Jerusalem diary: Farewell, l'hitraot, wa masalaam

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


I have been one of the luckiest postcard-writers around. Between November 2007 and March 2010, I wrote a regular Jerusalem Diary for these pages. It allowed me to go off-piste from my day job as the Middle East correspondent for radio, TV, and the internet.

Sometimes, clichés are clichés because they speak a common truth. So here, unapologetically, is one: it has been a huge privilege to go to the places and meet the people who cram onto this small and turbulent land.

What follows is a selection of some of the photos I took and encounters I had over three years: some for this diary, some for radio, and some for my own private pleasure.

Viscous and sweet

Many places claim an over-riding passion for food, and its rituals. The Middle East is one. This couple made the most extraordinary olive oil I have ever tasted, and had clearly been doing so since biblical times. They lived in a hamlet close to Nablus. I would buy it in jerry cans, from the courtyard of their family home. They measured the oil using stones as balancing weights. It was dark green, viscous and sweet. Next to it, all other olive oil seemed as weak as water.

Lettuce festival

One of my happiest diaries. I withstood a certain amount of mocking, from fellow Jerusalem journalists, for saying that I was off to cover the 16th Festival of Lettuce, at a village near Bethlehem. How little they knew. Believe me: I was no great fan of lettuce, believing it to be a mere green stocking-filler.

My first sight was therefore a surprise - always a good thing in journalism, that. Before me, grown men, transported in private or communal rapture, were devouring great clumps of the stuff. And they had every reason to. It was magnificent. "Sweet and juicy, with a magical top note of dill," I wrote in my notebook.

Running for Gaza

Sari Bashi runs Gisha, an Israeli human rights group which specialises in challenging the Gaza blockade. She also, er, runs. Her thing is marathons, and - recently - ultra-marathons.

She sees a thickly drawn parallel between her work and her hobby. And so it made sense - at the time - for me to interview her about Gaza, while going for a run with her. This is an excerpt from some of the strangest-sounding 45 minutes I have ever committed to tape.

This was taken in Gaza, immediately after the end of Operation Cast Lead, in January 2009.

Dr Abu Eleish

Occasionally, as a journalist, you meet people of astonishing integrity and bravery. Izzeldin Abu Eleish was one. His story was unique, even before the Gaza war of 2009.

He was a Gazan gynaecologist, who used to travel regularly to Israel to treat Jewish patients. In 2008, his wife died of cancer.

In January 2009, three of his daughters were killed, in northern Gaza, during the Israeli offensive. I met him in the hospital, near Tel Aviv, where another daughter, who'd been injured during the fighting, was being treated.

Coming of age

Arieh Czeisler was a quiet man with a remarkable life. I met him, at his home on a small, northern Israeli agricultural settlement, just a few days before his barmitzvah.

Jewish boys are supposed to have their barmitzvah - their religious graduation to adulthood - at the age of 13. Arieh did not have that chance. When he was 13, he was deported to Auschwitz. Now, as he turned 79, encouraged by some Israelis whom met on a recent tour of the Nazi death camps in Poland, he was about to have the ceremony, 66 years late.

Minor key

Not many national anthems are in a minor key. Most countries want the music to suggest hope more than longing. Which is why the Israeli national anthem is unusual.

But if you want pain, here's the paradigmatic pre-state Jewish song, "Eli, Eli". It's sung, in his office in Jerusalem, by one of the world's top Jewish musicologists, Professor Eli Schliefer.

My God: why have you forsaken me?

In fire and flames, they burned us.

Everywhere, they shamed and mocked us.

But no-one could turn us away from you, O God.

Loud debate

One of the treats of journalism is to walk in on worlds apart.

Yeshiva Aish Hatorah boasts one of the finest roof-tops in Jerusalem, overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

Inside is a scene redolent of many hundreds of years of rabbinic Judaism - students and teachers poring over texts and exegeses, trying to reach enlightenment through loud debate.

