More than just a business district: Tel Aviv

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Expectation

This was a business trip that I couldn’t get out of.

I’m a Muslim woman donning a hijab about to enter a Jew majority country, what was my first thought? I was terrified!

Customs

Heard horror stories of muslims being held at the customs for up to six hours, men mostly. And I’ve heard of some who were told to “come back again tomorrow”. I’ve heard of the stringent questioning at the customs. Some of my friends and colleagues who’ve been to Israel told me they were asked these questions:

  • What are your father and grandfather’s names?
  • What do their names mean (we usually have Arabic names)?
  • Do you know anyone in Malaysia?

These questions intimidate me because of a few factors – both my father and grandfather’s names are Arabic. I was afraid that they’d think I have connections to terrorists or if I’m one. I don’t know how to speak Arabic, so I don’t know the meaning of Arabic words or names. Two of my aunts married Malaysian men and my cousins were born there. I also made a lot of Malaysian friends from my Europe trip in 2014.

Politics

And then there’s the issue about Israel being a stolen land. News and social media are rife with videos and photos of what’s happening in the Middle East, especially Israel/Palestine. I saw videos of Palestinians being shot and beaten. Pictures of kids being used as human shields, tied and gagged. Scores of women and children photographed dead. Technically entering a warzone, I was expecting a rough time.

Qada’ & Qadr

Whatever the case, I was sure Allah wanted me to go and I believe if it comes from Allah, it must be good for me. It was a business trip so I couldn’t get out of it. I tried to but my boss wasn’t having it. “It’s very European,” he said. In fact, I felt like he was excited FOR me. All I could think was “He’s an angmoh. He won’t understand”.

The Journey

Flight SIN-IST

I’m always excited when I get onboard a flight. The things I look forward to are the entertainment, the food, taxi and takeoff/touchdown. Don’t ask me why i look forward to these things. Just some cheap thrill in the midst of a very boring process of getting from place to place.

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Flying high

Entertainment issue

My last couple of flights, I had issues with the in-flight earpiece. It’s either missing or didn’t work. If it’s not the earpiece problem, it’s the TV itself. This time, my earpiece was missing. I found out (when we reached Istanbul) that mine was placed in the magazine rack of my neighbour’s, two seats away to my left. Oh well, at least I had a good sleep.

Transit in Istanbul

Upon reaching Istanbul airport, me and my boss quickly found our way to the gate, got through customs and were transported by bus to the plane. It was smooth. Super fast! We had a very short 1hr 35mins transit and my boss had a difficult time at the customs a few years ago – they would check every page of your passport and ask you lots of questions. So we made sure we had enough time for that.

Customs at Istanbul

This time, my boss had no problems. I, however, had a little nerve-wrecking moment. The lady who checked my passport kept repeating my name again and again. She asked her colleague something in Turkish but her colleague seemed to brush it off and I was quickly given my passport back. Phew!

Flight IST – TLV

We got on a smaller plane for the next 2hrs 10mins journey. Like those of Air Asia and Ryan Air carriers.

An Israeli sat next to me and we started talking. Found out he was coming back from a business trip to Madagascar. The image of the rhino in Madagascar movie popped up in my head and I couldn’t think straight for a while.

We started talking about work, Singapore and Israel. He looked super tired (bloodshot eyes) and he kinda smell but I suppose I was the same. He looked haggard, like he hasn’t slept for days so at one point I pretended to sleep so he could get some rest.

Once our plane landed at Ben Gurion airport, we said our goodbyes and separated. Told my boss about him.

Boss: What’s his business in Madagascar?

Me: Didn’t ask. Probably trading live animals.

Customs: Entering

Upon touch down, I was calm. I had this “Let’s do this!” feeling inside me. I was excited to enter the country. I felt like I was about to enter forbidden territory and I was excited at the chance of possibly being able to.

Passport check

The queue at the checkpoint was quite short. I had all my documents ready – invitation letters, flight itineraries, hotel/hostel bookings and travel itineraries printed out and filed. As soon as I reached the checkpoint and passed my passport over, I was told to go to a seating area at the back.

