Sharing a street with two brothels, two synagogues and former Eurovision winner Dana International, is just part of life on Bograshov Street, Tel Aviv.
Stroll along this stretch of asphalt running from the central hum of the city towards the white sand of the Mediterranean and you will encounter a street that houses hookers, rabbis, soldiers, straights, gays, transsexuals and everything else in between. But this is not unique. This is Tel Aviv.
Welcome to my home and the place Lonely Planet this week christened the new “Sin City”. It has hailed Israel‘s heathen hotspot as one of the top three metropolises in the world, “a kind of San Francisco in the Middle East“.
But just how did a city in an apparent ‘war-torn’ part of the world get hailed as a must-visit party town?
Jerusalem, and its stifling weight of history and religion, dominates the political landscape in Israel from its perch in the Judean Mountains. But journey a mere 50 miles and you’ll find the perfect antidote — the pulsating 24-hour heartbeat of a city Israelis call The Bubble and where the weekend lasts all week.
Tel Aviv is not Israel. Tel Aviv is Tel Aviv. It is an oasis of liberalism in a fanatically religious Middle East. Whether you are secular, liberal, gay, transgender, atheist or whatever, you won’t stand out here.
While in the wrong part of Jerusalem, you could be stoned and in neighbouring countries executed, here you will just be part of the crowd. In fact, no one particularly cares what you are as long as you join the party.
My first day in Tel Aviv was all it took to get a warm welcome to The Bubble. I was lying on a glorious beach watching fellow Irish Independent hack Ian O’Doherty negotiate the scorching white sand like an albino Rhino on tippy toes negotiating a bed of hot coals.
When he eventually lay down beside me, it wasn’t long before two buff shadows were cast over us. Hands on hips, two muscular locals in skin-tight Speedos were stood there smiling, asking us if we were here to party.
While Ian chatted, I took one look around and realised we were the only two pasty white Irish guys among a sea of tanned, toned, smoothly shaven, Speedo-wearing men. One look back at the two dudes with bright smiles and I realised we were on Tel Aviv’s gay beach.
They soon moved on to younger, more buff subjects while Ian tried to convince me they were just two friendly guys trying to welcome us to Israel. It was only when the waiters at a local steakhouse set him straight, he shrugged and said: “Well, this is Tel Aviv.”
The city, which used to be nothing more than a large sand dune, was founded in 1909 by 60 Jewish families intent on escaping the cramped, unsanitary and largely unsafe conditions of the ancient and predominately Arab city of Jaffa. The name Tel Aviv (which translates from Hebrew as Hill of Spring) was chosen because of its associations with rebirth and revitalisation.
The city grew rapidly with the influx of immigrants from Europe between 1924-1939 and became a magnet for artists, intellectuals and libertarians escaping the Nazis and the unfolding horror in Europe.
They brought with them Bauhaus architecture and the spirit of modernity, and helped build a Middle Eastern city with a European flavour where almost anything goes.
Like all of the best nightclubs in the world, Tel Aviv can be a tricky place to get into. Security is high on the agenda and a fact of life in Israel. Fly to Tel Aviv on an Israeli airline and before boarding you will be grilled by security as to the reasons for your visit (you can save yourself the hassle by just flying on the likes of British Airways or Lufthansa). However, once you get past the bouncers, it’s welcome to party town.
A beautiful woman here once told me she found Irish men strange. I asked why and she explained while travelling around Ireland she had been in a bar and found some of the men very attractive. I smiled.
She told me she decided she wanted to sleep with someone but when she tried to make direct eye contact with prospective one-night-stand partners they turned away as if embarrassed. My jaw dropped.
She then wanted to know if Dublin was like Tel Aviv, where a lot of the bars were filled with gay men. When I told my girlfriend about the conversation she smiled and said: “Well, this is Tel Aviv.” I laughed but inside I cried a little knowing that I had truly found my nirvana.
Not surprisingly, when Shamrock Rovers fans rolled into town in July to support their club on the second leg of their Europa Cup qualifier with Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv, they were in shock. They had been filled with visions of doom by naysayers, but arrived to find this vibrant, modern, and, most of all, fun city waiting to embrace them.
Rovers fans partied till sunrise, slept off their hangovers on the beach and strolled around enjoying the sun and atmosphere on the streets. The locals were even so kind as to let Shamrock Rovers win, thus allowing them to go on for a dream showdown with Juventus — but that’s Jewish hospitality for you.
Yes, Israel is the Holy Land, and talk elsewhere of the outbreak of war is never far away, but every visitor to Tel Aviv has their perceptions twisted, flipped and reborn when they arrive.
Summer here practically lasts 10 months a year and every night bars and nightclubs won’t stop until you drop. Even though officially there is a smoking ban, you will do well to find a bar that adheres to it. Officially there is also a closing time for bar,s but as long as you are buying most will remain serving.
I came to Tel Aviv not only after falling in love, but also to get a better understanding of why the Middle East always seems like a powder keg waiting to explode. While almost every Irishman will have default sympathies for the Palestinians, when you spend time here you begin to see things in a wider perspective.
During the 1990s, a plague of suicide bombers targeted buses, cafes, bars and nightclubs in Tel Aviv, intent on wiping the Jews from the Middle East once and for all. The sense of freedom on which the city was founded quickly evaporated.
The second intifada between 2001-2005 left Tel Aviv almost devoid of tourists. The last suicide bomber struck in 2006, killing nine people and injuring more than 50 in a crowded street near a bus station.
Thankfully, peace has been restored and investment has flooded back into Tel Aviv. Tourists once again flock here in their droves to enjoy the city UNESCO bequeathed with world heritage status in 2003 for its Bauhaus architecture.
In two years, I have never seen a brawl or gougers hanging out on street corners. Women stroll along the sidewalks safely at any time, and mindless acts of random violence or destruction are more or less unheard of. This is without a doubt the safest city I have been in.
So despite being a city surrounded by talk of impending doom, Tel Aviv buzzes with a passion for life. It feels like a city living for the moment.
“Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants,” observed the Lonely Planet editor. “There are more bars than synagogues, God is a DJ and everyone’s body is a temple.”
Tel Aviv is a truly unique and special place. It is the only city in the Middle East where inhabitants can openly choose to live their own lifestyle and be who they want without fear of punishment or reprisal.
So come and visit, because in this part of the world such a city should be truly treasured.
Source: Irish Independent