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Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
Mondo (May 2001)

IT'S a scene familiar to anyone who's found themselves cheering the sunrise with hundreds of pleasure freaks by the standing stones at Glastonbury festival. A handful of percussion players - maybe thirty, probably more as people wander over to get closer to the buzz - beat out an instinctive tribal rhythm that shifts and mutates without a word or signal being exchanged. Girls in tie-dyed sarongs dance to the tune playing in their head. Dreadlocked guys sit juggling or puffing on a bong as the tell-tale smell of dope drifts on the breeze. And a clutch of acrobatic types mess around with diabolos and fire sticks beside a purple teepee. In all, the vibe is chilled but ecstatic, the only way to wind down after a day of pure hedonism.

The thing is, this isn't 5am in a muddy field in Somerset. It's 5pm on the beach in Tel Aviv. With only hours to go until the abstinence of the Sabbath, during which religious Jews are forbidden to work, drive or even walk long distances and charged instead to study holy texts, the locals are partying like it's Doomsday Eve. And this is just the start. On a curved stretch of beach flanked by a smattering of high rise hotels that makes you think of Miami or Rio rather than the strife-torn Middle East, all forms of human life have come to frolic and flirt in the fading rays of yet another effortlessly sunkissed day.

Two young children play in the water streaming past the bongo players' feet. Israeli girls in black chic smoke and smirk, letting their body language send out the right signals. A lardy bloke stands on the breakwater amidst a throng of bodies waving his credit card and holding up his mobile phone, presumably ordering pizza for his new friends. An old man blows a joyous trumpet along to the thumping rhythm and a Hebrew chant strikes up to join him. Half a dozen guys tumble over the sand, practicing the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, half kung fu cartwheels and half graceful modern dance. People play bat and ball, backgammon, chess even. And it goes on and on and on.

Like many Israelis, the guy twirling brightly coloured boxes on long threads, is friendly but guarded. He won't say where he's from, doesn't offer his name, keeps it safe and impersonal. But on what's going on around him he's all smiles. "It started two years ago. People came with drums and then to dance and now it happens every Friday. It's spontaneous enthusiasm". And what are those boxes? "They're called Poire. They were originally used by women for self-defence," he says, whipping them around his body with a flourish. "Now they're not used for violence, but for something more beautiful."

Remember these words. As a tiny reflection of how Tel Aviv is struggling for change, they're the only ones many Israelis feel they can trust.

WHEN you live in a complicated political situation, you keep your sanity by giving it a simple, almost throwaway name. So in Northern Ireland, years of turmoil is written off as The Troubles, as if it's simply a matter of car mechanics or bad internal plumbing. Here in Israel, they call a conflict that stirs thinkers like Noam Chomsky to talk about ethnic cleansing and terrorism, The Mess. And what an award-winning understatement that is.

Even left wing Israelis who agree that Palestinians should have their own independent state mutter darkly about Palestinian propaganda TV films that show Israeli soldiers raping women and slitting the throats of children. Ask them how they know about these films and they say they've seen Israeli news reports, without stopping to consider the irony. The violence, however, is undeniable. During our stay, Palestinians fire on illegal Jewish settlements in the Khan Tunis refugee camp south of the Gaza Strip, seeking to stem the resettlement that some equate to ethnic cleansing. The mortar attack by the Israelis in retaliation kills a four month old Palestinian baby girl and prompts a rare apology from right wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Back in Tel Aviv, people employ an out of sight, out of mind policy. "It's hard, I won't lie to you," says Yaron, the barman at Molly Bloom's, Tel Aviv's only Irish Pub. "But we've been born into it, so we're used to it. There was a bomb a few months ago, twenty minutes drive north from here. Sixty people were injured, but we just got on with our lives. There's no other choice."

Wandering around in the warm Friday sun, Tel Aviv seems safe and vibrant, a world away from sectarian hatred. In the Neve-Tzedek district, populated by artists enjoying a calm cafe culture, galleries like Rokach House display the clay works of the first feminist in Israel. A few miles north, the Carmel Market provides a bustling riot of colour, with shoppers stocking up on pastries and vegetables before Sabbath. A few hundred yards further, the fashionable Shenkin Street is packed with classy boutiques and record shops blaring out trance, and on Nachlat Benjamin Street, craft stalls share pavement space with street performers and, in one case, a string quartet.

