Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 17 June 2011

Separation Wall, Bethlehem, West Bank

“Why would you want to holiday in Israel?” asked my boss with a discernible snarl as he stood outside an English pub.

“I’m not holidaying,” I retorted obnoxiously. “I’ll be TRAVELLING around Israel AND the Palestinian territories.”

“Well you better watch your back then,” he said, and changed the subject.

We were always at war.

Yet I must admit that though I’d long been curious to see the troubled Holy land with my own eyes, I didn’t want any evidence of the fact in my passport. Having an Israeli arrival stamp makes it difficult, and in some cases, impossible (ie Iran), to enter Muslim countries — which I like to do as frequently as possible.

So when I landed in Tel Aviv airport, I had a blank piece of paper on hand along with my passport. Israel allows foreigners to receive arrival and departure stamps on blank bits of paper – I suppose on the basis that tourist numbers would drop significantly if they didn’t.

A Jerusalem market stall

“Happy birthday!” grinned the young customs official as she flipped open my British passport. I’d set off for Heathrow Airport around dawn, so it was the first birthday greeting I’d heard all day. I was tired and it made me a little emotional – and distracted.

“It was my birthday yesterday,” added the customs official cheerily, then slammed an entry stamp onto my passport before I could proffer the slip of paper (or a return birthday greeting). Fortunately, I own two passports, though of course I didn’t mention that to the plain-clothed customs official who took me aside to question the purpose of my trip. I told her that Israel looked pretty in the travel magazines and that it was my birthday. She let me go, seemingly convinced I was too stupid to do anything but swim in the Dead Sea.

After a couple of relaxing days in the hip beach city of Tel Aviv, I headed north for Jerusalem, where it’s possible to make day trips to the West Bank. I stayed inside Jerusalem’s old city’s walls, in a cheap guesthouse facing David’s Tower. The old city of Jerusalem is extraordinarily beautiful – and so well preserved that its history feels very much alive. I incredulously walked in Jesus’ footsteps along the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “Way of Grief), where he carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion nearly two thousand years earlier. I admired the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and watched Orthodox Jews sway back and forth as they pushed pieces of paper into the Wailing Wall. I watched this curious ritual from an elevated courtyard not far away, and it was there I met an American man who appeared to be suffering from “Jerusalem Syndrome.” According to Lonely Planet, “only a small proportion of tourists are affected by the syndrome – for a week or so they believe they are the next Messiah. After the episode they are reluctant ever to speak of it again.”

Anyone for a dose of Jerusalem syndrome?!

His smile was serene and he sported a long white beard, head-to-toe white robes and a small copy of the Torah. As he rocked back and forth, I asked him how long he planned on staying in Jerusalem.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “For the next two hundred years.” I wished him all the best and made a beeline for the pretty Armenian quarter.

Yet even the most basic tourist activities were mired by tension. After a particularly long day of sightseeing in Jerusalem, I realized that all the shops had closed in the old city and it was now nearly deserted. I was hungry, so I asked two Israeli guards – one sporting dreadlocks — where I could find a café outside the old city’s walls.

“Why did you have to ask them?” shouted a Palestinian shopkeeper as I began to walk away.

The following day I befriended an un-official Palestinian tour guide called Omar. He led me around the old city, and pointed out defaced tri-lingual street signs. The Hebrew and English lettering remained intact, but the Arabic was frequently covered with graffiti, stickers or plain old scratch marks.

As Omar and I took a sunny coffee break on a park bench, an overly concerned (dare I say nosey) Dutch tourist mistook Omar for a pesky tout and asked him to leave me alone. I defended our companionship, but Omar was enraged, and accused her of being an enemy of Palestine. He said she wouldn’t have poked her nose into my business if he were Jewish. The Dutch woman walked away in a huff and Omar was sullen for hours, despite attempts to cheer him with copious glasses of mint tea.

Tower of spice, Jerusalem

Countless other incidents like those described above may explain why I didn’t meet a single “secular tourist” such as myself during the 10 day trip. Everyone else had a strong affiliation with one of the region’s religions, and was therefore on a pilgrimage of sorts. Most frustrating were the busloads of cheerfully loud American Christians, who seemed to arrive at a church the moment I was about to walk in.

Click HERE to read Part 2