Time flies but does it fly faster in the Middle East?
Each time I fly from Tel Aviv to London, something strange happens. As soon as we land and go through the airport, I feel like I’m in a different reality, not a different country. Let me explain further – it’s as if the pace of time itself has changed and slowed down. Then during my stay I notice that 24 hours in London feels longer than a day in Tel Aviv. Now, this claim is based on absolutely zero scientific evidence or ‘data’ – but I estimate that time travels approximately 1.57 times faster in Israel.
It’s not just me. Others who live in Israel and came from elsewhere have noticed this phenomenon. Friends have told me numerous times that they experience time simply passing by faster in the heat and chaos of Israel.
A popular saying in Hebrew is z’man tas meaning ‘time flies’. Of course, Brits say this too but in my mind, UK time is a cruiser airline while Israeli time is a fighter jet. Just look at the headlines, it’s easy to see there’s a lot going on in this part of the world. Is it any wonder Israelis often feel the need to say la’at, la’at (‘slowly, slowly’) or shway, shway in Arabic?
You could say it’s just an illusion – that it’s the concept of our so-called busy lives that makes us feel like we’re on turbo time. You could say it’s an urban phenomenon – that all fast-paced cities are, well, faster paced. But I want to dig deeper and explore this phenomenon.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories is geographically located in the centre of the Middle East, where the shifting Eurasian, Arabian and African tectonic plates converge. Modern Israel also represents the convergence of religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as heightened political tensions. It’s home to a dynamic hi-tech industry and continuous building development, all taking place in a relatively compressed landmass, the size of New Jersey.
On top of this, nearly 50% of the population reside in Gush Dan, the bustling centre of Israel. Every day there’s traffic jams on the highways, everyone’s always in a rush. Sometimes Israel feels like eight million people stuck in a traffic jam.
All this means that Israel is an intense place with a high concentration of energy. There’s no time to be bored. There’s always action. But is there such a thing as too much action? If we’re always rushing from the next crisis or craze to the next, then we can’t reflect, contemplate and consider where to go next.
One reason why time feels faster in Israel could be the weather. Israel and the Palestinian Territories enjoy a Mediterranean climate with year-round sun. This means that it can feel like there’s no real seasons. With the exception of this past year’s rainy winter, there’s usually only a dozen or so rainy days annually. Winter comes and goes quickly, and spring and autumn kind of blend into summer. The sun sets around the same time every day (around 6-7pm), unlike the northern hemisphere, where it can get dark at 9pm in summer and 3pm in the winter. This lack of seasonal changes makes the months and years pass by in a blur.
Then there’s the Jewish festivals. And there’s a lot of ‘em. At any time of year, you can’t go wrong by saying ‘Chag Sameach’. No sooner do our children start the academic year in September, then comes Rosh HaShana, followed swiftly by Yom Kippur and a week of Sukkot. Two months later there’s Chanukkah, followed by a steady run of Tu BiShvat, Purim, Pesach, Yom Hatzmaut and Shavuot, then school’s out for two months from July. The chaggim are very special in Israel but they do take a toll and can make us, particularly parents, feel like we’re frantically jumping from holiday to holiday, while trying to work, rest and plan our lives in between.
That’s not to mention all the weddings, birthdays, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, work parties, fun days, school trips, Shabbat dinners, and other family gatherings.
On top of the Jewish festivals and family events, Tel Aviv has a pretty busy social calendar. Marathons, half-marathons, bike rides, Laila Lavan, Eurovision (this year), live music events, food and drink festivals, the Pride Parade all build up our expectations – again taking us away from the ‘now’ or thinking about the long-term.
This relentless ‘need for speed’ and short-term thinking is not always beneficial for business. A little-reported truth in Tel Aviv is that many shops, restaurants and startups have short lifespans. Countless bars and restaurants open every year in the city, many riding on a trend or buzz after opening, then closing down after a short honeymoon period. Tel Avivians are always looking for the next big thing, but when that new thing becomes old, it ceases to interest.
Similarly, other sectors, such as charity, education and the environment are often overlooked as people don’t have time to think or worry about the long-term. Everyone’s too busy dealing with the immediate crisis or current trend. Who cares what will happen in twenty years? Who cares if we’re behind in terms of recycling our waste? Who knows even if we’ll be here in twenty years?
Or maybe I’m wrong, as I am frequently. Maybe the fast pace of Israeli life has nothing to do with its political tensions, climate, festivals or events. Perhaps, it’s a global phenomenon that’s part of the age of technology. Even if you’re not the CEO of a startup, simply managing your Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp or other online accounts, can eat up all your free time.
