Notes from Israel: So long and thanks for all the hummus
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched down last week at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, amidst unprecedented excitement, I couldn’t help thinking about my own trip to Israel just a few weeks before his.
Modi is the first Indian PM to ever visit Israel and the trip’s geo-political importance is undeniable. But I am just an ordinary traveller – definitely not the first from India to visit Israel and surely not the last – but memories of my warm welcome with open arms everywhere are still fresh.
India enjoys unbelievable popularity and equity across Israel. Unlike other countries, the reason is not Bollywood or cricket, but pure unbridled, unabashed love for India and all things Indian – be it yoga, food, culture, history or hashish.
Much of this stems from the three years compulsory combat training in Israel that is usually followed by a ‘mandatory’ (sic!) year-long holiday in India!
You from India?
“You from India?”, they enquired effusively wherever I went. The waitresses, restaurant owners, bartenders, DJs, drivers, in hipster bars and sandy beaches, all welcoming me with the warmth of a long-lost relative bringing tidings from their homeland.
They showed the same manner of excitement with which we spot Indian names in the end credits of a Hollywood flick!
“I went many years ago… Beautiful country, beautiful people! It’s been too long!” sighed Inbara, the naturalist at the Agmon Hula Birdwatching center as we leisurely explored the park in golf carts.
At a candle shop in the town of Safed (Tzfat), former center of Cabalistic learning and one of the four holy cities in Israel, Gabriela reminisced about her trip as a teenager and was looking forward to taking her teenage daughter to India on her maiden visit.
Tzefat is also the highest city in Israel and offers a close look into Jewish culture and traditions. “So, your PM is coming! You the advance party, eh?”, joked an art shop owner in the Artist Quarter.
Some rattled off names of places they visited in India. “One time in Dehli, you know…” Everyone had a favourite India story he or she was dying to narrate…
And the love is being well reciprocated. Since 2015, the number of Indian tourists visiting Israel has seen a jump of 49%. In 2016, it touched 45,000. The numbers were only rising each year…
Our amazing guide Ofer Moghadam, who specialises in Holy Land tours and often caters to German and American tourists, mentioned that he too had seen a rise in Indian arrivals in recent times. What started off as a trickle of pilgrim tours to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, was now a flood that went beyond the holy trail to more offbeat locations.
The ant and the elephant
The recent bonhomie seems like some strange fairytale love of species as disproportionate as the Ant and the Elephant. India is massive, like a lumbering pachyderm; Israel is tiny in comparison, but swift like a bee.
India has the highest mountain ranges in the world in the Himalayas while Israel has the lowest point on earth’s surface – the Dead Sea. Yet, there were uncanny similarities.
Ancient lands of spirituality and enlightenment, both India and Israel were birthed in violence, mid-wifed by the British. Both countries run on organised chaos, a concept Ofer explained as balagan, Hebrew for ‘bedlam’ or ‘absolute pandemonium’!
Tel Aviv is the main international port of entry and many assume the vibrant city to be the capital of Israel (which actually happens to be Jerusalem!) But Tel Aviv was conceived as a secular anti-thesis of overtly religious Jerusalem and Tel Avivians are often blamed for being on a different planet.
The local adage goes that while Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays. From the time we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, named after Israel’s first Prime Minister, any place seemed a short drive away.
You could have lunch at Israel’s northern tip at the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra that has a cable car descent into sea grottos carved out by seawater into limestone cliffs.
And be in time for dinner at Eilat in the south on the Red Sea. One could drive from north to south and be out of the country in a matter of hours. At one moment we are at the border with Jordan, the other instant with Lebanon and Syria.
An Indian connection
Haifa, Israel’s third largest city and a port town in the north, shares an interesting Indian connection. During World War I, lancers of the Jodhpur and Mysore cavalry regiment overran Turkish Ottoman and German machine-gun positions in a dramatic horseback charge to win the Battle of Haifa for the British. Many Indian soldiers who valorously took part in WWI in Egypt and Mesopotamia lie buried at the Haifa cemetery, their sacrifice not forgotten.
Today, the same hillside of Mount Carmel is covered with landscaped gardens of the Baha’i world centre, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Haifa is proud of its Jewish-Arab coexistence, exemplified in Douzan restaurant in the old German
Colony, renovated into an avenue of bars and restaurants. Owner Fadi explained that douzan was the term for the tuning of the oud, a stringed instrument. The alfresco restaurant with a convivial air was where he fine-tuned people so that they remained in harmony.
