While slaving away at a waitress job in Switzerland in 1973, I read Exodus by Leon Uris. The book ignited in me an overwhelming desire to go to Israel, so I saved my money and flew to Tel Aviv. Did I pay attention to the fact that the country had just been at war? No. Did I consider the impact of the recent terrorist massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich? No. Did I worry when I arrived in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night and slept on the linoleum floor at the airport that the bullet holes strafing the wall above my head had been made within the last two weeks? No. I was nineteen years old, blissfully ignorant, and heading for the Promised Land.
As the warm, caramel-colored Middle Eastern sun rose and bathed Israel in morning light, I hitchhiked to Jerusalem. I stayed at the Methodist hostel in the Old City and spent weeks wandering the alleyways, befriending Palestinian children, old Jewish guards, and Hassidic women at the hammam (public steam bath).
I wanted to explore the rest of the country and chose Jericho on the West Bank in the Jordan Valley as my first stop; it is considered by many to be both the oldest city in the world (dating from 7,000 BC) and the lowest city on earth (250 meters below sea level). I hitched a ride south with an Israeli in a noisy tin can of a car. He was horrified that I wanted to go to Jericho and adamantly refused to drive me from the highway into town. He said the Palestinians would rape and rob me and I would never make it out of there alive.
I had him drop me off at the junction and walked into the town of Jericho anyway. I bought plump dates and succulent oranges and sat on a bench, watching dilapidated produce trucks clunk by and short dark women in black dresses zigzag across the plaza, stopping to talk to one another. Jericho was bathed in amber light and warm sun. It felt good on that bench.
I found a guesthouse and rented a room. Then I went for a walk—still no raping or robbing. I walked to the end of a dusty road that led to a tall, mud-brick wall worn down by eons of wind and history. The air caressed my skin; a luscious scent wafted on the whispering silken breeze. The wall surrounded an orange grove and the trees were in full waxy white bloom. The hum of hundreds of bees called me. I scaled the wall, dropped down onto the blossom-covered ground and wandered amid the aisles of trees. The drone of the bees pulled me into a hypnotic state. I lay down, closed my eyes.
When I awoke, a dark-skinned man was sitting directly in front of me. He wore a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checked scarf, white and black like Arafat’s, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was squatting, arms crossed over his knees. He just stared. I was startled but felt calm. He was calm. He spoke in soft, guttural Arabic, lit up a big newspaper-wrapped spliff and offered it to me. I didn’t smoke pot and shook my head. He puffed away and conversed. I had no idea what he was saying but understood he was the orchard guardian. He left me there and I daydreamed as the hills wavered in the heat. It was a timeless, peaceful place.
This became my daily pattern. I wandered the dirt roads leading out of town to the encircling orchard walls of times gone by. I could smell the ancientness, sense the spirits of long-dead residents’ robes brushing by me, feel the splendor of great cities bordering the Jordan River. I was a captive of my imagination and I couldn’t get enough of that orange-blossom smell.
One day, as I peeked through a gate keyhole in wonder at a particularly fragrant orchard, a man peeked back. The gate opened and there stood the tallest man in Jericho with the biggest ears! He smiled at me and spoke French. Finally, someone I could talk to.
With a grand sweep of his arm, he invited me into his garden. The black robe he wore was frayed and dusty around the edges as it dragged on the ground after him. His orange grove had a unique feature—in the center was an ornate whitewashed church. I had been befriended by a Coptic priest and this was his residence.
We sat in the shade, drinking mint tea, discussing worldly affairs. He had been born in Egypt, where Coptic Christianity originated, and in the course of many exploits he traveled through the Sinai to Israel. His ears waggled as he talked. Suddenly, rocks hit the ground around us, disturbing the harmony of our garden idyll. They were thrown by little boys on the other side of the wall who were walking home from school. The boys tormented the priest because he wouldn’t let them play in the grove. He scurried out the gate and chased them down the road, cursing them, his robes stirring up great billowing clouds of bone-dry dust.
This turned out to be a daily occurrence during our visits when I found myself in his garden, listening to stories of his very long life.
On Sunday I dressed up and went to church. I knocked on the wooden gate. The Coptic priest was splendidly attired in a clean robe. Massive ornate silver crosses hung around his neck, and his head was topped with a tall, pointed stiff hat. He ceremoniously led me inside the church. It was dark and small, musty and mysterious; paintings of gilded saints loomed on the walls over the altar.
There was one other person inside, a wizened old lady in black, kneeling and praying. Audibly. My friend commenced the service by lighting a gigantic copper incense burner that he swung around and around. As it built up momentum, he circumambulated the miniature room. Billows of intensely pungent copal fumes filled the church. They became so thick, I couldn’t see my hand. The clouds of sickly sweet smoke wrapped around like a boa constrictor and choked me. Through the haze I heard him chanting in a dominant voice. He refused to put down the incense burner. I was dying from smoke inhalation but felt obligated to stick it out and support him as part of his congregation of two—perhaps the only Christians in a sea of Muslims who would tolerate his penchant for ancient, murky rituals.
Two weeks passed, and another church service. I was becoming a fixture in Jericho. The women in town befriended me on my daily meanderings through the market and plaza. I became an object of lunch invitations and unintentionally initiated a town-wide competition to see who could make the most delectable Ma’aluba, a greasy lamb and rice dish that was not delectable at all since I was a vegetarian. However, I could not refuse their hospitality, so I had lunch many times a day. These abundantly wide women wanted to fatten me up and marry me off to one of their sons who, luckily for me, were all off studying at the university.
As if part of the conspiracy to increase my girth, the Coptic priest was always plying me with drippy, syrupy sweets and tree-plucked oranges. In spite of this fact, we became good friends. I trusted him and he never took advantage of me. In fact, no one did.
I felt protected and watched over in Jericho. What more could one ask as a guest in someone’s country? I was not a woman to exploit, a pocket to rob, or an American to hate. I was just the blond traveler from California sitting on a park bench eating dates, savoring the sweet, moist, nutritious fruits that have been nurtured for millennia in the oldest town on this earth.
This story has been published in Exotic Life: Travel Tales of an Adventurous Woman and Lonely Planet’s Tales From Nowhere: Unexpected Stories From Unexpected Places