Friday, October 18, 2013

A journey through Istanbul, Amman, Jerusalem and Dubai

While I have visited most of all these places over the last decade, this time traversing through in a contiguous fashion opened my eyes to a new perspective. While like any travel blog, I have tried to capture for myself, memories for posterity but what I also came away this time with is that notion of peace in the middle-east is a bit of fallacy and unlikely to be achieved in our life times. To appreciate the idea, it is critical to understand the contemporary history of the area that highlights how the Arabs are their own worst enemies.

A quick primer on the history of what we call the middle east...from Morocco in the east to Iran in the west, Turkey in the north through Yemen in the south. A region comprised of 3 groups of people, Arabs, Persians and the Turks. I am sure they could be further sub-divided but for the sake of the primer lets assume these 3 groups of people. My window of this primer is about 100 years going back starting with Abdullah I the son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca in the Ottoman empire. A politically savvy and self serving character who positions his father the Sharif to get elected as a grand Sharif of Mecca with the help of the Brits. Some key dates and events;
1910 - Abdullah I gets his father Hussein Bin Ali appointed/elected/selected to be Sharif of Mecca with the support of the British. This ensures that as the direct descendant of the prophet they will control the holiest shrine.
1921 - Abdullah I becomes King of Transjordan an area that includes current day Israel, Jordan and parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Abdullah I appears to be playing the British against the Ottoman that leads him to the crown, but at the same time is playing Arab leaders to gain independence from the British mandate of Palestine post WWI. As part of this it is believed his brother with T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia fame) inspire an Arab revolt between 1916-18.
1937 - Peel Commission that is established in response to an Arab general strike recommends the Palestine Mandate to be split 80-20 between Arab and Jewish. While the Arab's in general reject it summarily, Abdullah I cuts a deal with the Zionists that he will support a Jewish state and take care of the Palestinians. A striking example of how the Jordanians sabotaged a Palestinian state from the get go.
1946 to 48 - Jordan and Israel becomes independent. Arabs go to war with Israel. The Palestinians feel betrayed by Abdullah I and assassinate him in Jerusalem (Al Asqa Mosque) in 1951.
1967 - Israel reneges their deal with Jordan and occupies large chunks of Jordan including the West Bank & Jerusalem.
Today - The quest for peace continues.

In this historical context, combined with the Palestinians not really having a charismatic leader (apart from Arafat), betrayed by their own, the inability to unite as a people and the US blowing hot & cold over time drives my thinking that Palestine as an independent state is a pipe dream. While this is a prism of the larger issues in the area that shines light on the crisis in Syria or Iraq, it reiterates my notion that  peace in the middle-east is a fallacy and unlikely to be achieved in our life times.

Istanbul, Turkey (PICTURES)
This was really a combination of a couple long layovers. On these occasions I got down to the Sulthanahmet area that boasts of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Grand Bazaar. The journey from the airport to the Sulthanamet area is best traversed by Metro/Tram as it is easy and hassle-free. The metro is below the airport and is the starting point. You get on it to Zeytinburnu where you change to a tram to Beyazit (Grand Bazaar) or Sulthanmet (Blue Mosque), all accomplished in 45 minutes on some of the best mass transit in the world. It was clean, safe and on time. A far cry from catching cabs in Istanbul. Cabbies worldover are godless souls....Instanbul cabbies in particular lead that category. They will overcharge you, drive like maniacs and while happily chatting away in English conveniently forget to speak English all of a sudden come time for you to pay them. Take the Metro & will do yourself a favor.

The Blue Mosque continues to be a magnificent site, no matter how many times you see it. What strikes me even more than the magnificence is that it is one of the only important mosque's around the world where non-Muslims are allowed in & I am glad for it as the inside can not be has to be experienced. I tried to capture some of it in this video.

The Grand Bazaar was closed due to Eid, but the stores outside were generally open but less interested in commerce. When I tried to bargain over some lovely looking ceramic, I was shown the way out rather quickly. The alleys were quiet and peaceful, most un-Istanbul like. Locals and Visitors alike were wandering around aimlessly. I partook in some of the local cuisine but was not thrilled. I remember street food being particularly delicious around here...not this time I am afraid.

