Was the destruction bad in Beirut? asked the driver on the way to Tel Aviv s Ben Gurion airport.
Some parts weren t touched, I answered. Others, in the southern suburbs, were completely flattened, I added, remembering vivid scenes of smouldering, bombed out buildings from this summer s war.
It was early December and I was returning from filming the January edition of Inside the Middle East from Israel and the West Bank, checking I had the passport I use to travel in and out of Israel handy; tucking away the one I use to travel everywhere else, with stamps and visas from countries like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The Israeli driver asked: Do you think the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers are still alive? Do you think Hezbollah killed them? The radio says one of them was very badly wounded.
I don t know. It s possible. Everything is possible.
I couldn t answer his question. And that was that.
Because I travel between the Arab world and Israel, Israelis often ask me what is going on in neighbouring Arab countries and Arabs ask me what it s like in Israel. I often have to remind myself that many of these places are a few hours drive away. If the Middle East were the European Union, this conversation would not have taken place. The Israeli driver would hop in his car and visit Beirut himself; and wars would not be fought over two kidnapped soldiers. Instead, the driver must quiz journalists and visitors on what is going on a few hundred kilometres away.
Sometimes, the questions come from Israelis and Arabs separated not by hundreds of kilometres but hundred of meters.
Driving out of Jericho in the West Bank back into Israel a few weeks ago, Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint checked our press cards and asked us: What s it like in there?
On my way out of Gaza last year, an Israeli soldier asked me: What s the mood in there? What are people saying about us?
Again, I was the conduit, the communication lifeline between neighbours so close they can sometimes see each other from their living room windows.
Then there are the Palestinians who ask me what is happening in other Palestinian areas. Palestinians in the West Bank cannot travel into Gaza, unless they fly first to Amman, then to Cairo, drive five hours to the Rafah border crossing (which is often closed), then sometimes wait hours or days to cross the border. On the way out, they make the same trip in reverse. A two-hour drive can sometimes turn into a three-day epic journey through two airports and a cross-desert car trip.
I sometimes imagine travelling from New York to Atlanta, but instead of a direct flight, I imagine driving to Philadelphia, spending three hours waiting for permission to board a plane, then hopping on a flight to Miami before finally boarding a plane to Atlanta, where I might be told to wait two days before crossing into the city.
That is the insane reality of travel in that part of the Middle East (and only for those who can move around because they have the proper documentation, visas and paperwork.)
That s when the divisions and conflicts of the region hit home for me. When people living closer to each than most Americans do, never set foot on the land of their neighbours and are more ignorant of each other s cultures than if they lived a world and a half away.
This month, we met Israeli Arabs who say they feel like strangers not only to Israelis but to Arabs as well. They say that Israelis treat them like Palestinians (translations: they treat them like second class citizens), and that Arabs treat them like Israelis (translation: they treat them like foreigners or enemies).
We decided to profile the leading Arab hip-hop group DAM because we found it fascinating that Rap, born in America, had firmly taken root in the Middle East.
When you see what is going on in Gaza, says the group s leader, Israeli-Arab Tamer Nafar, you can t help but be angry. You stay angry. You write angry.
At a concert in Ramallah, young Palestinians cheered the hip-hop trio on. They rapped on stage with, as a backdrop, pictures of the latest Palestinian intifadah and large letters that read WE WILL NOT BE DIVIDED projected onto the Israeli wall separating Palestinian and Israeli areas.
The more I listened to their CD and watched videos of their concert, the more I started realizing that hip-hop has become young people s official, universal language of pain and frustration; and DAM (which means blood in Arabic) says they want their art to be a weapon against what they say is political and social oppression. Their main Arabic-language hit is titled Who s the Terrorist? , a question directed at Israelis, of course.
DAM also rap in Hebrew, with a song called Born Here . The video shows the rappers arguing with Israeli police in the mixed Arab-Israeli city of Lod, telling them We too, were born here, not just you.
And as you will hopefully see in this month s show, they aren t just a novelty act. DAM s talented trio are also a formidable musical force.
My Israeli driver drops me off and hands me my suitcase.
Come back. But hopefully not for something bad. Come back when things are good, too, he says.
I hear that a lot in Lebanon: Come back when things are good next time, Miss Hala.
That s what the young lady at the front desk in my Beirut hotel told me the last time I reported out of Lebanon, as I was checking out.
I will, I always answer, knowing it s a promise I m rarely able to keep.
Hala Gorani hosts ‘Inside the Middle East’ which can be seen on CNN International, Saturday Jan. 6 at 7.30 pm GMT