I wish I could say visiting the Holy Land was a dream come true, a desire satisfied, or a promise fulfilled. Perhaps it could have been had I not developed a passion for peacebuilding and got to read literature on protracted conflicts, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Growing up in a Christian family in Kenya, I heard a fair share of stories about Israel and its unique relationship with God. In my imagination (as a child), modern Israel was a successor to the historical Israel written in the Bible. Ordinarily, I would have been more than happy to visit such a monumental place where the story of Christianity was born and transmitted to the rest of the world.
Israel rarely stamps passports because most Arab countries do not admit people who have travelled to Israel.
But as we drove to the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi to catch a flight to Ethiopia and then to Tel Aviv, Israel, I couldn’t help noticing my friend’s somber mood. It seems that our minds were tuned to the same thought – that I was walking into a hostile place.
I questioned my reasons for going to Israel. Was it because of my conviction that I can be of help – add my voice to those who have broken the silence? Or was it because of Christianity and the romantic idea of retracing Jesus’ footprints? Or was it because of the STORY? All along my life, I have immersed myself in different communities, spent hours with people eating their food, sharing their life and writing their stories. I love that thrill of chasing a story and nailing it down, getting it first and getting it right. But as I walked towards the ticketing lady to get my boarding pass, I wondered whether I was over stretching the idea of taking risks. Was it worth it?
Surprisingly, I got my boarding pass, checked in my luggage and boarded the plane without any problem. I was at least expecting an interrogation or some questions; that is what I had heard from peacebuilders who have travelled to Israel. Despite the hospitality, I kept my guard remembering that I had a connecting flight from Addis Ababa. Indeed, the security and customer service at Addis Ababa was tight and a little bit annoying compared to Nairobi. But not unusual when compared to airports in Europe and America.
When I sat down the following day to reflect on my trip, I wondered why I had spent so many hours preparing for the worst that never happened.
I settled into a back seat in a half full plane. In fact, I had the three back seats to myself. I enjoyed the great food and wine the Ethiopian Airline serves, and slept all the way to Tel Aviv. I arrived a few minutes past midnight – into what I had imagined will be the moment of reckoning.
Imagine my disappointment when the immigration officer did not even ask a single question. She just took my passport, run it through the system and issued me with a permit – Israel rarely stamps passports because most Arab countries do not admit people who have travelled to Israel.
I picked my three suitcases and walked into the streets of Tel Aviv. The Shabbat had begun and public transport was not available. So, I took a taxi to Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem where I was to stay for about seven months.
When I sat down the following day to reflect on my trip, I wondered why I had spent so many hours preparing for the worst that never happened. How did I even get into that way of thinking? Was it because of the stories I had listened to from acquaintances who had traveled to the Holy Land? I became so angry that I had taken people’s narratives at face value. Their stories had become a reality in my imagination. I had based my entire preparation on those narratives. It then occurred to me that to get the most out of the time I would spend in Jerusalem, and in order to build lasting bridges, I would have to learn to digest the narratives about the Holy Land on my own. We all have different lenses or frames of interpreting events.