My First Adventure...Israel, Egypt, and Greece with My Father
Growing up I was always fascinated with ancient history. As a youth I would attend Sunday school, and Hebrew school which were compulsory. It wasn't until one teacher introduced our class to stories which she called Jewish Mysticism. I hung on every word she said, and became quite the fan of her teaching.In 1979 I remember my father was following the news regularly, specifically focused on the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations which were underway between Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, facilitated by President Carter. To the best of my recollection, I remember Camp David becoming a household term.
When the treaty was signed, and peace had been bridged between the two nations it was a signal to my family Jews could now visit Egypt. Looking back over 30 years, I know now a peace treaty never prevented Jews to visit Egypt. That is an entirely different matter not for discussion here. Once signed, my grandparents announced they were booked to go to Cairo to celebrate a Passover Seder in April of 1980 at the base of the Pyramids of Giza. My father heard this, and said he would like to see Egypt. He had always been intrigued by ancient Egyptian history, and archaeology. My mother suggested he take me, so we planned the trip over a February vacation period.So far this may sound like a pretty straight forward Holy Land tour for a father, and his son, how adventurous, and interesting a story could this be? Keep reading, because having gone through a box of old post cards, and photographs quite a few charming memories have surfaced. Is this going to be the Pulitzer of stories? Likely not, however I suggest you stick around for an enjoyable account.
My father, six months prior to my birth, experienced a neurological infection which left him with sustained brain trauma, and ongoing susceptibility to seizures. The secondary effects of his medication management caused an unsteady gait. On-lookers would have a sense of worry he was going to fall. The fact is he never worried, only the on-lookers worried. We considered my father obstinate, and stubborn, yet the opposite of this attribute could be seen as confident, and self-assured. He did fall frequently. Although I digress, there is relevance to it in this story…Off we went on this exciting trip overseas, my first ever. Just writing these words brings vivid memories. My mother drove us to JFK airport, and we got lost on our approach to the airport. We did arrive, and entered into the TWA terminal which I found mesmerizing. I looked up at the massive board before me which listed flights departing to LONDON, ROME, FRANKFURT, and so on. I wanted to be on all these planes going everywhere, all at once!
Our first flight was to take us to Paris, where we had a connection. I know now, youth brings with it a sort of innocence that is lost as we grow older. At age 13, I had no fear of boarding an enormous piece of metal the size of a football field wondering how on earth this machine was going to get off the ground, let alone take 350 people across an ocean. When the flight took off from JFK, the plane began to skid, and shake. It did so the entire way down the runway. Nearly all overhead bins opened with bags falling into the aisles. If memory serves me correctly, a cart from the galley had come loose as well. Many passengers were screaming. My father and I just looked around us at the commotion wondering what was happening. As soon as the aircraft lifted off the runway the shaking, and bumping stopped. Very strange we thought, but I didn't give it another thought...until 45 minutes prior to arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.
As I was eating my continental breakfast of a croissant, (two new things for me at age 13; a croissant, and the term continental breakfast), the pilot came on over the loud speaker and said the following which to this day I remember: "Good morning ladies, and gentleman. I hope you enjoyed your flight with us. Some of you may have noticed a slightly bumpy take off when we left JFK last night. We received word from JFK authorities they found pieces of rubber on the runway after we left. Apparently we shredded some of our tires on take-off. This shouldn't pose too much of a problem for us on arrival, except for the fact we don't know which wheels have tires, and which do not. We are going to have to lower the landing gear, and fly over the tower so Paris authorities can have a look. Once they see what we have, we can then make our approach. We will have foaming machines on stand-by. Enjoy your breakfast, and we will be landing soon." OH MY GOD!Dad was not alarmed at all. He just lit a cigarette, and drank his coffee. My nose started to bleed. Never before had I had a nose bleed. They told me it was altitude adjustment. I don't know if I was scared, or excited about landing on a foamed runway, though the flight attendant said, "they are on stand-by dear". As it turns out, the pilot knew what he was doing, because to this day I think it still ranks as one of the smoothest landings I have experienced. Mind you as the plane came to a stop we were parked out on a tarmac at the end of the furthest field at Charles de Gaulle surrounded by fire trucks. It took ages to be bused to the terminal. My father was a man who seemed to be one who took things in stride. Not having known him prior to his illness, I don't have much of an experience of his personality before he had become sick. During this trip I learned he was mostly one who would 'go with the flow', unless you told him he couldn't do something. More on that later.