Welcome to Israel

Everything - well almost everything - is political over here. Hapoel Katamon fans wear their allegiances with pride. 

I have never been to another football game where the one of the terrace anthems is The Internationale, and where the half-time entertainment - to wild applause - was a bunch of Sudanese refugees being brought on to the pitch, to be welcomed to the country they hoped would now be their home.

Keeping the faith

Amos Oz is a rare man: an internationally acclaimed author who lives in a modest house in a modest town, deep in the Negev desert. I interviewed him, in his house, on his 70th birthday.

His accomplishment is not just literary. He was a progenitor, as he explained, of the two-state solution. And, despite the gales of pessimism and cynicism that blow through this place, he keeps the faith.

No-one's constituent

In the dust of conflict, some are more dispossessed than others. The Bedouin - particularly the Bedouin on the West Bank - have some of the toughest lives. 

They are no-one's constituent. This baby girl lived among a small collection of tents and shacks, next to the thriving settlement of Karmel, on the southern Hebron hills. From time to time, the Israeli army come and demolish a Bedouin hut, on the grounds that it is built without planning permission.

Meanwhile - despite the professed "settlement curb" - construction of new houses is currently carrying on apace in Karmel.

West Bank life

Shoshanna Shilo appeared in my closing From Our Own Correspondent from Jerusalem. She was warm and welcoming, and utterly clear-eyed about what moved her to settle in the West Bank.

Ideologically-motivated settlers are a minority of the estimated 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Shoshanna offered one of the crispest explanations I ever heard of why she was one of them.

Abu Hamer was the mayor of Burqa, a village close to Migron - one of the largest unauthorised outposts in the West Bank.

The Israeli Supreme Court had ruled that Migron had been built, illegally, on privately-owned Palestinian land, much of which belonged to villagers from Burqa. Several court-issued evacuation orders have been delayed and delayed and delayed.

Having interviewed Abu Hamer some weeks previously, he then invited two colleagues and me back to his home for "mansaf"… for which he slaughtered one of his 12 sheep. A great honour, and a wonderful meal.

Difficult day

There are two reports to be done each May. One reflects the Israeli perspective on the state, on the anniversary of its creation in 1948. The other piece hears from Palestinians, on the anniversary of what they call the "Naqba", or catastrophe.

For Israel's 60th anniversary, in 2008, I took Nahla Assali back to the house, in west Jerusalem, where she had lived until the tumult of May 1948. She now lives in a small apartment in east Jerusalem. It was her first time back inside the house for 60 years. Then, as we went up on to the roof, her difficult day became more so.

Too much pleasure

The eponymous Dr Shakshuka (aka Bino Gabso, a Libyan emigre, living in Jaffa) is too modest. His signature dish of eggs poached in a thick, spicy tomato sauce is - in my reasonably wide experience - the Prince of Shakshukas.

He now has added high-quality shwarma (shaved meat kebab) to his repertoire, leading to Death by Pleasure.

One of my favourite Middle Eastern sounds. The qanoun, plucked inside a grand and shabby building in Damascus. Mohammed Kheder was a recently arrived refugee from the civil war in Iraq.

Always searching

People often asked how it was possible to deal with the clamour of competing narratives, and arrive at the truth. I used to say that the search for fact and for context should never stop - that it would be dangerous ever to convince yourself that your journey had finished. And then, I found it, on a street in Beirut. You can imagine my relief.

Here are some of your comments on Tim Franks' final Jerusalem diary:

Mr Franks, I read your commentary this morning. It saddened me, it made me smile, it made me hungry, it made me cry. The music was beautiful. God gave you a gift. The gift of seeing beauty and wonderment in chaos and poverty. The photographs were stories unto themselves.

Leon Ceniceros, Mesa, Arizona, US

We need more pieces like this one for us to understand why peace in the Middle East, and everywhere else for that matter, is so important. The subtleties of everyday living that allow people to relate to one another simply cannot be captured by reports about military offensives, peace negotiations and high level politics. I for one am glad to have finally seen the truth.

