Ever since Park HaMesila – the train track park – opened in southern Jerusalem, my wife, Jody, and I have been eager to bicycle its length. 

One problem: We don’t own our own bicycles.

That’s no longer an issue now that JeruFun has begun operating in the city. A play on words (“ofen” is the root for bicycle in Hebrew; Tel Aviv has the similarly named “Tel-o-fun”), JeruFun arrived just in time for our summer riding pleasure. 

And what a joy it is to pedal the eight kilometers from our home, not far from the First Station entertainment and dining complex, along the length of the park, all the way to Ein Lavan, the natural spring located just past the Jerusalem Aquarium.

Each station has a mix of up to 16 regular and electric bikes – the latter are distinguished by an orange back wheel protector and an LCD screen at the front.

We opted to go electric – there are a number of inclines where the extra e-push would be welcome.

The electric bikes at JeruFun are “pedal assist.” That means the electric motor kicks in only when you move your feet. You can’t just turn a knob on the handlebars. 

Since this was our first time, we opted for the one-time payment rather than jump straight into a subscription. It costs NIS 4 to “unlock” the bike (free for subscribers) and then six agorot a minute to ride (again, less for subscribers). Non-electric bike riders pay just two agorot a minute; for subscribers, the first 30 minutes is free. 

At NIS 76 for two hours, though, it might have been worthwhile getting the lowest priced subscriber package (NIS 99 for three months for Jerusalem Card holders), even for a trial. 

The JeruFun app – available in multiple languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and English – has all the stations plotted on a Google Map, showing how many bikes of each type are available. There are a total of 80 regular and 120 electric bicycles on offer.

When you arrive at a station, you use your phone to scan the number of the bike as well as your government ID or driver’s license. To save time, we entered our credit card information at home. Once payment is accepted, the bike magically unlocks with a satisfying click.

The bike path from the First Station runs south through the village of Beit Safafa, winds around the Teddy and Pais sports stadiums, skirts past the Malcha train station, bumps along the extensive playgrounds near Ein Yael, before heading towards the zoo via a steep ramp and bridge over the train tracks.

That’s where we discovered that these electric bikes are heavy. 

So much so that, if you don’t get a running start, pushing the bike up a hill or ramp is near impossible.

This is one of the prettiest biking routes in the city. Except for a brief section in the parking lot of the zoo and aquarium, you’re on a dedicated cycling lane, so you don’t have to worry about dodging cars. 

It took us 45 minutes to get to Ein Lavan. Our 23-year-old son says he can do it in half an hour – on his non-electric bike, no less. Did we feel old? No way: We rode all the way from our home to the Jerusalem Hills – so what if it took nearly an hour!

Ein Lavan has been in the news lately; it’s at the center of what’s slated to be a 5,000-unit housing development that will significantly alter the bucolic landscape. Protests against the construction have not resulted in any changes by the District Planning Committee, although Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion has pledged to upgrade Ein Lavan’s status to that of a national park.

The spring itself is nearly always occupied by bathers, barbequers, dog walkers and religious Israelis seeking to dunk in a natural mikveh (ritual bath).

On the way back, shortly after leaving Ein Lavan, Jody’s bike suddenly stopped working. The electric pedal assist wouldn’t kick in, even though the battery indicator said there was plenty of juice. 

We were understandably concerned – who had the energy to continue another 45 minutes on an uber-heavy bike without the extra help? Should one of us stay back with the bike while the others continued home to fetch the car? we wondered.

We were about to call JeruFun customer service when Jody – entirely by accident – wheeled her bike in reverse to get it to a more convenient resting spot and, lo and behold, it came back to life. 

“Ride like the wind, Bullseye,” I cried out, quoting Woody from the Toy Story movies. And in case the bike threatened to conk out again, I added, “Don’t stop pedaling until you get home!”

JeruFun is available across much of the city, not just along Park HaMesila. You can pick up a bike at one of 24 active stations – downtown, at the Central Bus Station, the government and museum campus, the Mahane Yehuda market and even in Mea Shearim. 