Receiving endless notifications, reminders and messages gives us the illusion of being perpetually busy, even if we’re not.
That’s not to mention addictive media like Netflix, Youtube, 24-hour news or social gaming – we literally don’t have time to be bored any more. It’s only when we go far away and ‘unplug’ for a while do we find we have minutes and hours to kill or fill (depending on how you view free time). And what is free time anyway? Aren’t we always supposed to be free?
Perhaps it’s just a universal ‘age thing’. As we get older, time seems to speed up. Evidently, a year feels different at 40 than it did at 18-years-old. Some elderly people view years passing by like months, as if they’re running out of time, while others experience life dragging on.
Maybe it’s being a parent – children take up so much of our time that we feel like we have none left for ourselves. Yet, even before I was a father of three, I felt – and it’s nothing more than a ‘gut feeling’ – that time whizzed by faster in Israel. I never looked at my watch in Israel and thought, ‘Wow, it’s going slow today’.
I’m also aware that this is only my own individual perception and that time is as subjective as it is abstract. Yet, after living in Israel for over a decade, I’ve seen how quickly things change here and how slowly things change in the UK. In Israel, change is the only constant.
Despite all this change and ‘development’, Israeli politics is at a stalemate. Politicians know that people yearn for stability. Hence, Benjamin Netanyhu has been PM for a decade and Ron Huldai has been Mayor of Tel Aviv since 1998. The major political parties openly celebrate keeping the ‘status quo’.
Leaders deliberately waste time and use delay tactics to halt change. Bibi has openly tried to postpone the October court hearings into his corruption charges. So-called ‘King Bibi’ has made a career of delaying peace talks with the Palestinians. The upcoming elections in September are being used as yet another excuse to slow down the US-led peace process. Right-wingers such as Naftali Bennett deliberately sabotage any mention of peace talks. Of course, terrorist organizations like Hamas are also turning back time, deliberately perpetuating the cycle of hate, retaliation and chaos. The question is: Are we running out of time for peace?
War, and the threat of war, are obviously not good for long-term thinking. In times of peace, Israel is able to breathe – people start caring more about improving infrastructure, the environment, education and human rights. But then a war comes along and all that progress and long-term planning is eclipsed by short-term anger and radical nationalism.
Taking Back Time
But there is a way out. While it’s true that we can’t slow down time, we can change our lives and our perception of time.
Firstly, many people are realising the importance of practices such as meditation, mindfulness and other ways to ‘press the pause button’. Some are aware that we need to take a break from our phones, the endless messages, the internet, advertising, TV and other technology that eats up our minutes.
This is not being a technophobe – on the contrary, it’s about taking control of our use of technology, rather than being controlled by it. After all, the best technology is designed to save us time, not take it away from us.
Perhaps, we need to go deeper and draw inspiration from something much older and slower than us – nature itself. For example, any gardener will tell you that to grow a tree takes a lot of patience. First you must plant the seeds, then over months, with the right conditions, some of the seeds germinate, take root, before growing out of the ground as a young sapling.
Good things take time, or so they say. So why are we in such a rush to get through life? And why does modern society and education rush children into adulthood? Some research shows that teenage years now start earlier at 9 or 10-years-old. It’s not surprising that more parents are realising that they need to defend their children from the fast-paced world. Like a tree, a child must be given time to grow naturally. Too many exams, deadlines, homework, adverts, consumerism, computer games and general adult-related stress can take away from childhood.
Waldorf education, based on the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, is one way of letting children grow in a more holistic manner. Anthroposophic-style kindergartens and schools are a useful antidote and a growing branch of education in modern Israel.
As Steiner wrote in The Philosophy of Freedom, 1916: “We must find the way back to Her (Nature) again… We have torn ourselves away from Nature, but we must nonetheless have carried away something of her in our own selves. This quality of Nature in us we must seek out, and then we shall discover our connection with her once more.”
In Israel, we connect with nature in unlikely places. For example, the Negev desert has a totally different atmosphere to Tel Aviv, so much so that locals say it slows down to z’man midbar, meaning ‘desert time’. However, maybe ‘desert time’ is a state of mind that we can all enter, even if we’re not in the desert.
Though I believe, maybe delusionally, that time goes faster in the Middle East, I also believe that more people are aware that if we don’t slow down, we run the risk of literally losing our lives, and with it our minds and souls. When we get too wrapped-up in our careers, technology and rushing from place to place, we miss out on other aspects of life – family, travel, philosophy or finding meaning.
John Lennon famously sang, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” In Israel, life is what happens when you’re busy stuck in traffic jams.
In short, we must find a way to ‘pause’ time for our own inner peace, and who knows, it could help create some outer peace.