Talk to a busker and they'll more than likely be Russian. A million Russians have flocked to Israel in the past five years and now account for twenty per cent of the population. This influx has resulted in tension and prejudice, not least from some of the immigrants from north Africa who, sensing a chance to shift the heat from them, have turned on the Russians. The Russian mob, meanwhile, keen to exploit this new market, have moved in to run money laundering operations and bring in prostitutes by foot over the Egyptian border. "It's the biggest problem here," says our guide Ora, with yet more blissful irony.

Ben, Tim and Jim, three English lads who've been here for 30 months, 9 months and 24 months respectively, have a slightly different perspective. "I love it here," grins Jim, on the beach. "The women are beautiful, the drugs are great, the Russians have brought in fantastic prostitutes, it's a liberal country. It's the most rock'n'roll city in the Middle East. You can get a kilo of dope here for 1200 sheckles. That's only £200. But the Es and acid are shit."

Mention foreign perception of tension in Tel Aviv and they laugh in your face. "Look around. Do you see any tension?" Tim says, waving at the drummers. "The only drawback is, it's expensive," says Ben. "I can make 24 sheckles an hour (£4) working in a bar, so it's up there with London." Jim shrugs and grins. "If London was by the sea and had good weather, I'd live there. But it doesn't so I live here." Fair enough. Time to hit the clubs.

WITH many business shutting up shop on the Sabbath, the wildest party nights in Tel Aviv are Thursday and Friday. In true Israeli style, one of the main drags of bars, Allenby Street, is named after a British General whose defeat of the Turks near Armageddon earned him the title The Earl Of Armageddon. These days, Thursday sees an Israeli Britpop club called Lipgloss battling against the metal of Dream Bar and techno of Dance Dream Bar, amongst others, in a fashion that would doubtlessly do the Duke proud.

Trance and techno are big news in Israel. The following weekend sees the country's first two day festival called Tribal Dance Experience in the forest near Kibbutz Barkai. And Friday plays host to NYC DJ Disciple at Lucky Lou and Britain's own Phats & Small (known for "Hey Whta's Wrong With You" according to the flyers) at TLV. Our first stop, though, is Ku Millennium, a tastefully designed upmarket club with tiny filaments flickering in hundreds of lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling. John Digweed is due to spin the discs in a few weeks time, but tonight mellow house dominates and the locals wave sparklers with glee while the VIPs chuff bongs on a roped off balcony.

Over at TLV, reputedly Israel's answer to Ministry Of Sound, it's a very different scene. Slap bang in the middle of the buzzing warehouse area by the old port, where hundreds of punters mill between megaclubs offering everything from acid house to salsa, all under the gaze of the world's only neon-festooned power station, it's all about attitude. And the guy seemingly dressed as Uncle Fester, with a powdered bald head, eyeliner and monk's habit, peering over the Hebrew guestlist, clearly has it. In spades. Tonight is a mixed gay and straight night and selection on the door is fierce, but once inside the atmosphere is charged and uplifting, with the cheering dancers throwing their hands to the appropriate misshapes hanging from the ceiling.

If going berserk in the main room, where a guy in a wheelchair has it extremely large beside canoodling straight and gay couples in an naturally tolerant environment, is a bit like raving on the Death Star, then the smaller room is like being in an art installation. Huge black and white nudes peer down on an illuminated box bearing The Tree Of The Damned, as seven foot drag queens in Elizabethan gear glide around regally, daring anyone to bat an eyelid. Oran, a hairdresser, says he comes for the atmosphere. "Israeli people like to pose and party and gay parties have the best music and the best DJs. I'm not gay but it's great." His attitude is echoed by another guy who extols the club but when asked if he's gay, laughs a little too loud and starts dancing, yelling "enjoy!". Oran, meanwhile, has put his hand on my knee. "So are you alone? What hotel are you staying in?"

