Israel was always on our list of countries to visit. We lived in Saudi Arabia for 13 years and visited almost every other county in the Middle East, except Jordan and Israel. Many Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, deny entry into their countries for those who have passports stamped by the Israeli Immigration and Passport control. Therefore, we postponed our trip to Israel until November 2014 when we could manage.
We landed in Tel Aviv airport on November 21, 2014 after a long flight from Chicago. After few routine questions - including the one that surprised me when the officer asked for my grandfather’s name - he gave my wife, Farzana, a little green card and asked me to follow another officer who took me into a waiting area and disappeared, asking me to wait there. He returned after 10 minutes and handed me the passport and a little green card. That was it. There is no doubt that the Israeli security system must be one of the best, if not the best in the world. However, they are smart and let visitors including Muslims visit their country to boost their economy. It is not like the stupidity and cheap bureaucracy found in India and Pakistan who, which always give people of Western nationalities with Indian and Pakistani backgrounds a hard time whe issuing visas.
Our tour operator in Israel greeted us at the airport and quickly whisked us to the city of Jerusalem in a comfortable bus. It took us about 50 minutes to reach Jerusalem, a distance of 70km from the airport near Tel Aviv. It was Friday and the sun was about to set when we arrived inside the city. It was the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest and seventh day of the week. It begins few minutes before sunset on Friday and ends when three stars appear in the sky on Saturday night. We saw traditional Jewish families in their traditional outfits rushing towards synagogues. Some of them looked like ultra-Orthodox Jews and, to our surprise, our driver told us that those were the religious people of Israel, the so-called "leeches" of the society. They do nothing except read Torah and get paid by the government, the driver continued. Obviously, the driver was a secular Jew and this country is deeply divided between secular and orthodox. The orthodox religious people, though in minority, exert enormous power and are the main hindrance to the peace between Palestinians and Israelis. I thought of our Mullahs who are no different than these people.
We stayed at the Mount Zion Hotel in a very historic district of Jerusalem. We observed a very interesting scene when Farzana and I were waiting for the elevators with our luggage. A Jewish family was also waiting for the elevators and when the elevator arrived and we asked them to enter, they refused. Later we found out that pressing the button for the elevator was considered labor that is forbidden during Shabbat, therefore that family would not use that elevator. Instead, they would wait for a special elevator that had been programmed to stop and go on each floor without manual interruption. I, then, wondered how they would flush the toilets. We met our tour guide during the welcoming reception where excellent lentil soup, fresh salads and healthy sandwiches were served. The tour guide’s name was Ilan, and he was a Hungarian Jew with a master's degree in history. He was in his late 30s. During the next 10 days of the trip, Ilan was with us explaining every bit of history about Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English. He told us that he had traveled to Pakistan using his Hungarian passport and went to Peshawar where a Pakistani taxi driver asked him about his religion. Though slightly scared, he said he had told the taxi driver that he belonged to Ahl-e-Kitab (people of books). The taxi driver was so overwhelmed with the answer that Ilan ended up staying in his house and enjoyed his hospitality for a day.Tune in next time for the second out of five installments about our recent trip to Israel.