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Biblical Disneyland

In Jerusalem you pray, in Haifa you stay, and in Tel Aviv you play. But what happens when you visit all three? Zia Haq reports.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2010 23:13 IST
Zia Haq

Israel’s three main cities —Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa — are bubbling with the fizz of life. Few conflict-ridden countries are as effervescent. More Mediterranean than west-Asian, Israel has surprises for people who have long seen it as a country at war. Haifa could be Nice by day, and glistening Tel Aviv — the city that never sleeps — Amsterdam by night.

On the wooden deck of Tel Aviv’s revamped seafront, Bayit Banamal, the good times are rolling. Beaches are bustling and restaurants never empty. Mollycoddling couples are lazing around and cyclists are restless. Striptease bars are open until dawn. Paid sex is legal. So, business cards of call girls lie strewn around street corners or on windscreens of cars left in parking lots.

The images blur past surreally, revealing — in less than a kilometre of asphalt — life beyond conflict.

Too much faith has taken too much toll. So Israelis are trying to play up their swank, secular side. “There is trauma in our conscience. And people try to make the most of peace till it lasts,” says filmmaker Sylvain Biegeleisen, whose movies focus on the conflict’s impacts.

In Haifa, an urban oasis within striking distance of Lebanon, it’s much the same story. In its Ein Hod artists’ colony, housing over 90 studio homes, the first installation romanticises an elusive truce. It’s an arched window-gate with combined colours of the Jewish and Palestinian flags.

Is Israel at peace with itself? At comme il faut — a women’s lifestyle hub in Tel Aviv — creativity has breached borders.

Comme il faut (‘as it should be’ in French) has brought Israeli and Palestinian designers together. The result is a striking fashion statement: a kafiya (Muslim headscarf) dotted with Stars of David, the distinctly Jewish religious symbol.

There are stunning exceptions to the conflict. Bearing copies of the Koran and a Hanukka song translated into Arabic, a team of rabbis in November marched to Yasuf, a village near Nablus, to protest an attack on a mosque. “Left to the people, peace is possible,” Biegeleisen says.

Each of Israel’s cities has its own homespun sobriquet: Jerusalem is where you pray. In Haifa you stay, and in Tel Aviv you play.

Tel Aviv is hip, but Jerusalem is Israel’s ponderously pious capital. It’s a Biblical Disneyland defined by fragile frontiers of three great monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The faiths crisscross violently, running within metres of one another. Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven from the Dome of the Rock, next to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Jews believe this to be the destroyed Temple Mount. A little farther is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion.

“Jerusalem for me is magic realism,” says Shifra Horn, a novelist known for her authentic portrayals of the city. “It’s one big museum where history and myths mix and you do not know which is which.”

It is here where Israel’s peace is most tenuous. Every Easter, Armenian and Greek clerics clash over the Holy Fire. And Muslims believe Jews are burrowing beneath Al-Aqsa to build a third temple.

Now, a stylish, secular Jerusalem is cropping up. New-age buildings are competing with 2,000-year-old acrimonious Biblical landmarks. The newcomers may never outdo the old ones, but they have a good chance.

Take, for example, the soaring Chords Bridge, also known as the Bridge of Strings, by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Rising nearly 400 feet above west Jerusalem’s main entryway, it is fast becoming the city’s most famous landmark.

Chic new hotels with bars and rooftop brasseries (a type of restaurant) are for the new-age global tourist. But secular lifestyle is often resisted by Orthodox Jews. They recently stoned a parking lot outside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate because it would remain open on Saturdays — the weekly Shabaat Day when Orthodox Jews shun outdoor life.

Jerusalem shuts down completely on Saturdays. That’s when many youngsters move to Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive, for a night out.

“Because of the conflict, we do not have a good quality of life. What’s better for us than good life and peace,” says Horn, whose next novel could well be about the changing face of Jerusalem.