[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel. For the how’s and why’s, start here.]
“Four minutes and forty-eight seconds!”, Elijah declares.
There is a tent pitched in our living room. Bolstered by his record-setting tent setup time, Elijah suggests I take a break from ziplocking socks and granola bars and get in the tent. We lie in it together, backs pressed against the floor of our apartment. Through the skylight, we can see the glow of our fluorescent bathroom lights.
To walk across Israel on our chosen trails, we first have to get from the deserts of the South to the mountains of the North. The bus to Nazareth is one of those demographic experiences one can have in few places outside the Middle East: Men in kippot, women in hijabs, Christian pilgrims retracing the footsteps of Jesus, and backpackers in sleeveless shirts share the journey northward. We drive along the wall between Israel and the West Bank. The politically-correct term for this structure is “security barrier”, but really — ‘wall’ will do. Sometimes it cuts straight through fields; other times, past the watchtowers and barbed wire, we catch a glimpse of mosque minarets poking the sky.
Nazareth boasts the largest Arab population of Israeli cities and we arrive to its main square to be greeted by a mosque. It has been erected directly in front of the Church of the Annunciation, where Christians believe Mary learned she would be the mother of Jesus. A sign on the mosque reads, in both English and Arabic: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.”
We quickly learn that Nazareth does not mince her words.
Now if you are looking for a tale of pre-hiking stretches and camping stores, I will disappoint you. We did not go to Nazareth to look at North Face jackets, unfurl our tents and pretend to understand the thermal prescriptions of long underwear. We went there looking for the trailmarker that would signal the start of this journey. We stayed because, instead, we found the sunset, arak, and apple-flavored smoke.
Elijah would have to wait one more night before applying his miraculous tent-pitching skills outdoors. Having arrived in Nazareth past sunset, we make our way to a hostel and are greeted by the smell of Taybeh. The aroma of this Palestinian beer transports me to the Christmas Eve of 2009. Chock full of malarial parasites (courtesy of northern Uganda), I found myself outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Whatever sanctity was transpiring within its walls did not drift outside, where a Samoan singer took a break from her Reggaeton performance to inform the crowd of mostly Palestinians and maybe ten North Americans that she is African, just like the rest of us. “The rest of us” washed down this surreal Christmas Eve with shewarma and Taybeh. It seems that, a year and a half later in a hostel in Nazareth, Taybeh is back and its scent will soak my sleep.
Tonight, however, is not for Taybeh – it is a night for arak. The Greeks, the Turks, the Syrians, the Palestinians all love it and all call it different names. Our enthusiastic server informs us that it is the Arak Festival. I mumble something about hiking and hydration and rest. Elijah asks for the arak menu. Once he makes his selection, the server assuredly disagrees. “No”, she says, shaking her head. “This one”, she counter-proposes, pointing her finger to another option. “Oh! Wonderful. Is this local arak?”, Elijah asks to understand our server’s insistence in changing the order. “It is from… here.”, she says after thinking about it for a moment.
The arak comes – and it comes from Ramallah, Palestine. In this corner of the world, “here” is a normative term.
The arak from here is delicious, so is the bread, and the the labneh and everything else we consume before our server agrees to let us out of our seats. On the walk back, three young boys spot us. “You speak English?”, they ask, and Elijah answers affirmatively for both of us. “F*ck me, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck you” is the response shouted in my direction. When I first encountered this behavior in Egypt, I did not know if I should attribute it to limited English or to limited respect for women, especially foreign women. Two years later, I am still struggling with the answer. Two years later, in Nazareth, Elijah and I keep walking, quietly, side by side.
Back at the hostel, Elijah and I share a shisha. Much like arak, there are many names for this water pipe: shisha, hookah, nargileh. In the background, the hostel owner is screening a soccer game. Earlier in the day, the Greek team I was raised to love, Panathinaikos, was playing for the European Basketball Championship title against-coincidentally-the Israeli Maccabi Tel Aviv. We ask the hostel owner if he knows who won that game. “I do not show Israeli basketball. Sorry.”, he says emphatically.
Not too long after that, the hostel owner and his friends walk out the door towards a sleepy Nazareth. They leave behind the shisha coals, kegs of Taybeh, and Elijah and me, puffing nostalgically. We met in Cairo, where public displays of affection are frowned upon. Unable to navigate a budding romance in public, we fell in the way some people choose to retire: We played domino, drank overly sweet tea and fresh strawberry juice, walked by the Nile, and smoked shisha.
Two hundred and sixty miles away from Cairo, in a different Mediterranean country, we find ourselves once again enveloped in the sound of the last call to prayer of the evening. Holding hands in an empty courtyard, we greet midnight with breaths of apple-flavored smoke.