The latter has generated its own controversy: In order to win approval, the city was forced to disable the electric bike rentals on Shabbat in locations sensitive to the ultra-Orthodox. There are currently only four stations in the city where electric bikes can be taken on the Sabbath (including at the First Station).

But never mind the politics. With the High Holydays upon us, JeruFun is a wonderful addition to the city’s mobility landscape – whether that’s an energetic commute to work or a pleasant afternoon in nature. 

Sign up at: https://jerufun.co.il/

I first wrote about bikes in Jerusalem for The Jerusalem Post.

Barry Davis has a good article about JeruFun, also in The Jerusalem Post.

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Tim Wise wrote a provocative column for the website Medium earlier this month. Entitled “Covid anti-vaxxers aren’t a MAGA death cult – it’s worse than that,” the piece argues that followers of Donald Trump with his “Make America Great Again” slogan are not inherently suicidal despite their anti-masking, anti-social distancing, vaccines-are-evil stance. 

Tim Wise

“Stories are spilling out every day — outpourings of regret from persons who steadfastly refused to get the vaccine, now awaiting intubation – coming to realize they were wrong,” Wise writes. “That they are bellowing contrition and asking for prayers in the hopes they won’t die proves this is no suicide cult.”

Rather, what we’re seeing now amongst outspoken anti-vaxxers is “something more dangerous, sociopathic and sadistic,” he continues. “Not suicidal but homicidal… these are people who didn’t and don’t want to die. They simply thought there was no way they would.”

Covid is “only killing the weak,” Wise explains their thinking: “the less good people, the ones who don’t do CrossFit or go to a megachurch or who place their faith in science rather than a Bible study group.” For these types of anti-vaxxers, Wise notes, “those people don’t count.”

Wise quotes conservative conspiracy theorist Jack Burkman, who was surreptitiously recorded revealing what he really thinks Covid-19 is all about.

“Mother Nature has to clean the barn every so often,” he was overheard saying. “So what if 1% of the population goes? So what if you lose 400,000 people? Two hundred thousand were elderly; the other 200,000 are the bottom of society. You got to clean out the barn.”

That’s not just a call for homicide – it’s a prelude to eugenics. 

Such people “aren’t concerned about getting Covid themselves,” Wise explains. “They [simply] don’t care if you do.”

That’s pretty extreme but how else can we explain the 23 people who were pulled off a New York bound plane at Ben-Gurion Airport after it was discovered they had forged their PCR test results

If one of them had been positive for Covid, they could have gotten tens if not hundreds of their fellow passengers sick. 

Australia has been roiled over the past week by an indoor, maskless engagement party held in defiance of the country’s super-strict lockdown regulations. It would have flown under the radar if someone hadn’t videotaped the groom joking, “Clearly this is legal because this is a group therapy session.” At least one person in the crowd of 68 attendees turned out to be Covid-positive. The Victoria state government has now tightened lockdown restrictions including a nightly curfew. 

The homicidal moniker is clearly over the top, meant to provoke outrage. Most anti-vaxxers do not have murder on their minds. I would use a different epithet: A strident subset of anti-vaxxers is suffering from a form of extreme narcissism, one that frames everything through the lens of “What’s in it for me?” rather than “How can I help my fellow human being?”

I was privy to some of that sentiment after I questioned in my last column how the vaccinated should relate to anti-vaxxers who catch Covid. Is it acceptable to feel schadenfreude, I wondered?

“’Anti-vaxxer’ is a derogatory name being given to people [who simply want to] exercise their right to free will,” wrote one person in response.

Free will to do what? Kill others? 

“The people who are dying from Covid have had their immune systems damaged or destroyed through medication and adulterated foodstuffs. A properly maintained immune system is a killing machine that can even beat Ebola and rabies.”

Way to go, blame the victim.

“It’s their choice not to be vaccinated. Plain and simple. The problem is that the governments of the world are controlled by global elites and big pharma. The pandemic is a tool for political power gain.”

Hard to argue with paranoia.

Wise calls for treating anti-vaxxers like pariahs, “cutting them out of our lives entirely: non-invitations to the cocktail party or backyard barbecue, no seat for them at the holiday table, no invitation to the grandkid’s graduation.”