All the furniture at Douzan was sourced from Italy, Germany, Lebanon and Syria and no two tables were alike. Each piece, like an individual, was special and unique. The food is hybrid – a shared Mediterranean legacy of Palestinian, Arab and Lebanese dishes with a smattering of French and Italian cuisine.
Its friendly vibe recreated what is called the ‘Haifa atmosphere.’ Our hunt for the best hummus took us from Café Ziad in Jerusalem to Abu Hassan in Jaffa and Osul Restaurant (literally‚ genuine) at Yesud HaMa’ala to Magdalena, voted as the Best Arab restaurant in Israel, which serves fresh Tilapia from the Sea of Galilee.
Puaa, whose furniture is sourced from the Jaffa flea market and every item is for sale, has been wowing gourmands for 16 years in a country where trends don’t last 16 months. Jewish Biblical cuisine In Jerusalem, Chef Moshe Basson of Eucalyptus restaurant, who fondly remembers his encounter with Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, dishes out meticulously researched Jewish Biblical cuisine.
The chef harvests his own herbs like sage, rosemary, mint, using them in dishes like fish falafel, figs stuffed with chicken, eggplant and cream, pate macaroon and maklubah – like a potato and chicken biryani!
For me, Israel was a childhood dream come true – reading a book while afloat in the Dead Sea, visiting Jerusalem, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea Scrolls, sailing on the Sea of Galilee, eating a ‘Jaffa’ orange!
And yet, there was so much more Israel offers... from the Negev desert to the beaches of Eilat, old Crusader towns of Akko (Acre) and Sfad, erstwhile Roman outpost of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, Segway rides down Tel Aviv’s Sea Shore Promenade to food tours through Carmel shuk – the only authentic Arabian style market.
There’s craft beer on offer at Israel’s first microbrewery The Dancing Camel or Beer Bazaar, architecture tours in the Bauhaus district or White City, a Tel Aviv Port Tour, a street art tour in Florentin and night tours through the hip quarter of Rothschild to hipster clubs like Kuli Alma, Sputnik.
In trademark lightning swiftness, Israel has made the evolutionary leap from the Land of Creation to the Land of Recreation. So long and thanks for all the hummus!
Modi’s pit stops
• Ben Gurion International Airport
• Danziger Dan Flower Farm
• Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
• King David Hotel
• Synagogue Route at Israel Museum
• Indian War Memorial, Haifa
• Water Desalination Unit, Olga Beach
For more info visit goisrael.in or tel-aviv.gov.il
Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week and takes less than 8 hrs. Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Tel Aviv via Istanbul – a journey of 11 hr 45 min while Ethiopian Air flies via Addis Ababa (12 hrs). Haifa is just over 90km north of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem 72 km SE.
Where to Stay
Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 3 5201818; carlton.co.il
Dan Panorama Hotel, Haifa
Ph +972 4 8352222; danhotels.com
Prima-Royale Hotel, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 5607111; prima-royale-jerusalem.hotel-rn.com
Rimonim Galei Kinneret Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6728555; rimonimhotels.com
The Scots Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6710710; scotshotels.co.il
Where to Eat
Douzan Restaurant, Haifa
Ph +972 539443301
The Eucalyptus Restaurant, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 6244331; the-eucalyptus.com
Magdalena Restaurant, Magdala
Ph +972 4 6730064; firstname.lastname@example.org
Puaa Restaurant, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 3 6823821
What to Do
Holy Land/Tel Aviv/Dead Sea tours
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799 ofermog.com
SEGO Segway Tours, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 528551932 sego.co.il
Tel Aviv Night Tour & Graffiti Tours
Dror Shoresh Ph +972 507814575; GetRealTLV@gmail.com
Cable Car Ride, Rosh Hanikra
Ph +972 732710100; rosh-hanikra.com
Ancient Galilee Boat & Museum Nofalon Tourist Centre, Ginosar
Ph +972 4 9119585; thegalileeboat.com
Galilee Sailing, Tiberias
Ph +972 509397000
Agmon Hula birdwatching centre
Ph +972 4 6817137; agamon-hula.co.il
The Citadel, Tower of David, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 6265333; tod.org.il
Wine tasting at Adir Winery & Dairy
Ph +972 4 6991039; adir-visit.com
Ilana Goor Museum Tour, Old Jaffa
Ph +972 3 6837676; ilanagoormuseum.org
Follow Anurag Mallick's travels on Instagram at @red_scarab and @anuragamuffin on Twitter.