E-Travels With E.Trules.....haifa, akko, and the dungeon master, Israel Travelogue

« haifa, akko, and
the dungeon master

may 24, 1999


the train north from tel aviv stops abruptly - like many things in israel - blunt, abrupt - and i am in haifa. it's over 100 degrees in the shade (fahrenheit), but once again i am fortunate, a servas “day host” picks me up at the station. we go to her house, about half way up well-mannered, forested mount carmel, and from her balcony, we can see the immaculate white marble bahai temple. a much less daunting city than israel's other two leading religious and secular capitals, haifa feels like a working class city of russian immigrants down below near the port, while gentrifying itself into upper classness and prosperity as it winds and climbs its way up the carmelized mountainside.

according to sue, my friendly, full-framed sabra host of indeterminate age, there are approximately one million russian jews living in israel at this time, somewhere between 15 and 20% of her entire population. many have come in this last decade, many to haifa, having finally been permitted to emigrate from the former soviet union, with the israeli government offering substantial financial support and incentive to her new jewish citizens. the streets and market place in working class haifa are bustling with activity - street-side shops stuffed with affordable merchandise, furious shoppers grabbing t-shirts, electronics, fruits and vegetables, parents tugging at screaming children, strong-faced single women walking cockily in long skirts, swarthy-looking merchants offering their multitudinous wares, hungrily eyeing and assessing their squawking customers. it reminds me of what my parents told me of immigrant new york - little italy, delancey and hester streets, chinatown, williamsburg, brooklyn - poor people coming to the promised land to savor their freedom, grow their families, and build their businesses. but here in haifa, amidst the busy cacophony of hebrew, russian, and arabic tongues, there seems to be a distinct lack of racial or class tension. i'm told that there is a healthy arab minority, and that jews - russian, religious, and otherwise - and arabs - really do get along here. it's a refreshing contrast to explosive, sacred jerusalem and hip, secular tel aviv.

after just a single night and morning in haifa, where i luckily meet and stay with the amiable, knowlegible, but just-leaving-town servas coordinator, i am delivered to another host in kiryat bialik, one of the small prefab suburban communities surrounding haifa. it's early evening and my new host, twenty-nine year old yaron, is an odd duck, a trained physicist with an obsessive passion for the game dungeons and dragons. he and his young wife from tibet are working class israelis with a frightening display of medieval weaponry sprawled over their imaginative, military-style living room walls. swords, scimitars, krises, canon drawings, a ball and chain – the whole crusading shebang. it doesn’t take long to discover yaron to be world-class “dungeon master” (something i have no clue about whatsoever), nor to find out that i’m in for the full d&d rigmarole. the next thing i know, yaron electronically lowers his self-installed twenty foot movie screen and comfortably props himself in front of the control panel of his just-purchased, super gameboy unit. although i feign extreme tiredness and “traveler’s fever”, he nevertheless enthusiastically and persistently recruits me to watch his fully annotated version of “highlander”, a “filmic masterpiece” he insists he never tires of, even after over one hundred viewings.

may 24, rosh hanikra and akko

the next morning, although he's deeply disappointed that i conked out on his sword-wielding movie masterpiece (less than half way through it), yaron drives me straight up the northern israeli coast to rosh hanikra, the fortified military outpost on the lebanese-israeli border. with the incredible beauty of its wind and surf-carved limestone caves and grottos in direct contrast to the harshness of its barb-wired military fortifications, rosh hanikra is yet another paradigm of contradiction in this harsh land. beauty and danger side by side. neighbors and families separated by political maps, closed roads, and armed guards. lives lost in a seemingly unwinable war with both sides no longer having the will or desire to fight. we take the cable car down to the spectacular elephantine grottos and retrace the bloody steps of the brave soldiers who died on both sides – like lambs led to slaughter - defending an exitless, now decrepit and defunct railroad line.

