In Turmoil: Layered tensions in the Holy Land

As we traversed the Holy Land of Israel we slowly began to feel the tensions beneath. My husband captured this beautifully in the poem that I post at the end of this post. Not having inherited such talent I write in prose of the various manifestations of the tensions beneath.
Along the road to Nazareth in North Israel, we saw the ‘Wall of Separation’ with the Palestinian population on the other side. The wall was not continuous and there was limited interaction across the wall. The Israelis consider that this is a requirement for security against terrorists and the Palestinians call this racial segregation. The region had many other markers of racial segregation as pointed out by our tour guide, Dan. In the villages we passed there were houses with white water tanks and those with both white and black water tanks. The houses with only white water tanks were Israeli houses and those with white and black water tanks were Arab-Muslim  houses. The white tanks received water from the local water supply scheme. The black tanks were storage tanks for water. The guide provided us the logic that the Arabs did not trust the government to provide water regularly to them. Hence they build additional storage tanks. The Israelis were confident that the government would provide water and that there would not be any water scarcity. An alternate explanation is that the Arabs mistrust of the government came from prior experience and it probably reflects the conflict ridden and tense situation in which the ‘other’ communities live.
A tour titled ‘The Other Tel Aviv: Culture and Food Tour’ fascinated me and we took this tour with guide Rikki, Abraham Tours. I soon understood why it was called the ‘other’ Tel Aviv! It was not just a tour of Israeli food, but a tour of the refugee communities who lived in the South of the city, an area called Neve-Shaanon. The Old Bus Terminal which was in this area had been moved some distance away, Central Bus Station, but Neve-Shaanon remained a major transportation hub.

The architect who planned this area did not want to create a symmetrical design. He chose to design the streets in the shape of a Menorah, a symbol of Judaism and emblem of the state of Israel. It is an ancient Hebrew seven-lamp stand with six branches. We saw this lamp in the background of a little room in Masada Fort where the scriptures of Judaism were being physically copied. The Municipality is now planning to re-develop this area and the poor owners of these old shops will be given ‘compensation’, but no space to set-up their business again. This is the story of ‘urban development’ projects and the informal economy everywhere in the world. The apparent reason is the fear that these areas are dens of smuggling and drugs. The tension escalates.

Transcribing the Jewish scriptures with Menorah in the background, Masada

As we waited for our guide Rikki we noticed a set of three photos of people named Abraham  who were Christian, Jew and Muslim. What a wonderful way to depict the mixing of cultures in this region. But what we saw on this tour were all the ingredients of conflict though the three religions originated from the same soil, the Holy Land.

 A large refugee population lived here and since rents were lower, so did the student community. We first visited a shop that sold dried fruits and various dried seeds that could be had as a snack or in your morning cereal. The shop keeper did not want to be photographed, we got permission to click the nuts and seeds!!
Refugees from Eritrea formed a large component. We visited an Eritrean Shack, Dhabba in Indian vocabulary. It was a long hall with a canvas roof giving the impression of a tent. The Eritrean Shack had no name as others in the area. But when we pressed him, he called it ‘Chalo’. The Eritrean’s have a coffee ceremony as the Japanese have a tea ceremony. He served us the ceremonial coffee with nuts, incense and popcorn with sugar, Popcorn is served with sugar candy at weddings. Fresh coffee is brewed in a samovar like vessel and served in small cups.

There were three large Television screens and we wondered who would watch three at a time? Rikki explained that the community lived in very tiny apartments, often sharing with others. These shacks become the meeting place for the community. They converge here in the evenings, watch different shows on TV, singing along and drinking coffee with nuts and eating their meals.

‘Chalo’ Eritrean Shack

WI FI at ‘Chalo’

The ‘Chalo’ Shack provided WI- FI facilities to attract and get the customers to stay.  The language of Eritrea is Tigrinya and it is spoken in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, a bordering country. The two countries were locked in a border conflict!

Israel has a ‘Right to Return’ law for Jews all over the world. Ethiopian Jews are welcome in Israel. The Eritreans are generally Christian, so they come to Israel as refugees. There were also a large number of Muslim refugees, but many left for Canada in the recent years. There is a family reunification scheme in European countries. So some refugees were able to move to where their families resided, UK, European countries or even the US. The country also a scheme for ‘Voluntary Return’ to Africa, which according to Rikki is not so voluntary! The refugee population in Israel reduced from 7000 to 4000 with all these efforts, which was hardly 1% of the country’s population. The popular media depicted the refugees as creating conflict and racial tensions in the area and in the country leading to a hostile environment for the refugees.

Next we visited a Sudanese restaurant again with no name. This was however, in an established shop and not in a tent as our previous Eritrean restaurant. The Sudanese refugees have had a sad past in a country faced with genocide in Darfur since 2003. The Sudanese libertarian movement fought the government and the latter began ethnic cleansing of Non-Arab Darfur population. Hundreds of people lost their lives. Refugees escaped across the desert of Egypt. In this conflict ridden region, Israel is considered the only democracy. In 2006 Israel let in the refugees and gave them tickets to go to Tel Aviv, but no further arrangements were made for them. They arrived and settled in squatter settlements in the city. Later some efforts were made by the Israeli government and international NGOs to help settle these refugees. They have still not been given legal status, but are allowed to work informally.