Folks in Istanbul are very keen on knowing where you are from...a tedious exercise really, since no matter the answer they are likely to try to sell you something awfully why not just cut to the chase. It is 8.30am and I am trying to capture the Blue Mosque through the fog, hoping to get the Blue of the dome. A young local lad walks up to me;
Turk - Where you from?
Me (irritated from lack of sleep) - Why?
Turk - India, Pakistan?
Me - What do you want?
Turk - You want beautiful pictures of the Blue Mosque (flips open a stream of postcards of the various sites in town)
Me - What the $@*% do you think I am trying to do here?
Turk - Mumbles something in Turkish as he walks away....I imagine he is telling me where to put my camera!

I love to make friends with local tauts all over the world....I find it particularly relaxing. Try it.

While my shopping in the Grand Bazaar area is a bust, ironically what I want I find at the airport for a price less than what I was targeting and of better quality. Perhaps you should just stay in the airport ;)

Amman, Jordan (Oct 4-16, 2013) PICTURES
It is 3.30am when I land. Buying a visa on arrival and getting through immigration is a piece of cake considering they love us in this country. Why not given we are the ones keeping the peace between them and the Israeli's in the west, Syrians in the north and Iraqi's in the east....& then support their economy while paying for the refugees from all over.
Jordan will be my base for the next 2 weeks as we explore the neighbors as well as Jordan itself.

Mt. Nebo is about an hour west of Amman. We traverse through Madaba where the famous ceramic mosaic that mapped the area was found. Mt. Nebo is apparently where god showed Moses the promised land. On this fine day modern pollution restricts us  from the view that god showed Moses. Still it is a  glorious sight captured in my video.

Dead Sea: the eastern bank is in Jordan and is  amongst the lowest point on earth. We do the touristy things of applying dead sea mud all over us and it certainly softens the skin some. While Saritha's floats I don't even try given the last time I did I was perhaps the only person on the planet to sink in the dead sea. The dead sea continues to shrink but whilst we still have it, I highly recommend a visit. On the way back to the city we allowed a hitch hiker to drive with us..our attempt at building goodwill. The Kuwaiti hitch hiker told us that the people who lived in this area 5000 years ago were homosexuals. So god punished them by flooding them and that their city lives beneath the dead sea. That is one "dead" fable.

Amman: The restaurants in Amman reflect the culture...a balance between the conservative nature of Islam and the embracing of all things western, beer to denim and all things in the middle. We dine at Sofra which I would recommend, Levant whose cuisine is rather unique bringing in the flavors of the Levant regions, The Living Room, Yellow Chilli an Indian celebrity chef's restaurant and Bonita. The ambiance at each one of these was excellent and the food generally delicious....though the Jordanians have yet to master the difference in the portions of mezze vs. entre'. We wasted food on more than one occasion which is a crying shame given we are next door to starving refugees. I also sample the shawerma's at the local fast foods and they could not have been better. I feel Jordan struggles with Wine, the local stuff is colored moonshine really without the punch. They serve Amstel on the tap all over, so that was a bit of a consolation.

My exploration of Amman was generally on foot. I walked from our location in Jabal Amman to the Roman Amphitheater through the souk (market) where the  locals shop. It was fascinating to explore what is sold in these markets from shisha (hookah) to nuts, clothing and everything in the middle. The souk is chaotic and filty, however the people if you engage  with them are generally friendly. Amman is a city of hills, so the google maps are useless and one has to depend on strangers to point you in the right direction....the local population were particularly nice about it given the gap in our languages. Any mention   of America and there was a smile on their faces, it felt good that we are being appreciated for what we have done for the Jordanians. Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman is a quasi pedestrian street lined with very nice eateries and young folks happy to engage you.

I wanted to visit both the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps but was discouraged for a variety of reasons. It would help humanize further the tragedy our fellow humans face.....just by being a prisoner of their birth.

