Lessons for CA from my Middle East trip

Feb. 27, 2013

By Katy Grimes


I just returned from a trip to the Middle East, and managed to pack several thousand years of history into three weeks. Against the warnings and concerns of many friends, my husband and I, and another couple, traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, then to Israel, where we rented a car and drove around the country.

I felt safer in Israel and Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

The people

No tour groups, no tour buses and no tourist restaurants for us. We thoroughly researched the countries ahead of the trip, and decided to immerse ourselves as much as we could in a short time. We ate at local restaurants, visited local bars, and hung out in local coffee houses, while sightseeing, meeting local people, and learning about the countries.

I think the most compelling part of any trip is always the people. The Turkish people were kind, welcoming and engaging. They openly shared much about the state of their country, their economy, their politics, culture, how they live, as well as their history. And many were chagrined that we were heading to Israel next.

The Turkish people are workers, industrious, fit, healthy and trim. There do not appear to be excesses in their lives. The young work, and the country’s older people still work.

Israelis were also friendly, but in a different way. They are much more serious given the threat they live with. Israelis also work hard. The welfare system in Israel is different from America’s because it is primarily for the tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jewish men who spend their days studying the Torah instead of working. But there is growing disdain and disenchantment among the working people of Israel because the highly subsidized ultra-orthodox Jewish class is growing, and draining precious resources.

Israeli’s openly expressed frustration with leaders who seem so willing to continue to give away Israeli land. They say that giving away Israeli land will not bring about peace.

It is evident in both Turkey and Israel that politicians have not imposed business-killing regulations. Someone with the imagination, work ethic and drive can still open a business without bureaucrats standing in their way.

We never saw “homeless” people as we see in America. There were a few beggars in Israel, but I never saw any in Istanbul.

However, there were plenty of clever shop owners, and operators of tiny bodegas, who make money very creatively when hawking their wares along the streets and alleys of the cities. These people work all hours of the day and night, without union rules and regulations. They know that work means income.

Real conservation

In Turkey and Israel, I observed sincere, effective energy conservation. Hotels have energy saving devices in the guest rooms which require the room card to be inserted in order for the electricity  to work. When the guest leaves and removes the card, all of the electricity shuts off. Businesses use this system as well.

The people of Istanbul and Israel drive small cars, scooters and motorbikes. I saw one Escalade SUV during my trip. The diesel Jeep Cherokee is a popular SUV option, and one not available yet in the United States, although it is expected soon.

The primary car manufacturers I saw were smaller models of Hyundai, Toyota, Skoda, Audi, Opel, Ford, Chevy, Pugeot and Kia.


History in this part of the world has been violent, dangerous and fatal for many civilizations.


In Istanbul, we saw evidence of the earliest cave dwellers during the Stone Age, Copper Age and Bronze Age. We saw artifacts and ruins from 676 BC, when Greek settlers arrived on the coast of Turkey; through Alexander the Great, Roman and Byzantine Emperors Septimius, Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian, Romanus Diogenes; and the fall of the Roman Empire. Then the Crusaders tore most of Istanbul down, but left their cross marks on buildings all over the city. The Ottoman Empire was ushered in, with Mehmet the Conqueror and Topkapi Palace. The building of the Blue Mosque and many of the 169 mosques in Istanbul took place from 1300 through 1567, when the “New Mosque” was completed.

The call-to-prayer at the mosques five times daily was interesting. Beginning at daybreak, the first call-to-prayer usually woke us up. We discovered that only about 12 percent of Muslims in Istanbul are observant.

We took a boat down the Bosphorus Strait to the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus was an important trade route in ancient Turkey, and many settlements along the river were established because of it.


Israel provided as much history. Located between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, along the Mediterranean Sea, we arrived at Israel’s primary airport, Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. We rented a car and drove along the western coast from Tel Aviv to Caesarea, Netayna, up North through Haifa to Safed, near the Lebanon border, to the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, and Tiberias, back down through the Jezreel Valley and the West Bank, to Jerusalem, where we stayed five days. Then we drove east toward Jordan to the Dead Sea and Masada, the first site Herod the Great fortified after he gained control of his kingdom in 35 BC. Then it was back to modern Tel Aviv.