Israel is doing this to a certain degree on the national level. You want to go to a restaurant, sports or culture event, conference, hotel, gym, pool, event hall, museum or university? You’ll need a “Green Pass” showing you’ve been vaccinated, have antibodies indicating you’ve recovered from the virus, or received a negative PCR test in the previous 72 hours.

The Canadian government has announced that it will soon require all air travelers and passengers on interprovincial trains to be vaccinated.

These are good initiatives that, hopefully, will serve to incentivize vaccination holdouts to get their jab.

That said, the vaccines aren’t perfect, as we’re discovering to our chagrin: Immunity wanes over time and boosters will be necessary – sooner than many hoped. 

Then there are the rare side effects, some of which can be quite scary. Israeli researchers have, for example, found a connection between the heart condition myocarditis and the Pfizer mRNA vaccines. It’s not a big number – 148 mostly mild cases reported within 30 days of vaccination out of the over five million people who were inoculated – which gives it a rate of 0.003%. 

Compare that with Covid-19 which has a case fatality rate of close to 1% in Israel. (It’s 1.6% in the U.S. and as high as 9.2% in Peru.)

Whether you call them narcissists or homicidal, this is a cultural and psychological divide that is becoming nearly impossible to bridge. When we can’t agree on basic scientific facts – whether that’s about Covid or climate change or, to delve into the truly bizarre, whether the earth is round or in fact flat – I find myself in existential fear for our future. 

Paranoid? I think not.

Narcissism photo from Marija Zaric via Unsplash.

I first wrote that anti-vaxxers are narcissists for The Jerusalem Post.

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Is it OK to have schadenfreude (the German expression for “pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune”) when an anti-vaxxer contracts Covid-19? The Internet seems to think so. 

Every day in my U.S. news feed, I’m sent stories about some vaccine denier who caught the virus, is now fighting for his or her life, and who in many cases has had a very public change of heart, to the point of urging friends and family to get vaccinated ASAP.

One of the most prominent examples in recent weeks was Phil Valentine

A conservative talk show radio host from Nashville, Tennessee, Valentine repeatedly spread misinformation about Covid-19 and even mocked vaccines, turning a Beatles hit into an anti-vax ditty he dubbed the “Vaxman.”

“Let me tell you how it will be,” he sang on-air. “And I don’t care if you agree. ‘Cause I’m the Vaxman, yeah I’m the Vaxman. If you don’t like me coming round, be thankful I don’t hold you down.”

Even after Valentine was diagnosed in June, he retained the anti-vax mantle. “Unfortunately for the haters out there, it looks like I’m going to make it,” he wrote with no small amount of snark.

Two weeks later, he was hospitalized in critical condition.

Valentine hasn’t yet come out vocally to promote vaccines (he’s hooked up to a ventilator), but in neighboring Alabama, Christy Carpenter told The Washington Post that her anti-vax family was now urging others to get the shot after her unvaccinated son died of Covid-19.

“If Curt were here today, he would make it his mission to encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” Christy said. “If we can help keep people healthier and possibly save lives by encouraging others to take the vaccine, then Curt’s death was not in vain. We did not get vaccinated when we had the opportunity and we regret that so much now.”

Danny Reeves is an unvaccinated pastor from Texas who, after contracting Covid, was told he might need a lung transplant. “I didn’t mean to be cavalier,” he said, after two touch-and-go days in the ICU. “But there’s a lot of people just like me that haven’t gotten the vaccine. I’ve been taught a lesson and I’m big enough and humble enough to say I was wrong.”

Another conservative radio host, Dick Farrel, caught Covid. He texted a friend two words from the hospital regarding the vaccine: “Get it.” He died shortly afterward.

The more I read these stories, the more I am confronted with an ugly feeling inside, one which I try my best to tamp down because it seems so wrong:

These anti-vaxxers should get a taste of the “fake news” they’ve been peddling.

So they know that, no, it’s not “just” a flu. 

That no, you don’t have an innately strong immune system that can easily fight this off without assistance from a vaccine. 

