You can learn a lot about the Middle East just by riding in the back seat of an Israeli cab. There, from an upholstered bucket seat, you can watch Israel’s modern history unfold outside your window. And there is no better guide to put it all into context then the sage, and often eclectic, cabbie sitting right in front of you.
It was a warm April evening a few years back when I arrived for the first time at Ben Gurion airport. I walked out of arrivals and got in a line for a sherut – a shared taxi. After about 15 minutes a yellow van pulled up and me along with about 10 other people climbed in. We drove south along Highway 1, past Lod and Ramla, and the 1949 armistice line, and onward towards Jerusalem. It was after midnight and everything outside was pitch black except for the dim lights above the road.
About 20 minutes into the drive we started to climb into the Judean hills and that’s when I noticed a column of broken down military trucks parked on the median. I asked our driver about them and in a thick Russian accent he told me that they were the remnants of a convoy that broke the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. Then he leaned closer and said, “In this country, every road has a story to tell”.
As we drove on, we passed through the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Even though it was well past midnight there were still scores of families walking with their kids and congregating in front of reception halls. A few miles later we passed through another crowded neighborhood, less modestly dressed, whose residents were congregating by the bars and restaurants of Ben Yehuda Street. The sherut dropped me off in the upscale neighborhood of Mamilla where I could see the Tower of David and the illuminated walls of the Old City.
The following morning, I caught a cab to the eastern side of the Old City. As we drove down Sultan Suleiman Street, the scene changed from H&M and GAP stores to shawarma stands and mobile phone kiosks. We drove past Damascus Gate where young students hung out on the steps and middle-aged moms carried grocery bags home for dinner. We continued past the Lion’s Gate, which according to tradition is where Jesus began his final walk to the crucifixion. The cab dropped me off at the Church of All Nations and I continued on foot though the Muslim Quarter, past Armenian-run souvenir stands, and on to a budget hotel run by Franciscan missionaries.
Dinner in Zion
On Saturdays, the cabs in Jerusalem are mostly operated by Arab-Israelis. I hailed one just outside the Western Wall Plaza and headed out to find a restaurant that was open on the Sabbath. The driver surprised me when he bluntly asked, “So, do you keep kosher?” The cabbie and I talked for a while, about his family in Detroit and about where to get a good hummus. As we approached the restaurant, he asked me what time he should come back to pick me up. I didn’t believe he’d schedule his night around my dinner plans, but I told him 9:30 pm and then paid my fare.
After a hearty Moroccan meal, I walked outside and looked for a ride. My cellphone showed 9:29 pm and right then and there a cab pulled up, rolled down its window, and the driver from before asked me how dinner was. He got a good tip that night.
When my trip came to end, I caught a sherut to the airport from Nablus Road in East Jerusalem. We drove west along Route 443 which goes through a short section of Area C – an area in the West Bank under Israeli security and civil control. Every few miles we would pass a small military installation or a gated apartment block but otherwise the road was no different than the New Jersey Turnpike.
However, when our van approached the airport entrance, two IDF soldiers stepped out in front of us and directed us to the side of the road. We waited as two well-built MPs talked to our driver and checked the undercarriage of the vehicle with mirrors. After that, we were shown to the departures area where (for anyone who has traveled to Israel before) I began the familiar and hours-long process of trying to get to my gate. Finally, starved and exhausted, I sat down at an Iraqi food stand and ordered a sabich sandwich. The Middle East never tasted so good.
It would be several years before I traveled back to Israel again. This time, I arrived in September when the air is still burning hot and thick with dust. Outside arrivals at Ben Gurion, I caught a cab with a Maccabi Tel Aviv banner hanging from its rear view mirror and Israeli house music blasting from its radio. As we drove towards airport exit the driver slowed to watch a group of young women in long summer dresses. With his head halfway out the window, he said: “Let them flow free ladies, let them flow free”.
In Tel Aviv I stayed at a Holiday Inn that was a stone’s throw from Frishman Beach. That’s where in 1948 a firefight between rival Zionist factions, killing nearly 30 and destroying the cargo ship, the Altena. In the morning, I went down to the front desk and asked the concierge to call me a taxi. The Ethiopian clerk on duty walked through the front door and shouted to a group of older men sitting on the other side of the street: “Hey Baruch! Can you take this guy to Ra’anana?”
Baruch was from Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe) and had worked as an engineer in the telephone industry. He was retired now and liked to vacation in Germany and Poland which seemed odd since his family had been driven out of exactly those places nearly 75 years earlier. Before we headed out of the city, Baruch turned off the meter, and took me for a tour of the new port of Tel Aviv. He proudly pointed out the Nike outlet shops and trendy restaurants and said that it was all newly renovated. I returned that night and walked the boardwalk together with crowds of families celebrating the sukkot holiday. On the beach there was a giant sukkah where musicians were singing folksongs and parents danced with kids on their shoulders beneath the palm branches and dried pomegranates.
Although it’s only 70 km from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv might as well be on the other side of the planet. With skateboarders and hipsters shuttling up and down the beach promenade, the city has a chilled out vibe and the possibility to buy tubs of hummus or six packs of beer at 3 o’clock in the morning. I walked the promenade from Jaffa in the south to the Yarkon River in the north, past a mix of people that rivaled anything in New York or London. I walked past surfers with their dogs on Jaffa beach, past young religious boys praying in the sunset, past the burnt out shell of the Dolphinarium, past African immigrants having cookouts in the grass, past homeless guys rolling their belongings towards a quiet spot on the beach, and past buff twenty somethings warming up for a nighttime volleyball tournament.
When it was again time to go home, I was picked up by Yossi in a spotless Mercedes that he also drove for Uber. As we headed towards the highway, we drove past several buildings flying the yellow flag of Rabbi Schneerson’s sect, an ultra-Orthodox group that believes in the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Yossi turned his head and said, “I hope the messiah lowers my rent”.
It was smooth sailing all the way to the airport. No checkpoints or soldiers inspecting the bottom of our car. After Yossi handed me my luggage, I started walking towards the terminal but was stopped by an older man in a black hat and suit who handed me a lulav and ertog. “Hey buddy! You want to make a barucha with me?”, he aksed. I joined him in the prayer and afterwards he gave me some Chabad literature and asked me for a donation. I looked over and saw that Yossi was leaning on the side of his Mercedes and smiling at us. Then he got back into his his cab and drove off beneath the hot afternoon sun.