Tel Aviv was an amazing contrast to Safed and Jerusalem, where mostly observant Jews and Christians lived. Tel Aviv is a much more secular and modern city, built only 100 years ago. While much of the oldest buildings are crumbling, the new construction was astounding. I counted 20 cranes working on different high-rise construction projects in the downtown area.

In Israel, we saw evidence of cave dwellers from 12,000 BC. In 3200 BC, Canaanite tribes established well-fortified cities, and by 1000 BC Jerusalem became the capital of the tribes.  King Solomon built the first Temple in 960 BC. But by 586 BC, Babylonians destroyed it. Future Temples were desecrated and destroyed, but many were rebuilt.

By 63 BC, the Romans invaded and captured Jerusalem, but also rebuilt much of the Holy City, including the new Temple, of which only the Western Wall remains today.

We walked along the footsteps of the Via Dolorosa. We walked the Stations of the Cross, the steps of the Crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. East stop commemorates the events during the torture, sentencing, carrying of the cross, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. The final stations of the crucifixion and burial are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We spent several hours in the Church built where Jesus was crucified, prepared for burial, entombed, and resurrected.

At the Shrine of the Book, we saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, the 972 texts first discovered in 1946 on the shore of the Dead Sea that consist of manuscripts from what is now known as the Hebrew Bible and other biblical documents.


Inside the Old City, we spent days visiting the Western Wall, the Arab quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter and the Tower of David.

The elements of Ottoman, Crusader and Byzantine architecture are all still evident, and amazing to see and touch.

I will remember the people. They know the history of their countries, and are painfully aware of current threats — unlike Americans, who seem defiantly determined to repeat the mistakes and ugliest parts of history.


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  1. stolson
    stolson 27 February, 2013, 11:03

    I worked with some male Israelis at their U.S. company and they were abrasive, pushy and rude. I worked with some Turkish men and they too were abrasive, demanding and curt. If you travel and meet them in their country as tourists, perhaps they act differently.
    We workers, btw, just assumed it to be the culture to act this way to workers. Just my experiences.

    Reply this comment
  2. Leiv Arnesen
    Leiv Arnesen 27 February, 2013, 11:43

    I was amazed when I visited the Old City. I am a Christian who was sent by my company with a Muslim Coworker, with whom I get along swimmingly. We hung out in the Arab quarter of the Old City at a coffee establishment with Israeli Jews and we all had a great time. In the city, Arabs, Jews and Christians ALL get along. There never appeared to be any annimosity, or ill-will. No one from any of the religions will defile the Holy City (holy to ALL 3 of the major religions). My question is, why can’t the same thing happen OUTSIDE the walls of the Old City?!?

    Reply this comment
  3. Ken White
    Ken White 27 February, 2013, 12:39

    An enjoyable article about what clearly was a fascinating trip.

    Because I would really like to know more about the juxtaposition in your mind on such points, it would be helpful if you could write a sequel and expand on your last paragraph:

    “I will remember the people. They know the history of their countries, and are painfully aware of current threats — unlike Americans, who seem defiantly determined to repeat the mistakes and ugliest parts of history.”

    Do you mean by this we do not know our history (totally agree, less than ever) and don’t have a clue about just how dangerous the world is? (I would agree here too) And if the “ugliest parts of history” means we wage too many wars to easily (I would agree with this too). But only you (Grimes) could tell anyone who would like to know, just what did you meant with your last paragraph. In it you dealt in generalities for Americans, but in the main narrative you dealt with more specifics for Turks and Israelis (e.g., “However, there were plenty of clever shop owners, and operators of tiny bodegas, who make money very creatively when hawking their wares along the streets and alleys of the cities. These people work all hours of the day and night, without union rules and regulations. They know that work means income.”).