next we head south - to akko, or acre, depending who's spelling it on which map. it's another northern coastal town, rich in history, dating back from pre-crusader times, that today reflects an eclectic mix of arab, jewish, and foreign occupant architecture and tradition. it's also yaron's favorite city because of its double-walled, canon-fortified impenetrable defense system. as we climb on top of the huge, white stone walls which are clearly marked "keep off", and look far out over the imposing sea at the ghosts of centuries of european invasion, yaron tells me of how these same walls repelled even the great bonaparte as he attempted but failed to establish his foothold in the mideast. then he takes me to the center of the small but beautiful cobblestoned town, to the twelfth century crusader temple and fortress, where, not surprisingly, he and his bride were married to much ado, just less than a year ago. with the modest pride of a royal dungeon master now working as a everyday electrician, he shows me the great templar hall where the vows were taken, the bridge where the fools juggled and the guests arrived, and his favorite hidden alcove, the abandoned belfry where the bats still gather and squawk if you stir them just rightly.

on the way out of the crusader fort, where richard the lion hearted supped, and saladin, the fierce muslim savior, prayed, we come upon a beautiful mosque, supposedly the second most important one in israel, next to the “dome of the rock” in jerusalem. of course i want to go in, and although yaron is gracious and patient enough for me to do so, it surprises me that he shows no curiosity or desire to go in himself. it is yet another example to me of how far the chasm is between these two worlds, muslim and jewish, arab and israeli. i mean, here is this ancient town, akko, that is actually renowned for its civility and cooperation between the two people, a town that has no outward violence, no intifada, no bombs on buses. yet this young jewish man seems to me, not only disinterested in seeing the house of worship of his omni-present muslim neighbors, but also incapable of doing so. that although he is not a practicing, religious jew, nor does he admit to this aversion when i ask him, that somehow, nevertheless, he is just instinctively and deeply wired against - entering the house of the Other. it is okay for me to do it, but not him. he isn't dressed appropriately, he says, although i, in my multi-colored african tourist pants, am clearly dressed even less appropriately. the point being, no matter what he says, no matter how rational he is, it's something else - this other thing - these millennium of enmity - that keep yaron out of this exquisite, beckoning, and very-open-to-visitors mosque.

i go in, walk around the beautiful, geometrically-planted and manicured courtyard, enter the richly carpeted and tiled dome-ceilinged house of prayer, climb through the underground labyrinth of water tunnels and cisterns, and take a whole role of film on my battery-afflicted point and shoot camera. it's full of history and wonder. centuries of worship and devotion. defense and surrender. upon my exit, there is my dungeon master friend, waiting patiently. we are standing under the hot sun amongst beggars in the streets. a young veiled mother, holding her child to her breast, comes up to me, asking me in arabic for money (a universally understood language). i hesitate and look at yaron. he shrugs, and i sign to the young girl that i will give her some money in exchange for a photo. she agrees, takes my money, and then -- walks off. i run after her, trying to get my picture. she will not cooperate; every time i hold up my camera, she slyly eludes me. i feel like an idiot. it's not that she hasn't understood me, she clearly has; it's that she simply doesn't want to cooperate. she seems shy and crafty at the same time, and for all i know, it’s against her religion to have her photo taken. but i also imagine -- it's not the first time she’s misled and profited from a gringo tourist like yours truly.

there is one thing yaron likes to do with his muslim neighbors: eat. after his slightly altered d&d tour, he takes me to his favorite arab restaurant. it's down a few steps, slightly underground like a cellar-grotto, much cooler than the sweltering temperature in the street. yaron knows the proprietor who greets him warmly, and we get a nice, checkerboard table cloth table right near the fan. yaron asks me if he can order, and i naturally comply, being the practiced and culinarily-ignorant guest. we get humus with meat, beautifully prepared in a delicious olive oil, a plate full of black and green olives, tomato and cucumber salad with tahina, and a non-alcoholic, sweet brown malt beer. it's the best meal i've had in israel so far. friendly, delicious, novel, refreshing, and - cheap. i would say something more about the last adjective - something about my and my tribemen's proclivity for a good bargain - but i think i will refrain from opening a whole new kettle of fish. anyway, we don't have any fish, just what i describe -- and it's delicious.

to be continued...