Waiting Area

I went and sat. In about three minutes, my boss joined me. Not because he will be screened too but because he didn’t want to wait outside alone. This will take hours. A woman called me in and asked pretty basic things – what will I be doing in Israel, who will I be meeting, who was I with, etc. She was easy to talk to, not intimidating. In fact, she was somewhat friendly. She asked if the guy outside was with me. I told her yes, he’s my boss. She kept asking that same question a couple of times.

After a short 5 minutes, I was told to wait outside again. This time, it was quite a long wait. About 2 hours later, I was called in again by the same customs lady but to a different room.

Interview with customs officer

Anyway, when I was finally called in, I was asked in great detail of my travel plans, not only in Israel but also in Jordan and Egypt which I was planning to visit after I’ve done my business meetings.

All accommodation names, contact numbers and addresses, flight details, travel itineraries, tour names and contact details, partners’ contact details, etc were recorded into the computer. And as expected, the names of my father and grandfather were asked a couple of times.

She asked again if the ang moh waiting for me outside was my boss. I was even asked about paying zakat (and the organisation I paid my zakat to), my 5 daily prayers, praying in mosques, fasting, etc. Not sure why. Then again, I was told to wait outside.

Entry Access

The custom officer came back a while later with my passport with an entry visa. I was overjoyed. AL AQSA, HERE I COME…in five days.

Duration

That took almost 3hrs in total.

Business Meetings

Meeting itinerary

Full day, everyday. Most meetings took place in their offices but some were lunch meetings, which was nice. Not too formal and much more relaxed. We used Uber to get to everywhere, unless the offices were within walking distance, which was very convenient but it wasn’t a popular practice in Tel Aviv. Someone mentioned about safety issue – kidnappings.

Carpark fee payment

And car owners don’t tear out parking tickets like we do in Singapore, they use apps. I think Singapore should do the same. Just because it’s cooler, LOL!

People I work with & their offices

During business meetings, everyone I met was awesome beyond words. I felt so welcomed. Some of our partners showed us around their offices. There was this one office I totally love – they have the best view ever! They have open air smokers’ area overlooking the city and the beach beyond. I hope this doesn’t increase the number of smokers though.

And they have many game stations around the office where employees can take breaks anytime during the day. There’s also a lot of areas with snacks. I told my boss, if this is our office, all the snacks will be snapped up in two days.

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Wish this is my office view!
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Enjoy the view while smoking!

All of my partners recommended places for us to visit both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (I told them my plans). To any traveler, it’s the most amazing thing to be recommended places that locals love.

I was given TAKI, a card game by one of my partners but it’s all in Hebrew. I’m keeping it as a souvenir 🙂

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How do I play this?

Safety issue

Some of my partners kept reminding me to be careful while in Israel. There had been violent happenings in the past three weeks prior to my visit.

City of Construction

One of the ladies I met have been to Singapore and she was gushing about how clean it is.

Partner: How do you find Tel Aviv? It must be so dirty for you.

Me: Erm…not really. It’s different though.

That’s all I could afford. Tel Aviv was not particularly dirty, it’s not spic and span like Singapore but definitely not dirty. There’s a lot of construction going on and it’s a good mix of old, run-down buildings and metallic skyscrapers.

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Old buildings; there’s a lot of these
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Metallic skyscrapers – more of these coming up

Weather

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The trees kinda scare me at first

I love the weather. It was cool and sunny – perfect to sit in a café, al fresco. It got a bit cold one of the days but a good jacket will do the trick.

Temperatures was around 19 – 27 degree Celsius the week I was there. My boss said that was the coldest he experienced in Tel Aviv, which surprised him.

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People watching while enjoying the weather
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I love watching buskers in action

I loved walking around, not the best scenery but the weather makes it enjoyable. There were people chilling on their balconies, enjoying the weather. Kids playing in playgrounds, dogs being walked and some people were jogging. Pretty normal sight in a lot of countries.

However, I noticed a different kind of stillness in the air. It feels like everyone’s waiting for something and they’re holding their breath. This was weird, because there was also a laidback and relax atmosphere.