Allenby Street seems like a resort in the Canaries in comparison. In Fifth Element, girls dance on the bar to "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Boom Shack-A-Lak", squeezing every last bit of cheese from their weekend, while in Joey's Bar, the barmen batter cymbals hanging from the ceiling as Faithless and Underworld have the boozers going loco in the strobe lights. And the line from the doormen at each place we visit is the same, almost as if it's the motto of Tel Aviv: "Welcome. Go straight to the bar. Drink lots."

THE view in Jerusalem the next morning is a world away from the easy hedonism of the coast. This is one of the major points of contention for the Jews and Palestinians, as both want to claim it as their capital city. Jews hold the Wailing Wall to be a spot of utmost sacredness, as they believe that a crack in the seventh heaven gives worshippers a hotline to God. Prayers are scribbled on bit of paper and then stuffed into the wall's many crevices and thousands of faxes and emails come to the Jerusalem post office each year with prayers from afar. Muslims, in contrast, say the city is their third holiest site because it's where Mohammed travelled to heaven to speak with Jesus. And neither side looks like backing down for a long while yet.

The reality is somewhere between the Biblical saying that "it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven" and the joke that ends with the punchline, "Jesus, join the party, Judas has come into some money!" The Mount Of Olives, where Jesus ascended to heaven, is covered in Jewish graves and only tycoons like Robert Maxwell who could afford the £10,000 plus burial fee are laid to rest there. The gift shop around the corner from the room where the Last Supper was held, which itself is packed with tour groups babbling in a myriad of tongues and conspicuously lacks a long table, is open on the Sabbath and offers wooden nativity scenes for a mere $25. And at the Wailing Wall, the silence of prayer is shattered when one tourist's mobile phone bursts into action. Thankfully, Dom Joly doesn't hove into view shouting, "Hello?! No, it's shit."

Nevertheless, while we strolled through Carmel Market on Friday, police cleared this very area because of Palestinians hurling stones over the Wailing Wall. As for the checkpoint and metal detector you pass through to get into the square, that offers protection against a far more vicious enemy. An American cult had vowed to commit suicide on the Temple Mount on the Muslim side of the Wailing Wall last millennium. And had that plot succeeded we'd probably be on the wrong side of World War III by now.

It's little wonder, then, that many Israelis choose to spend the Sabbath at the Dead Sea, an hour's drive east. At 400 m below sea level it's the lowest point on the planet and, when you're up to your ankles in supposedly therapeutic mud, quite possibly the smelliest too. But when you let yourself lie back and feel the thirty seven per cent saline solution keep you high in the water, it's easy to relax and let the sun bake away your troubles. . . until you lose your balance and the hideous liquid stings your mouth or eyes.

Sigal and Shon from Jerusalem don't waste their time floating, they're too busy smearing each other lasciviously with mud. "It's very sexy here," says Sigal, running her hands over her grinning boyfriend. "A good place for lovers? Sure, but not in the sea." "You have to pretend," nods Shon. "Apart from The Mess and the army, everything in Israel is good", adds Sigal. And you can still find happiness despite all that? A simple reply: "We have to."

LATER that night, we run into a girl in Tel Aviv who turns everything we've heard on its head. "Israel sucks," she frowns, her dark features growing stormier. "Nothing ever happens here, it's boring. The people who say they like it are lying." What about TLV? That was amazing. "Yeah, but you didn't have to be selected to get in. They pick the person for the colour of their skin. If you're white and blonde you get in. If you're like me, you don't stand a chance."

The reality is that Tel Aviv is a fantastic city if you can afford £20 to get into a club and £4 for a drink inside. With most Israelis earning an average of £670 a month and holding down two jobs to survive, that leaves anyone who's not a lawyer or working with computers very pissed off indeed. Throw in three years of national service for men and twenty months for women that fills Tel Aviv with rifle toting teenagers who act as if they're wearing school uniform, and you have a country of conflict and contradictions.

Even so, our girl's final sneer of "only in Israel" takes on a different meaning when we sit on the beach that night, puffing strawberry tobacco through a bong, and gaze up at the twinkling neon skyline. Or when, much much later, we pass by a drunkard slumped on a concrete bollard in the midst of a friendly debate with two policemen, who just sit in their patrol car, smile and hold out their walkie talkie for the amusement of all at HQ.

Only in Israel? Amen to that.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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