Here is a picture of my father sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport awaiting our connecting flight to Tel Aviv. In my opinion, after the long flight, and ordeal we had experienced, he looks pretty good to me!
The next flight took us to Tel Aviv. Sitting by the window, I had a phenomenal bird’s eye view of the Alps. I knew then, and there I had to return to Europe to see first-hand the sites of this continent. On arrival, we were greeted by a young Israeli driver to transfer us to our hotel in Jerusalem. When we got into the back seat of the car, he stopped to pick up his girlfriend. The entire ride which was about 45 minutes was spent listening to the two of them talking in Hebrew. When we got to the hotel I asked my father if he understood what they were saying. He told me, “eh, they were just going on about their plans for a party tonight, nothing very important”. My father had a gift for languages, and spoke several. I know what it is like to want to be able to understand what is being said around me, even if it is ‘not very important’.
When I look at the photographs and old post cards from this first trip I realize now how special this trip was for us. We visited sites within the Holy Land without difficulty. Raised Jewish, with a respect and interest in comparative religious beliefs I was fortunate to have been booked on a tour which brought us to all the major sites. There are pictures I have captured, and restored as best I could which bring back fond memories. In looking back, I also found some surprises. I found a post card showing a visit the tomb of “The Ari”, a famous Kabbalist. I had come to know of him much later in life through personal studies, but never realized I had visited his tomb so many years ago as a youth.
SAFED, The Synagogue of the Ari
The story I wish to tell, which is wonderfully depicted in two photographs, is our visit to Masada. To get to the top of the mountain you must ride a gondola, and then walk a stairwell alongside the mountain which is rather steep. Atop the mountain, it can be windy, and at the time they had only railings to keep you from falling off the side of the mountain. At least this is how I remember it. Perhaps it was more secure. The guide had become accustomed to looking after my father, and approached him before we went to the site. He said to him directly, “Dr. Burkin, I think it will be better for you to wait for us here in the bus”. To quote Julia Roberts, “big mistake, big, big mistake, Huge!”. As I said before, it is not a good idea to tell my father what to do. However, if you ask him to do something for you he will likely try and help. I later told the guide if he had said to my father, “Dr. Burkin, I need the driver to join me atop the mountain, would you be so kind to stay with the bus, and look after it for security reasons?”, he would have likely obliged. Instead, my father responded quite defensively asking why the guide thought he shouldn’t go to the top. I was thinking the whole time, ‘because Dad, you could fall off!!!!!’
What ended up happening is Dad went, as dad always did what dad wanted to do. He climbed that stairwell, and hung on to that railing as the wind blew with his coat blowing fiercely in the wind. He made it to the top. We got a picture of him just as he made it to the top, and in the first picture I have to have a bittersweet laugh, because I can see the anguish of his hanging on for dear life, yet he would never admit he was for one second scared! The second photograph shows him relaxed, and composed once he regained his balance. I like this picture most. A fond memory indeed.
I haven’t much more to say about Israel, but rather will place here the scanned pictures, and post cards I have.
On our way to Egypt, we stopped for the day in Athens. They had not yet implement direct air service between the two countries. We had enough time to make a trip to the Acropolis. I must have really enjoyed visiting the Parthenon, and I think this post card, and picture tells the story well.