    Now, Americans also work hard and own shops all over the country. Might you expand on what you meant. Your overall conclusion was so general, and I would really like to be more specific.


    (Note: I was one of your correspondents back when you were covering redevelopment. WE felt the same way about that, that redevelopment was a clear honeypot for the building industry, developers and so on, and that if only Brown would knock it down. Remarkably he did, to his ever lasting credit, and along the lower Russian River wehere I live, me and some friends who fought redevelopment for years, consider what Brown did was a miracle. Since that time I have always looked over CWD periodic updates with interest…)

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  4. Ken White
    Ken White 27 February, 2013, 12:43

    Sorry for grammar and other errors. No corrections tab when commenting to CWD! Both the Press Democrat and the SFGate websites have excellent correction options. I think they use the best format. Take a look.

    Reply this comment
  5. SeeSaw
    SeeSaw 27 February, 2013, 12:55

    The frozen cherries at my supermarker come from Turkey, and they are so terrible that I can’t buy them. I complained to the store manager, and they replaced them with cherries from Chile as long as the supply lasted and now they are back with the Turkey ones–terrible!

    Reply this comment
  6. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 27 February, 2013, 13:29

    abrasive, pushy and rude……

    You just described everyone in the Middle East. Religion is irrelevant…..Muslim, Christian, Jew……

    From Morocco to Pakistan, everyone is miserable.

    And from Seesaw…..a non-sequitur for the ages.

    BTW…my pepperoncinis are from Turkey…and are delicious. Let’s discuss! LOL LOL LOL LOL…..

    Reply this comment
  7. us citizen
    us citizen 27 February, 2013, 14:26

    Ive been to Turkey……..found it to be very interesting. Not the preconceived idea that everyone was riding around on camels. LOL

    Ran into a bunch of kids when we were at the Topkapi Palace. They all wanted to practice their English on us. Also at St Sophia

    Did you visit the Grand Bazaar? What a place! Loved it……but the shop owners were really pushy. They would follow you down the isle trying to make a sale. Bought some great pottery there.

    In that same trip we went to Ephesus and Kusadasi…….talk about biblical history!

    Then on to Morroco. That is the only place I have been so far that I did not trust the people. They seemed very underhanded to me and I didnt like it there at all.

    Glad to hear you had a great trip. That section of the world is soooooo different from anything anywhere in the US. Nice place to visit and learn, but wouldnt want to live there.

    Reply this comment
  8. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog 27 February, 2013, 18:01

    Ken – I used a broad brush when I said Americans seem defiantly determined to repeat the mistakes and ugliest parts of history.

    While not all Americans believe this or live like this, there is a prevailing attitude in America that ignores history in favor of selfishness, greed, laziness and self-indulgence.
    P.S. – we are almost finished with our new website.

    U.S. Citizen – We loved Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia. The Grand Bazar was shopping Mecca! I bought lots of treats – Turkish Delight, perfume, and goodies for friends. Bought a “Guns and Moses” t-shirt for my son.

    I loved the shop owners. I just smiled at them and politely declined their offers until it was time to haggle. Then the fun began. But I admit that I was the only blonde in the bazar… it seemed to draw extra attention.


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  9. us citizen
    us citizen 27 February, 2013, 18:36

    I would so love to go back there someday………so glad you had such a great adventure

    Reply this comment
  10. econprof
    econprof 27 February, 2013, 18:55

    I agree Turkey is a great place to visit–secular, western-oriented, capitalistic. But it is quite unlike the other muslim and Arab countries in those respects. It’s religion is far more tolerant and accepting of others, and it’s thriving economy and high standard of living is a great example of what the other muslim countries could achieve if only they would try.

    Reply this comment
  11. Hondo
    Hondo 27 February, 2013, 20:42

    Turkey became a secular country only after a horrific loss in world war one. Let us hope the rest of radical islam will go easier than that.

    Reply this comment
  12. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 28 February, 2013, 16:59

    Not a chance, Honda. Anyone following the path of Ataturk would be quickly assassinated today.

    Reply this comment

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