Jerusalem, Israel (PICTURES)
We attempt a not so usual entry in to Israel. We cross Jordan in to occupied Palestine (West Bank) by the King Hussein or Allenby bridge. The rules at this crossing are constantly changing and there was a good chance that the Israeli's will close the border for security reasons at will. I have researched this crossing for many weeks ahead of this and have some expectations of the disorganization on the Jordanian side and the rudeness on the Israeli side. I was not disappointed.
- We arrive at the Jordanian side of the crossing just before 8am. It is about 45 minutes from Amman. The processing window opens about 8am and once we figure out where to go, we find a line of about 10 folks ahead of us. Its a little room with no air, thank god this is fall in Jordan and the temperatures are in the 70's. There are 4 windows but no clarity as to where one goes. We follow the masses. The 1st window requires you write your name on a slip of paper and hand it with your passport. The 2nd window then does something else that I have no clue but 2 guys were sharing a 5ft by 5ft space with one guy smoking in there. He then asked us to go to the 3rd window to pay the exit tax. When I am done with that he keeps our passports with the slip of paper with our name stamped. 
-We then headout where we have to pay for the bus that will take us 2-3miles across the bridge. This is the only mode of transportation to get to the Palestine side from here, unless you are a diplomat in which case you are allowed to drive through. The bus does not leave till its you could be in there for many hours, in our case the bus departs about 10.30am, about 2.5 hours since we got here. Yes Jordan is writing the book on efficiency. In any case before we depart our passports are returned on the bus.
- We finally cross in to the occupied territory after multiple stops in the middle by the Jordanians. The West Bank side seems a little more organized but as we get in to the lines we see that people are cutting through, the porters who are all Palestinians ( I imagine this is how Israel is helping their economy) are happy to help their folks some. After security we are questioned by the Israeli immigration agent who was rather civil compared to my past experience where they relish in their rudeness....perhaps they have gone through sensitivity training. Before I can mention that I don't want my passport stamped he lets me know that since early 2013 they just give a separate stamp with your picture that needs to be kept with the passport. All done we head out to catch what they call a Sherut or shared taxi that will drive us 40 minutes in to east Jerusalem and dump us infront of the Damascus gate of the old city....or close depending upon the drivers mood. It is now about noon, it took us some 5 hours to cover 45 miles from Amman to Jerusalem in the 21st century...about the same it took back in the days of Jesus on a fast camel....progress you ask?
This blog from the Mad Traveler has even more detailed and accurate description of the crossing.
The return is just the reverse, though it takes us only 90 minutes thanks to the time of the day and week. Not to mention that the Israeli's don't care much for those exiting vs. those entering.

Mount of Olives: One of the things I have always liked about coming up to Mount of Olives is the ability to see the old city in a manner that allows one to appreciate it even more. Saritha tells me that she would have much rather started her visit to Jerusalem by coming up here so she could get herself better oriented....something to consider. The Jewish cemetery that lines the ridge walls seem blended in given the similarity of the colors. Still supposedly amongst the most desired locales for those seeking the after life amongst the Jewish brethren. The views extend all the way to Jericho on a clear day.

Al Asqa Mosque is the 3rd holiest site after Mecca  and Medina, so it is a privilege to be here. However like most mosques, non Muslims are not allowed in and the Israelis manage the access to the ground very strictly. At this time the access is only through the western wall on certain days of the week such as Sunday. Once we go through the metal detector and the harsh glares of the teenage mutants of the Israel Defence Force (IDF), we are treated to the colors of the Dome of Rock adjacent to the Al Asqa. A tout who offers his services to be our guide also suggests that I could pretend to  be a Muslim to gain access to the would think that holy places would encourage some clean thinking when you are in their vicinity. Perhaps not. In any case the  tout and I part company hastily. Aside from that, the bright sun, lovely fall breeze and the colors are an absolute treat as we continue to explore.

The Old City: One has to experience rather than watching videos and pictures. We enter through the Damascus gate that is East Jerusalem, dominated by the Arabs and opens in to the Muslim quarter. The old city is split in to 4 quarters, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. Each one of these has a different flavor to it. Having entered the Muslim quarter we head towards Lions gate which is essentially how Jesus was brought in to the old city when he was captured in the  garden of Gethsemane. The Via Dolorosa, a 600 meter path Jesus took from where he was tried and sentenced to where he was crucified in what is now the Holy Church of the Sepulchre, begins here though they have done a very bad job at marking precisely where. The Israelis are generally very rude people and they don't disappoint here by not helping out. We do finally figure it out and then follow it all the way to the church. Along the way we run in to several groups of Pilgrims who are walking the path and chanting and singing hymns. It draws several parallels to similar practices followed by Muslims, Hindu's and more. I guess a validation that what we all call God is essentially the same given how we approach despite what we call the practices. The path goes through busy markets of the Christian quarter as well that sells everything from Shisha (Hookah), food, souvenirs, cloths and everything in the middle. Words just don't do justice....experience it.

