Sometimes we traverse a long, convoluted road through hostile territories of our own making. And sometimes this road grows longer with every step we take along it; the road winds endlessly through hills and gullies without clear direction, without horizon. Ironically, this infinite path invariably leads us right back to where we started.
And so we arrived in Ben’s childhood home, Haifa.
We took the train from Herzliya, and Ben’s relatives collected us from the station. Itai and Gadi, brothers, live most of the time in the Northwest Territories of Canada, but they were in Israel to help care for their parents (Ben’s grandparents), Assad and Marilla, for a few months. Good timing on our part! Though we could not stay with Ben’s grandparents in Tiv’on (a suburb of Haifa) due to my cat allergy, we stayed with some neighbors who were kind enough to open their home to us for a couple nights.
The next few days involved a lot of family time which, while much welcomed, does not make a very good narrative. So I’ll skip over many of the details except to say that it was quite enjoyable to meet a portion of Ben’s family I had not met during the previous 8 years of our relationship. Their personal histories are colorful and varied, and their presence in Israel dates back prior to statehood.
Ben provided me with an abbreviated walking tour of his hometown. We climbed the hill to Elijah’s Cave, and were rewarded by a panoramic view of the city and coastline. We stopped by the Baha’i Gardens (which were closed), and marveled at the immaculate landscaping so lovingly tended there. We even strolled down the street where Ben lived as a child, though as is always the case, much had changed. You can never really go home.
A storm rolled in from the Mediterranean while we were there, sending sheets of rain and gusty winds into Haifa. We decided to spend a night out in Akko, the ancient port city perched on a peninsula just north of Haifa, to revel in the storm. Gadi drove us there via an unintentionally circuitous route through the northern Israeli countryside. We arrived to a dramatic scene: rain and wind battered the city, and the storm surge slammed against the ancient city walls, sending water well over the 20-foot ramparts. The normally calm Mediterranean seethed and roiled, a dark grayish green instead of its usual sapphire blue. Gadi wandered the city with us for a couple hours, taking photographs and dodging seawater.
Akko is comprised of an Old City and a New City, much like Jerusalem, and is of almost equal historic importance. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the regions and, much like Jerusalem, has passed through many hands. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, and now Israeli. It provided a key strategic port for each of these civilizations, and as a result the Old City is heavily fortified. The sea and fortress walls surrounds the city on three sides, and the land-access fourth side to the north is protected by a double wall and a moat. It is a beautiful city, and now hosts a population of about 46,000. Of these, 67% are Jewish, 25% are Arab Muslim, Arab Christians are almost 3%, and other minorities (such as Baha’i and Druze) make up the remaining 5%.
Ben, Gadi and I took an underground stroll through the Crusader Tunnels, which provided protected access from the seawall to the fortress during Crusader times. We then traversed the fish markets to pay a visit to one of the best hummos restaurants in northern Israel. With full bellies, Ben and I went to check in at our hotel, and Gadi drove off through the deluge back to Tiv’on.
That evening we spent playing shesh besh (backgammon) at a coffee shop, smoking sheesha and drinking tea. The shop was a local den, and a lively scene. Arabs and Jews smoked and drank tea together, talking in half Hebrew and half Arabic, much like our Spanish/English “Spanglish” at home. Hebric? Arabrew? Anyway, it was nice to see everyone getting along, and nobody looked at us sideways for being tourists in a local coffee shop. Though there are certainly ethnic tensions in Akko, there were none in the coffee shop that night.
The next day we toured the Old City in slightly better weather, visiting the Crusader fortress and the wall museum of modern Israeli history (it is located inside the city’s northern wall), wandering the northern beaches in search of shells, and occasionally seeking refuge from a passing downpour. In the afternoon we caught a minibus back to Haifa, and another bus out to Tiv’on. Gadi, Itai, and Allestine (Itai’s wife) drove with us to Nazareth, where we would spend the night to catch yet another bus to Amman, Jordan in the morning. Our trip was almost over, and Amman would be our last stop before our long flight home.
Nazareth was a festive town, as would be expected from its Christian history. Christmas lights, wreaths, Christmas trees, and the usual trimmings of the Christian holiday could be seen everywhere. They were just concluding a Christmas festival, which draws thousands of Christian pilgrims every year.
The town has also emerged in a more secular way as one of the culinary centers of Israel. Many chic restaurants can be found among its winding hilly streets, serving everything from Asian fusion to traditional Arab fare. Most places require reservations on Friday and Saturday nights, but we were lucky enough to squeeze into a table before a reservation party’s slot. We ate at a Middle East fusion restaurant, and while Ben and I ate traditional Arab kofta (delicious), the others enjoyed dishes from eggplant to lamb chops to hummos.
After driving around for some time looking unsuccessfully for our hostel (it is much more efficient to walk when in the old cities, due to narrow roads, one-way streets, and pedestrian-only thoroughfares), Gadi, Itai and Allestine said goodbye to us on the street. Despite the steep rates (apparently Christian pilgrims pay a heavy price), we found an affordable guesthouse and settled in for the night, preparing ourselves for the return to Jordan the next day. Assuming, that is, that they would allow me entry after our previous Jordanian border adventure…