That no, being young or strong or healthy won’t save you nor will faith in a supernatural deity (unless that deity’s last name happens to be Bourla or Bancel, the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna, respectively).

So, when anti-vaxxers get Covid, my schadenfreude-leaning self wants to say, “Ha, they brought this on themselves. Let them get a tough case. Not one that sends them to the hospital or kills them, but enough that they’ll get scared straight and start talking sense to their unvaccinated followers.”

And then I feel terribly guilty that I ever had such inhumane feelings.

That hasn’t stopped other people from expressing similar sentiments – or getting angry like Alabama Governor Kay Ivey who commented that it’s “the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down [not to mention] choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain.”

Others are less restrained. “It makes you want to smack people upside the head,” vaccinated 66-year-old Elise Power told NBC News.

But what else can you do? Over the course of the pandemic, it’s become clear that trying to change people’s opinions about getting the vaccine is as futile as convincing Donald Trump he’s no longer president. No amount of persuasion gets through. Only action seems to make the difference – and getting Covid is as big an unfortunate action as you can imagine. 

Indeed, vaccine skepticism evaporates once one has experienced time in intensive care“You can see it dawn on patients that they potentially made the biggest mistake of their lives,” Dr. Samantha Batt-Rawden told the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

An anti-vax movement certainly exists in Israel but it’s less intense than in other parts of the world given that the vast majority of the adult population here (90% of those over 50) – and nearly everyone who’s most at-risk – has gotten their jab. We’re even giving third booster doses now, something I happily went for even before they were offered to the general public. (Blood cancers like mine make it difficult for the body to produce the same level of antibodies as a healthy person.)

Mark Valentine, brother of radio talk show host Phil, was shaken to the core by what he experienced.

“Having seen this up close and personal, I’d encourage ALL of you to put politics and other concerns aside and get it,” he said, referring to the vaccine.

Phil Valentine’s diagnosis has already made an impact: Listeners have reported they went ahead and got the vaccine.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” added Mark, who got inoculated the same day that his famous brother was admitted to the hospital. “Maybe this happened so Phil could talk to people and make sure that more people don’t die.”

Said with entirely no schadenfreude.

I first asked the difficult questions in this article at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Trey Musk on Unsplash

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Eleven tips to stop spinning

by Brian on August 1, 2021

in Cancer,Health,Mindfulness

I never liked merry-go-rounds. They always seemed like the least worthwhile ride at the amusement park. Maybe that’s why carousels only warranted a lowly “A” ticket in the old Disneyland pricing scheme.

Merry-go-rounds don’t go anywhere. You don’t make progress like on a roller coaster or a racing ride. There’s no change of scenery, no thrilling dips. You just spin over and over until you get dizzy and you want to throw up.

I’ve been thinking about a different kind of merry-go-round lately – spinning when it comes to decision-making. 

Spinning sucks away our spirit as we get stuck, regurgitating the same indecisive conclusions over and over, until we are at last forced to move forward, one way or another, but not before we’ve inflicted unnecessary anguish on ourselves (and most likely our loving partners, too). 

This was exacerbated during our most recent trip to the U.S. There were so many opportunities for spinning: where to go, what to eat, who to see, the direct flight vs. the cheaper one with more layovers… the list seems endless in hindsight.

If spinning is an issue for you, too, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to shut it down and banish the psychological trauma that comes with it?

Here then are eleven tips to stop spinning in its tracks so you can blast off to Space Mountain instead of getting stuck in an endless loop at the Dumbo ride. 

1. Write it down. Making a pro and con chart can help you visualize – and resolve – what’s causing the spinning. You can also just write down your thoughts, freestyle. But be sure to put your list aside for a day so you can see if you feel the same way tomorrow.

2. Prioritize. You’re not going to get everything you want. That’s a truism in life as well as for specific decisions. So, decide: Is it more important to buy the fancier dishwasher or to save money? If you can’t have both, do you prefer better gas mileage or adaptive cruise control?

