I had the good fortune this summer to spend five weeks in the Middle East and I didn’t ride a camel once. I flew to Istanbul, Turkey, and worked my way—sans camel—overland to Cairo, Egypt, and then back home. Six countries, nine border crossings and seven different currencies. Travelling on foot or by bus, tour bus, ferry, car, private taxi, shared taxi, tram, cable car, but no camel.
Why all the talk of camels, you might wonder.
There are different ways to visit the Middle East. I saw many people who tried to really understand what was happening there, but I also saw many people who went for the religious Disneyland experience. To be honest, I would have to say that I did both. There is something fascinating about walking on the Temple Mount where Jesus once walked; visiting the house of Ananias in Damascus, where Paul came after his conversion; or seeing Joseph and Mary’s house in Nazareth.
Still, this is only part of the story the Holy Land has to tell.
If you want to see more, cross the border from Jordan into the West Bank, watch soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem randomly stop Palestinians or settlers in Hebron attempt to drive out Palestinians through violence and intimidation, discover that in summer Bethlehem gets water maybe one day a week, and see the “security” wall from both sides.
So there are at least two stories to hear.
I watched people looking for the Disneyland experience who got off the tour bus in Bethlehem—at least they came to Bethlehem—just long enough to walk through the Church of the Nativity. I saw the hordes of tourists pay to rent robes to be baptized in the Jordan River. I watched endless groups rent crosses to mournfully walk the Via Dolarosa.
I saw all this and wondered what Jesus would do if he came back? Would he care about any of the tourism one sees here? At least this much is clear, if you come to the Middle East and ignore injustice in a search for spirituality, you haven’t really seen anything.
So what does this have to do with camels?
Well, in the Middle East, the only places you will see camels are in the tourist areas and the only people who will give you a ride on a camel are those people whose job it is to separate rich tourists from their money. I mostly tried to avoid this. I didn’t buy a rug, I generally only entered shops unsolicited. I didn’t buy postcards or guidebooks from people peddling them in the streets.
I tried to find places where the local people shopped. I talked to as many local people as I could, and I tried to understand as much as possible. I left without many tourist trinkets, but came away amazed by the hospitality of the Palestinians, confused as ever regarding Israeli politics, and wishing I could visit Syria every year. Furthermore, I left wondering how to bring what I learned there back home.
This is the main reason to go the Holy Land, or anywhere, for that matter: To understand and learn about the people there and hopefully use that to bring better awareness of home. For the first two weeks of my return, Canada felt very strange.
I learned much about church history from visits to Chalcedon, Damascus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. But I learned even more about the church from seeing the “security” wall, talking to refugees, eating in Palestinian homes, seeing the work of Mennonite Central Committee, visiting Tel Aviv, crossing the border from Jordan, and watching people in the streets. I hope and pray to use what I have learned there in my classes at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, my church, and in my daily life.
So go to the Middle East, but make sure you go willing to see, whether you ride a camel or not. Such seeing can be difficult, beautiful, spiritual, challenging and life-changing. If you can’t go, help send someone else. In fact, I would hope that every church in Canada would find the resources to send at least one person to the Middle East for at least a couple of weeks. The gifts and sights brought back would more than pay for the trip.
Ramon Rempel teaches mathematics, world religions, church history and Grade 10 computer studies at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, Kitchener, Ont.