People

On the streets, I was generally ignored, which was great. I was expecting people to shoo me away or look at me differently or even get violent. None of that.

Unhappy kid

Well actually, there was this young girl, about 6 to 9 years old, who squinted her eyes at me and looked away irritatedly. She probably didn’t get something from her mom and was just angry in general.

Sweet surprise

I was walking alone one day and I felt someone came up to me from behind and asked, “Are you from Indonesia?” I shook my head and said no, I’m from Singapore. He smiled and said “welcome” and I waved back like a schoolgirl seeing her crush.

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This is where I met my ‘crush’

Scary men Group 1

There was this incident though. I got so scared afterwards that I didn’t go out for dinner and I just cried in my room. We had our last meeting on one of the days and we were walking out of the building when I noticed a group of men sitting on the sidewalk. At that time I came out first and my boss was way behind me. There were about ten of them. They saw me and immediately looked at me and started laughing and continued staring, talking amongst themselves. They have that mischievous looks on their faces. The worst part was that we had to walk in between them to get to the traffic light. I tried hard not to look at them and talked to my boss as normally as I could.

Scary men Group 2

We crossed the road and got to another traffic light. There was another group of men who did the same thing but way more obvious than the first. They were just a few feet away from me and they were pointing at me directly, laughing and staring. These men looked older and burlier. Behind me was a construction site so they were probably working there. I stood behind my boss, just in case. Not that it’s gonna help much if something were to happen – there were like twenty of them and my boss is not built like The Hulk. Slightly smaller than Shrek but definitely no Hulk. I was ready to run if one of them suddenly attacks. Luckily, nothing happened but I got really scared that I couldn’t eat that night.

Amazing friends

I posted a status on Facebook and I got some nice words from my friends. Calmed me down a whole lot! Some even texted me asking what happened and I got to release my tension. What’s sweeter was that it was way past their bedtime in Singapore and they all have work the next day. Alhamdulillah for such great friends!

Food

Halal

I didn’t see any halal food outlet – there should be some, I Googled, but since I was with my boss 95% of the time, I didn’t go searching for it.

Go vegetarian

There were a lot of hummus stalls selling just hummus and vegetarian food. I had to have faith that that was permissible enough for me. I brought my own loaf of bread and Nutella just in case. The serving portion of a meal was more than enough for me (I ate only once a day) so I ate my Nutella sandwiches when I was bored while doing work in my hotel room in the evening.

Food I ate in Tel Aviv

Lots of hummus, eggs benedict, pita bread, salmon, croissants, salads, avocados, omelettes, different types of breads, tuna, olives, jam, cheeses. I LOVE IT! I’ve never eaten this healthy before.

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Top: Eggplant Hummus Middle: Salad Bottom: Mushroom Hummus

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Pita bread – one of these is more than enough for me

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Smoked Salmon with Poached Eggs, Hollandaise Sauce, Pesto
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Smoked Salmon with croissants

Food quality

And Masya Allah! The fruits and vegetables were so fresh and tasty! I don’t usually like to eat fruits and vegetables but in Tel Aviv, I ENJOYED eating them! Had some asparagus, can you believe it? And it was SO GOOD! I had fruit juices galore at each meal – lemon juice, orange juice, strawberry basil lemon juice, you name it! ALL SO REJUVENATING!

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Salad, a common side to every meal
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Orange juice by Cafe Mason
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Looks meh but this is the freshest Lemonade ever!
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Strawberry Basil Lemon Juice

Best hummus restaurant: Kalabooni

The best hummus I’ve tasted is at the market. I have no idea which market that was – we were brought there by one of my partners, Ilan, during a lunch meeting. And it was his friend’s restaurant – his name is Halil Kalabooni and the shop name is Kalabooni.

We had a plate of hummus each – mine was mushroom hummus, a plate of pita breads to be shared, a plate of salad and some falafel. It was so good and it was so filling. I couldn’t finish everything and I wished I could. My boss paid for me, I think it’s around 20 shekels, not sure if that’s for both of us or just one.