Evenings are spent in the Ben Yehuda area where there is a nice pedestrian street and plenty of restaurants with really good food. The energy is excellent though despite a Saturday night well past the end of Sabbath the crowds are thin compared to the last several times I have visited. They claim it is because it is cold.....when did that scare young people?

While Israel has done economically well given their security situation and unfriendly neighbors, it is unforgivable their treatment of the Palestinians. While the Palestinians can do better for themselves, what cannot be ignored is the Israeli treatment of Palestinians on land that history makes a case that they have equal rights to, is deplorable. The road from the Allenby crossing to Jerusalem cuts through the West Bank. As you look up you will see high walls and fences to cage in the Palestinians. While I am convinced the Palestinians are not getting any of this land back and before long we are all going to forget about their pains me to see them suffer. I pray that the Israeli's will treat them with civility and humanity.

Wait looks like we have landed at the wrong airport from the look of all the people. This looks like Chennai, wait, there are some other folks in flowing white robes....lets take a look. Yes it is Dubai but boy the south Asians from Pakistan, India through the Philippines have taken over. Only the emiraties on someone's shit list are awake at this hour to manage passport control.

Our 1st view of the city is when we hop on the Big Bus, the local site seeing tour in the morning given we arrived past midnight. It is hot, about 85-90F by 9am and is only going to get worse by the day. That said the views are in the Diera and Burj Dubai and I can see already why Dubai has caught the world's imagination.

The Architecture - It is clear that this is a hot bed for architects to compete to design extraordinary structures. The buildings are unique like the Infinity tower that has a 90degree twist or tall like the Burj Khalifa or a 7 star hotel like the Burj Al Arab and others between them. In addition the island communities like the World Islands or the Palm are strangely surreal, though we did not visit the World Islands....there were no choppers available to take us there;). The infrastructure is solid with mass transit that is state of the art, 6 lane inter-city roadways and hotels that are just too luxurious. While the city is a concrete jungle one can not ignore that it has significant amounts of greenery for a desert.

The Souks - There are all kinds of souks (markets), Gold Souk, Spice Souk, Fish Souk and the Old Souk or the Bastakia area. While they are entertaining and help us spend some time away from the sun, they are not enticing...perhaps we came with different expectations. For instance the Gold Souk is really a collection of air conditioned shops selling Indian designed jewellery vs. our expectations that there would be an abundance of gold chains on display on open carts hawked by Arab's with moneys on their shoulder was a bit of a dream. Still there are a lots of touts who will come by to sell imitation watches, bags, shirts and more. It is puzzling to me why these south Asian youth from India and Pakistan come here to play this role vs. something better in their home countries. My friend explained it best....there is no pride to do any kind of work in Dubai vs. where they come from. Sad but true.

The Desert Safari -  Spending time in the desert is something else. We have been to the outback in Australia, Gobi in Mongolia and deserts in Rajisthan in India, Jordan and elsewhere but the desert in Dubai has the finest sand I have seen. It also gave me the sense that it was endless and perhaps it is given it goes all the way to the bottom of Saudi Arabia. We spend some time driving through the desert, dune bashing as they call it and it is plenty fun. We then spend the evening at a desert camp with some good food and average entertainment including belly dancing. I believe this is a missed opportunity as they dump us in the desert camp that is incredible hot vs. keeping us engaged by educating us about say the desert life, or the night sky or the animals here etc. I remember a similar event in the Outback and that was so much more memorable than this. In any case I can say it was an activity to be completed in Dubai and so it was.  

To those who have not been to these cities, highly recommended. However pack more patience and tolerance than cloths and electronics. That will help you appreciate it the most.