After Lebanon, This American Tourist Is Heading to Hebron and Gaza

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: This Californian was inspired to travel the Middle East after reading Thomas Friedman's 'From Beirut to Jerusalem' ■ Fun facts about Albania, from an expat living in France

Jason Goff.
Tomer Appelbaum

Jason Goff, 40, from Palm Springs, California; arriving from Cairo

Hello, where are you coming from?

I’m from Palm Springs, California, but I’m arriving here from Cairo. Before that I was in Lebanon and from here I’m going on to Jordan. My wife is in India now – we visited her family there. She’s already been to Israel, so I made the trip by myself.

What do you plan to do here?

I’d like to see Hebron, and I also have a tour to the Gaza Strip, to the border, which looks interesting. It’s called Green Olive Tours, and I suppose they try to show the complexity of the picture.

You chose very specific sites.

Yes, well, that just interests me more. But I could also stay on a kibbutz. (Laughs)

What’s the object of the trip?

Nothing, just to travel, tourism. That’s also why they stopped me here earlier in the airport and asked me what the purpose of the trip is.

Yes, probably the passport stamps from Lebanon look suspicious. Would you like to say what’s happening there, in Lebanon?

Lebanon is fascinating. I made the trip because the politics of the Middle East intrigues me. It’s quite safe there. The truth is that I was surprised that I enjoyed the food in Lebanon. The politics there are complicated. The guide took me to every place, and it was hard for me to listen to him for three days, but also interesting. Mainly I tried to listen, because everyone there seemed to be politically charged, to be honest. There are Sunnis, Shiites, Christians in Lebanon, also two million Palestinians and other refugees, and now Syria. It’s hard to understand.

So you came to the region in order to see this thing that’s known as the Middle East close up?

I just enjoy learning. I was in the army and all, so I was always more pro-Israel, but I didn’t look at the other side. I read the book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” by Thomas Friedman, which made me want to see Lebanon. It was a superb book.

You’re not the first person we’ve met who came here in the wake of that book. What’s it like to travel alone?

I enjoy traveling alone, mainly because when you’re alone people come up to you and you’re more vulnerable, but in a good sense. There’s something threatening in a large tour group, and less probability of creating contact with local people.

That’s true, but even so, traveling alone sounds brave. You were in the army, but what do you do now?

I’m a teacher; at the moment I’m an assistant principal. Most of the kids in middle school in California are Hispanics. Some of the parents don’t know English, but the children already do. I enjoy working with children, but there was a time when I didn’t want to.

Why not, and what changed?

I had a business that didn’t succeed, and then there was the economic crisis a decade ago, which hurt me, too. I lost houses, and suddenly to get a salary sounded, well, good. The reason I didn’t want to, at first, is that my parents were teachers of children of army personnel in an American base in West Berlin, which is also the reason I grew up next to a base from age 9 to 18.

So you experienced the Cold War from up close?

Yes, it was interesting. For example, we would go to East Germany via the border and give Russian soldiers the finger. As children, we felt that they were our enemy.

How was the hospitality in Germany? Were the American troops received well?

Yes, the Germans received us well. In general, they were very welcoming. I even went to a prom with a German girl, and I played basketball on a German team. But to go to an American school in West Germany as a boy meant coping with bomb threats, and there was general hostility on the part of Russians.

You probably have very special childhood memories from there. It’s an unconventional adolescence. Would you like to share?

I remember that we went on a trip with the basketball team to Checkpoint Charlie, and we were followed by KGB agents. It was really weird, but what I remember most is that we used to take the night train through East Berlin and it was bone-chilling cold.

Red Rodoja.
Tomer Appelbaum

Red Rodoja, 42, from Nancy, France; flying to France

Hello, would you care to tell us how you spent your time in Israel?

I was here for three days. I did the basic trip of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and that’s all.

Why Israel?

Why not? Israel remains interesting. It’s the cliché of the Holy Land – the beauty of the landscape and the history, the political problems and the fact that when you get here, things look different.

That’s the thing about clichés – they can be accurate.

You can’t live without clichés. There are some that are consistent with reality, it depends on the beholder.

Right, right. And what do you do when you’re not tripping here?

I teach piano in a music school, children from 6 to 22. I also teach older people of 70.

How old were you when you started playing?

I was 6. I didn’t choose it. My mother played the cello and my father is a theater actor, so I had no choice. But I liked it. I’m Albanian originally, and in Albania we have a slightly Soviet approach to playing a musical instrument. My mother only really wanted to give me the best when she sat me down in front of the piano.

So something good can emerge from Soviet discipline.

Discipline exists, you need it, but I think that in our day it’s not so important to be tough, because children can choose to abandon the field if they want. In the Soviet period, there was no choice.

Are you just a teacher, or do you also perform?

I perform my compositions. I put out a CD of them. My music is new-classical; it’s not contemporary, it’s old. Along with French medieval influences, my music contains the influence of folklore and tradition from Albania, combined with epic songs. That’s my story, maybe I’m a person who lives in the past, in a certain sense. In fact, I think it’s impossible to see the future without connecting to the past – which is what you do in Israel, right?

We try.

In any event, it seems to me that tradition is good and beneficial when it’s used as a tool that’s in your control. It’s like a weapon, which can be used for defense or to attack. If you know the history, the public can balance the present and from it also the future. It’s like music – religious music, for example – with one note that you repeat over and over. Sometimes the rhythm or the language changes, but the base remains.

That’s quite accurate. And tell me, Red, do you miss Albania?

I feel that Albania is with me, so that I don’t especially miss it. I’m a slice of Albania, but I integrate easily. It apparently stems from the fact that we Albanians always tried to mingle, because we were always part of larger empires. It could just be hereditary with me.

Can you say something about Albania, so we can be a slice, too?

Surely. For example, in World War II the Albanians protected the Jews, not one Jew was abandoned to the Nazis. Most Albanians are Muslims and very few know Jews. Sometimes they think the Jews are part of the Armenians, but in World War II we found ourselves with more Jews than before the war, because they fled to us from other countries. The Albanian tradition of hospitality led us to hide them all and give them Albanian clothing.

What surprised you in Israel?

I was surprised at how normal it is here. On the train I saw beautiful women in uniform, with M-16s, and it looked normal to me.

You really adjust fast.

Yes.

What surprised you when you immigrated to France?

Well, I’ll begin by explaining something about Albania. I think we’re 70 percent Muslims, and Albania converted to Islam in order not to pay taxes. So religion isn’t really important to us, and when I got to France I saw a different Islam. I believe that a migrant should adapt himself to the place he comes to, and not vice versa. We need to accept those who have just opened their gates and accepted us.