Food price

However, I find that the price of food quite steep. Like my breakfast below costs about SGD 20. This lasted me the whole day though. And portion was way too big for me.

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Bread, salad & omelette
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Tuna, avocado, yogurt, olives, cheese, jam, butter, hot tea, lemonade

Cafes

Lots of cafes in Tel Aviv – quaint, chain, street corner, you name it!

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We had a meeting at this tiny, cosy cafe
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Inside Cafe Mason

Shopping

Azreli Center

I went to the Azreli Center but I was so disappointed. Coming from the city of malls, Azreli Center was rather small and there were the usual shops like Forever 21, H&M, Pull & Bear, some Israeli beauty shop, a very small foodcourt and I don’t find anything special there.

There was a security checkpoint at the entrance and the security guard was so nice. I was being extra accommodating but he smiled it off and let me in. Love the trust! Expecting Jerusalem to be much colder, I only went to get a jacket or coat because I didn’t bring any warm clothes. Managed to get one from H&M – not really for cold weather but good enough (I thought) and quickly left the place.

Sarona Market

I had no idea where to go but I figured out how to walk back to the hotel (Google Map is very important). I took the shortest route and how lucky I was to be walking pass the famous Sarona Market.

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On the way to Sarona Market

This place was mentioned by a couple of my partners and it was highly raved. To be honest, it looked nothing like a market. This area actually looked expensive and very atas. The restaurants looked super swanky, like those fine dining ones but what do I know? Maybe it’s the norm in Tel AvivIsrael.

Of course, I didn’t see any halal food available. I wish there were so that I could drench myself in the awesome atmosphere and just chill. It has its own feel and personality to it, kinda reminds me of Europe’s outlet malls. I spotted some fashion stores too – Abercrombie & Fitch and a few other American brands but nothing to my liking.

Sightseeing

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Jaffa

From city centre to Jaffa

My boss took me on a super long walk (4.8km) to Jaffa on one of the days we ended our meetings early. It was a nice walk – if it was done at my pace. I was panting like a mad dog trying to keep up to my boss’s pace and trying to keep the conversation going. We passed by a lot of shops, restaurants and bars, which I love seeing during my travels. They somehow make me feel safe. However, I read an article online that there was a recent shooting in a bar around that area.

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Sunset by the beach
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Not a good time to swim

At the beach

Managed to catch the sunset. We took a couple of photos and continued walking towards the lighthouse, which was another long walk.

No railings between the pavements and the sea. The wind was strong that night and waves were crashing into the rocks. Lights were reddish and dim. Someone could have fallen into the sea without anyone noticing.

There was a playground quite a distance from the sea but still, it could be very dangerous for kids. There were a few joggers that night and I finally saw some muslims. They were not friendly though, maybe they were tourists.

Police patrol

When we were reaching the lighthouse, there was a police car on standby. We were puzzled by the quietness of the area so we figured there must be some incident before. None of our partners told us about this yet. We only found out after that night.

Old City of Jaffa

“Jaffa is one of the world’s oldest ports. It was here that the prophet Jonah started the journey that left him in the belly of the whale.” (Wikitravel)

We went through the old city of Jaffa. I love the stone walls and pavements. Felt like I stepped into a totally different, ancient world. Never seen anything like it before, beautiful architecture! There was an art shop on the way up but I didn’t want to make my boss wait so I took a hard glimpse and walked away. I could’ve spent hours in there.

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Entrance Jaffa and walk through the beautiful stone buildings
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The stone city

We took photos at the looking point and that was it. Nothing much was happening that night. It was so empty it felt awkward. The restaurants were open but no one was dining. It was like a ghost town.

 

At the lookout point

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At the looking point – bad picture here but I was trying hard not to suffocate
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At the looking point during the day. Photo Credit: Lauren Yarger

From Jaffa to city centre

So we walked all the way back to the hotel, took a slightly different route. This time, we passed by a lot of muslim shops and restaurants. I seriously had no idea where that place was because, like I said, my boss’s walking pace was difficult for me to keep up or even breathe normally.

To Jerusalem

It was Friday morning and it was the weekend in Tel Aviv, Israel. All my meetings were done and now is the start of my adventure! I went for the huge breakfast for the last time, all by myself.