Sudanese Restaurant served chick peas topped with salty cheese & chicken curry,Tasted very Indian!
The main street Nave Sh’anon Street is also known as the shoe street as it was originally a cluster of shoe shops. We visited an Indian store in the area and were served coconut water (from tins, a blasphemy for a Keralite!) and poor tasting Cashew barfi (nothing to beat our Gujarati Kaju Barfi!).
There is a large Sri Lankan and Indian community of domestic helpers, who work as live-in maids in homes of the well-to-do in the city. They have a five and half day working week. They hire apartments in this area as it is cheaper and a number of them live together during the week-end. They stock up food and provisions from these local Indian and other stores and cook together. This is different from the pattern I observed of domestic help in other countries, Singapore and Hong Kong. Domestic workers got one day off and spent it with friends picnicking in parks in Singapore and in garages and other empty city squares in Hong Kong!
Next we visited another Eritrean Restaurant, Shiro, a little more up-market than the one before. Ethiopian beer was available. The Eritrean refugee population was mainly male as the Dictator in the country controlled the media and conscripted young men to the army for life. It was very costly and dangerous to escape. Still the young men paid smugglers and crossed through Sudan, Egypt and the Sinai Desert. In the Sinai desert the Bedouin tribes kidnapped them and demanded huge ransoms from their families in Eritrea. They were released into Israel only after the ransom was collected from the families. These boys spent their lives trying to repay their families for the ransom paid for them to escape.
At the Restaurant, Shiro, we ate injera the Ethiopian/Eritrean appam (Kerala) in a large plate (thali) made from a grain called teff (jawar) grown in Ethiopia. The whole large plate (thali) with vegetables, lentils and meat over it is called injera. Very taste indeed!
Eritrean Restaurant Shiro
Ethiopian Beer
Injera, Yummy
Teff plant and grain
Discussion at Shiro

At the restaurant our group of 3 Indians, 2 South Africans and 2 Dutch had a discussion on racial conflict with our Israeli guide Rikki. According to her the news media projected that there was tension between communities and the original residents were pushed out of this area by the refugees. However, Israeli youth who live in the area due to it being cheaper, are quite friendly with the refugee population according to Rikki who also resides here. In the recent local elections there were two parties, one was pro and the other anti-refugees. The pro-refugee party won the elections if that can be seen as an indicator of acceptance of the refugees. The Israeli government does not issue the Eritreans passports, while the Eritrean embassy will issue a passport after payment of a large tax or a bribe. The Israeli government has set up separate schools for refugees and is accused of racial segregation. Refugees do not have work permits, are informally employed and do not get minimum wages. These informal enterprises are set up by the refugees in ‘partnership’ with sympathetic Israeli citizens. This practice is followed in many countries including the Gulf countries.

Most refugees have been in jail and Detention Centers for long periods. This according to Rikki is to done to make it difficult for them to stay. Israel provides tickets to allow anyone willing to leave to go back to African countries.

Finally we visited a Chinese restaurant. There are many East Asian stores catering to the East Asian population of the area. The Chinese restaurant served genuine Chinese Chinese cuisine, unlike spicy Chinese food in Gujarat. We tasted a delicious Chinese spinach dish.

And so ended our wonderful tour with a close glimpse of the undercurrents and tensions of the land.
Finally I end with a poetic description of the land and its underlying tensions by Rakesh Basant:
Nationalities, Tied to a religion
Religions, Anchored in a location
Search for meaning
In history and folklore
Life in all forms dots the barrenness of the Judean
And celebratesHuman endeavour, perseverance and belief

While paranoia intermingles with

Shifting physical boundaries

And tense co-existence of diverse cultures

Paper wishes stuffed in its crevices
The Wailing Wall mourns
More than the death of the sea
Even as it helps hands reach out to divinity
While feet trample on wishes

That lost the battle for space in the crevices

And are strewn on the ground

Traversing Undulating cobbled roads of multiple ethnicities
That cover ancient civilizations
Cleanses the souls of at least the believers
Just as a float in the Dead SeaAnd a paste of its soil

Cleanses the bodies of the believers and the non-believers alike!


6 thoughts on “In Turmoil: Layered tensions in the Holy Land

  1. An interesting explore indeed. Very well captured Prof Unni. Restaurant to Restaurant, good way of capturing the cultural setting and a daring trip to see the life of refugees. I didn't knew Rakesh sir is so poetic. Give my regards to him


  2. Reblogged this on Unni-Logs-Travel and commented:

    ‘The Other Tel Aviv: Culture and Food Tour’: What an interesting way to attract tourists and engage them with a display of the food and culture of the region. While I live in an UNESCO Heritage City, the city struggles to get footfalls into the old walled city area. This leads to demise of economic activities in the city. A food and culture tour is one interesting way to revive some economic activities in the city. Read on to see how well food and culture are weaved into this tour of Tel Aviv.


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