David Esquivel, Boca Raton, Florida, US

Tim Franks says there are two reports to be done in May - Israel independence and the Naqba. A highly misleading dichotomy, considering that both the resulting war of independence and the so-called Naqba were started by the Arabs who rejected the UN partition plan. Missing altogether from Franks' narrative are the Jewish refugees, who were forced out from Arab countries in greater numbers than the likes of Nahla Assali.


Tim Franks wrote: "This couple made the most extraordinary olive oil I have ever tasted, and had clearly been doing so since biblical times." They must be very old! That olive oil must have extraordinary properties. Tim Franks has found the fountain of youth.

Sue Clamp, St Ives, Cambs, UK

As a father I remember thinking at the time of the killing of Dr Abu Eleish's three daughters, how would I react if this happened to any of my children? Listening to your interview with him I am humbled by his continued willingness to try to find a way towards a peaceful solution, and his humanity towards those who do not.

Patrick Dunne, New York, US

I found your piece to be very interesting and touching - snapshots of your time in the region. However, given that your piece encouraged open and honest dialogue, I have one request. Please do not refer to the "death camps of Poland." They were death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. By calling them death camps of Poland (which implies Polish death camps), you contribute to a mythology which has put many people at odds over culpability, accountability, and guilt during WWII. I don't mean to harp on one particular phrase within an article, but in a situation where there is still a great deal of anger, the first step is always to properly account for the historical actualities.

Justin B, Washington DC

Bravo Tim, and many many thanks for making it a real pleasure to read your articles. Please continue to be true to yourself, and report stories from around the world.

Georges Abou Adal, Beirut, Lebanon

Tim, I have enjoyed many of your postings over the last few years. I have not always agreed with your sentiments but nevertheless I thank you for your honesty, integrity and wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

Khalid, London

Massive thanks to Tim for writing this beautiful diary. To see such simple things as lettuce combined with such profound sadness made it all the more poignant. To see Areih; a holocaust survivor standing so calmly in a field of goats preparing for his barmitzvah is something that'll stick with me for a long time. He has such dignity, fulfilling his rite of passage and showing that the lives of (Jewish) people will go on, if a little delayed, despite the terrible things which have happened and are happening in the world is such a hopeful idea. Resonating with the final photograph: Truth.

Joy, London, England

Just wanted to say how good it is to see stories from both sides, Palestinian and Israeli. I have met great people on both sides of the divide and hope that one day they and their descendants will live together in one nation in peace. Great article.

Ruth, Glasgow, Scotland

I hope that my career as a journalist will lead me to seeing truths as passionately and widely as did Tim Franks. Thank you for giving us the keys to your diary's lock - may it unlock some bit of understanding and peace.

Sarah-Taissir Bencharif, Kingston, Canada

Remarkable. Reading about his experiences makes you feel like you were there, makes you want to go there to see it for yourself. Tim's wide range of experiences and the way he's covered all areas, different generations and simple but not so simple lives of every individual with intricate detail is excellent! He takes us on a journey from the past to the present and leaves suspense of what the future of each individual will hold... will Dr Shakshuka add anything else to his menu?

Priyanka Mehta, Nairobi, Kenya

It is a pity that most of your reports were not as well balanced as this.

Stuart Miller, London

A very interesting an entertaining article from Tim. Although the first couple do appear to be of a more senior age, is he sure they have been making olive oil since "Biblical times" though?

Steve, Birmingham

Excellent text! Tim Franks really manages to humanise the facts that are happening in Israel, and that we see everyday in a rather "technical" way. This is real journalism. Awesome stories have to be told!

Victor Sebben, Passo Fundo, Brazil

Yes, all correct. A Land of contradictions, where life can be enchanting and savage. The people of all origins could be blessed in such a place if only the extremists on both sides could be side-lined by the too "silent" majority.

Roy Lewis, UK