3. De-conflate. Have you inadvertently conflated two unconnected issues? If your physician has a sour bedside manner, is he nevertheless good at what he does – an excellent surgeon? There’s no reason to disqualify a professional based solely on his or her communication abilities. De-conflate skill from style to manage spinning and move forward. (If you’re developing a long-term relationship, the calculus may be different, and you may want to place people skills higher on the list.)

4. Is it peripheral? When my wife, Jody, and I were looking to book our Covid-19 tests prior to flying, we had to choose between going to the airport, which was cheaper but would eat up more time, or getting it done in town at a nominally higher price. Was it worth the hassle factor of getting to Ben-Gurion in order to save the equivalent of a couple of falafel sandwiches?

5. Can you confirm it? Do you have a source for the spinning thought you’re having? I often worry that, after agonizing over a decision to attend an event or make an appointment, it will be canceled at the last minute. Did I receive a call or message indicating that might be the case? Does the person I’m meeting have a reputation of canceling? No? Then move forward. 

6. Give power to your partner. Sometimes it can be helpful to let your partner make the decision. For control freaks (me included), that takes some serious willpower that you’re not going to second guess your spouse after the fact. Removing the burden entirely from your shoulders can minimize spinning.

7. Decide on a cut-off point. Researching options is important – I would not have been comfortable choosing a chemotherapy cocktail when I was treated for cancer without doing extensive due diligence. It’s OK to get a second or even a third opinion, but don’t keep running to specialists for a fourth, fifth or sixth one. How many different types of shoes should you consider when searching Zappos? How many USB thumb drives? 

8. Minimize conflict where possible. Conflict is not always avoidable, but you can pick your battles. Get into it with someone with whom you’re close. For individuals providing a service, turning the other cheek when confronted by something triggering can lead to less anxiety than if you’d engaged.

9. Don’t spin about the future. It’s one thing to get in a tizzy about something happening right now. It’s quite another to spin over an eventuality that hasn’t and may never occur. 

10. Thoroughness is a spectrum. Being thorough is usually a good thing. But when it goes too far, it can turn into spinning. This is not a “switch” you flip to go from either 100% thoroughness or 100% spinning. Rather, it’s a spectrum and it’s easy to almost imperceptibly slide to the dark side. Before slipping to anxiety, ask yourself: “Have I gone beyond being thorough?” If so, you still have time to gently course-correct.

11. Accept that spinning is a part of certain types of decision-making. You can’t shut down all spinning and, for really critical issues (choosing a college, making aliyah) or ones where you feel particularly helpless (healthcare, taking your car to the mechanic), spinning may simply be part of your decision-making process. Acceptance can reduce some of the frustration when you find yourself stuck. 

If all else fails, try your best to enjoy the ride. After all, even the worst Dumbo ride ends eventually.

I first shared my anti-spinning techniques at The Jerusalem Post.

Picture of merry-go-round in Italy from Ran Berkovich on Unsplash

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If you absolutely must travel overseas from Israel these days, beware the PCR testing shuffle. 

PCR testing booth in Santa Rosa

In order to keep its citizens safe from Covid-19, Israel has one of the strictest virus testing requirements anywhere. You need to get the nasty nasal swab no more than 72 hours before your flight back to Israel. And there’s another one upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. On top of that, the U.S. requires a PCR test of its own before flying out of Israel.

All tests must be paid for by the traveler.

I’m not against testing for Covid. If it can keep us from importing more of the Delta variant, I say bring it on.

But the whole testing system strikes me as a bit of a scam. Less so on the Israeli side, where the instructions are clear, the price is reasonable, and the results come back fast: a 14-hour turnaround costs NIS 45 ($14); NIS 135 ($41) to get results in 4 hours, if you’re willing to go to the airport for the test.

In the U.S., it’s a whole different kettle of Covid fish.

While there are plenty of testing sites, many of them free, they’re not set up for the kind of 72-hour turnaround Israel needs. (Our experience was in California; other states may differ.)

For example, you can go to most pharmacies to get tested. But they only guarantee results in 3-5 days for Walgreens, 4-6 days for CVS. If you need results in 72 hours, how can you rely on a facility that only promises them in 96 or hours or more? 

