to Eilat, I listened to Bob Dylan, whose Midwestern songs seemed to compliment the sparse Negev backdrop. Yet, this seemingly empty desert was full of surprises. In the Arava Valley, I found plenty of groundbreaking eco-projects to write about from the self-sufficient organic community of Kibbutz Neot Semadar to the mud houses at Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Ketura. The most outstanding eco-project was the ‘Solar Flower’, a tall yellow tower at Kibbutz Samar near Timna Park. At the time of my visit Yuval Susskind, from AORA, the company behind Israel’s first solar power station; was being filmed by a BBC TV crew. He took time out to explain to me how the ‘Solar Flower’ uses heliostats to track sun rays. I began to see that although well-known for its hi-tech industries, Israel could also be a leader in green-tech.

Eilat and the shores of Coral Beach marked the end of my Israeli odyssey. After so long in the desert, Eilat seemed a bit like Las Vegas, artificial and out of place. Nevertheless, I was happy to be in civilization again, even if it was overpriced.

The next leg of my trip was Sinai, the mystical peninsula that bridges Asia and Africa. I crossed the Taba border at 5.30 AM and just one hundred meters inside there was a notable change of atmosphere. If Eilat felt Westernized, then Egypt felt like a developing wilderness. In Sinai, most of the buses were old, there was no air-conditioning and the Egyptian police carried out passport checks at every major junction.

On the journey down to Dahab, the driver stopped at the East Delta Bus office in Nuweiba, turned off the engine and got off the bus. Just as I was wondering what was going on, I saw him suddenly collapse to the ground, his tired legs simply gave way. He laid face-down in the dust for five minutes until some locals helped him back to his feet. Almost unable to walk, he staggered back onto the bus, wiped the dirt off his face and, to my amazement, continued driving for two more hours!

Now, there is something to be said for traveling alone. At times, isolation increased my paranoia but it also forced me to talk to fellow travelers. In doing so, I found out a lot of useful information. For instance, in Dahab some backpackers told me that the so-called ‘fast’ ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba was actually slower than going overland via Eilat. I met all kinds of travelers in Sinai, from experienced scuba divers to gap-year students. On the sand dune beaches of Tarabin I met Mohammed, a former investment banker from Amman who gave up the rat race to manage a backpacker retreat called ‘Sababa’. He told me that Sinai was still a deeply spiritual place of healing.

The highlight of Egypt was undoubtedly St Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, dating from about 330 CE. The Monastery Museum houses an amazing collection of ancient handwritten books including the Codex Sinaiticus, an early Greek manuscript of the Bible, as well as paintings of the two theophanies – Moses at the burning bush and the Ten Commandments. These two events are at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, so not surprisingly, the site was swarming with thousands of tourists. But then at midday the Monastery closed, all the tour buses left and there was a great exodus.

desert - petra

Across the Red Sea, in Jordan, the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra is another major Unesco World Heritage Site. My wife joined me for this, the last leg of my research trip. After crossing the Yitzchak Rabin Border in Eilat, we took a two-hour taxi ride to Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses). From here, we walked down the Siq, a narrow alleyway that leads to the Treasury, a breathtaking temple familiar with viewers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Out of all the places I visited, Petra had undoubtedly changed the most since the last edition. Wadi Musa had grown into a fully-fledged backpacker hub serving Petra’s overflow; I added five more hostels in the book and could have easily included more. Room rates had almost tripled since 2006 and the friendly locals were clearly making the most of Petra being included in the New Seven Wonders.

On the journey back to Tel Aviv, my luggage was weighed down with hundreds of leaflets, business cards, menus and maps that I had collected. Somehow, I had to turn all this information into a concise guide with accurate maps, as well as make it fun to read. Lonely Planet encourages its writers to be opinionated, but never biased. This creates an interesting dichotomy for the author. For example, whatever I experienced in a place, I had to bear in mind that not every traveler would necessarily feel the same way.

Often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, I wanted to show that Israel was not just the war-zone it is portrayed as in the media. Yes, Israel is a troubled nation but it is also a beautiful country with a unique landscape, history and wildlife. Writing this book gave me the opportunity to visit places I would never have visited otherwise. But more than that, driving through the desert and crossing borders gave me a real sense of freedom and, dare I say, hope for this region.