"Dear Mom, We were in Greece for one day and we saw The acropolis, The parthonon, and the thing on this postcard I touched"
Onward to Egypt. The flight itself is something I will never forget. Hmm, I think I am beginning to establish a trend, first the New York-Paris flight, now the Athens-Cairo flight. I wonder how many flights I have ahead to recall which are stories alone. Something to ponder perhaps. As I was saying, this flight was quite interesting. Not a typical New York-Miami run. No, not at all. The first noticeable difference was how regardless of assigned seating, people took it upon themselves to separate men from women within their families, and groups. Then there was the smoke. Smoking vs. Nonsmoking did not exist on this plane, and by the way this was a TWA flight from Athens to Cairo. Then there was the noise of chatter. Everyone was talking. Talk, talk, talk. How fascinating. My first introduction to the Arab culture was this flight, and I found the people to be soo intimate with each other insofar as their relationships as family, and friends. They sat close, and talked, sipped tea, smoked their cigarettes, and played cards. They hardly looked up from their conversations. It all looked so intense. The smoke in the cabin was intense. If you have ever seen the film with Eddie Murphy, The Golden Child when he was on a plane to Asia, this was just like that.
Cairo Airport. More smoke. Hospitality for sure! It had to be 3:00AM, and everyone was awake, and happy. We were greeted by a tour guide who escorted us through passport control, and provided us with visas, etc. We were driven by taxi to the hotel. I remember seeing across the dark moonlit desert a big billboard with a picture of Anwar Sadat. We stayed at the Cairo Nile Hilton which I can practically still see in my mind. From the outside it looks like a modern 1960’s cement like structure, yet at the time the inside was decorated in an old world Agatha Christie like fashion. What it is like today, I have no idea. I remember the deep red carpets, and ornate furnishings in the large lobby. I felt as if we had entered the 1930’s. The lobby patio restaurant led out onto the Nile river, and had a sense of relaxation. Off to our room. The elevator door opened to our floor. Smoke. We entered our room, and it was very nice. I wasn’t bothered by my father’s smoking, because it was nothing like the fog cloud in the hallway.
The first thing I noticed about Cairo on waking the next morning was the population. I looked out our window, and saw people. Millions, and millions of people. There were so many people walking outside they didn’t have enough space on the roads for them, so they built a second set of sidewalks which were elevated above ground accessible by staircases. Cairo is not for the claustrophobic.
Unlike our experience in Israel where we were part of a larger group tour, in Egypt we were greeted in the lobby by a guide who was to be dedicated to us for the next three days along with a private car, and driver. Having returned to Egypt much later in life I learned this is still a common practice, and a pleasant one at that.
I have two memories which stand out from this final portion of the itinerary; the museum of antiquities, and dysentery. One I enjoyed more than the other for sure. The museum allowed a first-hand look at the life of King Tut. I also learned about the mummifying process.
As for dysentery, how can there be an interesting story behind such a topic one might ask. Well, don’t let this discourage a trip to Egypt, but I did get very ill our last 2-3 days in Egypt. We were out by the step pyramid of Sakkara when it hit me. A sudden sand storm began, and my stomach started to grumble. I asked to go to the rest room. On one look at the rest room, I reached for all the inner strength of my psyche and did all I could to force myself back into the car. I then prayed I could hold out for the 30 minute drive back to the hotel to use our own rest room. I don’t think I need to paint a picture of the rest room facilities at the step pyramid of Sakkara.
Things got worse at the hotel. We had to have a doctor come to the room. My father said, “I’m a doctor”. Yes, this is true, but you don’t have any medicine. When the doctor came to me, and gave me medication, my father told me he didn’t think the medicine I was given was FDA approved. I can’t remember if I took it or not. My last recollection of Egypt, which I can laugh at now, because I love the country very much, is waiting in the airport to fly home. We were awaiting our TWA flight to Paris, and once again I needed to visit the rest room. I went down stairs, and the men’s room had rows of toilets along a wall, of course no seats. At this point I didn’t care, hovering was OK. What was not OK was the man at the entrance with rolls of toilet paper who required payment. I had to go back upstairs and get money from my father. On returning I paid he money, and he gave me 2 pieces of paper. YES, 2 SQUARES of toilet paper. I was in such pain, and quite sick at this point. I did not speak Arabic, he did not speak English. I blurted out to him, “2 SQUARES WILL NOT BE ENOUGH!”. He kept rolling his hand gesturing for more money. I just grabbed a whole roll of toilet paper, and told him to follow me if he wants, or call the police, but this is an emergency!
When we finally boarded the aircraft, even though we were still 6,000 miles from home just knowing we had a bathroom within eye-shot made me happy.