Rattling the Cage: Flights of fancy

'This is who we are - Israelis living in the Middle East.'

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
It was very heartening to read this week that Ben-Gurion Airport was voted by international passengers to be the best airport in Europe (even though the last time I checked the map, the airport was located in Asia). It finished fifth best in the whole world, too, according to an international poll of passengers who graded 77 airports for customer-friendliness. I'm glad to know the place runs well, because when it comes to beauty and inspirational quality, I can't imagine any airport anywhere coming close, at least in my eyes, to Terminal 3, the international terminal that opened two years ago at Ben-Gurion. My family and I drove out there soon after it opened, and after walking around in wonder, my wife and I both had tears in our eyes. Corny as it sounds, they were tears of national pride. That pitzky little Israel could build an airport so huge yet so lovely, so world-scale yet so Israeli, so Middle Eastern - it was something to see. Especially since I'd been dreading seeing it. I loved the old airport, the one that's now Ben-Gurion's domestic terminal, so much. It was small, easy to understand, easy to get in and out of. Also, of course, it had this uplifting street theater going on all day and night at the arrivals area, where crowds of Israelis would wait for the procession of incoming passengers, and the reunions would be scenes of people shouting, running, crying and hugging. The old airport had the best of Israel - the "human scale" of Israeli life, and the warmth between the people - and I was afraid it was going to get lost, swallowed up in the Israeli ambition to make a big, splashy entry into the global era with a razzle-dazzle, state-of-the-art showcase to the world. So Terminal 3 turned out to be some surprise. Yes, it's huge, but in a good way. The towering ceilings, the sweeping windows - it's so wide open. It doesn't make you feel small, it invites you to think big. And the street theater of the arrivals area is not only still there, it's the center, the focus of the whole huge terminal, with passengers coming into view from behind a wall as if they're walking out on stage. Crowds of Israelis are still there waiting for them, and the same scenes of unruly emotion are played out. BUT WHAT really makes this airport an inspiration - in a way the old airport wasn't - is all the Jerusalem stone covering the vast interior walls, and the sand that wraps and textures the tall pillars. Terminal 3 doesn't look like something out of the Western world. It doesn't look like America or Europe. It doesn't look like China or India, either. It looks like Israel. But it also looks like Jordan and Egypt. It looks like the desert. It looks like the Middle East. The Middle East is a place most Israelis try to wish away, just as Israel is a place most Middle Easterners try to wish away. But Israel's new international airport terminal comes to say: "This is who we are - Israelis living in the Middle East." In Terminal 3, at least, Israel and the Middle East together are lovely, wide open, inviting. To the world, the airport's beauty (and world-renowned customer-friendliness) doesn't only showcase Israel to the world, it also shows respect to the world, like a hostess who goes all out to make a good dinner for her friends not only so they will think well of her, but also to show that she thinks well of them. Israelis, on the whole, don't think very well of the world. Israel, in fact, is built on the idea that the outside world doesn't want the Jews, so the Jews have no business living there. Israelis, however, are curious about the world, and they get claustrophobic living here, so they travel overseas like no one else. They have a great time, too. But as far as their basic national identity goes, it's Israel against the world. This is not the national identity inside Israel's international airport terminal, though. There the sand and stone of Israel blend perfectly with the glass and metal of global modernity. There the particular and the universal, as well as the ancient and the contemporary, are in harmony. There Israel is at ease with the world, and at home in the Middle East. You don't even have to have a plane ticket; just wandering around Terminal 3 is like being in a country you've never been to before. It's not Israel. It's not the best of Israel, either. It's the Israel of dreams.