Initial plan

My boss went for a tour to Masada and the Dead Sea. The tour picked him up at 7am. I wanted to go to the Dead Sea at first but one of my PERGAS classmates told me about this particular hadith:

Rasul Allah (SAW) said:

“Do not enter (the places) of these people where Allah’s punishment has fallen unless you do so weeping. If you do not weep, do not enter (the places of these people) because Allah’s curse and punishment which fell upon them may fall upon you.”

[Bukhari]

Allahu a’lam. I heard it is only permitted for us to visit these places to reflect on the destruction and to ask Allah that we don’t do the same, not for fun and happiness. My intention was exactly that – to bathe in the mineral-rich waters and slather mud all over my skin. I was pretty much stressed and overworked due to work and study. A relaxing full day at a luxury hotel and pampering myself seemed like an awesome idea. After knowing this, I decided to avoid it. May Allah accept my efforts.

Before the journey

Anyway, the weather was a bit more chilly but the sun was shining bright. The waitresses served me well, no hint of discrimination like I always expected. By this time, I felt like I was the one discriminating everyone. After breakfast, I went back to the hotel, packed my stuff and went to the lobby to book a cab to the bus station.

Friendly cab driver

I was so lucky to get the most awesome cab driver. He was super friendly and told me a lot about Israel and how they live their lives. One of the things that really struck me was about marriage. Apparently, it is frowned upon for Israelis to get married “late” in life. By the time you’re 30 and not yet married, you’re considered immature. And once you’re married, you’re expected to have kids – they love big families too.

Their weddings are normally huge. He was saying something like “you don’t know a lot of people at your own wedding”. I think this is a universal problem.

At the bus station

Once we reached the bus station, there were so many sheruts and I felt a little nervous. Luckily for me, the cab driver went from one sherut to another asking if any of them were going to Jerusalem so I didn’t have to walk up to each of them with my luggages. Plus, not a lot of them speak much English. I was so grateful!

Start of journey

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Inside a sherut, front seat!

The sherut driver helped me with my luggage as I excitedly sat on the single seat by the window, front row. I paid the driver 40 shekels and I turned up the volume of my music. I WAS SOOO EXCITED!

JERUSALEM…here I come!

The Verdict

It can be quite intimidating for a muslim to enter Israel at customs and people in the streets of Tel Aviv are not particularly friendly but Tel Aviv can be quite a pleasant place. Not much to do as a tourist though.

In general, I think the people in Tel Aviv are not too religious, at least not upfront. A lot of my partners said that they don’t practice kosher. And they are party loving people. I’m saying this because I feel like they’re not much different from us in Singapore, especially when a lot of them come from all over the world, especially Europe.

It was a nice experience but I wouldn’t want to visit Tel Aviv again on leisure. It is the business centre in Israel, a bit too boring – unless you know the locals who can bring you to their favourite places. As a muslim traveler, I wasn’t interested in much except for the amazing food, which wasn’t halal unfortunately.

Visit Rating

So, 2/5 stars.

Should you wander to Tel Aviv? Yes, but don’t stay too long.

Tip

  • It’s a pretty walkable city (I can walk to Jaffa, so can you), so stay around city centre and walk everywhere.
  • More happening nearer to the beach but hotels there are more expensive.
  • Try to find halal restaurants!
  • Go to the beach on Friday evening, there’s a party! (Don’t join, just watch and observe)

Cost breakdown

  • Flight: $1930; SIN-TLV & CAI-SIN
  • Hotel: $199.43/night x 5 nights = $997.15
  • Breakfast: Free, complimentary of hotel – worth about $20/meal x 5 days = $100 – Choice of 3 caffes given
  • Lunch: Free, complimentary of my partners or my boss paid for me – about $20/meal x 5 days = $100
  • Dinner: I didn’t eat dinner, too full

*All prices are in SGD (estimate).

 

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2 thoughts on “More than just a business district: Tel Aviv

  1. SZA

    Nice!! Engaging and informative .. sounds dangerous yet adventurous 🙂

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