It would be hard to imagine someone who knew as little about the place they were going to as I did when I left for Israel on a snowy Monday in late October, 1988. I had vague associations with famous place names—Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho—from Sunday school catechisms and sword-and-sandal film epics. I had a rough idea of recent troubles (the first Intifada had recently begun) from newspaper headlines. And I’d attended a primer or two about Israel as I made my kibbutz arrangements through the Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa. But I don’t remember even travelling with a guidebook when I set off.
“Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion once wrote about her own naive arrival to New York City. “I am here to tell that someone was.”
Recently, I re-read the two journals I kept while living in Israel. I’ve packed them wherever I’ve moved since but hadn’t cracked their spines in years. I hoped I might find in them mature musings and observations about kibbutz life or the geopolitics of Israel/Palestine. Instead, the pages are mostly filled with the angsty self-absorption of a typical 20-nothing North American male. Still, there are moments of truth—about myself, if nothing else—amidst the scribblings. It’s worth sharing some to remember what it was like to be young and on the road for the first time.
Monday October 24, 1988
So this is it. Here I am, sitting at Gate 80 of Mirabel airport, waiting to board an El Al 747 that will spirit me a thousand miles away to Israel. My father and brother have said their goodbyes and departed, so I am no officially alone. And lonely.
I have that familiar light-headed feeling and stomach churning that signals my nervousness but it is no worse than if I were going on a first date or waiting for a job interview or preparing to write an exam. I guess the reality of my situation still has not hit me full force. It probably won’t until I step off the airplane and realize I am in a foreign land surrounded by foreign people; a stranger in a strange land.
I ran into a smidgen of difficulty checking in at the airport when one of the El Al security persons, while flipping through my address book, happened upon Kyle’s entry as “Massoud Falsometer”. It took several minutes of awkward discussion for me to explain that the name was a joke, my friend was from Quebec and not the Middle East, and that he had not given me any “packages” to take on the trip. Midway through my bumbling explanation, the security person, a sturdy, serious Jewish fellow, wondered aloud, “What kind of joke is that?” to which I just shrugged and smiled anxiously.
On my trip last summer, I was reminded that customs and security in Israel remain just as thorough, rigid and humourless. Probably more so. When I arrived at customs in Ben Gurion Airport, a female agent maybe half my age grilled me about why I was visiting Israel, who I was planning to see, how long I intended to stay, etc. I nervously rattled off the names of some of the contacts in Tel Aviv and Haifa I planned to interview.
“Do you have any Arab friends? Will you be meeting any Arabs?” she asked.
“Have you ever eaten any Arab food?” I imagined the line of interrogation continuing. “Do you ever use Arabic numerals?” But I kept my mouth shut.
In the end, my Canadian passport caused the most suspicion. Swine flu panic was heating up and a number of Canadian cases—and fatalities—had made headlines .around the world. Still, she let me in. I was on the road again and travelling through the Promised Land.