This is not just a hypothetical point. We have two friends who were both denied boarding because, in one case, the test results hadn’t arrived by departure time (an email came an hour later) and, in the other, our friends’ flight was delayed, pushing them out of the 72-hour window.

We regretfully concluded we had no choice but to pay for our test. There was a testing center in Santa Rosa, which is where we were visiting my family, that had a special “travel” package. The cost: $179 per test. 

Ouch.

The “Test Before You Go” booth at the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall is a small portable trailer stationed in the parking lot. We arrived at 1 pm but there was no one inside. 

A half dozen people milled around, masked, in the baking hot Northern California sun. The two staff members had, apparently, taken an extended lunch break. I can’t begrudge them for eating, but couldn’t they at least have posted something online reading, “closed between such and such an hour?” 

The whole process took nearly 90 minutes. I was optimistic that we’d get our results in plenty of time before the flight. But 24 hours until boarding, nothing. 18 hours, 14 hours, still nothing.

The results eventually came the night before our flight, but there were complications. Another friend who’d been to the States a few weeks earlier said that it was critical that the form have our passport numbers written on it.

We checked: Ours didn’t.

Moreover, the form didn’t give any indication of the time the test was taken, only the date. How would the airline know if it had been 72 hours before and not 77 or 80 hours?

I panic posted to Facebook.

“Sometimes the airline staff are sticklers for the right information, sometimes they don’t even look,” was the consensus. 

So, would we get an airline representative who was naughty…or nice?

I called Test Before You Go. Could they amend the forms to include our passport numbers and the time? No, there was nothing they could do.  

“But we’ve never had a problem,” the customer service representative replied cheerfully. 

Ha, they don’t know Israeli bureaucracy, I thought.

My mind began to race. If we got turned away, did we have anywhere else to go for recourse? There was one final alternative: If we got to the San Francisco Airport early enough, we could race over to a separate terminal and do a test with results in 45 minutes

The cost: $275. Each.

If we wound up doing that final test, on top of the ones we’d already done in Santa Rosa, plus the testing in Israel, we would have spent $1,000 between the two of us – almost as much as our plane ticket!

Wanting to save the money (and not fall into the category of “freier” – Hebrew for sucker – in case the first test forms were deemed sufficient), we opted to hope for the best. 

Still, questions abounded. Why can’t all but the priciest of testing facilities guarantee faster turnaround? And why is it so danged expensive? If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was some elaborate conspiracy, a cartel dreaming up new ways to milk hapless travelers out of even more of their hard-earned cash. 

The check-in line at SFO was long, giving me even more time to worry. Finally, the Delta representative asked for our negative PCR tests, gave them a quick glance-over, and told us we were good to go. 

That was it. No questions asked. 

I guess we got one of the “nice” ones.

When we were in Santa Rosa, my mother asked me, “Why did you have to travel now, in the midst of a pandemic?” 

“Because I haven’t seen you for three and a half years!” I replied.

But unless something unexpected occurs, we will not be traveling again until Covid is truly under control, and we can hopefully avoid the PCR shuffle entirely.

I first shared my thoughts on PCR Covid testing at The Jerusalem Post.

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Musings of an Israeli in America

July 6, 2021

I just spent three weeks in the U.S. I have nine observations, covering everything from masks to pancakes. Plus one-hour weed delivery!

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The story of Natan and Noga: A Covid baby bust?

July 4, 2021

A Covid near miss: pre-vaccines, our a/c technician could have infected me. Instead, he canceled at the last minute and got married.

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God and dinosaurs

June 5, 2021

Does Judaism believe that God planted fake dinosaur fossils in the earth to explain how dinosaurs could exist when the world is only 6,000 years old?

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“It’s so nice to see your face again”

May 23, 2021

“I almost didn’t recognize you without your mask,” Shifra said at the park while we were walking our dogs. Post-pandemic socializing returns!

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Eating our way through Nazareth

May 8, 2021

Yum! A culinary “tasting tour” of Nazareth. Knafeh, kadaif, fatayer sabanekh, freekah, inar, al-ma’ashuka. Tour guide: Mona el Abu-Assal.

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